1. optimists

The set of Love It & Leave It stinks of pennies and actresses. We’re sitting in the director’s booth when Chazrick Villarosa decides that being the lead dramatic-reenactment actor for a local talk show about Los Angeles-love-gone-sour is not good enough. He wants to leave with me for Manila. Barely twenty-five, he’s fed up with playing the Disgruntled Hispanic and he believes he deserves creative control.

I was destined to do things grand, he says, I don’t wish to die like this.

You won’t die, I assure him. I refuse to hold you back. What if I never write again?

We’re destined for greatness, he says. Your ideas. Your words. Your scripts. My talent.

I refuse to hold you back.

I promise, Chazrick says as he reapplies globs of gel to his hair and firmly kisses my eyelids. I’m not tired of you yet.

Optimism is tiresome.

2. american smile

It’s Chazrick’s final day at Love It. His very last scene concludes in the bedroom. At the foot of the bed, Pretty Novia (playing herself in this reenactment) is performing violent yet critical oral sex on the Other Hombre when Hispanic Novio (Chazrick in muscles and khakis) bursts through the door and with his .22 caliber shoots out the ceiling lamp, the fan still spinning wildly. Pretty Novia approaches the camera, brushes the disheveled horsetail from her face, and says, baby boo, if you still there, mi amor, I’m single for real-for real. Cut.

Chazrick’s going-away party is nothing special: red streamers, slices of leftover chocolate cake from one of the actress’s recent weddings, balloons taped to the props, and cheap vodka. Morgan Renoir, the producer of Love It, embraces Chazrick and me at the same time.

I hate to lose you to your own, he says.

His necktie is made of stiff denim. His knuckles are bushy. And his alligator shoes are flimsy and elfish. Morgan Renoir is plugging Chazrick into the Manila scene.

You’re talented, he reminds Chazrick as he punches his arm. A word of advice. Wear your smile proudly. The American smile is contagious. Even in the provinces. The worst conditions there. War. Hunger. Typhoons. But the people know happiness. Man oh man, do they know their happiness.

3. love is

If he were happy, Chazrick would never leave L.A. for Manila. But lately, he’s been hard on himself. In the last four months, he’s attempted suicide at least five times. Charcoal. Aspirin. Charcoal and aspirin. The last time, just last week, he came home from Love It and attempted to drink himself to death.

Why? I asked.

God doesn’t trust me, he said. With anything.

He passed out on the couch after a mere eight shots of tequila.

Our relationship is the depression Olympics. Whenever I write, he loathes himself. And whenever he’s successful, I sleep off my anxiety for hours upon hours. Usually these spells simply pass. But when I faked the miscarriage, stopped writing, muted myself, and wanted to die, I felt hollow for weeks. Then, Chazrick saved me. He made things like eating, combing my hair, and brushing my teeth monumental events.

God, he would say as he’d tuck me in, trusts in your existence. God, he would say, believes in you and believes in me. Maybe not in the baby. But in us.

For this alone, I love him. And for this alone, I owe him.

I just don’t want to hold you back, I often say now. I just don’t want you to resent me.

I promise I won’t.

Sure?

Yes. God. Positive. Don’t get caught up in semantics.

Like god? Or like love?

Yes. See. Stop.

4. the humidity of it all

Soon, we’re in the back of a cab snaking through Manila traffic. Manila is like an apology. Brown faces. Brown clouds. Billboards acting as sky. Shopping malls swallowing all. Rows of hotels competing for tourists. Floral prints walking and walking. Sweat trickling. Beggars in faded Gap T-shirts.

This is us, Chazrick says. This is us. I can feel it. Can you?

Feel what? I ask.

Chazrick doesn’t answer. Instead, he daydreams.

Manila is simply overcrowded. It’s not humidity, my mother would say, it’s the people breathing on you. Next to tall churches and gas stations, shanties collapse onto brick walls. And everywhere there are clothes stiffened on clotheslines, resistant to the breeze, as if the garments had been abandoned for some time.

There’s not enough air, I say.

The cabdriver rolls down the window, inviting the scent of sizzling pork and fruity perfumes. Chazrick ingests this swollen city. He’s always had a thing for crammed spaces. It’s the attention. His face glows. It seems as if I no longer have to worry about him.

