The American Woman

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Her name was Pauline, but she went by Paule. She would frequently mention to Louie that if ever they had a daughter, they must give the child a male sounding eponym such as Toni or Billie, a name in which the spelling alone identified the gender of its bearer. A feminine twist to anything masculine pleased Paule… she wore men’s button-down shirts with the hem knotted at the midriff and tied her pony tail in men’s handkerchiefs… which was why in college she had added the “e” to her self-designated nickname; from a practical perspective, the “e” had saved confusion among professors whose relationship with her had been limited to essay assignments and exams.

Paule Mercado had attended Smith College. A higher education in America was a natural course for a girl who had been enrolled at international schools in three different countries, the last having been high school in the Philippines. Her major: Women and Gender Studies. A law degree from Columbia University added to her resumé, followed by a stint as a paralegal, during which she met Louie

“She was alone at the luggage claim and so was I,” Louie said to his brother, more as a verbalization of his memory than as an account. “I helped grab her luggage from the conveyor belt. She had two suitcases, and they were heavy. What a long flight that was.”

“For you it was long,” said Ron. “You were flying from Los Angeles to Manila with a stop-over in Tokyo. She boarded the plane in Tokyo.”

Louie stared at Ron, taken off guard. He didn’t recall ever providing Ron this detail. Even more odd was Ron’s pristine appearance. Hair slick, black suit tailor sleek, and a tan as if he had just come from the beach, Ron was dressed more for a dinner function than a funeral. Louie himself normally equaled his brother in sartorial sharpness… both boasted a trim waist and broad shoulders that any article of clothing complimented… only on this day wet spots darkened his arm pits, and he was mindless that his coat, which he had intended to toss behind him on the sofa, had landed on the floor.

Air-conditioner notwithstanding, the study room was stuffy. Three generations of Tolentinos covered the walls, from grandfather Teodoro Tolentino in a handshake with General Douglas MacArthur to his progenies and grandchildren at various stages in life. Turbaned warriors astride horses that decorated a Persian carpet rendered the floor a chaotic battleground. Mementos cluttered table tops:  a silver dagger gifted from the Sultan of Brunei, honorary plaques, pocket-size ivory perfume bottles from China…

Although Louie and Ron never knew their grandfather, images of a bulldog scowl behind a whiff of cigar smoke rooted the man’s presence on this block in an old district of Manila. A mere handful of neighboring mansions from the pre-war days, when the Philippines was still an American colony, remained standing. Like eye sockets in decomposing skulls, their glassless windows opened into dark spaces. On the street, ignition pipes to vehicles that jammed bumper to bumper coughed black smoke, weeds sprouted through pavement cracks, and trash overflowed from a garbage barrel in front of a McDonald’s.

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As the other families established a new neighborhood across the city, in a section that in the years after the war became the commercial center with hotels and banks lining thoroughfares, Louie’s and Ron’s father maintained Grandpa Tolentino’s vision of a family estate that would endure for generations. Modeled after an Italian villa, the house surrounded a courtyard. An inner gallery on the second level overlooked a Tuscan fountain amid bougainvillea plants in perennial bloom, and down a grassy slope from the outer facade, a stone wall as thick as a fortress rampart severed the outside world.

Paule had instantly fallen under its spell. She had given up a career in New York for this. Despite marriage, she had busied herself as a freelance writer, penning magazine and newspaper articles on the latest happenings in the Philippines that ranged from architecture to politics. She was in the works on producing a talk show so that, through TV, she could gain an even wider audience.

Success hadn’t hindered Paule’s desire for a family. Quite the contrary – success bolstered it. Both Louie and she were ready; they had been married for two years.

“She was alone at the luggage claim and so was I,” Louie repeated.

“You sound like you had been cursed to a life of solitude until she came along.” Ron said.

“I was.”

“No, you were not.”

“If I wasn’t, then now I certainly am.”

“Oh, please, Louie. Don’t be so dramatic.”

Louie could have grabbed his younger brother by the collar from across the coffee table and slugged him. Such daftness was crude. Could Ron actually be trivializing Paule’s death? The coroner attributed it to an allergic reaction to peanuts, an accident. Louie and she had been dining at an Indian restaurant they frequented, the proprietor of which was a family friend. The kitchen staff could not have been so clumsy as to overlook such a grave dietary restriction; of this, Louie was certain.

Gago ka,” he said to Ron in Tagalog, which he only spoke when vexed, though Ron hardly took him seriously on such moments, particularly on an insult of being stupid, for stupid, he was not.

“You will never be alone,” said Ron.

“You will never understand.

“I do. I understand very well. It’s you who doesn’t.”

“What don’t I understand? Go ahead. Tell me.”

“You didn’t love her.”

“What?”

“You didn’t, Louie.”

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Ron spoke with a tone part all-knowing, part plea. And his eyes, earnest as those of a puppy, gave him a hungry look. He had had that expression his entire life. No, Louie couldn’t punch him. He had never punched anybody.

“On what basis do you insult me with that claim,” he said, “insult the memory of my wife? She has been buried a few hours, and the last mourner has just left this house. How dare you.”

“And now we’re sharing a bottle of red wine, just the two us, just like old times.”

“Your car was at the restaurant parking lot.”

“Sometimes I like to drop by to say hello to the chef.”

“You doused our food with peanut oil.

“Did I?”

“I can report you to the police.”

Ron bowed his head as though he were a kid scolded for his mischief. “You think they’d do anything?”

“I could pay them to lock you up.”

“I could pay them even more to set me free.”

And therein was a bickering between the brothers that persisted since childhood: the older threatening to incriminate, the younger challenging the threat, and neither acting beyond words. They were never this way with their sisters and third brother, who five years Ron’s junior and married with his own kids, had always been an outsider, no matter that he lived on the estate. Noel didn’t share their memories of their mother. By the time he was a toddler, she was out of the house, shacking up with another man. As for sisters Diana and Claudia – the former being the eldest and the latter born between Louie and Ron – they were more attached to their father to heed their mother’s attention. Or ire. Their mother had been a drunk who would lash out at Ron, a belt or a stiletto her weapon of choice, while Louie would sacrifice himself as his brother’s shield.

Louie nearly laughed for mentioning jail. He felt as a fool did after cracking a bad joke. Ron had no sense of severity. He had been a weird child. An affinity for his sister’s Barbies, fruit scented stickers, and tutus aside, he stuffed anything in his mouth from his buggers to bits of Styrofoam that packaged Louie’s model war planes and match box cars. So that he’d stop, Louie would warn that he’d tell on him to their mother. The more he warned, the more daring Ron became in his attempts to digest the inedible. Ron went so far as to nibble on soil and smother soot on walls. That Louie kept mum regardless turned into a matter of the boy crying wolf. Such a provocateur was Ron. And what would provoke their mother to fits of violence could be as minor an act as refusing to sit when told to do so.

“Do as she wants,” Louie would urge.

Yet Ron would remain recalcitrant, his eyes wide, neck stiff, and mouth agape in mimicking an exclamation point. The kid might as well have been watching a TV melodrama. He seemed to glee at the sight of a beautiful woman gone hysterical, for their mother was beautiful, astonishingly so. Even Louie, upon her every snap, felt a tremor at the dichotomy between a visage alabaster lustrous, one with coral pink lips and eyes the brown of russet stone, and the ugliness fulminating beneath.

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Ron was five when their mother first took a shoe to him and Louie was nine. Louie didn’t ask Ron what he had done; it had never crossed his mind to. They were in the playroom. Prints of Disney characters hung on the walls. Their mother had just given birth to Noel, and his crying permeated the house non-stop. Through the door, Louie overheard an exchange of words between their mother and father, while around him, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty were depicted in dire situations with Captain Hook, Stromboli, and Maleficent respectively: a sword fight, incarceration, and eternal sleep upon the prick of a finger on a spindle needle. Being scenes from a fairy tale, they attested that wickedness existed exclusively in the realm of make believe, and always as something vanquishable

The image of their father as the door opened would be the predominant image that would stick with Louie over the decades, overshadowing even that of the man tied to tubes in a cancer ward three years ago. Their father had replicated Ron’s exclamation point stance, only with more austerity. He possessed a voice the rumble of a bull dozer and a build sturdy as a stone pillar.

Upon entering the playroom, their mother appeared to be dipped in champagne, a sheen to her golden gown the effervescence of the liquor she often imbibed. From down the hall, Noel’s wailing trailed their mother, strident and deafening. Ron was on his stomach, on the floor, perusing an alphabet book. Sudden as lightning, their mother with shoe in hand struck his behind… once… twice… thrice…and then Louie, who had been sitting beside Ron, positioned himself on top of his brother so that his own backside received the blows. Protecting his younger brother was a natural impulse, one instilled in Louie by the Tolentino creed of family sacredness with which the ancestral images imbued the house.

Amid Louie’s tears, Ron kissed the welts on his brother. He would always nurse his brother this way, and long after their mother left, through high school and during Louie’s college breaks, the two would continue to sleep in one room; sometimes, just as on nights that thunder had frightened Ron as a child, in one bed.

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Before the night she died, Paule had returned in the early afternoon from Hong Kong. She would frequently fly there due to its proximity to Manila, and shopping was such that Hong Kong had been ideal for updating her wardrobe. With a public persona in mind, she was especially particular about her clothing on this last voyage, inspired by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Charlize Theron, movie stars celebrated for their elegance yet who knew how to feminize a tuxedo. Theirs was an image utterly Western in its aesthetics. “Female debonair,” Paule called such a look. Every detail to her, from the length of a black skirt to the red stitches on a white corporate shirt, was crucial.

To Ron, Louie said of his wife, “She’s a modern fixture amid these antiques.”

“She’s beautiful,” Ron said, “no doubt about that.”

The brothers were in the study, the sole room in the house where they could be alone. Diana and Claudia lived with their husbands in the commercial center, while Noel and his wife occupied a wing at the opposite end of the house, one decked with photos of his own brood. Paule herself didn’t care much for the study; it was too steeped in the past. “So many strangers on the walls,” she had told Louie on their wedding night. “Makes me feel that I’m intruding.”

In the courtyard below, Paule was instructing the gardener on where to position a collection of orchid tree limbs. Louie had ordered half a dozen while she was in Hong Kong, and their delivery on the afternoon of her return was his welcome back present.

The white orchids on tree limbs the black-brown of ancient sequoia mirrored the sight of Paule. She was cool and collected in a dress sun bright in contrast to the gardener, who with hands parched and brow sweaty, was the hue of coconut husk.

“She’s demolishing the playroom,” Ron said, a wine glass in hand as he stood beside his brother at the window.

“You exaggerate,” said Louie. “She’s redecorating.”

“Redecorating is my job.”

“That’s what you do for other people, for other homes. This is our home, Paule’s home.”

“Green and yellow. What kind of colors are those?”

“They evoke a garden, grass and leaves growing, a burst of life.”

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“Why not pink since it’s a girl she wants?”

“We want neutral colors.”

“You were never so unconventional.”

“It could be a boy.”

“My bear, she got rid of it.”

“Bear?”

“The stuffed bear.” Ron didn’t sound upset as much as he did wary. He watched Paule in the courtyard below, never veering his eyes away as if her pruning a plant was an act of defiance. “It sat in the corner of the playroom.”

“I told her she could,” Louie said.

“That was one beautiful memory of my childhood. One.”

“I’ll get you another bear” – a sardonic chuckle – “a pink bear.”

Ron had given the bear a name – Friendly. As children, Louie and Ron would talk to Friendly, imagine him responding to their every remark and question, and everything they imagined him say was an assurance of everlasting devotion: “We’ll play again… I like you, too… We’ll have more fun…”

“That bear,” Ron said, “he filled the entire store window a giant piece of happiness with arms and legs to sleep on and a cushion belly to lie on. Mommy put a price on him the store couldn’t refuse, and he wasn’t for sale.”

“One happy, beautiful memory,” said Louie.

“We loved Friendly. We would sleep on him. He had the softest fur. She bought him because of you, really. You pointed him out.”

“Because you wanted him.” Louie shut his eyes in conjuring another memory. “Toy cars on an icing race track.”

“She baked,” Ron said. “I forgot about that. Another happy memory for you. Your 11th birthday, the last she ever celebrated with us.”

“Paule bakes, too. That will make for plenty of happy memories for me and our children.”

“She’s not even pregnant,” Ron said.

“I have plans – a daughter and a son or two daughters and two sons,” Louie said. “A son to perpetuate our name. A son.”

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“Noel already has three boys.”

“But I’m the eldest among us Tolentino males.”

“She’ll leave the kids with the yayas.

Louie shook his head and tightened his lips. At last, an emphatic no. “All mothers already do that, and you underestimate Paule. She likes kids and held summer jobs as an au pair. So… no… she won’t be the typical Filipino mother who will have the yayas raise her babies.”

“Au pair… summer jobs…” Ron could barely conceal his drunken disdain. “How so not us. Now I understand why you married her. You want a high class maid, and one who talks politics no less. She’s over your head. The things that come out of her mouth, we don’t think about those things.” His disdain turned to laughter. “The look on her face at your engagement party, when she was about to take a bite of chocolate cake and I joked that it had cashew nuts.” Ron simulated her expression of horror.

“If I were her, I’d hate you, too.”

“But you don’t hate me. How do you explain that, with all your study of law and logic, with all the cases you’ve won? You will never hate me.”

Paule in the courtyard was smelling an orchid. Her lips were moving. She could have been singing or she could have been whispering to the orchid to bloom.

“Baking isn’t the only thing they have in common,” Ron continued. “Mommy had a thing for orchids. She would pat orchids as though they were puppies. Then again, she might have kicked a puppy. Good thing we never had pets.”

“That’s where the similarities end,” Louie said. “Paule would never kick a puppy. She would never hurt anything or anyone.”

“How do you know?”

That night would have marked the beginning of a real life for Louie. That night Louie would have proven Ron wrong. A family of Louie’s own would have been a reality after that night. That was his plan. Somehow, Ron knew this, just as he seemed to know Louie’s every thought and emotion before Louie himself became conscious of them, like a spirit that inhabited Louie’s body.

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You didn’t love her… Perhaps Ron was right. What did Louie know of love? Paule had an online membership to The New York Times, watched indie and foreign films on Netflix, and was unrestrained in her criticism of high rises supplanting Manila parks as much as she was of the church’s stance against birth control. Louie neither possessed an opinion on the Afghanistan War nor heeded much notice to the ever increasing abundance of shanties along the Metro Manila Skyway. As for films, he regarded them as most Filipinos did – mindless distractions – and so he was satisfied with the Hollywood block busters that screened simultaneously in mall cinema complexes throughout the metropolis.

The common ground between Paule and him centered on her career; Louie delighted in her ambition. A self-reliance he had sensed in her at the airport luggage claim was the characteristic that had initially attracted him. The upright posture, the straightforward gaze, the gray bag and matching gray shoes… all gave her a determined air. Then there was the reason for her return to Manila: “Moving to study in the States was an adventure, then working in New York. Now it would be an adventure to come back to the Philippines to use all I’ve learned. And I miss my family.”

Paule’s suitcases were charcoal-shaded Samsonite. They were of sturdy plastic and modeled after an industrial box. The instant Louie grabbed hold of one, he pictured daylight permeating the rooms and halls of the Tolentino estate, rescuing from the shadows family photos that covered the study walls. The photo that shone the most brilliant was of Louie, Ron, and their sisters when Noel was just born along with their smiling parents. Their father was standing behind a chair where their mother was seated. She had an arm raised across her bosom so that she could hold his hand that was resting on her shoulder. With the other, she cradled Noel. Promise enlivened that photograph, the promise of familial loyalty and harmony, the promise of love.

In contemplating the meaning of love, Louie was certain of what love was not. Love was not the infliction of physical pain. Love was not abandonment. Love was not betrayal.

So here he was with Ron, drinking from a single bottle of red wine as if sealing a blood pact, in a room private to them, in a house brimming with a history nobody else would ever share.

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“She would have been a good mother to my children,” Louie said. “You never know.”

“Exactly,” said Ron. “You never know.”

“No… No… I do know… She would have been a great mother. She came back to Manila to be close to her family. She loved family. She would have been a kind and caring mother. And I… I would have been a good father. My kids and my wife…. my own family… they would have meant everything to me.”

“Yes, they would have.” Ron’s face beamed as though Louie had reached a realization that had eluded him for too long. “That’s why I had to do it.”

Coconut Pies

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The year that Celeste Solinas’s father fought the mayor of Calinte was the year that Celeste devised a plan of becoming a star like Imelda Marcos. She would leave this hilltop province to sign a record contract in Manila. She would sing on a noontime TV variety show following morning mass each Sunday. Radio dramas would reenact the story of her life, and other girls in other small towns would think up plans of their own to be just like her. On a frying pan she gazed at the face that would be loved by all – sepia cheeks and brow, eyes bronze black as her hair – a face that would be immortalized on rattan fans and lunch pails.

It was an April Sunday. Celeste was in the kitchen, helping her mother bake coconut pies. Flies gathered on the window screen above the sink. A saccharine fragrance pervaded the air, and the sun lit as tarnished gold cupboards of chipped white paint. The deaf boy Paquito walked in with two coconuts in his hands, two more balanced on top of those, and a fifth on which he rested his chin. Celeste’s father followed close behind. He had requested that Paquito give him coconuts from trees that flourished like weeds in Mayor Hernando Olizar’s garden. Mayor Olizar owned a bungalow on the only paved street in Calinte. Paquito was its caretaker. Since the mayor and his family spent most time in Manila, Paquito obliged Papa Solinas as he did anybody who asked him a favor. In the past few months since his arrival in Calinte, he had carved a bamboo pipe for Father Amores; he had crawled into a roadside ditch to retrieve a necklace of faux pearls for Doña Louisa, the postmaster’s wife; and as a mere act of magnanimity, he had given the madwoman Pelaez a basketful of pandesal, salted bread he had baked himself.

Paquito’s old dog went with him everywhere he went. Layas, Paquito had named him, which was the Taglog word for “run away,” for Layas was a dog that took the liberty to wander away from Paquito and to roam Calinte on its streets of cracked gravel, from one wood and stone ramshackle house to another, greeting the town’s denizens with his nose pressed against their hands. His coat a fading copper, Layas was barking and wagging his tail as Paquito and Papa Solinas entered. When Celeste put down the frying pan to look at Paquito, she noticed how true the saying was that masters resembled their pets: Paquito, though only sixteen, had white whiskers and no eyebrows, an Adam’s apple and arms tree branch slender. She thought it odd that he should be wearing dress shoes to pick coconuts. His thumbs were also deformed. The left was on the verge of splitting in half like Siamese twins.  The right was blunt and hard as the stem of a ginger root. A second thumb protruded from its base.

Papa Solinas pointed to the kitchen sink. Paquito quickly walked to it in his eagerness to release the load. Papa Solinas handed him a machete hanging from the wall. Paquito poked the tip of his finger against the blade to determine its sharpness, then sliced each coconut with one forceful whack.  Celeste watched him and she sensed that he knew she was watching, for when he was done, he turned to her and smiled with bravado. It was an impressive feat indeed. Not a single drop of coconut juice had spilled.

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“Neldy, I had another dream last night,” Papa Solinas said.

“Oh, my,” said Mama Solinas, more exasperated than surprised.

