“Ice Castles”: Through the Eyes of Love

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“Ice Castles” (1978) promises a story that will get you sobbing into a Kleenex. Let’s start with the Martin Hamlisch/Melissa Manchester theme song. Soft focus silhouettes naked trees. A figure skater performs loops and axels in a snowy wonderland. Hair Goldilocks blonde, she is covered from head to feet in white winter apparel. Music starts with the tap of a piano, a soothing tune that evokes a ballerina in a jewelry box, and then a lover’s plea:

Please don’t let this feeling end. It’s everything I am, everything I want to be. I can see what’s mine now, finding out what’s true since I found you, looking through the eyes of love.

Eyes are primary in “Ice Castles,” literally and allegorically. Lexie Winston (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is an ascending star, Olympic material. During an ice skating stunt, she suffers a fall, banging her head against tables and chairs chained together at the edge of the rink. The accident claims Lexie’s sight, which drives the girl to hole up in her home, dreams of gold thwarted, until boyfriend Nick Peterson (Robby Benson) demands she stop with self-pity and prove herself a champion. With Lexie’s will invigorated, Nick becomes her eyes.

“Ice Castles” doesn’t offer much surprises. The movie is set up so that from the moment tragedy strikes, we know our heroine will rise above it, doubly so upon the guidance of a handsome beau who serves as her motivational pillar. Yet as we all know, cinema speaks to us because it lends verisimilitude to our personal trials, a looking glass to the human ability to soar as a sparrow from the abyss of despair, and “Ice Castles” is no exception.

Now I can take the time. I can see my life as it comes up shining now. Reaching out to touch you, I can feel so much since I found you, looking through the eyes of love.

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Tragedy recognizes no boundaries, an unwelcome presence lurking in the shadows eager to violate our well-being at any moment, anywhere. We could never have expected the turn of events on April 15, 2013. What started as a jubilant marathon in downtown Boston ended in chaos. A pair of terrorists detonated two homemade bombs concealed in a backpack. Building fronts blasted. Rivulets of blood flowed on streets and pavements. The attack killed three people and injured more than 260.

In the years since, the media have followed the recovery process of some of the victims, their resilience an example to all. Dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, her left leg now a prosthetic, has returned to the stage, and severe burns on James Costello did not prevent the man from finding love with nurse Krista D’Agostino. (http://people.com/celebrity/boston-marathon-bombings-one-year-later-5-inspiring-stories-about-survivors/) Newlyweds Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky endured a combination of 40 operations on their limbs and ruptured ears, with Downes losing one leg and Kensky losing both, yet married they remain and indefatigable in their rehabilitation, which for Kensky included writing a children’s book, “Rescue and Jessica: A True Friendship,” based upon her relationship with her rescue dog. (http://people.com/human-interest/boston-marathon-bombing-survivors-patrick-downes-jessica-kensky-hbo-doc/)

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Then we have the most famous endurance story of all, that of Christopher Reeve. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/superman-a-lasting-legacy/ ) In 1995, following an equestrian accident in which he was thrown off a horse, Reeve was hospitalized in a week-long state of delirium, only to regain his mental stability a quadriplegic. He wanted to commit euthanasia. His wife, Dana, didn’t deny his wish, but in her promise that she would never desert him if he were to give life a second chance, he turned his handicap into incentive for a new beginning. Reeve founded the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and spoke at the Democratic National Convention, appeared on Larry King and gave speeches across the country, all on a mission to promote awareness of and fund research for physical disabilities. On the creative side, he remained as dogged as ever, producing and starring in a 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954) as well as authoring his autobiography, “Still Me,” and making a guest appearance on “Sesame Street.”

Nobody wants to go through what Lexie in “Ice Castles” does, and while we commiserate with her, we are tears and smiles when the end credits roll. “Ice Castles” is just a movie. Back to reality, we read the papers, walk the dog, and empty the trash, mindless of how crucial our physical faculties are in accomplishing the most routine task. To appreciate, we need to lose, as Boston marathoner Jessica Kensky did on that fateful April day in 2013; hence, the change in the way she reflects on the past: “I’ll think back to Christmas and say, ‘Oh, yeah. I had legs then, that Christmas’ or ‘Oh, I had a right leg at that birthday party.’”

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Lest we think we are safe in our bubble, darkness of another sort threatens to fall upon us. Heed the words of Great Britain’s heir to the throne (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MY2m6JKQKeY):

“A recent report suggests that attacks are increasing on Yazidis, Jews, Ahmadis, Baha’is and many other minority faiths. And in some countries, even more insidious forms of extremism have recently surfaced which aim to eliminate all types of religious diversity. We’re also struggling to capture the ripple effects of such persecution.”

Prince Charles’s 2016 Christmas speech summates a year that witnessed the rise to power of Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and Maha Vajiralongkorn. Trump took oath on January 20, 2017 as the 45th president of the United States of America. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/race-triumph-of-the-will/ ) This despite campaign speeches that roused antipathy among his supporters towards marginalized groups, primarily immigrants and people of color, and that inflamed Islamophobe by categorizing all Muslims as potential terrorists. It should be no surprise that the first head of state he personally called to invite to his inauguration ceremony was Duterte, himself notorious as the Donald Trump of the Philippines because of his denigrating remarks about women and persons with disabilities. Add Vajiralongkorn to the bag of questionable rulers. The Thai king has raised eyebrows on account of his womanizing and addiction to gambling, but none more so than when he appointed his pet poodle, Fufu, as air chief marshal of the Royal Thai Air Force in 2007.

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With such amorality exhibited among the three, we can indeed only struggle to capture the ripple effects of religious persecution, which include the elimination of LGBT rights, an escalation in hate crimes, and the ferment of white supremacy groups. The F.B.I. has confirmed that by orders of Vladimir Putin, Russia – a nation that condemns gays and lesbians – hacked the American presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. The day after his win, swastikas were spray painted on walls and automobiles in cities from coast to coast. The bigoted ideology that these men uphold as leaders of two of the most powerful countries on the planet sets a dangerous example to humanity.

The world seems to be reverting to the 1950s, a decade Senator Joseph McCarthy mired in xenophobia with his Communist witch hunt, branding treacherous anyone who lived by convictions disconnected from Anglo-Christian values. Many are once again blind to the colors that illuminate our neighborhoods and deaf to the diversified voices that harmonize around us. With homogeneity enforced upon us, we are crippled from being true to who we are. Fear not. The 1960s came to the rescue. As Hillary Clinton pronounced in her last campaign speech, “Love trumps hate.” The cloudy days that loom nearby could only mean another Civil Rights Movement awaits in the horizon.

Like a figure skater, history goes in circles, and whenever champions fall, they get back on their feet.

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“La Femme Nikita”: From Caterpillar to Butterfly

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Nikita: My sweet, Marco. The world has given me only this one taste of love, and I will remember you always.

Marco: Are you leaving tonight?

Nikita: (nods)

Marco: Got a little place for me?

