“On the Waterfront”: Sin and Salvation

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“You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit, so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

Charley (Rod Steiger) is brother to Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a dockworker informant for mobsters that exploit laborers at the waterfront. In this, one of cinema’s most famous lines, Terry grieves for his lot among the lowliest of humans. He had made a wrong choice, though one done out of family loyalty. Mobster head, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), had betted against Terry in a boxing match that could have put our hero in the big league. Terry had the skill, the drive, and the moves to be a champ, a title his for the taking. But for Friendly to win his bet, thus keeping Charley in good stead with the crook of a surrogate father, Terry took the plunge… in match after match, again and again… until his reputation dwindled from promising to hopeless. His name synonymous with loser, Terry finds himself under Friendly’s thumb. The situation doesn’t seem that bad, seeing that Charley had once been there and is now a big guy clad in fine threads.

One problem: Terry falls in love. She’s Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) – porcelain fragile in appearance yet tough, unrelenting, and at the vanguard of civil justice – and she awakens in Terry a conscience. The neighborhood priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), is also on his back, ceaseless in his attempts to galvanize our hero towards vindication. Instead of double crossing his fellow downtrodden, Terry should battle against the real bad guys, cooperating with the cops to lock them in handcuffs. The pugilist can either stay a bum or prove himself a winner in the most important fight of his life.

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Gangsters and shoot-outs, men beaten to a pulp and men thrown off building rooftops… this is not the standard way of living for most of us. Still, “On the Waterfront” (1954) is a classic because something about it conveys a universal truth. Think of instances when we’ve wrestled with our conscience, when we’ve complied to the wishes of one to whom we felt indebted even though the decision was unsettling to our nerves. My own conscience was first put to the test at a very young age. John, my best friend in the fifth grade, convinced me to be an accomplice in stealing a packet of Sanrio stickers from a girl named Claudia. (Sanrio stickers… of all the idiocy.)

Claudia was an easy target. She was Chinese with brownish hair styled after a broom. Some of us guys taunted her with the sobriquet Claudia Kaboogabooger because she picked her nose. John and I were ourselves an odd coupling. I was called Fagalito, while he, being half Filipino and half American, went by the surname of Peralta when in the Philippines and Smith when in the United States. He was a thin boy with bristly hair, faint freckles, and a Richard Simmons aerobicized sprightliness. John got my complicity by telling me a tale of apples he used to pluck from a neighbor’s tree. When the neighbor caught him, rather than chastising or telling his parents, the man allowed him to continue plucking as many apples as he wanted for as long as he wanted. So theft was not a crime; it was a communal act. That settled it. I so wanted those Little Twin Stars and Hello Kitty adhesives.

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The robbery was easy. Each student was designated a cubby hole to store one’s things. The stickers were in an album with magnetized pages. We did it during recess, two packets each. We would have gotten away with it had John not given one packet to a girl he liked, Marianna, a dancer in ponytail who was walking around class with the loot pressed to her bosom. “She stole my stickers,” Claudia told me with eyes seething.

What happened next was a trial of loyalty and ethics. In “On the Waterfront,” Terry Malloy is childlike, a sensitive soul on the wrong side of the law due to familial allegiance, muddled over a killing his snitching precipitates. His boyish lamentation: “I thought they’d talk to him. I thought they’d talk to him and get him to dummy up. I figured the worst they was gonna do was lean on him a little bit.” I myself was perturbed over the hurt I had caused Claudia because she was somewhat of a friend. Her two older sisters were high school besties to my sister and remain close to her to this day. More than that, I had known John’s apple tale to be bogus; I just needed something to legitimize what we have all been taught goes against the grain of human decency.

Our teacher, Mrs. Engwa, beloved by us fifth graders for being motherly but young and pretty with long black hair held back by a decorative clip (so girlish was she) had John, Claudia, and Marianna stay after class. John requested my presence, while Marianna requested the presence of her BFF, Sue, a Korean girl who cut the image of the pristine student – black-rimmed glasses, baby doll frocks, and a mullet cut. I couldn’t say no. Such guilt was already anchoring me down. “Who else is involved in this?” Mrs. Engwa asked John in a comforting tone, as two of the four sticker packets were yet unaccounted for. Sue, always assertive and smart, a pro of a philatelist at 11, adapted the tone of a judge. “Yes, John, who else?”