Celeste’s father had been having recurring dreams for the past month. “Visions,” he called them, and in these visions a red-faced man was sitting on a throne beneath a tolling church bell. Around him the land was arid, gladiolas were wilting, and the round sweet lansones fruit dangling from dead trees were sapped of their juice. “What could my vision mean?”

“Dreams are just that – dreams.” Mama Solinas rested an arm on her belly and fanned herself with a paper plate.

Celeste proceeded to knead dough. Baking coconut pies was a Sunday ritual. Normally Celeste’s older sister, Wanda, assisted in the baking, only today she was in the market in Santa Cruz, a neighboring province downhill where Papa Solinas worked as a butcher; she was helping a brother, Nestor, operate the meat stall.

Papa Solinas dug into his pocket for coins to give Paquito. Paquito waved his hands and shook his head in refusal. Papa Solinas smiled in urging him to accept. His smile resembled a smirk because of a scar on the left corner of his mouth he had obtained from shaving with a hunting knife, and his short height and close-cropped hair gave him a boyish air, more boyish than that of the deaf boy Paquito, who muttered as articulately as he could that he had always wanted to visit the Solinas house, so to do Papa Solinas a favor was an honor, especially since the coconut trees in the mayor’s bungalow were bearing such rich fruit and nobody was there to enjoy it. Of course, he had always wanted to meet the Solinas children. Why, he asked, was Celeste always at home and never out in the square with the other boys and girls?

“I don’t know,” Papa Solinas said, for Paquito knew how to read lips. “Maybe you should ask her yourself.”

Celeste gazed at Paquito’s thumbs and then at his pure black eyes. “I’m busy baking pies,” she said.

Paquito bowed and headed out the door. Layas ran to overtake him, his tongue lolling.

“He has funny thumbs,” Celeste said to her father.

He replied, “They’re not pretty thumbs, but they bring good luck. That extra thumb means he’ll never lose his grip on anything. He’s blessed.”

Blessed, Celeste thought, and wondered about this stranger, where he had come from, what family he had, how he felt as everyone’s friend yet having no one truly know him. She wondered what sounds a deaf boy heard in his head.

Mama Solinas began to shred coconut meat on the chopping board. On a wall above her, a calendar picture of a blue-eyed baby Jesus looked upon her with a beatific grin.

“Come now, Neldy,” said Papas Solinas. “Do you think my dream is for nothing? You know what I think? I think God is telling me that it’s about time Mayor Olizar delivers his promise to us of a new belfry.”

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“Why you? You are not Moses.”

“No, I am not, but I a man who believes in something.”

A new belfry. Mayor Hernando Olizar had been the mayor of Calinte for half of Celeste’s fourteen years, and for the past two summers, he had been pledging Calinteños that their church, a stone structure that had been standing in the town square since the days of the Conquistadors, shall have a bell tower to beautify their town. Lightning had struck the current one. It was now a heap of crumbled rock. The bell sat silent at its base, waiting to rise again and to ring throughout Calinte, downhill along the bamboo and tree-lined path that led to the rest of the world.

Celeste fit the dough into three pans then sprinkled brown sugar into a bowl of melted butter and corn starch. “Maybe you should be mayor yourself,” she teased her father. “Don’t forget that he also promised an irrigation system.”

“Mayor Solinas, that doesn’t sound nice,” said Celeste’s mother. “And we are happy in this home of ours.”

Home was two stories of moss-coated stone and weathered shutters. Among the furniture in the living room were a vinyl sofa patched in masking tape and a black and white TV the size of a Tide box. A Singer sewing machine and a makeshift altar with an image of the Virgin Mary flanked the sofa. Behind that was the dining table, the kitchen and the bathroom, and on the second floor were three bedrooms.

“Ha!” Papa Solinas himself scoffed at the idea of mayor. He was no politician. He seldom read the newspapers nor did he ever discuss national events with his family. When President Ferdinand Marcos had declared martial law a decade earlier, he didn’t know a midnight curfew had been implemented across the nation until, one night, Mama Solinas said that they could no longer wait for the rest of Calinte to sleep before they could walk under the stars. Whenever he overheard homecoming overseas workers mention Clark and Subic naval bases, he didn’t think of the military alliance between the Philippines and the United States but of Campbell mushroom soup. And yet… “I may not be mayor, but do not doubt the voice of a little man such as myself, Neldy.”

“All I know is that I am too fat to be the wife of a mayor and my flat feet won’t fit into high heels,” said Mama Solinas. She took two shreds of coconuts and placed them by her ears as if they were dangling diamonds. “What dreams.”

“Visions,” Papa Solinas said.

“Visions… Visions…” huffed Mama Solinas.

“What’s a vision anyway?” asked Celeste.

Her father slid his finger across the length of the machete. “Visions are what Magellan had when he discovered the Philippines, what our President Marcos has. They’re things we see in our mind of the great things we can do.”

Celeste glanced once more at her crooked reflection on a frying pan. “Visions,” she uttered.

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Mayor Olizar and his wife, Countess Peggy, returned to Calinte with their daughter, Cynthia, after an Easter respite in Manila. A silver Mercedes was parked in the driveway of the Olizar bungalow. Celeste ventured to their walled-off home, hiding underneath the leaves of a mango tree outside the gate to glimpse a fairy tale of an existence.

The Olizars lived in a part of Calinte that belonged only to them. Eucalyptus sweetened the air. Macopa trees bore their pink fruit all year round. Other homes existed nowhere near.  They did at one point. Through the passing seasons, storms had washed them away. The Olizar bungalow somehow managed to remain rooted to its spot. From sunrise to dusk, the varying hues of the heat glazed its limestone wall: morning blue, pale noon yellow, faded pink. On its front door hung a carving of a woman that once graced the prow of a Spanish armada. She appeared to be pointing to the North Star, keeping the bungalow afloat through floods and mud slides.

In the front lawn, young Miss Cynthia Olizar was lounging on a wicker chair. Her lips were bright red. Her bobbed hair was cut asymmetrically. She was wearing a skirt with the hem inches above the knees. Celeste had never seen hair styled in such a fashion and thighs daringly exposed. What surprised her most of all was that Mayor Olizar seemed blasé to his daughter’s attire. He was sprawled lazily on the grass, drinking coconut juice from the husk.

Paquito walked out the front door, followed by the countess and Layas wagging his tail. Paquito was dressed in his trademark leather shoes, white trousers, and white shirt. A red tomato motif necktie added a splash of color. With a tray of Coca Cola, he stepped down the porch steps. Behind him, Countess Peggy’s clogs tapped on the ground with her every step. The countess wore gold trinkets wound around her neck and dangling earrings large as bottle caps. Her henna-dyed hair was a lustrous auburn. She was called countess because rumor had it that the mayor had bought a castle in a land where snow falls and that the purchase came with a title.

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Miss Cynthia took a cigarette from her purse. She lit the cigarette and tilted her head back to blow smoke into the air, smearing the cigarette butt red with lipstick. Miss Cynthia’s lips seemed to have a life of their own. Whenever she spoke, they took on the shape of every vowel she uttered, and whenever she was spoken to, she twitched her lips or oohed and aahed, depending on her reaction to whatever was being said.

Layas barked. Miss Cynthia cocked her head towards the gate. Her and Celeste’s eyes met. Celeste’s instinct was to run, but then Miss Cynthia leaned back on the chair once more. Paquito approached the gate. He guided Celeste to a spot behind the mango tree, out of everyone’s sight, and offered her a glass of Coke. After drinking, she puckered her lips then looked at the glass in imagining her own lip print red on the rim.

“Thank you,” she said.

Paquito took the glass and left.

“Thank you,” she said out loud, forgetting that he was deaf.

When the weekend passed, Celeste saw Paquito sauntering down the street towards her house. At the front door, he slipped a lipstick into her hand.

A present from Manila, he said.

She stared at him in wondering how he knew Miss Cynthia Olizar’s lips had fascinated her so.

Paquito, uttering something unintelligible, pointed to her eyes and then at his lips.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

Paquito repeated his gesture, speaking more slowly with elongated syllables, as if his mouth were filled with marbles. His message: he had noticed Celeste the whole time staring at Miss Cynthia’s lips.

Celeste placed her hand on her mouth. “Was I so obvious?”

No, Paquito said. Taking a deep breath, he shifted his eyes as a cat would, formed his hands into paws, and proceeded to say something long-winded.

“Slowly. Slowly,” said Celeste.

Paquito reiterated his sentence.

“Did I hear you right? Am I really like a cat?”

Yes, she was as stealthy as a cat.

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Celeste rushed up to the bedroom she shared with her sister Wanda, shut the door, and rolled on the lipstick. She gazed at herself in a bureau mirror, clipped her hair up on one side so that it resembled Miss Cynthia’s bob, and copied Miss Cynthia’s facial expressions and poses. She continued this fantasy every chance she had the room to herself, leaving her lip print on paper napkins, pens, and Styrofoam cups. She’d powder her face so that she’d be as white as the First Lady Imelda and her entourage of high society ladies. She’d walk on the balls of her feet as if she were wearing high heels.

Every time Paquito delivered coconuts to Papa Solinas, he offered Celeste a present – a diadem of baby’s breath flower; a plastic pendant bearing the image of the Virgin Mary; a vine of lansones plucked from the trees in Kandulo, the creek beside Calinte where Celeste could hear her voice soar over the still water to the sky. There Celeste loved to sing the music of Air Supply, Irene Cara, and Olivia Newton-John. Papa Solinas once said that his daughter’s voice evoked the image of a waterfall quietly merging with a river – forceful and yet controlled and placid. The notes she touched, her ascension and descension on the musical scale, regulated the river’s flow. The river could rush downstream in synchronization to the upbeat tempo of a disco melody. It could remain stagnant to the forlorn strain of a ballad. It could drift towards heaven as the hypnotic refrain to a sad song went on and on.

Calinte mythology had it that treasure looted by friars a hundred years before hid buried in Kandulo. Whether or not the treasure existed, Celeste felt Kandulo to be a magical place. Every note she touched was as vibrant as the ting of a gold coin. In her heart Celeste knew that someday she’d be great. For weeks she had been singing Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love.” It was an accomplishment for her to hold the last note of the song as Streisand did, and with such ease as though the song came from the core of her being.

Celeste believed in greatness the way she believed in God and goodness.

One day Mama Solinas caught Celeste with her lips red, Paquito’s flower diadem on her head, and a bed sheet wrapped around her. Celeste had pinched her nose with a clothespin and had powdered her neck.

A daisy, she thought of herself.

Mama Solinas climbed the stairs without a sound and opened the door. Upon seeing Celeste twirling in front of the mirror, she stopped in her track. Celeste expected a tearful lecture on how she was too young to be tempting boys, but her mother simply looked at her, laughed, and said, “You look like a clown. Take that stuff off and help me with the laundry.” And she shut the door.

Celeste looked at herself in the mirror and then quickly looked away. Clown… Clown…  Voices from outside floated over her. A bicycle squeaked by. A man hollered for sale a dessert concoction of soybean and brown sugar syrup.  She buried her face in her hands to wipe off the powder.

The only sound that filled the room was of Celeste’s palms rubbing against her cheeks, a sound as cruel as the grating of sand paper

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Papa Solinas was a man of his word. The urgency that Calinteños shared for a new bell tower fueled his spirit to fight Mayor Olizar. He decided to open the Solinas home every Sunday as a meeting ground for this purpose.

On the first Sunday of August, the Solinas women awoke upon the first crow of a rooster to bake coconut pies. Mama Solinas added a special sweetening ingredient, Seven-Up, which she poured into a bowl of whipped cream that Wanda had made. Later in the morning, the Solinas family attended mass. Rubble from the razed belfry glinted in the sun like excavated jewels. The crucifix affixed on the spire was a black X against blinding clouds. In the side aisle, the Virgin Mary stood on a pedestal, swathed in white satin and a blue sash. With open arms, she seemed to be goading the worshippers to march forward on their mission.

Visitors came knocking on the open door of the Solinas home after mass. Since Mayor Olizar had continuously been delaying a belfry construction on account of a shortage in government funding, Papa Solinas proposed a plan: “All of you working men and women, donate a small percentage of your monthly salary to Father Amores, who will oversee the project. Those working in cigarette plants and soft drink factories could request donations or loans from your own businesses. Do not worry about amount. However little we collect would show the mayor how serious we are. Maybe then he’ll aggressively seek his own backers or donate from his own pocket. After a belfry, an irrigation system. We see how rich Mayor Olizar is – fancy cars, grand homes.”

“Listen to Judicio Solinas.”

“A small donation is not a big sacrifice.”

“God is with us.”

God was with Celeste, too, because among the chants of support for her father, a plan struck her with the clarity of the sun bursting through gray clouds: she would sing, not just sing to make a pretty sound as she did with the church choir or in Kandulo, but to move people to act upon what they thought was right. Clown… Clown… No! The time had come for Celeste not only to be heard but also to be seen. This for a cause that united Calinte.

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The following Sunday, Celeste could hardly concentrate on kitchen work. Pies were still baking when the townsfolk arrived. The Solinas house smoked with coconut and melted sugar cane. Children pranced through the front door, following their parents who were carrying trays of fried meat and garlic rice. Calinte’s elderlies hobbled on either a bamboo walking stick or the arm of a niece. The train of families was endless for a good hour, which surprised Celeste. She had never noticed so many people before, some of who were coming for the first time. She had hoped the crowd would be small. It would’ve been easier to summon everyone’s attention. Now she didn’t know what to do, whether to make an announcement as she had intended or to sing softly to some children in a corner until the rest of the crowd heard.

When the pies were baked and slices passed out, Celeste took a seat by the TV and waited till they downed their food with beer to clap her hands, the only thing she could do since she was too nervous to speak. Her brother, Nestor, stopped in his tracks, as if whatever she was demanding attention for would be brief and trite. Wanda, pie in hand and red apron giving her a rose petal sheen, glanced at her. This was the first time Celeste alone had ever been face to face with an audience. She didn’t see people anymore. She saw eyes.

“Let’s sing,” she said. “Sing along,” she urged and began “Dahil Sa’Yo”:

My life’s been full of pain and suffering, a loving heart without a heaven. Granting me happiness, you freed me from sorrow. Only you, my love, are my hope.

The people before her filled the sofa and the dining table chairs, sat on the staircase, stood in the kitchen. On their faces Celeste noticed no awe, no expression of loss or nostalgia, just half-smiles that said, “So this is how she sounds” – whatever sound that was. A man popping open a bottle of Pepsi proceeded to sing along with her. Papa Solinas la-la-laed the song for everyone else to join in.

Because of you, I want to live. Because of you, until I die. You must know, I’ve got no other love. Ask my heart, it’s you and only you.

 Because of you, I attained happiness. All my love I offer to you. If it is true that you shall enslave me, then everything in my life’s because of you.

Father Amores, his face so wrinkled that it resembled a prune, sang in unison. Wanda proceeded to wipe the kitchen counter and Mama Solinas to collect plates. Celeste looked at the rest of her audience, whose eyes were slumberous from one beer too many. She realized right then that her music was meant to divert these people from the toil of their everyday lives, from the mission of a new belfry, not to confront them with it. Today’s gathering was a party. This was evident alone in the way they sang – rough, loud, and haphazardly.

Still, Celeste wanted them to think and to feel. The lyrics were too searing to take for granted. She couldn’t help associating it with Calinte, and she honestly believed, as people drunkenly slurred their words and stumbled with full mouths over the lyrics, that she’d fight for Calinte, suffer for and give her life to it. Would these people be willing to do the same? Nobody could forget that the First Lady Imelda, on President Marcos’s first run for presidency sixteen years earlier, had promised through her own rendition of “Dahil Sa’Yo” to slave for the country. That moment was a part of every Filipino’s schooling.

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To escape the zoo the meetings had become, Celeste on one Sunday stayed away. The oven was so steaming from the coconut pies that her home itself seemed a furnace about to explode. Even her mother early that morning had expressed her doubts over the meetings.

“We’re wasting money,” Mama Solinas said as she stood before shelves of coconut pies in the open refrigerator. “All this is supposed to be for the family.”

“Come now, Neldy,” said Papa Solinas. “We are all family, this whole town.”

“How many more crazy Sundays like this? Hardly any talk is about the belfry or even the irrigation system. They just want to eat and drink, these people. Our family, you say? Nobody cares, Judicio. That belfry, it’s just a building.”

Papa Solinas spoke with the somberness of a sage. “People do care. They’ve been giving money to Father Amores. And you’re wrong, that what is happening here is just about a building. This is about our church. This is about a promise.”

Mama Solinas said nothing more, for in his eyes the Solinas family saw that the fight for a new bell tower was perhaps the most important thing that Papa Solinas would ever do.

It was high noon. The sun was so turbulent that waves of heat undulated in the sky. Celeste happened upon the mayor’s bungalow. In the front lawn, Paquito was lounging in the wicker chair where Miss Cynthia, months earlier, had been showing off her glamour for lipstick and cigarettes. His feet were resting on a table. A straw hat was tilted over his forehead, covering an eye. Celeste would have kept on walking if Paquito hadn’t seen her. He waved at her to come closer and opened the gate.

“They may not want strangers inside,” Celeste said and pointed to the house.

Paquito shook his head. The Olizars were in Manila.

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After little coaxing, Celeste entered, though Paquito didn’t take her into the house. He took her to a ladder at the back where Layas lay asleep. Together they climbed to the roof.

It was a new sensation for Celeste to walk on corrugated clay. She felt her steps lighter, airy, so different from walking on solid ground. She knew now what birds saw when they looked down on houses, flew higher than a tree, touched the sky. She had never ventured on a rooftop before. Neither did she know of anyone who ever did.

“I had to get away,” Celeste said.

Paquito led her to the center of the roof.

When they sat down, she with knees pressed against her chest, she asked, “You’ve heard about the gatherings at my house, of course? Talk of a new belfry and all?”

Paquito nodded, motioned with his fingers to simulate yakking beaks. The Sunday meetings at the Solinas home were the talk of Calinte.

“What do you think about them?”

Paquito gave her a thumbs-up.

Flies and mosquitoes whizzed around them. Paquito clapped his hands to kill a slew of mosquitoes while Celeste slapped them against her shin. Soon the two were slapping and clapping like monkeys, which made them laugh. Their laughter turned into gay screams at being on the roof of the grandest house in Calinte, at being on top of the world. Paquito got to screaming so loud that Celeste urged him to be quiet. He smiled, his tawny cheeks flushed. He looked different to Celeste that day. She had been trying to figure out why ever since they had climbed the ladder. Now that he was smiling, his face only a hand’s length away, she knew: Paquito had grown a mustache.

“You look like an old man with that. Then again, you’ve always looked old, and you’re only two years older than me. Have you ever looked your age?”

Paquito shook his head. He said that when he was just a baby, people already called him grandpa.

“Grandpa? You’re too young to be old.”

Paquito took a box of Marlboro cigarettes from his shirt pocket then tapped the box on his palm for a cigarette to slip out. He squinted his eyes the way Marlboro cowboys did in magazine ads.

“You’re too macho.” Celeste giggled.

Lighting a cigarette, he took a deep puff and exhaled through his nose. Celeste was stunned that he didn’t cough or lose his composure and pleaded him to do it again. Paquito stood, offered his hand to Celeste so that she could stand with him. He raised one arm over his head, wrapped the other around his waste, then tapped his feet. Cigarette fumes clouded his head.

“You want to dance?” Celeste asked. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never danced with a boy before.”

Paquito kept tapping his feet.

Celeste hummed a tune. “You’re off tempo, off tempo,” she said. “That’s not right.”

