The fairy tale began with the rumbling of a black SUV cutting through the quiet of the early morn. It was therefore appropriate that it would end the same way. It was 8:20 in the morning, and our bags had already been loaded onto the SUV, which idled in the driveway waiting for us to finish saying goodbye. Only Tita Cathy and her husband, Tito Warren, along with a few of the maids, were there to see us go. The newlyweds were of course well on their way to their honeymoon in Paris, and everybody else was still comatose after all that dancing and partying that went on until nearly 12.
Christian, too, was still asleep. His fever returned shortly after our “wedding”, and he was brought home immediately, dosed with more medications, and sent straight to bed. Poor guy, I thought, looking up at one of the glass doors on the third floor that opened up onto a balcony overlooking the driveway. He’d tried so hard to fight off his sickness and act as if he was perfectly okay just so he could keep his promise to his aunt to be the ring-bearer at her wedding. It was a totally dumb but totally sweet thing to do, and I thought it was just like Christian to blithely assume that he could charm a cold virus as easily as he could a human female of any age.
My hand crept into my jeans’ pocket and closed around my silver ring. There was a tickling in my throat and a tightness in my chest that made me feel as if I was about to cry. But the ring reminded me of my promise to him—I won’t cry in front of anyone unless it’s Christian—and I managed to hold the tears at bay. I wished with all my heart that I could see him one last time so I could say goodbye and thank him for making a dream I never even knew I had come true. Still, I was glad to know he was safe and resting in bed so he could get better soon. And I took heart in the thought that he had his own ring, mate to the one in my hand, to remind him of me and my promise to him.
Please don’t forget me, I prayed. Even if we never see each other again, please don’t ever forget me. Because I won’t ever forget you for as long as I live.
Tita Cathy knelt in front of me, catching me unawares, and laid her hands on my shoulders while Tito Warren stood behind her. The smile she was giving me was bright and filled with impish humor, so unlike Nanay‘s placid, gently amused expression, and I had an idea from whom Christian may have inherited his charm and forthrightness. I regarded her warily though, recalling what Nikki had said about Tita Cathy giving the yayas instructions to keep me away from Christian. And of course, there was the minor detail of me directly causing her son to get sick.
Nanay‘s meaningful stare and Ate Grace’s none-too-gentle poke in the back served to remind me of my manners, and I stiffly took one of Tita Cathy’s hands and pressed the back of it to my forehead in a traditional gesture of respect. “Thank you very much for letting us stay in your guest house, Tita Cathy and Tito Warren.” I recited the rehearsed words somewhat mechanically, then on impulse, added quickly, “And I’m sorry for climbing that tower and making Christian get sick. It was my fault. I didn’t want to swim with the others and he was just being nice when he thought to keep me company so—so please don’t be mad at him anymore. And…he gave me this ring…”
Feeling completely mortified and miserable, I took my silver ring out of my pocket and with great reluctance gave it back to Tita Cathy. When I’d showed the ring to Ate Grace last night, she warned me that it was probably made from real silver, which meant I could inadvertently carry off something of real value. So now I had to endure an excruciating moment while Tita Cathy inspected the ring that Christian gave me—the ring that meant so much to me—all the while waiting for her to cry, “Wait a minute, this is mine!” and take it away.
Instead, she looked up at Nanay and seemed to carry on a brief, unspoken conversation with her. “What a lovely girl you are,” Tita Cathy said, addressing me once again. “Yes, I know this ring. It’s part of a matched set that had been given to me as a wedding present, and yes, it’s sterling silver. And I know that Christian really wanted to give this to you because he told me so. My son forced himself to go on even though he was sick just so he could properly present these rings to you.”
“Well, he may have had a little help,” Nanay interjected serenely.
Tita Cathy laughed. “A little help, yes. But to tell you the truth, I’ve never seen him look so serious about anything. He put a lot of himself into that ring, Joy, and that’s why it belongs to you now.”
She placed the ring upon my palm and wrapped my fingers around it. Impulsively, I threw my arms around her neck in a hug. “Thank you, Tita Cathy,” I whispered.
She hugged me back, then said in a voice only I could hear: “Grow up to be a strong woman, Joy, the kind of woman who can take care of my son. He’s a handful, but if it’s you then I know he’ll be fine. God knows he’ll probably be the death of me,” she muttered loud enough for Tito Warren to hear, making him chuckle.
With that, we piled into the SUV but just before we drove off, a familiar voice shouted my name. And it was coming from third-floor balcony.