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John was quiet, didn’t budge. He refused to name the other guy. No matter how hard Mrs. Engwa and Sue coaxed, how intently Claudia and Marianna fixed eyes on him, he was quiet. We were seated at a desk, in an air-conditioned room with a carpeted floor – a cozy environment – but I was suffocating. I got off my chair, fell to my knees, and said, “It’s me. He made me do it.” In an instant, I revealed myself to be a thief, a liar, and a coward, pointing a finger at another in an effort to elude blame. A hush befell all, this mixture of dismay, disgust, and disappointment.

The stickers were returned to their rightful owner. Mrs. Engwa allowed us boys to go free but warned that should we do this again, our parents would be notified. Within days, we were back to our name calling of Fagalito and Claudia Kaboogabooger, trading stamps, and gathering on the floor as Mrs. Engwa sat above us in a chair to read us a story. Such is childhood. We easily forgive and forget, and friendships are transient. Come the sixth grade, John and I barely talked. Still, some lessons stay with us for the rest of our lives. I had never felt uglier as I did at that moment of confession, on my knees and in tears. In retrospect, the incident strengthened my moral fiber.

There’s this perennial debate: is man inherently evil or is man inherently good? I believe in the latter. I see evil as a necessary trial to overcome in order for us to discover the path to righteousness. And so we cheer for Terry Malloy. Sure he’s a bum. But he’s got the smarts to admit it and the heart to do something about it.

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Gong Li: The Garbo of the Far East

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The Asian Greta Garbo. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) Such is the agnomen the press has anointed Chinese actress, Gong Li. This is no minor comparison. Garbo is a legend, a screen deity from an epoch where few stars are remembered, what more ona last name basis. Here are the other two survivors: Chaplin (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/city-lights-the-eyes-as-windows-to-the-soul/) and Valentino (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/rudolph-valentino-fire-of-the-silver-screen/). Of course, there’s Swanson, although it was a talkie that earned her immortality. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/sunset-boulevard-the-edge-of-madness/)

Why this honor, you might wonder. Watch “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), the Oscar Best Foreign Film that brought Li to our attention. Director Zhang Yimou does something reminiscent of a Garbo vehicle. He manipulates his camera to make love to his star. This iconoclastic approach to film making is rare. It isn’t always that a movie so feeds off an actress that her beauty is the nexus of the plot. I’ve witnessed it only in one other film made in my life time, and that would be “Tess” (1979). The object of adoration in the Roman Polanski classic: Nastassja Kinski, who herself inspired critics to link her to Garbo. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/)

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Polanski and Kinski were an item, as were Yimou and Li; hence, the press romanticizing of such pairings as “the artist and the muse.” The collaboration was never more apparent than with the latter couple. Polanski directed Kinski in one film, whereas Yimou directed Li in at least seven. So potent was the chemistry between the Chinese auteur and his actress that it propelled both to artistic and commercial renown with their first film. Their meeting was simple enough. Yimou discovered Li while she was just a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, casting the 23-year-old in “Red Sorghum” (1989), where she plays a poor rural lass in an arranged marriage with a wealthy older man. Concubine, mistress, courtesan, femme fatale… these are the feminine archetypes Gong Li has often inhabited. Now you see why the Greta Garbo analogy?

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Typecasting, you might scoff.  If you were in Zhang Yimou’s position, I doubt you’d be able to resist modeling such a discovery after Garbo for the posterity of future film viewers. Lips the sweetness of plum blossom, complexion chrysanthemum radiant, a peony’s commanding beauty… Li on screen is a flower soft in demeanor but that withstands winds and storms. In “Red Sorghum,” she survives abduction and war. In “Raise the Red Lantern,” she schemes for liberation from marital enslavement. From “Shanghai Triad” (1995) to “Eros” (2004), from “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) to “Coming Home” (2014) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/coming-home-in-love-and-war/), Gong Li plays proud and dignified, no matter that tragedy could be her fate. Though not all of her films feature her under the directorship of Yimou, his influence on her is evident. The message her former Svengali has written in her every expression and gesture is readable to all: this is the plight of the Asian woman; it speaks of the chains that have shackled all women since Eve.

My sister could not get herself to see “Raise the Red Lantern,” its subject of misogyny too personal (as it is for many women). Regardless, she could not be immune to Gong Li’s novel stature as an icon either. She even got to stand in the actress’s place. This because of a dress. Fame brought Li to the attention of Shanghai Tang, the premier brand in the Far East of high-end garments and luxury items and from whom my sister would have cheongsams custom tailored. During one fitting, the seamstress had my sister slip on a cheongsam Li had modeled. It was a perfect fit, save for the bosom of which Li is more ample than the average Asian female. What flattery. Shanghai Tang was swathing my sister in the silk that had caressed the woman consistently hailed as one of the most beautiful in the world, a privilege the brand rarely bestowed on its clients, if ever at all.

