Monstress

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Monstress

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B movie-inspired fiction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lysley Tenorio is a Filipino-American writer and the author of Monstress, which has been long-listed for the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. “I’m drawn to stories and events from history, any strange intersection between the Philippines and the western world,” Tenorio says. “‘Monstress,” the title story of my book, is based on the making of The Horror of the Blood Monsters, a 1970 B-movie, which was literally two films spliced together—a Filipino caveman movie and an American sci-fi flick. For all the whimsy of this scenario, it’s also made me wonder about the people involved—how foolish and desperate and hopeful they must have been, to believe in such an impossible thing.”


In 1966, the President of CocoLoco Pictures 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 the studio. 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 said, as the Squid Mother.

In its first week in release, Squid Children played in just one theater in all of Manila, the midnight show at the Primero. “A place for peasants and whores” the president said, tearing the movie poster in half. Then, speaking in Tagalog, he fired us.

From CocoLoco we walked 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. “All that overacting,” he said, “all that corny shit!” But those were the movies I longed for Checkers to make, where men fall in love with women, 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, Squid Mother—all those monstrous girls 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.

For the next three years, this was our life: I worked as a dentist’s receptionist and Checkers lamented. One night, I woke and found him drunk on the balcony, smashing coconuts with a machete. “Was I no good?” he asked, grunts turning to sniffles. I went to him, rested my head against the back of his neck, and told him it was time for us to sleep.

Sometimes, when I remember that night, I give it a new ending: I tell the truth, that all he achieved was minor local fame; that his movies were shoddily produced, clumsily directed. This hurts Checkers—it hurts me, too—but then life goes on, and I marvel at the possibilities: we might have married, had a child, maybe two. We would still be together, and we wouldn’t have needed Gaz Gazman, that Saturday morning in January of 1970, when he rang our doorbell.

“Who are you?” Through the peephole I saw a stranger in a safari hat wipe his feet on our doormat as though we was already welcome.

“The name’s Gazman. From Hollywood, USA. I’m here for a Checkers”—he looked at the name written on his palm—“Rosario.”

“What do you want?”

He leaned into the peephole. “His monsters,” he said.

I didn’t want to, but I did. For Checkers. I unlocked the lock and let Gaz Gazman in.

Gaz explained himself: he was in Manila visiting an ex-girlfriend, a make-up artist for CocoLoco. He toured the studio, explored their vaults, and found copies of Checkers’s movies. “I watched them all, and jackpot-eureka! They said if I wanted to use them, I should find you.” He pulled three canisters of film from his canvas bag and stacked them on the table, and Checkers whispered their titles like the names of women he once loved and still did—The Creature in the Cane, DraculaDracula, The House on Dead Filipino Road. “Use them,” he said. “What for?”

“Three words,” Gaz said. “Motion. Picture. History.” He explained his movie: en route 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 gonna splice your movies with mine. Chop-suey cinema, east-west mix-up. We’d be the ambassadors of international film!”

“What’s your thinking on this?” Checkers asked me in Tagalog.

“Ask how much he’ll pay,” I said, “get 20 per cent more, give him the movies, and show him to the door.”

“All my hard work for a few pesos?” Checkers looked as though I’d slapped him. He asked if I’d forgotten the ten-star reviews, the long lines on opening night, but I was done with all that. “Take the money,” I said, “and let’s be done with this.”

“I come in peace!” Gaz said. “Don’t fight because of me. I’m one of the good guys.” And to prove it, he made us an offer: he invited Checkers to Hollywood to see a rough cut of his film, visit the set, meet the cast. If he wasn’t happy, he would pay Checkers’s way back home. “And you’ll never see me again,” he said.

Then Checkers said, “Reva will come too.”

“This is your business,” I said. “Leave me out.”

“But I need you,” Checkers said. He held my face, kissed me just above my nose.

Gaz winked at me. “How can you say no to that?”

There was a smudge of dried-up toothpaste above Checkers’s lip, patches of stubble he missed when he shaved, and his Elvis-style pompadour showed more gray than I’d realized was there.

“I can’t,” I told Gaz.