This was a good idea.

The cabdriver turns up the air and lights a cigarette. Up ahead, schoolgirls in green and cream uniforms cross the street. Nine hunched nuns trail behind. No one uses a crosswalk. Everywhere along the road, someone is selling something. Dodging buses and cabs, kids peddle sampaguitas and cigars. Some push chewing gum. An orange-haired lady strolling along the storefronts sips the Coca-Cola she has clearly failed to sell to thirsty tourists. Flashes of white people with maps and high socks remind me of home.

We finally arrive at our motel: Wow! Beds & Cable Available.

5. beds, cable, and those koreans

The faucet in our bathroom is angled slightly so that water spills onto the floor and dampens the chili-pepper carpet in the bedroom. Most of the room is taken up by three side-by-side twin beds covered by one gigantic green comforter. A turquoise mosquito net is stapled to the window frame.

Sundown is bronze and reeks of damp bark, bleach, and mints.

We’re on the beds, watching TV.

Perplexing, I say.

It’s one of those Korean dramas that invaded Philippine airtime. My mother and her sisters love them. Those Koreans know how to cry, they say. Nothing unnecessary. No postmodern this. No postmodern that.

On screen, Slim Girl and Not-So-Slim Madam are fighting over Hunk. Slim slaps Not-So-Slim, whose cheek roses up. Not-So-Slim gasps for approximately five seconds. Then, in retaliation, she yanks Slim’s silky hair. Hunk intervenes, but in doing so his face is scratched, slapped, and punched by both women. Hunk’s flat-ironed bangs remain intact.

Chazrick turns off the TV. There’s still a hum.

I don’t get it, I say. You really think this is us?

You can write Korea, laughs Chazrick. You can write anything.

And you can star, I say, being that you’re so yellow.

Mocha.

Right.

Chazrick scoots under the comforter. It feels like moist sandpaper.

You really think Morgan Renoir has your best interest in mind? I ask.

I’m the lead, Chazrick says. Morgan said I’ll have creative control.

Like at Love It?

Morgan said I make the show. I. Chazrick.

You? How? What exactly did he say?

Cultural Determinism.

Oh, I say. Cultural Determinism: if you were born in the States, they’ve been looking for you. It’s that simple. Your accent is clean. Your skin glows. And everything about you smells of apples. This, I’m sure, does not apply to us writers. They don’t need our alphabet, let alone our ideas.

There’s too much value on drama here, I say.

Drama? Chazrick says, sounding as if he’s not up for my philosophizing tonight. He kisses me and turns over to sleep. You mean theater?

No, I say, I mean the perpetual nightmare of the upper class. The wealthy suffer the most. Fiction is their documentary. The wealthy suffer multiple infidelities and cycles of revenge. Right?

Chazrick is almost dead asleep but I continue anyway.

In the beginning: A funeral. In the middle: A funeral. Everyone wails. The whole time. All because the mother cheats on her husband who’s been depressed about their son being kidnapped by guerrillas. Later, we discover the son dead in a trench. The mother continues her affair with a man who happens not only to be the half-brother of her husband but also a former guerrilla. Eventually, the brothers murder each other, and at the double funeral the widows wish to fight but they can’t because they’re cousins. Piano score at the end.

Chazrick breathes hard as he sleeps. I can’t sleep. The unfamiliarity is tragic. This was a good idea. This place inspires. This is good for us. Really good.

The bells on the vendor carts outside must be warped.

Pandesal, the vendors yell, pandesal!

Everyone here begins early. I write until I become sleepy.

Are we too familiar? Too comfortable? Is there still passion? Will he ever leave me? Can he ever leave me? I can never leave him. I owe him. I owe him my life. Manila. Manila.

It is 5 a.m.

6. heartthrobbing

8 a.m. Morgan Renoir used to have sex with Reese De Verdad, who these days, in this very office, though not at this very moment, has sex with Sid David, former heartthrob news anchor turned executive producer for Pinakamagandang Maganda Network (PMN), who is now standing before us with combed eyebrows.

MR raves about you, says Sid David. He exhales white smoke in his white-walled office and offers us white chocolate from a tiny white bowl. MR, he continues, tells me CV is pure Pinoy talent. We have a BHR for you, Mr. Villarosa, a BHR.