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That was the 1990s. It’s hard to believe Gong Li is now 50. Such is existence in the real world. Unlike her Hollywood counterparts, however, she need not bewail the dearth of roles for having reached middle-age. Li is revered enough so that she continues to command attention even when stripped of glamor; thus, her turn as a political dissident’s wife in “Coming Home,” dowdy and demented with only the emotionality of those eyes to rivet us viewers. She is arguably the Mona Lisa of the 21st century, in the most modern medium of aesthetic expression.

This brings me to the endurance of art and the mysterious ways in which a masterpiece comes to fruition. Without Gong Li, there would not have been Zhang Yimou as we know him. The same could be said of all the celebrated artists and their muses in eras past from Dante and Beatrice Portinari to Man Ray and Kiki de Montparnasse. We are born with the capacity for brilliance, yet for that brilliance to explode at full force, its debris glitter in the universe for time immemorial, a missing link is crucial much like a key to a lock. There is truth to the saying that behind every great man is a great woman (or vice versa), and so I wonder what brought Frida Kahlo to her Diego and T.S. Eliot to his Vivienne. Was their pairing serendipitous or preordained?

Whatever the case, they met and fell in love, and their love transcended the commonplace romance to produce art over which the world marvels. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in “Lolita” of the doomed Humbert Humbert when the child predator authors a manuscript to perpetuate his devotion for the girl vixen: “I am thinking of aurochs and angles, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” The only way that love lasts beyond the grave is through our celebration of it in songs and poems, in stories and images. The images at our disposal have multiplied in the span of the millennium, from carvings on a cave wall and oil on canvass to camcorders and mobile filming. Cinema, with its fusion of narrative and visuals, remains the most powerful of all, gripping us viewers at the throat and tugging at our hearts.

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For all the political interpretations critics have applied to Zhang Yimou’s output in collaboration with Gong Li, one message is unmistakable: each one is the director’s shrine to his glorious star.

“Race”: Triumph of the Will

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Jesse Owens is an American hero. History remembers him as a soaring figure who dispelled Adolf Hitler’s ideology of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin. His main event was track and field; hence, the film’s title of “Race” (2016), an allusion to the man’s legacy on account of the sport and his ethnicity. As expected of a bio-pic on a personage of African-American heritage set in the Jim Crow era, the film depicts hurdles in a segregationist society that Owens (Stephan James) pushes himself to rise above. There’s the snubs of fellow athletes when he’s a student at Ohio State University and later, when he’s hailed champion, the White House’s refusal to allow him entrance through the front door so that he could attend a dinner in his honor.

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The incident that causes him the most anguish, however, comes from his own community. Many blacks accuse him of betraying them for accepting the Olympic committee’s invitation to compete in a country blatant in its persecution of Jews and people of color. Jesse Owens’s mission is a titanic one. He must snag the gold. Anything less, silver or bronze, would be failure; only first place will make a statement about the inequity of discrimination.

The Olympics brim with stories of trail blazers. In exceptional cases, a participant gains acclaim despite zero medal victory. Nobody is a loser. If Jesse Owens is at one end of the spectrum, he a born thoroughbred, then at the other end is British ski jumper Eddie Edwards. Far sighted, physically heavy, and his skills deficient, Edwards was the proverbial dark horse relentless in his training, every faulty landing and every jeer never clouding his focus. He made it to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Although he came in last, his pertinacity was so inspirational that at the closing ceremony, the president of the organizing committee singled him out amid the horde of gold, silver, and bronze: “You have broken world records and you have established personal bests. Some of you have even soared like an eagle.” And so was coined Edwards’s nickname of Eddie the Eagle, which also serves as the title to the ski jumper’s own 2016 bio-pic.

Whether political or personal, sportspeople have something to say. At every Olympics, a star emerges to capture our imagination. Scottish runner Eric Liddell, who regarded his speed as a gift from God rather than an expedient for the gold, was altruism personified in the 1924 games held in Paris (Liddell later became a missionary in China), and in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci earned the perfect score of ten in the uneven bars competition – the first time in Olympics history for a ten to be given and the first of the seven tens she would amass at the event – in effect rousing admiration and affection in the West for this 14-year-old child of the Eastern Block.