 

* * *

We left Monday morning, and our flight to California felt like backwards travel through time. In Manila it was night but outside the plane the sky was packed with clouds so white they looked fake, like the clouds painted on the walls of the Primero. Checkers and I began our courtship there, 13 years before. I was 16, he was 22, and every Saturday we held hands at the midnight double creature feature. Checkers would marvel at what he called “the beauty of the beast”—the more menacing, the better. But I preferred the monster that could be tamed. Like Fay Wray, I wanted to lie on the leathery palm of my gorilla suitor, soothe his rage with my loving gaze. “I’ll put you on the screen one day,” Checkers said, “just keep faith in me.”

So I did. After high school, I moved in with Checkers, took odd jobs sewing and cleaning while he worked on his treatment for The Creature In the Cane. The night CocoLoco bought it, Checkers gave me a white box tied with pink ribbon. I expected a nightgown with a broken strap—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, several plastic eyeballs. “You will be The Creature,” he said, eyes glistening. “You.”

The night we started filming, as I rubber glued eyeballs to my face, I promised myself this was a first step, that even great actresses have unglamorous starts. This is only the beginning—I repeated, like a prayer, through all the films I did for Checkers.

For the entire flight over, Checkers slept with his head resting on my chest, but our landing was so jolting that he woke in a panic, and slammed his head against my chin. “We’re here?” he said, awake and panicked. “Have 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 east of it, in Los Feliz, in a gray building called The Paradise. “And the home of DoubleG Productions,” he said. It was a tiny apartment furnished with a sinking couch and a pair of yellow beanbags, and his office was a closet with a desk crammed inside, a student film trophy—second place—on top of it.

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 fly home.

Gaz wheeled in a projector, loaded a 16 millimeter reel. “There are rough spots,” he said, “but I guarantee you’ll dig it.” The film opened with a view of outer space, and a bottle-shaped spaceship called The Valedictorian floated into view. Then a whistle blew, and a psychedelic montage of oddly-angled stills began: there was Captain Vance Banner, helmsman Ace Trevor, the Intelli-Bot  4-26-35, and finally Lorena Valdez, the raven-haired, olive-skinned meteor scientist. Then we saw a few quick scenes of the actors  running in a nearby canyon, which would be the planet inhabited by Checkers’s monsters.

Gaz shut off the projector. “And that’s only the beginning,” he said. “Are we in?”

Checkers was on his feet, breathing heavy and fast, almost desperate. “I’m ready,” he said, “I’m in.”

It was still early evening, and Gaz suggested visiting the set. “MGM?” Checkers guessed. “Twentieth Century Fox?”

“My mom’s basement in Pasadena,” Gaz answered.

Freeway traffic was slow. I fell asleep in the back seat; when I woke we were in front of Gaz’s mother’s house, an old, peeling Victorian with a shingled roof with almost no shingles left. But inside, the basement was like a studio set: each room was a different section of The Valedictorian—the bridge, the science lab, the space sauna.

I wandered off. “Explore all you want, but don’t touch anything,” Gaz said. But I didn’t need to touch anything to know its cheapness: the helm was made of Styrofoam, painted to look like steel; the computer was a reconfigured pinball machine; the Intelli-Bot 4-26-35 was an upside down fishbowl atop a TV set, and its bottom half was a vacuum cleaner on wheels. “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 twenty-five hundred dollars up front, then pay five per cent of the profits. “Jackpot-eureka!” Checkers said after he signed, though neither of us knew what that was worth back home.

That night, after barhopping along Hollywood Boulevard, Checkers and I made love on Gaz’s couch. He nibbled my neck, growled softly. “Gently,” I whispered. He obeyed. Checkers was drunk, but this was how I wanted us to finish the day, the longest of our lives, 37 hours since we left Manila. So I gave myself up to this moment, 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 asleep on a beanbag.

I dressed, went into the kitchen. Gaz was at the table, sunglasses on, staring out the window. “Now that,” he said, “is a Hollywood morning.” I looked out. Everything was hazy and bright.

“I remember you,” he said, removing his sunglasses. “In Checkers’s movies, dressed in tentacles and boils and lobster claws. You’re a good monster. You’re a mistress of monsters. You’re a monstress.”

“I am not monstrous,” I said.