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When at last Celeste took hold of Paquito’s hands, she quivered from the touch of his deformed thumbs, especially the one that stuck out like a limp sausage. He pressed his thumbs against his palms so that she need only touch his four extended fingers.

Celeste hesitated and then, “That’s not how you hold a girl’s hand. Put your thumbs out and wrap them around my hands like you do with your other fingers.”

Paquito looked dismayed.

“You want to learn to dance or not?”

So he held her hands while she his – the first hands of a boy she had ever held. She hummed a tune. He followed her steps, held her hand over her head as she twirled in a circle, her skirt billowing. Never mind that they tripped on each other’s feet, stepped on each other’s toes.

“You’re doing good. Just like that.”

Paquito cocked his head in the sun’s glare.

“It’s too bad you can’t hear,” Celeste told him. “There’s music everywhere. The flow of water, the chirping of birds – that’s all music. There’s music in the air… the fluty sound of the breeze… and you can’t hear it.”

Paquito pointed at both their eyes. He said that what he lacked with his ears, he compensated for with his eyes. He had eyes on every part of his body – on the back of his head, on his palms, on his stomach – and with his eyes he saw into things, he saw through them and around them, he saw people’s souls, he saw everything. And what he was seeing now in front of him was a very beautiful girl.

Celeste looked at him for a long time then touched his chest that heaved as if it were too small to contain his heart. She could feel the warmth of his flesh through his shirt, the firm outline of muscles. Suddenly.

Flinging an arm out, Paquito pointed at the sky and at the rooftops strewn around as steppingstones to mountain ranges in the horizon. If he could, he said, he’d give Celeste the world. She was too special to hide the rest of her life in a town perched so high up a hill that nobody ever ventured to it.

“What would I do with the world?” she asked.

With a voice like that, she could do anything she wanted, be anybody she wanted.

“How do you know when you’ve never heard me?”

She was wrong. Paquito had heard her voice. He felt it in church. Her singing was like God talking to him

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Paquito accompanied the mayor upon the latter’s return from Manila to pay Papa Solinas a visit. They drove up in a Cadillac. A curious crowd gathered at the Solinas doorstep. Since Paquito’s appearance frazzled Celeste, she wanted to leave, but the mayor’s presence intimidated her so that she was rooted to her spot. A giant of a man, Mayor Hernando Olizar nearly reached the ceiling. He was fat with big eyes, big lips, and a big nose, big fingers with manicured nails. The face of his gold watch reflected on every flat surface in the living room. Each time before he spoke, he wet his lips, as if about to devour a hearty meal.

“My honorable sir,” he said to Papa Solinas, “we have never met before, but it seems you know me quite well.” His laughter was Santa Claus jovial.

Papa Solinas stood up from the sofa to shake his hand. Even with his back erect and head high, he only came up to the mayor’s shoulders.

“I’ve been curious for the longest time about you, as all of Calinte knows you except me.  At last, I have the pleasure of your company.”

“The pleasure’s mine, sir,” said Papa Solinas.

At the front door, Paquito handed a basket of canned fruits, biscuits, bread, and wine to Celeste as a present from the mayor to the Solinas family.

Mama Solina, curlers in hair, rushed sideways down the stairs. Her hips were too large for her to walk down with body facing forward. Seeing Mayor Olizar, she screamed from embarrassment.

“The mayor has come for a visit,” Papa Solinas said.

She patted her hair and straightened her skirt.  “Excuse how I look.”

Mayor Olizar chuckled good-naturedly. “I see my wife in curlers all the time. I won’t be staying long. I simply wanted to meet your rebel rouser of a husband.” Again, a laugh. “I salute you, sir.” He saluted. “You have a brave husband, Mrs. Solinas.”

“Yes, that he is,” Mama Solinas said, first with trepidation due to the mayor’s surprise visit and then with certitude. “Yes. Yes. I have a brave husband.”

Papa Solinas waved away the compliment. “You are very kind, mayor. It is Calinteños who are brave. I am just speaking for them.”

“Speaking for them is no small task,” Mayor Olizar said. “Because of you, I hear them. A new belfry, that we will all have, and let us not forget the irrigation system.”

Papa Solinas was about to ask the question that for two years had been dangling unanswered – when? – until Mama Solinas caught Paquito clasping Celeste’s hand as he was offering a bag of Hershey’s kisses.

“Celeste, no,” said Mama Solinas.

Eyes doleful as if they both had been caught on a rooftop rendezvous, the two remained holding hands.

“Well,” Mayor Olizar said, “it’s nice to know my caretaker has a friend in your daughter. That’s a show of peace before us. By Christmas, we will have a new belfry.”

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That was all it took to incite Mayor Hernando Olizar to fulfill his promise, a little butcher of a rebel rouser named Judicio Solinas. The entire month of October was filled with noise from an excavator, a jackhammer, and builders working from early morning to late afternoon. It was noise that Calinteños welcomed because it was the sound of progress, so much progress that a new belfry would be standing by November. Father Amores held a mass to thank Papa Solinas and the mayor, who decreed that those who donated towards the construction of the belfry should have their money back.

“I’m not sure about this,” Papa Solinas said to Celeste as the congregation trickled out. “Visions… heh… I should have listened to your mother. The rotted lansones in my dreams… the fat man with the red face… I see him now. He has the face of Olizar. And I thought it was Santa Claus.” A despondent chuckle.

Celeste said, “We are all getting what we want, Papa. You could not have done anything more. You did everything right.”

Papa Solinas looked down at her, gratitude in his eyes for such a daughter.

Yet Celeste felt as troubled as her father. The belfry was of brick… the red was garish against the gray church… and soon after its completion, tractors rolled through Calinte to Kandulo with the formidability of advancing tanks.

The townsfolk gathered in the square and in front of their homes. They cheered and clapped and wept. They raised their arms to heaven, joyous that their prayer was answered not only for a bell tower but also an irrigation system.

When the first trees in Kandulo toppled to the ground, Celeste was standing on the bank, on the spot where she used to listen to her voice float over the ripples of the creek. Though the mayor had told the people to stay away from Kandulo, Celeste had snuck there, crouching beneath bushes and sprinting in tree shades on her way to the bank. Fallen leaves rustled to her every footfall like rice paper being crumpled. Across the creek, a tractor mounted a tree, sending it to the ground with a thud as explosive as a bomb blast on a silent night. A series of thuds followed, each one more terrifying than the last. She couldn’t explain what she felt. It wasn’t fear. It was greater than fear. It was a gnawing presentiment of an end soon approaching. Maybe Paquito would understand.  Maybe he’d feel what she felt and know why.

She returned with him on the first day of November, All Saints Day, a day commemorating the dead.

The sun was a white hole in the cloudless sky. Since All Saints Day was a holiday, none of Mayor Olizar’s workers were in Kandulo. Celeste brought Paquito and Layas to the spot where she had seen the trees being torn down. They rode a boat across the creek to the site of excavated hills and tree houses that the workers had built to rest in. The houses were made of thatched roofs and logs. Woven straw mats lay on their floors to serve as beds.

“Do you feel the same tingle up your spine?” asked Celeste.

Paquito shrugged his shoulders.

“Something’s going to happen. Something awful, I know.”

He laughed. He said that nothing could spoil their happiness.

“I mean it. I do. Something really bad. I know it. I know.”

He laughed harder.

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“Stop laughing at me. Stop.”

He didn’t.

Celeste slapped him on the head. Why couldn’t he understand her? “Will you stop?”

He couldn’t read her lips. His eyes were shut.

“You sound like a crazy person,” she yelled. “You hear me? You’re crazy. You idiot.  You’re a stupid, dumb idiot. Idiot.”

The word “idiot” echoed around, sweeping over the creek, rushing through the bushes, rolling up the mountain walls and down again back to where they were standing.

“Idiot… Idiot… Idiot,” Celeste screamed even when Paquito had already stopped and was looking at her with hurt eyes.

Quick as a squirrel, Paquito climbed a tree on which perched a house no larger than a dog’s shed. She turned her back to him and stared at the still water of the creek. And that was when it happened. The floor to the house gave way. Piles of wood fell and Paquito along with them. Celeste didn’t see the fall. She heard only his horrific scream. His motionless body lay on the ground amid broken branches, a pool of blood, and lansones from fallen trees.

Too shocked to scream, Celeste ran to his side. She didn’t know whether to hold him up or to leave him alone and to run for help. Layas was frantically walking the length of Paquito’s body, whimpering and howling, his tail in between his legs. Celeste held Paquito’s head. A gash was at the back. She whispered his name. Blood smeared on her hands and reddened her skirt. She looked up. Tree houses were black against the dizzying white sky. Once more gazing at his face, she held his hand with the extra sausage-like thumb, that thumb which once frightened her so, and intertwining her fingers with his, she moaned, “Oh, Paquito. You weren’t supposed to lose your grip on anything. Forgive me. Please forgive me.”

Whatever Celeste did afterwards was a daze to her. She regained enough sense to run back to Calinte and to tell Father Amores of the accident. Questions by people of what they were doing there ensued, as well as reprimands from Mama Solinas that they never should have gone there in the first place, that Celeste was never to see Paquito. She must be a disgraced girl, some of the townspeople speculated. Why were they out there alone? What would Olizar do when he found out they had broken his law?

Celeste was too numb to care for any of the talk. Her one concern was that she knew not how to grieve. She shed no tears either of mourning or of guilt while waiting at home for a verdict on Paquito’s life. She was clueless on what prayers to recite and if to wear black should she lose him. She wondered what would be inscribed on his tombstone, he who possessed no last name and claimed no birth date. All these came to her as flashes of realization rather than as grave matters to contemplate.

Dusk.

Calinte buzzed with news that Paquito would live. He was recuperating in the rectory, under the father’s care. Only then did the weight of the situation fall on Celeste. For an instant, the prospect of Mayor Olizar’s return tinged her with fear. Yet she trusted in God and in Father Amores to vouch for her and Paquito should the mayor be enraged, for she carried no shield other than faith.

The next day and for the week after, Celeste visited Paquito, bringing him rice porridge she had cooked, bottles of guava juice, and berry twigs picked from the mayor’s garden to color the gray room of the rectory. Paquito’s head was wrapped in gauze. Bruises spotted his arms and legs. A sprained ankle caused him to walk with the aid of a bamboo cane. Yet how white and clean his shirt and trousers were, without a crease. When he had regained consciousness the night of the accident, said Father Amores, the first thing he had asked for was a set of freshly laundered and pressed clothes. So before Celeste Paquito stood each day, an image of purity amid four stone walls, one with a window no larger than that of a prison cell, and Layas asleep underneath the cot. He’d always ask Celeste if he were presentable enough for Mayor Olizar to lay eyes upon. He’d attempt walking without a cane, his back stiff in his desperation to conceal his limp. The mayor will be unhappy, he’d groan, very unhappy.

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Celeste was unfailing in her response. “Forget the mayor. Think of yourself.”

Paquito would heed to her words for a mere moment so that she had to repeat them ceaselessly in the course of an afternoon.

“Stand and walk because of your own strength, not for the mayor. And if you must slouch and look small, do so because you need rest, not because of him. You are not a dog, Paquito. You are not Layas.”

Although Mama Solinas was against these visits, she knew now that nothing could withhold her daughter from doing as she pleased.

“All the more everyone will think something’s up if I obviously avoid him,” Celeste had said to her mother. “I have nothing to hide.” This she’d prove by smiling at all she would pass on her way to the rectory.

One day Celeste told Paquito, “Why don’t you move to Manila with me someday?”

She was admiring a surplice stashed in a chest. It smelled of pinewood and vanilla incense. The vestment, intricate in its herringbone design, got her talking about the city, the places there she’d sing at, the dresses she’d sew for herself. For the first time she saw no reason why Paquito could not be a part of these grand plans.

Paquito smiled so tremendous a smile that the only feature of his face noticeable beneath his gauzed head was his even teeth. He was sitting on a stool below the window. A breeze ruffled his shirt.

Me back in Manila, he said incredulously. You dream too much.

“These aren’t impossible dreams. What have you got to lose? You’ve got nothing here.  Olizar is an evil man. Look at what he has done to Kandulo. That doesn’t seem to be an irrigation project to me. It’s about time you made something of yourself on your own. You’ve got nothing to be scared of.”

Paquito’s smile disappeared, and along with it the soothing coolness of the November air. She was confronted by that woebegone look he had given her when she had called him those cruel things.

“I’m sorry,” she said. She was sorry for this moment and for everything she had said to bring him here to a convalescent’s bed, sorry for his unknown roots. “All that I say is coming out wrong.”

That wasn’t true, he said. She was saying all the right things.

Celeste didn’t understand until in his eyes she saw a doomed hopelessness she had seen in the eyes of Papa Solinas on the Sunday they had first glimpsed the new belfry. Paquito could never leave the mayor. To do so would be to express ingratitude for his giving Paquito an identity, he a foundling left on the driveway of the Olizars’ Manila mansion. The mayor had brought him to Calinte because the mayor trusted him, as one would trust a son, to watch over the bungalow.

“Paquito, really. Do you believe the mayor feels this strongly about you? That he sees you as one of his own? Where is he now? How come he is not here?”

Paquito freed himself from Celeste’s hands and looked out the window to avoid reading her lips for what more she had to say.

“You’re deaf and you’re allowing yourself to be blind.”

When at last Paquito faced her once more, a crushing silence befell them both. The four walls were drab without his laughter contained within them. His loss for words deafened her to the voices outside and to the whistling of birds, to all sounds of communication by man and animal alike.

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On Celeste’s final visit, Mayor Hernando Olizar was in the rectory room, flanked by Paquito and Father Amores, both head and shoulders shorter than he.

“So this is the little devil,” Mayor Olizar said of Celeste, humored rather than incensed.

“Good afternoon, mayor,” she said.

He gave her a crooked smile.

“The young do foolish things,” said Father Amores, as if reminding the mayor of a fact of life, then glanced at Celeste with nervous concern. “Their age endows them with a daringness that is sometimes reckless. Celeste didn’t mean to act against you, sir. She is a normal teenager in that she hasn’t yet the wisdom to know that the young, with all their beliefs of invincibility, have their limits.”

Mayor Olizar raised a hand in disagreement. “You underestimate this Solinas girl, father.  She has a mind of her own. However, I’m sure she is wiser now. And so you must be, too, Paquito.”

Paquito nodded.

“You have never disobeyed me before. Now that you have, you almost got yourself killed.”

Another nod.

“Very good. The father says your ankle will heal fast enough and you’ll be tending to your duties at the bungalow in no time at all, and only to those duties. Remember that.”

Yes, sir.

Celeste stepped aside as the mayor passed her. He bowed his head to exit through the threshold. His hands were large enough to crush Celeste’s skull in one squeeze the way she would an egg. Her anger at him gave way to defeat. Calinteños were whispering that Mayor Olizar was truly digging into Kandulo for the mythical gold, that for this purpose he had misappropriated the government funding. Surely, the First Lady Imelda must know about this. Surely, she would not condone the devastation of Kandulo.

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“My best wishes to your father,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said. Those were all the words she could muster.

Paquito followed the mayor out without a word to Celeste, without a glance.

After that day, Celeste was more lost than on the day of the accident. No insurmountable force such as death was holding her apart from Paquito. It was another human being, though what inhumane acts he was capable of. Celeste didn’t know whether to knock on the bungalow gate once Mayor Olizar left for Manila or to wait for Paquito to come to her. She wondered if the mayor would have come between her and Paquito had the accident not occurred. She needed to believe that with one more day, one more song, one more dance, he’d listen to her as in those days now quickly fading.

The town gossiped that the mayor had breached their relationship by forcing Paquito out of the rectory at gunpoint. To their talk, Celeste retaliated with closed lips and a stoic face, and she preoccupied herself with household chores. The one time she allowed herself to express her sorrow was when she sang the “Ave Maria” during Christmas mass. She sang loudly and clearly, unaware of the gushes of wind that swayed the church bell and of the worshipers below, her eyes on cracks patterned like lightning streaks on the vaulted ceiling.

The sole person she envisioned listening to her was Paquito. Her voice resonated across the nave to the altar, up the bell tower, out to the sky over Calinte and beyond, as if such force would bless him with hearing. The rest of the choir was stunned mute. The church faintly echoed with the sniffles of worshipers mourning their losses. And in the music of the knells and the silence and the heart-wrenching sobs, Celeste heard a voice beckoning her from far away to leave Calinte – the voice of the boy she loved, maybe, or maybe the voice of God. Or maybe it wasn’t a voice distant at all but one that came from within herself.

Once mass ended, a weeping howl resounded throughout Calinte from the direction of Mayor Olizar’s bungalow. Celeste walked to the mayor’s gate, oblivious to the whispers and murmurs of the tailing crowd. On the roof, Layas was lying on his flank at Paquito’s feet. His four legs were convulsing. His translucent eyes were staring ahead at nothing. Paquito bent to pat him on his side. Layas stopped convulsing then shut his eyes once and for all.

Celeste was about to enter until Paquito stood once more. He looked at her without seeming to recognize who she was. Nor did she recognize him. His stance proud and face a blank, he was no less rooted to his spot than the armada sculpture affixed to the bungalow’s facade.

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Liquid Halos

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She hated June, the month that marks the beginning of the monsoon storms, because thunder and lightning terrified her.

“It’s like an earthquake but upside down, with heaven rumbling and splitting open,” Marissa once said.

I was seven. She was ten.

“I guess,” I said.

I had awoken to pee. Midnight had struck to a thunderclap, and the light was on. It emanated from a ceiling lamp bubble round, brightening an azure carpet and casting amid the drone of the air conditioner, in the stillness of the room, a memorial somberness to posters of Charlie Chaplin and Bruce Lee that hung above my bed. To my left, Marissa lay with the back of her head to me, deaf to my whining. There wasn’t space for two, and though I motioned with a push of my hands to budge her, I didn’t dare do so. That would have been akin to starting a fight with an older sibling, which our parents had reprimanded me was a no no.

“Be quiet,” Marissa said at last then turned to me. She had not been asleep at all. “What’s your problem?”

“You. Why are you here?”

“Too much noise outside, and it’s too dark.”

“I’m closing the light,” I said.

My sister sat up. “You mean turning off the light. You open and close a door, the refrigerator, an object. You turn on and off anything with a switch. Daddy keeps telling you that. And no, you are not.”

I stood to use the bathroom.

She laughed. “You always wear big shirts.”

“What?”

“You and your big shirts.”

“They’re comfortable.”

“You just want to pretend you’re wearing a dress.”

“No.”

“Yes,” she said. “And what’s with the colors?”

I was wearing a red Thai dye with the hem down to my thighs. Among my other pajamas were Thai dyes purple, orange, and green – a psychedelic array of what resembled thorn crowns flattened between a pair of glass panes then painted in joy. I didn’t have blue. Blue was a color our father forced on me. If I could have had my choice, my carpet would have been pink, and if Marissa could have had hers, her carpet would have been azure, pink being a color our mother forced on her.

Marissa wasn’t laughing anymore, though she did have a smirk.

What a weirdo, I thought.