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However, Owens is unique among the greats. In spite of equality laws executed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the ills of racism, sexism and homophobia still thrive today. Strong evidence is in the continued existence of the Ku Klux Klan, which endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, he the president-elect who demonizes Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, is himself a purported rapist, and pledges to abolish same sex marriage. White supremacists threatened to assassinate Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had she won as well as to murder blacks. Now as in then, Jesse Owens is a symbol of disenfranchised empowerment. We who are oppressed must fight to protect our standing as citizens of the world, not with weapons as much as with faith in our cause and the will such faith imbues, and in so doing, we will race to the finish line, our arms raised to the heavens in triumph.

Triumph of the will is not just idealistic blather. This is a conviction that encapsulates the spirit of the Olympics. One of the 20th century’s most iconic films is testimony to this – “Olympia,” a project the Third Reich commissioned to memorialize the 1936 games. Although, as “Race” depicts, the film’s ulterior motive was to validate Aryan supremacy, director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) does something that the German government considers questionable, if not an affront. She includes athletes of all races. Owens, especially, captivates Riefenstahl, his record breaking feats impossible to ignore, and she dedicates copious footage to him. The director isn’t the only German in amazement of the African-American. In a gesture of sportsmanship, German runner Luz Long (David Kross) visits Owens in his room the night before they are to compete. Owens anticipates a disgruntled foe. Instead, he meets a fellow human who discloses his disgust for the Nazis and assures Owens his comradeship.

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Allies exist in unlikely people, in unlikely places. As long as what we advocate upholds respect and dignity, we are not alone. I will never forget my sister’s 26th birthday. She was earning her master’s at Harvard University, while I was an undergrad at Tufts University in the neighboring town of Medford. After a celebratory dinner, I joined my sister and her friends to a restaurant bar, and though I was 21, I didn’t have a valid ID. I presented my credit card to the waitress, thinking that financial means would indicate a relative maturity of age. She was a Caucasian woman in a tank top and hair cut short, with brisk movements and a blue collar Boston accent that elongated the “a” as “ahh.” Since she denied the credit card, I gave her dagger eyes, at which she responded likewise, averted her head, and huffed. With every valid ID the present company handed her, she took each with a jerk from the holder and returned with a flick of her wrist. We decided to leave. On the way out, I told the waitress she was rude. In my youthful impertinence, I might have even uttered that she was a bitch. “Get out of here, chink,” she said.

I would have accepted had the waitress called me an asshole. The obscenity would have been an attack on my attitude. No. “Racist,” I said. Andy, a Filipino such as I, pulled me by the arm to the door; the confrontation was futile. “They’ll see,” my sister said once we were outside, they a reference to the waitress and all like her who hate because of skin color. “We’ll make successes of ourselves.” My sister and her friends today build homes and commercial compounds, and I persist on my calling as a writer, having penned one novel thus far. (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/the-reward-of-being-an-author-it-isnt-money/) We didn’t succeed on our own. Our ammunition: the opportunities with which our education gifted us. I myself can mention a few motivational words from teachers, but none as encouraging as those from Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize author who mentored me at the Cornell writing program, when a manuscript I had completed was accumulating rejections. I had not foreseen Lurie and Cornell University to be in my future, but through faith in my talent and diligence, both were:

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Please don’t give up. You are a gifted writer, and have important things to say. Remember that many, even famous writers, were rejected many times by stupid editors.

Please don’t give up. Nobody ever says that unless he or she means it. How this plea pertains to us all in these uncertain times. Donald Trump is to be the 45th president of the United States of America. In defiance and fear, people against him are talking of migrating to another country. Abandoning ship is a reflex action. As President Barack Obama stated in his post-election speech, the path of politics has never been linear; it’s a zigzag with every blockade to progress an incentive to unite us so that we break through and march forward mightier than before. This is what impresses me about America. When summoned to act in the name of liberty and justice for all, Americans produce wonders as big as the nation itself. The Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Movement, The Women’s Rights Movement, The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement… all these movements happened here, their impact manifest in many parts of the globe. Rather than quit as the going gets tough, we Americans get even tougher. We haven’t reached the finish line yet. Lord knows how many decades or centuries more we need to trudge. Nevertheless, we will.

Hence, Jesse Owens and the Olympics. The games are a microcosm of the world, a simulacra of life. Not everything is in our favor. Life is a melange of rights and wrongs, privileges and injustices. To surmount the odds seems impossible, until a hero like Owens defies gravity to make us believe otherwise. Owens was one man. Imagine the heights ascended if we each could muster his will to join forces towards a unanimous mission.