BHR? I ask.

Big Huge Role. CV will be the best thing on television since Sexy Spaghetti Dancers.

I know no Tagalog, says Chazrick.

English, Sid David assures, is the language of entertainment. English is the lingua franca.

And Korean? I ask.

That’s not PMN. Those other networks just don’t know what to do with our own. The simple fact is Greater Asia, especially Korea, is attractive right now.

But what if a Korean experience doesn’t translate?

That doesn’t matter here, says Chazrick.

Right he is, says Sid David as he ashes his cigar. We don’t worry about authenticity.

Authenticity, I think to myself, is something all writers have. Someday someone might think it’s acceptable for a white man to pretend to be a geisha. Universal human condition? That line is drawn between our thighs.

Sid David’s new show will supposedly pique the interests of artists and audiences alike.

It’s humanitarian, he claims.

Thirty minutes of competitive, comedic improvisations performed by the basest of society, culminating in a grand prize of P50,000.

We provide what the people want, claims Sid David.

So, says Chazrick, what’s my role? Who am I?

The Big Man, says Sid David. He stands on his chair. The Handsome Host, he continues, with the voluptuous Reese De Verdad at your side.

My mother collects Reese De Verdad movies. Reese De Verdad always plays the lonely, lowly provinciana looking for love in the city. I don’t think Chazrick should settle for this.

Your stars are always mestizo, I remind Sid David.

Times are a-changin’, says Sid David as he sits back down and puts out his cigar in a glass of water. The notion of the light-skinned standard is so colonial. We’re global. With global standards. The most beautiful people are phenotypically ambiguous. You don’t know where they’re from. It’s the mystery that’s beautiful.

He gestures to the magazine covers. The bleach-blonde in a red and blue bikini on Gorgeous Says doesn’t even look human. And the one with an unfinished perm on Sid’s Picks appears white. Papery white.

Call this, continues Sid David, Post-Postcolonial Mentality. In fact, it’s not even a mentality. It’s simply the way. And even that’s a passing trend. We move fast. Filipinos are the new thing. Like CV here.

Filipino Americans, I say.

Same thing.

Not quite.

Sounds like a good idea, says Chazrick, his eyes glossy with excitement. Sounds perfect.

This is it, I think to myself. Because of the hope in his face, this is it. I love Chazrick Villarosa when he’s right.

What you’re hearing, says Sid David, is perfection. In three weeks you’ll understand the perfection of God’s timing.

7. waiting and waiting and waiting

Week one. Manila is the bastard child of Hollywood. It’s where superstars morph into politicians. As Morgan Renoir says, all it takes is a smile.

Since my cousin works in the States, she’s letting us stay at her house in Pasig City. A massive concrete wall splits the one-story right up the center. The other half was her ex-husband’s. Not long after their divorce, he died from a freak poisoning accident. Our half is furnished with a mattress and the watery smell of sand.

While the people outside fight and laugh and sing karaoke all day long, I write. My stories are in English with moments of broken Tagalog. I hear beautiful Tagalog that I understand but cannot write. The people of this barangay may not be my target audience. I’ve never known who I write for.

But I’ve never been more productive. I submit unfinished drafts to film companies. The response time is quick. Just the other day a representative from Soap Films Inc. called and asked if I was American. I said yes, to which she replied, I see. Sorry. Your script is a failure. And before I could defend the thematic concerns of my work, Etcetera Unacceptable Here Studios cut me off with a simple nope, nope, sorry.

Chazrick thinks I need my privacy when I write so he leaves me at home when he travels to the province for auditions. A typical conversation when he returns:

Just came from Batangas, he says.

Where’s that? I ask.

Out in the green. The air is fresher. Come next time.

How was the audition?

Don’t like their writing. Hurry up, he encourages, and then kisses me.

You think you’ll find work before the show starts?

Normally a question like this would make him feel incompetent but lately he responds, Reese says I shouldn’t give up. Reese says I’m new. Reese says no one knows me yet.

But you’re talented.

They don’t know that. Reese says—

Reese De Verdad. Chazrick came here for us. I never let Reese De Verdad enter the house.

Dear Mother, I write, Reese De Verdad almost came into the house today.