I fumbled with the switch, stuck my entire upper half out of the window, and waved madly at Christian, who was waving back from the balcony, still dressed in his pajamas. From the glass doors behind him came the sound of Nikki’s furious shrieking. It was the sweetest wedding recessional music I’d ever heard.
“Bye, Joy!” Christian yelled.
“Bye, Christian! Thanks for everything and get back inside!” I hollered back, coughing a little myself from the strain on my voice. The last thing I heard, as we turned out the driveway, was Tita Cathy screeching: “Christian Dominic!”
“Oh, how romantic.” Ate Grace pressed her hand over her heart and pretended to swoon, then laughed and twisted away when I reached over to poke her in the side. “I can’t believe it. My little sister won the heart of the prince,” she went on, still smiling. “But you know what the best thing for me is? Seeing Nikki’s face go all red and puffy from screaming so much.”
Our eyes met and we promptly dissolved into giggles. We spent the next few minutes sharing our fondest memories of Princess Starlight, whose screaming fit had caused such a ruckus during the reception that her embarrassed mother had been forced to take her away until she’d calmed down.
“Oh, by the way, Joy, can I see that ring again?”
Reaching into my pocket, I took out the ring and passed it over to my sister, who proceeded to examine it carefully then put it on. It hung loosely on her finger as well. “What kind of ring is this?” she complained. “It’s too big. It’ll only end up falling off of your hand and getting lost if you try to wear it. Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t this a—a thingie—”
“It’s a napkin ring,” Nanay spoke up.
Ate Grace burst out laughing again. “Oh man. Joy, your boyfriend just gave you a napkin ring. You should have at least asked for a napkin to go with it.”
Finding nothing funny about her joke this time, I snatched the ring from her and stuffed it back into my pocket. “I knew it was a napkin ring all along,” I said haughtily, even though I did’t. “And I don’t care if it’s a napkin ring or a—an elephant’s nose ring or whatever. It’s—this ring is—”
“It’s a very, very special ring, no matter what kind of ring it is,” Nanay said, smiling at me. “It’s because of who gave it and why. For Joy, that ring holds a very special meaning, and nobody—including you, Grace—can take that away from her.”
I gazed at my mother’s face, at the knowing light in her eyes, and realized that she understood how I felt. She understood that I knew. Like a secret that had been revealed to me but not to my sister, I knew, at the tender age of just-turned-eight, that a girl never forgot her first kiss nor her first love. They stayed in her heart forever, like precious jewels in a chain of memories.
The rest of the ride back was a bittersweet experience. On one hand, it meant my fantasy was well and truly over, and now it was time to return to our mundane, ordinary world. A world where handsome princes who lived in fairy tale palaces did not exist, and if they did they certainly did not fall in love with and propose marriage to plump, shy, ugly ducklings like me. I would probably never see Christian again; or maybe it would be years and years before we saw each other again, and by that time, he would have long since forgotten me. Nanay told me that Christian and his family lived most of the time in the US and rarely came back home to the Philippines. And even if they were home, it was plain and simple fact that Christian and I lived in two very different worlds. He was an eagle soaring above the mountains, and I was a catfish in a mud-pond. Never the twain shall meet.
On the other hand, I had a treasure trove of wonderful memories of Christian and of the entire wedding. I spent the rest of the ride home pretending to sleep, reliving every moment I shared with Christian, and daring to wonder if he’d been about to say what I thought he was about to say when my sister and his cousins had interrupted.
The moment we arrived home felt like waking up from a dream. We were met by Faith, who jumped up and down and demanded souvenirs, followed by our black and white mutt Pocholo, who demanded belly rubs instead of souvenirs. Tatay emerged from the kitchen where he’d been making lunch, surrounded by our half-dozen cats whom Tatay claimed to hate but kept adopting anyway. He took our bags and suitcases inside, then hugged the three of us in turn. With my new eyes I watched him hold Nanay a bit longer, saw his face soften ever so slightly as she gave him a quick run-down of the wedding and asked him how the sportsfest at Faith’s school had gone. So that’s how love looks, I thought. It’s a light in the eyes. But you have to really look to see it.
And in a secret part of me: This is how Christian looked at me when he asked me to marry him.
