A Song for Andrea

One look at Meryl’s face told me all I needed to know. “Nope. Sorry, I can’t,” I said. “My weekend’s full. Things to do, places to go. You know how it is.”

“But I haven’t said anything yet!”

You had to admit, nobody could do injured innocence the way Meryl could. I sighed and swiveled my chair around to make room for her opening spiel, which I had so rudely interrupted. “You see, my cousin’s getting married the week after next, and I got a bunch of people from my church choir to sing for the wedding and reception—” she took a deep breath “—but Elly, our soprano soloist, just called to say she can’t do it because she has to go out of town that week. So that leaves us with just two sopranos, and I told Patrice—that’s my cousin—that I’d find another soprano in time for our first practice at the chapel this Saturday.”

She looked at me expectantly.

I blinked. “Sooo…you want me to help you find a singer?”

An-drey-aah.”

“What? I don’t get it. I mean, I’m happy for your cousin, but what does this have to do with me?”

She peered at me intently. “You sing, don’t you?”

I blanched. “Sing?”

She nodded.

“No, I don’t sing. I can’t. So sorry.” I pushed my chair back until it hit a stack of binders, but she still followed me into my cubicle. “No, really, Meryl. I’m completely tone deaf. I can’t carry a tune with both hands and musical notes are just a bunch of black dots to me.”

“Forget about the notes. I know you can sing. Admit it.”

“Admit what?”

“That you can sing!” she said, exasperated. “You sang at Edwin’s birthday bash last month, didn’t you? Everybody heard you, so don’t you dare deny it.”

I glared at her. “I was drunk, okay? Nobody told me that orange juice was spiked.”

She rolled her eyes. “It was a zombie, Andrea. Zombies are supposed to be spiked.”

“Well, I didn’t know that.”

“We would’ve told you if you hadn’t been busy singing along with every song playing, no matter who was singing. We kicked you up front to try to shut you up, and you just wouldn’t. You even made those sweeping arm gestures like a diva or something. Everyone was so amazed, even Boss Gerry.”

My face burned. I writhed in my chair in an agony of unwanted memories. “God, Meryl, stop.”

“We applauded you the longest. We made you sing song after song, and you did. The entire department heard you sing. That’s close to fifty witnesses. You can’t escape.”

“I was drunk!”

“But you sang!”

“And whose bright idea was it to go to that stupid videoke bar, anyway? If we’d gone to Little Italy like we were supposed to—”

“Ah, you looked like you were having fun.” she said airily. “The point is, you can sing. I’m no voice teacher but the way you hit those high notes, I’m willing to bet you’re at least soprano two. And you can definitely do the solo parts, that’s for sure. Truth is, even with Elly on board we’d still have too few sopranos, and the only other good soprano I could think of was—”

“Boss Gerry!”

“Huh? No, not him—”

“I mean Boss Gerry’s at the door,” I hissed. I pulled my chair back to my desk, hunched in front of my computer and dutifully began clicking on the keyboard. Meryl stood there, staring at the doorway where our boss was talking to someone, with her mouth hanging open in a befuddled “o”. I elbowed her in the hip. “Get out of here. He’s going to ask me about the new design concept and I haven’t finished the prototype yet.”

“Wait a minute, you can come Saturday, right?”

Later.”

“Okay, okay.”

She beat a retreat just as my boss looked in my direction. I quickly fixed my gaze at the screen, burying myself in work in the hopes that I could bury the evidence of my slacking off along with me.


 

Gani was late. I moved the mouse to the bottom of the screen to bring the taskbar clock up. 7:42 PM. I dug my cell phone out of my pocket, and sighed. He was forty-two minutes late, and not even a single text message. How’d you like that?

I leaned back and closed my eyes. To be fair, until that moment I’d been too immersed in work to notice he was late. Still, it was the principle of the thing. I could just as easily have been standing outside our building like an idiot, waving goodbye to my coworkers and nodding lamely at Mang Dan the security guard while he tut-tutted about the discourtesy of a man who would make a nice young lady stand around like an idiot and wait for him. It was a man’s duty to wait for a woman, not the other way around, was the humble opinion of Mr. Dan, a.k.a. Emily Post. I once told him to tell Gani himself when he arrived. He never did.

I opened my eyes and stared at the computer screen, then shuffled through the papers containing my notes and sketches, then tossed the lot on my desk in annoyance. How was I supposed to concentrate on work when I had no earthly idea where my boyfriend was?

I frowned at my cell phone. That jerk. I considered sending him a text message—something cool and infused with subtle wit, such as “where d HELL r u?!!!”—but quickly discarded the idea. The jerk had at least one fully functional hand. Let him do the explaining.

“Andrea, you’re not going home yet?”

I looked up. Edwin was leaning up against my cubicle wall. “Not yet. I’m waiting for Gani. He’s supposed to come pick me up.”

He raised an eyebrow. “He’s not making you wait for him again, is he?”

I glowered at him. “Don’t you start. Anyway, what about you?”

“I’m just waiting for Meryl and Kaye. They went to the bathroom and it takes them forever to come out again.” Since the three of them lived in the same district, Edwin had taken to escorting Meryl and Kaye home, which I thought was a nice thing to do until Meryl confessed that she and Kaye had bribed him with occasional free dinners.

“So how’s the prototype coming along?” he asked.

“It’s okay. It’ll probably be finished by tomorrow morning. The presentation’s on Friday, so I still have another day to make adjustments.”

“Really?” He moved around until he was standing at my shoulder to get a better look. I obligingly launched the prototype on the browser. “Hmm, nice.”

I smiled at him. “Thanks, although I think it would be better if the menu was—”

“Sorry I’m late.”

We looked up to find Gani coming toward us with that loping stride of his. His shoulder-length hair looked mussed despite the pigtail, his face was shadowed with fuzz, and his T-shirt look as if he’d attempted to iron it while he was still wearing it. He looked rather harried. Serves him right, I thought unfeelingly.

His eyes moved over us and I realized how we must have looked with Edwin standing behind me, but his face remained impassive. “We can’t stay long, Andrea. I parked the car in the driveway.” He nodded at Edwin, who seemed to have recalled who Gani was and stepped out of my cubicle.

“About time you got here, man,” Edwin said good-naturedly. “She’s been waiting for you.”

“I know.”

I rolled my eyes as I waited for my computer to shut down. So he knew I was waiting for him. It didn’t get him here any faster, did it? The jerk.

“Let’s go, Edwin. Oh, hi Gani! How are you?”

Meryl’s cheerful greeting broke the sudden awkwardness. She and Kaye came up and the four of them chatted a bit until Meryl began tugging Edwin’s arm. “Come on, Edwin, let’s leave these two alone. By the way, Gani,” she added mischievously, “work your magic on your girlfriend here and convince her to sing with us on Saturday, okay?”

“Sing?” Gani glanced at me.

My quelling frown was wasted on Meryl. “Yes, for my cousin’s wedding. Several others from my church choir are singing, but we need another soprano. My cousin’s been hounding me about it for the past two days. I have to get Andrea to agree by Friday, or else Patrice is going to have to sing at her own wedding, hahaha!”

“Andrea sings?”

Meryl paused in mid-“ha”. “You didn’t know?”

“She never told me.” Another glance at me.

“What? You mean she’s kept it a secret even from you?” She rounded on me. “Your own sweetheart doesn’t know about that angelic voice of yours? Andrea, how could you?”

“Enough, Meryl,” I said through gritted teeth.

But she was already whirling around to face Gani, eyes alight. “You should have seen her at Edwin’s birthday. We went to Music Box and she sang like—”

“Meryl, of course Gani knows. Now let’s go home, okay?” Kaye cut in, laying a hand on her shoulder. I could have hugged her. She waved a hand at us and half-dragged, half-led Meryl away, with Edwin trotting after them.

Seeing it was safe to come out, the tension crept back and settled down for the night. Without a word, Gani took my backpack and slung it over his shoulder. I decided to be patient.

My patience ran out ten seconds later. “You brought the car,” I said to give him an opening.

“My brother went to Baguio and Dad’s in a  conference. Nobody was using it.”

I smiled at Mang Dan as we passed him on our way to the blue Toyota Corolla parked nearby. Gani opened the passenger’s side, tossed my backpack into the back seat, and went over to the driver’s side without so much as a glance my way. He gunned the engine and we swung out of the driveway and into the street.

“What happened?” I finally asked, exasperated. “Why were you late?”

“I got stuck in traffic at Quezon Avenue.”

“I thought the reason the government spent billions of taxpayers’ money to build that underpass was to cut down traffic in Quezon Avenue.”

“I came from España.”

“Oh? What were you doing there?”

“Business.”

“Business? What business? Is it Mr. Chan? Did you show samples of your T-shirt designs? Did you close the deal?”

“Yeah.”

His distinct lack of enthusiasm annoyed me even more. “Well, thank you so much for sharing that with me freely. You could have at least sent me a message, you know. That wouldn’t have been so hard to do.”

“I forgot my cell phone.”

“Hah.”

He glanced at me. His face was impassive, but his eyes had softened. “I’m sorry, Andrea. I had no idea my meeting with Mr. Chan would take so long. I got here as fast as I could.”

“Yeah, whatever. Forget it.” That was as close to magnanimous as I could get at the moment. I settled for staring out the window and watching the rest of the world whiz by while we stood still.

Gani sighed. “So how was your day?”

“Fine,” I replied. “How was yours?”

“It’s okay. How’s that project you’re working on?”

“It’s coming along.”

“It’s taking time, isn’t it? You’ve been working on it since last week.”

I bristled. “It’s practically finished, okay? Besides, let’s see how well you do with a client who keeps calling to say, ‘oh, I’ve changed my mind about this,’ ‘oh, I want to add this feature after all.’ If I’d followed all our client’s instructions, I’d have come up with a website that looks like the classified ads section of a newspaper.”

