I exited the United States by way of L.A. that sunny expanse of palm trees and beaches, land of the Hollywood sign, the infinite dreaming, the mushrooming immigrant community.
Ah, Los Angeles, she is a tawdry angel sprawled in the sand, her bikini straps heavily tasked with the heft of twin silicon globes. I was not prepared for the voraciousness, the casual sensuality that was so obvious, so laid-bare, in LA. I have seen the movies, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at how diverse it is, how sprawling, how hot and glittery and ostentatious.
My first taste of LA was of course, sun and sand. My friends took me to a nearby beach, a boulevard of shops, stalls, fusion restaurants, parking lots. So this is how it is, the ugly and the unspeakably beautiful rub elbows in LA. In broad daylight. I ambled past nubile girls with their enhancements out on display, young lads with warm honey tans and rippled abs, lecherous men squinting in the sun, old crones exhibiting the results of UV ray damage. We walked by the row of million-dollar houses, and I quickly learn the game: peer inside and then look away when the owners look out the window.
LA showed so many faces to me, like the tease that she is. I saw the humming loneliness of living in apartments, the alternate job schedules, the meals eaten standing over the sink. Pinoys here are a caricature, in shades of pathos and plenty. Everything can be had in big servings, in packs of two dozen or more. I saw steak lying in mounds, steaming redly, their fat already beginning to congeal. I saw old men playing pusoy dos in closed rooms, their Heinekens being replenished through a briefly opened door. I saw a Filipina draping swathes of cloth over a bed soon to be shared with her American husband, who was cheerful and bland, who ate sinigang with determined gusto, trying to be one with the brown bros, yo.
In one displaced home I saw a jumble of possessions, kitsch on the walls, glass trinkets on the mantel. I peered into a balikbayan box, a huge gaping maw in the middle of the living room, like a cantankerous volcano that needed to be appeased with daily offerings. I saw pictures of a blond kid on a fridge that contained leftover rice and lechon paksiw. I heard promises being made for a Disney birthday to a black-haired little girl who is fast losing a language; only English remained on her tongue. I went on an errand with a stay-at-home husband who, with a few deft tagalog words, got me a stack of phone cards with which to call home. I saw a bronze Rizal gazing benignly into the twilight, at home in a crowded grocery parking lot.
I saw an angel with garlands in her hair, fingering dollar bills in broad daylight, making a deal with a stockinged police woman-dominatrix. I drank red wine over dinner one night, and later, a shockingly sweet shot of chantico with friends who are my age, but just about to define a life together. I walked several blocks in Pasadena holding hands with a man, and realized right there at the stoplight, that years and intervening circumstances could not weaken or water down a friendship. I stared through the shop window at furniture I would have chosen, had I a house on the hills of LA. I talked about being brave to a friend about to have her first baby, and I listened while another told me about wanting and struggling to have one for the past nine years.
I heard the rush of the freeway, low and sinister like a bass throb, how it came at me like a rush of tides, a challenge to meet head-on. Cars ran full-speed into the horizon, blurring images of a woman putting on lipstick, one hand driving, Latinos mouthing half-familiar words through a grimy window.
Sly seductress that she is, LA used subversion to lure me. She worked on my friends to weave her spell on me, the unsuspecting traveler, the ready convert. Suggestions were made to me, cityscapes were pointed out, opportunities were dangled, museums were mentioned. Possibilities for a new life, there for the taking, were suggested with the dare: only if you risk everything, only if you are brave. LA, she promised everything, everything, and she drew me close, whispered the words over and over until they became a muted whir, undulant and soothing, like the gentle swell of incoming waves at night.