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published by McAdam / Cage, 2002

Letters to Montgomery Clift

december 4, 1976
dear mr montgomery clift,
i want one thing only. please bring my mama back
to me. safe. with no more bruises. i will wait one week.
if nothing bad happens then i know it is ok to write you.
Sign
bong bong luwad

I didn't start seeing Montgomery Clift immediately. I didn't start to depend on him or adore him or desire him or touch him until later. I didn't know that his cinematic glow of black, white, and silver would influence me in such ways. Even now, I still wonder. I saw him first in a movie, enthralled with his magnificent face, taken with his kindness. People can leave indelible marks, scars sometimes. That's what people do. That's what Montgomery Clift did for me. It didn't matter that he had been dead for ten years by the time I started writing him.

Montgomery Clift—"Monty" was my first American friend. And who forgets a first anything? First kiss, first love, first date, first sex, first car, first time seeing your parents beaten up, first foster home, first job, first year in college, first betrayal, first real relationship. Monty would be the most constant companion in my search for her, my mother. Mr. Clift had been with me for most of my life now. And, I don't care what the doctors say, he is real. As real to me as Robert or J or Amada or Logan or Mrs. Billaruz.

I started my life in America and my search for my parents—well, only my mother now—with Monty as my guide. The journey to find my mother would not be complete without him.

If I find mama… when I find her—no, I can only say "if." If I find my mother, I'll give them to her. I'll give her my letters to Montgomery Clift. She will read them and I'll explain the parts in between. She will see what happened to me, see what I did to myself, and know that I'd always loved her, even though she never came back.

In my mind, I've rehearsed my life story over and over again: piecing together parts of my life I want to tell her. I'm going to tell her about my childhood in Los Angeles (including life with her evil sister Yuna), my new family, my accident, my time in the hospital, and my falling in love with a dead movie star. My letters will be the greatest testament of that.

There is a finite moment where the events of your life lead, a moment filled with who you were and who you might be. It reminds me of a black dot, a tiny star aligned to make a constellation. From that dot, that tiny star, a rest-of-a-life is led. For some, it is a marriage or a divorce or a birth or a death. For me, it is a plane ride. My bags are packed. Once the sun strikes this side of earth, Logan will take me to the airport and I'll fly away… back to the beginning. Some think time is a straight line that only continues forward. I don't believe that. I think the line of time can be bent backward, so far back, it'll break. And when it does, everything I know will fall apart. I'm going back to see who I was. I'm going to visit Yesterday, hoping to discover what went horribly wrong. I look at my letters. And by doing so, I'd bent the line of time backward. I see who I was: my words written in a child's scribble. Some of my letters are stained, warped spots where moisture used to be. Moisture that was my tears.

---o00o---

december 14, 1976
dear mr. montgomery clift,
I LOVED MONGOMERY CLIP she said. this is a good sign because i do not think auntie yuna loves very much.

I LOVED HIM auntie yuna said when i asked her about you. i do not like to ask a lot from my auntie yuna.

I CRIED WHEN HE DIED she said. I CRIED WHEN I READ 1950s SCREEN IDOL MONGOMERY CLIP DIED. I WAS A GIRL. BACK IN THE PHILIPPINES. IN 1966. HE WAS DEAD AT 45. HEART TROUBLE she remembered reading.

Auntie Yuna took care of me while I waited for mama to arrive. I know she wanted my mother to come as badly as I did. "I hope she comes soon," Auntie Yuna said "I don't know what the spirits were thinking. I didn't pray for this."

Auntie Yuna prayed all the time. She prayed the way mama prayed, the way all the people I knew prayed. Her head was down; her eyes were up. She looked at pictures of saints and dead relatives on the shelf.

"Saints will take care of us if we take care of them," she said. She offered fruit and meat to holy ghosts. She placed the food on glass plates, honoring Saint Joan, Saint Paul, Saint John, Saint Theresa. Sometimes she lit a cigarette and left it in an ashtray for Uncle Virgillio. She said, "Uncle Virgillio likes to smoke. That's what killed him in the first place."

Auntie Yuna and I would eat the food she left for the spirits. She said the spirits touched the food and made it lucky. By eating the food, we became lucky, too.

"Praying is not enough," she said, "Better to put it on paper. Especially in America. Have everything on paper. I lost a deposit on an apartment once. The Landlord said it wasn't on paper. Bastard."