“Is that so?”

“That’s exactly so.”

A lifetime of cars and jeepneys roared by, with their sweeping yellow lights and raucous metallic roars. I felt myself shrinking into a tight little knot on the car seat, surrounded by an invisible shell. A small truck with a couple of men and a refrigerator riding in the back swung in beside us, and for a moment I envied them. No walls to keep them in, only the open sky above and the wind rushing through their hair. Never mind if the open sky was choked with fumes and the wind turned your hair into stiff, dusty wires. It must be exhilarating to be out there, to have the world fly up so close to you it brushes up against your skin.

“You didn’t tell me you sang at Edwin’s birthday.”

I shrugged. “It wasn’t important. Besides, I was drunk at the time.”

“Meryl seems to think it’s important.” I glanced at Gani. For a moment, his voice had sounded oddly tight. He turned his head and our eyes met. A smile flickered on his lips. “I wish I’d heard you sing. It must have been something.”

I smiled back wryly. “It wasn’t, but thanks anyway.”

He turned back to the road. “You never could hold your liquor, Andrea. A bit of alcohol, and you go crazy. That’s the reason I don’t like you going to bars and clubs, especially with people you can’t trust. It’s dangerous.”

The moment of companionship shriveled and died. “It was just one time, Gani. I don’t plan to make a career out of guzzling down and dancing on tables,” I said coldly.

He scowled. “You know what I mean.”

“So what, I’m not supposed to go anywhere with my friends without your approval? You’re my boyfriend, not my father.”

He stopped the car, and I was surprised and relieved to realize that we were in front of my house. I twisted around to reach for my backpack—God, I wish he’d stop throwing my bag around like a sack of garbage—and froze when his hand clamped down on my arm. He loosened his hold at my pointed look but he didn’t let go. “Listen, what I said came out pretty badly. All I meant was that you can’t be too trusting around people.”

I gave him a frigid stare. “For the sake of future harmony, I’ll ignore the implication that my friends are untrustworthy.”

He released me to rake his hand through his hair until his pigtail nearly came undone. “You know, forget it. This conversation’s obviously not going anywhere.”

You brought it up. Incidentally, if I told you I wanted to sing at Meryl’s cousin’s wedding, would I have to ask your permission, Your Highness?” I mocked. He stared out the windshield for a long time, until I wondered if he heard me at all. Sanity gradually returned. What was I doing? I sounded positively childish. Somehow, this evening had not turned out the way I wanted. Finally, unable to endure the silence any longer, I dropped my gaze and swallowed my pride. “I’m sorry, Gani. That was uncalled for.”

A shrug. “It’s okay. I just want you to be careful, that’s all.”

“I know. I’m sorry for being a bitch.” Silence again. “Um, thanks for the ride.”

His hand reached out and gently curved against my cheek. I looked at him, but a shadow had fallen across his face, hiding his eyes. “I love you, Andrea,” he said softly.

“I love you, too.” I guess.

I got out and stood on the curb, watching the blue Corolla melt into the darkness until the twin red stars of the brake lights winked out, then slowly unlatched the gate of our house and let myself in.


 

It was almost 10:00 when I got home Friday night, and my bed, with its rumpled sheets and lumpy pillows, was the most welcoming sight I’d seen in the past week. I flopped across it, still dressed in the green silk blouse and the short black skirt I wore for the client presentation, moving only to kick the evil black pumps off my numb feet. My hair, which had started the day in a neat bun, broke free from the restraints and straggled around my head, weary but victorious. I closed my eyes and breathed in the familiar smell of my bed sheets, soaking in the familiar sounds—the barking of a neighbor’s dog and the answering yowl of a cat, the staccato rattling of a sports announcer on ESPN interspersed with my dad’s vocal opinions about the ongoing game, the ringing of the phone, my mom calling out, “Put that down, Angelica, I’ll take the call,” followed by my sister’s grousing, “Aw, Ma, I’m not a teenager anymore, you know.”

It was good to be home.

At least she can’t follow me here. My smile widened to a satisfied grin. In the last couple of days Meryl had shadowed my footsteps with a tenacity that appalled me. It seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without tripping over her or look up from my computer without seeing her face hovering above my cubicle wall, as eager and pleading as a puppy’s. I’d told her again and again that I was not—I repeat, NOT—interested  in singing for her cousin’s wedding, only to have her brush aside my protestations like so much lint, until I simply covered my face in my hands and mumbled, “All right, I’ll think about it. Just leave me alone. Okay? Please?”

That appeased her for a while. Now all I had to do was make up some excuse and send her a text message at the last minute. It was an unsavory tactic, but I could say I was forced into it.

As if on cue, my cell phone beeped. I considered ignoring it, but Gani had promised to send me a message tonight. I rolled over and fished my cell phone from my backpack before dropping it back on the floor.

It was Meryl. Meet u at McDonalds Commonwlth Ave 3 pm tom, k?

I shoved my cell phone under my pillow and lay back down with an arm flung over my eyes. Tomorrow, I thought, ala Scarlett O’Hara. I’ll think of an excuse tomorrow.

The door creaked open. “God, Andrea, can’t you at least put your shoes in the shoe rack? And what’s this folder doing on the floor? And your purse, too. Honestly, sometimes I wonder which one of us is supposed to be older.”

My sister, Angie, who prided herself on the fact that her half of our room looked like something straight out of Better Homes and Gardens while my half looked like a disaster area. I heard her pad around the room, muttering, then her bed creaked, followed by the click of her bedside lamp. “Aren’t you going to change?” she asked. “How’d your presentation go, anyway?”

“Like hell,” I mumbled. “The client loved it, except for about a hundred details that he wanted changed. It’ll take me two days to fix it up.”

The phone rang again. “Andrea, it’s Gani,” my mom called.

I pushed myself up and trudged downstairs to take the call. “Hey, you okay? Your mom says you just got home,” Gani said before I could say ‘hello.’

“I’m okay. Just got stuck in traffic. Why do you sound so worried?”

“I’m not worried.”

“Yes, you are.” I rolled my eyes, never mind that he couldn’t see it. “You’re worried because you couldn’t pick me up and I had to go home all by myself. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big girl now. I know how to commute and all.”

“I know that,” he said distractedly. “It’s just—listen, I’m sorry, I can’t make it tomorrow. The guys are going up to Mt. Pulag and I promised I’d go with them. I didn’t know they were planning the climb for this weekend when I agreed to guide them.”

My stomach plummeted. “What? But what about our movie date?”

“I’m really sorry. How about next Saturday? The movie you like will still be playing in the theaters by then.”

“Next Saturday,” I said flatly. “Of course. The guys need you, so you must be there for them. How wonderful to be so indispensable.”

“Andrea—”

“Oh, don’t sound so agonized. I’m sure I can find something to amuse myself with this weekend. And oh, by the way, I’m not sure about next Saturday. We need to practice for Meryl’s cousin’s wedding, after all.”

Now where did that come from?

A pause. “You’re going to sing?”

“Really, Gani, you make it sound so unbelievable,” I said with a brittle laugh. “Weren’t you listening? Meryl needs a soprano, and it looks like I’m it. Oh excuse me, what’s that, Ma? You’re going to use the phone? Oh dear. Gani, I have to go, Ma needs the phone. Have fun with the guys and all. Good bye.”

I put the phone down and stared at it in outraged disbelief. He ditched me, I thought. For his mountain-climbing buddies, no less. How’d you like that?

I went back upstairs and began to undress. Angie watched me solemnly, her novel forgotten in her lap. “Bad news, huh?” I told her about the phone call. “At least Gani calls,” she said. “I can’t count the number of times Neil stood me up. I’d be lucky if I got a text message from him.”

“Why do you stay with him then?”

She shrugged, a wealth of meaning in that simple gesture.

“Oh.” I guess I’m not the only one who’s a big girl now. Another thought occurred. “Angie, you’re not—you’re using—”

“Of course.”

“Oh. Right.”

A knock on the door. “Girls, are you still awake?”

I opened the door to let my mom in. Even in the dim light she looked rather pale. “Girls, are you going out tomorrow? This is important.”

Angie and I exchanged a look. When our mother introduced a topic by stating its importance, it usually meant it was something we would much rather not hear. “What is it, Ma?” I asked cautiously.

“Your Auntie Bella is coming over tomorrow, but I won’t be arriving from Lydia’s until past four. I want you to be around to entertain her.”

“Auntie Bella?” I whispered, horrified. From across the room, Angie gasped. Auntie Bella, technically Grandma Bella as she was Dad’s only surviving aunt, was a tangerine-haired, iridescently-lidded, self-righteous horror who spent her time visiting relatives and expounding lengthily on what was wrong with their lives and what they should have done if they’d only had the foresight to be her. The last time she came she complained that the brownies Angie had baked were too sweet, the coffee I’d brewed was too bitter, and that my mother was ruining her children by going off with her friends instead of staying at home and raising them properly, ignoring the fact that my mother’s children were all in their twenties and in varying stages of ruination anyway.

Then there was also the case of the vanishing items. Auntie Bella always carried a large, faux-leather handbag, and her hands were constantly darting in and out of it. She would wander around the house and pick things up—fruits, cookies, table napkins, pens, porcelain figurines, scented candles, magazines, keys, stray lipsticks, even the occasional picture frame—and tuck them inside her handbag as “souvenirs.” It wasn’t quite stealing, because even when we were in plain sight she’d still do it, and woe unto anyone who attempted to explain to her that those things in her bulging handbag were not hers by right. Once, Angie and I had talked about setting out a candy-dish filled to the brim with condom packets, but only

“But—but I thought she said she wasn’t coming!” I spluttered. “She said she

“She called to tell us she changed her mind. You know how she is.” My mother giggled. I thought she sounded slightly hysterical.