Nikita: You belong in a big place.

“La Femme Nikita” (1990) is one glamorous viewing experience, an updated version of “My Fair Lady” (1964), but rather than featuring a guttersnipe molded into a duchess, it gives us a street junkie with killer instincts programmed to be a government assassin, seduction her arsenal. As Amande (Jeanne Moreau), Nikita’s mentor in the art of womanly charms, advises, “Let your pleasure be your guide, your pleasure as a woman. And don’t forget, there are two things that have no limit: femininity and the means of exploiting it.” Role of state sanctioned liquidator aside, this could very well be the creed of an actress. Movies tease our voyeuristic nature, and beauty is what the movies is largely about; hence, world cinema’s treasure chest of tales that pay homage to this most potent female attribute: “Pandora’s Box” (1929), “And God Created Woman” (1956), “Lust, Caution” (2007)…

I didn’t catch “La Femme Nikita” when it premiered in theaters some 25 years ago, had never heard of it, until its release on DVD. A friend told me the film was a must. Since I am rarely keen on thrillers, I was hesitant, yet I took my friend’s word for it. I didn’t ask why his enthusiasm, and it didn’t matter, because as graphic as the opening sequence is… guts popping like splattered tomatoes; bottles blown to pieces, their shards twinkling with the effulgence of 4th of July fireworks… it is choreographed in the manner of a stylized dance that contrasts the heat of violence against an atmosphere of cool blue.

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Then there’s Nikita (Anne Parrilaud), a fox prettied up in Yves Saint Laurent. When she isn’t on call, she’s just a girl, spry and doting, wanting nothing more than to keep house for her man. A romance develops between Nikita and the most benign of humans, a grocery bag boy by the name of Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade). She deserves a normal existence. She’s been rehabilitated, taught to walk and talk as a lady, and so she keeps her profession secret from Marco. We are all worthy of a second chance. However, thrillers being what they are, we are aware from the first kiss between Nikita and Marco that the stakes involved for them are supremely higher compared to those citizens of no consequence such as you and me would have to contend with.

Most of all, I remember “La Femme Nikita” for the moment of revelation that occurs between our lovers: the world has given me only this one taste of love. In a wasteland where the morals by which we survive have gone to dust and life is dispensable, Nikita is reborn. Compassion illuminates what was once a black soul. From a leper that threatens to kill upon each temper outburst to a woman who realizes the poetry nascent in human bonding, Nikita represents the extremes of cold and warm implicit in us all.

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I have a temper. This admission would be a surprise to those who know me. A colleague at the Cornell University writing program once described me as possessing a “Zen calmness,” while during my freshman year at Tufts University a decade before that, my roommate had said that the general opinion of me was that I was “happy and peaceful.” None of them had ever witnessed me lose my top. The odd thing is that I tend to blow up over a trifle.

Last week I had an altercation with the owner of a Chinese restaurant I would frequent on account of the lunch specials: a cup of soup and a rice dish for ten bucks. The waitress who usually served me would give me two glasses of water… one to drink down the meal and the other with which to mix my gym supplement… only she was unavailable, and in her place was a new member to the staff. I asked the restaurant owner, who was making the rounds, to give me my prerequisite second glass of water. He looked baffled at first but consented. Then I requested for a spoon, at which he impudently said, “Only ask once.” I grabbed my backpack and hurried out. His rudeness reminded me of an occasion at a Japanese restaurant many years ago in which a waitress had berated a friend and me with the comment, “You guys would really make it easy on me if you ask for everything at once.” For such a comment was unexpected, neither my friend nor I responded. Instead, we whispered to each other the “B” word. In retrospect, I would have said, “When people dine, they don’t know immediately upon sitting down all they’d like to eat, which is why a waiter is present to assist them throughout the course of their meal. If you have a problem doing your job, I can talk to your manager about it.”

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The same defense came to me at the Chinese restaurant, although the source of my ire was himself the big boss. So rather than relying on the efficacy of words, I walked. Still, I was so choleric that a few blocks away I wanted to have it out with the owner. It turned out that I had also left my supplement bottle. As the waitress who had been serving me handed me back my work out booster, I told the owner never to speak to me that way again. “Don’t come back here,” he said. “Who is this man?” I asked the waitress. I knew his position of importance, as he wasn’t dressed in uniform of white shirt and black pants but in civilian clothes of an azure and white-checkered button-down shirt. And even though the waitress was too scared to respond, she who seemed to be a student waiting tables for extra income, I demanded an answer. I inquired of a pair of staff eating at a corner table. “What are you doing?” the owner asked. “Get out.” He clapped his hands as if I were a dog, though not before one of the staff replied to my question. “Never come back,” he repeated. “I won’t,” I said. Upon leaving, I slammed the door against the entrance wall, and from a block down, I heard the owner hurling malisons at me.

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I huffed and puffed towards the Castro, envisioning the restaurant burning down, a brick smashing the windows, spray paint vandalizing the façade. Suddenly, amidst the pedestrians, I spotted a guy I had met the previous weekend. Awful timing, for sure. Regardless, I did what any civilized person would do – smiled and attempted conversation. “You look good,” he said. If only you knew, I thought. My yelling at the head pharmacist at Kaiser over a prescription that was processed incorrectly, the Aetna representative who was silenced to tears because I insulted her as incompetent over medical refill errors that would happen every month, a note at San Francisco AIDS Foundation in which I instructed the mail person to be careful with letters addressed to other employees that were placed in my box (the note got me in hot water with human resources)… looking good notwithstanding, I could be an asshole, one with a maleficent inclination, if only in my mind.

We’ve all been guilty of behaving abominably, saying things we wish we had kept to ourselves. At the writing program, Jay – a Jamaican-American at Cornell to earn his Ph.D. – recounted a disagreement with a professor that had occurred during his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois; he had blurted out that the professor was a “skinny assed white bitch.” In Manila some years ago, a friend expressed his regret for cussing at a real estate broker skeptical of his financial security in spite of the large sum he had put on the table. Noel’s expletive: “You can take my money and shove it up your ass.”

This isn’t who we are. Whatever the situations that push us to act as an insect, we are deep inside as splendorous as a butterfly, perhaps not in the cloth of Anne Parrilaud, who with her athleticism, fashion model silhouette, and emotionality is a ravishing Nikita, but with plenty of redeeming qualities nonetheless, enough for us to feel an affinity to our heroine.

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No, this isn’t us at all. We have risen to heights too distant from our Neanderthal ancestors to remain tottering in dirt.

“Dangerous Liaisons”: The Danger of Love

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“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) is a Hollywood adaptation of a novel authored in 1782 by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It’s a commendable adaptation, according to my French tutor when I was living in Paris, one more engaging than its source, which she described as a monotonous, plodding, and tedious read. Leave it to the American movie industry to make of a foreign tale 200 years old fast-paced entertainment replete with the titillations that headline National Enquirer.

