The rehearsal was held at the wedding venue itself: the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Tagaytay City. I learned years later that booking the church for a one-and-a-half-hour long wedding ceremony took months, it was that popular. The fact that the wedding party had managed to book the church for both the ceremony the next day and the hour-long rehearsal that day must have involved more string-pulling than an amateur rondalla. It really should have impressed me more, but back then, the only thing that impressed me was how the time I spent in that church watching a bunch of grownups march up and down the aisle felt so much longer than an hour.
My sister and I couldn’t even sit with Nanay, because she had to sit way out in front with the other principal sponsors. The other kids, who were actually related to either the bride or the groom, sat with their relations. Ate Grace and I stayed in the back of the church, and agreed that so far Faith, who’d stayed behind at home with Tatay, had gotten the better end of the deal. Then when the boredom had become unbearable, we invented a game of tag where we chased each other by sliding along the pews on our butts. It was a good thing the church was kept spotless, or else we would have had the blackest behinds in the entire church that day.
At first, neither Christian nor Nikki were around. Christian was the ring-bearer and Nikki was one of the flower-girls, so both were stuck marching up and down the aisle along with the rest of the entourage. Then, as I was propelling myself sideways in pursuit of my sister, Christian jumped onto the pew and landed on his knees beside me, and it was all I could do not to crash into his side.
“Hey, what’re you guys doing?” he asked brightly.
I glanced over at Ate to signal for help, but she merely smirked and scuttled further away. “Playing tag,” I said when it became clear that I was stuck with him. Then my gaze was drawn to some gray streaks of dust on the hem and one sleeve of his sky-blue shirt. How did he manage to get dirty marching up and down the aisle while carrying a pillow?
“Cool! Can I play, too? What’re the rules?”
I looked around again, but my sister had already made it safely across the aisle. So I gave him a rundown of the rules, and soon we were skootching along the pews like a life-sized foosball, with the other kids joining in a short while later. Nikki, too, wanted to join, but turned up her nose when she learned I was the one who’d thought up the game, and laughed nastily when the grownups told us to quit it. It didn’t stop her from trying to catch Christian whenever he whizzed by, though, despite the fact that he’d managed to wrinkle his shirt and scuff up the legs of his khaki pants by then.
After the rehearsal, the wedding party split into two groups, the bride’s side and the groom’s side. It split up further between the grownups and the kids, and it was decreed that while the grownups went off to some fancy restaurant or club or whatever, the kids would stay at Christian’s house and swim in the pool and order in pizza. Judging from the jubilant yelling, this arrangement suited all parties concerned just fine.-
As the kids swarmed through the mansion shucking off clothes, tossing on swimwear and fighting over what pizza to order, my sister and I made our way to the guest house. I noticed her gazing hungrily at the pool, now ablaze with floodlights and slowly filling with water with tendrils of steam curling upon its surface, and felt my heart sink. “Ate Grace, you’re going to go swimming?”
“Tita Cathy said we could. That’s why she told Nanaywe should bring our bathing suits.” She dug through the contents of our travel bag until she unearthed her yellow bathing suit. “See? I’ve got mine. What about yours?”
“Um, I don’t think I packed it,” I hedged.
“No, it’s right here. We can both go.” She tossed a wad of green cloth on the bed.
I looked out the window toward the pool, which was now filled with screaming kids with their nannies standing guard. To be honest, I wanted to swim, too. Being half-fish was something my sisters and I had in common, a result of spending summer vacations at Tatay‘s hometown along the coast, which was blessed with a gorgeous stretch of beach. Since I’d laid eyes on that empty pool, I’d been so excited that I swore I could already feel the water splashing over me, encasing my body in welcoming buoyancy—
Nikki was there, too. As were the boys who’d heard her scream that word in my face. How many of them thought the same way? Forget it. I turned away from the window and flung myself upon the emperor-sized bed the three of us would share. “I don’t want to go swimming,” I announced. “I’ll just stay here and watch TV.”
My sister halted half-way into her bathing suit. “What? Did you just say you’d rather watch TV than swim?” she demanded incredulously.
“I don’t want to swim,” I insisted.
“But you’ve been bugging Nanay all morning asking when we’d get to swim.”
“Well, I changed my mind. Besides, it’s cold outside.”
“It’s a hot spring, dumdum,” she said, rolling her eyes. “They’ve got their own, private hot spring resort. Boy, these people are rich,” she added underneath her breath.
“I don’t care. I’m not swimming,” I muttered.
“The pizza’s over by the pool. You’ll get hungry if you stay here.”
“So I’ll have pizza, but I still won’t swim.”
“You’re crazy, Joy. I thought you loved to swim.”
