I’m desperately craving a halo-halo right now. What I would give for a tall glass of it… I want a bean feast, the crunch of crushed ice, with creamy flan and ube ice cream topping. Don’t care how. I want it now.
I’d also love a green mango, tart and crisp, with bagoong. If not, I could eat a santol, the sour brown flesh first then the sweet white pulp in the center… I don’t remember the last time I’ve had one.
And duhat… I remember picking so much duhat from a tree that my fingers turned violet. So good… but so long since I last put one in my mouth.
Not gonna lie, I struggled with this year’s Birthday Nude. The entire process was discomforting. I found myself being hypercritical of my aging body. I booted up my images in Lightroom and moved the texture slider all the way to the left to smooth out my spongy middle. I sent the images to Photoshop and cloned my wrinkles and belly folds away. Then in a fit of frustration I closed them all up unsaved.
For the Birthday Nude series to stay relevant in the years to come I’m going to have to post these photos unedited as I always have or I won’t do them at all.
If I continue, I will have to confront my naked self, not just my aging body. My emotional reactions reveal so much of who I am. Posting it publicly adds another layer of confrontation. I will have to ask myself the hard questions. How do I feel? Why do I feel this way? Do I feel shame? What am I ashamed of?
I have come to an age when I am proud of who I am and where I’m at in life. That doesn’t mean I look at my body with rose-colored glasses. As someone who has spent decades creating media with my body, I can look at images of myself with objectivity.
In these photos I wear nothing but make-up. I have not given in to temptations of botox or cosmetic surgery. Yet. Maybe never. I don’t know. No judgement on those who do. I haven’t dyed my hair since four months ago and I’m liking the streak of gray growing out of the right side of my hairline.
I enjoyed celebrating my birthday this year. I feel like I’ve been celebrating for weeks now, random presents, time spent with people I adore.
I look at my healthy, beautiful, smart, and talented daughter and feel successful as a mother. Mothering my child has been top priority for the past fifteen years. Everyone and everything else took the back seat. It’s worth it. I invested my time and energy wisely. Now I’m opening myself up to mothering more of the world.
My co-parent, business partner, artistic collaborator, lover, my Man. How I love my Man. We’ve been through so much, good times and nightmarish ones. For so long I’ve taken him for granted, thinking he doesn’t need my mothering because he’s eight years older than me, bolder than me, everything more than me. I was wrong. We’re holding on for dear life and rediscovering who we are to each other at each stage of the game.
College boy somehow slipped in as one of my favorite people on this planet. We’ve known each other for years and he knows most sides of my compartmentalized life. During those moments when my Man was too emotionally involved in the situation to be my friend, my boy took me in his arms and told me he’s got me. I take care of him, too.
And you… I appreciate you. Thank you for coming along on my journey.
This year marks my 20th birthday nude. We shot at home. The photo above was taken in the barn hayloft, an amazing play space when it’s warm enough. It’s a reminder to seize the moment. Winter is coming. Life goes by way too fast. My time is limited. Soon we will have to leave our 169-year-old haunted farmhouse that we’ve made even more haunted with vintage treasures. I’m a little sad to go, but excited to begin once more.
The photo above was taken in the backyard, lush with wildflowers and this abundant hydrangea bush. It’s a sanctuary for birds, bees, and butterflies. Snakes and mice. Chipmunks and squirrels. The best approach to mothering nature is to let it be wild (also applies to mothering humans).
This past year I’ve been spending a lot of time in nature, hiking up mountains and swimming in lakes. This summer I participated in a podcast with Agam, for which they paid me by planting four trees in my name. I intend to plant more trees every year for the rest of my life as part of my legacy.
My daddy forbade me to get naked for a college play. He didn’t realize it was not his call to make. I was eighteen. I could make my own decisions about my body.
I had just finished a run of my first professional theatre gig. “By George!” was a musical revue of George Gershwin starring Dulce and directed by Behn Cervantes. I was a wispy little chorus girl, but I had a solo part after Michelle Gallaga in the song, “I Got Rhythm.” It was a showstopper!
Throughout the run and for weeks after it, I hung out with Dulaang UP kids. Even though I went to Ateneo, I auditioned for a part in the play “Fili,” adapted by Floy Quintos from Jose Rizal’s “El Filibusterismo.” Director Tony Mabesa must have been amused by my novelty because he cast me in a big part, the role of Kontessa, the Kapitan-Heneral’s whore.
Sisa was Eugene Domingo, who had briefly changed her name to Geena Domingo to assume a more dramatic persona. She was a student then, not the big comedy star she is now. The big star of the show was film director Mario O’Hara as the protagonist Simoun.