The treacherous entanglements alluded to in the title are dares of the heart that high society priestess, Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), orchestrates in collaboration with her partner in crime, the lothario Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich). Their victim is the unblemished Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Nobody is above love, not even the most cynical of us. In fact, cynics fall the hardest, the pulsations in their chest a fracas that tears through the core of their being. And so in their delusion of invincibility, the marquise and Valmont inadvertently find in Madame de Tourvel someone who upsets their universe.

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This is the danger of love. For all the sonnets and songs it inspires and the lyrical prose that elevates it to a spiritual realm, love can trigger in us a rascally urge, a recklessness even, to turn it into a sport, a game, an amusement. We may not be aware of the precarious position we put ourselves in… so lost are we in the fun of everything… until one instant, like the sting of a bee, we are at once conscious of a fire lit by the person we had thought at the onset as merely another point on a score sheet.

I write of this as a man who has had a history of such instances; dangerous liaisons are integral to my kind. A common topic of discussion amongst us gay men is the complication of divulging to someone we have hooked up with for the sole purpose of sex a simmering of emotions. As a friend once commented of my e-mail to Joshua, a one-night stand that developed into something more, “You’re too open with your feelings, Rafaelito.” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/two-lovers-so-close-and-yet-so-far/) This was approximately five years ago. Since then, I’ve had a premonition that once again I’d be in the situation in which I had been with Joshua, this tight spot of how much to hold back and how much to reveal, and I’ve often wondered when and with whom. At last, I met him in May.

On a Friday night four months ago, in a state of amorous starvation and void of luck on Adam4Adam, I scrolled through rentmen.com. I had not intended to hire an escort. Sex as a monetary transaction would have left me feeling as an empty shell, the physical attraction wholly one-sided. I was gazing at the pics of beautiful men merely as gasoline to my fantasies, after which I planned to head out to a bar. But then I saw a young face with a tremendous smile and a price tag beneath the usual rate. My adrenaline rushed. The demand of my groin overpowered me. Go for it, I thought. Shut your mind. This is nothing serious.

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Anthony was true to his pictures: dark hair short at the sides and pomaded on top Tintin style, the lean build of a high school jock, and a pout that brings to mind Brooklyn-born Italian heartthrob Tony Danza. In terms of performance, as Valmont admits with veneration to Merteuil about Tourvel, “She was astonishing.” Being a beast when in the sack is the nature of Anthony’s profession, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Still, we know the difference between fake and real, between coitus that’s perfunctory and one hormonally stimulated. We sense it. And with a moment where cash for one person is the aphrodisiac, we expect the former. I was pleased to get more than my dollar’s worth and left it at that, until a few days afterwards, when I bumped into him in the Castro neighborhood as he walked out of a Walgreen’s pharmacy. I hugged him. He hugged back, and he kissed me on the cheek, gently.

I started to sext Anthony. One morning, not even a week following our encounter in the Castro, my phone chimed to signal his response, though what I read was far from what I anticipated. Anthony was in the emergency room. “I’m scared and crying,” he texted. He had been bedridden for three days, had undergone laboratory tests to determine the cause of his ailment, and since the tests failed to produce definitive results, he feared he had cancer. I called his number. “Who is this?” he asked, his voice boyish and shaky. “Raf,” I said and then, “Do you want me to come to you?” He said, “If you want. I’m alone here.” I had a dental appointment scheduled that morning, and I assured him that I would go to him once it was done. But he was calmer by then, in large part on account of medical information I had been texting him that a nurse friend provided, all banishing any suspicion of cancer.

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So continued our sexual romps for the ensuing months and up to the present. Although technically I’m a client, a connection has formed between us that even Anthony acknowledges. He has told me that of all who call on him, I treat him the best and that he feels at home at my place. He is off the clock when with me, staying for as long as four hours, falling into a slumber during which he utters the most nonsensical things that make me smile. (“The boogie man’s coming… He’s sucking on his toes while sitting on a tree.”) How adorable Anthony is in repose beside me, a vision from a dream itself aloft in a dream. Upon each meeting, our embraces grow ever tighter, the copulation more fervid, and the air around us hotter.

Sample our text messages:

Me: You’re so fucking beautiful.

Anthony: 🙂

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Me: I like the time we spent on Pride. You were relaxed and we had great fun and you looked so sweet sleeping beside me. I’d like to see you outside of that context, too. If you’re open to it. I like you. You’d be a cool friend among other things.

Anthony: I’m definitely not opposed to that in fact I would like that very much

And yet, I am not entirely on safe ground. As Valmont’s and Merteuil’s scheming in “Dangerous Liaisons” over their prey delves into intricate territory, the shields to their hearts are pounded on and blunted until the duo is defenseless. As I write this posting, I ponder to what extent Anthony is willing to allow me into his life, where he is and what he is doing, if a “client” is what he will always regard me as. I’m at the Church Street Café, my self-designated office where I write nearly every afternoon. I texted Anthony to come over. He texted back with “okay.” Three and a half hours have passed.

All I wanted that night in May was a screw. Now here I am.

“West Side Story”: Devotion in Death

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No matter how many times I watch “West Side Story” (1961), the ending chokes me up. The most recent viewing was on 4th of July weekend 2016. It was a sing-along at the Castro Theater, complete with a goody bag. The contents: a paper crown, a glow stick, a bubble bottle, and a party popper. The objective of the screening was a shindig that would allow us to celebrate, albeit with a dash of irreverence, a cultural icon.

Irreverence, you might ask; teen angst, racism, and young death are serious themes. True, yet look at this way. That we viewers of multifaceted backgrounds and ethnicities could make light of such heavy material affirmed that “West Side Story” had endowed us through the decades with something deeper than tears and despair: happiness.

We cheered to the rooftop conga that Bernardo (George Chakiris), Anita (Rita Moreno), and their gang perform while they tally the pros and cons of life in “America.” We hollered at Riff’s (Russ Tamblyn) impish chantey of “Gee, Officer Krupke!” We cachinnated as Maria (Natalie Wood), after she and Tony (Richard Beymer) exalt about “Tonight,” provides this instruction for a rendezvous at the dress shop where she works: “When you come, use the back door.” However, upon the climactic conclusion, a hush befell the theater. The moment is so searing that I wrote about it in a novel, “My Wonder Years in Hollywood,” its message being that in difficult situations, a romance can be nipped soon after it buds:

Doc’s Drugstore… Anita is on her way to dispatch a message to Tony that Maria is to run away with him… The Jets harass Anita… “Spick”… “Bernardo’s bitch”… Enraged, she lies, says Maria is dead, shot down by Chino, Bernardo’s best friend… Tony emerges from Doc’s back alley to avenge the murder of his beloved… “Chino! Chino!”… Maria appears… A white shawl swathed around her head, she is Madonna-like… Bang!…

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My affinity for “West Side Story” is perhaps no different from yours. Although I am certain I was introduced to the musical as a child, my first memory of it dates back to high school. I would spend weekends watching old movies on betamax, the chastity of their stories fuel to my vision of love as sunshine and moonlight. Even a ruinous end to an affair, as in “The Red Shoes” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/the-red-shoes-passion-and-sacrifice) and “A Place in the Sun” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-place-in-the-sun-a-love-worth-dying-for/), didn’t adulterate the emotions depicted. Quite the contrary. That a pair of tender hearts should shatter due to forces beyond their control underscored the innocence and the unjust cost of its loss.

