Exclusive Excerpt from Under the Jasmine Flowers
by W.S. Long
A very attractive hostess wearing a red ao dai greeted them. “Mr. Arias, thank you for joining us tonight. I’ll let Mr. Chan know you are here. Let me show you and your friends inside.”
“Thanks!” Jojo answered. He stepped aside allowing Adam and his friends to be ushered in the monstrous space of what was probably the most exclusive dance club in Manila. Their necks craned, and one of them had his mouth open as he eyed the three floors of the club.
“Wow, I’ve heard about this place!” Nate shouted. Jojo was about to respond but was cut off by Nate. “Shit, it’s true, they have midget boxing!” Nate brushed past the hostess and the other Marines followed, including Adam, leaving the hostess to stand there unsure of what to do.
“It’s okay,” Jojo said, reassuring her that she had done nothing wrong. “They’ll find the away around.”
“Thank you, sir. Mr. Chan is on the second floor.” She dutifully went back to the host stand.
Jojo moved through the boisterous crowd. Here twentysomethings gathered to party. Single, and untethered from vows of matrimony, they partied as if their last days of freedom were about to end and the family pressure to marry into a good family, raise kids, and help with the family business or family fortune was about to catch up with them. Many of the partiers here were from Manila’s small upper middle class, who had to pay a large fee to join the club, and after passing background checks, happily paid their annual dues to be free from the pressures of life. Even though he could easily afford the fee and the dues, Jojo and his cousins always had a free pass. Jojo surmised that Tiny didn’t charge the cousins so could keep up with family gossip and when it suited him, to help stir the pot when it helped him or the Chan branch of the family.
The velvet rope that blocked the stairs to the second floor came off when the security guard, this one dressed in a black tux, recognized Jojo. Jojo took the stairs only to be greeted by a shriek before he reached the final step.
“Oh my God, it’s Saint Jojo, come to mingle with the natives!” There was no one behind Tiny when he said this but a couple of blonde models, sipping champagne and another security guard in a tux off to the side. “Ito ang aking pinsan!” he shouted.
Jojo rolled his eyes. He didn’t know why Tiny was announcing they were cousins to no one, but he hugged Tiny anyway. Sanguinely, Actinious Chan, known to everyone as Tiny, or Tin-tin, was a distant cousin on his father’s side, but in the Philippines, there was no such thing as distant cousins. Once a cousin, always a cousin. The Chans had come from Mainland China around the 1800s, and opened shops on Manila Bay. First, they’d sold yarn and fabric, then they’d opened up a dress shop, then after the Spanish-American War when the Philippines had become a territory of the U.S., they’d supplied clothing accessories, dry cleaning, and tailoring services to the U.S. military, even opening a larger shop in Subic Bay where the fleet was based. Their shop in Manila had become well known, and soon they’d expanded into a department store, then two department stores in Manila, and then one in Cebu City the next largest city.
When the Japanese came and occupied the Philippines, they’d remained open only because they’d kow-towed to the Japanese while the rest of the Garcia Arias had fled the country for Australia or the U.S. since Spain hadn’t been an option due to Francisco Franco.
Jojo’s great-grandfather had married a Chan in an arranged marriage between families before the Second World War. The family legend was that although they didn’t know each other very well, they’d come to love each other. There was even a picture of Lolo José, his great grandfather, and Lola Liu, his great grandmother, in the study at his parents’ home. That oil painting was one of the few things to survive the fire that razed his great grandparents’ home, during the first wave of Japanese bombings of Manila, hours after Pearl Harbor. In the picture, both Lolo Joséand Lola Liu were smiling enough so maybe the family story had some truth in it.
“So what brings the crown jewel of the Arias family to my lowly den of iniquity?” Tiny asked.
Jojo stifled a laugh. He loved his cousin dearly, and sometimes Tiny’s dramatic flair made him chortle. It didn’t seem to faze Tiny that Jojo deferred on making a decision on a loan to Tiny’s club until his father returned. Tiny’s joking sometimes made him so mad though he wanted to yell at him. He knew he couldn’t ignore Tiny too long because Tiny was a persistent fellow. Even standing here in a bright silk smoking jacket with red velvet oversized collars, holding a long cigarette holder that had no cigarette, he knew Tiny would want an answer or he would do something that Jojo dreaded—Tiny launching a litany of texts to their mutual cousins to stir the pot and cause mischief.
“I already know about Lani. I’m surprised you stayed together for so long. I’m guessing you only kept that relationship because your parents approved of her.”