Auntie Bella was coming tomorrow? What a nightmare! Visions of an afternoon spent sitting on my hands with my face frozen in a polite smile danced in my head. Not only that, we’d have to work all morning storing everything we could carry in a well-locked room. I rubbed my hand over my brow. First Gani, and now this.

“You two will be home tomorrow, won’t you? At least until I can get back?”

And now my mother was groveling. Geez. I glanced at Angie, who shook her head frantically. “I can’t. I promised Lisa I’d help her move her stuff into her new apartment, and I can’t back out.”

My mother turned to me. “I—I can’t, either,” I stammered. “I have to go somewhere tomorrow. A previous engagement.”

“But I thought—” Angie began.

“With people from work,” I interrupted, shooting her a warning look.

My mother frowned. “You’re working overtime?”

“No, I—” I racked my brains for an excuse, then sigh. “If you must know, I’m joining a choir to sing for a wedding.”

A pair of jaws dropped. “You sing?” Angie blurted out just as my mother said, bewildered, “But Andrea, you don’t sing.”

I glared at them. “What is this? Suddenly, everyone’s an expert on my vocal abilities. I just wish you’d all get together and make up your minds.”

“I didn’t mean to sound so negative, anak,” my mother said soothingly. “It’s just that you haven’t sung in years.”

“Not since high school,” my sister added.

“I remember you had a lovely voice, but surely after all these years your voice has rusted a bit?”

The point is,” I growled, “I used to sing and apparently my voice hasn’t rusted all that much because I’ve actually been invited to sing at the wedding. Just because I don’t sing doesn’t mean I can’t.”

“All right, dear. I’m glad you’re singing again,” my mom said in the tone she used to calm frightened dogs and distraught children. “But if the two of you are going to be out, who will be home tomorrow to, er, to entertain Auntie Bella?”

“What about Dad? She’s his aunt,” Angie pointed out.

From downstairs, over the noise of the TV, my dad hollered, “I have a meeting. Very important. Won’t be home till after dinner.”

A hushed silence fell over us. “How does he do that?” Angie whispered, her eyes as round as saucers.

I cleared my throat. “We’re not your only children, Ma. What about the boys?” The “boys” were our brothers Anthony, who was two years older than me, and Andrew, the youngest.

Angie’s face brightened at the mention of our brothers. “That’s right. Andrea and I were the ones who stayed around the last time Auntie Bella came. It’s their turn.”

“But the boys aren’t home yet. I haven’t asked them if they’re free tomorrow. Maybe I could send them a message.”

“No!” My mother looked startled, and I lowered my voice. “No, don’t tell them tonight. Tell them first thing tomorrow, when they’re too hung-over to make excuses.” Angie grinned evilly, but I studiously ignored her. “In fact, we’ll gang up on them and tell them. They won’t be able to wriggle out of it.”

“But the preparations—”

“We’ll help, of course,” I said quickly, referring to the need to make our home Auntie Bella-proof. “In the morning. But in the afternoon, they’re on their own.”

Mollified, our mother nodded and bid us good night. I let a minute pass before turning to Angie, who was shaking with laughter. She raised a hand for a high five. “I love the way you work, Sis.”

“Thanks. I owe Tony for telling Gani I’d gone ahead to McDonalds when I was still in the shower.” The memory of that incident reminded me of tonight’s phone call, and my face fell. And once again displaying an uncanny sense of timing, my cell phone beeped from under my pillow.

I’m sorry. And I love u, even when u’re mad at me. I’ll b thinking of u.

My throat closed up. He promised he’d send me a message, and he did. Oh, Gani.

“From him?” my sister asked gently. I nodded, even as my thumb darted over the keypad. “You’re going to tell him you love him even when he’s being an idiot?”

“He should be so lucky,” I muttered as I sent my message.

Meryl, I’ll see u there.


 

I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting when I arrived at McDonald’s, but it certainly wasn’t this. Clustered around a table near the door was a group of people who were chatting and laughing and occasionally breaking into song. I hugged my backpack in a spasm of uncertainty. Oh Lord, they looked like normal people. Surely, as normal people would, they’d take one look at me and wonder what in hell an uncouth barbarian was doing with them. Maybe I could still back out. I could just tell Meryl I’d caught some infectious disease and hightail it to the nearest mall. I pivoted on my heel to make my escape.

Kaye was standing right behind me. “Andrea! I’m glad you could make it.”

“Uh, hi,” I said weakly. “Are you a member of Meryl’s church choir, too?”

She smiled. “Yes. I’m one of the sopranos. Not as good as you, though.”

“Oh. Haha. Very funny.”

“Come on, let me introduce you to the others.”

The others were Susie (alto), Beth (alto), Rosario (alto), Bernard (tenor), Dave (tenor), Allan (bass), Leo (tenor) and Joshua (tenor, bass, guitarist, pianist, composer, arranger, conductor and apparent deaf-mute). I grinned frozenly at the stream of names, then sat down and tried not to look as foolish as I felt. Meryl arrived five minutes later with another girl and two more guys. She squealed with delight at the sight of me and introduced me to the others all over again.

“You don’t know how relieved I am that you’re here,” she told me. “I just found out that Patrice’s future brother-in-law will be singing with us, and he’s got a voice like you wouldn’t believe. Patrice has a couple of duets she wants us to sing, and I’m glad we’ve got someone to sing against him.”

Sing against him? “What about the others?” I asked, feeling uneasy. The whole thing sounded vaguely combative.

Meryl scrunched up her face. “They all have nice voices and as a choir they sound great, but Ivan tends to stick out, you know? Er…”

“Is he a trained classical singer?”

“No, he’s, ah—he’s a soloist,” she said lamely. “You’ll know what I mean when you meet him. Anyway, he’s really, really cute and as far as I know he doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. Just thought I’d let you know,” she added mischievously. I rolled my eyes.

We piled up in Meryl’s jeep. On the way, Kaye gave me copies of the music sheets for the songs we were supposed to sing—I spent the trip flipping through them and pretending I understood what the dots and squiggles meant—then we passed around a large, cream-colored envelope. Inside was a cream-colored card with gold vines and roses embossed around the edges and flowery script: Patricia Mae Santos Arranza and Troadio Jose Manuel Gonzalez, III, request the honor of your presence, etc. etc.

Troadio, I thought, shuddering.

The Santuario de San Rafael was a beautiful little chapel that, except for the stained-glass windows portraying the Stations of the Cross, the statues of the Blessed Virgin and an assortment of saints, and the oversized crucifix and altar in front, looked more like a dignified old villa from the Spanish era than a church. The garden surrounding the chapel was a riot of colors, with flowers of every size and shape vying with one another for center stage. There was an atmosphere of quiet serenity about the place. I wish Gani could see this, I thought as I gazed about the chapel. He always had a fondness for old architecture. Then I remembered exactly why Gani wasn’t here to enjoy this particular bit of architecture, and I frowned, annoyed at breaking the chapel’s spell with thoughts of his desertion.

A petite, slightly plump woman came toward us, smiling warmly. She kissed Meryl on the cheek then shook our hands. “I’m Patrice, Meryl’s cousin. Meryl told me all about you, and I’m so glad you agreed to sing on Saturday. I apologize for being late. TJ had a last-minute appointment, so I had to ask his brother Ivan to drive me here with the concert keyboard . I made him put it there at the church entrance before he went to park the van, but I need some help bringing that heavy thing in here. Do you mind?” She indicated some of the guys, who obligingly followed her.

I turned to Meryl. “I need to use the bathroom. Do you know where it is?” She gave me directions, and I hurried toward it with as much dignity as I could. When I was both out of sight and hearing range, I leaned against the wall and laughed until my eyes were teary. “TJ!” I blubbered, doubling over. “Oh Lord, TJ!”

“We think of it in terms of a great sacrifice on his part.”

“Huh?” I blinked the tears away and looked up. Standing in front of me was the most gorgeous guy I’d ever seen in all my 26 years of existence, not counting movie stars, models and products of a fevered imagination. He was tall, with neatly cropped hair, with bangs swept artlessly over his forehead to give him a boyish look, deep-set eyes fringed by lashes that should have been too heavy to lift, a patrician nose, thin lips quirked up in an amused smile that showed off an adorable dimple on his right cheek, broad shoulders and a tightly muscled body—in short, a veritable god clothed in a beige shirt, jeans and leather moccasins. The smile deepened as I gawked at him, and I suddenly became aware of the slightly rumpled state of my T-shirt and my slightly mussed-up hair, which had once again declared war on the scrunchie holding it together in a ponytail. I straightened, my face flushing, completely mortified to be caught in such an undignified position.

“Um.” I desperately tried to recall what he’d said. “A sacrifice?”

“My brother, TJ,” said the young god. “Being the eldest meant he’d had to bear the burden of the family name. We honor his sacrifice by never calling him by his real name. I think it causes him actual physical pain.”

“Your…brother…” Oh my God. “Are you, by any chance, Ivan?”

“Yup.”

Oh. My. God. “TJ’s younger brother? The one who drove Patrice here?”

“Mm-hmm.”

OH MY GAAAWD! “Ohmigod, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t making fun of your brother, really I wasn’t, it’s just that I thought of something funny, but it wasn’t your brother’s name, I mean not really—”

Ivan laughed, a deep, sexy laugh that set my insides all aquiver. “It’s okay. We get reactions like that all the time. I actually admire my brother for putting up with it so well. I think it’s what made him the fine, upstanding citizen he is today,” he added in a deadpan voice.

“Oh. Uh, really? Good for him.” I wanted to cry. Of all the people who’d catch me making fun of somebody’s name, it had to be his gorgeous brother. The one who had a voice like you wouldn’t believe. The one who tended to stick out. The one Meryl wanted me to sing against.

The one who didn’t have a girlfriend at the moment.