So at 17, I empathized with Maria as she clasps the pistol that fells her first love and, motioning to pull the trigger, declares, “You all killed him… Not with bullets and guns. With hate. Well, I can kill, too, because now I have hate.” Add the music to the drama and the result is something fantastic. The 20th century update to the Shakespeare tragedy (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) offers a modern perspective to a collective experience. This is how it is when we are in love. Life is a song. When love is in shambles, the song plays on, but its melody turns doleful, a sob.

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The soundtrack to “West Side Story” was on my cassette player morning, noon, and night. I thought I was an anomaly. Everybody I knew regarded Tony and Maria as childhood fixtures, fabrications in the vein of Snow White and Prince Charming – perfect and doting, the disaster that awaits notwithstanding. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/) Then six years later, I moved to San Francisco. Suddenly, I was a stereotype. Musicals and classic Hollywood are apparently connate to every gay man’s identity. “West Side Story” in particular distinguishes itself among us because the miscegenation is a variation of the love that dares not speak its name.

Of the principle characters in “West Side Story,” we gay men most identify with Maria. Tony has already been through the hurdle of anger management issues and rumbles, while Bernardo and Anita make for a hardened couple, wise about the perils of the street. Maria is pure. Her one fret is that Anita refuses to lower the neckline of the dress she is to wear to her first dance. Regardless, she stuns in white lace and a red sash like a rose petal afloat in a milk bowl. She is the only girl Tony sees. They gravitate to each other. They touch hands then lips, and a tremor within that Maria has never before felt opens her eyes to the splendor of being a woman. Love makes her beautiful.

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Early on, we gay men are bullied and shunned, made to believe we are unworthy and unattractive. We search for validation through physical encounters with those who share our pains, no matter how brief or casual. In our wanton wanderings, we incur the same afflictions that the high school heckler had upon us. We discriminate among ourselves according to age and ethnicity, mannerism and appearance. We marginalize and are marginalized within our own community. It’s adolescence all over again. And just like then, we dream of someone to spot us from across a crowded room, to see us and only us, and in that look make us realize how beautiful we are.

If Maria can have such luck, then any of us can. I have, and I met him in the city fabled for such seismic encounters: Paris. The year was 1990. I had graduated from college in Boston the year prior. Because of Paris’s prominence in literary lore, I had told my father that the place would behoove my aspiration of being a writer.

Sure, I wrote. I wrote of my ambles in the city, for that is what I did every day, walked, walked along the Seine to browse the book stalls that lined the bank, through obscure alleys paved in cobblestone, and up the steps of Montmartre, where cafés surrounded canvasses on easels that stood on display in a square. In the evenings, Paris was utopia to a young man exploring his sexuality. Bars and clubs offered a sampling of men that I would discover through later travels consist of archetypes prevalent in every gay community of all cultures – the fashionista, the jock, the preppy, the daddy… everything. With a bombardment of visual wonders and fleshly delicacies, I wrote nothing that was remotely creative.

And yet, my 12 months in this most revered of capitals was not a waste. Jonas vindicated every street meandering and eight-hour fling. I wrote about him in a blog posting dated April 2015 as flawless. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/5-to-7-the-permanence-of-a-perfect-romance/) We never had any more than one night for me to notice any foibles. He was my Tony, and just as the dance hall becomes empty of other people as Tony and Maria spot each other through the crowd, so it was for Jonas and me. We were in a video bar. He was standing against a post, arms folded, biceps and shoulders powerful underneath a gray sports shirt. His soft curls were the brown of a mustang. His eyes were fixed on me.

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In the metro ride to his place, we spoke of our lives with the ease that we bare ourselves in a journal. Jonas could have been James Bond. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/on-her-majestys-secret-service-redemption-in-time/) He had gone to boarding school, played polo and soccer, lifted weights, and skied. In addition, he had a keen eye for art. On vacation from Sweden, he was staying with a friend, a dealer and collector whose Place des Vosges dwelling had Picasso and Warhol on its walls. All this Jonas revealed of himself without a trace of boastfulness; these were simply facts of who he was. “What’s important,” Jonas said when the talk came to guys, “is that the person is nice.”

Our moment ended upon the first sunrays of the morning. We communicated by letter when I moved to San Francisco. Then after a year the post marks from Sweden stopped. Jonas was 38. We are all aware of what was happening to gay men of that age in the 1980s and ‘90s. Nearly 25 years later, his presence remained so vivid that I memorialized him in my novel, he whose kisses gave me the firmness to brave the future heartbreaks integral to my voyage into manhood:

Through each disappointment, Janos’s love has remained constant, a reminder that I deserve to stand on the peak of Mount Olympus, where I could raise my arms to heaven so that God could shower on me the one blessing that inspires songsters and scribes, the magic of the Taj Mahal, and the birth of legends.

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“West Side Story” is everyone’s story. As unwavering as our devotion is, we are confronted with powers no human can tame. People die… but not our love.

“Edward Scissorhands”: A Volatile Friendship

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What persecution life would be if we were incapable of holding those we love. This is the curse our title hero in “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) abides by for his duration on earth. As if deprivation of human contact were not enough, Edward (Johnny Depp) has an added cross to bear. An inventor’s creation, he is immune to the biological function of aging, which renders the sum of his years equivalent to infinity. The inventor, a nameless genius in the guise of Vincent Price (he of the graveyard eyes and ghost-white hair mold) was not motivated by malice when he implanted an inanimate object with a heart and a brain. He wanted to make a man in the vein of Adam, the embodiment of kindness and innocence, a creature in his likeness who could reinstate Eden to the paradise God had intended, Eden in this tale being the garden to the inventor’s castle that rises ominous on a hill overlooking American suburbia.

For reasons known only to a genius, Edward has shears for fingers. The inventor intended to replace them with the tendrils you and I possess, only on the day he was to do so, he croaked. Alone, non-existent to the world beyond, Edward seeks solace in the garden, sculpting shrubs into animal forms – his imaginary friends – until the afternoon Avon lady, Peg Boggs (Diane Weiss), ding dongs her way into the castle and wisps Edward off to the neighborhood downhill, an enclave of houses painted the colors in an M&M packet. With his taciturn demeanor and lugubrious eyes, our hero is a hit, particularly among the ladies, all of who offer him their heads so that he could groom their hair after every fad of the 20th century from the beehive to the asymmetrical cut.