“I don’t want to swim!” I sat up to glare at her, angrily kicking my bathing suit away. Then tears flooded my eyes and poured down my face, and before I knew it I was bawling my heart out, tears and snot flowing abundantly.Ate Grace stared at me in consternation, hands raised as if to ward off the noise I was making. “Yeeesh, you crybaby,” she muttered, at a loss as to how to deal with my inexplicable breakdown.
“You’re not going swimming?”
Through my tears, I saw a figure step through the door, dressed only in a pair of wet trunks. I cried harder, dismay at having Christian see me while I was doing my best impression of a busted fire hydrant adding to my misery. Curling up into a ball and sobbing into my arms, I could just about hear my sister explain that I was having one of my fits but I would calm down soon enough, and it was best to leave me alone for a while and there was totally no need for them to wait for me to return to my senses, especially when she’d been dying to swim all day.
Then I heard the door close and footsteps patter away, and sobbed some more at the disloyalty of sisters and the realization that I was now all alone in this strange house, with no one to care if I was okay or not. That train of thought was interrupted when I suddenly felt the bed dip. I raised my head to find Christian sitting cross-legged on the bed, holding out my towel. I accepted it gratefully and used a corner of it to scrub my face and blow my nose. He waited until my sobs had subsided into erratic hiccups before asking, “Why’re you crying?”
I looked away. “I don’t want to swim.”
“Are you scared?”
“You don’t know how to swim?”
“No, it’s not that.” I frowned, insulted that he would even suggest that. “I swim like a mermaid,” I informed him haughtily.
He grinned and tugged at the hair at the back of his head. “Heh, I’d like to see that. Come on and show me how a mermaid swims.”
I eyed him suspiciously, then huddled back into a ball and buried my face in my arms again. “I don’t want to swim,” I repeated, my words coming out muffled.
“—I just don’t want to.”
He sighed. “You’re quiet, but you sure can be stubborn.” I said nothing, and when the bed shifted with his movements, I was certain he’d grown tired of trying to convince me and had gone off. But the bed bounced again, and when I lifted my head, I found him lying on his back at my feet with his head pillowed on his arms. “If you’re not going to swim, then I won’t either,” he said by way of explanation.
“Why?” I asked, honestly confused. “It’s your pool. You can swim if you want to. You’ve already been swimming, in fact.”
His grin flashed again. “And it’s my house, so I can stay here if I want to. I’m not letting my bride cry all by herself.”
I looked away again, an odd heat rising from my neck to my face. This boy was so weird. “You’re making the bed all wet. And your feet are muddy,” I told him.
“Oops, sorry.” Abruptly, he jack-knifed out of the bed, his grin turning eager. “Hey, you wanna come see my secret tower?”
“Yeah! It’s really cool.” He grabbed my hand to pull me off the bed, but I dug in my heels and pulled back.
“Wait!” I picked up my towel and proceeded to dry him with the parts that weren’t damp with snot. “You’ll catch cold if you stay out all wet like this,” I said as I briskly rubbed his hair then his arms and torso, imagining that he was Faith even though he was about an inch or two taller than me. I pulled my sweatshirt out from our travel bag and put it on him as further protection against the chilly night air. The head that popped out of the neck hole though wasn’t my little sister’s but Christian’s, and he had a funny expression on his face. “What?” I wondered.
He gave me a crooked smile. “You’re really nice, aren’t you?” Before I could react, he began backing out the door. “I’ve got an idea. Wait for me outside, ‘kay? And bring your towel.”
He ran off toward the others, unconcerned that he was now wearing an oversized pink sweatshirt with cute bunnies on the front, only to come back with a couple of Coke cans and several pizza slices. He proceeded to tie the food up into a bundle using my towel, while I cringed at the thought of smelling like pizza for the rest of our stay. Then he led me to the back of the guest house, where a water tank on a steel tower stood. The tank itself was surrounded by a kind of walkway with a metal fence, and I could see that it was just the right size to accommodate a couple of eight-year-olds. The tower was twice as tall as the one-story guest house, and as my gaze followed the narrow ladder all the way up to the walkway, it seemed impossibly higher and, by the milky light of the moon, impossibly flimsy. Undaunted, Christian began to shimmy up the ladder like a monkey, our bundle of food slung across his back. He paused mid-way to wave at me encouragingly and urge me along.
So I climbed, not daring to look down, terrified that the thin, metal bars underneath us would snap and send us tumbling to our deaths yet thrilled at finding myself in my own little adventure. When I got to the top, with Christian shuffling sideways to make room for me on that tiny crow’s nest, I found that the view was totally worth it. “Wow,” I breathed, drinking in the sight of the dark slopes of Tagaytay Ridge covered with a blanket of lights, with more lights flickering upon the rippling surface of the lake named after the tiny volcano island in its center—a view reflected in the deep blue, cloud-laced, star-strewn sky.