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Even during the day, Marissa spent more time in my room than in her own. She had an affinity for guy stuff. The Bruce Lee poster had been her choice – a print of the actor’s mug in black against a yellow backdrop, a don’t-mess-with-me austerity to the eyes. The poster was among my possessions because I had done my sister a favor by telling our father I wanted it. We were at a book store and there Bruce Lee was. Had she asked the poster for herself, our mother would not have consented; it wasn’t fit décor for a girl. Our mother, however, did allow Marissa one indulgence, that she could have a helmet cut similar to Lee’s, and this so that she wouldn’t be stifled by the heat. I got one, too. Regardless, we didn’t look alike. While my face was rice cake rotund on account of my weight, Marissa’s was narrow. The cut on me resembled a coconut husk. On her, she really did channel the martial artist.

Marissa grabbed me by the wrist. “Angelo, you are not turning off the light.”

“I need to pee.”

“You probably sit like a girl.”

“What are you talking about?”

She let go of me. “I don’t care. It’s Daddy who does.”

“Well, you stand.”

“I did once. Sitting is easier. But I’m a real girl.”

Marissa and I each had our own bathroom, and mine was bluer than my bedroom. The moment I stepped in, I felt as though I was standing at the bottom of an aquarium. I raised my shirt the way I had seen our mother raise her skirt, oh so gingerly with fingertips on the hem.

My sister was right. I sat. As I unloaded, I wondered how many hours more till sunrise, of squeezing into a bed made for one, dreaded what more of my habits Marissa would claim to be aware of. Though the sing-song cadence of her voice echoed in my ears, she was difficult to visualize. As with an infant, her features were non-descript. The most one could say about Marissa was that her eyes, nose, and mouth were well proportioned. (The same could not be said about me. My ears protrude as trumpet funnels.) Had it not been for the earrings – silver loops the size of a miniature clock wheel – Marissa could have passed as a boy. What a feat of evolution it was when years later, while earning an art history degree in New York, she would appear on the cover of a magazine, her hair permed and blow dried and sprayed into a voluminous do the fad of the 1980s, and in the decade after, what photographers found gorgeous in her would adapt a nobility when she lost her follicles, her eyes serene with courage that each day could be her last.

The shower faucet leaked. A puddle formed around the drain. Every tap of a drop sounded as the tick-tock of a clock. Amid the hue of ocean blue, a pair of towels hung in front of me, each adorned with a rooster as vibrant as tropical fruits.

Why my fondness of colors? I didn’t have an answer because I never thought about it. Maybe I favored neon as an antidote to Marissa’s penchant for starkness, which is what had attracted her to the Bruce Lee poster. Charlie Chaplin was my choice. The guy made us laugh along with TV features of The Three Stooges. Juxtaposed with Lee, he was a treat of gummy balls. The smudge of a mustache that followed the upward curl of his lips, the church dome hat, the floppy shoes and pants so large that they seemed about to slip down at any moment… to my young mind, the Tramp was cultivating the message that no matter how crestfallen we are, a smile is never too far.

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Charlie Chaplin was supposed to hang above Marissa’s bed. Marissa had said no. She didn’t want anything on her walls. She preferred 3,000- piece jigsaw puzzles. The puzzle images ranged from the Tower of London to a 17th century world map, from the Manhattan skyline to cherry blossom reflections on a lake. They strewed her room like painted carvings on floor tiles, providing visuals to lands and epochs that tickled her curiosity, she who was so restless that our parents allowed her swimming lessons along with ballet, high energy activities. She would eventually insist on college in the U.S., the opportunity to be her own person since a global education was the reason our parents had enrolled us since kindergarten at the International School Manila.

I reclaimed my side of the bed.

“I like blue,” she said.

I shut my eyes. The effulgence of the ceiling lamp created an incandescent spot on a black screen. “You’re scared of the dark.” I said, “and of being alone.”

“Yes, and I like blue. That’s why I want the lights on. Always. Mommy never stops about pink – pink curtains, pink rug, pink bed cover. I like sleeping to blue just as you like to wear big shirts so that you could pretend you’re wearing a dress”

“Shut up already.”

She did, though not for long. “It’s like an earthquake, but upside down, with heaven rumbling and splitting open.”

“What do you mean?”

I opened my eyes. I was the one who was supposed to be spooked over the clashing in the ether, God’s ire. During Holy Week, Marissa and I had watched a silent film on TV that depicted the Great Flood. The image of Noah with arms raised, his hair and robe awhirl in a cyclone, his foothold on the ark deck so precarious that a gale could have tossed him into the infinite horizon, haunted me for days. The drumfires from above and rain that struck our roof with the rattle of brimstones was what I imagined Noah must have heard. That my sister would find solace in her little brother’s bed made me wonder why her fear. I would have expected Marissa to excite over the world awash in a torrent. She belonged in water. In our backyard pool, whether exercising her freestyle or her backstroke, she swam with the grace of a ballerina, Tchaikovsky’s swan in flight across blue ripples, the splashes gentle, almost silent. Our father liked to tease her that she was Olive Oyle… so thin was she and gangly her limbs… but in water, she truly was a sight to behold.

“When there’s a typhoon, that’s what it’s like.” Marissa turned her back to me once more. “Just think, when you fall into the earth or are carried away, far away up there, you’re never coming back. Hurricanes and tornadoes can do that, you know.”

“That happens outside. Inside, we’re safe.”

“Outside. Inside. Doesn’t matter. A house can be lifted away.”

“I guess.”

Another thunder, God cracking His knuckles.

“Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba… “ Marissa broke out in song. The Partridge Family, of course. She had a crush on David Cassidy, he a hippy youth with long tresses and a cheerleader smile. Apparently, I wasn’t enough of a comfort. She needed some guy who fit the bill of a girl more than she. “I think I love you. I think I love you. So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for.”

“I’m closing the light,” I said.

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Of all the memories we shared, this is the first that often comes to me on moments I happen to stare into space, be it on the subway or at the office, a corner room cluttered with binders and stationery and where I generate fundraising letters for a K-8 school in San Francisco. For the entire duration I’ve been at this job, the wall pad before me has been bare save for plastic knob tacks and phone numbers. A calendar of Oscar winning films is at present the one item that gives credence to an existence apart from what I’m paid to do.

For this month of September, a watercolor poster of “Casablanca” has Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman cheek to cheek. His brow is wrinkled. An expression of surrender softens his eyes. His face is long and mopey. She radiates trust and confidence in lips parted as if to whisper eternal devotion. Blonde waves highlight a complexion that exudes an after rain freshness. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” so goes Rick’s famous goodbye to Ilsa. As the moral artillery in her husband Victor’s fight against the Nazis, she must sacrifice the happiness she could have experienced with another man. Such is love.

Beneath the calendar, sunshine through my window frames in a glow credit card forms piled on my desk. The pavement outside is sand dune pristine, pedestrians on them scarce as are the cars that drive by, and a garage door to a house across the street glimmers with the promise of light on a projection screen. This calmness that is Pacific Heights creates the ideal neighborhood for kids: tomorrow poses no threat, while each day relegated to yesterday is one banana more that a child has consumed with one’s morning cereal, sweet and nourishing, a memory to relish.

My supervisor is out. I’ve got no pressing project. That it’s already autumn has a dual effect on me. I mourn summer, and I am also amused that in the Philippines, in another time, September was a reason for bliss; September was Marissa’s favorite month. Until it arrived, we had to endure gusty weeks. Most kids dread September, the start of the school year. Not Marissa. She equated her first step into a new classroom to the awakening of cicadas that in the monsoon had been dormant.

That’s one thing I miss – the chorus of cicadas, their chirps escalating to a crescendo as to harken the late hours, twilight’s chromium luster. Nevertheless, I choose to be here in the U.S., and the Dover School can offer its own treasures, bromidic as they may be. Take now. A teacher is reprimanding two girls in front of my open door for pushing in line. Past a file cabinet beside which a pizza box balances atop a recycle bin, the girls stand sleek in leotards and ponytails. They are far from adolescents yet already in possession of an adolescent spunkiness; neither wants to admit to having initiated the shoving. Mr. O’Farrell glances at me. A patient figure in a lumberjack shirt and a beard the density of a bird’s nest, he strains from rolling his eyes across his forehead. Down the corridor, fifth graders in a music class sing “This Land Is Your Land” to the jaunty accompaniment of a piano.

Such a familiar moment, this co-mingling of melody and infantile discordance, no matter the difference in people and place and the distance of everything.

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“Little kisses,” Marissa said during a weekend swim.

She stopped in the middle of the pool and raised her face to the sky. Earlier, she had exasperated us with her continuous record playing of the Partridge Family. The record was new and so was the player, a red and white portable box with a headshell fashioned after a doll’s hairbrush. “Marissa, why don’t you turn that off for a while,” our father had said in a manner both gentle and emphatic. Such is our father’s tenor that even when he whispers, he’s got volume.

My sister obeyed. As a reward, our father permitted her a swim. The June when she had snuck into my bed had passed. July brought us on our annual trip to the U.S., where through August, we boarded planes to visit relatives in four different states. Classes were to commence on Tuesday. September was here. The grass in the resurgence of the sun had an emerald shimmer, and if it did rain, then it was sporadic, a caress compared to the punch of a typhoon.

Marissa had been in the pool for half an hour when a cloud rolled forth, immersing in shadow the surrounding trees, the leaves grown to such opulence that they appeared to be a bundle of green birds. Pinprick indentations mapped the pool. Rings formed around them, liquid halos, then disappeared as quickly as the next drop.

“Little kisses,” she yelled.

Since I didn’t know what she meant, I put on my trunks to find out. I was with our mother, who urged Marissa from the back lanai to get out before the drizzle strengthened. Downpour aside, our mother wasn’t keen on Marissa’s spending much time outdoors. A tan to her is synonymous with the province, with farmers and rice planters – laborers. We are city folks. All my life, other people have fixed our beds, washed our dishes, and taken out our trash. Our mother allowed me to dive in only because I had the power to cajole Marissa into the house.

“Five minutes,” our mother said to me, “then you tell your ate enough,” Ate being the respectful epithet for big sister.

Our mother was dressed for the humidity – spaghetti straps, a sash that accentuated a tiny waist, and baubles to compliment a neck fair and smooth as those of an actress in old movies. She watched us from the back lanai, in a chair with a cushion that bore a daisy motif. She adores flowers, our mother does. Rattan baskets and porcelain from Japan and China decked our home. Lobster claw plants, lilies, and tree branches filled them all. One arrangement had a marble-sized fruit we call kalamansi, our native lime, ready for the picking.

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The lanai threshold was circular. Screen doors opened into the garden, to the pool yards away. Our mother sat at the center of the entrance, an empress austerity to her with back straight and head high.

My sister was right about another thing. Rain on the face is similar to a kiss multiplied by ten, a hundred, a thousand. I knew about kisses from our mother. As for Marissa, where she got the analogy beat me. I’ve never seen our mother kiss her. Our father did hug her plenty. Whatever lip pecks were involved was largely on her part. I opened my mouth to feel the patter on my tongue.

“Rain has taste,” I said. “It’s not bitter likes tears. It’s sweet.”

“It’s tasteless,” said Marissa.

“It feels sweet.”

“Sweet is a taste, not a feeling.”

“Then what it is I feel?”

Marissa gave me a sideward glance. “You’re feeling good.”

Marissa’s bathing suit was a one-piece patterned with Lifesaver stripes. She resembled a cluster of candies in a slot machine afloat on water. And she was caramel brown. None of us have ever had that hue. My yellow trunks emphasized my paleness. Plus, my tummy looked balloon inflated. No wonder our mother had a habit of pinching my cheeks and teasing me that I was delicious enough to eat. I was a dish of almond jelly and egg custard in boy form.

“I’m supposed to tell you to go in,” I said.

“I know,” Marissa said.

“Why don’t you listen to her?”

“I will.”

“When?”

“When I feel like it.”

A spurt of sun broke through the grayness. A rainbow arched over our house, a two-level abode that boasted a stucco facade and a navy-tile roof, ionic columns to a balcony balustrade and air-conditioners that protruded from windows. In the lanai, our mother sat cross-legged, hands on her lap, as to strike a pose. Our eyes met. She nodded in that commanding way of hers… I was designated to do a job and do it I must… but I shared Marissa’s sentiment. The moment was too lovely to let slip away.

Neither did our father share our mother’s anxiousness. In khakis and a golf shirt, black hair pomaded and combed high leading man style, he appeared in the lanai, a red toolbox in one hand and a drill in the other. He set them on a glass table behind our mother before he disappeared again, only to reappear with a painting, an oil that depicted a man and a woman astride a carabao – our indigenous buffalo – he in a straw hat, she in a head scarf and a white top flimsy as onion thin paper. Both were in a landscape of oscillating stalks and orange-rimmed clouds. Our father thrilled in weekends where he could engage in domestic chores. If he weren’t polishing one of the wall-length screens our mother had purchased in Hong Kong – antique gems on which were imbedded soap stone carvings of peonies, bamboo, and members of the imperial court – then he’d be hanging art.

What a mystery rain is. What a mystery Marissa is. 40 years later, I still can’t figure her out. She had been tiger tough on the exterior yet kitten scared inside three months earlier, hiding underneath my sheets upon the first typhoon of the season. On this afternoon, she outstretched her arms and neck as if she were offering herself to God’s tears.

“Maybe snow is as sweet as rain,” I said.

“Sugar balls,” she said.

“Next time we go to the States, we should go where there’s snow.”

“Yes.”

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By virtue of our education at the International School Manila, America intrigued us. The academic calendar at ISM coincides with that of the States, while summer for local schools fall in the months of March to May, when temperatures soar to the 90s. The heat scalds to such a degree that we would sweat the second we’d step out of a cold shower. To parallel an American education, our parents gave us an American summer: McDonald’s French fries, Hershey’s chocolate, and the very American invention of the mall.

Although we had been traveling to the U.S. ever since I was born, the trip from which we had just returned was the first to awaken in me the possibility of claiming as my own this other country. An aunt and uncle live in Cleveland, in a white house with a trio of dormer windows that rise from a black roof, on a street populated by houses of the same design. Back then, they drove a station wagon, and with our cousins, they would take Marissa and me to May Company, a department store that was a smorgasbord of Hallmark greeting cards, Betsy Clark stationery, lego, and all sorts of products dazzling to the eye – from shampoo bottles the multitude of colors in a Crayola box to plastic chairs as sumptuous as cherries and grapes, from glow-in-the-dark surfer shorts to bubble gum in wrapping the shades of Jupiter. As a souvenir, our parents bought her the record player and the Partridge Family album; I got a Superman watch and a pencil case to match.

“Okay.” Our mother stood from her chair in the lanai. She waved her arm in a come in gesture to Marissa and me. “That’s enough.”

The drizzle remained constant. It neither hardened into a barrage nor lessened into taps. A ray of light continued to pierce through a murky cloud. The world had stopped on its axis.

This time Marissa complied. Because she did, so did I.

“Why can’t you listen to me?” our mother asked.

“I’m here,” said my sister.

“Did you have to make me wait and repeat myself?”

“I’m here.”

Marissa was catching up in height to our mother, who stood at five feet but appeared taller on account of heels and her carriage. In a few years, my sister would surpass our mother in physical stature, reaching a full height of 5’6”, and the two would share an affinity for make-up and fashion, a commonality that would cause our mother to boast of her daughter’s New York move, “That city is good for her. When she walks down the streets, men strain their necks to look at her and can’t turn away. Also, she’s at Barnard College.” I might have already noticed on that afternoon the beauty Marissa would someday burgeon into. She held up her chin with the pride our mother did hers, and in her profile a delicacy marked the curvature of her lips and shoulders. Just as our mother refused to buckle, so did Marissa.

“You should have been here way before now,” our mother said, “dried up, showered, and fresh. Look at you. You’re wetting the floor.”

“You’re so bossy, Mommy.”

Our father, nail in hand against the wall where he was to hang the painting, turned to my sister. His eyes were incensed with the fury of a volcano about to erupt. “Maria Clarissa, do not answer back at your mother.”

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“You said I could swim.”

“That doesn’t matter.” His voice reverberated in the lanai a blast of harshly articulated words. “When your mother tells you to do something, you do it.”

Marissa was mute. To our mother, she always had a response, whereas our father had never given her a cause for one. This was the only time I ever witnessed her chest cave in.

“A typhoon can slam any minute. Never mind that it’s September. It’s not safe out there,” he said and then, “Angelo, hand me the drill.”

The drill was on the glass table in front of the wall where stood our father. He extended his arm towards me. I suppose he had intended to ask our mother for the thing, but since I was present, he resorted to me. Sopping wet as my sister, I created a trail of water footprints on the floor from the threshold to the table. The drill was a gray instrument that replicated a gun. It had a massive grip, a trigger, and a drill bit that extended from a barrel. I imagined the device in operation, the screeching noise and the drill bit in furious rotation, digging mercilessly into a surface, debris spewing all over.

“Angelo,” our father said, rage still in his eyes.

No sooner had I picked up the drill when it slipped. A bang resounded. A bullet hole crack formed on the spot where it landed.

Our father did not budge. His arm remained extended towards me.

“You’re supposed to pick it up with a firm hold, not a limp wrist,” said our father.

Betsy Clark, the Partridge Family, and a Wonder Woman watch… that was the Superhero I was crazy about, Wonder Woman. There was something else about America that made me wish I were back there at that instant, something more.

“This is how you do it,” our father said. He grabbed the drill as if to crush it; so red were his fingers from the pressure. “Now you.”

In May Company’s jewelry department, as our mother gazed at herself in a counter mirror to consider for purchase a gold necklace, two men stood beside her. They were spruced up in denims, suede vests, and cowboy hats. They each had a Marlboro man mustache and that hyper male squint. The pair could have been twins. Then again, not quite. The aura about them transcended the familial. They were too close, in a shared personal space. One man placed a ring on his finger then raised his hand to admire it, after which he took it off and put it on his companion. I had never seen such intimacy between two men.

I think I love you. I think I love you. So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for.

‘“Grip harder… Again… Grip the way a man does… Again…”

“My wrist isn’t limp.”

“Again.”

“That’s enough, Elpidio,” our mother said.

The kitchen door swung open. The door was located in the dining area that led to the lanai. Our wash lady came from the maids’ quarter downstairs, holding up on a hanger a dress with seashell patterns.

Our mother continued on with my sister. “You are wearing that tonight.”

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A photo of me in the Superman watch and Marissa in the dress is on Facebook. She stands toes pointed inward at the foot of the stairs that lead to the second floor bedrooms. I am to her left. I have placed my hand on the handrail with the top of my wrist turned to the camera to show off the red and blue caped figure. The steps are varnished narra. The baluster is brass and metal coiled to form an ascending line of arabesque patterns. Such dexterity merits the proper attire. Our mother had a seamstress sew Marissa’s frock, while my outfit, a rust polyester leisure suit with bellbottoms, was tailor made.

The photo makes me chuckle. Kids walk to and fro in the corridor outside my office. The girls are dressed as if they are off to a pilates class. The boys are in basketball shorts. At any given school in the Philippines, athletic gear is exclusive to physical ed. Leave it to Facebook to punctuate the disparity between the students at the Dover School and me. My chuckle far exceeds this, however.

For our father, one shot is never enough. He takes at least three. That afternoon 40 years ago, he had one of the maids take several pictures of the four of us.

“Excited?” he asked as he put an arm around my shoulders.

“For what?” I replied.

