Do you like it? Like a crooner, don’t you think? That’s where I got my last name. “The Sands.’” A casino in Las Vegas. This old drunk fuck was telling me about it. “HEY, little pretty black boy, goddamn … I ain’t seen nothin’ like you since I left Detroit … ”
He couldn’t get over it, touched me when he got the chance. Did I have a daddy??? Shit, I laughed back at him, imitating his drawl: SHEEE-IT, man, I said. Mocking him. You must be kidding! Man, I don’t even have a mother. Laying it on real thick, so he’d feel sorry for me.
He started coming around “CocoRico” regularly. I’d be at the bar up front, checking things out. Actually, he wasn’t bad-looking. When he wasn’t drunk his face and eyes didn’t droop as much, and you’d notice his big body and muscular arms, pretty strong and firm for a man his age. I’d always act surprised to see him.
That was before disco, before I talked Andres into hiring me as a DJ for the back room. “What do I need you for?” Andres used to say, pointing to the jukebox. It seemed like forever until Andres let me give it a shot, and look at him now: he’s making money, the place is jammed until all hours of the night — even girls want to come here and dance, the music’s so good.
“You’re kind of young, aren’t you?” the American once said. But I could tell he was fascinated, just like all the rest of them. My head of tight, kinky curls, my pretty hazel eyes, my sleek brown skin. “Where’s the little G.I. baby?” he’d ask Andres. Andres would shrug, in that bored way of his. “He’ll be here any moment now, I’m sure.” The American would buy more drinks, sitting close by the door. Sometimes I’d get there, let him buy me dinner. Sometimes I’d just stay away.
“Call me Neil,” he said, his eyes fixed on me in that sad, funny way of his. It was one of his sober days. NEIL … What kind of name is that? I loved making fun of him. “Good sport,” he’d laugh with me, jabbing at his own chest with one of his large, rough hands. I spit on the floor in contempt. “Man, you don’t have to talk to me like I don’t know anything. Good sport,” I mimicked, rolling my eyes. “What do you think this is? The Lone Ranger & Tonto?” I sulk, look away from him. Scan the room for a pretty face. Make him feel real bad.
Embarrassed, he looks lost. “Joey, I’m sorry.” He means it. I like that best. I could make him do anything then.
I keep at it for just a little while longer. “Man, I’m no savage.” When he looks like he’s going to cry, I stop. Touch his leg under the table. Soothe him with my voice. “NEIL,” I tease, gently now. “Neil Sedaka — ahhh …” I knew how to make him laugh.
One time he asks me a favor. “For my homeboy …” Some younger guy named Phil. I didn’t like Phil as soon as I met him. “Phil wants to see a live show …” Phil is standing there, next to Neil. Staring at me and not saying anything.
“You mean a sex show?” I take my time drinking my beer, ignoring Phil’s anxious, piercing gaze.
“Yeah, that’s right. One of those …” Neil is uncomfortable. Andres stands behind the bar, within earshot. He seems absorbed by the magazine he’s reading, an article about his rich cousin Isabel, who’s married to Alacran. But I know Andres — one car’s cocked in our direction.
“You want boys, girls, or both?”
“How much?” It’s the first and only time Phil opens his mouth.
“Depends,” I say. I’ll negotiate with Uncle privately, take my cut.
“We have a car,” Neil says.
We drive down the boulevard slowly, looking for the street. It’s early, around eleven at night. I sit in the front seat with Neil, giving directions. Across the wide boulevard I can see the ocean, black and still. “Is that your ship?” I point to the carrier floating, not far away. The men don’t respond.
Uncle’s place is behind the abandoned “Lido Supper Club.” He’s the night watchman, hired by Congressman Abad to guard his property from looters and thieves. The club is a white building with fake marble columns on the outside. Statues of half-naked nymphs and satyrs hold unlit torches. Uncle ushers us in through the back door. It’s enormous inside, and eerie. Everything’s been left as it was. Dozens of little tables and chairs, some with stained white tablecloths still on them. Ashtrays filled with cigarette butts. Empty bottles of San Miguel beer. A dance floor tiled with blue and white mosaics. There is a thick coat of dust on everything we touch.
Uncle is looking for the main switch, stumbling and pointing his flashlight at the cobwebs on the walls. Finally he turns on the dim chandelier that hangs in the room. He motions to a table in the front row, facing a large stage. Not too long ago, Johnny Buenaventura and his Orchestra used to play “The Girl From Ipanema” here. Now a bare mattress lies dead center.
I leave the two Americans at the table, take Uncle aside and tell him what they want. He is gone approximately ten minutes. A skinny young girl enters, followed by a well-built young man, close to my age. She wears a flimsy, loose-fitting dress, her eyes lowered. She is barefoot, and I notice her meticulously manicured toenails, the black nail polish dotted with tiny crescent moons. The young man is also barefoot. He wears worn khaki pants, and his chest is bare. There are intricate tattoos of spiders and cobwebs up and down his lean, muscular arms. He is beautiful, in his way. The two Americans sit up in their chairs, attentive now. I stay in the back of the cavernous room, smoking my cigarettes in the shadows. This way, I can watch them all.
We were in a room at the Hilton. “You ought to sing,” Neil was saying. “You have an exquisite voice. Good way to make some money, even here in Manila.” I grunt in response. What does he know, I’ve heard all this before. I turn on the giant color TV.
