“Inday, tawag ka ni Papa mo. May bisita kaw. Lalake.” Your Papa is calling for you. You have a visitor. A man.
Milly’s daydream was interrupted by the maid standing at the doorway.
Milly was surprised. She wasn’t expecting a visitor today. It wasn’t uncommon for suitors to come knocking unexpectedly. But one thirty in the afternoon seemed a bit early. She sighed and hoped no one in the neighborhood saw whoever-this-was come inside their house. What if gossip reached Roming? He might get a little jealous, again. Then she stopped herself: she might be too presumptuous for assuming this was another suitor.
“I’ll be right there,” she responded in Ilonggo. As the maid closed the door behind her, Milly looked around the room she shared with her three younger sisters. Two wrought iron beds stood side-by-side. Each bed had a wooden platform topped with a wide banig mat. The bed Milly shared with one of her sisters creaked slightly as she shifted to get up.
Milly turned to her younger sister Delia, who sat on the other bed. “Do you know who this might be?”
Delia shrugged, “Ambot, Manang” as she continued to read one of her many pocketbooks. Delia was always viewed as the “intellectual one.” Milly turned to her other sister, “Neolly?”
“I don’t know but you want me to come downstairs with you?” Neolly asked. Milly nodded. If this was indeed a potential suitor, she was in no mood to deal with him by herself. Especially not since she and Roming have been spending more time together recently.
His name was Romeo but everyone called him Roming. Milly smiled to herself at the thought of him. A bit over protective and jealous as he was, he was also extremely kind, generous and intelligent. Not too long ago, he occupied significantly less real estate in her thoughts than he did now. He was just another boy at the party; the quiet scion of landed gentry; a distant cousin; the shy neighbor stealing glances from a window; the subject of teasing and romantic encouragement from friends and family.
Often, on the walk to church, Milly and her sisters passed the Lopez-Vito residence where Roming lived with cousins. Her sister Nita whispered, “Manang, look. Roming’s at the window again watching you.” Milly casually adjusted her veil to get a quick glimpse of her admirer in his trademark white shirt and khaki West Points. Sometimes, she would suppress a reaction and pretend not to see him. When she heard a faint pssst, she’d turn slightly and smile as her sisters giggled. He’d soon follow the group to the cathedral, where he would sit far behind them, and she would feel his gaze settle on her back.
After mass, Roming would walk with the group until he reached his cousins’ home. He’d come to visit Milly at her house later in the afternoon, and did so nearly every day. It amused Milly and her sisters how Roming sweated profusely. Maybe because he was running. Maybe it was the humid tropical heat. Maybe she made him nervous. Maybe their father, no, their mother made him nervous. He was, undeniably, becoming a constant of her unfolding future.
Milly checked herself in the mirror. She was a lovely young woman of sixteen. Her face was just recently featured on the cover of Yuhum, the premier Ilonggo lifestyle magazine. She’s been told many times that she was pretty enough to be in movies or be a fiesta pageant queen like her mother once was. Being mildly shy, she really wasn’t that interested in drawing too much attention.
After fixing herself, she passed a lipstick to Neolly and waited for her sister to finish coloring her lips. Delia looked out the window and said, “Whoever it is, they did not drive here,” noting the absence of a car parked outside. The observation provided little clue as to the visitor’s identity or social stature. After all, in 1948, no one thought it was beneath them to take public transportation or walk within the neighborhood.
Neolly and Milly giggled as they stumbled out of their room, passing the altar at the top of the stairs. The santos on the altar, reverberating from the girls’ boisterous steps on the hardwood floor, seeming to scold them about behaving like proper ladies.
When the sisters reached downstairs, Milly recognized one of the gentlemen standing in the living room as Manuel Villalon, the editor of Yuhum magazine. Her father was talking to him and a familiar-looking gentleman. The magnetic stranger wore fashionable clothes and had mestizo features. When Neolly saw him she let out a small gasp.
“Milly!” exclaimed Mr. Villalon when he caught sight of her. “How nice to see you again!”
Her father turned to Milly and her sister, “You girls remember Manuel?” Turning back to the men, “this is Milly, my eldest, and Neolly, my third.”
“You have such beautiful daughters Cesar,” stated Mr. Villalon. “Puro guapa.” All of them very pretty. “You have four I believe?”
“Five,” their father beamed. “Five girls, two boys and Aida is pregnant again.”
“This, of course,” Mr. Villalon gestured to the other gentleman, “is Oscar Moreno. I’m sure you remember him starring in Unang Pagibig recently with Tita Duran.”
The movie star
Milly felt the sudden wave of recognition swell within like hundreds of fluttering wings. Of course she knew Oscar Moreno! Neolly squeezed her arm in an attempt not to squeal in front of the movie star. He looked every bit as swoon-worthy in person as he did on the silver screen. What was he doing here?
