John didn’t show up at the school gates the next afternoon. Instead, he texted me to say that a huge order for Christmas pastries had come up and that he couldn’t leave the café. Marni teased me about the disappointment on my face, but I thought it was just as well, since I had to escort my sister to and from her voice lessons that day. For some reason, I didn’t want to explain to John about my family just yet. I told myself I didn’t want to saddle our fledgling friendship with the dead weight of the Andrada family’s reputation, but inside I knew the truth: I didn’t want John to see me the way my family saw me—as a huge disappointment and an object of pity.
But with the Christmas concert looming ever closer, it was soon going to be painfully obvious that there was one Andrada who was sitting on the fringes instead of taking a bow onstage.
John came around again the next afternoon though, this time bearing a bag of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. The three of us sat at a bench near the entrance munching on cookies, and after a while, Marni licked her fingers and got to her feet. “Mmm. Crisp on the outside yet chewy on the inside, sweet but not obnoxiously so. This is acceptable,” she pronounced.
“Thank you. I’m glad you think so.” John’s lips twitched as he inclined his head in a bow.
“But before I let you date my best friend, there are a few things I’d like to know.”
I choked on a lump of cookie and died, only to come back to life, blush beet-red and splutter, “Marni, nobody said anything about dating!”
Marni gave me a look that told me I’d just topped her list of Stupid Things People Say. I didn’t know what John’s response was—I was too embarrassed to look at him—but I heard him say, in a voice that sounded as if he was trying not to laugh: “I understand. Go ahead, ask away.”
She asked him the usual questions: his age (nearly nineteen), the school he graduated from (Yamamura International High School and Phoebe A. Hurst Elementary School before that), where he learned to bake (he learned here, but he’d been cooking meals for his family for years), what his favorite color, animal and food were (blue, fox, and adobo), and how long he was staying here (until the 30th, since he planned to celebrate New Year with his family).
I twisted my ponytail into a coil. Of course, I knew he would leave one day but…so soon?
Marni narrowed her eyes. “Hmm, those are too easy. Let’s try something harder.”
“Hit me with your best shot,” John drawled, still looking amused.
“Married? Baby mama? Any kids that you fathered and abandoned back in Japan?”
“Marni!” I squawked then turned to John, waving my hands frantically. “You don’t have to answer that. She’s just a cynic with a terrible opinion of guys in general.”
He burst out laughing. “It’s fine. And my answers are no, none, and absolutely none at all.”
“Just making sure,” Marni sniffed. “Moving on then. Criminal record?”
I groaned into my hands. “You’re worse than my dad, you know that?”
“It’s okay, Zoey,” John said again. “No criminal record. And I don’t smoke or do drugs either.”
“So how did you get that scar on your eyebrow?”
My eyes went wide. I couldn’t believe she went there. John’s face went tight then he seemed to relax, although he did turn to me and ask dryly, “You two aren’t sisters by any chance, are you?”
“No, her sister’s a brat,” Marni answered for me. “Well?”
I held my breath, realizing that I really wanted to know the answer to that one, too. John exhaled, looking as though he was choosing his words. “I got into a fight. A bunch of guys jumped me at the back of a building, and I fell on some broken glass.” His mouth twisted when he noticed our expressions. “You’re wondering what the fight was about? In Japan, you can get bullied for being in any way different, and I was different as hell.”
Marni and I exchanged looks, wordlessly agreeing that the interrogation was over. “Thanks, John. You pass for now. And oops, I have to go. I’ve got a Homemakers’ Club meeting. Oh, one last question,” she added, spinning on her heel. “Are you in any way musically inclined?”
I bit my lip. If he said yes, if he said he wanted to meet my family for that reason, something in me was going to die. But John only shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I can clap my hands in rhythm, but that’s about the best I can do.”
If Marni had a tail, it would’ve been twitching with satisfaction. “I like you even more now,” she purred. “A little warning, though. You’re facing an uphill battle with Zoey’s family.”
“Oh dear, I’m running late. Ciao, you two!”
“She’s not even a member of the Homemakers’ Club,” I muttered as we watched her skedaddle.
“Interesting character, your friend,” John remarked drolly.