Our father has always been a dapper figure in slacks without a crinkle and button down shirts that accentuated arms muscular from a youth of bricklaying – a package that exuded a confidence in him for having risen in social rank from laborer to owner of a construction company. As a victory laurel, he had won the admiration of a Manila socialite. I saw at that moment the impact our mother must have had on our father when he had first opened the door for her as she stepped out of a car and onto the lot where he was overseeing the building of a bank for her own father, a financier, one of the Philippines’ most notable. Holding Marissa to her bosom, our mother was prettied up in pearls and a blouse that rippled to her every movement – a raise of the arm as she instructed the maid on the camera button to click, a sway of the hips – and as she tilted her head to a quarter angle, I noticed that Marissa herself was in awe. She gazed up at our mother, straightened her stance, and positioned her toes forward. In an instant, the seashell dress that had been an awkward fit, one cut in the pattern of a nurse’s uniform, was awkward no more.

“For dinner. You kids said you wanted to go out tonight, so we’re taking you out. You wanted Italian food, so we’re having Italian.”

Whether or not the rain persisted, I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Our father had promised us a treat, and he has never rescinded on a promise. The events of the afternoon were behind us. Not only had I picked up the drill with a firm hold, but I had also hammered a nail into the wall, and this on my own initiative rather than on our father’s prodding. I pounded the peg with such force so that, upon the slamming of steel against steel, I was the loudest person in the lanai.

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These photos had been set aside, buried for nearly four decades in magnetic pages stacked in a bureau and melted from the tropical heat, forgotten. The memories might have faded for good if not for digital restoration. They now jump out from the computer screen in front of me as if I am spying through a window.

I ponder how Marissa would have adapted to the internet era. She might have been keen on streaming the pop songs we grew up to, but she would not have been a Facebook fan. Remembrances of her gauche girlhood made her blush, what more that they are currently accessible at the click of a button. I complement my own boyhood pictures with selfies that show off a six-pack gained from my latest workout regimen. More importantly, Facebook connects me to our parents, who delight in showing the world that one has managed to retain an unblemished complexion and the other plays nine holes every weekend, grayness on her part and a gut on his notwithstanding.

What truly perks up our parents is the chance to post the trove of family pictures, their way of immortalizing our yesterday. They sold the house years ago. With Marissa gone and myself settled in San Francisco, they had no reason to hold on to such an enormous dwelling. Our parents today live in a condo at Fort Bonifacio, a military base turned into commercial real estate to accommodate Manila’s population influx.

Besides, I am now the lone child who visits. When I was in college at Berkeley and Marissa managed an art gallery in SoHo, the house anchored us both to our existence across the Pacific, luring us back every vacation, our rooms unchanged – mine still blue, hers still pink – save for the installment of a central air conditioning system and her floor free of jigsaw puzzles. Or perhaps our parents’ release of the house had been imminent ever since Marissa graduated high school from ISM.

“You can leave the family?” I asked in consternation to her declaration that she was off to the U.S.

“Yes,” she said.

Our parents acquiesced. Their daughter deserved the riches of the seven continents… and much more. As a woman, Marissa would be a certified scuba diver. A dear thing she would leave me with is an album of photos she had taken of her sea excursions. Star shimmering corals, rocks as porous as the moon, midnight streaks on fish sun yellow… the deep was a galaxy she would claim her own, while above, the tug boat that had brought her far away from Palawan Island or the Malibu shore waited adrift, undulating on soft current, as if it were an airship parked on a cloud.

Shortly after her 30th birthday, Marissa got married. His name is Bill. Rather than constricting her independence, Bill fostered it, teaching her to windsurf and goading her to join him on a 21-kilometer run at Angkor Wat, the cone towers gilded in the first blush of a new morn. Bill is an engineer and handsome in an all-American way – eyes the blue of Lake Placid and a jaw Mount Rushmore chiseled – yet whose neck and overbite conjure the vision of a giraffe.

“He’s not one to easily blend into a crowd,” Marissa said over the phone on the day he proposed. “How can I say no?”

And stand out Bill did, all 6’3” of him, in a black tux and a silver bow tie, his arm ornament my sister in a lace gown that in the sunshine permeating the church scintillated on her like diamonds on white petals. The open portals, bronze statues of saints encased in each, and the brightness of day through stained glass windows that could have been crafted from sapphires and rubies created a feel of space. Surrounding arches diminished Bill and Marissa to the size of a man and a woman on a wedding cake. They took their vows before an altar as majestic as a piece of the Parthenon, and in the midst of light particles that danced to the vaulted ceiling, they seemed ready to take flight.

But Marissa would have to fly alone. A year later, surrounded by bare walls, wisps of heaven outside a window would waft into her room. She had done what could be done. Treatments both medical and holistic could no longer combat the inevitable.

“If only it had been detected earlier,” our mother would bemoan.

“Stop, Mommy” Marissa said. “This is the way it is.”

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My sister did have one regret, that she would not be able to visit Manila just once more. Instead, we gathered at her bedside as the TV featured footage of the latest happening in the Philippines: the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. A tsunami of volcano ash surged over stalks and palm trees. Nearby villagers coated in dust meandered on dirt roads as if the petrified corpses in Vesuvius had themselves been resurrected. The death toll of 722, a statistic that included casualties brought on by subsequent diseases and typhoons, flashed onscreen.

“The things I used to be scared of, so silly,” Marissa said. “There are worse things that happen. Even then, once it’s over, it is over.”

The month was June, on a blistering day in New York. No personal mementos occupied the night table. Marissa didn’t want any past present, only the future, which for her was represented by a medallion that bore a relief of the Pieta, and orchids, flowers she favored on account of their simplicity. She always had a sharp bone structure, but instead of rendering her face sallow, the weight and hair loss accented the sculptural quality of her features. And how soft her hands were as she rested them on her lap, two doves in repose.

“Are you sure you want to watch this?” Bill asked. He sat beside her, on the edge of the bed, almost ready to climb in.

“It’s nearly done. After this, ‘The Simpsons’ is on. We can all laugh.”

“Laugh?”

“Yes, Bill. Laugh.”

Marissa grinned at him the way she had at me the June she had first snuck into my bed. “I hate that shirt,” she said.

“That’s why I’m wearing it.” Bill had on a tee with an image of Bruce Springsteen’s jean-clad derriere against a background of red and white stripes. A red kerchief hung out of a right hip pocket, and a coffee stain blotted the center. “If you want to laugh, check out Bruce’s butt.”

“You’re such a hick.”

“So I am, but… honey… a natural disaster?”

“Oh, that shirt is so ugly.”

Our mother paced about as she talked of placing a vase here and hanging a watercolor there. “A picture of a teapot would be calming. Of roses, too.” She had been speaking of livening up the room for the two weeks since Marissa had been there. Our mother’s suit was tangerine. Two-toned pumps matched a purse. Buoyed by Marissa’s daily compliments over a purchase, she spent hours on Madison Avenue when out of the hospital. Her daughter would be in heels soon enough, it seemed.

“She’s a minimalist,” our father said to honor my sister’s wish of a stark room. He stood with arms folded, his big boss stance. Our father’s shirt was pink linen with a Mandarin collar. The shirt had been my choice, while my own shirt was blue, also my choice. I was glad to keep our mother company at Barneys, and I had come to appreciate blue as much as our father did pink. The color complimented his whitening hair.

Me, I was a mute figure in a chair. I sided with Bill. Marissa’s insistence on news of a cataclysm on the par of Armageddon was weird. But who were we to change the channel? We were her visitors.

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The Dover School is fundraising for an innovation lab, a physical space where students with tools that range from a pencil to a hammer can design and execute projects that encourage trial and error and learning through failure: a velocipede, a telescope, a thermometer… As Marissa’s jigsaw puzzles did for her, the pertinacity to complete a whole can inspire these kids to dream, not only for themselves, but also for others. Marissa herself once envisioned that our father would erect a building higher than the clouds, a monument of a home.

“Maybe typhoons won’t be scary up there,” she said on that rainy night our father treated us to Italian food. “We’d be above the mess down here. When the sky clears, we’d have a view of everything. Every mountain. Every valley. Every rooftop. Everything.”

I was gorging on my pizza. A lit candle on our table flickered shadows on Marissa’s lasagna, and in the soft light, with her before a reef tinted wall, silver threads to the seashells on her dress sparkled as if she were a creature of the deep.

“Everything,” I repeated.

The word would resound in my head in the midst of what our father dubbed her “minimalist” surrounding. For all we accumulate since birth, we leave with nothing, not even laughter. No wonder hospitals are frightful. Rooms possess the desolation of a jail cell.

Screw “The Simpsons.”

“No,” I wanted to block the TV and declare as if I were some soap character that had popped out of the screen. “Things don’t end just like that. The rest of us go on living. Small as we are, our loss is as big as today’s headlines. Tomorrow needs to hurry, so I can get on with this business of starting again. I’ve still got my dreams.”

Instead, I sat through the shenanigans of America’s most beloved family as the flames of a setting sun made way for stars and my stomach growled for a roast chicken.

Nobody laughed. Rooted to Marissa’s side by the window, Bill flashed some teeth. That was all. I was with our parents on the other side, the door behind us. They were seated now. Our chairs were foam padded and covered in cream upholstery, fluffy to the touch and celestial to behold so that along with the numbness of the moment, we could have been floating in air. Bill turned off the TV. The room fell silent. All those around me looked old, weary, their faces furrowed and eyes damp, as if everyone had forgotten what is to be.

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Except Marissa.

“Sweet September drizzle,” I whispered.

Marissa laid her head back.

“Lifesavers… Leaf wings… God’s kisses…”

So soft was her pillow that she seemed to sink into a cloud.

“I think I love you. I think I love you. So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for.”

Marissa shut her eyes.

Won’t you eat a chicken with me? I thought. What happens now?

If I could share with my sister the answer that life has provided over the years, here’s what I’d tell her:

Bill has remarried. Katrina is from Texas, born and raised, and of Mexican descent. The pairing of a Southern drawl with a swarthy face and eyes the black of melanite can be jarring, though only for the first few minutes that you meet her. She has a smile so infectious that you succumb to her warmth, and the way she says hello, you’d think you were the only human she cared to be with. They have a son, a lanky teen who wears his hair anime style, long so as to cover his ears and jaggedly cut. Lance is on his first year at New York University. He wants to be a scriptwriter, which is what Farley is.

Farley… such a dorky name, as is the man who owns it. He’s got a duck walk and a unibrow, black-rimmed glasses on a conical nose. He’s also able to unbolt the screws to a hubcap with one yank of a wrench, his forearms Popeye pumped; he makes the best paellas with jumbo shrimps and the spiciest chorizos; and his imagination has got Daddy and Mommy hooked on Netflix.

“Clever,” Daddy said of one film about an old farmer in the Idaho outback who with his dog, an Irish setter named Auburn, reunites a boy and his family and uncovers a drug ring. Mommy said it made her cry. “You must be proud of him,” she commented to me. “I am,” I said.

None of the films Farley writes would ever screen in the Philippines. He does indie work, not Hollywood big budgets, which are the only features that sell internationally. I love this auteur element about Farley… it shows an uncompromising disposition to be true to himself… and whatever it is he loves about me has kept us together for eight years. Today is our anniversary.

I can go on, but these are the important stuff. Goodbye for now.

The corridor outside my office is quiet. The students have been dismissed. The garage to the house across the street has dimmed, though it isn’t entirely blank. It never is. History makes us see things that aren’t there, our thoughts projected through a camera ensconced in our memories. I wonder what family today occupies our house from long ago, if at the moment a brother and his sister are bobbing in the pool, rain kisses on their cheeks amid liquid halos.

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“Brief Encounter”: No Ordinary Love

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“This can’t last. This misery can’t last… Nothing lasts really, neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore.”

Here’s the thing about passion. No matter how happily married we may be, devoted to our spouses in the comfort of a cozy home, our needs and future secured, a gorgeous stranger appears like an angel descended to earth and removes a piece of grit from our eye as we are about to board a train. It’s a scene we only know as true in novels and films. Alas, because it has become our reality, we refuse to let the moment pass, regardless the stakes. Nothing in life is entirely an accident. For such magic to spark what would have been a typical day must be a message from the forces of destiny. So begins the romance between our hapless couple, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), in “Brief Encounter” (1945).

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When at attempt at art produces an outcome that is either fabulous or feeble, we know it. The work moves us or it doesn’t. We applaud or we wince. While individual expression is paramount to an artist, certain rules are unbreakable. For one, shun clichés. Every narrative since the inception of storytelling has generally followed a prescribed path: 1) the introduction of a set of characters and the problem that besets them; 2) the catalyst that incites the characters to action; 3) the conflict that causes them to change; and 4) the resolution wherein they face their problem with a new gained wisdom that leads to the conclusion. Clichés are booby traps at every turn, particularly with a love story. Cast a beautiful woman and a handsome man as the lead characters. Make one or both of them married. Have them at first resist temptation and then succumb to it. Let guilt weigh on them. The conclusion is up for grabs, but no matter what, lamentations of heartache are compulsory. What a tremendous undertaking indeed to create a romance more on the level of Gustave Flaubert (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/in-defense-of-flaubert-and-austen/) than Nicholas Sparks (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/the-notebook-do-not-forget-do-not-forget/).

Somehow, “Brief Encounter” accomplishes in avoiding paperback melodrama while remaining true to the arc of a traditional narrative. The situation that involves our lovers is really so very “ordinary,” which is a word Laura Jesson as narrator repeats to underscore the surprise of how dramatic her story itself turns out:

“I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people. It all started on an ordinary day, in the most ordinary place in the world, the refreshment room at Milford Junction… I looked up and saw a man come in from the platform. He had on an ordinary mac. His hat was turned down, and I didn’t even see his face. He got his tea at the counter and turned. Then I did see his face. It was rather a nice face.”

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Laura and Alec are British, proper and eloquent in the way folks who spend much time with books are. No tumultuous condition such as war poisons their passion with urgency and death. No locale fabled for romance serves as the backdrop. The setting is 1938. The relationship that burgeons between Laura and Alec happens in the most mundane fashion, a lunch followed by a movie. They are each spouse to another, and because they rendezvous in a town that like any other town is prone to gossip, they limit their kisses to the shadows in the underground tunnel at Milford Junction and a deserted boathouse – places to which few people would venture – as if they were felons. Theirs is a dilemma that bedevils all those in the throes of a forbidden love, depicted through an intensity of emotions that overpowers banality. And this is why “Brief Encounter” is a classic.

I myself am no stranger to a forbidden love. In the decade I was born, men of my tribe were jailed, lost jobs and families, and institutionalized on account of their affection for other men. Stonewall paved the way towards their decriminalization, and in the close to 50 years since, we gays and lesbians in America have united to establish a political force that has earned us employment rights, military acceptance, and marriage equality. Nevertheless, we continue to face incrimination in countries slow to recognize civil rights. Russia imposes fines on gay activist groups, the members of which the government deems as “foreign agents,” and in Uganda, homosexuals are sentenced to life imprisonment. China bans depictions of LGBT people on the television, and Iran enforces corporal punishment.

Truly, we are all ordinary men and women guilty of no harm to society. Our only fault according to those who condemn is our natural propensity for those we love. Even in America, for all the progress we have achieved, a return to the status quo is imminent. President-elect Donald Trump has been appointing anti-LGBT politicians to his cabinet, starting with his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, a fundamentalist Christian who as governor of Indiana sought to legalize conversion therapy, a procedure that allegedly transforms homosexuals into heterosexuals through psychoanalysis.

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A former colleague at San Francisco AIDS Foundation recently exchanged marital vows with his partner. “I am proud of my husband,” he has posted on Facebook. However, with the tension that has permeated the air in the aftermath of the November 8 elections, he is afraid to hold his husband’s hand in public. We have reverted to 1938. Hate crimes have spiked up, reportedly committed in the name of Donald Trump. A group that calls itself “Americans for a Better Way” sent copies of a letter that demeans Muslims as “a vile and filthy people” to at least five mosques in California, propagating genocide. At Fort Hancock High School in El Paso, Texas, white students during a volleyball game paraded Trump placards as they chanted “build the wall” at their Hispanic classmates. (http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/10/us/post-election-hate-crimes-and-fears-trnd/) “Gay families = burn in hell. Trump 2016” read a sign placed on a car in North Carolina. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/donald-trump-president-supporters-attack-muslims-hijab-hispanics-lgbt-hate-crime-wave-us-election-a7410166.html) The bigotry in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust is jeopardizing the stability of a nation universally respected as a stalwart of democracy.

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In “Brief Encounter,” provincialism as much as propriety constrict Laura Jesson and Dr. Alec Harvey. In contrast to the goings-on in high offices and the price denizens of a land pay as a consequence, theirs is a trivial affair, a paltry cause to a domestic disruption that has no ramifications on the safety of neighbors. But the affair does raise an awareness of our own prerogative to love… to love our partners, our culture, our community, ourselves… and once this is questioned, then so too is our standing as citizens of the world. The mooring of an ordinary existence threatens to break. We feel a passion we never have before, an ardency to retain what is rightfully ours.

History repeats itself as stories repeat themselves, for an event does not last unless it is recorded and retold. Neither is everything with us cliché. Despite the collectiveness of an experience, no two people live and remember it the same way.

Captain America (An Excerpt from “Potato Queen”)

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I once wanted to change my name from Juancho Chu to Wittgenstein Walcher H. Rockefeller van Stausen Smith (sometimes Smyth) VIII. I was twelve years old and living in Manila, in a brick house that I imagined sometimes as a castle, sometimes as an ocean liner, a large-windowed house with twelve air-conditioners to keep it as cool as a Hollywood mansion. I played with bath towels as a queen’s headdress. The seal of envelopes to my collection of Hallmark stationery tasted like a rose. In my heart was a girl to whom Hardy Boy Joe, Shaun Cassidy, serenaded “Da Doo Ron Ron.” But the idea for my American name came to me not from TV or some fantastic thoughts I might have had of another world, another life: I was an accomplice to the secret love affair our family maid was having with the neighborhood watchman.

“I’d like to know his name,” my father said one morning over breakfast. He was commending the watchman for his sense of duty. Sometime at dawn my father had gone to the bathroom. He glanced out the window and from the end of the street the watchman appeared on his motorcycle, making his rounds. The watchman stopped upon seeing a light in our house turned on, then drove off minutes later when nothing more suspicious happened.

“James Cagney,” I said.

My father laughed. He turned to my mother who grinned at the sight of his thick eyebrows twitching like caterpillars. Her lips were as pink as faded poinsettias. “James Cagney, eh,” he said.

“You eat too much,” said my mother. “You imagine things too much. Take it easy.” My mother monitored how much food I put on my plate, counting the servings of rice and pieces of pork sausages. I was a kid without a neck. My stomach blocked my view of my feet.

“James Cagney,” I said again.

It’s true. The watchman’s name was James Cagney, James Cagney Alejandro. I had met him for the first time four months back. My family and I had just returned from our yearly summer trip to San Francisco, where an aunt and an uncle lived in Atherton, a town an hour’s drive south of the city. During the trip we saw Yankee Doodle Dandy on TV, so what a coincidence that I would meet an actual James Cagney. Like the original, the watchman had a pug nose, bulldog eyes, and a boxer’s build. He was half-American, white as Yankee Cagney with nails clipped and polished and strong hands. He and our maid Malen were talking at the white gate of our house. My father had already left for work and my mother had stepped out to the beauty parlor. I was roller-skating on the driveway, oblivious to the company Malen was keeping. She and James Cagney seemed to be engaged in nothing more than friendly talk. They weren’t holding hands. Neither one of them was smiling shyly nor glancing furtively around to see if anybody aside from me was witnessing any secret flirtation — signs of love I knew about from watching my two older sisters and older brother when they brought dates home. Although the gate was open, James Cagney stood outside while Malen never went past the premises of our home. She leaned against the gate, one foot on its tip behind the other. She was a large woman, Malen. Her waist was as wide as her hips. She had a double chin and the hair of cauliflower curls on her head made her taller than James Cagney. That alone made an affair between them silly. What man wants a woman larger than he is?