What the hell was I thinking? Not three minutes after I was caught maligning his family name, I was already thinking of this guy as fair game. And besides, a sanctimonious voice in my head added, you’re not exactly on the playing field, you know.

But Gani isn’t here right now, is he? argued another, decidedly less virtuous voice.

Oh shut up, both of you, I snapped.

Ivan cleared his throat. “Listen, I know I’m going to sound like a fresh jerk, but I’d really like to know your name.”

“My name?” I looked at him in alarm. “You’re not going to sue me, are you?”

He laughed again. “No, but if it gives me a chance to get to know you better, then I’m going to have to call my lawyer.”

Oh please, the sanctimonious voice rolled its eyes. I, on the other hand, was completely entranced. “I’m Andrea, one of the singers. I’m Patrice’s cousin’s friend from work.”

Ivan smiled and held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Andrea.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” I quavered, praying he would notice how clammy my hand was.

He opened his mouth but before he could say anything else, Meryl appeared. “Oh, there you are. We were about to start without you.” Her gaze fell on our still joined hands and her eyebrows lifted. I quickly pulled my hand away, blushing furiously. “Hmm, I guess I don’t have to introduce you, do I?” she remarked, trying not to laugh.

“Let’s just go,” I muttered, and stalked away without another word.

Joshua, resident musical genius, had brought his guitar along, but like a ball of yarn tossed at a kitten, the elegant, electronic Yamaha keyboard provided another distraction for him. He barely said a word, relying mostly on Meryl to translate his mumblings to the rest of us. He gave Ivan a cursory glance, the only one in the group who wasn’t affected by his god-like presence. The other guys gave him friendly nods, while the girls stammered and blushed. I was gratified to know I wasn’t the only one who reverted to awkward adolescence around him.

We tried out some of the church songs, letting Patrice pick out which entrance hymn she wanted, which version of the Gloria, which Alleluia, and so on. Just as I’d expected, I didn’t know most of the songs and simply hummed along with the others and smiled sheepishly whenever Joshua glared at me for singing the wrong notes. The others were very nice, and Kaye was a big help, patiently guiding me through the songs, even offering to let me borrow her recording of the songs for me to practice with at home.

Of course, it didn’t help that Ivan was sitting behind me, listening to us. For some reason, I could feel his eyes boring a hole right into the back of my head. It was completely unnerving, and the more unnerved I got, the more my throat closed up until all I could manage was a croaky whisper. I wanted to tell him to go away or at least look somewhere else, but I couldn’t risk meeting his gaze and turning into a lump of wet cotton right there on the risers. I was horribly aware that I wasn’t living up to Meryl’s stellar expectations, judging from the puzzled looks she was sending my way, which caused me to sink deeper and deeper into depression. I was slowing everyone down. I was pissing Joshua off. Maybe I should just quit. This was obviously a mistake. Singing was not for me, and it was high time I accepted it.

“—a break?”

Huh? Was Ivan saying something?

“A break?” Meryl thought about it, then shrugged. “Okay, a fifteen-minute break sounds good.”

Ivan beamed. “Great. We brought some sandwiches for you guys, and we insist you finish them up. They’re in the van in the parking lot. Just follow Patrice’s lead.” I stood up to follow Kaye, but halted when Ivan touched my arm. “Andrea? Could I talk to you for a minute?”

I nodded and followed him to the garden, mute with misery and humiliation. This is it, I thought. This is where he tells me that I can’t do it, that I have zero talent, that I should just do everyone a favor and leave. It seemed darkly appropriate that this man, who was blessed with an extraordinary voice and presence a film actor would have killed for, would be the one to give me the axe. At least I tried, I consoled myself. It didn’t make me feel any better.

“Andrea, you have an incredible voice.”

I stared at him, wondering if my singing had driven him insane. “You’re kidding, right?”

He shook his head. “No, really. I was listening to you. Your voice is melodious and strong, very versatile. With training, you could probably give all those pop divas a run for their money.”

“But I sucked in there. Everyone could tell. Joshua was about to kick me out of the group.”

“He was not. And you didn’t suck. You’re not familiar with the material, which is understandable because you’re not a member of the church choir. That can be solved through practice. The rest is a matter of technique, particularly your breathing. Also, I think you’re just too embarrassed to cut loose.” He gave me a warm smile. “Don’t be shy. You don’t have any reason to be, you know.”

My cheeks burned. I looked down at my feet. “Well, I—I—”

“First, we’ll start with breathing.”

“What?” I goggled at him. First he flirts with me and then all of a sudden he acts as impersonal as a stuffy old music teacher. Maybe he was insane, after all.

And I was insane enough to go along with it. He taught me how to breathe with my diaphragm instead of my chest, how to feel the breath surging up from deep down my gut, how to open my throat to let my voice out, even how to breathe when I’d run out of breath in the middle of a song so it wouldn’t look as though I were in the grip of an asthma attack. After gallantly asking permission to touch me, he made me sing then put his hand on my middle and pushed up, and laughed at the look on my face when I heard my voice come out more clearly than I’d ever heard it before. I was singing, I was actually singing! The sheer joy of it was incredible.

Ivan grinned. “See? What did I tell you? You have a beautiful voice, Andrea. It‘d be a shame to keep it hidden underneath all that air. Come on, let’s go back to the others. I can’t wait to see their expressions when they hear you now.”

And the amazing thing about it was that it worked. I still fumbled with the unfamiliar religious songs, but when we started singing the choir’s repertoire of love songs, even I noticed the stunned, admiring looks the others were giving me. Meryl was looking unbearably smug. And best of all, Joshua resumed ignoring me. I shook my head. People really did come in all kinds.

It was dark by the time we packed up the Yamaha. I was surprised at how the hours flew by. We gathered in the parking lot talking about the next practice session, then deciding which ones would take up Ivan’s offer of a ride home. I hung back, feeling out of place, until I felt eyes on me and looked up to meet Ivan’s gaze. I smiled, feeling only a thread of alarm when he walked up to me. “You’re not riding with us?”

“No, I take a different route home. But thanks for the offer.”

“That’s too bad,” he said, sounding as if he really meant it. “I was just wondering—and this time you’re really going to think I’m fresh—if you’d like to meet sometime this week. Before practice next Saturday, I mean. So we could work on your vocal technique,” he added hastily.

He could work on his own technique, the sanctimonious voice sniffed, and was beaten back by the inner devil. Still, guilt streaked across my mind like lightning. There was no mistaking what Ivan was heading up to, and if I were a truly decent person, I’d be turning my back on him and walking away, thereby remaining true to the one I love.

Who? Gani? the inner devil snorted. The one who ditched you to go mountain-climbing with the boys?

Don’t say that, I protested loyally, albeit somewhat belatedly. He promised he’d guide them, and Gani never breaks a promise. He’s just being the honorable man he is.

He’s also nowhere to be found, and there’s this hunk standing before you who actually wants to spend time with you.

Don’t listen to her! the voice of reason cried out from underneath the inner devil’s heel. Think about Gani! Think about how he’d feel!

“ I don’t know,” I moaned, then clapped a hand over my mouth.

Misinterpreting it—or correctly interpreting it?—as reluctance, Ivan nodded disappointedly. “It’s okay. I understand. It was worth a try.” He gave me a little smile that just about ripped my heart out.

“How about Saturday morning?” I found myself blurting out.

His face brightened. “Sounds great. Can I pick you up at your house?”

“No!” I flushed and said more sedately, “No, you don’t have to do that.” And have my family craning their necks out the windows and demanding to know who you are and what on earth happened to Gani? God, no! “Um, let’s just meet somewhere, okay? Is McDonalds fine with you?”

Ivan beamed. “Definitely. I’ll see you, Andrea. I wish it was Saturday already.”

“Haha,” I said weakly as I watched him get in the van. Thankfully, the others were nice enough not to comment. The last thing I wanted was to have anyone waggling their eyebrows at me and saying, “Wow, you two hit it off, huh?”

My cell phone beeped. With shaking fingers I pulled it out and read the message.

Have u forgvn me yet? Be careful going home, ok? Love u, Andrea.

I was wrong. The last thing I wanted was to read Gani’s message and feel every single lump of coal that was being heaped, steadily and relentlessly, upon my head.


 

I looked up from my computer Monday morning to find Meryl grinning at me like a well-fed cat. I bit back a groan.

“Sooo,” she began oh-so-innocently, “what do you think of Ivan?”

“He’s okay.”

“Just ‘okay’?”

I gave her a look. “Yes. Just ‘okay’.”

“Mmm, I wonder. How does it feel to have your own personal vocal coaching session?”

“It’s okay.”

“Just ‘okay’?”

I flexed my fingers over the keyboard to keep them from curling around the edges of my desk. “Meryl, there’s really no need for you to use that tone with me—”

“He asked me for your number, you know.” Meryl pretended to inspect her fingernails, and looked at me from the corner of her eyes. “Not just your cell phone number. Your phone number at home, the closest local phone number in the office, your e-mail address—he drew the line at your employee and social security number, but he got me worried there for a moment.”

Despite my better judgment, I allowed myself a moment to soak in the warm, sparkly feelings. He was that interested in me? “What did you say?”

“I said I’d have to ask you. I don’t give out my friends’ personal information just like that. He looked like a little boy in a toy store whose mommy wouldn’t buy him a Playstation. I have his cell phone number, though. You want it?”

“Meryl—”

“Oh, you don’t have to do anything about it,” she cut in smoothly. “But wouldn’t it be fun to play a joke on him? Send him one of those silly ‘hi, I’m X, you wanna have a good time?’ prank messages and see how he’ll react. He doesn’t know your number, anyway, so he won’t know who it’s from. What do you think?”