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“The Notebook”: Do Not Forget… Do Not Forget…

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Sure, “The Notebook” (2004) is sappy, a weepie contrived to appeal to a demographic of teen girls and ladies with lacquered nails. But hey, the film has a male fan base, too. 12 years after its release, “The Notebook” is now a classic, primarily due to Facebook. Originally ignored when released in theaters, it created a buzz when postings of the love story that vanquishes Alzheimer’s crowded the social media.

From the very beginning, “The Notebook” gets it right by introducing us to Allie (Gena Rowlands) and Duke (James Garner) in their old age. She is in a nursing home. He is a frequent visitor whose identity causes her much confusion. We sense the two must have a history for Duke to be diligent in his visits. How sprawling and beautiful that history is only becomes apparent to us when Duke reads passages Allie had written in a notebook. As expected, they were once a vivacious pair in the throes of a passion that glosses the world an eternal spring. And so we watch the progression from youth to agedness. Such is the power of the flashback, its ability to contrast with starkness two polar points in life: birth and death.

Upon love’s nativity, young Allie (Rachel McAdams) is a rich girl and young Duke (Ryan Gosling) is a poor boy torn apart by a class structure that deems them unfit to wed. However, she isn’t distraught for long. Enter Lon Hammond, Jr. (James Marsden). Her societal match, Lon is a Southern aristocrat with a penchant for wine and horses and a genuinely nice guy, besides. Since he has the approval of Allie’s parents, Allie experiences a resurgence of joy, and with her faith in love restored, she believes she is over Duke. She isn’t, of course; this is meant to be a tale of a woman torn between two lovers. Hence, the guy comes back and what we’ve got is drama upon drama.

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Really, “The Notebook” is all very formulaic. Nonetheless, the movie resonates with us because we all eventually fall prey to time and the loss of memory. As I approach the end of my fifth decade, the notion of a mid-life crisis flabbergasts me. When we are young, we think we will be young always, all the more in the midst of childhood. As long ago as that was for me, I still feel the security the white carpet and four walls of my parents’ room assured me, in a white house on a street named Carissa. With “The Carol Burnett Show” my family’s favorite TV viewing, laughter filled the room. Not even murder could dampen the conviviality of our evenings, thanks in part to “Ellery Queen,” the whodunit detective series, every episode of which introduced a victim about to be offed talking to the camera as if the viewer were the killer. Such a gimmick engaged us in a guessing game for the next 30 minutes.

My reality paralleled the ebullience of the alternate universe encased in a black and white portable TV: the birthday cake Tita Zennie baked that was a diorama of match box cars on an icing highway; sleep-overs with my three favorite cousins Richard, Ariel, and Joel; sun blazed weekends as we lounged by the pool, the grass and shrubs that surrounded us the brilliance of polished jade. An accident on the day I turned eight nearly ruptured this idyll existence. My parents had given me a clock, one that with its white stem and red head resembled a flower. At school, I was excited for dismissal so that I could return home to gaze at the glow in the dark numbers as the time piece ticked away the seconds. I ended up at the dentist instead.

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During recess, in a game of patintero, where players were dared to cross a line without being tagged by the It who stood on the demarcation, I had not been looking in front of me while running to avoid the It. In a moment as spasmodic as the shower scene in “Psycho” (1960), life was reduced to a series of splice edits. A boy before me was crying; my teeth had formed an indentation on his bald head. I turned to the side, only to witness my friends recoil in horror. I looked down. My white shirt was red. I attempted to shut my mouth but couldn’t. One incisor was protruding from the gums, while the other had fallen out. For I was numb from shock, an older boy brought me to the clinic, where my mother was then contacted. At home, as I rushed to the bathroom to change out of my bloodied top, I glimpsed my clock and thought of the mishap, This is a gift from the devil.

The dentist reinserted the incisors, a procedure that required five anesthesia shots and took three hours. This was 1975. Needles then were tooth pick thick. I had pleaded with Dr. Eraña’s assistant to wait until I dozed off before the operation commenced. Caressing my hand, she would ask, “Are you asleep now?” I’d shake my head, until she finally said, “We need to get started.” I can still hear the crunch upon contact between the needle and the gums – the snack, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies. “You’re the bravest boy in the world,” Dr. Eraña said when the operation was done. She was impressed that I didn’t cry, contrasting me to a grown man whom she claimed had been sobbing the other day over work done with his molars.