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I skated down to them.

“This is Juancho,” Malen said.

“Like his daddy,” said James Cagney. “So Chinese.”

His smile, it had a sincerity to it, as if he truly were glad to meet me and had been wanting to for a long time, and his voice, he sounded like a boy — my seventeen-year-old brother Bach had a deeper voice — and yet, in his blue uniform, James Cagney wasn’t anybody that a car could run over. His forearms were Popeye big. His trousers fit his thighs like tights on Captain America. Face to face with James Cagney, I must have seen what Malen saw. The sky was no longer a sky; it was a lightless space with neither clouds nor birds. The trees lining the pavements, the other massive houses behind spiked gates, Malen herself — everything fell beyond the periphery of my vision. James Cagney, James Cagney Alejandro.

James Cagney left with a “See you later” to Malen. As he drove away in his motorcycle, I asked Malen when he’d be back. “I don’t know,” she said.

He was back the next day. He and Malen stood on the same spot at the gate. Again they kept their distance as I roller-skated on the driveway. “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” I said as I approached them. They looked at each other and laughed. Malen girlishly covered her mouth. I had never seen her laugh that way before.

“What’s that Yankee Dododa?” asked James Cagney. James Cagney Alejandro had never heard of his namesake.

“You have a movie star’s name,” I said. “Everybody in the States knows your name. How did you get a name like that?”

Malen gave another girlish laugh, her head bowed as if her hand were a fan she was hiding behind. “The same way you get your name.”

I was standing closer to James Cagney now, right beside him. He smelled of meat and heavy cologne. He wore a black cord that emphasized the thickness of his neck. I touched his gun holster.

“No. That’s dangerous,” he said.

I held on tighter.

“Uh, uh,” he said. “No.”

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I let go. I glanced at his belt buckle. Square with a silver sheen, it was like a miniature shield. “Where did you get this?” I held it on the tips of my fingers.

“My uniform,” he said, looking down at where my hand was and then at me. I looked up from the buckle and into his eyes.

“Juancho, you roller-skate some more,” Malen said.

James Cagney came nearly every day. My father left for work each morning at eight. My mother had no fixed schedule, yet James Cagney would knock at our gate fifteen minutes after she would leave for someplace, no matter the time of day. Some days my mother had no plans for an outing and so James Cagney never came. Whether Malen saw James Cagney or not, she was always humming a tune.

One afternoon I was alone in the back terrace, at the lunch table looking through cut out magazine pictures of “Charlie’s Angels,” which I collected in a Hallmark stationery box. The only sound was the snip snip of the gardener’s scissors while he pruned the hedges that lined the garden wall. It was a distant sound, almost an echo, for how far and small the gardener was across the sprawling green stretch of grass. All I saw of him was his straw hat, which he hid beneath to block away the sun. The ceiling fan above me chugged lazily to shoo away the flies. My glass of calamansi juice was sweating with dew. And then Malen’s humming from the kitchen at the end of the terrace drifted to where I was. Her voice was full and calming. She was humming a tune I had never heard before and which I have never heard since. It was a kind of lullaby that for a fleeting moment froze the hot garden into an image from a dream. I didn’t know I was hearing Malen. I didn’t even know she could carry a tune. For the first time I thought of how Malen spoke. She had a wispy voice, one I had never heard her raise. I had never seen her in any outburst of emotion. She was neither happy nor sad. She was just there, a maid who silently dusted the furniture and served us our meals.

Malen came out of the kitchen with a tray of bread pudding. She laid the tray on the table and picked up a photograph of the Angels. Their hair flipped back and hands clasped together in prayer, they were modeling daywear: blonde Jill in a tennis outfit; Sabrina in a secretarial skirt and blouse; Kelly, my favorite Angel, in a bikini. Kelly’s hair was nearly as black as mine and I could see a little bit of her tan on me.

“Who do you like?” I asked.

Malen shrugged her shoulders.

“Choose one.”

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She gazed at the picture a few seconds more then pointed at Sabrina. Of the Angels, Sabrina was the least dolled up. She had a bob and her skirt covered her knees.

“You want to look like her?”

“Why?” Malen said. “I’m not American.”

“I mean thin like that.”

She shrugged her shoulders.

“They’re all so pretty,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, though without much concern.

“Ape Woman,” I said, helping myself to the bread pudding.

Normally Malen would have pursed her lips to my taunt, but this time she grinned. She went through my cut out pictures of the Bionic Man and Woman, Hardy Boys Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson, and more Charlie’s Angels. The gardener was watering the plants now, spraying the leaves of trees taller than the house. Malen hummed her song.

“James Cagney — he’s American,” I said. “Tell me, how did he get his name?”

“His mommy was American,” Malen said. She seemed to look into herself rather than at my Hallmark box of pictures. Her eyes were foggy, not tearful but layered with emotions I was just beginning to understand. “He was named after her daddy. Her daddy’s name was James Cagney. Good name for him. Macho. Strong.” Malen flexed her forearms. “What you think? He’s macho, huh. Handsome.”

I flexed my own forearms, but it stayed small. I tucked in my stomach, but still it bulged over my belt loop. I didn’t want my bread pudding anymore. “Yes,” I said with Malen’s tone of indifference. That’s when the idea for a new name came to me. I didn’t even think long about it. One blink and it spelled itself out before me: Wittgenstein Walcher H. Rockefeller van Stausen Smith (sometimes Smyth) VIII. I don’t know where Wittgenstein came from. Walcher I derived from Walton, as in “The Walton Family,” and H from Henry VIII, the king I was fascinated with by virtue of his having ordered the beheading of two of his six wives. Rockefeller was the most famous American name I knew, Smith the most American, and van Stausen rhymed with Beerhausen, a brand of beer so heavily promoted in the Philippines as Germany’s No. 1 drink when in reality it existed nowhere else in the world but in the Philippines. “How nice to have a nice name,” I said.

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“Juancho Chu,” said Malen.

“Ape Woman, be quiet.”

“What’s wrong with that? That’s your name.”

I pushed the tray of pudding away. “I don’t like this.”

“But this is your favorite,” Malen said.

“Next time I’ll have… I’ll have spinach.”

“Spinach?” She laughed. “What’s happening to you?”

From that day on I stopped drinking soft drinks, forbade my aunt and uncle in San Francisco to mail me packages of Hershey’s Kisses and Nestle’s Crunch, and left the dining table hungry. I was nauseous and weak half of my waking hours, yet never too weak for a set of toe touches and jumping jacks. Nor for another round of masturbation. Since fat is white, I reasoned that whatever it was my penis was ejaculating must be fat, and so I believed that the more I went at it, the thinner I’d be. There I lay on my bathroom floor, morning, noon, and night, rubbing the fuzzy toilet seat cover in between my legs. Those Popeye arms, those Captain America thighs, the life that lay hidden beneath that gleaming belt buckle — me, too, someday.

“He’s losing weight,” James Cagney said to Malen toward the end of summer.

Hardly any light was in the sky — everything was gray — and yet how blinding James Cagney was with his wavy hair and his eyes that ran the length of my body. His security hat was on the handle of his motorcycle. Malen was standing in between his legs. She rested one hand on his thigh as he sat on his motorcycle, while with her other hand she brushed his brown hair back. None of the neighborhood watchmen had hair as light as his. Neither did any other civil servant throughout Manila. Under the sun, James Cagney never got dark. On a cloudy day he brought a breath of cool wind to a humid drizzle. James Cagney could have passed as one of the foreign residents of the neighborhood.

“I don’t know what he’s doing to himself,” said Malen.

I leaned against the tree that they always rendezvoused beneath and tightened the waist of my shorts. I had lost ten pounds.

“You might disappear,” James Cagney said to me.

I twirled a finger in my hair to form a wave like his. “I’m growing taller,” I said. “I’m going to get the kind of shoes you have.” He wore these black elevator boots.

“Not yet,” he said. “When you’re big already.”

James Cagney took Malen’s hand. Malen looked at me from the corner of her eye. He whispered in Tagalog, “Never mind. He doesn’t say anything, does he?” She said no. And they went on whispering. Mostly they stayed frozen in their position, gazing at and holding each other.

“It might rain,” I said.

They didn’t say a word.

“The sun might come out,” I said.

Still, no word.

“Mommy’s car’s coming.”

Malen jumped back from leaning on James Cagney’s lap. A car passed by, but it wasn’t my mother’s.

“Juancho, you go inside,” Malen said.

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“I don’t want,” I said. That wasn’t what James Cagney wanted either, I didn’t think. But then he didn’t contest her. He didn’t even seem to hear her. He simply kept his eyes on her, as if with one blink he would lose sight of her once and for all.

“Bye.” I waved a hand up to James Cagney’s face.

He gave me a quick, impersonal, good riddance nod.

From the den window, I watched the two lose themselves in a private world of hand clasps and soft strokes. As large as Malen was, she was suddenly demure in the worshipful way she looked into his eyes, in the bow of her head. Her head was so low that her chin pressed against her chest.

Once classes started in August, I no longer saw James Cagney in the afternoons, but I continued with my diet. In a course of two months I lost a total of thirty pounds. I knew Malen and James Cagney continued their afternoon trysts because she would always be humming, not loudly but softly, softly as one thoughtlessly hums a tune while adrift on a wave of some beautiful memory.

“Why don’t you shut up,” I said one day when I was losing my head over some math problems. Malen was serving me my afternoon meal. We were in the back terrace and again the gardener was creating his own music of snipping weeds and watering trees. All of a sudden Malen was quiet. The expression on her face didn’t change. She still looked happy; she had this smug smile that said nothing in life could go wrong. I pushed the tray of food away from me. “I don’t want this salad shit.”

“But every afternoon you eat this. You said you like vegetables only.”

“It taste like dog caca.”

Finally the corners of Malen’s lips and big eyes dropped into a sad face. “Why talk like that?”

“Because you’re ugly.”

She didn’t say anything. She just kept looking at me with that sadness.

“James Cagney doesn’t really like you. You’re too ugly. He only sees you because we pay you good money.”

Malen quietly picked up the tray and headed back to the kitchen behind us.

I threw my math book at the heels of her feet. “Ugly,” I said. “Oomph! Oomph! Monkey face. Monkey face.”

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She placed the tray back on the table, picked the book up from the floor, and placed it in front of me, opened to the page that I was working on. Then she returned to the kitchen, tray in hand.

I threw the book at the kitchen door then ran to my bathroom. I lay on the floor, rubbing the fuzzy seat cover in between my legs. James Cagney was stroking my hair, smiling into my eyes, touching my lips. Or was it really me with him? My hair is lead black. My eyes are the black-brown of a castana nut. Whoever it was that I imagined as myself was as fair skinned as James Cagney, as brawny and as cool. We were surrounded by darkness, no sun, no blazing sky. Yet how hot it was. I’m from a country where under the March sun sweat drips down your forehead as mercilessly as wax down a candle, lizards squiggle across hot white walls, and papayas grow the length of a dish tray. Cold is the hum of an air-conditioner to lull you to sleep, your lips around a tangerine-flavored icicle stick in mid-afternoon. It is the snow-capped dreamscapes you’ve only seen in American Christmas specials on TV. It is dry ice in your kitchen sink creating mist under running water.

That night James Cagney made his midnight trip to our house. I knew that he came nearly every midnight because some weeks before, the creaking of the back gate woke me. Only this night, the night for which my father would commend James Cagney for being a dutiful watchman, would be his last.

“He was here to see Malen,” I told my parents the morning after over breakfast. “They’re having an affair.”

“Eh,” said my mother. She forbade liaisons between the domestic helpers and outsiders. An outsider could break into our home and steal or kill. “Malen’s an old maid. Look at her. She doesn’t do things… like that.”

The whole family would find out the truth that Monday. James Cagney’s wife came banging on our gate. A girlishly thin woman, she screamed with a sparrow dull cry for Malen to come out just as I was boarding our car for school. In a huff, Malen rushed out of the garage and down the driveway, barefoot. Her feet against the ground made hard slapping sounds. The two were yelling all sorts of stuff, but the only words I could get were from James Cagney’s wife: “You’re the one? You’re so ugly. Ugly and fat.” Malen’s fluff of curly hair stood on their ends. In the five years she had been with the family, never had I seen her so angry. Not even with my own taunts of Ape Woman did her lips quiver so and her chest heave. Malen seemed to grow in size the way cartoon depictions of children growing into adults do. She dragged James Cagney’s wife onto the driveway and pulled at her bun. “Ugly,” James Cagney’s wife kept screaming, throwing punches into the air in an attempt to loosen from Malen’s grip.

I didn’t budge from my seat on the car trunk. I tucked in my stomach. I wasn’t fat. No, I wasn’t. Not anymore. I was thin and on my way to becoming James Cagney Alejandro handsome.

Our driver hurried to the scene. He pulled at the wife’s hair so that he and Malen were caught in a tug of war, only he was as tiny and weak as the wife was. Soon the whole housekeeping staff, my parents, two older sisters and older brother surrounded the three. “Enough,” my father calmly said. His neck was stiff and his upper lip twitched furiously. Though not as husky as Malen, he stood at equal height with all 5′10″ of her. He looked into her eyes, his own eyes large and commanding. Suddenly, she shrank in stature. She was no longer a part of the staff.

I never said good-bye to Malen. I never saw her again after that. By the time I had come home from school that day, she was gone. A year later I heard from one of the other maids that Malen was back in the province, taking care of her ailing mother. What province she called home, I didn’t know. If she was married, I didn’t ask. James Cagney continued on as the neighborhood watchman, saluting cars that entered and exited the neighborhood gate. Whenever my car would pass, he’d salute at me with a faint smile of recognition. And then one day he was gone, too.

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She, the Perfect Stranger (An Excerpt from “Love Carousel”)

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What was she trying to prove?

That was what Nigel would ask if he found out. But he wouldn’t find out. Megan wouldn’t tell him because he had no reason to know. She might have felt differently a month ago, a week ago even, felt differently before she had gotten her own place. She didn’t yet entirely understand why the grocer boy Todd’s flirtation had propelled her to find a home for herself. If she had not met Todd, she might now have been sharing the same bed with Nigel. Being with Nigel would have been the logical move to make while she was with her parents. And then Todd had given Megan his number, Todd whose eyes and smile she kept on envisioning. They would surface in her mind without any provocation, often at night, in bed, while she lay in the dark alone, daring her to break lose, to take a risk, to act as she pleased and not as anybody else expected her to. She would think of the clandestine fashion in which he had provided his phone number. She would think of Nigel and she would think damn him should he ever tell her his heart broke because she had been unfaithful. And as the late night hours would slip into early dawn, Megan would feel her desire to call Todd build from an urge to a longing and ultimately to a need.

Yet she still couldn’t bring herself to call him. Whenever Megan proceeded to press his number on her cell phone, she would stall on the third or fourth digit. What could she say after hello? How could she navigate the conversation without the ability to gauge his reaction through his facial expressions, his physical nuances?

She had to see him.

The grocery was nearly closing when Megan walked in. It was a Saturday night. Young women in short dresses and clean shaven men wearing button-down shirts tucked out chatted in front of a bar a couple of blocks away. Megan wondered at how Todd could sever himself from the fun in his midst. He ought to be enjoying his last summer before undertaking the burdening responsibility of a chemist.

Some people who appeared to be headed to the bar were in line at the register. As scantily clad as the women were, Todd was oblivious to them, ringing up their gums and cigarettes without providing anything more than a perfunctory good evening nod in response to their coquettish grins. The counter seemed to work as a cordon that sealed him off from social interaction. This pleased Megan. She might be the only woman in the city whom Todd had honored with his phone number.

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Todd didn’t notice Megan when she entered, didn’t notice her as she fell in line. Five people were before her, then four and then three. He looked up from the cash register, saw her and smiled. He gave her a big smile, the kind of smile one had when overjoyed that a person one longed to see had arrived. Megan knew that smile. She had seen it on Nigel on prom night and on the afternoon in the backseat of her father’s Cadillac. She saw it on Dylan. Dylan always had that smile.

Todd’s eyes were lighter this evening. While on their first meeting they were a deep earth brown, tonight there was a milky faintness to them. They were alone in the grocery now, she and he.

“Thank you for your number,” said Megan. What else could she have said?

“You’re welcome.”

“This doesn’t always happen, a phone number on a grocery receipt. In fact, it’s never happened.”

“Me, too.” Todd sounded shy compared to the first time they spoke, embarrassed. “It’s not always I give out my phone number on a grocery receipt. Actually, I never have.”

“Why didn’t you ask for my number or give me yours upfront?”

“I didn’t want to be too… too forward. So I ended up being cheesy.”

“No, not cheesy. Surprising.”

“It’s nice of you to come. It’s nice you’re here.”

“I’ve never responded to a guy this way before,” Megan said. “Let’s start off by introducing ourselves properly. I’m Megan.” She offered her hand.

“I’m Todd.”

Todd had large hands, impressive hands. They had calluses, probably from lifting weights. Even so, his palm was soft and he seemed to be holding Megan’s hand rather than shaking it.

“You should be out at the bars enjoying your weekend like everyone else,” Megan said. She was about to add: “like everyone else your age.”

“You should be, too.”

“I’ve already been through that. It was never my scene.”

“Mine neither.” Todd stepped out from behind the counter. “I have one last thing to do. Please stay. You’re welcome to.”

He shut the door, flipped the open sign to closed. Then he returned to the cash register to count the earnings for the day.

Megan asked, “You trust me with this part of your business?”

“Do I have any reason not to?”

“Since you trust me, then I trust you.”

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While Megan flipped through a magazine, Todd brought the money to a safe in an office located at the back of the store. From there, he asked her common conversational questions: where she lived, what work she did. He was wearing a lumberjack coat when he came out and he walked with a rugged stride down the aisle, slightly bow-legged in the way athletes were.

Megan placed the magazine back on the rack. As she looked up from the rack to face him, he was standing beside her.

“Do you have any plans for the rest of the evening?” he asked.

“If I did, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.

They looked at each other for a moment more, but there was nothing else to say and so he kissed her. He kissed her and she didn’t hold back.

She thought of her parents. They were a mere two blocks away. Megan had not dropped by their apartment to greet them. She had no intention of doing so. Her mother had been upset that Megan insisted on living apart from them, had said Megan didn’t care for them. Her father had defended Megan, stating that it was right she be on her own. Regardless, Megan would never be too far away. She was there this instant, thinking of them, yet allowing herself to live free of their or of anybody else’s opinion. Daughter, wife, mistress – whatever it was people identified her as, she didn’t belong to anybody.

So who was Megan tonight? As far as Todd was concerned, a stranger. He may know her first name, in what part of the city she lived, where she worked, but not her last name, neither her phone number nor her age. The only thing of herself Megan would allow Todd to take possession of was her beauty, for that was all she desired – to be nothing more than something beautiful to a man who struck her equally as such.