God help me, but temptation proved stronger than my moral resolve. With Meryl as my giggling accomplice, I sent Ivan a message that read ‘Im floyd, I just lost my pet  gorlla, so pls turn urself in’. It was embarrassingly lame and juvenile, and the shame that I actually did something so stupid nearly overcame my eagerness to find out how he’d react.

He didn’t. I waited for hours, and still nothing. When I told Meryl, she shrugged and said, “Oh well, I guess he’s not the type who answers hokey messages.”

The thought of Ivan’s cell phone number in my clutches seemed to burn a hole in my mind. It was all I could do to concentrate on work and not think about how easily I could send him a message, maybe find out how he’s doing, if he’s thinking about me at all. I lost count of the number of times I drew my cell phone out, only to shove it back into my pocket again. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I’m just going to apologize for that dumb message earlier, that’s all. It was an indication of how far gone I was that I’d managed to convince myself of the truth of that statement.

His response was every bit as gratifying as I’d hoped. I’m so glad 2 hear frm u! Did u get my no. frm meryl? I askd her 2 give it 2 u.

Meryl, you manipulative bitch, I seethed.

His next message was even better. I miss u, Andrea. I know we’ve only jst met, but sumting abt u jst drew me. Hope u don’t mind.

Mind? Hell, no, I thought, adrift in the pink, bubbly haze a girl got when she found out that the cute boy she liked actually liked her back.

Warning bells went off in my mind. You’re moving on dangerous ground, the voice of reason, which had lapsed into wounded silence since Saturday, spoke up.

Ah, shut up, I retorted, and the voice went off to sulk some more.

Another message came in. Pick u up at 7. I’ve got d car. Can’t wait to c u again.

Gani. The pink haze abruptly evaporated, leaving me feeling chilled and apprehensive. And, oh yes, guilty. Good Lord, I’d forgotten about him. No matter how beautiful and thrilled Ivan made me feel, Gani was a reality I couldn’t afford not to deal with. In fact, the right thing to do was ‘fess up and tell Ivan that I already had a boyfriend. It was unfair of me to make him feel that he had a chance. I didn’t want to hurt him that way.

But you won’t have to, if you break up with Gani instead, the inner devil said slyly.

Something inside me recoiled. Break up with Gani? No. I couldn’t.

Why not? It’s not like you two have been the world’s most romantic couple lately, the inner devil argued. When was the last time you talked without ending up in a situation straight out of the Cold War? When was the last time you spent time together just because you simply liked being with each other? When was the last time he kissed you, for that matter, kissed you the way a man kisses the woman he’s supposed to be madly in love with?

I reeled from the force of the attack. I don’t know, okay? I thought miserably. I’m so confused. Just leave me alone.

Later that evening, scant minutes before Gani walked in, complaining that he’d been standing outside our building for the past twenty minutes, I sent Ivan a message asking him for his home phone number. I have 2 tell u sumthing. It’s important.

I made a wry face. Geez, I was starting to sound like Ma. But tonight, I vowed, tonight I’ll tell Ivan about Gani, and set things straight. I swear it.


 

“Tomorrow, I’ll tell him. I swear it,” I mumbled into my pillow, wracked by yet another attack of conscience.

“Sis, are you okay?” Angie demanded. “What’re you babbling about, anyway?”

I lifted bleary eyes to my sister. “What day is it today?”

“It’s Thursday evening.”

“What day will it be tomorrow?”

“Friday!” She threw up her hands in exasperation. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you better start talking.”

“Tomorrow will be Friday,” I intoned gloomily. “Tomorrow evening, I’ll be with Gani. And then…Saturday. Oh, what am I going to do?”

“Andrea!” Angie grabbed my shoulders then released me. Muttering darkly, she quit the room, only to return dragging a bewildered Tony behind her. At her instructions, he sighed, grabbed my shoulders and shook me until my hair tumbled over my face and my teeth snapped. I snarled and pushed him away. He snarled back. The display of civilized, filial devotion over, I sat up and regarded my siblings with extreme bemusement.

Tony looked at me, then at Angie. “I’m never going to find out what this is all about, am I?”

“No, because this is women’s issues,” Angie informed him.

“Ah, who cares? By the way, have either of you seen my lighter?”

“No. How should we know where your lighter is?”

“I saw it.” They turned to look at me. I shrugged. “It was on top of the piano last Saturday. Isn’t it there anymore?”

Tony scowled. “Of course not. Would I be looking for it if—” He suddenly blanched as the same thought occurred to the three of us.

“Auntie Bella,” we chorused, only Tony’s came out more as a roar. “Sonuvabitch! That thing cost me a fucking bundle!” he ranted as he stormed out the room. Angie ran after him, yelling: “Tony, don’t be a fucking pottymouth! Ack! Sorry, Dad. Yes, I’ll clean up my language. Yes, with soap! I’m sorry, already.”

“Boy, is this family insane or what?” I joked weakly.

Angie was not amused.

Sighing, I stood up, took my sister’s hand and pulled her over to the bed to tell her the whole sorry tale.

“He calls me up every night,” I told her, almost musing aloud. “And he’s very sweet and funny. We can talk about absolutely anything. Last night I told him all about Erick, back in high school. You remember him? He was the one who got me to perform for an actual audience.”

Angie smiled. “Oh, I remember. He was all over you like the chicken pox. You were mooning all over the place, spouting endlessly about ‘Erick this’ and ‘Erick that’ until I was sick of it. I didn’t want to share a room with you, you were that disgusting.”

I had to laugh. “Really? I didn’t know. I’m sorry for putting you through that. But for all the silliness of it, Erick really meant something to me. He seemed so confident and self-assured that I wanted to be just like him. He was my first real idol, you know?”

“I remember something else.” Angie stared at me. “You sang back then. All the time. We couldn’t get you to shut up. You’d sing along with the radio, you’d sing along with Dad’s cheesy oldies hits, you’d sing along with the Disney videos until Drew shouted at you to stop. You’d sing during parties and family reunions, and they always picked you to sing the national anthem in school. You even sang in that pop-singing contest thing in school.”

“Yeah, the one sponsored by the Center for Pop Music,” I said, laughing again. “Never even made it to the top five, of course. Wow, that was a long time ago. I can’t believe you still remember it.”

Angie grinned and shrugged.

“Anyway, I told Ivan this, and he was so nice about it, even after I told him all the humiliating bits. He told me about his own childhood, too, and what it was like growing up in a family of musical geniuses. Did you know his mother is an opera singer? And his sister is a piano major in Juillard, and he himself took voice lessons since he was six years old—anyway, the point is, I can talk to Ivan a lot more than I can to Gani. I feel so comfortable with him. I’m not constantly wondering what the hell he’s thinking, and how he’s really feeling, deep inside. Ivan doesn’t hold anything back. His heart is right there on his sleeve. He—”

“Must be uncomfortable for him.”

“What?”

“With his heart hanging on his sleeve, I mean. Doesn’t he have any kind of defenses at all? That’d mean he’d be affected by practically anyone.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” I said, frowning at the idea that Ivan would have done the things he did for just any girl. “I mean he’s so open and straightforward about his feelings. He keeps telling me how much he misses me, how much he’s looking forward to seeing me again—”

“And you’ve only met last Saturday?”

“Well, yes. Love at first sight isn’t so impossible, you know.” I realized I sounded defensive, and took a breath to settle myself. “He tells me I’m special. In so short a time we’ve become good friends. We can talk so easily with each other—”

“Yes, yes, you’ve said that already,” Angie said dismissively. “However, Sis, I also recall a time when you and Gani were like that. Have things changed so much between you two?”

I looked away to contain the pang I felt whenever I thought of Gani. “Used to be,” I said wistfully. “Gani’s…not like Ivan at all. Gani keeps things to himself; he doesn’t open himself up to just anyone. It’s so hard to get him to trust, and I thought—” I took a gulp of air, determined to say this without getting emotional—“I thought he trusted me, at least. We’ve been together for five years. You’d think that would mean something. But things have gotten so distant between us. Sometimes, I can’t tell what he’s thinking anymore. I used to be able to do that. He doesn’t tell me either, and when I ask, he shuts up tight and won’t let me in. We just go through the motions, say the usual lines. Everything’s on automatic, and automatic feels so damn cold and lonely—”

Angie put her arm around my shoulders, and I realized I was starting to cry.

“I don’t want to hurt Gani. Honest to God, I don’t,” I went on. “But if I’m not happy with him anymore, if Ivan’s the one who can make me happy…I have a right to be happy, don’t I?”

Angie gave my shoulders a squeeze. “So what’re you going to do about it?”

“I’m going to tell Ivan about Gani first. On Saturday. I’ll see how Saturday will turn out, then I’m going to tell Gani.”

Angie sighed. “So this means you’re—”

“—breaking up with Gani, I suppose.” I smiled ruefully, but ended up crying on my sister’s shoulder anyway.


 

Saturday dawned, bright and cheerful. The birds were singing, the sun was shining, and my dad was in the kitchen bawling at the top of his voice.

I walked into the kitchen rubbing the sleep from my eyes and encountered total chaos. Ma and Clara, the lady who sometimes came to do the laundry, were huddled at the sink in deep conversation, Dad was stalking around the place like a restless lion, shouting something about ‘what kind of life is this when you can’t even find decent food on your table’, Angie was yelling at him, and Tony was slouched at the table, buried in the newspaper and doing a good job of pretending the rest of us didn’t exist.

“What is going on here?” I demanded.

“Drew set the oven too high and burned all the pan de sal,” Tony said from behind the paper. “He just left to buy another bag.”

“Then what’s Dad screaming about?”

This time it was Angie who answered. “Who knows? He’s just having another one of his fits.”

“I heard you, young lady, and the one thing I cannot abide is disrespect—”

“Yes, Dad, we know,” Angie said in a bored tone. “Now sit down before you pop a vein. You’re upsetting Ma.”