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So I survived, and my childhood resumed its innocence. We moved to a larger house on a street named Acacia, with a larger pool in a larger garden. Trees were ever present during my formative phase. Just as leaves sprout on branches, layer upon layer of foliage that reach the sky, so did one gleeful memory after another. It seemed they would never end. Every weekend was a frolic in the pool. Every summer brought me to relatives who reside in America. Every Christmas and New Year’s gathered yet more of the extended family in our garden, a landscape of hillocks and orchids and trees a bonanza of tropical fruits.

Love renders our memories golden. To an equal degree that Allie and Duke in “The Notebook” regard each other, we treasure those who have been a part of events we have come to enshrine in our thoughts. Yes, we all have stories of romance to narrate, perhaps not on the scale of a Nicholas Sparks heart tickler, but some even so that evince our dedication to a place and a person… be it a lover, a friend, or a relation. We are the sum of our memories. To lose them would be to lose who we are. Thus, our ceaseless efforts to keep them. We take pictures. We maintain personal bonds. We write.

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Our efforts adapt an urgency as time hastens. Funeral bells toll. Voices diminish into a murmur. Faces fade. Do not forget. Do not forget. Without the love remembrances sow in us, we are vacant entities, bodies bereft of a soul.

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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“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.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”: Ignorance Is Bliss… Or Is It?

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During my junior year at the American College in Paris, I took a philosophy course where the discussion for the day was a utopian future in which we human beings could achieve a uniform state of happiness. One guy in class supported the possibility. He justified his stance with theories of conditioning and physiological programming. The guy could have been a sci-fi junkie, what with his nasal voice and dark hair Medusa curly, black-rimmed glasses and stout physique – the embodiment of a nerd – and only a nerd could subscribe to the notion of people as mechanical as robots. I disagreed, of course. The problem was that I hadn’t yet acquired the material or developed the rhetoric to defend myself. “As it is, we all have a different idea of happiness, so how could it ever be the same?” I asked, at which he responded that we could evolve to a Nirvana in which all our dissimilarities would disappear. “But… but…” I stammered.

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Through the 29 years since that day, the liberal politics of San Francisco (where I now reside) have enlightened me to the merit of diversity. If I could relive the discussion between the two of us, I’d say that for Homo sapiens to converge on one definition of happiness, we’d have to eradicate all that individuates each of us – from gender and ethnicity to creed and personal history. We would even need to do without love, for love begets pain, and considering the multitudinous degrees with which we hurt, the intensity that we feel love’s joy would vary in equal measure.

A world bereaved of the sensation of our hearts in a flutter over someone who stands out as unique to the rest of the population… what would that be like? The question could be the basis of a separate course entirely. Unfortunately, most of us are working folks scant of hours to sit in a classroom. We can spare 108 minutes, however, the running time of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). No need to read Buddha or Plato or Sartre either. Simply grab a bowl of popcorn, relax, and watch. The answer will unfold before us.

As the film title indicates, every day would be sunny, life carefree, and we wouldn’t have a bothersome thought, at least not the kind that drives Juliet to stab herself with her dead beau’s dagger. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) It really is an attractive prospect. In the alternative world presented in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a clinic performs a procedure to obliterate all remembrances of a failed romance. Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) is proof of the procedure’s benefit. She can carry on with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), the man who caused her emotional ruination, as though the split between them had never been; absent from her recollections, Joel is now a stranger. If she could do without him, he reasons, then he could do without her. But mid-way through the procedure, Joel realizes that he’d rather live with heartache than without.

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The guy is a clodpate. What good does hurting do us? If anything, we yearn for the wretchedness to pass, downing a bottle of vodka to benumb our insides. Some of us are so messed up from a break up that a psychiatrist’s couch is more comfortable than our own bed. And yet, this apothegm: “Better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all.”

Love is veritably the stimulus to our existence, despite its outcome. Today would not be today as we know it had Mark Antony and Cleopatra remained immune to the spell of dopamine and had Edward VIII not abdicated the throne to wed the American divorcee who, in rattling his heart, sabotaged the British monarchy. The Egyptian and Roman empires might have flourished for centuries more; Charles and Diana would never have been; and we would have less to gossip about. Now take away Lancelot and Guinevere, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Urbino, and the many trysts of Querelle. Gaping holes would be left in our literary canon. As a result, we’d be deprived of tales to fortify our conviction that love exceeds the limits of age and death. In essence, love… for all the weariness it inflicts… gives us something larger than ourselves to aspire for – a treasured place in someone’s memory, a piece of heaven, immortality. Even if the affair should come to an end, we shall have made an impact on a life.

