by Michael Caylo-Baradi
Before The Rain: A Memoir of Love and Revolution (2012)
by Luisita Lopez Torregrosa ISBN: 9780547669205
Red tropical flowers appear to bloom against a black background, on the book’s cover. The colors resist convergence, and seem harmonious in this resistance, which underlines two elements in the title: love and revolution. The memoir opens in 1985. That year, Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, held court in a Hollywood studio with other singers, to record “We Are the World”, a new anthem that raised funds for Africa. This was the eighties. The spirit of activism and solidarity dismantled regimes, from the cold heights of the Berlin Wall, to the People Power storm against Marcos in Manila, to the end of The Cold War. Luisita López Torregrosa used to recommend correspondents to where the action was, when she was a Foreign Desk editor at The New York Times. The hours were long back then, often fueled with coffee and Diet Coke. She’d arrive early in the morning to check overnight messages, and work beyond dinnertime. Life was routine, until a reporter from City Desk was assigned in her department to fill in details on a story.
Known as Blake around the newsroom, E. Blake Whitney was her byline, a name-combination that does not yield satisfying results in Google searches on articles written by that name, since Torregrosa has chosen not to reveal her lover’s real identity. Certainly, privacy is the main concern here, and the legal issues associated with it. But one wonders though how Torregrosa chose that name-form for this memoir. A lover’s name seals a universe of experiences, and any form of substitution or tampering on that seal could desecrate the equation that makes the name and the experiences associated with it inseparable; on the other hand, this in itself is the reason the lover’s name must remain a secret: this memoir is not the love story itself, but a telling, an approximate rendering of it. Renaming the lover draws a boundary between the real and its representation. And perhaps this is the extent of that affair’s privacy; the rest are made available in prose, as autobiography, designed for public consumption, through an individual perspective that recalls and relives the details of its chapters.
As personal accounts, memoirs are tied to the authorial voice of the first-person pronoun, to the dictatorship of the I, piecing together recollections and memories that borrows tools from fiction to generate and imagine an appropriate momentum. In Torregrosa’s case, fluid, accessible prose glimmers with poetic intensity, and thus heightens the color of emotions. On a letter from India, Torregrosa re-imagines the subcontinent through Elizabeth, now on her second assignment as correspondent for the Foreign Desk:
I could envision her there, with the myna birds and the black bats that hung off tall, gnarled trees, […] She would go running early in the morning down the tree-shaded boulevards where tiny women dressed in cotton saris bent over hand brooms, sweeping the red dust that coats the city. The heat would rise slowly, the white heat that came with dawn, bleaching the exterior of building, the inside walls, even the curtains. By noon it blanked everything out, choking all breath. Tropical heat descends like a vast dampness blown in by trade winds, but the heat of India turns the sky white. (22-23)
The passage is a beautiful snapshot within a snapshot, but feels like a first-hand account, unmediated by another text. Indeed, the exclusion of dates and proper nouns give the passage a timeless feel. This makes sense. The subject of being in love affects one’s sense of space and time. Through passages like this, Torregrosa joins her lover again, through memories of that fragile union. India lives in its ghosts, including New York City, Tokyo, Seoul, and other places they had lived together; and in its center is Manila, where Elizabeth was assigned, after India, to cover the fall of Ferdinand Marcos’ regime.
Torregrosa’s immediate connection with Filipino culture is concentrated around the urban milieu of Manila; she “never felt alone” there. Like her native Puerto Rico, The Philippines is a Catholic, island-country, and a former colony of the Spanish empire, until that empire relinquished power over these territories (including Guam), to the United States for $20 million through the Treaty of Paris. Torregrosa’s reverence for Manila is palpable, the way she admires the old-world elegance of The Manila Hotel, where the foreign press worked and socialized. Fear of flying did not deter Torregrosa from traveling thirteen thousand miles to be with Elizabeth, including warnings from friends about Blake’s personality, that “she’s going to tear you apart limb from limb” (71). Concerned, her employer’s managing editor met her halfway, and offered a year-long leave of absence she eventually could not renew due to accusations that she “violated the paper’s nepotism rule” (146). Torregrosa was the guilty party, and not Elizabeth. And so, Torregrosa stayed in Manila, as the city further daydreamed of revolutions and coup d’états when Corazon Aquino succeeded Marcos. The lovers could not get enough of the city’s tropical heat sweating hectic street-corners and visits to Cafe Adriatico under Cinzano umbrellas (88). Manila was their moveable feast, their Paris, the way Hemingway dined and cruised around the Eiffel Tower in the 1920s, with other North American expats. Amidst the turmoil of Philippine politics, love bloomed. Torregrosa felt free there, in flesh and spirit, with “incalculable joy and unmeasurable wreckage” (93). Here, the reader might be curious about the quantifiable aspects of that wreckage, no doubt convinced that ‘immeasurable’ is really the psychic identity of ‘unmeasurable’, for the immaterial immensity of the wreckage. Furthermore, that same reader might notice another term in page 112 that needs clarification, a term local to the islands. Torregrosa defined it as que será será – come what way; she frames that sentiment in the context of colonialism, when a subjected population “throw[s] themselves at the mercy of the gods” (112); the term is printed as bahalina. A Google search of the term refers to it as coconut wine in the Philippines, and doesn’t yield to anything synonymous to Torregrosa’s definition. I suspect Torregrosa is referring to: Bahala na. But then maybe she was under the influence of too much bahalina in the Philippines, while throwing herself, bahala-na-style, to the mercy of love. Thus, spellings can get a little skewed.