No tale of innocence lost would be complete without a love interest. Here she is in Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), Edward’s light and darkness. Because of her, Edward soars so high that he kisses the moon. Because of her, he plummets so low that his existence henceforth is a bottomless pit. A nick on the cheek, a gash on the hand, blood, tears… for all the beatific transports of love, it can also rip our flesh and drain us of our substance, leaving us dry and forsaken. How can it be that an embrace, an act expressive of compassion, can inflict harm? Perhaps this is why break-ups happen.

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Such partings need not be exclusive to a romance. A friendship can suffer the same fate, the kind of friendship between two persons so emotionally conjoined that a disagreement, minute as it may be, results in a reaction the toxicity of a power plant explosion. When the parties involved both happen to have sensitive personalities, the relationship is all the more fraught. So it has been for Doug and me these past 25 years; we are proportionately guilty of cutting one another to shreds.

The night  Doug and I met I was wearing a brown button-down shirt with white stripes, one designed by a Japanese label, and a pair of GAP jeans. (I have a knack for remembering my attire on life’s impactful moments.) A friend, Eric, introduced us at the End-Up, a San Francisco club with a dance floor and sliding glass doors that lead to a back porch, the perfect set-up for a co-mingling of bootie wiggling and conversation. Eric was one of my first gay friends upon my move to San Francisco half a year earlier. He had been telling me about Doug, describing him as this cute guy from the Midwest who had an affinity for Asians, while simultaneously informing Doug about me so that by the night Doug and I first shook hands, our curiosity for one another had already been roused. He has thick palms, I thought. And, of course, I was taken by Doug’s boyish handsomeness: brown eyes, brown hair succulent curly, and a cleft chin.

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Not until a barbecue shortly after that night did Doug and I exchange numbers. We went on a dinner date. He was quiet throughout the meal, speaking only when I would ask questions and smiling at my effort to fill the silence; I was so at a loss for dialogue that I rambled on about tennis lessons I had taken at 13. Regardless, we went on a second date. On this occasion, I was more hopeful. I threw a duffel bag of condoms and lube into my car trunk, then I drove us to Twin Peaks, a hill where couples make out in their cars to the panorama of the city, balls of light scattered about like an ocean of electric pearls. Though Doug and I might have kissed, the duffel bag never left the trunk. As we called it an evening, Doug held my hand. Politely, he said that he enjoyed my company but that he wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. He did call me three days later, this time with the intention of a social interaction, and herein began our friendship.

Just as with Edward Scissorhands and Kim Boggs, Doug and I became close in gradual steps, none of this crashing sensation of two persons having found in each other a kindred spirit. We developed a bond that could not have been possible had we been lovers. As a result, no filter exists to screen our words. Doug has a self-deprecating sense of humor, the very virtue that has been the root of our many arguments. His fair complexion, his self-perceived skinny legs and other physical “flaws,” his attraction to men of color… Doug has joked about these. Frequently. But the jokes are his alone to make. Should anybody else poke fun at him on the same matters, he would consider it an affront, which he has accused me of committing. I have shot back by telling him he has no intellect. My rejoinder occurred in a video store. We were searching for a film with which to spend the evening. That he considered boring my choice, “The Story of Adele H” (1975), uncorked my arrogance.

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Not that Doug isn’t worldly. He and I have a shared interest in cultures beyond the comfort of our upbringing and an appreciation of beautiful things. We dress similarly in blazers and tailor-cut shirts. He studied in Scotland and has toured Asia. He read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” upon my recommendation. Yet the criticisms we hurl at one another, how they cut. He is callow for never remembering my birthday. I am trivial in my demand that he keep my home tidy during his stays. He is infantile in his temper flares. I am cruel for calling him a child. Nevertheless, present in each other’s lives we will always be. As Doug himself has admitted, we’ve been friends for too long for one to do without the other.

We accept our friends’ foibles as much as they accept our own. Ultimately, their assets win in the end. This is the benefit friends have over lovers. Edward and Kim never get the gift of time to develop the flame that kindles between them… so dangerous is Edward’s touch that he can only adore Kim from afar… but for the brief moment they do have, she uncovers the human beneath the freak, and this enables her to grow from a spoiled girl crazy about the neighborhood meathead of a jock (Anthony Michael Hall) to a woman who comes to understand the true meaning of love. This is the Kim whom Edward cherishes forevermore.

As for Doug and me, we live in two different cities now. He is in Los Angeles, while I remain in San Francisco. It’s just as well. The last time we spent time together, two Thanksgivings ago, we were at each other the way a dental drill strikes a nerve. Apart from him, I heed little thought to our outbursts. I remember instead the way we were – two young guys fresh in exploring our identities as men attracted to other men, grateful that through this one commonality, we found other mutual interests that made us feel we had finally found someone to belong to.

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“The Trip to Bountiful”: A Vessel of Breath and Light

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Bountiful is a rural town in Texas that has been destroyed by the Depression. A lone house hunches on a turf as expansive as the sea. The walls are decayed. Windows and doorways reveal a hollow interior. Whose flesh once touched this skull of a habitation? Whose soul served as its eyes and ears? To imagine a young person old is difficult just as it is to imagine an old person young. And yet, imagine we do. With fragments of bones, that they constituted the physical foundation of a life is inconceivable. We see disintegration, ash, and emptiness. This house could never have been a home, a safe lair of painted stairs and a roof radiant with the reflection of the sun, of voices and footsteps animating its rooms. A tomb-like silence enshrouds the structure.

But the house isn’t entirely dead. It will never be. For whatever time she’s got left, Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page) holds the house sacred to her heart as a vessel of breath and light. Carrie is an elderly woman in Houston under the care of her son, Ludie (John Heard), and his wife, Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn), neither of who understand her longing to return to her roots. The two have concerns of their own. Ludie agonizes over a promotion as an office manager. Jessie Mae highlights her days by gossiping with friends at the drug store. A night out involves a movie. Such is the existence for working class citizens in Truman-era America. The city provides upward mobility and diversions, reasons to dream. So when Carrie begs them to take her to Bountiful, a place that she describes as eternally verdant, where flowers and fruits sprout upon a single raindrop, they tell her to hush, that she should bury these visions; they belong to the past. The future is in Houston. Of course, Carrie is aware of this. What the two youngsters don’t realize is that her dreams are comprised entirely of the past. Coins in a pouch, a pension check tucked in a purse, she runs away and buys a bus ticket for “The Trip to Bountiful” (1985).

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Picture Carrie Watts: plump on the bosom and heavy on the hips; cotton candy sleeves on a floral-patterned frock; a straw hat; gray eyes that gleam with memories on a face a map of folds and wrinkles. She could be any old lady in our own family. She could be my grandmother. When Grandma Susan had an aneurysm, her mind rapidly declined. She forgot names, didn’t recognize the faces of her children and grandchildren. Towards the end, bed-ridden, she would gaze at the ceiling and mumble. “How eerie,” my sister-in-law, Margie, said. “I suppose that happens to all of us when we get to be that age.” We could only guess at the images and words Grandma Susan saw that hovered above – a visitation, a summoning from a greater force, God, prayers. And then one day, she mentioned a name, that of a girlhood friend.