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I have no doubt that breathing would be simpler should the yearning to possess and to be possessed never aggravate us, for it is an aggravation. Worse than that, it’s a tribulation, especially when it becomes a pattern that our own status with the person we so desire puts us in a quandary. We lose appetite, sleep, and rationale. We’re angry and frustrated but have no outlet to vent. A community such as that which thrives on the Star Trek Enterprise is ideal. Be us black, white, yellow, or brown, race is of no issue, and whether Vulcanian or Earthling or a specie from any member of the United Federation of Planets from Aaamazzara to Zytchin, relationships of all nature prosper. We are more similar than different. Conflicts over love never linger. Whatever our dissentions, we reach a resolution by the end of an episode, and forward we voyage through limitless galaxies with our hearts at ease.

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Or we could regress to the innocence of Adam and Eve. How liberated we would be prancing nude among bushes a combustion of butterfly leaves and wading through streams jewel blue. No shame in our bodies equals no self-doubt. Love is a given. We wouldn’t need to fight for it. We wouldn’t need to prove our worth. So complacent we would be that we probably wouldn’t know what love is. That’s as good as having a spotless mind on which the sun shines eternal. As poet Thomas Gray once wrote: “Ignorance is bliss.”

But then where would be the passion in such ignorance? In a resolution secured in a span of 30 minutes? Nowhere. We would be as characterless as unhatched eggs – alive within, but entrapped in shells that deter us from expressing the multidimensionality of our colors. So the serpent despoils Eden, and Krall attacks the Star Trek Enterprise. With the omen of danger forevermore a stain on paradise, we are alert to all we must value, reminding ourselves never again to take them for granted: family, friendship, companionship… everything that instigates in us selfless acts in order for us to hold closer those who are dear.

Joel Barish in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is no dummy. Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) himself is skeptical of his own love-amnesia device. So someone we thought would grow old with us has taken off, never to return. Tears were shed and words of hate were spewed. We’re a prostrated lot. Yet through the murk, a light shines through. We have learned through the ordeal what we are capable of giving – a helluva lot – and with our appetite for life rejuvenated, we continue our march on the battlefield of love, positive that victory awaits at this next round, a happiness ours to keep.

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“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.

Kelly LeBrock: “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful…”

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Thus goes one of the most famous tag lines in advertising history as purred by Kelly LeBrock. With a flip of the hair and a rapturous smile, she makes Pantene shampoo something for a man to fantasize about. Should we ever wonder how females responded to the commercial, watch “Weird Science” (1985), the John Hughes comedy in which our supermodel plays a dream woman a pair of horny geeks (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) brings to life by feeding magazine cut outs of her image to a computer. As a teen girl (Suzanne Synder) gripes over LeBrock, “She’s so beautiful, and her body is… it’s gorgeous. I mean, what would I be compared to her?”

The question sums up the enigma Kelly LeBrock must have been to those born in her ilk. However, adulation had not always been the lot of this libidinal creature. Because LeBrock was not all-American, her look was at the start slow to catch on, particularly in the Philippines, where people to this day idealize the United States as one step close to heaven. As a result, I credit myself for having discovered her.

The year was 1983. I was a high school junior when one day my Filipino literature teacher allowed us students to spend recess in the classroom. An issue of Vogue was making the rounds. When the magazine landed on my desk, I opened it to a fashion pictorial, and what graced the pages caused my head to throb as if I had just unearthed Nefertiti’s bust. Those lips – voluptuous, sexy, as delectable as strawberry; the sensuous gaze; the haughty stance… LeBrock displayed the qualities of history’s most fawned upon femmes fatales, from ancient queens to the seductresses of the camera, starting with Garbo (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) and culminating with the celluloid sensation of the day, Nastassja Kinski (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/).

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“I don’t find her pretty at all,” a girl said. “I like the gloves she’s wearing,” said another. The guys couldn’t get past the lips, and not in a favorable way either. They found the lips flagrantly large. Indeed, they were; hence, my instant attraction. LeBrock was unlike any actress or model before her, and I’ve always been one for a peculiarity, something or someone that doesn’t adhere to a standard edict of beauty but that commands our attention because the object or person possesses a certain je ne sais quoi. That was LeBrock. Contrary to what second millennium film viewers believe, the full lip craze did not begin with Angelina Jolie.