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Todd occupied a studio a few floors above. It was typical of a young man’s abode: magazines were scattered on the floor; crumbs dirtied the kitchen counter; a closet door was haphazardly left open. But atypical of a young man’s possessions, a Smithsonian was mixed in with fitness journals, and poetry tomes on Whitman, Cummings and Bishop were stacked on a desk along with chemistry books. A quilt covered the bed. The pattern of cows grazing on the grass beneath a smiling crescent moon made Megan acutely conscious of the disparity between her and Todd’s ages. Really, Todd was just a boy. Was it his undergraduate studies he had just completed or graduate school? By the looks of him, he was perhaps no older than 24. Megan had never thought of herself as an older woman, yet there she was. There she was and how confident this boy was in his seduction of her. He was stroking the nape of her neck, fondling her hair, tenderly pressing his lips against hers. Nothing was rushed about him. How was it he knew exactly what a woman needed?

“Of all the women who walk into the grocery, why me?” Megan asked.

“Something about you,” Todd said.

“My ineptitude with stain removers?”

“Somewhat. Nobody asks me for assistance. Nobody. And you seem like you need someone to talk to, to be with. You have a softness that makes a man want to reach out to you.”

Was loneliness so palpable? In Todd’s touch and in his kisses Megan sensed something in his life was missing, too. No pictures hung on the refrigerator door, not even a postcard. The walls were bare. Moving boxes that had yet to be assembled lay beside a scruffy sofa.

Light shone in from underneath the front door, through the curtains, from the desk lamp on which Todd had draped a piece of cloth. Megan wanted light. She always liked to see the person whom she was making love to and she liked to be seen in return. Sex to her was the most honest of unions, more honest than courtship or marriage. No lies. No facades. No secrets. It was two people drawn together to fill an emptiness that both shared. She stood back so that she could take in the sight of Todd. He undressed slowly. He enjoyed being watched, Megan could tell. He reached out to her and gently he ran his hand down the length of her naked torso, around her breasts. He seemed to be astounded by the evenness of her color as much as she was by the starkness of his tan line.

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“There isn’t a blemish on you,” he said. “You’re one tone all over, like a baby.”

“You, you’re so sun soaked.”

“I was a lifeguard in my previous life.”

“Have you ever saved anyone from drowning?”

“A couple of times. A little boy and a middle-aged woman.”

They lay on his bed, on the quilt with its little boy design, sinking into a pool of midnight blue and cream stars, of M’s and O’s trailing out of the heads of cows. The sheets smelled of Ivory Snow, while Todd smelled of spice and day work.

“Beautiful,” Todd whispered. “Beautiful.” He sounded as though he were experiencing beauty for the first time.

“When do you start your new job?” asked Megan. What she really wanted to know was when he was leaving.

“Less than a month.”

“Half of your place is already empty. The boxes.”

“I’ve always lived like this, ever since I left home. When I was in school, it made no sense to unpack since I’d be moving to another dorm the following year.”

“Your parents must be surprised at the vagabond their son has become.”

“My parents were killed in a plane crash when I was a kid.”

“Oh… I’m sorry.”

“No need to be,” Todd whispered, so close to her face. “I never knew them. I was very, very young. My uncle and aunt raised me.”

“Maybe your next stop will be home to you for a while, a long while.”

“Maybe.”

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A draft entered through a crack to the window above the bed. It cooled Megan like soft breath blown on her body. Todd’s hand on her belly was warm. His perspiration on her cheeks was as freshening as morning dew. He nestled his head on her chest and shut his eyes. In repose like that, Todd appeared small and delicate. Megan ran her fingers through his hair and it felt as though she were stroking the silken mane of a young animal. She and Todd were strangers to each other, and yet not quite, not anymore. In the little bit she knew about him, he seemed to have bared all of himself. And for the brief moment that their lives intersected, she had plenty of him to carry with her for a lifetime.

“You’re an unusual woman,” Todd said.

“How so?”

“I never thought there could be such a thing as perfect. I was wrong. I’ll always remember this night as perfect, you as perfect.”

“That’s because you don’t know me,” Megan said.

“To Sir, with Love”: A Voice Worthy of the World

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While earning my MFA at Cornell University, I was granted a lectureship with which I taught the personal essay and creative writing to undergraduates. I was nervous about the post. I had no experience. That I looked younger than my 30 years was an added challenge. Most of us are familiar with the staidness of a university setting. A classroom is set up as such that tables connect to form a square the near size of the room; it’s as cold as an interrogation chamber.

For my first teaching gig, I sat quietly in the twelve o’clock spot as empty chairs around me filled. Students with friends engaged in conversation, while those who kept to themselves eyed the threshold, waiting for the instructor to walk in. The most I got from everyone was a fleeting glance. Nobody conveyed a sign of recognition that I was the man whose thoughts on sentence structure and paragraph coherency could render fun the task of articulating oneself on paper. That was how young I looked. When I shut the door and greeted all a good morning, the boys and girls before me shifted eyes at each other. Every semester for three years produced the same initial reaction.

The first thing I always told my students was that I was primarily a monitor, a figure present to keep discussion flowing. The most valuable opinions would come from them, I stressed, and this helped to thaw the ice. What ultimately got them engaged were the in-class writing exercises. “Don’t think of this as work,” I advised. “Think of this as e-mails to a friend or a journal entry.” In one exercise students exchanged a photograph with the person seated beside them, and from the photograph now in their own hands, they developed a story. In another they provided five random words, which they then used to pen a paragraph or a poem. My favorite exercise was their speculations as to where they would be at the age of 30. This proved to be an illuminating study on gender roles. The girls prioritized family. The boys prioritized career. The girls were neutral as to the sex of their first child. The boys favored a son with whom to play ball. And they all envisioned themselves with graying hair and arthritis.

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One common element inherent among my students that eluded all forms of division, be they gender conditioned or otherwise, was a sense of purpose. This was especially apparent with the freshmen. Whether or not they knew what they would declare as a major two years down the road, they each had a goal – to do their darned best. The upperclassmen were different. Having gone through the rigmarole of exams and fulfilling credits, they were eager to graduate so that they could venture onward as adults cocksure in their future success. The incoming students, on the other hand, were in the transitional phase. For many, Cornell was their first experience to live away from home. They had earned their acceptance, and as obligated as they were to their parents for the opportunity, they were more intent on a tomorrow in which, through sweat and diligence, they could stake their claim on the world. These kids were hopeful rather than brash. In their ambition, I was more than a writing instructor. I was a friend.

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If there is a type of teacher that I hold as the ideal, he would be Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) in the film, “To Sir, with Love” (1967). Although Thackeray understands the function of textbooks to education, he is also conscious that their formality and inundation of facts can pander. Thus, for him, conversation is key to stimulating the young mind. “We are going to talk about various things,” he says. A student asks about what. His answer: “About life, survival, love, death, sex, marriage, rebellion. Anything you want.” To show that he isn’t a bag of hot air, Thackeray relates hardships he withstood during his own youth. He was a dishwasher, a cook at a hamburger joint, and a janitor. He spoke a patois unique to the working class of British Guyana. He was the antithesis of the gentleman who stands tall before them, posh in dress, demeanor, and elocution. “If you’re prepared to work hard, you can do almost anything,” Thackeray explains of his transformation. “You can even change your speech if you want to.”

My own students responded to accounts of trials I myself survived. How they listened with dropped jaw and unblinking eyes to my confession that acceptance to a writing program was not easy. Admittance came on the third try. Year one, all ten schools I applied to rejected me. Year two, I cut my selection down to eight, and again I was refused. Year three, my father gave me an ultimatum: to do something with my pipe dream of being an author or to get a real job. I upped my pool back to ten schools. Nine turned me down, while Cornell’s offer came over the fax one afternoon that I happened to be checking my landline voicemail, followed by a phone call from the deliverer. “Are you coming or aren’t you?” he urged. “Give me a couple of days to think about it,” I said in an attempt to impress him that other programs had accorded me entrance.

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I once told a friend that I wish I were a literary wunderkind, that brilliance flowed from me with a single click of a keyboard and that success were instantaneous. “You’d more gain people’s respect if you struggled,” he said. He is right. These were words I shared in every class. Writing a novel isn’t easy. Getting an A isn’t easy. Triumph is not a given. We achieve it by proving our worth, and this includes forging forward despite multiple letdowns, for only in failure and rebuff is our passion strengthened. Rather than buckling, we must use them as fuel for our ambition. Now who exactly are we in the grand scheme of the universe to be of interest to anybody? “You all have something important to say,” I would remind my students. “Allow yourself the courage of emotional vulnerability. The more honest you are with your emotions – be they sadness or happiness or heartache or love – the more engrossed the reader. Nobody is here to judge you.”

Indeed, we all go through a shared set of emotions, but what make us unique are our own experiences in relation to them. A common error when writing is that we have played these experiences so often in our memories that we take it for granted the reader would be engaging in them for the first time. Slow down. Relay what you see, what you hear, what you smell and taste. Divulge conversations. Lure the reader into the world that exists in your head in order to propagate empathy. No matter who we are, our individual stories deserve to be heard, each one a link to the chain of human evolution.

One Roof, One Sky (An Excerpt from “Maria Celeste”)

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“Would you ever have guessed she’d be such a prized jewel?” the Mama-san asked Guido. “People keep coming. We may have to get a bigger place” – if not more dancers. Zennie, Brioness, Jezm, and Katinka weren’t enough to accommodate the influx of patrons. Two girls danced on stage, while the other two moved from one table to another. If a dancer left with someone, then Chona had to take her place.

However, it wasn’t just men who sought a female’s momentary companionship that Cherry lured. Celeste’s singing reached out to Ermita’s denizens. A trio of male hairdressers in floral-printed blouses shared a table close to the stage with the grocer who had sold Jezm her tissue paper. Bouncers to neighboring bars took their breaks here. The collar to their Polo-branded tees raised, they clinked bottles with the construction workers and janitors and bus drivers. Women at an open market that sold rattan baskets and utensils carved in narra wood that tourists loved, women who were mothers and wives, liked to refresh themselves with soft drinks at Cherry, eat roasted peanuts and chicharon that curled up like worms.

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Before long, Cherry was packed. Whatever her audience said on the streets about the Philippines either on the brink of a new era or on the verge of disaster by virtue of a housewife with presidential aspirations didn’t matter. So long as Celeste took to the stage, they were all one people, people of her lot, people who could very well have been Calinteños.

Such days were plenty, though they seemed to Celeste as one. The sun would flood into the open door, bounce off the wall-length mirror. The bar top and the ceiling beams and the ashtrays would glow. By the kitchen threshold opposite the entrance, an orchid was suspended in a tubular vase of paper thin glass. The orchid was an addition to Cherry that the Mama-san purchased with the money Celeste was bringing in. In the dim corner, its petals shone, wispy as the tail of a ghost.

Even on cloudy days, Celeste perceived brightness. On the stage, she could will Cherry to appear however she wanted and, with her music, claim the place as her own. She learned everyone’s name. She regarded her audience as sharing the same home as she, not under one roof but under one sky. Ermita was where loops of jeepney antennas and hearts painted on buses whizzed around them amid screeches and honks and cusses. Trash barrels and hubcaps shapeless as kneaded dough littered pavements. A movie billboard depicted Nora Aunor, Dolph Lundgren, and Eddie Murphy with lopsided noses and fleshy fingers painted in pinkish swirls.

Whenever Celeste opened her window in the morning, she thought of that billboard. It was not in her view… a graying white building with metal braces reinforcing one corner stood across from her… yet she saw the billboard as clearly as she did the new day. Ate Guy’s cheeks were more rouged than in life. The sun at high noon spilled atop the billboard, melted on Ate Guy’s forehead. But the eyes were unmistakably hers – penetrating and sorrowful. The billboard stood at an intersection that led Roxas Boulevard into Ermita. “Welcome to my world,” Ate Guy seemed to tell the incoming traffic, and in this world was Maria Celeste Solinas.

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Of all the people who came to call themselves Celeste’s “fans,” whose faces gleamed with sunlight and anticipation as Celeste took to the stage, one person touched Celeste the most. She was a flower girl whom Celeste guessed to be thirteen years old, in a lime dress that was too big. The skirt flared out like a lampshade. Sooty as her face and legs were, the dress endowed the girl with a freshness reminiscent to Celeste of mountain dew and rain-sprinkled leaves. The flowers, they were sampaguitas. Their white petals dotted a string necklace as beads to a rosary. They emanated a scent so potently sweet that it cut through the smell of sweat and musky cologne, fried fish and exhaust fumes.

The girl moved without a sound from table to table, raising a sampaguita necklace for purchase. She endeavored to look at each person in the eyes. Nobody returned her look.

Only Celeste met the girl’s eyes, when the girl was standing alone by the dangling orchid, a necklace raised towards her. Celeste knew those eyes. She saw Nora Aunor in the flower girl. And she saw herself. There the girl stood, transfixed. She seemed to have forgotten that she had walked into Cherry to sell sampaguitas. Could it be that she was looking up to Celeste the way Celeste looked up to Ate Guy?

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Faith can part oceans, hold a star, kiss the moon. Faith can melt cold hearts, heal wounds, bridge distance. Have faith in me ‘cuz I have faith in you. Far as I may be, my faith will be your strength as your faith is mine. Far as I may be.

Just like that, the girl was gone.

Celeste searched for the girl on the streets for days after. “Where are you from?” she wanted to ask. “Where are you going? What do you want?” With the neon lights off, Ermita was just another dusty district. Then again, not quite. Rent girls stood in doorways with their buttocks protruding from their shorts. Japanese and Australian and American men paraded the pavements, hand in hand with Filipinas. Some showed their appreciation of the Philippines by wearing short-sleeved barong tagalogs. Papa Solinas used to have a couple of those, a white one and a light blue one. He wore them on Sundays to mass. Celeste liked to run her fingers on the columnar embroidery from the shoulders to the hem. She wondered if she could do such needlework. No doubt the tourists got their barongs at an air-conditioned store, at a price Celeste would never bother with. Tesoro’s, maybe. Nobody made a barong tagalog look so good as her father had, though.

Foreigners decked in Filipino handicraft and who flaunted a Filipino girl, they were everywhere in Ermita, day and night. A lime dress on a thirteen-year-old girl should stand out, but no. Celeste discovered in her search how plentiful flower girls were, as well as newspaper boys and sweepstake ticket sellers and vendors hawking out of push carts salted preserved prunes and ice cream and nibble-on watermelon seeds. She also learned that the ebb and flow of laboring humanity came from all regions across the nation. They migrated to Manila in pursuit of economic advantages. By choice or by circumstance, they established their abode in Ermita. Some would stay. Some would journey onward. No matter their fate, they would find their way to Cherry. Celeste overheard folks urge one another to hear this new singer, a former maid from Forbes Park. They were saying that her voice was lovely, that her songs bespoke their feelings, their story.

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As Celeste looked at her audience, a quiet descended as she took center stage. She was achieving what she had expected – unity, admiration, beauty – and something more, something she had not counted on. She had seen it in the flower girl’s eyes. She detected flashes of it in the Mama-san’s eyes, in the eyes of Guido and even of Brioness, of everyone. This spell she cast on people, there was a name for it.

This was power.

Paris Love (An Excerpt from “My Wonder Years in Hollywood”)

We met at the Hotel Nikko gym, where Tristan Ledan worked as a weight training instructor. With his head shaved and a dimpled smile, he had a baby face on a pugilist’s body. Tristan’s uniform was a collared red tee shirt that marked him like a flame. I could see him from the corner of my eyes no matter where he was – at the window, in front of a white wall, reflected in a mirror. Against the view of the Eiffel Tower, amid the black and white nautilus machines, Tristan was a blot of red that seemed to appear from nowhere. He would be absent upon my arrival. Then in an instant, he’d be there. Since he was genial to everybody, I never gave his smiles a second thought.

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Things changed the second semester. I was doing bench presses in front a mirrored wall, while he was beside me, guiding a man through push-ups. What a sight the two of them made. Tristan, in a squat position, flaunted muscular thighs bursting through his jogging pants. His client was heavy set and breathing weightily as perspiration dripped from his hair. Through the mirror, I was admiring the client his diligence. So languorous was Tristan in counting the push-ups that his client’s fatigue didn’t seem to faze him. “DixOnzeDouze…” – Tristan sounded as though he was singing a lullaby. Yet the client would not stop until he was told to stop. Even when his arms were about to buckle, even when his back was giving way, the client wanted more – more push-ups, more treadmill, more of anything that Tristan would instruct of him. When I had arrived half an hour earlier, the two were already in the midst of heir session, and it didn’t seem to be ending soon. I understood the man’s zeal. He had quite an image to emulate in Tristan.

I sat on the bench press, transfixed. In my mind I was cheering the client on. He was emanating so much energy that he fogged the mirror. Now he was clapping his hands in between each push-up. I couldn’t even do that. My reflection in the mirror gave evidence that I had come a long way since high school, since my arrival in Paris seven months earlier even. My acne had cleared, and though it left its trace, I was only glad that the pock marks were not of the moon crater variety. (Richard Burton had blemished skin and look at who he got to marry twice.)

Still, I had just turned 21. The me I was meant to be was a work in progress far from complete. I figured that if this man whose stomach bounced on the floor with each push-up could strive for perfection, then so could I. I had heard Tom Cruise isn’t tall, that he is my 5’7”, yet how tall and marvelous he looked in “Top Gun.” I may never look like Tom Cruise nor may I be as buffed as Tristan, but I decided right then that I could at least work with what I have as much as this man beside me was working his darned hardest.

All these good thoughts of a future me must have washed my face aglow because at that instant, in the mirror, Tristan darted his eyes at me and he smiled.

Après,” he mouthed.       

Huh? Afterwards? I pointed a finger at my chest and I mouthed, “Moi?

Tristan nodded.

I shrugged my shoulders. “Pourquoi?”

Tristan smiled roguishly.

I wanted answers: What time was après? Should I dare believe this to be a come on? Was this really happening?

Instead, I moved away from Tristan in order to avoid appearing eager. I dilly dallied with this dumbbell and that Nautilus machine. On a mat, I considered trying the hand clapping push-ups, then decided against it lest I prove myself a klutz. My concentration shot, I could hardly work out. Tristan’s session with his client could not end soon enough. I kept glancing at Tristan in the mirror, from the side of my eyes, across the weight room. He’d respond with a quick look and a nod. No doubt about it, the guy was flirting.

The client’s stepping into the locker room indicated that après had arrived. I followed him to get my things. Tristan went to the front desk across from the locker room, where he stepped into an employee room behind. He didn’t make eye contact with me, so I worried that he might have lost interest, until a few minutes later I saw him outside by the elevator, gym bag slung over his shoulder, downing protein juice and waiting.

Since I didn’t want to make the same mistake with Tristan that I had with Rick, I assessed the signs: for the whole of my first semester, Tristan had said nothing more to me than “bon jour,” “comment ca va?” and “a tout a l’heure”; I had responded with the likewise salutations of good morning and see you later as well as a “bien, merci” to his question regarding my well-being; he had smiled at me from time to time and I had smiled back; we were polite. Did he really mouth “afterwards” to me oh so seductively in French just a moment earlier? What was I getting myself into? And yet, Tristan was standing in front of me, an arm’s length away. He wasn’t smiling. He was grinning. Then he blinked… coyly. If this turned out to be another misreading on my part, then so be it. No pain, no gain.

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Tristan asked me something. I gave him a blank look. Even after half a year in France, my French was iffy.

Parles lentement, s’il vous plais.” I told him to speak slowly, please.

