Monstress

A short story
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In 1966 the president of CocoLoco Studios broke the news to us in English: "As the Americanos say, it is time to listen to the music. Your movies are shit." He unrolled a poster for The Squid Children of Cebu, our latest picture for CocoLoco. Our names were written in drippy, bloody letters. "A Checkers Rosario Film" was printed above the title, and my credit was at the bottom. "Reva Gogo," it read, "as the Squid Mother."

In its first week in release Squid Children played in just one theater in all of Manila; it was the midnight show at the La Luna. "A place for peasants and their whores," the president said, tearing the poster in half, "and is it true they use a bed sheet for a screen?" Then, speaking in Tagalog, he fired us.

From CocoLoco we walked toward home, and when we passed The Oasis, one of the English-only movie theaters that had been sprouting up all over Manila, Checkers threw a stone at Doris Day's face. Send Me No Flowers was playing, and above the box office Doris Day and Rock Hudson traded sexy glances and knowing smiles. "Their fault!" he said, and I understood what he meant. Imported Hollywood romance was what Manila moviegoers were paying to see, and Checkers's low-budget horror could no longer compete. "All that overacting, that corny shit!" But here was the truth: those were the movies I longed for Checkers to make, where men fall in love with women and stay there, and tearful partings are only preludes to tearful reunions. Real life—that's what I wanted to play, but my only roles were Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen, Werewolf Girl, Two-Headed Bride of Two-Headed Dracula, Squid Mother—all those monstrous girls that Checkers dreamed up just for me.

I took the second stone from his hand and put it in my purse. "Time to go home," I said.

But we did not give up. Checkers shopped around his latest (and last) screenplay, Dino-Ladies Get Quezon City, to all the Manila studios and even one in Guam; every answer was no. I auditioned and auditioned, and although casting agents liked my look (one called me a Filipina Sophia Loren), cold readings made me seem like an amateur. I shouted out dialogue that should have been whispered, and made tears of sorrow look like tears of joy.

For the next three years this was our life: I worked as a dentist's secretary, and Checkers lamented. One night I woke to the sound of thwacking, and found him drunk on the balcony, cracking open coconuts with a machete. "Was I no good?" he asked, his grunts turning to sniffles. I rested my head against the back of his neck. "Your chance will come again," I said. "Just come back to bed."

Sometimes, when I play that night over in my head, I give it a new ending. I answer Checkers with the truth: that the most he ever achieved was minor local fame; that his movies were shoddily produced, illogically plotted, clumsily directed. This hurts Checkers—it hurts me, too—but the next morning we go on with our life. I marvel at the possibilities. We might have married, we might have had children. Maybe then we wouldn't have needed Gaz Gazman the way we did that Saturday morning in January of 1970, when he rang our doorbell.

"Who are you?" I asked. Through the peephole I saw a stranger in a safari hat wipe his feet on our doormat as though we had already welcomed him.

"Name's Gazman. From Hollywood, USA. I'm here for a Checkers"—he looked at the name written on his palm—"Rosario."

I put my hand on the doorknob and made sure the door was locked. "What do you want?"

He leaned toward the peephole and grinned so widely that I saw fillings and crowns. "His monsters," he said.

From the bedroom I heard Checkers starting his day the usual way, with a phlegmy cough from the previous night's bourbon. I went to him. "Someone is here," I said, poking his shoulder. "From Hollywood."

He lifted his head.

"Get up," I said. "Be ready." I returned to the front door. I didn't want to, but I did. For Checkers. I unlocked the lock and let Gaz Gazman in.

I led him to the kitchen and offered him a plate of Ritz crackers and a square of margarine. I stood by the sink, watching him as he ate. His shirt and shorts were covered with palm trees, and his purple sandals clashed with the orange lenses of his sunglasses. A large canvas bag was on the floor beside him, and his hat was still on.

Checkers stepped into the kitchen. "The great Checkers Rosario," Gaz said.

Checkers stared at Gaz with bloodshot eyes. "Used to be," he said, and sat down.