She wrote letters to God and dead relatives. She put them next to a burning candle by the Jesus Christ cross on her shelf. "The spirits will read them," she said. "It's better than praying because prayers just go from your head into thin air. They become nothing. Look at all the people who have nothing. That's how far prayers got them. Letters is solid proof to the saints, to our ancestors that what I was praying just don't disappear. There are too many prayers floating around. They get tangled up like balloon strings when wind comes by. They get knotted together. The spirits don't know which string belongs to which balloon. The spirits don't know which prayer is yours. That's why I ended up with you. Probably some girl was praying for a child. The spirits answered the right prayer for the wrong person because I never wanted to be stuck with a child. For all I know, someone else got the million dollars I'd been praying for. I learned my lesson. Always put it down on paper. Never. Never! Will I pray like that again. God knows I didn't ask for you."

God knows I didn't ask for YOU, I thought to myself.

"Dead relatives are the best people to ask things," she said. "Better than God. Dead relatives already know you and you know them. People will do things for people they know. God knows everyone and treats everyone the same. I want to ask a favor from someone who will give better treatment.

"Letters have to be to saints or dead relatives. No one else. If you write to someone else the spirits will think we do not trust them."

So I wrote in secret and put the letters under the couch I slept on. I did not want to be mean to Auntie Yuna's spirits. I simply did not know them. I did not know who the saints were. I did not know my dead relatives, my ancestors.

I just knew what I saw. I saw Montgomery Clift. I saw him when I couldn't sleep. I turned on the television, watched the late night movie. When the commercials ended, a voice from the TV said, "And now we return to The Search starring Montgomery Clift." In the movie, in The Search, Monty Clift plays a soldier. He finds and cares for a small boy whose mother was taken away by bad people. He takes the boy home. He gives him candy. He buys him shoes. He teaches him English. He keeps him safe. He guards the boy till his mama comes.

I prayed before I went to sleep. I prayed when I woke. I prayed with my eyes locked shut and my head buried deep into my pillow. I prayed with my hands clasped tightly, my knuckles turning white. I prayed until my whole body ached. Then I prayed some more. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I prayed for one thing. I prayed that my mother was okay and that she would come to get me.

It was Montgomery Clift's spirit I asked this of. It was his spirit I wrote. I ignored Auntie Yuna's painted saints on little cards. I offered my apple to Monty, not Uncle Virgillio or other dead uncles and aunts who were strange to me. I wrote hoping for no mix up, no delay. I wrote, please bring my mama back to me.

Without my mother, my childhood continued. I'd started American school in 1976. My first teacher was Mrs. de Paul, a kind woman. She reminded me of Mrs. Baker in the Philippines. On the first day of school, Mrs. de Paul asked her students to tell her our first names and what street we lived on.

She picked me first. I didn't like to speak because my English wasn't very good. In the Philippines only rich kids learned English well. I was a child of the province, Benguet Province specifically, far away from the fast paced capital of Manila.

Most of my education was done by missionaries in small shacks.

My classmates came from the working class or those who didn't work at all, children of squatters. Squatters were those who simply occupied land, public or private.

My parents, especially my father, insisted I attend school. I learned English well enough, but not as well as I could have. After all, once school ended, the kids would stop speaking English and revert to speaking their native Illocano or Tagalog. We knew that English would serve us little, we had an idea that the rest of our lives would be spent in some low-paying capacity where English wouldn't be needed. The bosses or employers we'd work under would know English, but not us.

In Mrs. De Paul's class, I spoke English slowly, almost like a guessing game, trying to think of what the next word might be.

"My… name… is Bong Bong… and I… live… on Coronado Street."

"You sound retarded," the boy next to me said. My classmates laughed again, a stinging sound.

"Laughing is rude," said Mrs. De Paul and she put the boy in the corner. His name was Milton. Big head Milton. Tiny ears and fat nosed Milton. He was Filipino. There were a lot of kids in my class who were Filipino also, but they were born in the US or came when they were babies. Some of them spoke Tagalog. They spoke Tagalog as well as I spoke English, which wasn't very good at all. I spoke two languages, Tagalog and Illocano, but English was the only language that mattered.

At lunch Big Head Milton said, "I'm gonna kick your ass after school."

"Shut the fuck up," Robert said. Milton got scared and walked away. Robert Bulanan was another Filipino kid in my class. He was skinny with curly hair, parted in the middle. He was dark, dark like an old penny. We were both eight years old, but he looked older, perhaps a kid of eleven. When he smiled, dimples formed on both cheeks.

After school we'd go to his dad's store on Temple Street. Once Mr. Bulanan asked me,

"Ano ang paborito mong kendi?"

I told him my favorite candy was chocolate then he handed me a Hershey bar.

Mr. Bulanan sounded important. His Tagalog was excellent, a product of some of the finest education the Philippines offered. People like Mr. Bulanan traveled from Manila to the Mountain Provinces like Benguet, vacationing in Baguio City. They walked up and down Session Road in their hand-tailored suits or wearing American finery like denim jeans by Levi Strauss. They'd sit on a bench near by. I would run up to them and offer to shine their shoes with my box of polish and dirty rags.