“Monstress,” he said. “Not monstrous. See for yourself.” He looked behind me. I turned and finally saw it, taped to the wall: the edges had yellowed but the poster was clear—a dozen Squid Children along a lagoon, and behind them, the Squid Mother, bloated with eggs and tentacles flailing. I hadn’t seen a Squid Children of Cebu poster since the President of CocoLoco showed it to us, as an example of our failure.

At noon, we returned to the set. It was trash collection day, and a dismantled mannequin lay on the curb in front of Gaz’s mother’s house. “I can use that,” Gaz said, gathering the parts. I walked ahead toward the back of the house, entered the basement. I turned the corner and found Captain Banner and Ace Trevor at the helm, embracing. They might have been kissing.

They let go of each other, straightened their collars. “We’re going over lines,” the man who played Captain Banner said. “I’m E. Noel Dubois. This is Prescott St John, aka Ace Trevor.” They were the first professional actors I’d met in years, and I worried they would ask about my own acting history; a list of my roles and movies formed in my head, and they made me feel shameful. “I work for a dentist in Manila,” was all I said.

Gaz and Checkers walked in, dropped the mannequin parts to the ground, and Gaz made formal introductions. But Lorena Valdez was missing, so he hurried upstairs to call her, and E. Noel and Prescott went outside to rehearse again.

Checkers knelt down, 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. “Unsteady camera, so-so composition,” he said. “But I have suggestions. Lucky for him I have the experience, right?” He looked up at me. “Why is your face like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like this.” He scrunched his face into a girlish pout.

I knelt beside him. “Maybe we should go home today. Take the twenty-five hundred before he changes his mind.”

“Is your head broken? We still have a week. The American needs my guidance. This is a Gazman-Rosario Production, don’t you know?”

I slammed a mannequin hand against the ground. “‘Gazman-Rosario Production?’ Gazman-Idiot Production! 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.”

Suddenly, Gaz came running down the stairs, cursing and shouting. “I lost my Lorena! She wants to do some bimbo role for a guy named Roman What’s-His-Face.” He leaned against the wall, slid down to the floor, put his face on his knees. “Where’ll I get an actress who’ll work for free? Crap!”

Then Checkers started cursing, then said nothing in life ever went his way. I reached out but he flicked my arm aside, so I went to Gaz, patted his shoulder to calm him down. This was the end, a sign that our collaboration was never meant to be, that it was time for Checkers and me to get back to real life in Manila. But then he lifted his head, stared into my eyes like he meant to kiss me, so I stepped away.

“What size spacesuit do you wear?” he whispered.

* * *

It was 102 degrees the day I became Lorena Valdez. We were at the bottom of a canyon, and all morning, E. Noel, Prescott, and I ran back and forth, pretending to flee from Checkers’s monsters, while Gaz followed us with the camera. Checkers was above by the NO TRESPASSING sign, looking out for cops.

At noon, we filmed a 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 you’re its breakfast. Think of that as you’re running. Understand?”

Gaz called action. I ran, visualizing myself from years before, chasing after me, fangs bared and claws ready to shred, tentacles squeezing me to my final breath. I staggered uphill on hands and knees, telling myself, Climb. Get to safety. But then I saw Checkers walking toward me. “Go!” I whispered. “You’re ruining the shot!” He looked confused, like he didn’t know where he was, but finally backed away.

I reached the top. I got to my feet, stared down into the camera, and screamed my very first line of dialogue ever: “They’re hideous!”  Then Gaz yelled cut, 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 tight,” Gaz directed, placing E. Noel’s hands on my waist, and my arms around E. Noel’s neck. The set wasn’t cold, but I kept shivering. “First screen kiss?” E. Noel asked.

“Well, if you do get nervous,” he said, “just pretend I’m Checkers.”

Gaz called action. We started the scene.

We spoke of our failed mission and fallen comrades, of time wasted harnessing comet-tail energy. “All that matters to me now,” E. Noel said, “is you.”

Captain. I’m frightened.

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

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 time and we’re running out of it.” I broke free from E. Noel’s embrace, walked toward the observation window, in near-disbelief that these beautiful lines were truly mine.