Christian beamed. “It’s great, huh?”
“Yeah.” I smiled back, thinking that, despite his weirdness and inconvenient taste in jokes, he was actually kind of cool.
We sat down on the walkway with our backs to the tank and our feet dangling in the air between the metal bars of the fence, munched on pizza and Coke, and talked and talked. About The Addams Family and how my favorite character was Wednesday while he thought Gomez was awesome. About me watching this old movie about killer rats that had given me nightmares for weeks, and what he would do if he found himself battling a horde of killer rats. About how cool it would be if we spotted a UFO streaking through the sky right that moment, and whether or not the aliens would be friendly, and how next time we’d bring a flashlight so we could beam messages up to the aliens.
When not discussing about whether or not aliens knew Morse Code, we talked about other stuff, such as what Ate Grace and I were doing messing around in the bosom of his family when we were neither related to the bride nor the groom. All he knew was that our mothers had been friends since high school, so I told him the story Nanay told my sisters and me: The bride, Tita Joanne, was Tita Cathy’s younger sister, and she would sometimes hang out with the two older girls, so she became friends with Nanay as well. Then in college, Nanay became friends with Tito Ericson, Tita Joanne’s future groom. She not only introduced the two to each other, she and Tita Cathy helped get them together in the face of Tito Ericson’s chronic shyness and Tita Joanne’s vow to forswear all men after a nasty breakup with another guy.
In short, if it hadn’t been for Nanay, there wouldn’t even be a wedding. That was why she’d been given a place of honor among the principal sponsors despite her being much younger than the other matronly ninangs. What I felt didn’t need mentioning were all the other ways we were so different from the rest of the wedding party. Surrounded by Christian’s high-class, ultra-rich, jet-setting family friends and relations, the three of us stuck out like sore thumbs—plebeian, common, extremely lower-middleclass thumbs dressed in hand-me-down jeans and tiangge-bought blouses instead of Valentino and Dior. Ever since the enormous SUV that Tita Cathy had sent for us squeezed itself into our tiny alley like a non-vegetable-based fairytale carriage, and deposited us in this virtual palace set atop a hill in the country’s second summer capital, those differences had only become starker and starker to me. Forget how the soon-to-be-newlyweds overcame obstacles to true love with my mom’s and Tita Cathy’s help; the real miracle was how Nanay and Tita Cathy became best friends at all.
“Heh, I didn’t know my mom and your mom did that,” Christian remarked.
Smiling, I drew my knees up and hugged them. “You better believe it. Ate Grace and I, we sort of think Nanay and your mom became best friends because they both liked getting couples together and all that romantic stuff.”
Shivering as the cold air seeped into the cloth of my long-sleeved blouse, I tucked my arms between my body and my knees to keep them warm. Christian glanced over at me, then scooted closer, raised the hem of my sweatshirt and swept it over my head, tugging downward until my head emerged from the neck hole. The garment, horribly stretched as it was, somehow managed to accommodate us both. I spared a moment to mourn the ruination of my sweatshirt, but I couldn’t help but sigh as the delicious warmth chased the chill away. When I wriggled closer in search of more spots of warmth, he wrapped his sweater-clad arms around me and shifted until most of my back was pressed against his front and our heads were bumping against each other’s.
He gave the large pink lump we’d become a satisfied once-over. “There. Now we’re both warm. My trunks were freezing my butt off,” he added sheepishly.
I giggled but it ended in a wheeze when he hugged me hard enough to empty my lungs. “Wha—what was that for?” I gasped.
“Nothing, I just wanted to do it,” he said, laughing. “You’re so soft and fluffy, Joy. Good thing your sweatshirt’s big enough for two.”
My face burned as the memory of my dumpy image in the mirror flickered in my mind. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled, going stiff in his arms. How embarrassing. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that I was crushing him beneath my weight. No, it hadn’t occurred to me until then that anything about me could be bothersome to anyone.
I tried to slip out of the sweatshirt and move away, mortified and ashamed, but he only tightened his arms around me again. “Nah-uh, I won’t let you get away. You’re my pillow now,” he chortled, completely oblivious to my emotional turmoil. He then proceeded to squeeze the stuffing out of me, cackling all the while, until I feared for the state of my bones. His attempt to smother me with affection made me melt, and soon I was laughing as well and trying to retaliate as best I could. We were both panting by the time his cuddle-attack ended, and I discovered I’d somehow twisted around so that my own arms were twined around him underneath the sweatshirt. It felt so comfortable that I decided they could stay that way a while longer.
Then a thought wormed its way in: Did he mind? Was I too heavy for him? But when I peered uncertainly into his face, he just gave me a lopsided grin. “Heh, that was fun. You’re the bestest thing in the world to hug. I know! From now on, anytime I feel bad I’m going to find you and hug you until I feel all better again. You’ll be my own personal turtle!”