In many ways, a unique privacy mapped the center of Torregrosa’s joy, which was bounded by lush vistas of coastlines and rural landscapes, away from deadlines, Manila’s jeepney streets, and other foreign journalists. At Matabungkay Beach, time levitated on a raft over water so clear you could see the bottom, including the bottom of those moments, where Torregrosa found the center of her life at ground zero beside Elizabeth’s face: “I had found myself a place”(67). This happiness was replicated in the island resort of Boracay, where the lovers became wanderers on its white, sandy coastlines, euphoric about going native, in “drawstring shorts made of flour sacks […], slogg[ing] on burning sand back across the island, slapping at sand flies in the air” (107). On the other hand, the wreckage between the lovers was another story. Both were passionate about life but instead of melding, they became a “collision of immutable forces: [Elizabeth’s] steely reserve and rigorous emotional discipline and [Torregrosa’s] obsessive passion and combustible temperament” (55). Thus, the slammed doors and lonely silences at night dying to scream. Elizabeth’s idea of doing the right thing did not include having a relationship with another woman. She had planned another life, one that required a husband. Torregrosa understood Elizabeth’s fear and anguish, that their relationship still raised eyebrows, because of prevailing hegemonies and myths about same-sex affairs. Nevertheless, their relationship endured in Manila until 1989, when stories about the Philippines were not front-page story anymore. Other foreign correspondents, too, left for other places. The lovers moved back to the U.S., and settled at Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Their passion for each other was still alive. The question though wasn’t the quality of that passion, but how its character inhabited the concrete jungle of New York City, away from the tropical mood, chaos, and grit that is Manila.
Torregrosa’s unrenewable leave of absence from The New York Times was probably a blessing, because it allowed her to focus on her own writing, instead of other people’s work. In Manila with Elizabeth, Torregrosa filed stories for the San Francisco Chronicle (128), and other papers. Her subject was a Philippines determined to reinvent and transform itself in Corazon Aquino’s administration. Aquino blurred the idea of economic inequality, and muted the notion that she came from the ruling class. She came from wealth, and wealth now had the face of saintliness armed with a rosary, a radical and, indeed, revolutionary image for the Office of the President; and, too, the first woman president in the archipelago. However, the irony in this image was weaker than the fatal and, in many ways, providential realism it portrayed: the Catholic Church, after all, headed by the Vatican, is very rich. The 1986 People Power Revolution in the memoir functions as background for a kind of revolution organic to the situation of Torregrosa and Elizabeth. Theirs was love being itself in another country, love at its most personal, unhinged from speculations, interrogations, and other harassments insensitive to its Sapphic dimensions. And the memoir further unhinges itself from this terrain by excluding terms such as gay, lesbian, LGBT, or pride in its pages, as though employing them might pollute the text with discussions about the politics of the closet.
Torregrosa’s choice to quietly extricate the memoir from being self-conscious of the politics of sexual orientation helps underline the psychogeography of desire in the text. The relationship between the psyche of its love story and a specific urban environment is, I think, vital to the sense of freedom the lovers had experienced in The Philippines. Torregrosa’s encounter with Manila at street-level informs that sense of liberation. The lovers were drawn to the city’s terrain, the contours of its foreignness: “Days and nights fused and everything around us became ours: the restaurants and cafes, the foul streets, the morning fog on the bay, and the moments when, sinking into that city so strange and intimate, we lost all fear” (87). Certainly, their immersion to the city had a practical function. They had to know Manila, in order to write and file stories about it, its world, mind, and political situation. Time there was not hampered by long hours behind a desk squeezed between Manhattan skyscrapers. Time did not have the pace of the first-world. Time was the Philippines of the eighties, burdened with debts amidst “foul streets,” high-heeled in the spirit of Imelda Marcos’ three-thousand pairs of shoes. But the condition of these streets were integral to the kind of intimacy and strangeness they felt in Manila, where the lovers were “happily invisible among the barrio people” (89). This intimacy and strangeness was a form of hospitality, a spatial vortex that sucked the lovers into anonymity, away from fears that question their same-sex relationship. They were not excluded there, nor were they explicitly invited into Filipino culture either. Their physical mobility in Manila was invitation enough. Thus, in Manila, emotions transported them to a kind of time-warp, where “[m]ornings came after nights when geckos crawled up the walls and [they] lay in [their] bed listening to the preludes and canons that had become the backdrop of [their] silences. There was nothing that came before those nights, before those hours, hours that for [Torregrosa] transcended years, anguish and ache, insatiable longing” (87-88). Indeed, those canons – the sounds of an on-going revolution – and the revolution itself are only peripheral elements in the memoir; thus, the ‘revolution’ in the title can be misleading.
The term ‘longing’ could have been part of this memoir’s title, although Torregrosa did use it in her first memoir already; in The Noise of Infinite Longing: a Memoir of a Family and an Island (2004),Torregrosa speeds through someone named Elizabeth, towards the end. This made sense. Elizabeth was a special kind of longing, too special, the pinnacle of joy in Torregrosa’s life, because to her: “No one else, nothing else, could bring me the total joy her eyes did, her laughter, her being” (185). However, the totality of this joy suffocated and smothered Elizabeth to a point where she threatened to leave Torregrosa, because she could not “rescue” (200) her anymore, from the madness of her possessive, combustible temperament. This is the blackness on the book’s cover, the curse of love becoming itself, desperate for more. But this blackness is also writing itself, a source of light and enlightenment; Torregrosa believes that “writing comes from the night, from some place secret and glorious” (74). No doubt, the tropics live in that night, scattered in archipelagos, where the intimacy of strange cities spread rumors of wars that sound like insatiable longings for home.
© Michael Caylo-Baradi