We soon set off on our own mission. Even though he’d insisted that I be the one to choose where we went “sightseeing,” I decided to be merciful and bring him somewhere that wasn’t as weird as the last places we’d gone to. So we headed downtown to the mall—more specifically, to an art supply store, where I bought layout and watercolor paper, watercolor paints, colored pencils, and erasers. We ended up at a coffee shop, where I let him read the draft I’d written, and together we worked out the details of the book and created a story brief to serve as a guide for which text and illustration went to which page. Our computer didn’t have any graphic design software, but I knew Marni had a scanner, so I called her up and asked if I could use it for the illustrations.
“Just bring your illustrations over to my house,” she told me. “In exchange, I want you to hurry up and get John to kiss you already. Remember, he’ll only be around for two more weeks.”
“Marni!” I growled, turning away to keep John from noticing my scarlet face.
John volunteered his services as layout artist, using the software Camille’s parents used to create menus for their café. Finally, we decided to have the booklet printed and photocopied at a copy-and-print store we’d checked out earlier. I mentally listed one other task: to pray that it would rain money, because this whole thing was turning out to be more expensive than I’d thought.
Shoving the problem of money aside for now, I stared intently at John, then grinned when he raised his eyebrow questioningly. “I want to give you something,” I announced. Taking a fresh sheet of paper, a pen and my new colored pencils, I quickly drew a picture, colored it in, then scribbled a few words below it before passing the paper across the table to him.
The look on his face as he studied the cartoon kitten I’d drawn—complete with an orange tuft of fur like an explosion at the back of his head, and a scar above his right eye—was priceless. “Hey, this is cute. Wait—is this me?”
I giggled. “Yeah. His name is John Kitty.”
“You’re pretty good.” His smile softened when he read what I’d written—To John S., Thank you for everything. Don’t ever forget me, Zoey A. His gaze lifted to mine, and I gripped the edge of my chair as a wave of dizzying warmth hit me. “As if I ever would,” he murmured. “May I try?”
As I gazed on in surprise, he took another sheet of paper and my pencil then began to draw, glancing at my face every now and then. After a while, he passed the paper to me, and I found myself staring down at my portrait. “Wow. You’re pretty good yourself,” I commented.
John grimaced. “It’s terrible, it’s rough, and the proportions are all wrong. It’s been a while since I tried to draw, and obviously, I need a lot of practice.”
“You used to draw?” I looked up at him. “Do you miss it?”
He stared down at the pencil in his hand, lost in thought. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah, I do. I didn’t even know it but…it feels like…”
“Like being called home?” I said with a small smile, recalling Sister Beth’s words.
Slowly, he smiled back. “Yeah, exactly.”
He walked me all the way to my house, carrying my art supplies for me. Christmas lights twinkled at us as piano music wafted from the music studio. I opened the gate then turned to face John, feeling that strange, heart-pounding shyness I only ever felt around him.
“I have something for you, too,” he said. Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a pink pouch and handed it to me. Inside the pouch was a hair-tie with a round, white kitty face. “Two things I know about you so far,” he went on. “You wear your hair in a ponytail, and you like cats.”
I clasped the hair-tie to my chest, and smiled up at him. “This is so cute! John, thank you.”
Stepping closer to me, he threaded his fingers through my ponytail. “Next time I come to your school, can I stop pretending already that I’m there for any reason other than to see you?” he murmur said in a low voice.
“If that means you won’t be giving us free samples of your products anymore, then no,” I teased, trying to ignore how breathless I sounded.
Laughter bubbled up his throat, and to my shock, he raised my hair to his lips and kissed it. “Good night, Zoey. And get to work,” he added, still laughing.
And so I did. I locked myself in my room, and stayed up all night, working straight all the way till past morning. I finished the illustrations by mid-afternoon, then biked over to Marni’s house so we could scan my work and she could clean it up on Photoshop before emailing them to John, along with the text. Then she and I went out to celebrate over bubble tea, and I endured her badgering about my stepping up my game and getting John to kiss more than just my hair.