It never ceased to amaze me how quickly our foul-tempered sire turned to putty in his younger daughter’s hands. When Angie had gotten Dad settled, I served the remaining unburnt pan de sal, convinced Ma it was safe to approach her husband, and settled down for a nourishing, life-sustaining cup of coffee. Drew came in later with the fresh bag of pan de sal, looking as cheerful and good-humored as ever, blissfully oblivious to the chaos he’d left in his wake. I looked up the ceiling and sighed. My family was as loony as they came.

“So you’re going to meet him? Ivan, I mean?” Angie asked later as I was getting dressed.

I carefully avoided meeting her eyes. “Yes.”

“What did you tell Gani?”

I paused, half in and half out of my blouse, my chest constricting as I remembered the look on Gani’s face. For a moment, he’d looked so…so lost. It was the first time in months that I’d seen any kind of emotion on his face. “I told him I’d be spending the day with the people from the church choir. It was as close to the truth as I could get,” I added defensively.

“Mm.”

I peered at my sister. “You don’t like me going out with Ivan, do you?”

She shrugged. “All I know is, Gani loves you. That’s all.”

“Sure he does,” I muttered as I grabbed my purse. “He’s doing an excellent job of showing it.”

Ivan was already waiting for me when I arrived. I had to stop for a moment to catch my breath. My Lord, somebody ought to put a warning label on that guy. He caught sight of me, and a huge smile lit up his face. My heartbeat registered eight on the Richter Scale.

He came and took my hand. “Hi, Andrea.”

“Hello,” I said breathlessly. “Am I late?”

He shook his head, still staring at me. “No. You’re right on time.”

I blushed as I took in the double meaning in his words, and sensing my sudden discomfort, he exerted himself to making me feel relaxed and at ease, with astounding success. We went to the Galleria, and spent most of the morning sipping coffee in a café and talking about anything that came to mind. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed so much in the company of a man. Gani and I used to do this. The sad thought drifted through my mind. I ignored it as best I could.

We ate Jamaican patties for lunch, and we must have been the strangest customers the salespeople had seen that day. Ivan was giving me vocal technique lessons as he’d promised, and every now and then one of us would break into song, then double over laughing. He had an amazing voice. Smooth and strong, like warmed vodka. Just hearing him sing sent shivers down my spine. The other customers were clearly enchanted. If he’d sung any more, I had no doubt the salespeople would soon be paying us to eat.

There was one awkward moment when he asked me if I wanted to watch a movie. For some reason, I found myself balking at the idea. There was a strange kind of intimacy in a movie theater, and somehow, I couldn’t imagine sharing it with him. I didn’t want to. Not yet. Maybe not ever. His eyes clouded, and I wondered if I’d slipped and let some of the sadness show. I looked away. I had to tell him. This couldn’t go on like this.

I took a deep, bracing breath and faced him. “Listen, Ivan—”

“You know, let’s forget about the movie. I’ve got a better idea,” he said, interrupting my painful speech.

To my ever-lasting shame, I actually felt relieved. “What’s that?” I asked. He simply grinned.

It turned out to be videoke. We headed to the mall’s arcade and proceeded to monopolize the small videoke booth for the next couple of hours. At first, I was content to watch him as he hammed it up for all he was worth, making melodramatic gestures as he sang until I was teary-eyed with laughter. Even with the overly loud speakers hung all over the booth, which turned even half-way decent singing into ear-splitting howls, his voice sounded heavenly and we were soon drawing a crowd. Then he waved me up front and dared me to sing, and no amount of protest on my part could dissuade him. Giggling and blushing, I took the microphone, selected one of my favorite love songs, and prepared to knock ‘em dead.

I got a score of 98 out of 100 when I was finished. To my astonished delight, however, what I also got was applause. The people who had wandered over to listen to us were clapping and cheering and calling for an encore. From me. My singing had put those smiles on their faces. The feeling was indescribable.

Ivan took the microphone from me, his fingers brushing mine, and led me away. “How did I do?” I asked somewhat dazedly.

“You were perfect,” he said. And for one golden moment, I knew it to be true.

“You’re glowing,” he teased. I put my hands on my heated cheeks and laughed in pure joy. Something flickered in his eyes, and before I realized what was happening, he leaned over and kissed me.

I froze, my eyes wide with shock, feeling his mouth move warmly over mine. When he noticed my lack of response, he pulled back slowly and stared at me. I tried to speak but no words came. His cheeks were as red as mine, and he bit his lip as he waited for my reaction. When my paralysis stretched into minutes, he sighed and took my elbow. We made our way out to the parking lot, and he opened the car door for me before going over to the driver’s side. We sat in the car, staring out the windshield while the silence thickened.

“I’m sorry, Andrea,” he finally said. “I surprised you. To be honest, I surprised me. That—that wasn’t how I wanted things to go.”

It’s okay, I wanted to tell him. I didn’t  mind, really. It was a nice kiss. But the voice I’d been so proud of not so long ago had deserted me. I squeezed my hands together, willing myself to say the words that would reassure him, but my throat had closed up as tight as it had before. What is wrong with you? I scolded myself. Isn’t this what you wanted? To find out how you and Ivan would be like together before you made your decision? Why are you clamming up now?

“Andrea?”

I opened my mouth. “I think we have to go,” was what came out instead.

His face fell, but he nodded and started the car.

I fixed my gaze on the scenery so he wouldn’t see the look on my face. Well, isn’t this a familiar sight? the voice of reason mocked. You look like this with Gani, too, with the two of you sitting in frozen silence, unable to breathe a single, honest word to each other. Could it be the problem isn’t Gani after all? Could it be it’s been you all along?

Choir practice turned out to be the most difficult three hours of my life, with Ivan and I pretending that nothing happened and failing miserably. All the vocal technique Ivan had taught me were rendered useless; my throat was so dry that my voice simply withered away. Joshua went back to glowering at me, and the rest of the choir gave us puzzled glances. It was worse when Ivan and I had to practice our solo numbers. It was hell when we had to do our duets.

At one point, Joshua was so annoyed with the two of us that he muttered something that was almost audible and pushed off the keyboard. “He says he knows it’s supposed to be a prayer,” Meryl translated, “but for God’s sake, can’t you sing at a level that can be heard by an actual audience and not just God?”

I tried not to look at Ivan, but I was flushing with embarrassment anyway. We’d been practicing The Prayer as sung by Andrea Boccelli and Celine Dion for the past forty minutes, while the others took a well-earned break in the garden. Joshua sniffed and began to play the opening bars again. This time around we were marginally better, but the unhappy frown stayed on Joshua until the end of practice. If I hadn’t been feeling so sorry for myself, I’d have felt sorry for him.

“Ugh, what a mess,” I groaned underneath my breath as I packed up my music sheets and plodded toward the chapel gates. The sound of a voice calling my name made me look back.

“Andrea, wait.” Ivan was jogging down the pathway toward me.

My heart sank. I couldn’t deal with this yet. I had too much to think about.

“Andrea, I have to talk to you.” I waited for him to speak. “Andrea, please, will you look at me?”

I did. The look in his eyes made me want to cry. “I won’t force you into anything,” he said. “I’m sorry if this awkwardness between us is something I caused. That kiss—” I flinched, and he looked away. “What I’m trying to say is, your happiness is important to me. That’s why I won’t force you. I can’t help hoping that one day you’ll come to me on your own, but I will never force you.”

“Ivan, I have a boyfriend.” There. I said it. Let the floodgates of hell be opened.

Ivan sighed. “I know.”

I blinked. “Excuse me? You know?”

“Yes.”

This was not what I’d expected to hear. “Since when did you know? And how did you know, for that matter?” It sure as hell wasn’t because you told him, the voice of reason added snidely.

“Meryl told me last Saturday.”

I gaped at him.

“His name is Gani. You’ve been dating for five years.”

A breeze had picked up. I felt it rush against my body, and I half expected my ears to start blowing like a large wind instrument. My head felt as hollow as a gourd.

“Andrea?”

And just like that, just with the sound of him saying my name, I became magnificently, consummately pissed. I stepped back, shaking so hard I had to clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering, or the words from spilling out. Why, you jerk! You knew, and you still played me like one of your damned musical instruments. You still let me feel all warm and happy inside, then confused and miserable at the thought of my lying to you and betraying Gani at the same time. You knew, and you didn’t tell me—

But neither did I. Not until this moment, when it didn’t matter anymore. It’s not his fault I’m a coward, said the same sad voice I’d heard before but never really listened to.

“Andrea, are you okay?” Ivan asked worriedly, reaching out to me.

I pulled away, hugging my chest tightly. “Don’t.”

His hand dropped, and he cursed underneath his breath.

“And don’t be a fucking pottymouth,” I whispered, and despite my anger, I chuckled at the perplexed look on his face.

Encouraged, he took another step toward me, but stopped when I took another step back. “Listen, I’m sorry, okay?” he said tautly, showing the frayed edges of his own temper. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Maybe I should have told you from the start that I knew, but maybe, just maybe, Andrea, you should have been the one to tell me. Maybe I’d have listened to you even if I heard it from Meryl first. Maybe it would have made me respect you more.”

What? I raised stricken eyes to him. He appeared as surprised as I was by what he said, and he apologized, saying that he didn’t mean it. I didn’t hear him. I was too busy trying to keep from whimpering as memories I’d thought were long buried exploded out of some dark, hidden cave like a flock of bats. Memories of a stage, an audience, a row of judges with blank expressions and indifferent eyes. Of a tall, handsome boy looking at me with a mixture of pity and mild disappointment. It was so long ago…

…I wore my new blue dress. I thought I looked pretty when I tried it on the night before, but the ribbon had come undone and the strap was slipping off my shoulder and I didn’t look pretty at all, just defeated…

…so long ago, and so unimportant…

…I’m sorry, I did the best I could but I choked on the high notes. I really, really tried…

…and yet so very painful…

…sure you did, Andrea. You still lost, though. You should’ve remembered what I told you about attitude and being confident. You didn’t believe in yourself enough. If you don’t believe you’re the best, how can you make other people respect you?