Gaz explained himself: he was in Manila visiting an ex-girlfriend, a makeup artist for CocoLoco. He had toured the studio, gone through its vaults, and found copies of Checkers's movies. "I watched them all, and I thought, jackpot-eureka! This is the real deal. They said if I wanted to use them, I should find you." He pulled four canisters of film from his canvas bag and stacked them on the table. "And now you're found."

Checkers took the reels from the canisters. I could hear him whisper their titles like the names of women he had once loved and still did—The Creature in the Cane, Cathedral of Dread, DraculaDracula, The House on Dead Filipino Road. "Use them?" he said. "What for?"

"Three words," Gaz said. "Motion. Picture. History." He got up and circled the table as he explained his movie: en route back to Earth from a distant star system, the crew of The Valedictorian crash-lands on a hostile planet inhabited by bat-winged pygmies, lobster-clawed cannibals, two-headed vampires. "That's where your stuff comes in. I'm going to splice your movies with mine." He went on about the mixing up of genres, chop-suey cinema, bringing together East and West. "We'd be the ambassadors of international film!"

"What's your thinking on this?" Checkers asked me in Tagalog. "Is this man serious? Is he just an American fool?"

"Ask how much he'll pay," I said. "Get twenty percent more, give him the movies, and show him to the door."

"All our hard work for a few pesos?" Checkers said. "That's their worth to you?" He asked if I'd forgotten the ten-star reviews, the long lines on opening night, but I didn't want to hear about our life back then, so I started in on our life now—the hours he wasted while I worked hard, the constant mess of our apartment, his never-ending reminiscing about our CocoLoco days.

"I come in peace!" Gaz said. "Don't fight because of me."

I switched back to English. "We are discussing, not fighting. We don't have lawyers or agents to counsel us in these matters. The movie business here in Manila is corrupt and dishonest. It's not like in Hollywood."

"But I'm one of the good guys," Gaz said, and to prove it, he made an offer: "Come to America. Just for a week. You can see a rough cut, visit the set, meet the cast. Plenty of room at my pad. I'll even take the couch. And if you don't like what you see, I'll reimburse you the airfare and you won't ever hear from me again."

Then Checkers said, "Reva will come too."

I shook my head. "This is your business." I spoke in English, so that Gaz would understand me. "The two of you. Not the three of us."

"But I need you," Checkers said. He came to me and put his hands on my shoulders. "You must be with me."

"Awww. You're just an old softie, aren't you, Chex?" Gaz winked at me. "How can you say no to that?"

I put my hands on Checkers's face. He looked neater than he had in a long time, but he was still a mess. His shirt was misbuttoned at the top, patches of stubble showed what he'd missed when he shaved, and his Elvis-style pompadour was grayer than I'd realized.

"I can't," I said finally.

"Someone in America is dead." This was the lie I told my boss when I asked for a week off from work. "Someone close to me." It was easy to say—I told him over the phone—but part of me hoped he would deny my request. That way I would have to stay, and maybe Checkers would stay behind too. But my boss let me go, and he gave me fatherly advice: "Take all the time you need for final good-byes with dead loved ones." I promised I would.

We left very early Monday morning, and our flight to California felt like backward travel through time. In Manila it was dark, but outside the plane the sky was bright, packed with clouds so white they looked fake, like the clouds painted on the cinder-block walls of the La Luna. Checkers and I had begun our courtship there, thirteen years before. I was sixteen, he was twenty-two, and every Saturday night we held hands in the second row for the midnight double creature feature. Checkers would marvel at what he called "the beauty of the beast"; he confirmed the expert craftsmanship of a well-made monster with a quiet "Yes" (he gave a standing ovation for Creature From the Black Lagoon) and let out exasperated sighs for the lesser ones. The more menacing the monster, he said, the better. But I preferred a monster that could be tamed. I wanted to lie on the leathery palm of my gorilla suitor like Fay Wray, soothe his rage with my calming, loving gaze. "You'll be on the screen one day," Checkers said. "I'll put you there. Just have faith in me."