Week two. I hate writing and I wish the store owners would stop arguing about who sells the fattest fish in the barangay. The house is still empty and I refuse to shower because the pipes like to regurgitate. This morning a large ipis corpse appeared in the sink. Add the smell of sizzling pork to sand and this place just is. These may be the symptoms of a bad idea.

Earlier, Chazrick came home between auditions.

What did Reese De Verdad say today? I asked.

He kissed my temple, then nibbled my cheek and said, I’m not jealous of your writing.

And out the door and down the stairs and through the alley he went.

Jealous? I wonder if he’s plotting to leave me. I wonder why he tolerates me. Each day, he needs me less and less. I think about telling him the truth about the miscarriage. But this isn’t about me.

I fold our laundry. The soap here is different. If you wait long enough, clothes start to sour and smell like spoiled rice. This country seems to be infatuated with waiting.

Soon enough, someone shows interest in my work. Tak Takahashi of the Anti-Metropolis Film Collective calls me and is intrigued by my story about a junkie’s unremorseful son who kills his mother to end her suffering.

It’s a compelling coming-of-age narrative, comments Tak Takahashi. I’d love to meet you.

Week three. Tak Takahashi is a chubby blonde Japanese man with no facial hair. We meet on a province-bound bus. It’s packed with provincianos and their boxes of goodies: fishing line, knives, necklaces, bullets, pirated movies. If they’re not provincianos, they’re musty European backpackers or nuns in jeans and habits.

I dig your style, says Tak Takahashi as we sit too close to each other. He spits thickness out of the window and offers me some chewing tobacco.

I kindly decline.

What’s your modus operandi? he asks.

I live in half a house in Pasig City, write first drafts, and fold laundry.

Why the infatuation with junkies?

My boyfriend isn’t one.

He shoves more tobacco in his mouth and asks, What does the BF do?

Audition.

I wait for the bus to stop so I can head back. This guy obviously isn’t going to purchase the script. He asks too many questions. I don’t like answering them; I like posing them. I’m a writer, not God.

The traffic becomes lighter. The construction workers masked in T-shirts disappear. Chazrick must love leaving the city for this: no buildings, no colorful billboards, a makeshift home made of tin and bricks every now and then but otherwise, it’s barren, undistracted, lifeless.

There’s never a good reason to look out there, says Tak Takahashi. It’s all in our heads anyway.

Maybe it is all in my head: Manila, Chazrick, who I am without Chazrick. I’m stable when he’s not and he’s stable when I no longer wish to be. I love my work regardless. I’ll hate my work regardless. I love Chazrick. It’s how we balance. He needs to love me.

What do you want? I finally ask Tak Takahashi.

My mother’s a Japayuki.

What?

A Japayuki.

So your mother and I have nothing in common, I say.

Not true. Tak Takahashi shakes his head. Not true at all. A Japayuki is an entertainer abroad.

I am a writer here, I affirm. She a junkie?

You’re abroad. And, no, she’s not.

Do you want to kill her?

Sometimes, he says. She dances for money. Some men offer money for sex. Sometimes it’s simpler. My mother fell in love with her client, a business man. She got pregnant and out I came. It’s the same story. You go abroad and find what you were never looking for. For your parents, it’s the same.

But the States—

You’re here, are you not? Confused. Not knowing who you do things for.

It’s true, I think to myself, but I’m also here to fall in love again.

Your work, continues Tak Takahashi, speaks to this dynamic boldly.

So what’s your best offer? I ask.

We’re anticapital, he says. Guerrilla film. People-oriented. Issue-oriented.

Then how does your work speak at all?

We have international distribution through the black markets. Burned vcds, dvds, vhs cassettes. And the Internet. Young Filipinos in Canada are forming their own little subversive film culture.

Why not create something for everyone? I ask. Not just a specific circle of elitists.

Have you sold anything yet? he laughs.

The bus stops. While the nuns leave to relieve themselves, vendors swarm the aisles. A man with a raspy voice recites, Peanuts pop soda chicharon spicy!

We want to shoot your film, says Tak Takahashi.

Peanuts pop soda chicharon spicy!

If it’s about telling the story, Tak Takahashi suggests, then it’s about telling it, di ba?

I tell him I’ll get back to him. He buys me a soda and says goodbye. The back of his shirt is soaked with sweat.