Polishing shoes was better than what some of the other things kids did to earn money. I knew kids who dove off mountains to fetch coins tourists threw into the ocean below. Some died.

I would sit by their feet and rub the polish into their leather shoes. They would give me a few pesos for my polishing. I would run to my mom and dad and give them the money. Mama would pat me on the head and tell me how this will buy us food for the night.

Mrs. de Paul said I needed to go to another class to speak and write better. They took me out of my class after lunchtime and put me in Mr. Lopez's class. Mr. Lopez made us write and speak English. I was the only Filipino boy in that class. There were two girls from Korea. Three boys and two girls from Mexico. One boy from Cuba. One girl and one boy from China.

We sat in a circle and he showed us pictures. "This is a cat," Mr.Lopez said. We all said CAT.

Even though I knew what a dumb old cat looked like and what it was called. I thought Pusa first, but then said CAT. It seemed everything that I had ever known didn't much matter. And whatever I learned wasn't good enough.

"It's cat with an aaaaaa sound, not an oooooh sound," said Mr. Lopez.

"Caaaaaaat," I said.

He said I was his first child from the Philippines. "All of the Filipino kids I knew never had a problem with English," he said.

I told him, "I did not practice English in the Philippines. English is what you say to Americans living there. I did not know a lot of Americans. I only knew two: Mr. and Mrs. Baker. But they wanted to learn Tagalog better. So that's what I spoke with them."

Mr. Lopez said I had to practice frequently. I practiced everyday.

Robert had noticed my English improved. His approval was paramount to me. One day, I had gone to his house, a two-story California Townhouse on Rampart Boulevard. Rampart Boulevard had some of the prettiest houses in our neighborhood. Most of the homes were large with five or six bedrooms. We sat on Robert's stoop, a stoop which encircled the house, and watched the cars hum by. We threw rocks at the Century 21 Real Estate sign on his front lawn, dent it real good.

"My folks wanna move," Robert said. "They don't like the neighborhood anymore. Want us to move to someplace else, maybe Carson."

I didn't think the neighborhood was that bad. I still don't. I'd seen some of the most awful living conditions in The Philippines.

To me, that area, the Rampart District (which professed to have one of the highest crime rates in Los Angeles) was heaven compared to the squatter houses, made of metal and flimsy wood, I saw in the Philippines.

"You're moving?" I asked.

"Supposed to. But the house has been for sale for a long time, over a year. I don't think anyone wants to move in."

I was comforted slightly. I wanted Robert to stay.

Robert showed me all of his trophies and medals, the ones he'd won at various martial arts tournaments. I also noticed a wall of family photos. Robert and his two sisters at various stages of development. Robert as a babe, as a toddler, in kindergarten. The photos fell within the perimeters of a large wall rosary.

Robert had his own room and so did his sisters. Up until that time, I'd always shared a room with my parents. I slept on the couch of Auntie Yuna's one bedroom apartment. Robert's room was filled with all the toys showered upon the only boy in a family. Two skateboards leaned against one wall, balls of various shapes—football, baseball, basketball, tennis balls—filled a wicker basket. There were Tonka trucks and Lego toys, coloring books and crayons. It was a child's paradise.

He had a basketball hoop above the garage door. We dribbled and shot. I did a great lay-up. I watched Robert shoot a basket, amazed at his accuracy. The ball went in almost every time, making a whipping sound as it swirled around the nylon net, eventually falling to the floor.

A lemon tree grew in his backyard also. I marveled at that tree with yellow orbs hanging from it. It seemed so out of place in an inner city neighborhood. From that very tree, Robert's mother pulled lemons to spice up her meals.

I stayed for dinner and Mrs. Bulanan made chicken adobo with the meat so tender that it fell off the bones when I brought it to my mouth. She brushed butter and honey on her hopia mungo. Sometimes the butter ran down my mouth and I caught it with my tongue. It tasted better than Auntie Yuna's food. Even Auntie Yuna's rice tasted bad. It was always wet and mushy. I had to eat all of it or else she'd get mad. If I didn't eat all of my cabbage, she'd hit me in the face. I'd want to cry. She said if I cried she would hit me again. I tried not to. I covered my face with my hands so she couldn't see me. She'd hit me anyway.

She hit my ear once. I cried real hard, wailed.

"If you eat all your food, I would not have to discipline you like that," she said.

I ate all of her food. Even if I didn't like it. Auntie Yuna watched me eat until my plate was clean. Her eyes drilled me, opening holes I couldn't see.

Yes, I ate it all.

© Noel Alumit

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Excerpt from
Letters to Montgomery Clift

by Noel Alumit
Recipient,
Global Filipino Literary Award


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