So I did. After high school I moved in with Checkers. I took odd jobs sewing and cleaning while he worked on his treatment for The Creature in the Cane. The night CocoLoco Studios bought it, I was rewarded for my faith. Checkers gave me a white box tied with pink ribbon and a note attached that read Wear this for me. I expected a nightgown with a broken strap and a tattered neckline—standard attire for a woman in peril—but when I opened it, I found a pair of wolf ears, a rubber forehead covered with boils, and several plastic eyeballs. "You will be the Creature," he said, near tears and smiling. "You."

The night we started filming, as I rubber-cemented eyeballs to my face, I told myself this was a first step, that even great actresses have unglamorous starts. I told myself the same thing the night of the premiere, as the audience cheered wildly when a dozen sugarcane farmers descended on the Creature with sticks and buckets of holy water. This is only the beginning, I told myself, and I repeated it, like a prayer, through all the films I did for Checkers.

The plane shook hard when we landed in America, and Checkers woke in a panic, hitting his head on my chin. "We're here?" he said, breathing heavily. "We finally arrived?" I rubbed the back of his neck to calm him. But my lip was bleeding. I could taste it.

Gaz didn't live in Hollywood. He lived south of it, in Torrance, in a gray building called The Paradise. "This is it," he said, unlocking the door. "The home of Gaz Gazman and DoubleG Productions." It was a tiny apartment, the living room furnished with a sinking couch and a pair of yellow beanbags, and the offices of DoubleG Productions were nothing more than a walk-in closet: a metal desk was crammed inside, a telephone and a student film trophy—second place—on top of it. A junior-college diploma hung above the fake fireplace, and I learned that Gaz Gazman was not his real name. "Who the hay wants to see a movie by Gazwick Goosmahn? But Gaz Gazman"—he snapped twice—"that's a director's name."

"It's the same with me!" Checkers said. "My real name? Chekiquinto. Can you believe?" He shook his head and laughed. "Chekiquinto. My gosh!"

"Horrible!" Gaz laughed along. "And you? Is Reva Gogo for real?" He said it as if he already knew that it wasn't. My real name was Revanena Magogolang. I never liked it, so right before The Creature in the Cane, I de-clunked it down to its smoothest sound. "And Reva Gogo," my credit read, "as the Creature."

I took Checkers's hand and made him sit with me on a beanbag. "Show us your movie," I said. The sooner we saw Gaz's clips, I thought, the sooner we could get our money and hurry home.

Gaz wheeled in a film projector from his bedroom, loaded a 16mm reel, and hung a white bed sheet on the wall. "There are rough spots," he said, "but I think you'll like what you see." He drew the curtains, turned off the lights, filled a bowl with pretzels, and showed us what he had.

The film opened with a view of Earth from outer space, and a voice (Gaz's) began to narrate: "The year is 1999. The world and all its good citizens have never been better. World peace has been achieved, no child goes hungry, disease has been gotten rid of. Man is free to contemplate the human condition, and more importantly, colonize outer space." Entering the picture was a bottle-shaped spaceship, THE VALEDICTORIAN glittering in blue letters along its hull. "There she is," Gaz whispered to us, "the smartest ship in the fleet." A whistle blew, and then a weird, psychedelic montage of oddly angled stills began: we met Captain Vance Banner, the square-jawed, fearless leader; Ace Trevor, the hotheaded helmsman; the Intelli-Bot 4-26-35 ("My birthday," Gaz said); and finally Lorena Valdez, the raven-haired, olive-skinned meteor scientist. "Eyes darker than the cosmic void, lips redder than human blood," Gaz quoted from his script. "Beauty and brains. Lorena's got 'em in spades."

Gaz showed the rest of what he had: quick scenes of the actors running in a nearby canyon, which would be the planet inhabited by Checkers's monsters. "That's where I'll splice your footage in," he said. The canyon scenes were composed of reaction shots, extreme close-ups of the actors shouting "Look out!," "Duck, Captain, duck!," and "They're hideous!" "I had them take expressions lessons in West Hollywood," Gaz said. "They've definitely done their homework."