People like Tak Takahashi think films can speak from below. But how do you speak when someone else has their foot in your mouth?

And I thought I was a visionary.

8. showtime is god’s time

Sid David names the show begins—Because Generosity Is Never a Sin.

It’ll grab the attention of the poor and the churchgoers, he claims.

The set is minimal. There’s a hexagonal chrome stage and blue wooden bins full of props: baseball bats, tin cans, soda bottles, wigs, ceramic religious figurines, whiffle balls, clothes from what Sid David calls his “suede phase.”

Standing center stage is Chazrick Villarosa—in a tuxedo jacket and dark jeans—alongside the lovely Reese De Verdad, who wears a slim-fitting white gown. I stay offstage. The masses have yet to enter. The digital timer is set to zero.

The idea, says Sid David, is to show that it doesn’t take much to laugh because life is funny, di ba?

Oo nga, replies Reese De Verdad, flaunting her native accent.

Chazrick practices: Mga kapatid, welcome to begins! Ready to laugh your troubles away?

There’s nothing special about his voice. He knows this isn’t it. His Tagalog is painful. I see it in his eyes, the way he squints as if his vision were imperfect, as if he’s having trouble seeing beyond a certain point.

I pull him aside. You sure about this?

Trust me, he says and holds my shoulders. Let go of Hollywood. People who make it here make it by different means.

Foundation whitens his face and his lips are dull pink. He’s paper. Yet he seems to trust himself. I wonder if it’s because of Reese De Verdad. I kiss his palm to let him know I still support him.

It’s not the pandemonium Sid David had expected. Generosity seems to have been equated with charity. And Manilans are sharper than that. Proud. Nonetheless, ordinary and extraordinary people pack the studio while the cameras roll. Street scents of exhaust, musk, and baby cologne add realness to the already real atmosphere: spare, colorless, not fit for Philippine television. I’m in the back of the audience. Crowds are less distressing when the people are almost dead.

The first team of contestants is branded the Slum Dwellers. Sid David’s rationale is that it’ll be easier for them to identify with their humble beginnings. Only, it’s a humble beginning, middle, and end. The competing team is appropriately dubbed the Squatter Villagers.

Pacing back and forth and hopping at each turn, Chazrick reads from a card. The first situation for the Slum Dwellers is (he pauses for suspense)…your girlfriend is sick of rice and bananas so you satisfy her hunger with something else. Go!

He leaps off the stage.

The timer counts down from one minute.

Fifty-one. A woman in a pajama top grabs a bat and pretends to beat the hunger out of the girlfriend. No one laughs save for Reese De Verdad’s shrieking.

Forty-three. A boy with a crooked Mohawk takes a whiffle ball and puts it back down. Thirty-six. The same boy tries to create fire by rubbing two Virgin Mary statuettes together. The crowd sniffles.

Nineteen. Eighteen. Reese De Verdad violates the rules and joins in. She pretends to eat her hair.

Seven. Six. Five. Chazrick steps in and…

Four. Three. Two.

One. Time’s up.

In the end, the Squatter Villagers run away with P50,000. Money rains from the ceiling but no one chases it. While some crawl around, others catch the cash in their T-shirts. One man lets bills stick onto his perspiring forehead.

The bleachers wobble as the audience escapes.

Chazrick, clearly worn out, allows Reese De Verdad to close:

Join us again on B-E-G-I-N-S!

9. the reality of failing

One week later. If I say that I’m proud of the people of Manila, I either sound presumptuous or it seems I don’t support Chazrick. But they saw right through Sid David. His paring down of the variety show only exposed his lack of compassion for the contestants. Earlier this week, I read somewhere (I think it was an interview in Sid’s Picks) that Sid David is responsible for the hundreds of shampoo commercials running on PMN. If the daily airtime of these short commercials were added up, the sum would exceed that of all the news broadcasts. The executive producer is quoted: We give the people what they want.

Chazrick headstands in the corner of our half-house. His eyes are bloodshot because he won’t let himself sleep.

Manila fails me, he says, not even looking at me. I contemplate this. Never mind, he says. Manila fails me. Did you see? They didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Maybe I fail Manila.

We’ve only been here for a month and already he’s experienced his highest and, presumably, lowest points.

I headstand beside him and say, I’m in love.