Rehearsals were exciting. I was getting a master class in theatre performance from the best in the Philippines. I tried my best to keep up when we read through the entire script. I was in one big scene with chunky monologues and several lines back and forth with the Kapitan-Heneral. I was off-book and ready when it was time to get the scene up on its feet.
Sir Tony had me enter with a lit candelabra in each hand. I recited my lines, projected my voice as big as I could make it. My scene partner, the Kapitan-Heneral, was played by a flamboyant opera singer. I couldn’t let my voice drown alongside his. At center stage I was directed to hand the candelabras to the Kapitan-Heneral, kneel in front of him with my back to the audience, and undress.
Sir Tony was serious. I would be getting naked onstage.
My heart raced. My face heated up. I felt small. Literally. I had no tits. I was very self-conscious about it. We weren’t even onstage at the time. We were in a rehearsal room with unforgiving flat fluorescent lighting. I sheepishly removed my street clothes and returned to my spot center stage. The Kapitan-Heneral looked down at me. He was enormous.
“Drip wax on her,” Sir Tony directed from behind a desk. The stage manager sat next to him coldly taking notes on her script.
I continued my lines, gasping every time hot wax hit my bare skin. I felt all eyes on me. Cast and crew held their collective breath as a virgin had her first taste of Dominance and submission. Public humiliation. I didn’t know any of them and none of them knew me. I was an outsider. Just a doe-eyed girl from Ateneo who thought she could run with the cool kids at UP. I felt so alone.
As the scene drew to a climactic end, Sir Tony said, “This is where you have an orgasm.”
“What’s an orgasm?” I asked.
Sir Tony laughed a big booming laugh that echoed throughout the rehearsal hall and in the back of my head for years to come.
“You poor girl.”
Sir Tony took out a cigarette and stood up. The stage manager called a break.
We worked the scene in the succeeding rehearsals. I grew in confidence each time we ran it. I was determined to conquer this role. Eventually, though, Sir Tony decided to get someone else to play Kontessa, a woman named Grace, who rumor had it was a Muslim princess. She was a grown woman with full breasts and dark hair down to her ankles. She fit the part more than I did. She knew how to have an orgasm.
I’m trying to imagine my 18-year-old self as the Kontessa. Not yet five feet tall, a tit-less waif. I would have been the child prostitute version, which is not without a visceral power of its own.
I was demoted to the part of a common whore. I wore a blonde wig and a big poofy dress. I had a couple of lines and got to kiss Sir Mario O’Hara at the beginning of the play.
I got asked out on dates a lot during the run of the play. Maybe I was fresh meat from Ateneo. Maybe it was the challenge of giving me my first orgasm. Maybe that very first wax dripping scene rehearsal played in their imaginations more often than they could bear it. More than my naked body on display, I like to think it was my innocence, vulnerability, and courage that captivated them that day.
This is an excerpt from the memoir I am currently writing. I am so proud that I got to work with Sir Tony Mabesa, who recently won the MMFF award for Best Supporting Actor in the movie Rainbow’s Sunset.
I went to an all-girls nun-run Catholic high school in the Philippines, very strict and narrow-minded. I was a good student but something as trivial as my asymmetric hairstyle got their granny panties in a bunch. What made high school life worth living was Gina. She and I connected on an artistic and literary level. She was a huge The Cure fan, so I drew her a portrait of Robert Smith. She wrote me a fantasy article for Town & Country magazine, in which I am a fabulous art curator and married to Johnny Depp. We talked endlessly about ideas for stories we wanted to write someday and we talked about sex. Sure, we had no experience whatsoever, but we were teenagers. Sex was an obsession.
In college she went to UP and I went to Ateneo. She partied hard with her sorority sisters. I got sucked into music and theatre. She invited me to an Upsilon event once. I felt out of place. Our paths divided for the time being.
She tracked me down in the mid-90s when I was in New York. I was performing Off and Off-Off-Broadway. She was a young single mom, making it as a writer and editor in Manila. She found out I made my own body products so she asked me to write an article for her fledgling magazine, Earthian. It was granola and green long before it was a thing. I accepted. It was my first published piece.
In the mid-2000s she discovered an obscure anonymous blog I was writing about my pregnancy and home birth. She asked if she could publish it on Working Mom magazine. How could I say no to celebrating my infant’s birth on the pages of a glossy magazine? Gina made me feel like royalty or at least like a celebrity.