The actor smiled kindly at the young women. “Hello,” he nodded.
“Pungko anay,” have a seat, Milly’s father offered just as a maid walked into the sala carrying a tray of chicken sandwiches and glasses of calamansi juice. Milly could tell the sandwiches were the handiwork of her younger sister, Nita, who loved spending time in the kitchen.
Everyone sat down and started chatting in between bites of their early merienda. They learned Oscar was in town for the Jaro Fiesta and Mr. Villalon was hosting him. The matinee idol had just completed a new movie with reknowned director Eddie Romero, which was due in cinemas later in the year. Milly was very surprised to learn that the two men walked from the plaza to their house just to see her.
“Oscar wanted to be introduced to you when we saw you at the plaza this morning,” Mr. Villalon explained.
Milly was indeed at the plaza earlier today with her sisters and cousins to look at the wares on display at the fair. The fiesta of Jaro was tomorrow and every inch of the plaza was occupied. There were vendors, artists and a carnival that had, for a few days, already been admitting citizens to rides and side-shows of mermaids, a man conjoined to his deformed twin horse, fortune readers and other entertainment.
The whole district of Jaro was buzzing with kinetic energy. The distant sound of trumpets and drumming indicated the rehearsals for tomorrow’s grand parade were underway and readying to deliver this year’s Queen, another daughter with a gilded surname, to her coronation ball at the plaza. Visitors from distant places came for the festivities and to mingle with Iloilo City’s elite, most of which settled in Jaro. Every year, Jaro’s families opened up their homes, mansion or humble abode, to serve friends and strangers gargantuan feasts.
“We tried to walk over to you but there were so many people,” continued Mr. Villalon. “We lost you in the crowd. So I suggested to wait until after lunch time when I was almost sure you would be home.”
Milly still wasn’t sure what to make of the two gentlemen’s intentions when her father spoke up. “Teh, what can we do for you?”
This time Oscar spoke. “We were wondering if Milly might be interested in becoming an artista.” Turning to Milly directly with the famous smile that launched him as the country’s favorite heartthrob, he said, “I think you’re very pretty and you look like just the kind of girl Mommy Vera is looking for.”
Milly did not expect that at all. What would Mommy Vera, matriarch of Sampaguita Pictures, want with a girl like her? Oscar’s suggestion shocked her more than the explosive, earthquake-induced fall of the Jaro belfry weeks before. “I’m not sure. Na-huya ako.” I feel shy, Milly said.
Her father interrupted, “Milly may be too young to join showbusiness, don’t you think?”
“Several ladies have joined showbusiness at a younger age,” Oscar continued to charm. “Surely you remember Tita Duran was a child star.”
An actress? She couldn’t even picture herself on stage. Milly thought of the role-playing games she played with her sisters growing up. In the midst of war, when the family went into hiding from the Japanese, they took refuge in games of pretend in her grandmother’s mountain home in Sara. How difficult could it be? She imagined herself in glamorous movie star clothes and jewelry, the way she’d seen the fabulous Deanna Durbin in pictures. She fantasized being a leading lady to Oscar Moreno; perhaps leaning on his shoulder and being close enough to smell his perfume. As the mist of her daydream lifted, she blushed to see Oscar’s eyes searching her face and his lips turned up at the corners. She broke eye contact as she thought about how incredibly handsome and charming he was.
“So what do you think?” asked her father. The way he asked made it seem the final decision was hers when in fact it no more belonged to her than a wave controlling the way it crashed onto shore.
“I, um, I’m not sure I can,” Milly said demurely.
“And she’s much too young,” repeated her father.
Oscar Moreno was a gentleman and did not try to push further. The group continued to chat, with Oscar telling funny stories and making them all laugh. Before they said their goodbyes, he left his contact details and encouraged Milly to think it through some more. “Or just stay in touch. I’m more than happy to be a friend,” he said with a wink.
Milly felt giddy but downplayed the excitement of the encounter. For weeks after, she continued to fantasize and secretly toy with the idea of doing something unexpected and extraordinary. Even as hundreds of relatives, friends, business associates and gate crashers feasted at their house the next evening to celebrate the fiesta, Milly never hinted at the fact that a whole other world of possibility had just opened up for her and that, with one telephone call, could change the entire trajectory of her predictable life. Nevertheless, everyone heard the story of Oscar Moreno’s visit to the house anyway. Even Roming teased her a little. But no one ever suspected the visit planted a seed for potential change.
Milly left open the possibility for a next time. But, fortunately for her progeny (including this author), the close call of stardom never called quite as close again.