I looked at Checkers. Pretzel crumbs speckled the corner of his mouth, but when I tried to wipe them off, he brushed my hand away. "Ssshh," he said. His face glowed blue from the movie on the wall, just as it used to back in the Coco-Loco editing room, late at night after a long day's shoot. I would end up asleep on the floor, sometimes until morning, waiting for him.

Gaz turned off the projector. "And that's just the beginning," he said, smiling. "So, are we in?"

Even before Gaz turned on the lights, Checkers was on his feet, searching his pockets for a pen. "Let's do it," he said. His breathing was quick and heavy, almost desperate, and his forehead dripped sweat. "I'm ready," he said. "We're in."

It was still early evening, and Gaz suggested we drive to the set. "MGM?" Checkers guessed. "Twentieth Century Fox?"

"My mom's basement in Pasadena," Gaz answered.

Freeway traffic was slow; it was near dark by the time we pulled up in front of Gaz's mother's house, an old, peeling Victorian with a shingled roof that had almost no shingles left. The shutters dangled from the uppermost windows, like limbs attached to a body by one last tendon. That house would have been Checkers's dream set. But on our CocoLoco budget we had to make do with tin-roofed shacks and three-walled huts in shantytowns far beyond Manila, where we paid impoverished locals with cigarettes and sacks of rice to play our victims for a day. "If we'd had something like this to work with," Checkers said, "life back home would still be good."

The basement was like an underground studio set, sectioned off by plywood partitions and cardboard walls. Each room was a different part of The Valedictorian—the bridge, the space lab, the weapons bay, the space sauna. We hadn't been on a set since Squid Children, four years before, but Checkers made himself at home, examining each room from different angles as if he were behind a camera, filming right then.

I wandered off alone. "Explore all you want, but don't touch anything," Gaz said. I didn't need to touch anything to know its cheapness. The helm was made of Styrofoam and cardboard, painted to look like steel; the main computer was a reconfigured pinball machine; the Intelli-Bot 4-26-35 was an upside-down fishbowl painted gold atop a small TV set, and its bottom half was a vacuum cleaner on wheels. But I was used to this lack of marvelousness, because Checkers worked this way too, attempting magic from junk. Wet toilet tissue shaped into fangs was good enough for a wolf man or a vampire, and our ghosts were just bed sheets. For the Squid Children, Checkers found a box of firemen's rubber boots, glued homemade tentacles (suction cups affixed to segments of rubber hose) on them, and made his tiny nephews and nieces wear them on their heads. "On film," Checkers used to say, "everything looks real."

I found Checkers and Gaz in the space lab, the contract between them. Gaz would pay $2,500 up front and then five percent of the profits. "Jackpot-eureka!" Checkers said after he signed, though neither of us knew how much that would be worth back home.

Gaz and Checkers wanted to celebrate, so we went from bar to bar on Hollywood Boulevard and then walked up and down the Walk of Fame. "A trio of visionaries should have the stars at their feet, right Chex?" Gaz said. Checkers nodded, zigzagging down the street. For a long time Checkers had resented Hollywood, convinced that American movies had driven us out of the business. Now here he was, lolling about in enemy territory, drunk on beer, bourbon, and all the inspiration surrounding him—the Hollywood Wax Museum, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, even the life-size celebrity cutouts in storefront windows. I tried to keep up, to make sure he didn't fall.

Hours later Checkers and I made love on Gaz's couch. At first I told him we shouldn't, not there in a stranger's home. "He's so drunk he'll never wake up," Checkers said. He nibbled my neck and nuzzled my breasts, letting out a low growl. "Gently," I said, running my fingers through his pompadour. "Softly." He obeyed. I knew Checkers was drunk, but this was how I wanted us to finish the day, the longest of our lives. Thirty-two hours had passed since we left Manila, and I had stayed awake through all the nonstop coming and going. So I gave myself up to this moment when we could finally slow down, and I imagined us as Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity.