When she found out about my porn, she stayed on my side all the way. She defended me against attacks behind my back from people we went to high school with and if you knew her, you’d know she unleashed a fury on anyone who crossed her or her loved ones. I flew to San Diego to catch up with her when she visited in 2010. We were regulars at her pub, Fred’s Revolucion in Cubao X in 2012. A few years later, she and her family were guests in our old farmhouse in Maine. We shared stories, beer, and laughter indoors while our kids ages 11 and 12 built a bonfire in the backyard because that’s the kind of parents we were and that’s the kind of kickass kids we raised.
She roped me in to write for Agam, the book of photos by her husband, photojournalist Jose Enrique Soriano. As executive editor, she included me among 24 contributing writers – accomplished poets, journalists, anthropologists, scientists, and artists from the Philippines. I felt like the black sheep among those luminaries, but Gina was my champion. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She autographed my copy of the book: Will always be your friend, fan, and supporter – living vicariously through your groundbreaking work. Love you.
Tuesday night I got a message from her husband. Gina was in a coma in St. Luke’s ER. No one saw it coming. He asked for prayers. When an atheist asks an agnostic to pray for a Catholic, you know it’s serious. I prayed. I used all my mental energy to summon her back. “Come back, Gina,” I commented on a recent Facebook post in which she had tagged me. Come back, Gina, I thought constantly day and night. Come back to us. Thursday around 5 in the morning I woke up with a cramp in my chest. It pinched everytime I breathed. My heart literally hurt. I messaged her husband, “Tell me something, anything.”
“She loved you and we were looking forward to visiting again.”
I had a difficult loud ugly cry by myself until Jay came out of his studio and held me and we cried together. I am so glad he got to know her. I’m glad I have somebody to grieve with and celebrate her life with.
Gina recently posted a fabulous profile picture across all her social media channels and even more fabulous photos of her and her kids at a kiki ball. Just last weekend her kids thanked her for giving them “a rich uncommon childhood.” She said she won the “lotto of life.” Her latest piece, my favorite yet, the crass and soulful Patricio, was published online on Esquire posthumously. I joked to Jay that it was a memorial-worthy social media presence, one to aspire to. He asked me not to die until my profile pictures got really old and ugly.
I got out a bottle of beer from the fridge, spilled some in her honor, and drank to my friend. Gina had a sharp wit and a fiery nature. She was a fierce mother and a fierce friend. She burned brilliantly, my friend for life. Gina burned fast, but she burned exceptionally bright.
I’ve been fostering a pregnant cat that some heartless people abandoned at the shelter. She’s a scared little thing, so confused about what’s happening to her body and untrusting of any human. I don’t blame her. You fuck real good once and you’re in trouble forever. Can you imagine being kicked out of your home just when you need one the most? She’s been under the couch most of the time. Once in a while I coax her out with kitty treats. She gently takes it from the tip of my fingers with her tiny teeth. So cute!
Lately she started lounging out in the open, but darted back under the couch as soon as anyone moved. On Autumn Equinox this weekend she spent the entire day and night under the couch. Around ten o’clock, while I was troubleshooting the Raspberry Pi I set up, I heard peeps from under the couch. Kittens!
She came out later, her crotch wet so I knew for sure she had given birth. Kitty Mama cleaned herself, drank and ate a lot, then relaxed on her bed. I took the opportunity to take a peek under the couch. One tiny baby kitten.
I stayed up late with my Kitty Mama, rubbing her body and telling her she did good. She was so hungry for affection, the sweet thing. Before going to bed, I peeked at the baby again. It wasn’t moving. I got scared. What if it’s dead? I reached out and touched it. It squeaked. It was warm. I was relieved, but only slightly. What if the Mama rejects it now that I’d touched it? I dream worried dreams now. A little lifeless kitten, kittens running amok, my rat terrier getting in through the French doors and eating the little kitten. Moms… Moms worry.
Prior to this I’d been having frustrating dreams. Dreams that ended before they began. I dreamed about my first lover. The first boy I ever fell in love with growing up in the Philippines. We were hanging out with other people, not speaking to each other, just there, trying to keep it cool but wanting so badly to reach out and touch him. Finally we were alone but before we could say one thing the dream was over. I was awake. What a cruel trick awakening is!
Another time I dreamed about my high school best friend and me walking by a beach in the Philippines with a couple of boys I don’t believe I’ve met in real life. She ripped her clothes off and jumped in the water. The boys undressed and followed. I fumbled for the buttons on my shirt. I wanted to go skinny dipping, too, but the buttons seemed to take forever to undo. I woke up before I could get my shirt off.
I have someone who tells me constantly that he dreams about me. He says he wakes up hard as a rock and has to get himself off in the bathroom.