Jojo’s mouth dropped. “How’d you know?” As he spoke, Tiny brought out his gold-cased iPhone. Jojo hung his head low. “Oh. I should have known.”
“Lani is good friends with cousin Elizabeth Mercado. You know the Tang Mercados?”
Jojo knew that Tiny knew that Jojo knew the Tang Mercados. They were his cousins through a marriage on his great-grandmother’s side. “Of course I know.” Playing this game drove Jojo crazy. It had driven him crazy when Tiny played this game of I-know-our-family-better-than-you-do when they were in school at Ateneo and it drove him bonkers now.
“So Lizzybet, you know, Elizabeth, texted everyone. So pretty soon your mom will know, then your father will know.”
“And then the gossip pages of the Philippine Herald will know,” Jojo sighed. But if he had to be honest, he preferred the press than his disapproving parents. It wasn’t what they would say, but how they non-verbally expressed their disapproval that their son, who was nearing thirty, was still unmarried. The gossip that their only surviving son sometimes played for his own team had followed him from CalPoly back to the Philippines, and if there was anything that his parents hated more than losing money, it was losing face because their son was bakla.If Jojo’s older brother had survived cancer, Jojo probably could have lived under the radar, here in the Philippines, in Spain, or back in the states. But the family’s loss of Julius, his older brother, four years ago to a rare bone cancer had changed things.
“People were taking bets how long before you the wedding of the year was going to take place, that’s what yours would have been. Other notable families would have moved their weddings to avoid competing with yours and Lani’s. But that’s over now. Maybe at this moment, you can consider the possibilities and just follow your heart.”
“Follow my heart? Is that possible? Your mother accepts you, but my mother still hasn’t invited you to the annual Christmas party since you unfurled your flag.”
Tiny laughed. “Are you sure that they’re not waiting for you to come out of the closet. Paglaladlad ng kappa. When are you going to unfurl your cape? If you came out, I wouldn’t be so alone. We could go bar hopping and pick up boys. Think of all the fun we would have, like we used to when I visited you at San Luis Obispo.”
“That was a long time ago, when Julius was alive.”
“Julius knew about you and didn’t care. Didn’t he tell you stay in California, live your life? You could have stayed at your dead-end, boring job at that engineering firm where everyone had pocket protectors. As much as I know you were bored, and one step away from the Asian bowl cut, you were happy and bored. Here you are now, miserable and bored, and your parents, God bless them, guilted you in staying in that relationship with Lani. If Julius could see you now.”
Thinking about Julius pained Jojo. “I really don’t want to talk about Julius right now. Not here.”
“Fine. Then tell me why you brought those military boys with you? Why did you invite them? There must have been something to drive you to be unusually social towards them. You’ve become the most private, practically most reclusive man in Manila since you came back from the states, since Julius died, and you hardly do anything social. Not the charity functions, nothing. Sure, when your mother forces you to do something, then we’ll see you at family events. Even then, it’s like we all smell like dead fish to you. You used to love hanging out with all of us. You used to be the happiest, easiest going of all the Arias’ family. Now, not so happy. Now all we hear is you work sixty to eighty hours a week. We are Filipinos, not Koreans, man. Work is not our life. It’s family, food, and fun.”
Jojo reeled from the emotional punch to his gut, and stepped one foot away from his cousin. “I know I haven’t been the same since Julius, since CalPoly. I have to take over the business some day. I have a lot of catching up to do. I never paid attention to any of it growing up.”
“Yes, someday you can run Garcia Arias Holdings, and you can find out how many tentacles your family has all over Asia, Australia, Arabia, and the states involving real estate, building projects, export and imports. Maybe, just maybe you’ll get to do that. And maybe you can have help so you’re not all alone in this. You have a sister who wants be there right with you. But your own family is shutting her out.”
“She needs to stay in school in London. Enjoy her life.”
“Wow, you have just become Julius,” Tiny said. “I loved Julius, just like everyone else, but Julius was a stick in the mud. You are no Julius.”
Jojo’s cheeks flushed, and his heartbeat quickened. “I’ll forgive you that comment, pinsan.”
“It wasn’t meant as an insult. Come here closer to the railing, take a look at the main floor. While we’ve been chatting away, there’s this guy down there who constantly keeps looking up here.”
Jojo scanned the area and then saw Adam. When their eyes met, Adam smiled. He stood still in the spot, behind his friends, who were busy watching the fake boxing.