Oh yeah? He turns in my direction. With?

Manila.

Funny.

The people make choices, I say. They choose what they want to see in this world.

So write about Manila. He falls forward, does a pushup and springs up to stretch. Reese says the best stories come from here.

That’s because they always cast her.

Still jealous? he chuckles.

I retreat to the mattress, which we’ve moved closer to the window so the sun can wake us up. Jealous? Reese De Verdad is attracted to a different Chazrick Villarosa, not the one in front of me.

We should go home, says the one in front of me.

You’re saying it was a bad idea?

There’s nothing here.

Maybe today’s Manila is just not ready. Tak Takahashi says Manila is unpredictable in that way.

That lowlife? Chazrick laughs. He’s not even independent. He’s guerrilla.

I haven’t spoken to Tak Takahashi since we met but I have read some of his articles in the Cubao Daily Messenger. Reviewing BEGINS, he wrote: Manila knows what it wants and when. The entertainment industry hits and misses. It all depends on the current sociopolitical situation. Sometimes a hit in the States translates directly over here. But don’t expect today’s laughter to be tomorrow’s. There’s no telling what will capture the hearts and minds of the masa.

Lately my stories have been set in Manila. One follows a stripper who has killed her unsupportive and abusive husband in order to continue stripping for her son’s tuition. There’s no resolution, no immediate conflict. I’m trying to avoid the predictable plot twist of turning her into a political assassin. I like numb and flat characters.

Chazrick joins me on the mattress. He’s scentless.

I’m not tired of you either, I say and kiss his throat.

This time Chazrick’s cynicism is real. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved him, even during his lowest. But now I like him. I honestly like the man I love. He’s making choices. Nothing is made up for him. It’s not all in his head. Or mine.

I don’t wish to leave, I say.

He nibbles my ear. This is the first time we have sex since our arrival.

Dear Mother, I write. Don’t expect me home anytime soon. I told you, I knew what I was doing. I’m working on a story about your life had you gone on to be a stripper like you said. I know you never said that but it makes it more dramatic. Tell the Aunties that here, sex steals. I’ll give your regards to Reese De Verdad.

10. creative control

Soap Films Inc. calls me about my latest script.

The violence is awkward, they say.

What’s normal violence? I ask.

We promise, when we feel the people are ready, we’ll consider your ideas.

Before I can hang up the lady says, our best advice is to come up with ideas that work. Get out of your head.

In a short while, we’re standing outside of PMN Studios. Sid David has assured us that the new format guarantees success. Multiplying by the hundreds, the masses are dressed for church—pressed T-shirts and jeans. One woman stands out with neon-red toenails. I thought people only gathered like this for protests. There’s something fishier than the air. It’s whatever Sid David did to resurrect this show. It feels like a baseball game or a politician’s funeral. The corn vendor struggles to push his cart because eager people think he’s cutting in line.

You’re the host of a variety show, I say to Chazrick.

No, he says, and scratches his ear. I’m at the launching point of my career. Remember what you said about more chances? Or were you just being selfish again?

(It’s true I’ve been focused on my writing. But selfish?)

I know Chazrick. One more failure means the end.

Sid David, in a vanilla polo shirt and slacks, approaches us.

The name of the show is now begins, he says as he uses his hands to span the title in the air, Because Guffawing Is Never a Sin. Pure comedy. Wala nang reality.

It’s a variety show, I respond.

It’s a comedic experience, claims Sid David as he walks off to the fish ball vendor.

Chazrick, I say, I know you’re determined—

I have creative control, he says, massaging my neck. I’m the host. Manila is not the focus. I am the focus.

Action! Somehow everyone knows the chorus to the opening sing-along: Pain pain pain / Pain is not a fortune / Pain pain pain / Laugh it all away / Pain pain pain / Tears are not the answer / Pain pain pain / Forget about your day.

Yellow and orange flags hang above the chrome stage. And the DJ booth—a king’s throne—is elevated, a loud metallic purple.

Surrounded by female dancers in skimpy pink fatigues is Chazrick Villarosa, clapping to the music. Reese De Verdad selects one lucky man from the audience to dance with her. He takes off his shirt and twirls it around. His back is a muddy rice paddy. The dancers, who look fifteen, snap their hips back and forth in a sex-like rhythm.