Meanwhile, the French that incessantly played in my head as a broken record was the line from that silly disco song, “Lady Marmalade” – “Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir” – if only because the line is downright awkward. Vous is a formal term for the second person, used on an individual of age or rank or on a stranger. Of course, Tristan was a stranger, but we were going to have sex. (I hoped). Addressing him by vous would have been equivalent to calling him Mr. President. What exactly do the French say when they want to fuck?

Nous pouvons aller chez moi,” Tristan said. “Ehh… my place.”

“Yes,” I said. “I mean oui.”

That was all it took. After fumbling over French and English and umms and ahhs, all a man had to do was to invite the person over to his place. This wasn’t as blatant and gauche as “would you… sir, Mr. President… like to go to bed with me tonight?” but it expressed everything. Tristan and I had nothing more to say to each other.

The metro ride to Tristan’s place was a series of smiles peppered with questions of “quoi?” and “what?” over a comment on the gym, my schooling, and weekend activities. We were seated on a double passenger chair. Amid people who milled around us at each stop and the rolling of the wheels on the tracks, I wanted to ask why me. I wasn’t muscular. I wasn’t flirtatious. I had given no sign of interest nor of availability. Then again, why ruin an impulsive moment with self-analysis?

Tristan placed an arm around my shoulders, brought me closer to him. His down jacket was soft. His touch was hot. I traced a pink mark on the left side of his neck.

Marque de naissance,” he said.

I showed him my own birth mark. It was on the left side of my neck, too.

Nous sommes jumeaux.

I didn’t understand him, but I said oui. That was all everything we were doing from this point on required of me anyway – a yes.

Trees against a blue sky and glass towers juxtaposed with Victorian buildings passed in the window beside Tristan like shifting stage sets. Then we were underground again. As the metro stopped, Tristan said, “Nous sommes ici… Here, the two of us.”

The building Tristan lived in was a block away from the metro. It was one of those old Parisian dwellings with a cage elevator and a winding stair well, water stains on white walls and a frayed carpet. His studio was a mini-museum that displayed prints of Chagall and Van Gogh alongside Robert Doisneau and Brassai photographs. 1950s street shots of Parisian lovers locked in a kiss, the Arch of Triumph, and the Seine River mystic with street lights sparkling through mist sent me in a time warp. Reality blended with the dream of a starry night rendered in turbulent brush strokes and of amorphous figures of bulls and horses and people floating in space brilliantly colored. Tristan wasn’t just a beautiful looking man. He had a beautiful eye.

How exactly does he see me? “Tu est…” I simulated painterly brush strokes with my hands.

Peintre? Non.”      

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So what did he do if he wasn’t a painter? Photo books of male physiques, tabloid magazines, and a pair of Sylvia Plath books filled a set of standing shelves. Beside that, Charlie Brown and Linus piggy banks decorated his desk on which lay an open journal. Frenetic penmanship left no space on the page. Elongated letters slanted right as though Tristan had been chasing after his thoughts, hurrying to record them before they vanished.

J’ecris,” Tristan said.

T’ecris quoi?

Rather than answering, Tristan kissed me. Or maybe the kiss was his answer. Maybe love and sex were what Tristan wrote about.

I closed my eyes. Suddenly, I forgot everything in the studio I had seen and everything I had been thinking. Tristan’s tongue alone reminded me that I was alive. Until that moment, I had understood a French kiss to involve placing the tongue in another person’s mouth and that was it. Tristan was tongue kissing my chin, my cheeks, my ears, my nose. This was more than a mere avalanche of lascivious kisses. The man was making love to my face. He was grinding his tongue so deep into me, sucking my face so hard, that I could hardly catch my breath. I was losing my footing. The two of us were standing in between the desk and the foot of the bed. He held me up and motioned me closer to the bed.

“Meow,” I heard.

“Mrrrrgrrrmm,” I grumbled. I couldn’t release my mouth from his. I struggled to talk. When finally our faces parted, I said, “Un chat?

From underneath the bed, a pair of blue eyes in a furry head the orange of a pimp suit gazed up at me. A feline Rick Vogt.

“Shit, I’m allergic to cats,” I said.

I don’t think Tristan understood. Even if he had, I doubt it would have mattered because it didn’t matter to me. Not at this point. I was on the verge of a divine discovery. We fell on the bed. I had never known flesh so soft that I could sink into it nor muscles so solid that they promised reliability.

The radiator rattled. Legs raised in the air. A car screeched outside. Heads thrashed against pillows.

We intertwined our limbs, desperately so, as if all the love in the world were to end upon midnight. Then Tristan stopped kissing me. He raised his head, gazed at the ceiling. He could have been watching a miracle rain down. Though our mouths were agape, we uttered no words. Our hefty breathing escalated into a cry. I didn’t even realize we were making such a raucous until Tristan clamped his hand on my mouth and diminished his own sounds into a grunt. But the humping of our hips didn’t stop. We picked up momentum. And then…

Our bodies stiffened. The energy pent up inside of us was too much to fight against. Life for an hour had been heat, speed, and friction. It was ending on a soft note of a moan and ebbing twitches of the groin.

Tristan fell by my side. He sighed and he laughed a laugh more an expression of delight than of humor. Exhausted as we were, our heart beats were racing.

“Water?” Tristan acted out drinking from a glass.

Non, merci.

During our bed pounding, the cat had moved to the desk chair. It was staring at me with lightning eyes. That was when I started to feel it – an itch on the arm and an itch on the neck. I sneezed.

Ca va bien?” asked Tristan.          

Oh, jolie cat, I thought. You are not making me feel well. Oui,” I said even so.

I didn’t stay the night. I didn’t even stay till midnight. Tristan slipped on a pair of boxers and sat on the edge of the bed. That was hardly an invitation, so I put on my clothes.

The first shimmers of the evening lit the window through the Venetian blinds. Van Gogh in a self-portrait above the bed looked sad.

Merci,” I said. “Merci beaucoup.”

Merci aussi.

Tristan didn’t offer his phone number. I didn’t know to ask. He hugged me, but he didn’t kiss. He hugged me for the last time ever.

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At the gym from that night on, Tristan was distant. I would walk up to him at the front desk or in the weight area and say hello, then stand tongue tied. No amount of schooling teaches a boy what to say and how to act in this situation. How I must have seemed to Tristan a begging urchin, far from the lovable lovelorn innocent that Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina is. He hardly said much himself other than his usual salutations because he was always in a rush. He was hurrying to tend to a client or he was speed eating in the employee room. He was fast talking with his colleagues or he was sprinting out the door, to the elevator, and out of my sight. He’d wink at me sometimes, nothing more – never a moment to chat, never a look between us long enough to acknowledge having connected. Tristan and I may as well had gone out to have a drink rather than have sex. Indeed, that was all I had been – a fresh bottle of testosterone for him to quench a thirst. But had my nectar not tasted sweet? Had Tristan not said that we were… What was that word?

Jumeaux, Enzo informed me, means twins. In a way, Tristan was right. By taking me to his bed, he had initiated me into a brotherhood of fly by night flings, a fraternity that in its absence of women bypasses the convention of courtship and that sacrifices emotions. As a new member of the family, I needed to adapt to its customs. Within a month, Tristan and I reduced to acknowledging each other with a mere nod and then with nothing at all. Instead of allowing myself to dwell on heartache, I decided to sample the array of male delicacies that Paris provides. Love had to be hiding somewhere amid the play, like a cherry in a cream pie.

Gay men are available for the taking in the Marais district, once the domain of the Parisian aristocracy in the 19th century. Cushioned fold out chairs that match the color of the awnings, rainbow flags that deck doorways, and clothes along with glossy magazines in display windows framed purple, green, or blue give a splash of vibrancy to the cobblestones and palatial buildings murky in their staidness. The Marais has long ceased to be about protocol. The Marais has come to represent non-conformity. The ghosts of the nobility might disapprove, but on my first venture to a gay bar, I imagined the spirits of Honoré de Balzac’s courtesans sweeping the hems of their crinoline gowns against the floor in a waltz danced in rooms where men in Doc Martens and pierced ears today drink and fornicate. I might have hurt from Tristan’s avoidance of me, yet what I had gained from him far outweighed the pain. I was going to have the time of my life. I dressed like the guys I wanted – in baggy jeans, a logo tee, and my hair a crew cut – and what I wanted was a guy after the image of Rick or Tristan. I couldn’t forget Gavino Bellandini either, no matter that he was too darn godlike to be attainable. If a surprise such as Tristan Ledan was possible, then anything could happen.

That was the problem. I expected love to be instant and lust to be mutual. Although not everybody at Quetzal Bar fit my ideal, there were enough who did so that I was convinced that I was what they wanted, too. No. The chattering of men divided into groups reminded me of BAGLY. Only in this case, the groups never disbanded to form one large gathering of friends. Punk rockers stuck with punk rockers. Fashionistas stuck with fashionistas. Skin heads stuck with skin heads. I sat on a stool in front of a mirrored wall and kept company with a glass of soda water. That the end of my straw was producing gurgling sounds didn’t matter. Nobody heard.

Nevertheless, I didn’t lose hope. In my perseverance, subsequent outings to Quetzal didn’t amount to naught. Men would engage me in conversation, and occasionally, I’d meet a person whose handshake felt as though I had found a missing link.

There was the airport customs official who confided in me “J’aime les garcons Asiatiques.” In his flat, under dim red lights, he caressed my body as if it were a bronze sculpture. His hands were not large, but his touch was electrical. He was meaty on the stomach, but he was young and burly. As he waxed poetic on the Asian men who traveled through Charles de Gaulle Airport, his eyes lit up as if he were reciting a mantra.

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I had a royalist, it’s true. His living quarter was as bare as a prison cell. Only an open drawer over which a shirt sleeve hung attested to a life within those four walls, as did his most prized possession: a scrap book containing postcard-image sketches of chateaus and castles once under the ownership of ancestors who had met their end at the guillotine. I didn’t understand his monologue on the merit of reviving the monarchy. I had never even been aware that royalists existed 200 years after the storming of the Bastille. Yet I had a sense of his frustration; Marcos supporters… or loyalists as they were called… were bent on usurping Corazon Aquino. Politics aside, the man knew how to wear a jock strap.

With the Moroccan medical student, my duplex was the play space. I didn’t dare bring him to my bed; a girly quilt would have killed the mood. We lay instead on the sofa in the living room. The Renaissance hunting scenes on cushions that depicted guns and horses on a mad chase after foxes were more conducive to our intentions. Predator or prey, he and I were each a bit of both, clawing at one another and biting. For extra income, the guy worked as a nude art model. “Regardes moi,” he’d say in the midst of making out. That was his kink – being watched as he struck sexy poses on the shag carpet.

Despite my numerous instances of two lives shared, my kisses with each man were more a hunger of the groin rather than an expression of the heart. Even so, the world became a smaller place. If men whose lives were never meant to converge could find a common bond in me, then love was possible with anybody, anywhere.

Gay establishments outside of my comfort zone of the Marais started calling to me. They were nearly as plentiful as movie theaters: Dance Club at Les Halles, where from railings on the second and third levels, I could watch potential mates on the dance floor; a porn video arcade at Pigalle, a neighborhood once home to Toulouse Lautrec; and Le Trap at St. Germain des Pres.

Le Trap. The bar was an oddity to stumble upon in a neighborhood of swanky boutiques and fine dining. While Quetzal radiated light and space, Le Trap was the nadir of darkness and sleaze. Its clientele was of the hyper-masculine type. Leather chaps and chains, tee shirts two sizes too small and jeans tight on the butt all seemed to have been lifted from the Al Pacino film “Cruising.” Just as the film depicts, the men were there for one reason alone, and it wasn’t love. The bar area was so small that body contact was inevitable. A spiral staircase led to a floor that was immersed in blackness. Blind as I was to the activities within, the sounds surging forth supplied the visuals for my imagination.

Curiosity had taken me to Le Trap. The place wasn’t to my liking. It was enticing and mysterious, no doubt, but I had not yet acquired the footing to stand alongside these giants. I stayed even then. It was May, the end of my year in Paris. To fulfill my mission for adventure, I needed to claim Le Trap as one more horizon explored.

No, Le Trap was not about love. I had searched for it in the cream pie that was Quetzal. I certainly had no expectations of finding it in this mud pit. For my one and only night there, I remained on the stairs, unavailable to the men at the bar below and the men in the backroom above. The sting of cigarette smoke in my nose, the sugary spirituous smell of liquor, and the heat from bodies joining were all I needed to be engaged in the reality of the moment. This would be enough of a memory.

Goodbye, Paris, I thought.

Footsteps clanked on the metal steps. Moans and groans thundered from the backroom. Guys kissed and groped in the bar.

I preoccupied myself with the mechanics of moving back to Tufts. Tomorrow I would buy boxes for my books. In a couple of weeks, I would disconnect my phone. I would be back in Boston before I knew it. Davilo had sent me a telegram asking to house with him and Owen. That was something to look forward to.

And right then, right beside me, the cherry in the cream pie materialized in the body of a tall, dark, and handsome Swede who spoke fluent English.

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An Eye Hole to the World: The Narrative of a Photograph

Photo1This is one career misfire my mother cannot put to pasture: I could have been the next Robert Doisneau or Milton Greene. In the summer of 1987, I roved Boston for a job as an apprentice to a photographer, a portfolio in tow of pictures I had taken in the Philippines following the People Power Revolution a year earlier that had ousted Ferdinand Marcos from his 20-year dictatorship. The pros welcomed my knock on their door (they must have been impressed by this 20-year-old’s moxie), and they provided me advice and compliments (“you have a good eye”).

The best response came from The Boston Globe. I dropped off my portfolio with the guard at the front desk, instructing him to deliver it to the photo department. Three days later, I got a call from the newspaper. “We got your portfolio and we’d like to talk to you,” the woman at the other end of the line said, to which I responded that I only wanted to work on certain days and at my chosen hours. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We can’t help you.” The truth was that I was so lazy that I didn’t want to work at any hours on any days; thus, I dismissed the Globe’s rebuff of me as minor. I can try next year, I thought. The second time around brought no such luck with either the Globe or anywhere else. “And you thought it would be easy,” my sister said. Some life lessons are a hard learn, and this is one of them. I blew a once in a lifetime chance; not every kid gets an employment summon from a major newspaper. “You should have…” my mother says to this day.

I do wonder how my future would have been different if I had. I would have been a storyteller, albeit with images rather than with words. The narrative of a picture is what got me interested in the medium in the first place. I’ve always been a visual person. Before writing, I drew, and it had been for this art form that I was rewarded in high school. People were my subjects, specifically women from the pages of fashion magazines. I was attracted to the quixotism a model embodies. A heroine to a story played out in clothes and make-up, she is not unlike an actress, only in her case, the viewer supplies the dialogue and the plot; I could shape her in accordance to my mood and my whim. Photography was a rational next step. As the person behind the camera, a shutterbug possesses power in the role of a director. With a single shot, he or she could capture an emotion. A skirt is never more provocative, a handbag never more romantic, than when captured amid a misty sunset, smoke in the background spiraling upward from a cottage chimney, on a woman who channels Veronica Lake.

AnnaSeatedPhotography was my method of creating my own Hollywood classic. I purchased my first 35mm camera for an introductory course during my freshman year at TuftsmUniversity. My sister herself had just entered the architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which was a 20-minute bus ride away from me, and on a few occasions, I would use her as a model. For direction, I’d mention studio portraits of Greta Garbo et al. Since my sister and I along with our mother used to watch old movies together, my sister didn’t need clarification when I’d say, “Frame your face with your hands like Garbo… Give me a profile like Grace Kelly on the cover of Life… Like Rita Hayworth… Like Vivien Leigh…” She was aware of each pose I was referencing. So natural was she that after a click, she’d sway her arms into another star pose, her expression a composite of daring and aloof.

Our favorite actress to emulate was Audrey Hepburn. Although we had both watched “My Fair Lady” (1964) as kids, it was our viewing of “Sabrina” (1954) the year my sister returned to Manila after graduation from Columbia University in New York that made us fans. The actress’s ramp model physique is relatable to every generation of fashion aficionados, and this my sister and I certainly are. The peacock dress, the pixie cut, the opera gloves… “Sabrina” is an instruction on style. “I keep telling you, it will be too much,” my sister insisted upon my insistence during one session that she darken her brows in Audrey manner. I was in no position to argue, she being the expert on eye pencils and lipstick, and I was only too thankful that she was willing to be my guinea pig. Amateurs, we both had to make do with whatever equipment was available: a black dress, a black TV stand, table lamps, and a backdrop of a gray blanket draped on closet doors. In the darkroom, classmates hovered around me, amazed at the girl whose image was materializing on the print sheet. “Jesus,” my sister said as I presented her her portraits. “Do I really look like that?”

ReaganAlong with movie stars and models, I was keen on the regular folks on the streets, the truth of their stories in contrast to the escapism of a beautiful woman. I eschewed staged shots. They had to be candid, caught in the midst of an individual engaged in one’s routine of living. If a subject were smiling into my lens, then it was a pose caught by happenstance. Of this hold humanity has on me, I have dedicated a section to it in a novel I would write some 25 years later that I’ve entitled “My Wonder Years in Hollywood”:

With a camera, I learned that the world was mine for the taking. I could capture the image of any person on the street, any building, any car, and any tree, and in so doing, claim them as my own. The adage “beauty surrounds you if you look hard enough” was no longer a cliché but a truth. How could I not have seen it before? The films “Gone with the Wind” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/gone-with-the-wind-another-day-another-chance/), “Dr. Zhivago,” and “The Killing Fields” depict the ravages of war, and there is nothing uglier than war. Yet when viewed through the lens of an artist, the silhouette of a man and a woman and a galloping horse against a city in conflagration adopts an operatic grandeur. That is what the world is: a film in the making, each of its seven billion people cast in the roles of writer, director, and actor.

I couldn’t get into still life photography as a result. Just as with drawing, I preferred people. You could argue that an object has stories to tell. We see those stories from the moment we awake every morning in the objects that surround our room, in the very bed we lie on. Nonetheless, an object would be devoid of its stories if it weren’t for the human hand that had touched it. That was why of all the photographers whose works Peter introduced in class, I responded to those who focused on people: Steichen, Salgado (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/the-salt-of-the-earth-through-the-lens-of-love/), Eisenstaedt… Gloria Swanson’s diamond luminous eyes behind a butterfly veil; Amazonians, clothes tattered and soot capping hair, numbering in the thousands as they toil in mountainous terrains like Babylonian slaves in a shot reminiscent of “The Ten Commandments”; a sailor and a nurse in Times Square embraced in a Liberation Day smooch – these images haunt me still.

GreekLoversI could have been the next Robert Doisneau or Milton Greene. My name might have been in bylines beneath pictures in Time and Newsweek. I could have been awarded a Pulitzer for a photo essay on Typhoon Haiyan published in The Washington Post. Not only did I have a good eye, but I also had the patience. In the pre-digitalized age of the 1980s, producing a print required hours in the claustrophobic environment of a darkroom, with as long as 45 minutes in a cubicle spent yanking a film out of its shell, adjusting it on a spool, and enclosing the spool in a canister. As easy as the procedure sounds, it was not. Getting the film onto the spool was a tactile enterprise; exposure to light, no matter how faint, destroyed the roll of celluloid. In addition, I had to ascertain that no part of the film was in contact with any other; a pair of images could be damaged when stuck together while submerged in chemicals. Even so, what a bounty when I got it right, a feeling like no other. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about: nothing is ever a win unless we slave over it.