Vestiges of the dream seemed to cling to me for the rest of the day. I was immersed in a kind of daze as I moved around our tiny house with its battered, second-hand furniture and plywood walls covered with various works of art by my sisters and me. I unpacked my stuff in the tiny, messy room my sisters and I shared. I ate lunch and answered Faith’s and Tatay‘s questions about the wedding. I went to Sunday Mass with my family. I did my chores and fed Pocholo and the cats. I even played a little with some of the neighborhood kids. I did all that while sunk in a kind of misty fog tinged with sadness. Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the guest house, the tree-house, the church and the fairy garden and the golden cabana again. I saw Christian again, and after a while, all I truly had the energy to do was go to sleep and be with him, even if it was just in my head.
Probably to no one’s surprise, I came down with a fever that night and spent the next day at home coughing my lungs out and feeling as if Death had stomped all over me. Nanay stayed home to take care of me while Tatay, who worked from mid-morning to late evening as chief mechanic at a car repair shop, brought Ate Grace and Faith to school. I felt guilty about that, because Nanay would now have to work overtime for the rest of the month to make up for having missed two full days of work. But aside from that and the general rottenness that came with a cold, I actually sort of welcomed getting sick. It was another thing I’d gotten to share with Christian—or rather, it was something he’d shared with me—and it gave me a renewed appreciation of what he’d endured just so he could give me a wedding-promise ring.
I felt better the next day, although I still had to stay home. Our neighbor, Aling Delia, took care of me until Ate Grace and Faith came home. While Ate Grace cooked dinner, I sat at the dining table and did three days’ worth of homework while Faith munched on a small heap of fancy candies in a beribboned bag and chattered about school. We’d each gotten a bag of candies and an exquisite brass bell tied with peach and green ribbons as wedding souvenirs. Ate Grace had eaten the candies on the ride home and tossed the bell somewhere in her drawer, while Nanay had given hers to Faith. I kept mine in a tin box with a lock that I tucked between my mattress and the wall—even the bag of candies, which I’d wrapped in a plastic bag so the ants wouldn’t get them. The only other object inside that box was a velvet bag that contained my silver ring.
When I finally got to school, I was greeted by the excited cries of my best friends Renee and Mia, who dragged me over to a corner and demanded I tell them all about this wedding that had apparently lasted four whole days instead of just one. I explained about getting sick, then spent the entirety of recess telling them about the fairy tale wedding. They oohed and aahed when I described the roses, the choir, the bride’s wedding gown, the impressive guest list, and the garden reception. They went comically slack-jawed when I told them about the guest house, the backyard with a tree-house and a hot spring, and the immense house with the innumerable rooms. The only thing I didn’t tell them about was Christian. Talking about him would have reminded me of how much I missed him; it hurt just to think about it. Besides, there was also the chance that Mia and Renee wouldn’t believe me, and I didn’t think I could bear hearing my best friends tell me that the boy I’d fallen in love with, the one I’d promised to marry, couldn’t possibly be real.
Time went by and life returned to normal. With each passing day, my memories of the wedding seemed less and less real, more like a wonderful movie I once watched than something I’d actually experienced. I still saw Christian every time I closed my eyes. The image of him had become my constant companion, an invisible friend who went to school with me, who listened as I chatted with my friends, who soldiered through schoolwork with me, who kissed me good night as I drifted off to sleep. But the constant, desperate longing to see him soon faded into a dull ache inside my chest that came and went as my mind filled up with thoughts of school, home and friends.
And if I sometimes cried and wished I could see Christian again and prayed that he still remembered me—well, there was only Pocholo to know.
Then on the evening of Saturday, exactly one week after the wedding, Aling Delia came over to our house in the middle of dinner to inform Nanay that she had a phone call. We didn’t have a phone of our own back then, mainly because we couldn’t afford it. We didn’t think much of the phone call until Nanay returned, with her usually calm face wreathed in smiles. Ignoring our curious questions, she sat down at the table, then asked Tatay if he was free tomorrow.
“No, the new guy is coming in and I have to show him the ropes. But I can see you already have something in mind,” Tatay replied with a smile.
“Yeah, Nanay, what’s going on?” Ate Grace asked.
“We don’t have to go to church?” Faith piped up.
“Nice try, Faith, but we’re still going to church,” Nanay said while my little sister looked crestfallen. “But if you three girls behave during Mass tomorrow—and I’m looking at you, Faith—then I promise you something that you three will definitely enjoy.”
Ate Grace made a face. “Aww, ‘Nay, enough with the build-up and just tell us already.”
“Yeah, tell! Tell!” Faith cried, then added, because she was just naturally optimistic, “No church! No church!”