I climb down the bleachers to exit. This is not the Manila I love. Yesterday’s Manila would’ve exited before the music started blaring. Yesterday’s Manila would’ve abandoned this idea. Now, I wait in the gateway.

Game for some action? Chazrick asks his audience.

To which they readily reply, game na kami!

Game means “ready and willing.” It’s derived from another show. I’m not game for any of this. Everyone had it right at this point. Tak Takahashi said the masses are indecisive and Sid David knew it all along. They just want to forget, he’d said. They don’t want to be the Slum Dwellers. As he put it, our people aren’t ready to accept their lives. They want chocolate and dancing, not reminders. And Morgan Renoir would say that Chazrick’s smile inspires hope.

The people want to sing together, but I’m not sure that these are their choruses.

11. a renewed joy

In no time, Chazrick Villarosa poses for every popular magazine: Sid’s Picks, The Filipino’s American, Objectified Perfection, Guwapong Guwapo Talaga, Post-Postcolonial Pinoy, Playpinoy, Without Sin, Actors & Actresses Matter, and You Don’t Look Good But He Does.

Having been preoccupied with my latest work, I haven’t had time to argue. I’m realizing I’m obsessed with Chazrick Villarosa. Tak Takahashi notices that all of my characters are defined by short-term success, the immediacy of shallow passion. Thus far, suddenness and fame define Chazrick Villarosa.

Now I find myself watching him shoot a commercial on edsa Boulevard. The street is swollen with spectators. One columnist states that this commercial will change history.

The people are united again on these streets, she writes, not for violence or politics or another People Power Revolution, but for a renewed sense of joy.

In the middle of the historical landmark, Chazrick Villarosa rinses his hair in a freestanding shower. It’s not just any shower, it’s a shower that stands adjacent to the edsa Shrine. It’s a shower surrounded by half-naked dancers. Police barricades keep spectators from storming the set.

The product: Instant Star Shampoo.

His body covered in suds, Chazrick Villarosa turns to the camera and says, iss! Because it sounds like that. Issss!

Cut! The dancers disband and none other than Reese De Verdad gives Chazrick a towel.

Great job, I say, and put my hand on his slippery face.

It’s all a game, he says. He ties the towel over his eyes. Suds drip down the side of his neck. I do what they ask, he says, and eventually they’ll do what I want.

Game, I think.

Reese De Verdad, I say.

Yes, she answers, can I help you?

My mother says hello.

Oh, replies Reese De Verdad, giggly and confused. Hello?

I elbow my way through the crowd as the roaring applause endures. This hype will confuse Chazrick. Don’t trust it, I wish to tell him. But this is what he’s wanted all along. Maybe it was never me that he loved. Maybe he loved my waiting. I’d stuck around for him to prove something, not to me but to himself. He doesn’t need me. Love? Semantics. I’ve never felt so alone with so many strangers humidifying my face.

Two days later. In Sid David’s fucking office. Sid David rises from his white couch. Reese De Verdad sits behind his desk. Chazrick Villarosa sits on the filing cabinet. I stay in the doorway.

A marriage proposal! says Sid David.

What? I ask. That’s the next big move?

A toddler in diapers and sunglasses runs around the room without making a sound.

Everyone has seen CV with rdv lately, continues Sid David. I mean, everyone. If he turns his back to marry some unknown writer over the voluptuous rdv, then CV will be respected while everyone will sympathize with RDV. And you’ll be able to make any film you want.

And this child? I ask. Is this our miracle?

No, sweetie, answers Reese De Verdad as she bounces the toddler on her knee, this is my son.

Reese De Verdad a mother? She needs this scam more than Sid David’s ego does.

It won’t even be real, adds Chazrick. You’re a writer. You know sacrifice.

You’re lucky, says Reese De Verdad. You’ll be the First Lady to the Son of the Nation.

Before leaving, without holding his hands, I kiss Chazrick, say nothing, and walk away.

It’s about progress, says Sid David as I disappear down the hallway. True progress.