“Yeah. ‘Cuz you kind of remind me of a turtle. So cute and cuddly,” he said, his smile so blinding any aliens wandering around in the vicinity would have crashed into the volcano-island by now.
Turtles are cuddly? I puzzled over that for a while, then gave up and simply chalked it up to his weirdness. “You—you don’t think I’m fat?” I asked timidly.
He tilted his head in surprise. “Fat? Well, you’re not skinny, that’s for sure. But I don’t care.” He gave me another hug, burying his face in my hair. “You’re great just the way you are, Joy, so you better just stay that way, you got it?”
He’s weird but he’s definitely cool—when he’s not telling me I’m his bride, that is, I thought, happily returning his hug. Up there on his tower, I felt as if we’d climbed into another world. Just the two of us here among the clouds. The spray of stars in the sky, the spray of lights upon the earth and the lake, the silver moon hovering above, the cool, fragrant air…Christian’s warmth, the smell of his skin and hair, the beating of his heart…Everything seemed so magical and peaceful and perfect. I opened my mouth to tell him so but found myself yawning instead. “Christian?” I said sleepily.
He sneezed then wiped his nose on the sleeve of my sweatshirt. “Yeah?”
“You think they might be looking for us?”
I felt him shrug. “I don’t know. Why?”
“‘Cuz I can hear voices—”
As if I’d summoned it, Nanay‘s voice drifted toward us. “Joy? Christian? Where could those kids have gone to?”
Then Tita Cathy’s voice: “This way, Dita. I think I know where they are.”
A minute later, our hiding place was illuminated by a beam of light from the flashlight Christian’s mom was holding aloft. I squinted past the light to see several people milling at the base of the tower, including my sister and several members of the household-help. Our mothers’ thunderous expressions that made me gulp and cower against Christian, but there was no helping it: we were well and truly caught. Going by his muttered “uh-oh,” he knew it, too.
“Christian Dominic! You come down here this instant! You too, Joy!” his mother bellowed.
Even before we’d reached the ground, Tita Cathy was already well into her “how many times have I told you not to climb that tower, now you’ve even dragged Joy up there with you, what if one or both of you had fallen, what if you catch cold, how on earth are you going to be ring-bearer tomorrow if you’re sick” lecture. Even Nanay, who did not look pleased with me as she retrieved my towel, which had fallen off the walkway during our hug-battle, raised her eyebrows as Tita Cathy ripped into her son. He did attempt to charm her with a dose of wide, contrite chocolate eyes but ruined it when he sneezed again, sending her into a renewed flurry over the state of his health. It was kind of heartening to see that there were times when his charm didn’t work. She hustled him back to the house, escorted by housemaids and nannies, vowing to return my sweatshirt to me as soon as possible. I waved at him but he didn’t have a chance to wave back before he vanished amidst a small crowd of people.
Back in the guest house, Nanay gave me an earful about taking stupid risks and the importance of telling a grownup or my sister before engaging in an aforementioned stupid risk. As we were settling for bed, Ate Grace nudged me and whispered, “You know, if I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed you actually went up that tower. Remember when I had to fetch you down from the top of the school’s jungle gym because you were too scared to come down by yourself? You cried like a baby back then, and now you’re scaling water towers like it was nothing.”
I gave her a prim look. “I was a kid, Ate.”
“You were six.”
“Six is a kid.”
“That was just last year.”
“How was swimming?”
She smirked at my transparent attempt to change the subject. “Great, but not as great as zipping up and down water towers. No, really, I want to know: Why weren’t you scared this time?”
Because Christian was with me. It was frankly astonishing, more so because it was true. It seemed that besides being able to charm people into doing what he wanted, Christian also had the power to make bad things seem better. I’d been crying and miserable before he came, but he’d managed to comfort me and make me laugh and even make me feel good about myself. And he’d given me a magical adventure to remember. He was weird and pushy and noisy and vain and spoiled—not to mention I’d only met him that morning. But he was also kind and cheerful and friendly and loads of fun and undeniably cool—and he was, to my utter amazement, my friend.
I didn’t dare say any of that out loud for fear of being teased again. Unfortunately, my sister had the ability to read my mind. “Oh right, your husband was with you,” she purred, her mouth curling into a smirk of pure evil. “So, was that supposed to have been your honeymoon or what?”
“Shut up,” I hissed, only to be shushed by Nanay in turn. I liked Christian. I really, really did. But I still wished I could go back in time so I could kick him in the shin before he could make his stupid marriage joke. Even at the tender age of just-turned-eight, I already had an inkling that this bride-of-Christian thing was going to haunt me for a long time to come.