E. Noel put his hands on my shoulders. “Lorena. There is nowhere in the galaxy I’d rather be than here, looking into your eyes. If this is my end, than it’s more than I could have ever hoped for.

I don’t know what—

He put a finger over my mouth. “Ssshh. Just kiss me, Lorena. That’s an order.

The slick of saliva and flesh of his lips. Our chests and hearts coming together. It all thrilled me, knowing the camera was there to capture the moment.

Then someone started laughing.

“Pardon me,” Checkers said, smirking, “sorry.”

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

“Wrong with me?” Checkers said in Tagalog, and his laughter turned to cruelty: he said the scene between Lorena and Banner was unbelievable, that no two people would say such corny shit in their final moments. “They would try to stay alive. They would fight.” 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 this was his warning, a last chance to save me from starring in yet another fool’s movie. I didn’t think this at the time. Instead, my hand went up then lashed forward, a gesture I’d made dozens of times before in Checkers’s movies. But this time I inflicted real pain: I slapped Checkers hard across the face, and my nails left red scratches below his eye. “Get away from here,” I said. Checkers touched his face, then looked at the blood on his fingers.

“Get off the set,” I said, “and let me act.” Checkers moved away, still stunned, and left the basement.

Gaz called places. We began again, but E. Noel kept stumbling over “demonic intergalactic menagerie,” and there were technical difficulties on the fifth, sixth, seventh takes, and on the eleventh we finally got it right: when we kissed, I managed to shed one single, perfect tear, just as Gaz had written in the script.

“Slight problemo,” Gaz said the next morning. “We’re not done.” Checkers and I were packing for our flight back home, but we hadn’t spoken since the day before.

Gaz explained the situation: “You’re in the shot, Chex. When Lorena’s running up the canyon, you’re standing right there like a lost tourist. I could try to write you into the script, but at this point”—Gaz started folding one of Checkers’s shirts—“I need you to stay.” He was speaking to me. “Two days, maybe three. There are new scenes I need to shoot, so return ticket’s on me. What do you say?”

Hours later, we pulled up to the curb at LAX. “Happy trails,” Gaz said to Checkers, “’til we meet again.”

“Five per cent cut,” was all Checkers said.

I walked him to the entrance. I leaned in to kiss goodbye, but caught sight of the scratch marks on his face. I traced over them with my finger. “Fool,” I said tearfully, “look what you made me do.” He took my wrist, slid my hand to his lips, and instead of kissing it, he simply breathed in, as though I was 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 one another before, and on the way to the airport, I’d daydreamed for us a lovelier farewell scene: just before takeoff Checkers exits the plane, dashes across the tarmac toward me. We kiss and hold each other so tight, that there’s no way to be apart.

* * *

Gaz finally titled the movie The Terror of the Fanged Creatures, and after we finished shooting, Gaz showed me the screenplay for his next movie, Pasadena RollerWars, and offered me the lead. I called Checkers, told him all the things Gaz 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.

There was silence on Checkers’s end. I thought we had been disconnected. “CocoLoco wants me back,” he finally said. “They read Dino-Ladies Get Quezon City and they want me to direct. Too bad 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. “Your chance came again,” I said, “congratulations.” Then I hung up, found Gaz in his kitchen, staring at the Hollywood morning, and told him yes.

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 returned 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 only Fanged Creatures is remembered. I saw it again, last year at the Silver Scream Theater in LA, 20 years after its original release. I sat alone, and behind me a row of college students mocked and hooted throughout, laughing especially hard during my kiss with E. Noel. Yet that scene still moved me—what did those young people know about the world ending all around you?

But what stayed with me then, what loops in my head even now, is what I didn’t see: that scene in the canyon, the one Checkers ruined. I saw it only once, before Gaz edited it out: on hands and knees I struggle uphill, filthy and sweaty—my wig is a nest of pebbles and leaves, dirt smears my face and spacesuit. It makes no difference to Checkers. He comes to me with open arms, like I am a thing of unequaled beauty. On film, everything looks real. It was true: it did look like Checkers meant to help me up, to pull me to safety, and rescue me from that most hostile of planets.

 

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Author

Lysley Tenorio

Lysley Tenorio is a Filipino-American writer and the author of Monstress, which has been long-listed for the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. 


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