The next morning, I found an email from John with a sample of the first few pages of the booklet. He was taking a break from his café duties, he said, so he could finish the booklet within the day. In all my excitement at seeing the finished booklet, my sheer gratitude at Marni’s and John’s help, and my growing anxiety about my shortage of funds, I completely missed the fact that I’d been all but ignoring the preparations for the Christmas concert.
It all came crashing back the next afternoon, during the first run-through rehearsals held at the church basement. Nearly all the performers were there—Dad and the chamber orchestra he was conducting, my siblings, my cousins with their rock bands, dance troupes, a capella groups and jazz ensembles, a bunch of dancers and singers from the neighboring villages, and no less than three choirs, including my aunt’s. My aunts and uncles were there as members of the production, sound and technical crew, because when it came to expertly handling sound and music in a production, there was nobody an Andrada trusted more than another Andrada.
I was the designated page-turner for my brother and the other accompanists—tone-deaf I might be, but that didn’t mean I’d lost my ability to flip pages. I spent most of the time lurking in a corner, observing the goings-on and fussing over Jess’ dance costumes, until a furious roaring caught my attention.
Uncle Gary, the production’s overall director, was in the middle of a magnificent tirade—face mauve, spittle flying, veins standing like roadmaps on his forehead as he yelled at a hapless member of the parish office staff. I dismissed it as Uncle Gary being his usual temperamental self and turned aside, but my uncle chose that moment to storm over to me.
“You! Zoey! Where are the rehearsal schedules I asked for? Where are the assigned holding areas for the performers?” he bellowed at me. “And the VIP guest list! You’re supposed to coordinate with Mrs. Andres regarding the guest list. What are you doing standing there like an idiot? What are you, some prima donna waiting to be served?”
I reeled back, feeling as though I’d been hit by a truck. I didn’t have a clue what my uncle was raving about, and when I glanced around in terror at the people around us, I saw nothing but blank faces. Worse, my Dad, the only one who could protect me from this madman, had disappeared somewhere. “I—I don’t know anything about those, Uncle Gary,” I stammered. “I—rehearsal schedules? Guest list? I’m not the one in charge of—”
“You and your excuses,” Uncle Gary spat. “You should have taken charge. What else are you supposed to be a member of this family for? What else can you do? You’re useless as it is…”
Anger erupted from my gut, tasting bitter on my tongue. “I’m not the one in charge, okay? And I’m not useless!” I yelled back before I could stop myself. Then I threw down the scores and costumes I was holding and ran right out of there in a fit as grand as any prima donna ever threw.
I ended up running all the way home and locking myself in my room. A few hours later, Mom came to my room to tell me that Uncle Gary had complained about me until Dad spoke to him, and they sorted everything out. That’s great, I replied, but I’m still not going back there.
“Zoey, you have to,” Mom insisted. “This concert is a family effort, and we all must do our parts.”
“I don’t have a part. And to be honest, I don’t want any part of it anymore. I’ve got something else I want to do.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this from you.” The bewilderment in my mom’s voice rang loud and clear. “You always used to be so proud of your Lolo Teo’s legacy, even more than your siblings. What happened to you? What changed you so much that you’d give up music altogether?”
“Mom, I have no future in music. I’m tone-deaf, remember?” I said as patiently as I could. “What changed is that I’ve finally taken a hint, and now I’m trying something new.”
“Zoey, tone-deafness can be corrected with proper training.”
“More training? More practice?” I exclaimed, throwing my hands up. “Mom, I’ve been training ever since I could walk, and guess what? It didn’t work! You keep telling me to practice more and work harder—what more do you want from me?”
Sighing, my mother drew me close and began to stroke my hair. “Oh, anak, you know very well that all we want is to be proud of you. And for you to be proud of yourself.”
I pulled back and stared at her. “But why can’t you be proud of me now?” I asked in a tiny voice.
Mom tsked. “Because you have to earn it. This world doesn’t reward people just for showing up.”
So nothing I can do, nothing I’ve ever done up until now—none of that has ever been worth anything to you? The words clogged my throat, and I found myself backing away from her. “I have to go,” I managed to croak, before dashing downstairs to grab my bike and burn all the asphalt I needed until my heart stopped breaking.