I was playing dress up in my parents’ bedroom. I took the sheets from the bed and draped into a Grecian inspired dress. I looked like Helen of Troy in chiffon. My mother didn’t mind me playing dress up. To her I was saving her money, she didn’t have to buy me toys or videogames. I only had to play with her handbags, shoes and on special occasions her sapphire crusted brooch. I pretended I was at a cocktail party, turning the bedroom into Studio 54. It was a typical Philippine summer night, extra humid which made my chiffon sway in a delayed fashion.
We lived in a modest two-storey house in suburban Manila. There was the boys’ room and the girls’ room and I took the guest room. But I would always play in the master bedroom because it was private, the sheets were queen-sized and the bed skirt had ruffles. Within that room was my mother’s boudoir, which also functioned as her prayer room, typical amongst many Filipina mothers. In it, were the statue of the Virgin Mary, a wig stand, perfume collection and lots of Estee Lauder makeup. It had full-length mirrors that delicately showed your front, back and sometimes your soul. When she was away I’d be there putting on her jewelry, Dior scarves and reading the articles she had cut out from magazines.
I was drowning in the glitter and the glamour of my own private VIP area when my older sister walked in and started to laugh. I ignored her like snooty socialite. She went on laughing and called me a fag. After hearing it the second time, I felt the judgment. I cried, that word sliced through my chiffon dress then to my camisole thus piercing my heart. My mother must have heard the shot so she called me into her boudoir.
I was afraid that the conversation would turn hostile. I thought she would yell at me and disown me so I prayed to the Virgin Mary; after all we both have the same flare for draped fabric.
My mother said, “If you are really like that, you have to be brave, learn how to fight and defend yourself because life would be difficult.” I listened to her words as I wipe my tears with the hem of my Cagney and Lacey inspired caftan.
I changed my wardrobe and watched TV and reflected on what my mother had just said. “I had to have courage.”
During the commercial break I caught the preview of the movie Gloria, starring Gena Rowlands. I watched a middle-aged woman running around in what seemed to be a beautifully constructed jacket with puff sleeves and skirt that delicately sashayed when she moved. She ran the streets of New York with a young boy, a suitcase and a pistol in her hand. The last scene was Gena Rowlands pointing a gun and saying, “Go ahead punk.”
The gun, the outfit and the words “Go ahead punk” triggered something in me. I thought, “That’s how I should defend myself!”
Growing up, my friends had their own super heroes, Wonder Woman, Bionic Woman or Dina Girl. I was different my idol was a foul-mouthed, former felon who carried a gun the way my mother wore her charm bracelet. So my fetish for chiffon cocktail outfits disappeared like fog and was replaced by Gloria’s impeccable tastes for pleated silk skirts and pastel-colored blazers.
I saved enough money for a bus fare and a movie ticket. To me, it was like attending a movie premier. I put on my royal blue Lacoste polo, stretched Sasson jeans and saddle shoes. It was the first time I went to the movies by myself, the first time I felt like a grown up.
The movie started with Bill Conti’s soundtrack. Reading the opening credits, something caught my eye. “The clothes of Ms. Gena Rowlands were by Emanuel Ungaro.” I remember the name distinctly because it was one of my mother’s favorite perfumes. She had it locked on the top shelf where I couldn’t reach it. It was such a powerful name, more powerful than Casavettes, Hitchcock or Hershey’s. Ungaro is a French designer known bold sense of color and flattering silhouettes.
Gena Rowlands played Gloria. She was asked to hide a six-year old Puerto Rican boy from the mob. They boy’s family was murdered because the father who worked for the Mafia snitched to the feds.
My mother told me, “Defend yourself.” If I was going to defend myself I’d like to be as fabulous as Gloria. She had on a shimmering pink suit the first time she fired at the thugs. The lilac jacket and blouse ensemble accentuated her sharp shooting skills. When she confronted the Godfather in the black dress with the yellow lapel and prints, it proudly spelled her name W-O-M-A-N.
After seeing the movie, I couldn’t wait to go home. At the bus, I began to conjure up scenes from the movie. I saw the city of Manila as the island of Manhattan. The mild-mannered Filipinos in the bus all looked like sweaty Puerto Ricans. The view from the bus window had the shade of an apocalyptic blue typical of 70’s New York films. Midtown Manila suddenly became Midtown New York.
I arrived at an empty house. The silence provided me the sanctuary to practice self-defense with panache. I skimmed through my mother’s closet. I found a Teal-colored lounging robe made of terrycloth and I quickly converted it into a wrap dress. The instant creation armed me the courage to fight. I took my mother’s Gucci purse and for the suitcase, I folded the scrabble board. I got my little brother’s toy gun. I checked if it had water, the way Gloria checked her gun. Lastly the most important accessory, I took my sister’s cabbage patch doll and called him Phil, the Puerto Rican boy. Gloria was now in and house ready to kill.
I recreated all the scenes that I could remember. The master bedroom was the upper west side. The basement was lower east side and the bathroom was 42nd street station. I held the doll as we ran up and down the stairs. I rode the car in our garage like it was a New York cab. The chairs in the dining room all looked liked hit men hired to eliminate us.
Time was running out. I had to make a decision. We had to hide. It’s very terrifying when you know you’re being pursued by the mob, my family. The only safe place was my mother’s boudoir. It was almost 8 o’ clock, I soon realized, that my arms was outstretched by the gun, I held the scrabble board tightly in my hand, I was breathing heavily, The Bill Conti soundtrack was rising to a crescendo. I could hear the cabbage patch doll praying in Spanish.
I heard footsteps; I cocked the gun and the door opened. It was my mother and my sister. My mother looked at me bemused. I knew my sister was about to say the dreaded three-letter word again but I pointed the gun at her and said, “Go ahead punk.”