The next morning I reached for Checkers and he wasn't there. I opened my eyes and found him on the floor, asleep on his stomach. For a moment I thought we were still in Manila, that this was just another of our ordinary days. But then I saw the yellow beanbags on the floor, brighter than anything in our apartment back home.

I got dressed and went into the kitchen. Gaz was already there, sunglasses on, wearing a tiger-print robe. "Now, that," he said, standing by the window, "is a Hollywood morning." I looked out. It was hazy and bright at the same time.

Suddenly I realized that Gaz was staring at me. "What?" I said.

"It's weird to see you this way. In the human flesh, I mean." He removed his sunglasses. "I remember you in Checkers's movies, all fancy with your tentacles and boils and lobster claws. Chex got lucky when he found you. You make a good monster. You're a mistress of monsters." He chuckled. "You're a monstress."

"I am not monstrous," I said.

"Monstress," he said. "Not monstrous. See for yourself." He looked behind and above me. I turned around, and then I saw it, tacked to the wall: a poster for The Squid Children of Cebu. "I swiped it from CocoLoco and hung it up this morning. Thought it might make you two feel at home."

The edges had yellowed, but the picture was still clear: a dozen Squid Children on the edge of a lagoon, and behind them, lying on the shore, the Squid Mother, her belly bloated with squid eggs yet to be spawned, tentacles flailing all around her. That costume was a fat suit with segments of rubber hose affixed to it, and near the end of the day it had felt like my own skin. For hours I had rolled along the dirty sand, moaning "Grraargh, grraargh," and I remember thinking, This is it, this is my life, as Checkers filmed me from afar. I hadn't seen the poster since the president of CocoLoco showed it to us, as an example of our failure.

At noon we returned to the set to meet the cast. It was trash-collection day in Pasadena; garbage cans lined the street, and next to Gaz's house the parts of a dismantled mannequin lay in a pile on the sidewalk. "We can use this," Gaz said. "Help me out, Chex."

I walked ahead of them, toward the back of the house. The basement door was open. "Hello?" I called out. I stepped inside and heard giggling coming from the bridge. When I turned the corner, I found Captain Banner and Ace Trevor leaning against the helm, their arms around each other. They might have been kissing. "Sorry," I said, my face warm from embarrassment.

They let go of each other and stood up straight. "We were just going over lines." The man who played Captain Banner held out his hand. "I'm Everett Noel Dubois," he said. "But friends call me E. Noel. This is Prescott St. John, a.k.a. Ace Trevor." Prescott smiled, straightening his collar. They were the first professional actors I'd met in years, and I worried that they would ask about my own acting history; a list of my roles and the movies I had starred in formed in my head, and it made me feel meager, shameful. I wanted to avoid the subject altogether, to focus only on the good parts of my life. "I work for a dentist in Manila" was all I could think to say.

Gaz and Checkers walked in, carrying legs, hands, arms, a torso. They set the mannequin parts on the floor, and Gaz made formal introductions. "Where's our Lorena?" he asked, looking at his watch. "One thing I demand from my actors," he said, "is attendance. Be back in a flash." He went upstairs to call her at home. E. Noel and Prescott went outside to go over lines.

Checkers knelt to the floor and started rebuilding the mannequin. He said he was genuinely impressed by what he'd seen so far, but then he whispered his disappointments in Tagalog. "His camera work is unsteady," he said, "and his composition is so-so. But I have some suggestions. Lucky for him I have the experience, right?" He looked up at me. "What? Why is your face like that?"

"Like what?"

"Like this." He scrunched up his face into a girlish pout and rolled his eyes. "What's wrong with you?"

I knelt beside him and tried attaching a hand to a wrist. "Maybe we should go home today. Just take the twenty-five hundred before he changes his mind."

"Is your head broken? We have almost a week left. The American will need my guidance. This is a Gazman-Rosario Production, don't you know?"