I had just taken a bath and a shower. If the water stayed hot, I’d be in there all day. Afterward I stuff the plastic shower cap and slippers with the Manila Hilton insignia, complimentary robe and two bars of Cashmere Bouquet soap in one of Neil’s Sportex shopping bags. He hated when I did that. “You don’t have to take that cheap shit. I’ll buy you what you need …” He just didn’t understand. I love the newness and cleanness of my little souvenirs, the smell and touch of the glossy plastic. I would live in a hotel room forever, if I could.
“I’m hungry,” I say to him. “Call room service.” We are sprawled on the bed. It’s two in the afternoon. “Tawag Ng Tanghalan” is on. A young girl singing “Evergreen.” She is earnest and terrified, but her voice booms out in spite of her, from somewhere inside that frail body. Neil shakes his head slowly, in admiration. “Not bad. She’s not bad at all …”
The TV audience claps and whistles enthusiastically when she finishes the song. She blinks into the camera, startled. She is last week’s winner, and an audience favorite. She stands in front of the cheering crowd, fidgeting with her hands. I can’t bear to watch her, it’s too painful. Her awkwardness makes me angry. “Look at her — how stupid!”
“Poor thing,” Neil sighs. “She needs to be rescued, quick.” Impatient, I make a face. There he goes again, upset. He identifies with everyone and everything. I can’t be like that. If I were on TV, I’d be the coolest guy. Mr. Heartbreak, the one that got away. Cool, calm, collected.
Lopito appears on the TV screen, waving to the noisy audience. Before he can even thank her, the young girl rushes off the stage. He gestures towards her departing back. “OUR REIGNING CHAMPION! A BIG HAND FOR CONNIE LIM, THE BARBRA STREISAND OF THE PHILIPPINES!!!” He is making fun of her, sneering in front of the audience. They pick up on his cruelty, start tittering.
Before announcing the next contestant, Lopito rattles off the different prizes: a twelve-inch Motorola color television, a clock, a year’s supply of Magnolia Ice Cream. The big prize is a screen test and a chance to appear in Mabuhay Studios’ next musical, starring everyone’s favorite sweethearts, Nestor Noralez and Barbara Villanueva. Lopito reminds us, once again, that Nestor and Barbara were discovered on his show. “Why don’t you audition for this? You’d be great …” Neil says. He can’t be serious, so I give him one of my withering looks.
“Come on, Neil. Call room service. I’m starving to death …” The next contestant is a young guy named Romeo something. Pretty cute, but corny. “Not bad, huh, Neil?” I poke Neil in the ribs, playfully. “Look at those thighs, and those lips …” Neil ignores me. “What a hairdo!” I say.
“What do you want to eat?” Neil asks, getting up from the bed.
Romeo whoever-he-is starts belting out “Feelings,” except he sounds like he’s saying “Peelings.” He’s trying very hard, and he’s making me sick. No charisma, as Andres would say. I switch the channel. There’s an old black-and-white movie, with Leopoldo Salcedo fighting the Japanese.
I lean back against the pillows, my arms behind my head. My tight black curls are still wet, framing my face. Neil is looking at me, ready to dial room service. “WELL?” he says. I am still naked. We both pretend not to notice how hard I’m getting. “Cheeseburger de luxe,” I say, dreamily. “French fries with ketchup. Mango ice cream…and a Coke.”
When Neil got stationed back in the States, he sent me a postcard:
c/ o Andres Amaya
4461 Balimbing Street
I thought you’d appreciate this.
Wish you were here …
The postcard was from Las Vegas, a color photo of The Sands Casino, with Sammy Davis Jr.’s name in lights. NOW APPEARING.
“You got mail,” Andres said, handing me the postcard. “You’re lucky I didn’t throw it away — haven’t seen you in weeks.”
With that buddha face of his, Andres watched as I held the card in my hands, pretending I could read. “Let me,” he finally said, snatching the card out of my hands. When he finished reading aloud to me, I smiled. Put the card back in my jeans pocket. Carried it around for days after that, maybe months … I don’t remember now.
I ask Andres if he’d write a letter on my behalf, someday. I have Neil’s APO box number, whatever that means. I have to figure out what it is I want, before I can dictate my letter. It’s gonna be good. I know how to get to Neil. He’ll send for me: we can live in Vegas or L.A.
“Sure … why not?” Andres says, in that easy way of his. He looks past me at the door. A couple of Americans have walked in. Middle-aged, okay bodies. They’ve never been here before. They’re hesitant, they could turn around and leave and never come back. Andres can tell. They aren’t servicemen. They look classy, yet casual. What Andres calls “old money.” His favorite kind.
It’s early, “CocoRico” empty — except for me and a couple of other young guys. There won’t be a rush for another hour. “Good afternoon,” Andres says, his shrewd eyes on the Americans. I perk up. This is going to be interesting. I am tingling, the dope in my veins has run its course and settled peacefully.
The Americans are relieved. They smile and sit down at the bar, not far from me. Andres stands under a poster of a matador and a bull, brought to him all the way from Barcelona by one of his rich lovers. He is chatting amiably with the Americans, asking innocent little questions. Where are you from? Really? And how do you like Manila?
The Americans loosen up. One of them, the older one, eyes me boldly. I ignore him, smiling to myself. Listen to Andres go on and on, prying information out of them. Andres can be so cordial when he wants.
That’s what I like about him. He’s so slick.