….even now. More than ten years later.

…Erick? We’re still friends…aren’t we?…

And I stopped singing after that.

I came back to earth, feeling an inexplicable coolness on my face. Rain? I looked up, but the sky was clear. I raised a hand and touched my face. Oh, I was crying again. How’d you like that?

“Andrea?”

Oh. Was Ivan still here? He sounded so miserable. I shook my head and focused on him, then spun around and walked away. He called after me, and I walked faster. When I’d gotten to the gate of the church grounds, I started to run, but he was still following me.

A shadow suddenly stepped in front of me. I shrieked in surprise, then nearly shrieked again when I realized who it was. Gani. Looking as cold and remote as the mountain-peaks he loved so much. I stared at him, thinking irrationally that I’d never seen him look so good. The streetlight illuminated the planes and angles of his face in stark white, his straight, unbound hair streamed in the breeze, and his eyes were cold and hard and dangerous. I stumbled back, suddenly afraid, but he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at Ivan, who’d stopped several feet away.

“Who’re you?” Ivan asked.

“Gani.”

Ivan’s eyes narrowed.

“You’re not needed here anymore,” Gani said, in a voice like steel slicing through ice.

“You—”

“I’d go if I were you.”

And just like that, Ivan turned and hurried away. The breeze blew again, cool and mournful. Gani stood unmoving, his fists clenched at his sides, looking as if he fully intended to stay rooted to the spot for all time. Oh my God, I thought, swallowing through the tears clogging my throat. Oh my God, Gani.

I reached out to him, but he turned and speared me with a look no less glacial than the one he gave Ivan. “I came to pick you up,” he said.

“I—”

“I was worried about you, so I asked your sister where the chapel was.”

“Gani—”

“I thought maybe you’d like some company on the way home. I was wrong. Right now I think you’d rather be alone than be with anyone.”

Without a backward glance, he turned and walked away. I stood there in the street, under the clear, star-strewn sky, and prayed for rain.


 

The week passed by in a bruised kind of blur. Somehow, I managed to get myself home and explain the pale, dull-eyed face to my mother. I had more trouble explaining it to my sister, who apologized tearfully for telling Gani where the chapel was. “I’m so sorry, Andrea. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time, I really did. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”

I pulled my little sister into a hug, comforting her. Just like old times, I thought wistfully.

Even Meryl couldn’t help noticing how subdued I was. She and the others had been avid spectators of the Andrea-Ivan free-for-all, and she was strung up on the rack of curiosity over what had happened last Saturday that turned me into a zombie. Ivan, on the other hand, had turned into a mad dog, snapping at everyone. She’d have told me more, but Kaye had marched over, slapped a hand over her mouth and dragged her away. The look I gave Kaye could only be described as pathetically grateful.

Life went on. After what felt like a thousand revisions, the website design was finally approved. Edwin started courting some girl in the office, a sweet young thing who was a lot more generous with her free dinners than either Meryl or Kaye. I elbowed him in the ribs and teased him about his new flame. I had no idea the man knew how to blush.

Life went on, and so did the wedding. It was too late for me to back out, no matter how tempted I was. The wedding motif was gold, and the choir decided that our outfit for the wedding would be black skirts or pants, a cream-colored shirt and a gold scarf draped around the neck and shoulders. I had any number of cream-colored blouses and so did Angie, but in true feminine fashion the two of us decided that shopping for yet another blouse was just the kind of therapy I needed. We came home giggly and excited over our purchases, brushing away our brothers’ taunting with unflappable composure, and spent the night experimenting with different hairstyles, makeup combinations and accessories for my new outfit.

Life went on. But every night when I went home, I found myself standing on the steps for long moments, nodding weakly at Mang Dan’s sundry advice, hoping that a familiar figure would melt out of the darkness and take my bag without a word but with  welcoming warmth in his eyes. I found myself hovering over the phone, agonizing over whether or not my heart could take it if he slammed the phone down after hearing my voice. I’d look over at the movie guide and start to smile at the fact that MIB II was still showing in movie theaters, then suddenly come crashing down again. What was the fun of watching movies without him? My friends would troop over to the latest hang-out after work, but I found myself smiling wanly and turning down their invitations. And I spent endless minutes just gripping my cell phone, waiting for a single message from him, telling me that he was thinking of me, that I should be careful going home and that I should wait for him so I wouldn’t be going home alone. That he loved me. Even when I’d been a total, fucked-up idiot.

Saturday came, and Angie had to kick me out of bed to get me to wake up. Even then, I spent an hour lolling about in the living room getting wasted on puerile variety shows and fish crackers in vinegar instead of getting ready for the wedding. Finally, Angie got one of our brothers—Drew, this time, as Tony had vanished to God knew where—to haul me up by the shoulders again and shake some sense into me. I got dressed with very little enthusiasm, left the house without my music sheets and my purse and had to come back for them, and arrived at the chapel sunk in gloom, despite how smashing I looked in my new cream-colored, off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and long black skirt, with the gold scarf draped over my shoulders.

It turned out we had minutes to spare. The minutes turned to hours as various members of the bridal entourage got stuck in traffic, or couldn’t find the right dresses, or simply got lost. I walked around the garden, enjoying the flowers and psyching myself up for what was to come—both the singing and facing Ivan again. The former I truly dreaded; since last Saturday, no matter how hard I practiced the vocal techniques Ivan had taught me, I couldn’t get my voice to come out again. I was terrified of standing there and opening my mouth and producing nothing but a tiny, petrified squeak. As for the latter—well, que sera sera.

But then, for some strange reason, it somehow seemed right, in my moment of solitude in this beautiful, serene corner of the world, to hear footsteps behind me and a familiar voice calling my name. I turned. Ivan looked as gorgeous as ever, but his eyes were haunted. Somehow, I knew the pain would soon melt away, because Ivan was the kind of person who wore his heart on his sleeve, out where the rain could wash away its hurts and bruises, out where the sun could heal it with its warmth.

He gazed at me for a long moment, then smiled. “You look beautiful, Andrea.”

I smiled back. “So do you. Er, look handsome, I mean.”

“Are you ready to sing?”

“No,” I admitted. “Never. I’m sorry, Ivan.” I looked up at him, begging him to understand, begging him to forgive me. “You wasted your time on me. You helped me find my voice again, but now I’ve forgotten everything you’ve taught me. I—I don’t think I can sing anymore after this,” I whispered, looking down at my feet and blinking to keep my tears from messing up my mascara.

He lifted my chin, and the look in his eyes was so kind that it put my mascara in mortal danger again. “Ah, but I haven’t taught you the final lesson yet,” he said, reverting to his stuffy music teacher demeanor so unexpectedly that I managed a weak laugh.

“What’s that?” I asked, sniffling.

“Singing isn’t singing unless it’s meant for someone. It could be the audience, it could be your family, it could be God alone. It could be for yourself. And it could be for the man you love.” His voice at this point had lost its lecturing tone, becoming gentle, almost hypnotic. “You see, music is an art form that needs to be directed outward. A song isn’t a song unless it’s heard.”

My mouth fell open. His words were wistful, his voice tinged with longing and acceptance and the kindness I’d seen in him from the very beginning—and I couldn’t quite believe what I’d just heard him say. He noticed my expression and smiled ruefully. “I know what you’re thinking, and you’re probably right. I didn’t teach you that before, because—because I wanted to pretend that you were singing for me. Then you sang in that videoke booth, and you sang so beautifully…You sang that song for someone, and it wasn’t me. I understand now. It was never meant for me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “You were the one who taught me all those breathing techniques and how to project and enunciate words and all. Of course I sang for you.”

He shook his head. “There are two things that make a person a great singer, or so my old voice teacher used to say. The first is technique. I don’t believe you’ve forgotten what I taught you. They’re still in there, waiting for you to pick them up and use them. You already know how to sing, Andrea. I don’t think you should be worried on that account.”

“And the other thing?”

He gave me a meaningful look and touched a finger to my chest. I caught my breath, but didn’t pull away from his touch. The time to do that had already passed.

As if he’d read my thoughts, he smiled and dropped his hand. “Heart, Andrea. That’s the other thing you need to free your voice.”

And with that, he turned and walked away.

I lingered in the garden for a while, thinking about what he said. Then, my decision made, I smiled up at the sky, with its streaks of purple and pink and the occasional green, then made my way out of the garden and prepared to sing with all the technique at my command. To sing with all my heart.

And I did. And it was perfect.


 

It was also exhausting. It was one more thing I’d forgotten: how much energy singing could take out of you. The church songs were okay; the nights I’d spent practicing along with the pre-recorded songs on Kaye’s tape and putting up with my brothers’ ribbing about me turning into a nun paid off. We stood in rows on the raisers, keeping one eye on Joshua and the other on the sacred ceremony going on in front of us. Patrice, the happy bride, looked like an exquisite china doll in her frothy, puffy-sleeved wedding gown, with yellow roses pinned to her veil and flowing over her arm from a large bouquet. TJ, on the other hand, looked dashing in his cream and gold barong tagalong. TJ, not Troadio. I snickered at the thought then snuck a half-guilty look at Ivan. To my surprise, he grinned and winked at me. I nearly burst out laughing, and Kaye and Meryl gave me strange looks from the corners of their eyes.

The reception was held at a charmingly intimate French restaurant. The choir had gone on ahead so we could announce the arrival of the bride and groom with a song, and we goggled at the sight of the bulging buffet and the three-tiered cake and the bountiful buffet and the delicate golden cage housing a pair of snow-white doves and the sumptuous buffet—I mentioned the buffet, didn’t I? We spent almost the entire time standing in one corner and singing love songs in between congratulatory speeches, the cutting of the cake, the doves, the throwing of the bouquet and the garter—for one scary moment I even thought we were going to sing all throughout the delicious meal and end up starving to death before our tour of duty was done.