I slammed the mannequin hand against the floor; the pinky finger broke off. "'Gazman-Rosario Production'? Gazman-Idiot Production! You've already done the work he needs. You finished it years ago!" I took a deep breath, trying to make my voice gentle again. "You were finished years ago. Don't start this nonsense again. If you do ..." I should have stopped there, but the poster in Gaz's kitchen hung in my head like a fateful welcome-home banner, and I couldn't go back. "If you do, I won't forgive you this time."

Checkers set the mannequin's right arm gently on the floor. Then he got to his feet and took backward steps toward the wall, the way my victims would in his movies, right before the kill. "Checkers." I held my arms out to comfort him, but he wouldn't come to me. "Checkers?"

Suddenly Gaz came running down the stairs, cursing and shouting. "Crap!" he said. He kicked a computer console, and it flew across the basement. "I lost my Lorena Valdez! She decided she'd rather do some bimbo role for a guy named Roman What's-His-Face than finish my movie." He leaned against the wall, slid down to the floor, put his face on his knees. "Where am I going to find another actress who'll work for free? Crap!"

Then Checkers started pacing too. "Crap-crap!" he shouted. He went on about the money he would lose, and he wondered how someone who once was great could slip away into a life as dead-end as ours. "I'm sorry," I said, reaching for him. But he just pushed my arm away and told me to leave him alone. So I went to Gaz instead. "It's okay," I said. "Don't worry."

He took a few deep breaths and nodded. Then his head rose slowly and he stared into my eyes, almost lovingly. I thought he might try to kiss me. I backed away.

"What size space suit do you wear?" he whispered.

It was freakishly hot the day I became Lorena Valdez. We were filming at the bottom of a canyon near Torrance, and all morning long E. Noel, Prescott, and I ran back and forth, pretending to flee from Checkers's monsters, while Gaz followed us with a hand-held camera. Checkers was alone at the top of the canyon, next to the NO TRESPASSING sign, looking out for cops.

At noon we filmed a crucial scene that required me to run up the side of the canyon. "Now you're fleeing from the stinkiest, oogiest bat-winged pygmy you've ever seen," Gaz said, "and it wants you for breakfast." He put his hands on my shoulders and leaned in close. "Think about that as you're running away. Understand?"

I had never taken direction from another man before. "I do," I said.

Gaz called, "Action!" I ran. I visualized myself from years before, chasing after me now, fangs bared and claws ready to shred, tentacles wrapping around me, squeezing me to my final breath. I could hear a hiss in my ear, and it made me shiver, even in the heat. I ran faster. I hadn't wanted to be Lorena Valdez, not at first (I agreed to play the part only in order to guarantee Checkers his money), but now I knew I had to save her from the monsters who wanted to drag her back down into the pit of this hostile planet. I scrambled up the side of the canyon on my hands and knees, telling myself, Climb. Get to safety. But when I looked up, I saw Checkers walking toward me, as though he wanted to sabotage the shot. "Go!" I said. "You're ruining the picture!" He stepped away.

I finally reached the top. I got to my feet, looked straight down into the camera, and screamed my very first line of dialogue ever: "They're hideous!" Then Gaz yelled, "Cut," clapped twice, and proclaimed Lorena Valdez a new heroine for our time.

The day before I was meant to leave America, we shot the love scene. "Hold her here," Gaz directed. He placed E. Noel's hands on my waist and put my arms around E. Noel's neck. He stepped back to check the shot.

It wasn't cold in Gaz's mother's basement, but I was shivering. "You seem nervous," E. Noel whispered. "First on-screen kiss?"

I had gouged, bitten, clawed, and stabbed. Never kissed. "No."

He smiled as if he didn't believe me. "Well, if you do get nervous, just pretend I'm Checkers. That'll make it easier."

Gaz called action. We started the scene.

We spoke of our failed mission and our fallen comrades—Ace had been barbecued by the bat-winged pygmies, and the Intelli-Bot 4-26-35 had malfunctioned beyond repair and turned against us—and we spoke of time wasted harnessing comet-tail energy, studying asteroid samples, mining moons for precious metals.

"All that matters to me now," E. Noel said, "is you."