I frowned at her. “Come on, when have we ever not gone to church on a Sunday?”
Faith gave it some thought, then said hopefully, “Tomorrow?”
“Oh, stop trying to be cute, Faith,” Ate Grace said, rolling her eyes.
Faith glared back, and to forestall an oncoming quarrel I turned our mother and asked, “Are we going somewhere tomorrow? Um, I mean after church?”
After letting out a long-suffering sigh at the sight of her eldest and youngest daughters squaring off yet again, Nanay answered, “Yes, Joy. We’re going swimming tomorrow.”
She and Tatay both leaned back as the three of us erupted in shrieks of delight. “Yes! Yes! Whooo-hooo!” Ate Grace crowed, throwing her arms up in the air and startling a couple of cats, while Faith chanted, “We’re going swim-ming! We’re going swim-ming!”
“Where’re we going to swim?” I asked, squirming with excitement.
Nanay and Tatay shared a look, then she smiled at me. “At Christian’s house. Cathy just called. It seems Christian’s inviting the three of you over to go swimming. She’s sending their SUV to pick us up here at 10:30 after Mass.”
I’d gone absolutely still at the mention of Christian’s name, afraid to move in case I went off like a firecracker powered by pure happiness. Ate Grace had no such compunctions as she shrieked again and reached across the table to grab me by the shoulders and shake me to and fro. “Oh my gosh, Joy! Isn’t this great? He invited us! He wants to see you again!”
I looked confusedly at our mother. “Wait, so we’re going all the way back to Tagaytay?”
She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, no. The house in Tagaytay is just one of their summer vacation houses. Christian and his family live in Dasmariñas Village in Makati,” she added, naming one of the most exclusive communities in Metro Manila.
“Yeeesh, those people are rich,” Ate Grace muttered, speaking for the both of us.
“Who’s Christian, Ate Joy?” Faith wanted to know.
Again, my older sister answered for me. “He’s her boyfriend. Duh.”
“He is not!” I protested, blushing hotly while Tatay swelled up until he looked like a gigantic eggplant. “Boyfriend?” he bellowed in mock-outrage. “My baby girl has a boyfriend? Maybe I should come along after all. Who is this boy and what are his intentions toward my daughter?”
“Tataaaay!” I whined.
Later that night, Nanay came to check on us before she went to bed, but instead of turning the light off and leaving, she sat on the edge of the lower bunk Faith and I shared. Faith was already fast asleep, and Ate Grace, who slept in the upper bunk, was quiet as well. But I was too keyed up to sleep, torn between my excitement at seeing Christian again and my fear of having to don a bathing suit and reveal my fat, dark self in all my unappetizing glory. What would Christian think if he saw me? And what if his cousins were there, Nikki especially? Or what if he’d invited some other friends along, friends who’d secretly think of me the same way Nikki did? Or worse, what if he’d changed his mind about me? We’d only known each other for three days, and for half that time he’d been feverish and pumped full of drugs. Maybe sometime in the past week he’d come to his senses and was regretting everything now, including asking me to marry him. Maybe he was planning to tell me all this at his house tomorrow. What on earth would I do then?
I was a quivering ball of nerves when Nanay came and sat beside me. When she asked me why I wasn’t asleep yet, I looked up at her with tear-filled eyes and asked the one question that scared me the most: “What if everything’s different now?”
Instead of telling me that nothing would be different, that Christian would still like me and want to be my friend—the very words I desperately wanted to hear—Nanay just sighed and said, “Things will always be different, because people will always change. Like you have, Joy. You’re not the same person you were a week ago. But do you know what you can do?”
“What you can do is be who you are and do your best to reach your dreams with your own strength. That’s how you meet him tomorrow: as Joy being herself and doing her best to make her dreams come true.”
As me being myself and doing my best to make my dreams come true. I let her words wrap around me, as comforting and powerful as music. “Okay,” I said. “I love you, Nanay.”
She leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. “I love you, too. Now get some sleep.” She went to the door, then stopped again and turned to look at me. “By the way,” she said, smiling gently, “Christian wanted to me to tell you something. He said to tell you that he misses his turtle. And that he wants to see how a mermaid swims.”
I blinked at that, then smiled, then laughed softly as something in my heart began to grow and blossom. “Okay. I’ll show him tomorrow.”
Then I closed my eyes and let myself dream again.
READ PART 2: THE WEDDING VOWS, CHAPTER 1.