My grandmother had grown up on a hilltop province. Houses of stone and wood line dirt roads. A blackish-gray behemoth of a church with plants that grow from fissures dominates the square. In the outskirts, a creek runs through a sylvan. My aunt, Tit Tessie, laughed. “She’s remembering herself at 13,” she said of Grandma Susan. “She would play in the creek with her friend.”

As children, we are ignorant of the notion of time and memory. Souvenirs bear no importance to us because we believe that today will never pass. The year I turned 12 (1979), my father’s managerial position at the Bank of America required my father and his family to relocate from Manila to San Francisco. In cleansing out my closet, I discarded a mishmash of items from a desk calendar of hand painted flowers to a Bionic Man doll, from a collection of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books to Sanrio goodies. Two things I regret having disposed of: a pair of caricature sketches of me drawn during a visit to Europe. One depicted me as an Asian Goofy with tombstone teeth, oblique eyes, and a neck wiry long. The other presented my profile, a sesame ball rotund head atop a stump of a neck. They were done in Copenhagen, within minutes apart from each other. Since I was displeased with the first, my father had taken me to another caricaturist across the square. I tucked in my neck and suppressed my smile so that what I got upon the second attempt was an image of pure corpulence.

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My heart sunk the way it does when, brimming with excitement, we unwrap a big box on our birthday only for the box to contain math books. I don’t know what I had expected. A glamour portrait, perhaps. Our European vacation was in 1975, and for years afterwards, the caricature sketches were stashed rolled up in my drawer. Then off they went to the garbage. If they could materialize before me at this instant, I would frame them. Over 40 years later, they are as precious as photo negatives, testimonies of a moment relegated to the remote past.

The avidity to preserve applies to every castle we have dined in and loved, slept in and dreamed, presided over as master. In grieving for what Ludie and Jessie Mae regard as nothing more than a ramshackle house, Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful” grieves for a period long gone when the laughter of all those dearly departed reverberated through its hallways. The singular person who sympathizes with her is a stranger she befriends at the bus depot. A young bride whose husband has gone off to fight in the Korean War, Thelma (Rebecca de Mornay) prays day in and day out against the threat of loss.

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Human ephemerality hit me hard when I turned 20. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/ill-see-you-in-my-dreams-a-golden-renaissance/) So evanescent was the present that I started a journal in which I recorded not only the date of each entry, but also the day and the time right down to the precise minute, as if by doing so I could freeze the now. I was barely 23 when already I wept for the passing of my youth through the manifold addresses that identified me with the stamp of a social security number:

120 West Hall. 2 Wren Hall. 6 Rue Emile du Bois. 280 Harvard Street. 4 Trowbridge Place. 10 Dana Street East. Each place for a point in my life was home, and each place I had to leave to go on with life. There’s something sad about leaving a place. It’s like saying to yourself, “This is it. There’s no looking back, even if what’s back there is simply great. Move forward because only in moving forward can I progress.” You leave behind the life you had while living there, and you leave behind friends and a part of your youth.

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I have resided in four addresses since, the current and longest being 1170 Sacramento Street in San Francisco. My parents purchased the condo the summer of 1990 towards the end of my second year in Paris, where I had gone to be a writer after graduating from Tufts University. The condo is on the fifth among 17 floors of a building that stands the tallest on Nob Hill. I have a balcony view of naked fountain cherubs in Huntington Park; the Gothic twin towers of Grace Cathedral; and the Fairmont Hotel, a construction that recalls a Gilded Era Vanderbilt mansion. I will never forget my reaction when I first walked into the unit: “Wow!” Layers of personal history have since accumulated: my coming out, my mother’s month-long visits that led to tiffs over my late nights of partying, and Grandma Susan’s 75th birthday.

My friend, Doug, hit the nail on the head when he said, “The day you empty these rooms and pack up to move somewhere else, it will be a very emotional experience.”

“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.

“Lovers”: The Tumult of Passion

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The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Mother’s drill this dictum into their daughter’s, and women’s journals dispense it as advice to snagging a husband. The flab that forms on the well fed’s waist is proof of a victory. It’s called a love handle, and on it a wife has a firm grip. The victory applies to matings of other variations, as well, be it two men, two men and one woman, or otherwise. My relationship with Jason vouches for this. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/summer-of-42-two-in-isolation/)

Jason and I met at Cornell University, where I was on a writing fellowship and he was in the hotel school. His home for the two years that we grew close was a brick walk up directly across Ithaca Commons from my place, a postmodern structure on which treetops at high noon would cast their reflections in black. Over takeout dinners of beef broccoli and pot stickers, we’d watch TV, down a bottle of wine, and talk about anything from Monica Lewinsky to a newfangled invention called google. The one occasion we veered from our routine was a late night when the Chinese restaurant where we would place our orders was closed. Jason improvised a meal with tuna, seaweed flakes, mayonnaise, and crushed red chili. Then “The Howard Stern Show” came on. We were back to our nightly pattern. Each moment we shared was comforting in its predictability. This would never have been if not for a pad thai dinner he had prepared for me shortly after we had met at Ithaca’s sole gay bar.

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However, nourishment that fortifies the body and pampers the heart doesn’t satiate the hunger of the flesh. Herein enters passion.

Passion heightens our senses. Whether in our presence or in our minds, those adored so devour us that all we see is their beauty as we quiver to their scent. Their flesh is electricity against our bodies. Nectar coats their lips. And in silence, we hear their voices. Should they on any occasion reject our emotional or sexual overtures, we behave in a manner deserted of dignity. We grovel and fawn. We are taken for a fool. Woe to us who are so besotted that we become stupid to what is right and what is wrong. No, this never happened between Jason and me, this losing of oneself into the other, and gratefully so, or else neither of us would have made it through graduate school in a sound state of mind. I kid you not. To know to what depths of depravity passion can drag a person, watch “Lovers” (1991). Beware: the film is based on a true story.

Paco (Jorge Sanz) is a soldier who comes home to Madrid upon the completion of his military service. He plans to marry his girlfriend, Trini (Maribel Verdú), who with her docile disposition and frugality makes for the ideal wife. She is pretty, too, with hair the black of a black panther and eyes that dote. They seem bound for a future preordained to all the betrothed during the 1950s – parent, grandparenthood, an apron for her, a tool box for him – until Trini requires that until the wedding, Paco lives elsewhere for the sake of propriety. Bad move. The room to the flat Paco rents belongs to no traditional woman. Luisa (Veronica Abril) is one sexy, sex-crazed lady who also happens to be a wheeler-dealer in a variety of money-making scams. Because Trini refuses to put out until their wedding night, Paco gets caught up in Luisa’s web of kink that entails (among other things) golden showers and a silk kerchief up a section of his anatomy where nobody had before dared to venture.

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The guy is a slave to Luisa. He never says no to her, whether in the bedroom or out, no matter that a demand could land him in the slammer. Who can blame him? We are all sexual animals, and when a smoldering fox ensnares us as prey upon whom to unleash the secrets of the oldest profession on earth, we cannot resist.