“You sure do have a type. He looks like the guy you dated in CalPoly. Doesn’t he? Tall, blond. I bet he has blue eyes.”
“I don’t know what color eyes he has.”
“Not yet, you don’t, you mean,” Tiny said. “I’ll radio to bring him up.”
“No, don’t, he’s spending time with his friends.”
“Whatever. I want to meet this guy who keeps looking up here, and who is somehow probably the unexplained reason why you brought them to my club.”
“Tiny, you don’t have to do that,” Jojo said, protesting weakly, but as soon as he spoke he saw Adam following a security guard up to the velvet ropes. The velvet ropes dropped and Adam walked up. Jojo moved to greet him. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Adam answered, smiling broadly again.
“Enjoying yourself?” Jojo asked.
“Yeah, this club is something. My friends can’t believe this place.”
Before Jojo said anything else, Tiny moved between them. “My name’s Tiny, and it’s not because I’m only five feet four and you two are much, much taller than me, it’s short for my full name. You know Filipinos like to have nicknames right? So what’s your name? My cousin doesn’t remember his manners sometimes.”
“Adam. Adam Stevenson.” Adam held out his hand, and Tiny shook it briefly.
“Well, Adam Stevenson,” Tiny said. “It’s a little loud in here, so let’s go to the private rooftop to talk, okay?” Jojo’s eyebrows furrowed. Tiny raised his hand to stop Jojo from talking. “My security guards will make sure your friends are having fun and the free booze keeps flowing, okay? We won’t be long. I don’t have any American military guys at my club so you beguile me.”
“Yeah, okay. I doubt my friends are going to complain about the free booze, or anything else around here. It’s one of a kind.”
“Thanks, I only hire the prettiest men and women to work here, other than security. I want them to be mean and ferocious. And besides, Jojo is coming with us.”
As Adam and Jojo followed Tiny to an elevator, Jojo cleared his throat. He wanted to warn Adam about Tiny. He was sure Tiny was going to pepper him with questions. Before the elevator arrived, Tiny stepped away for a second to take a call.
“So is he your interference?” Adam asked.
“What do you mean?” Jojo asked.
“In a group setting, there’s always someone, usually a wingman, who makes sure that the person who is hitting on you, is the right type of person to be hitting on you.”
Wait, so you were hitting on me when you placed your hand over mine?
“God, no. Tiny is one of my oldest friends. We grew up together. We’re actually cousins, which right now I’m embarrassed to say, so he thinks he gets to know everyone in my life, or everyone he thinks wants to be in my life, or anyone who talks to me.”
“So he’s more a protective sheepdog then?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, if a sheepdog can text with one hand and tell everyone I know what’s going on in my life.”
“So what type of interrogation should I expect? Water torture? Electrical shocks?” Adam asked.
Jojo laughed. “My cousin is a very dramatic person, you won’t think he is asking you any questions of substance, but he is gathering intelligence.”
Adam nodded. “So before he pokes out my eyes with that empty cigarette holder, I should just tell you that I’m Adam, born in Bakersfield, California, family moved to San Diego when my dad joined the Navy, and I have six more months of my enlistment to serve before I leave the Corps. And I find you to be a very intriguing, good looking, mysterious Filipino who happens to pay tabs at an expensive bar, and whose cousin owns the most exclusive night club in Manila.”
Tiny continued talking in Tagalog on the phone. Jojo couldn’t discern to whom he was talking. It sounded like a family member since he was talking very fast and his voice was raised higher than normal.
“Quick, get underneath this light.”
Adam complied and stood at attention. “I figure I’m being inspected so I might as well stand at attention.”
Jojo stifled a laugh. Clearly, Adam could dish light-hearted sarcasm. He might be Tiny’s match after all, or at least hold his own. “You have blue eyes,” Jojo said.
“Is that a problem?” Adam asked.
“No,” Jojo smiled, “but it will confirm my cousin’s suspicions.”
“Oh?” Adam asked.
But before anyone could say anything else, Tiny magically showed up between the two again. Jojo crossed his arms.
“Shall we go?” Tiny asked. “The elevator to the rooftop is waiting.” Tiny grabbed Adam’s hand, and they walked together to the open elevator. As they both turned to face Jojo, Tiny beckoned Jojo with his free hand to join them. Jojo uncrossed his arms. Tiny still had his death grip on Adam’s hand. “Coming, cousin?” Tiny asked.
Jojo just shook his head in disbelief at Tiny’s brazenness, and then joined them in the elevator.