He was tall, strapping, with big drooping eyes inviting one to give him a protective embrace. As a Spanish-Filipino, his kind were scarcer in the second half of the 20th century, but given our upbringing and sentiments for the Peninsula, we longed for the physical attributes of a Peque Gallaga. Iberian handsome and our ideal of “guapo,” who —sus! —could even speak Ilonggo. This nerdy high school brat was smitten! I decided to ingratiate myself starting with his barkada, who were older but so much more satisfying to be with.
Peque’s airy apartment near La Salle Taft which he shared with his siblings Chita and Ricky was my refuge. He and Chita had been in Madrid for a bit and I was enthralled with their stories of life there, developing a cosmopolitan air that I too wanted to imbibe, There were many other friends that wandered in at random or all together like Poch, Butch, Laida, Monet, Gus, the Ramirez sisters, Ann Marie, Randy, Raymond, Bunny, and so many more, each so vibrant, engaging, graceful. I wanted to emulate them all.
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The head of the pack was undoubtedly Peque, and he commanded attention with much guffaw and wit, lots of it of a humor so bizarre and absolutely subversive. I was just on the level of Mad magazine; he was way beyond that. He carried himself with brio and confidence and I’d copy his smart alecky ways — anti-authoritarian, nihilist — and replay them on my fairly naive classmates who’d thought I’d gone mad or smoked too much reefer.
Peque as actor maintained many personas in daily life; to emphasize a point, a smile included a mischievous streak; an arched body with head tilted high, moaning, was just a slight exasperation; a little muddle became a gloomy countenance; an indifference took on a cavalier stance. For Peque, shuffling from one end of the living room to the other was like watching Pavarotti with a cape stride from stage left to right. Gawky me craved that confidence, that devil-may-care ethos which he possessed.
I joined Repertory Philippines in the late sixties with the grandiose notion that I could bag a role —the lead of course—in the audition for The Importance of Being Earnest. I was cocksure of having imbibed all of Peque’s artistry after studying him at close range for many months. Peque didn’t have the heart to tell me I didn’t have what it took. So he sent me to his theater tyrant buddy Bibot Amador to go through her drama exercises. The scariest was sitting in front of Bibot, and saying I loved her till she felt you meant it.
“I love you, Bibot,” I’d say, acting sweetly.
“YOU LIE JOHN! YOU JUST WANT THE ROLE!” she’d scream, inches away from my face.
Shaken but undeterred I repeated, limpidly, “I love you Bebot.”
“BULLSHIT, I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!”
This went on a dozen more humiliating times, every uttering of my affection greeted with a sneer, a cackle, and a blowing of her smoke on my face.
Next I would see Peque, he’d already been told of what transpired and he would give me a droopy, sympathetic smile urging me not to abandon the theater. I’d be perfect, he said, backstage… to do the lights. I was still hurting from the session but I didn’t want to be dropped from Peque’s coterie. So I agreed, with the faint hope that I’d eventually be discovered.
There was a summer I was in Bacolod and joined the Genesius Guild, the summer theater he set up in La Salle with his sister Chita. I had been expelled from school, rebelling against a broken home and so off I went to Negros and there was Peque all embracing and hustling me off to the rehearsals for their upcoming play, La Dama del Alba, directed by Chita.
I’d like to think I got the minor part of one of the children because of my acting sensibilities, but then again Peque probably only pitied me and pleaded with his sister to give me a break.
I had one line, like “Hello mother,” and a 12-second dance routine with the other kids. I took my role seriously but Chita was a perfectionist. I kept blowing it and Peque just kept shaking his head. At one point I begged to go back to lights.
I had been on the verge of coming out to my mother since I was now going through my first love. It was a summer afternoon, on the beach, near Victorias. There was a robust breeze cooling and calming. I had to tell all to Peque. He seemed to know everything about the world and I sensed he wouldn’t be judgmental.
I told him about this indescribable feeling, this attraction, the fluttering inside me. He looked at me very tenderly and said he had observed my moods and suspected it was love. He embraced me and said not to ever forget that feeling and what it does to one person. All the emotions I was going through were real—the kind the theater wants to see instead of the pretensions we exhibit.
I soon left for the States and saw Peque on occasions when he came to New York, or when I visited home and managed to catch the gang reunions. He was always at the cabezera. Beside him, Butch Perez, his sidekick from advertising days and alter ego, still spewing bon mots. There was the all grinning, funny, and devoted Pocholo Lozano. There was Laida Lim, the intellectual mainstay who taught me Edith Sitwell’s poems. There was Monet Recio, the lithe and tall exotic model that stepped out of a Vogue mag cover and into our lives. There were a dozen more stalwarts, each with a frisson that raucously lit the whole night with endless bantering, a byproduct, looking back, of a carefree and careless youth.
Several years back at the Ortigas Library, I had a film showing of Oro, Plata, Mata with Peque gracing the introduction. He was pleased to show a restored copy and recounted the making, the daunting production schedule and the challenge to capture, authentically, the tense feelings of a family with the coming Japanese occupation. It was a large crowd, mostly young people which pleased Peque, knowing that vintage masterpiece, as well as himself, were still venerated.
Online, his postings were sharp, unapologetic and made mincemeat of his enemies. No president, politician, rich folk, or bumbling fool escaped his short, scathing remarks. They were ribald and satirical, a modern version of Rizal’s scorn. His principles never faltered. And his realistic drawings were poignant and striking. He had brisk sales with every gallery showing and I had promised to purchase at the next, but am now just a little too late. I do though own one that he gave to me, a rendering of a Visayan aswang, not frightening, more dark and enchanting. He knew this would add to our common love for our provincial heritage.
My last and long visit with him was several years back. It was in Bacolod and he invited me to lunch at his house with his wife Madie. I was taken aback by the spread of so many dishes— and this was just for the three of us. It reminded me of our Genesius Guild Days where we all inevitably wound up at the suburban Gallaga house just outside of Bacolod. Lunches and dinners, laden with meats, pasta and sauces, desserts, on the long dining table with garrulous Tito Ricky and sweet Tita Conchita lording over us making sure we ate well. It was there that I noted a resemblance between Tita Conchita’s caring ways with that of Peque’s. And Tita also had theatrical manners when it was needed, to make a dramatic indignant point or to shower one with affection. This thespian family was such a marked contrast to my bloodline of conservative and stiff relatives from whom it was so difficult to elicit a semblance of affection.
I was regaling Peque with my movie script and how it was Ilonggo-based featuring my grandfather, his kept mistress, my later coming of age and the similarities of engaging in a “forbidden love.”
Peque was quite supportive and I hinted at him being the director of choice and he lit up, flattered. He offered to take on the project. He would have been perfect in capturing the indigenous sensibility of an Ilonggo love story.
Saying goodbye, I pulled him to me so the selfie got both of us. I like the closeness that selfies offer, cheeks get pressed together, embraces are warm and comforting, a half-century of friendship encased in a small screen.
I’ll quote from Edith Sitwell this passage that has managed to stick with me all these years. It recalls Peque and the barkada sprawled on a living room floor, beside a couch, slightly stoned and inebriated, spinning stories and dreams, laughing and singing Beatles songs, reciting poetry like this one. It speaks of Peque the iconoclast, of the intimacies we cherished and shared memories slowly fading.
“Said the sun to the moon
When you are but a lonely white oak
And I, a dead king in a golden armor
Somewhere in the dark woods
Remember only this of our hopeless love
That never till time is done
Will the fire of the heart
And the fire of the mind