Passion can ignite anywhere, at any moment, and with anyone – a bolt that strikes us as lightning does a tree. We fall. Hard. Try to get up, and we are dizzy from the stars that swirl in our heads. This is what happened to another real life couple whose liaison caused tongues to wag in the 1990s: Mary Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. Letourneau was a teacher who unwittingly became a media festival when news of her dalliance with her student – Fualaau, 22 years her junior – made the circuit. She was 34 years old at the time, which would make her lover the age of… you do the math.

“Don’t look into his eyes,” Letourneau confessed in a recent Barbara Walters interview of her thoughts on the instant she surrendered to Fualaau’s advances. They were at a playground when he asked her, a married woman, if she would consider having an affair. The bond between the two had started way before then, however; for Fualaau, as far back as the second grade. She was substituting for his class when first he beheld her. “I thought she was a movie star,” he said to Walters. For the dusky boy, the slim lady with the giving smile and blonde bangs was a vision that would gnaw at him for the years that ensued, until that fateful day in the playground, when she was his sixth grade instructor, mentoring him on her spare time to develop his talent as an artist. They rendezvoused in the evening. A kiss led to a pregnancy, a six-month jail term, a parole violation, a second pregnancy, and another jail term, this time for seven years. “Why can’t it ever just be a kiss?” sighed Letourneau. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=QmKOtsmqYlE)

But a kiss is never enough. For all the forces that conspired to keep them apart and the misery that resulted, Mary Letourneau and Vili Fualaau are today happily married with teenage children, living a quiet life in Seattle, where they operate a family restaurant. Their story would be ripe material for a movie. That Letourneau and Fualaau are at the polar end of the spectrum from the triangle of a train wreck that is Trini, Paco, and Luisa would be sure to pack in an audience. We need endings that spur tears of joy. Plus, the two are apparently a pair of foodies.

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What do you know? The tumult of passion can translate into marital harmony after all.

“The Thorn Birds”: Love Conquers All

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“The Thorn Birds” (1983) is the blockbuster mini-series of my generation. Based upon the Colleen McCullough novel of the same title, it was the rage when I was in high school, providing me and my friends material to supplement Sigmund Freud. Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward) is slave to a girlhood crush on Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain) that turns into a ravening love as she grows into womanhood. Their saga unfolds amid splendid settings that range from the Australian outback with its stalks that oscillate in the breeze to the Vatican, from the turquoise seas of a Greek isle to London’s West End. It spans three generations and survives devastations unleashed by a dowager’s (Barbara Stanwick) scheming as well as events that include a forest fire and personal trials on a biblical scale. A brother (John Friedrich) conceived out of wedlock is sentenced to life imprisonment. A bastard son (Philip Anglim) drowns. Meggie clashes with her mother (Jean Simmons) just as her daughter (Mare Winningham) later does with her, the cause being favoritism towards a sibling and whatever else it is that turned Kane into an embittered seed.

By the end of the four-part spectacle, my mother was in tears. Everybody’s mother was. So were we. The phenomenal thing about “The Thorn Birds” is that before it premiered, none of us at school had announced its advent. Twitter and facebook didn’t exist, and whatever publicity the media generated on the program’s behalf accounted for little; I have no memories of trailers. “The Thorn Birds” landed upon us like a UFO in our backyard. Suddenly, it was there, a stellar presence that transported us to another galaxy from which we have never fully returned. The day after the first episode, conversations at school prefaced with “Did you watch…?” and over 30 years later, we remember Rachel Ward because of “The Thorn Birds” and “The Thorn Birds” because of Rachel Ward.

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To cast a gorgeous unknown in the lead as bait for a smash is a standard Hollywood ploy. A countenance that’s not only easy on the eyes, but also that reflects our innermost complexities is indispensable to the camera. A star is born. Her vehicle is assured a place in entertainment history. Sample these: Greta Garbo in “Flesh and the Devil” (1927) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/); Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday” (1953); Nastassja Kinski in “Tess” (1979) (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/); Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” (1998). Every aeon gifts us with its Aphrodite. She embodies men’s fantasies and women’s dreams. She is the ideal that we aspire to either be or to possess. She speaks to our mothers of a past when their own passions flared to a lover’s touch upon the twinkle of the first evening star.

Nevertheless, the project is a gamble. No amount of marketing can predict the impact of a film, least of all the force with which it lodges itself into our psyche and remains inextricable long after the hype has metamorphosed into myth. “The Thorn Birds” is TV, snobs deride; art is the big screen. Such snobbery has pitted Shakespeare against Spielberg (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/jaws-the-force-of-family/), Milton against Mitchell. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/gone-with-the-wind-another-day-another-chance/) Ridiculous, this disdain of pop culture. That works born from modern storytellers should achieve mass appeal is a nod to the masters, not an affront, an homage to the continuity of creativity. They relay in today’s parlance, to an ever proliferating world population, the virtues immanent in us humans that have allowed us to prosper through the millennium. One of those virtues is our propensity to care for another, unconditionally and fearlessly. This is why we are susceptive to a love story… the more dramatic, the more riveting… hence, “The Thorn Birds.”

Meggie Cleary represents youthful yearning. She can’t speak of her feelings. The object of her pining is a priest. Damnation is her penalty, if not in hell then on earth – a stake to the heart all the way through to her winter years. I can tell you a few things about Meggie’s crucifixion. When I was working in fundraising at San Francisco AIDS Foundation, my department received a contribution along with a note on which the donor, a man in his eighties, had written, “Nothing is sadder than being gay, old, and alone.” A couple of colleagues mocked the note. “What about dying of AIDS alone?” one said. “He’s probably just lonely,” said the other. I didn’t say a thing because both had a point. But so did the donor. The silence that gnaws at Meggie had marked his formative years. The gay and lesbian liberation movement would not happen for at least another two decades. Until then, medical journals attributed homosexuality to mental illness, while the law condemned it.

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To this day, I wish I had defended the donor. Given the stride the LGBTQ community has taken towards acceptance, we blink at our right to hold in public the hand of the person we love and to walk free of harassment on a street. Now we are champions of marriage equality. All that we have achieved obscures the threat of a lobotomy to which the donor must have cowered during every moment of his youth. If his mother had ever attempted to console him and dispel his fears, I can only guess, only hope. Sad, indeed, to be in his eighties and to sit on the last Sunday of June at his window, hidden in shadows as the Pride parade passes him by.

And so I believe that someone for me is out there somewhere, whatever the barriers between us, be they incurred or outside forces thrust upon me. I owe my optimism to the Stonewall pioneers as well as to timeless tales such as “The Thorn Birds.” And to motherly wisdom. Meggie is testament that love conquers all. Her adoration for Father de Bricassart is no fleeting fancy. It grows more fervent as she matures, stoking her will to fight the forces that rip her apart from the sole person with whom she is meant to be. Neither social retribution nor God is too formidable a foe.