"Captain. I—I'm frightened."

"Of what? That demonic intergalactic menagerie of fanged creatures can't touch us. Not now. Not with only five minutes of oxygen left."

"No. That's not it. I'm afraid of"—I took a deep breath—"of loving you. Meteor analysis, moon colonization, those things are easy. But not love. Love takes work. Love takes time, and we're running out of it. We're in a dead-end situation, and I can't love you without getting hurt." I broke free from E. Noel's embrace and walked toward the observation window, in near disbelief that these lines, the most beautiful I had ever spoken, were actually mine.

E. Noel put his hands on my shoulders. "Lorena. Of all the star systems I have explored, of all the planets upon which I've walked, there is nowhere in the galaxy I'd rather be than here, on the bridge of The Valedictorian, looking into your eyes. If this is my end, then it's more than I could have ever hoped for." He pulled me close against him.

"I don't know what—"

He put his index finger over my mouth. "Ssshh. Just kiss me, Lorena. That's an order."

The slick of saliva and flesh of his lips, the running of his fingers through my wig, our chests and hearts coming together—all of it was thrilling, knowing the camera was there to capture the moment.

Then someone started laughing.

"Cut!" Gaz shouted. "What the dang is so funny?"

It was Checkers. "Pardon," he said. "Sorry." But he started laughing again.

I let go of E. Noel. I walked off the bridge, toward Checkers. "What's wrong with you?"

"With me?" Checkers said in Tagalog. "Do you know what you look like up there? All that corny talk. All that overacting the American is making you do." He laughed some more.

"That's enough," I said. But he kept going, and his laughter turned to cruelty. He said the scene between Lorena and Banner was utterly unbelievable, that no two people would say such meaningless things in what could be the last moments of their lives. "They would try to stay alive. They would fight. That's what brave explorers of outer space do, right?" He belittled Gaz's script, insulted my acting, poked fun at the fact that I was kissing an obvious homosexual. "On film," he said, "you will look like a whore."

Sometimes I wonder if he meant this as a warning, a last chance to save me from starring in yet another fool's movie. I didn't think so at the time. My hand went up and lashed forward, a gesture I'd made dozens of times before, in Checkers's movies. But this time contact was made, real pain inflicted. Below his eye were four red lines, and beneath my nails were his blood and flakes of his skin. "Get away from here," I said.

Checkers touched his face. He looked at the blood on his fingers.

"Get off the set," I said in English, so that everyone around could understand me, "and let me act." Checkers moved away, still stunned, and then left the basement.

Gaz called places. "From the top," he said. We began again, but E. Noel kept stumbling over "demonic intergalactic menagerie," and technical difficulties ruined the fifth, sixth, and seventh takes. Only on the eleventh did we finally get it right. I took E. Noel's advice and pretended he was Checkers. When we kissed, I managed to shed a single, perfect tear, just as Gaz had written in the script.

"Slight problemo," Gaz said the next day. "We're not done." Checkers and I were packing for our flight back home. We hadn't spoken since I struck him, and he had not returned to Gaz's apartment until early that morning. To this day I don't know where he was that night, or how he found his way back.

Gaz explained the situation. "You're in the shot, Chex. When Lorena's running up the canyon, you're standing right there like this." He got up, put his hands in his pockets, looked all around, like a lost tourist. "I could try to write you into the script, but at this point ..." Gaz sat down and started folding one of Checkers's shirts. "I need you to stay." He was speaking only to me. "A day or two, maybe three. I'd like to reshoot some other scenes. I'll even pay for your new ticket back. What do you say?"

Hours later we pulled up to the curb at the airport. "Happy trails," Gaz said, patting Checkers on the back, "till we meet again."

Checkers stared at Gaz for a few seconds, the way he had the morning they met, and then got out of the car. "Five percent," he said. "Don't forget."