12. nonfictional love

I sit inside the Sinai Karaoke Bar with Tak Takahashi. We’re watching The Behind the Scenes Real Life True Nonfiction Story of the begins Superstar on the big screen television. The air-conditioning is on full blast and the PMN pennants—designed with Chazrick Villarosa’s silhouette—flap. The sound is like a tiny person’s palms crashing together. This bar is empty. The people, even the balikbayan and the tourists, are gathered at the EDSA Shrine, hoping to catch a glimpse of the exclusive interview with Chazrick Villarosa, today’s Mang Manila.

Mang Manila looks blue. It’s not because I have morning sickness or because I’m pregnant with his child. He doesn’t know yet. He weeps and his hair is so long that it hides his ears. He admits that our engagement was a failure. It was. It never happened.

Do you still love her? asks Brandon Jane, the famous transsexual lead singer of a Monkees cover band.

Yes, cries Chazrick Villarosa. I mean, O-po.

The audience giggles and encourages him to use what little Tagalog he knows. The camera zooms in on a tiny lady in a sombrero. She wipes her tears on the shoulder of the person next to her and they hug for ten seconds.

Oo, continues Mang Manila, I loved her with all my heart. So much. We were destined for great things. She—

So tell it to me, says Brandon Jane, what did she do to you?

Commercial break: Instant Star Shampoo.

What’d you do? laughs Tak Takahashi.

I loved him, I answer. I lied to him, I say to myself.

So why are you still with him? What’s keeping you here?

I haven’t written in weeks. My last story was about an actor who’d survived on the lies his loved ones told him. The lies forced him into action. He came to Manila to make a world for himself. Then he impregnated his girlfriend. Having never told him the truth, his girlfriend died in labor. He became famous.

I can’t write him to love me, I confess.

I’ve seen this, responds Tak Takahashi. You escape to find something you were looking for and you’re lost when you find it.

I barge through the door and find Reese De Verdad on our new green polka-dotted couch, her head in Mang Manila’s lap. One of his hands holds her knee and the other rubs the back of her neck. She sobs hysterically. Neither looks up.

Grabbing my suitcase, I start shoving clothes into it, not knowing what’s mine anymore.

Where you going? asks Mang Manila. Love. Love. Love!

I want to spit in his face but he says, Love! Didn’t you hear what happened? It’s all over the news.

Apparently, the devout Chazrick Villarosa fans, the people of Manila, the forgotten many, rushed the stage after he said he didn’t think that he could ever love again. People shook the reinforcement posts until the stage lights crashed down. Love, he says again, I almost died. The Manilans got even rowdier, chasing and pushing each other down the street. Some attempted to climb the edsa Shrine.

All of this just because of what I said, says Mang Manila.

(I don’t know this place.)

They always react, Tak Takahashi would say. Don’t assume that they are reacting to one simple thing.

I want to tell Chazrick Villarosa not to give himself too much credit. The people are tired of everything. Even new faces. They’re restless. What he saw, what he experienced tonight, was more than sympathy. It was rage. An inexplicable outburst. An entire people can snap just as an individual does. I think about telling Chazrick the truth about us. But it doesn’t matter because when I learn that several people died on EDSA and Reese De Verdad’s son vanished in the stampede, the truth is that.

13. denouement

Usually, I urge the cabdriver to roll up the windows but this morning is my farewell. The sun is hiding, it is humid. I smell the exhaust and fruits and pork and the saltiness of eggs.

Billboards of Chazrick Villarosa’s latest movie swallow the skyline: Loving You Is Easy Because Manila Is Beautiful. Critics praise it as the perfect interplay of tradition and experiment. Deadness, they believe, is a reemerging genre. Catholicism—or any faith for that matter—they claim is passé and possesses no artistic value. Timing, I’m convinced, is perfect. Soap Films Inc. never credited me for writing the screenplay because they figured I’d fled the country after breaking Mang Manila’s heart.

An animation of the risen star is simulated with ten sky-scraping black-and-white images. In the final image, the icon tugs down his boxers, only to be sporting a pair of argyle briefs. He found Manila before finding me again.

Manila is not a character who stole my love. Manila is no metaphor. Manila is an aesthetic. Not good. Not bad. It is, as Sid David would say, what the people want. It is, as Tak Takahashi once wrote, its own alpha and its own omega. Manila is.

I know exactly what my mother will say upon my return: Why can’t you make up your mind?

I’ll say I have. I’ll say I don’t want my child’s father to become the president of the Philippines.

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