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Those in the first throes of passion wage wars every day in the name of love. “A boy like that, you should know better… She isn’t right for you… What you’re feeling isn’t real… Be careful”… instead of assurance, figures of authority from Dr. Phil to our mothers squawk doubt, put on airs of wisdom that we at the tender age are determined to silence. Talk show hosts are dismissible. They throw blanket judgments at a camera. Our mothers, however, might be on to something to which we are blind. For we forget that they were once young, too, we are quick to assume that middle age has mired them in disillusionment. So why is it a number of them remain faithful to our fathers? Perhaps the reason is this: they have survived enough trials to learn that love is not a honeymoon as much as it is a test of resolve.

And so our shared tears with our mothers when Meggie, gray and wrinkled, lays her head on Father de Bricassart’s lap as he strokes her hair and breaths his last. For making it through half of Meggie’s journey, our mothers deserve an ending equally as beautiful. They are the true winners.

“Cabaret”: Come Blow Your Horn

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A writing instructor gave me the following advice: when creating a story, adapt the role of a filmmaker. No literary wisdom has impacted me more. To make a movie requires a crew, costly gadgets from the sound system to the camera, and financial backing. To pen a novel calls for one item alone – a laptop. Through the letters I type, I am the director, actor, screenwriter, light technician, costume designer, and cinematographer. Moonlight through a window crack enhances mood. Dialogue incarnates characters. The description of a town replicates the material world. As a result, images appear on the page, producing a motion picture projected through a camera in the mind. You, my readers, sing and fly, eat and make love, and in the symbiosis between language and visuals, we learn together that all art forms are connected.

Poetry is dance. Dance is music. Music is poetry. Oscar Hijuelos, in “Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love,” infuses prose with melody, while in “The Lover,” Marguerite Duras guides us on a ballet up the Mekong River. For Thomas Hardy, the title heroine to “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” is the central figure in a tragedy of operatic proportions. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess) All of these books were made into cinema, some more memorable than others, though none quite like that based upon “The Berlin Stories,” the Christopher Isherwood classic that narrates the end of a fabled existence among a cast of bohemians during Germany’s bleakest hour.

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I discovered “Cabaret” (1972) when I was in high school in Manila. My finding may have been by chance, but it was destined. English courses had awakened in me a curiosity for the recesses of a scribe’s mind. Since too much is out there for one person to read, I resorted to the medium that could instantly gratify my hunger for the imaginary: film. Thanks to betamax, I could view in their entirety, at my convenience, some of the greatest stories ever told, their titles lined on floor to ceiling shelves for me to select as tickets to a lottery. Musicals guaranteed a jackpot. They were manufactured for a singular purpose – to portray life as a lyrical marvel, our destitutions in equal measure to our gains. “Cabaret” struck a chime in me that has reverberated through the years because the Bob Fosse choreography and John Kander/Fred Ebb libretto are performed where they would have been in reality – a nightclub – and given the prurience of the stage acts and the slovenliness of the patrons, a gloominess taints the love affair between Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and Brian Roberts (Michael York) that impelled me to root for them.

Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky. Maybe this time, he’ll stay. Maybe this time, for the first time, love won’t hurry away. He will hold me fast. I’ll be home at last, not a loser anymore like the last time and the time before.

Such is the hope in Sally as she sings of a beginning with Brian. They meet as neighbors in the same building. She is burlesque entertainment. He is quill and scroll. She is street smart. He is Cambridge educated. The one factor that holds the two together is that they are both outsiders caught in a party where the curtain is about to descend. That it’s the wrong time for a relationship is also the reason that the time is right. Brian and Sally would never have connected under peaceful circumstances. They might never even have met. He is in Berlin to complete his doctorate, subsisting as an English tutor, while she has made the capital her home because Europe is kismet to an American libertine. The mating of the cerebral with the libidinous results in a romance that, amid the looming threat of the Third Reich, turns desperate: love today, for tomorrow could be too late.

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As foreign to my culture as “Cabaret” is, the movie possesses an immediacy that bespoke my desire to be an artist. I was already aware at 17 that convention was never to be my fate. I wished for Sally’s passion. When she takes to the spotlight, she belts out her soul. She fastens her stance with arms open and legs apart, as indestructible as a marble statue. Her boldness wallops every Joe and his whore at the Kit Kat Club. I saw my future. Go west, I thought. In conquering far-off regions as Sally does, l would assume center spot on the world stage, in works of my creation.

College in Boston brought me for my junior year to Paris, where during a course on the Weimar Republic, I spent a week in Berlin. Christopher Isherwood was part of the reading syllabus. Though I’m more a novel person, I was smitten by his tales of common folks in a boarding tenement, with small dreams and big disappointments. Berlin made a gorgeous backdrop. When I was there, the wall still existed. Buildings modeled after corporate headquarters in America’s financial hubs towered across the West. Brand names such as Sony and Maxell were plastered on their facades, floors above popsicle-bright awnings, and a throng milled about the avenues. In the East, people walked in uniformity; military officers patrolled the streets; edifices were colossal and industrial gray. Since the season was spring, the days were sunny and trees were in full bloom so that citizens from both sectors had reason to smile. And amid the modernity, Grecian columns and statues of winged horses affixed on palatial structures harked back to Germany’s imperial glory. Never mind that five decades separated me from the Berlin in “Cabaret.” I saw it everywhere, what Isherwood must have called inspiration.

IMG_0368-2Before “The Berlin Stories” was transcribed onto celluloid, it was the basis for a theater piece. “I Am a Camera” is Isherwood’s testimony of the artist’s obligation to humanity. We are the record keepers of our species, the eyes to history. Our notes and pirouettes, our sentences and images, are first-hand accounts of a moment without which future generations would never be. Some moments are honorable. Some are deplorable. All magnify life’s preciousness.

Put down the knitting, the book, and the broom. It’s time for a holiday. Life is a cabaret, old chum, so come to the cabaret. Come taste the wine. Come hear the band. Come blow your horn. Start celebrating. Right this way. Your table’s waiting.

These words sum up why we are on this earth – to have a ball. My foray into adulthood wasn’t easy. Love eluded me, and I couldn’t reconcile my body with the vision of the man I ached to be. Even so, I took my table, blew my horn, and spared no wine. Of this, I’ve got proof. In a photo of me in East Berlin, I am at the Altes Museum, posing with the statue of a nude Amazonian female head and shoulders taller than I. I am wearing a pair of jeans I had bought at a market in Paris. I had intended to bring the jeans on a school trip to the Soviet Union as a bartering tool since it was common for tourists to meet locals in their hotel lobbies with whom we could exchange a Western product for a Soviet item. Instead, I kept the jeans because I liked the fit. Now I laugh at how wrong the jeans were, loose and lengthy. And yet, the photograph captures something beautiful in me that I never saw in the mirror.

I am upright. I am self-assured. I am beaming. The future lies before me a horizon of white clouds reflected on windows and a door that opens to heaven, a home built on stories I have yet to write.

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