I walked with Checkers to the terminal entrance. "You'll be okay, right?" I asked. "It's just a few days." I fixed his collar and smoothed his hair. I leaned in to kiss him good-bye, but stopped at the sight of the scratch marks on his face. They had scabbed over, and I traced them with my finger. "Fool," I said, shaking my head, weeping. "Look what you made me do." He grabbed hold of my wrist, slid my hand down to his lips, but instead of kissing it he simply breathed in through his nose and mouth, as if I were air to him, his only oxygen. Then he let me go and went inside.

Gaz handed me a tissue when I got back in the car. "What's a few days?" he said. What he couldn't understand was that Checkers and I had never left each other before, and on the way to the airport I'd daydreamed for us a lovelier farewell scene: Just before takeoff Checkers exits the plane and dashes across the tarmac to get to me. We kiss so long and hard, hold each other so tight, that we can never be apart.

Gaz finally titled the movie The Terror of the Fanged Creatures, and the morning after we finished shooting he showed me the screenplay for his next movie, Pasadena RollerWars. "I'm still looking for my BB San Juan," he said. "The tough and sexy heroine of the deadliest rink in town. Think it over." I called Checkers and told him all the things Gaz had told me: that once-in-a-lifetime opportunities really are once-in-a-lifetime, that another American role would be good for my career, that we could always use the money. "I'm doing this for us, right?" I said.

Checkers was silent for a moment. I thought we'd been disconnected. "CocoLoco wants me back," he finally said. "They read Dino-Ladies Get Quezon City, and they want me to direct it. They said if my old movies can conquer Hollywood, then my new ones can double-conquer Manila. It's unlucky for you that you're not around to star in it."

I had burned the only copy of Dino-Ladies years before, but I let Checkers talk his talk, because it was better than the truth—I could see him sitting on the couch, in his boxer shorts and dirty undershirt, waiting amid his mess for my return. "Your chance came again," I said. "Congratulations." Then I hung up, found Gaz sitting in his kitchen, staring at the Hollywood morning, and told him he had his BB San Juan.

After RollerWars I did two more films for Gaz: The Twisted History-Mystery and Jesse: Girl of a Thousand Streets. All together they took almost three years to shoot. Checkers and I spoke less, rarely returning each other's calls, and I learned not to miss him by reminding myself that I was a working professional actress in America; back home I didn't know what I was. I never returned to find out.

But of all the films I did for Gaz, only Fanged Creatures is remembered. I saw it again just last year, at the Silver Scream Theater, in L.A., almost twenty years after its original release. I sat alone in the second row; behind me was an audience full of college students who mocked it and hooted throughout, and laughed especially hard during my kiss with E. Noel. But that scene still moved me, and I was teary—what did those young people know about the ending of the world all around you? A kiss is all that matters in your final moments. I knew this firsthand.

Overall, Fanged Creatures was still impressive. The plot was fast-paced and the camera work steady, and our reaction shots conveyed all the fear and dread Gaz had hoped for. But the back-and-forth between his film and Checkers's footage was rougher than I remembered. Bright Technicolor pictures alternated with yellowish, grainy ones, and Checkers's monsters moved in a dreamy slow motion: the Squid Mother's tentacles flowed around her like the tails of kites; the Bat-Winged Pygmy Queen glided through the air like a leaf in the wind; Werewolf Girl looked almost lovely as she bayed at the moon. I had not seen myself this way for so long that I was secretly mournful at the end, when, after Captain Banner manages to restore power to the engines, Lorena presses the button that drops the nucleotomic bombs on Planet X. "There you are," Gaz whispered to me the night of the premiere, "obliterating your selves out of existence."

But what stayed with me then, what loops in my head even now, is what I didn't see in the movie: that scene in the canyon, the one Gaz said Checkers had ruined. I saw it only once, right before Gaz edited it out. On hands and knees I struggle uphill, a filthy, sweaty mess; my wig is a nest of pebbles and leaves; dirt smears my face, neck, and space suit. But none of that matters to Checkers. He comes to me with open arms, as if I am a thing of unequaled beauty. On film everything looks real. It was true. Checkers did look as if he meant to help me up, to pull me to safety, to rescue me from that most hostile of planets.

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