121. Pearly Shells

I'M OFTEN ASKED WHERE I got my name, which is Atari. I have an older sister called Zelda and a younger brother called Tron. They aren’t our real names. My first name is Ricardo, or Rico, which is what my mother and my aunts still call me. But anyone else who knows me at all well calls me Atari – in fact, I prefer it.

We were born in Manila - in my case, in 1983. My father, Gardo Sanchez, was the owner of a popular neighborhood video arcade called the Fantasy Palace. My mother Cristina was from a musical family. She and her sisters were all singers. Before marrying my father, she was a backing singer, working in the Alpha recording studios, with Lirio Vital, Manny de Leon, Rhodora Silva, Eva Vivar, Jay Ilagan, Daruis Razon, even Nora Aunor. All the greats. For one reason or another her career as a solo artist never took off – she says it was because she wasn’t pretty enough – so she married Gardo, who ran a target-shooting street-stall in the Cubao district. He had been courting her for several years without making much headway. He always told us that story when he was trying to remind us about the value of patience.

Zelda was born a few months after the wedding and my mother went into a kind of semi-retirement, fronting a band on Friday nights at Las Palmas hotel, singing popular ballads, and occasionally singing at society weddings. She was best known for her version of Nora Aunor’s hit from the early 70s, 'Pearly Shells': Pearly shells from the ocean, shining in the sun, covering the shore. When I see them my heart tells me that I love you, more than all the little pearly shells...
Meanwhile, my father’s target-shooting business flourished. His stall was well-known, because its targets were papier-mâché likenesses of well-known politicians – not local politicians, but international figures who were well-known at the time, figures like Chairman Mao, Richard Nixon, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Yasser Arafat and even Leonid Brezhnev, with his famous eyebrows. When the video arcade craze arrived in Manila, he borrowed some money from the neighbourhood kingpin and opened the Fantasy Palace in a hole in the wall fronting the street. We lived in two rooms at the back of the arcade, and I was more or less raised in that arcade, where my sister and I, and later my brother too, became one of the neighbourhood attractions, proudly introduced to customers by the names our father had given us, our showbiz names, in a way: Zelda, Atari and Tron.

By the time I was eight, we emigrated to Los Angeles with the help of two uncles, Joe and Orlando, who had already emigrated before I was born. We moved into the Glendale area and my father opened another arcade, which he also called the Fantasy Palace, above a Korean laundry on a strip mall, between a chain sporting goods store and an Armenian beauty salon called Ararat Nails and Waxing. We lived in two rooms my father rented from his brothers. This arrangement was only supposed to last a few weeks, but by this time the video arcade craze was waning, and although my father kept it open day and night, the Fantasy Palace languished. Both my parents took jobs to pay the bills, my mother as a cleaner and my father as a shopping mall security guard.

The Fantasy Palace closed less than a year after it opened, and the arcade games were sold for scrap. On the last day of its existence, the Armenian lady who ran the beauty salon downstairs came to visit us. I can’t remember her name, but I can remember her to the last detail: her bouffant peroxided hair, her long thick lashes, her powdered cheeks, the shiny red of her lips, her mirrored fingernails, her midriff bursting from its skin of leopard-skin polyester, her thick ankles wobbling on her perilously high heels. She took me, my sister and my brother to the sporting goods store downstairs and told us we could each pick a present. My sister chose roller skates, my brother a baseball glove, and I chose a skateboard.

Through all this time, I can’t remember my mother singing a single note. Instead, it was my father who sang, during the day when he wasn’t working, when my mother was out. He tried to teach us to sing too, the pop songs of the time, while he played guitar in the background. So paint these broken wings and learn to fly again, learn to live so free. But Zelda and I resisted his overtures, and even Tron, who all through his life has tried to please, was unable to feign interest.

Most mornings I woke to the sound of my parents arguing in the next room, but one morning I woke to silence. My mother was gone. I assumed she’d gone to work earlier than usual, but that night my father told us she had gone back to the Philippines, just for a visit. I was nine.

By the time she came back, I was twelve. In the intervening years, she’d gone back to her former career singing at hotels and weddings. She wrote us a letter each every week, and once a month we spoke to her over the phone, quick conversations that were always ended by my mother – This must be costing your father a fortune. It was the sign to pass the phone to the next one in line.

While she was gone, we moved out of my uncles’ house. My father fell out with my uncle Joe over something to do with my sister that was never really explained to us at the time. After a time sleeping on other people’s living room floors, my father found us an apartment in Echo Park. By this time he was back in business, running a karaoke bar called Ace Karaoke, which played a combination of Filipino and American pop songs. It was at the start of the karaoke boom, and Filipinos love to sing. Business boomed, and one night on the phone my mother told us she was coming back.

The night of my mother’s return, the Ace was more than usually full, packed with middle-aged Filipinos, as well as Zelda, Tron and me. Tron and I were wearing sky-blue wedding suits and Zelda a matching dress. My father had promised the crowd a special guest, a star of Filipino pop. Who knows who they were expecting, perhaps Nora Aunor herself. To my mother’s horror, when my father took the stage with the microphone in hand, he introduced my mother to the packed room as the great Cristina Alvarado, using her maiden name, embellishing the story of her career to such an extent that years later I still believed she had once been a star of Filipino pop music. I have never seen my mother so embarrassed, but after a long ovation she agreed to perform a song.

Dressed in a glittering gown, a fake pearl necklace my father had bought her for the occasion around her neck, she sauntered graciously to the karaoke machine and stood in front of it for some time, pressing the left and right buttons, taking her time to choose a song she could sing. The discs inside whirred right to left, left to right, glinting with rainbow-refractions of light. The room fell into an expectant hush. She finally pressed play, turned to face the crowd and, once the languorous guitar solo that introduces the song came to an end, raised the microphone to her lips.