To no avail, I insisted that LeBrock was gorgeous. Nonetheless, I was sure that someday my friends would change their minds; nobody could be that blind for long. The day came with the release of “Woman in Red” (1984). Pre-“Weird Science,” the film was the first to cast LeBrock as a dream woman, this time one in fleshly form, the target of an advertising executive’s adulterous cravings. Set in San Francisco, “Woman in Red” follows Teddy Pierce (Gene Wilder) as he stalks the mysterious beauty through a maze of urban hills and landmarks reminiscent of “Vertigo” (1958). (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/vertigo-in-search-of-the-perfect-mate/) (Trivia: the Brocklebank Apartment Building, which features prominently in both movies, is located a block away from where I live.)

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Suddenly, Kelly LeBrock was a sex symbol to every pubescent boy and CEO. “Woman in Red” was best viewed on betamax, given the machine’s feature that allowed for slow mo. “Kita yung kiki,” gushed my friend, Jonathan, in reference to a scene in which LeBrock flashes her privates as she wraps herself in a bed sheet. We can surmise that the tape section containing the segment must have been marred due to incessant rewinds.

Although I gloated over the realization of my prophecy, the means to the end disappointed me. “’Woman in Red’ desecrates the idealized image of her,” I commented to a guy when the subject of LeBrock came up a few years later in college. He laughed. Herein is the difference between a heterosexual and a homosexual man. A straight male is attracted to a woman on a carnal level. A gay one, such as myself, appreciates her on an aesthetic level. Herein, as well, is the difference between a figure in stasis and one in kinesis. The former invites the spectator to project one’s own ideas onto the subject, endowing him or her with characteristics that ingratiate one’s wants and needs. The latter humanizes the subject. Speech, movement, thought… all factors that expound on an individual’s three-dimensionality… permit less room for fantasy.

In hindsight, no other model could have done what LeBrock does in “Woman in Red” and “Weird Science.” Christie Brinkley is perfect in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). The role called for a California blonde to pose and pout in a white dress in front of a red Ferrari, white being the color and a Ferrari the flashiness synonymous with the American West Coast. LeBrock, on the other hand, exuded a continental persona – dark-haired, aloof, European exotic. Certainly, other models might have qualified. Joan Severance and Carré Otis come to mind. Despite being American, they were more sophisticated than girl next door. But the lips were a key factor, and only one among the contenders stood at the forefront in that department.

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Kelly LeBrock got was she deserved. The woman reeked of animal magnetism. A pity had she not been cast in either film, thus forever remaining invisible to mankind. Regardless, I can’t help associating her with a passage from the novel “Palace of Desire” by Nobel-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz:

… she has descended from heaven and is wallowing in the mud, after living grandly over the clouds… she’s allowed her cheek to be kissed, her blood to be shed, and her body to be abused.

These are the thoughts an intellect by the name of Kamal harbors for Aida, a woman he is enamored with but whom he holds in such a lofty plane that upon her betrothal to another, he considers it a defilement that she should partake in a physical union with a man, no matter that the man is to be her husband. Kamal can’t even conceive of Aida emptying her bowels. He reminds me of my own early opinion of Kelly LeBrock. The fellow may as well be gay.

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Alas, as a film historian declared of Jayne Mansfield, “Sex is an expendable commodity.” Kelly LeBrock could not be a pinup forever. Not only did she age, but she also gained weight, a ton of a lot of weight. In 2005, she procured media attention as a participant in “Celebrity Fit Club,” undergoing rigorous exercise and diet, all under the specter of her once bombshell statistics of 34-23-36. How reassuring it must have been to millions of women that a Cosmo cover girl, the unattainable ideal, should suffer as they did from negative body image. Of the public’s reaction to her plus size physique, LeBrock has said, “Sometimes people have been cruel, and people aren’t always nice.”

None of us can ever be as we were in our twenties. Such an aspiration is unnatural, inhuman. Fortunately, the goddess who descended to earth in “Woman in Red” and “Weird Science” is an obsession of the past, and the lady behind the image has trimmed down by a method realistic to a human being in her fifties. “I grow all my veggies and make my own cheese and yogurt,” the former model/actress said in a 2013 interview. “To work the land full time keeps me so fit that I haven’t worked out in seven years. I clean the pool myself, muck out the pigs and the horses.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2402408/Kelly-LeBrock-comes-hiding-photoshoot-reveals-toll-drugs-divorce-took-her.html)

At last, Kelly LeBrock has found peace, a tranquil existence in a Santa Barbara ranch. Life goes on.

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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.