Then came the moment when the groom would walk to the center of the dance floor and ask his bride to dance. “That’s your cue!” Kaye said excitedly. As if I needed a reminder.

I glanced over at Ivan, who nodded. We took up our positions on one corner of the dance floor ringed by an eagerly whispering crowd, and waited. The entire room grew dim except for the table where the bride and groom sat. The soft strains of the first song began to play. TJ stood up and offered his hand. Patrice smiled up at him, and let him lead her to the dance floor. Golden rose petals began to flutter downward from the ceiling onto the dance floor. It was all I could do not to gasp out loud.

The music crested. Ivan reached out and gave my clammy hand a reassuring squeeze. I smiled at him and took a breath, already feeling the music seeping down into my soul. The first song was mine.

“When I fall in love, it will be forever…”

It was mine, and then somehow…it wasn’t.

“It will be forever, or I’ll never fall in love…”

My voice soared while a man and a woman danced amidst a shower of gold. Nobody could see me; only my voice was heard, and it didn’t matter. I closed my eyes against the sting of tears, as joy and beauty and sweetness mingled with sorrow and regret and longing, weaving into the music. Behind my closed eyelids he smiled at me, and my voice found him, bringing with it the gift of my heart, my very soul…

When it was over, I opened my eyes to find the world just as I’d left it. I sighed and waited for the opening strains of our first duet.

And for one moment it didn’t matter. Not the hurt, the loneliness, or the guilt. Only the music mattered, because it was his. I smiled sadly to myself. My song was his, just as it had always been. Just as it always would be.


 

Six songs and four duets later, I staggered back to our table in a desperate quest for a drink of water. To my secret satisfaction, Meryl and the others were wearing identical expressions of stunned awe, just before they burst into applause and congratulations. Joshua even smiled at me, a lightning-quick twitch of his lips that I’d have missed if I’d blinked at the wrong time. It nearly gave me a heart attack. Nevertheless, I smiled and said thanks, because I knew they meant what they said. My singing might not win me any offers from recording studios any time soon, but I’d found my voice, and I was never, ever going to lose that again.

I was, however, more than ready to haul my tired ass home. I said goodbye to Meryl and Kaye and the others and picked up my purse and the little golden bell that was my souvenir. I looked up and met Ivan’s gaze from across the room where he sat with his family. Smiling, I lifted my hand and gave him a jaunty salute. He grinned and saluted back. Then I turned and walked away.

After that grand exit, it figured that I’d be stopped at the restaurant’s doorway by a solid wall of rain. I glared up at the traitorous night sky, rubbed my arms through the thin material of my blouse to keep warm, and prepared to wait it out, thinking about what I’d tell the others when they came out and found me still lounging around at the doorway, chatting up the valet and the security guard. Something cool and witty, something along the lines of, “Can any one of you lend me an umbrella? Please?”

Somebody walked up behind me, and I stepped aside to make room for the umbrella that the person had raised and was about to open. I eyed the umbrella enviously. Man, it was huge! It could have easily fit five people underneath. When the umbrella guy made no other move, I shrugged and leaned against the wall, singing softly to myself.

“Meryl was right,” said an achingly familiar voice, practically right in my ear. “You have the voice of an angel, Andrea.”

I froze. No way…

“Are you going to keep ignoring me all night or what?” the voice said, amused.

A tear broke free and slid down my cheek, taking a huge chunk of mascara along with it. “Gani,” I whispered.

And then he was there. Gani, dressed in a royal blue dress shirt and black pants and—I checked—a pair of black Converse sneakers (I knew it was too good to be true), with his hair tied back in a ponytail and his jaw smooth and shaven. The musky scent of his cologne fillied me with the reality of him.

“You came,” I said wonderingly.

He smiled at me, and the warmth in his eyes melted something tight and frozen inside me. The tears continued to fall, and I mentally consigned my makeup to perdition. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to me. I buried my face in the soft linen that smelled of his cologne, felt the brush of his fingers as he tucked a stray lock of my hair behind my ear, gave up the struggle and began to sob in earnest.

Wordlessly, ignoring the curious stares of the valet and the security guard, he pulled me close and allowed me to ruin his handkerchief and a good portion of the front of his shirt as well. When I got myself under control, he opened the umbrella—seven people and a cow—and turned to me. “You feel like braving the elements tonight?”

I nodded and blew my nose.

We walked in silence in the glistening rain, sheltered underneath the Umbrella from Hell, with the strains of party music fading away in the distance. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. “How did you know where the reception was?”

Gani grinned. “Meryl finagled an invitation for me at the last minute.”

“Meryl, huh?” I sighed deeply. “I guess that means I’m going to have to forgive her. Damn.”

He chuckled, and the sound of his laughter was sweeter than all the songs in the world.

“So,” I said a little breathlessly, “now that you’ve heard me sing, what do you think?”

Instead of replying, he stopped, lifted my face and kissed me. I swear the pavement steamed. After a while, he pulled back and resumed walking. “I hope that answers your question.”

“Mm. I think I’m going to sing for you every chance I get from now on.” A thought occurred to me, and I bit my lips in sudden, horrible uncertainty. “Um, that is, if you still want to—if you do give me a chance—”

“Andrea.”

“Oh God, Gani, I’m so sorry, I’ve been such a fool, I shouldn’t have—”

“Andrea.”

I shut up.

He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. For hurting you. For making you feel lonely. I’ve never been good with words, but…the truth was, I was scared. Scared of losing you, scared of being found unworthy of you, scared that if I opened up to you, if you found out about all the nasty, ugly things about me, you’d walk away from me and I couldn’t—I just couldn’t—” He took another, rather shaky breath. “I lied to you, Andrea. When I said I went mountain-climbing with my friends. I was with my friends, but what we were doing was setting up a studio in España. Mr. Chan finally signed the contract. So you see, if the spiral of lies had a beginning,” he finished resignedly, “it began with me.”

“Why—why didn’t you tell me?”

He looked away. “Because I couldn’t stand if I failed and you knew it. I didn’t want you to see me that way.”

“Oh Gani, you are not a failure. I would never, ever see you that way.” Don’t cry, don’t cry, surely I’ve run out of tears by now? “Failing doesn’t matter; only your dreams do. Maybe your plans will work out, maybe not, but that’s better than not doing anything. In fact I think…I think you’re pretty brave and I admire you for it.”

He arched an eyebrow at me.

“Honest to God,” I insisted, bopping him lightly on the head. “It takes guts to try to make your dreams come true. You’re afraid to fail, and even more afraid to succeed, and despite everything, you still did what you’ve always wanted to do. That’s pretty damn hard to do. I should know,” I added underneath my breath.

“You think so?”

I grinned. “I know so.”

He closed his eyes and leaned closer until his forehead rested on my shoulder. I didn’t even realize we’d stopped walking until then. The Umbrella of Doom swayed dangerously as Gani wrapped his arms around me and pressed his face into the crook of my neck, but I’d rather have risked catching pneumonia than let him go. His shoulders hitched a little, and I pressed my cheek against his hair. I guess sometimes even Gani needed rainy nights as much as I did.

After a while, I said, jokingly, “I think we’ve braved enough of the elements tonight, don’t you?” And giggled at his expression when he realized that he’d let the umbrella droop and that we were getting well and truly soaked.

We walked on. A thousand and one cars passed us by, but the night was endless, and I could have walked on for eternity. But there were other things he needed to say—I could sense it, and the quiet joy I’d felt at finding that he’d lowered his barriers and let me in again could have sustained me for a lifetime—so I kept my silence, ready to wait for as long as it took.

“Andrea,” he said.

“Hmm?” He was staring straight ahead, with his jaw oddly tense. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t leave me.”

It was a whispered, broken plea, and my heart felt as if it had been caught in a vise. I started to cry again as I shook my head. “I won’t, Gani. I promise. I won’t ever, ever leave you. Never, ever.”

He grinned. “Okay, I believe you.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Are you taking me seriously or not? And what’s this crack about me ignoring you all night? Didn’t you realize I wasn’t ignoring you at all?”

“What’re you talking about? You didn’t even know I was there until I was close enough to bite your ear off.”

I shook my head in exaggerated disappointment. “This is what you get for performing for an unenlightened audience. Gani, don’t you get it? All those songs I’d been singing, I was singing them for you!”

It was gratifying to see him looking stunned and vulnerable this time around. “Really?”

I laughed. “Yes, really. It’s something I learned tonight. A song isn’t a song until you sing it with your heart and, I was thinking, until you sing it to your heart. It sounds like sappy, romantic crap, but that’s music theory for you.” I noted his intense expression. “Does this earn me a kiss, too?” I said hopefully.

He gave me a slow, half-lidded smile that made my toes curl. “Later,” he said. “First I want you to check your purse.”

“My purse?” He nodded, and, completely miffed, I reached into my purse and rooted around until my fingers encountered something that wasn’t there before: a square-shaped box that felt velvety to the touch. My breath leaked out in a wheezy gasp. I pulled the box out—he must have slipped it in while he was holding me, the sneak—and opened it. It took him a long time to get me to stop crying again.

We resumed walking. The rain had stopped, and the air was redolent with the scent of water and grass mixed with heady amounts of exhaust fumes. A wind had come up, covering our arms with goose bumps, and my feet were beginning to ache, but I didn’t mind. The best song in the world was playing, and I could have listened forever.

After a while, I began to sing. Gani looked over at me in amusement. “We’re never going to get you to shut up again, are we?”

“Nope. Will I have to sing at my own wedding?”

“Only if you want to.”

“Oh, good!”

“Andrea.”

“Hmm?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

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