The year I turned ten, I woke up one morning and thought about changing my life.
I lay still on the mattress in the lower bunk that I shared with my little sister, staring at the tiny, curling dust motes floating through the sunbeams, and felt the thought send tremors throughout my entire body. Then I heard my older sister stir on the upper bunk, getting ready to wake up. I became aware of the smell of frying bananas and garlic rice drifting in through the window. Outside, I could hear Tatay’s voice calling for our dog, Pocholo, and our next-door neighbor, Aling Delia, once again scolding her husband and teenaged sons for carousing until the wee hours of the morning and chasing girls of dubious morals. Surrounded by the familiar sounds of reality, I closed my eyes and let the thought fade away.
It didn’t return again until a few months later. I’d locked myself inside one of the cubicles in the girls’ bathroom, changing out of my PE uniform into my school uniform as quickly as I could. It had become my habit to change alone in the girls’ bathroom, since the few times I’d changed with my female classmates in our classroom, I’d gotten a heap of well-meaning remarks about how I needed to go on a diet and slather on skin-whitening lotion; how I must have been adopted considering how svelte, golden-skinned and pretty my sisters were; and how the other girls with problem features considered themselves lucky that they, at least, weren’t like me—dumpy, dark-skinned, limp-haired and hopelessly plain. Eventually, I discovered that it took a lot less effort for me to change outfits like a ninja than it did to force myself to smile and laugh and nod in agreement with the other girls.
It had not been a particularly good day. PE had consisted of us running in circles around the school grounds because our PE teacher had forgotten his soccer ball at home, and the school had yet to replace its lone soccer ball after some idiot had stolen the thing. The result? Ten tortuous laps around the school, on a route that took us past the tables and benches where the so-called cool boys sat. Whenever I passed by, the boys would laugh and make “boom-boom-boom-boom” noises, stomping their feet on the wooden seats and pretending to clutch at each other for support as though a herd of elephants was tromping past, not just sweaty, gasping, practically dying me. Every single time I passed by. Not just twice or thrice as they usually did. It made me wonder what brought on this uncharacteristic conscientiousness on their part.
Then the door banged open, letting in a group of giggling girls. I froze and hunched over, trying to keep as little of me as I could from being seen from the other side of the cubicle door, praying that the girls wouldn’t stay for long. No such luck. They lingered in front of the mirror, trying out all the faucets until they found one that actually worked while chattering about boys and how silly they were. In particular, how the boys had been so rowdy a while ago as an obvious ploy to catch their, the girls’, attention. It dawned on me that the boys they were talking were the same ones who’d tormented me earlier, and that their torment had been motivated solely by the desire to get these girls to notice them. They hadn’t even set out to hurt me personally. Making fun of me had just been the most convenient means to an end for them. The fact that it had hurt me meant nothing at all; they probably didn’t even know who I was.
When the girls left, the strange thought crept into my head and slid behind my eyes. It focused on my clothes piled carefully on my bag on the only dry part of the muddy floor, on the cracked toilet bowl with no lid, on the graffiti-covered walls, and whispered: Is this all there is to look forward to? More years sneaking around dirty bathrooms trying not to get noticed and being made fun of and generally not mattering to anyone at all?
After that, the thought never really left, no matter how much I tried to dismiss it or argue against it or ignore it. I somehow managed to keep it crammed firmly in the back of my mind though, where it became an unseen spectator hovering over my shoulder as I moved from each day to the next. Every time a teacher or a classmate addressed me as “That Chubby Child” or “Fattycakes” or “Fat Girl” or “Miss Piggy” instead of by my name…every time I got a high grade in a test or did good on a school report and the only thing that people noticed about me was how I’d pigged out on egg sandwiches and turon during recess…every time I got unsolicited advice about how to lose weight and scrub my skin to a pale, pearlescent sheen and move gracefully and dress better and be more like my older sister, Grace, look how slim and athletic she was, or my bubbly younger sister, Faith, already the most popular girl in her class…Every time those things happened, the thought in my head watched and listened and took careful notes.
And sometimes, when the hurt piled up and I let my guard down, the thought would speak quietly inside: There’s got to be something more in store for me than this.
Then one day, my best friends Mia and Renee and I were eating lunch in an empty classroom and talking about how we’d done in the last exam, when in walked four girls who just happened to be the most popular girls in our class. They sauntered over to join our conversation, which somehow shifted from science tests to upcoming Valentine’s Day and which girls in class were the most likely to get a card or a rose or some token from a boy, with the implication, of course, that these girls were it.
Then Diane, leader of the foursome, turned to me and asked, “So, Joy, we want to know: will your friend make an appearance this Valentine’s Day or what?”
“My friend?” I asked in confusion.
“Oh, sorry. I meant your boyfriend.”
The other three girls exchanged glances and giggled into their hands. Mia bristled while Renee looked at me, wide-eyed. Moving with meticulous care, I put down my spoonful of salted egg and rice and met Diane’s innocent gaze. “Why are you asking?”
“Well, we were just wondering if we’d ever get to see him again,” Diane replied with a cutesy smile. “I still remember the day he came here to visit you. It’s practically legend by now.”
“Oh my gosh, yeah! He was the cutest boy I’d ever seen, ever!” one of her cronies squealed.
“He looked like a child star or a model at least,” said Crony No. 2.
“And he’s really rich, too, isn’t he? He came to pick you up in an SUV, everybody saw it! And the way he was dressed?” Crony No. 3 put a hand on her cheek and sighed dreamily.
“It was totally amazing to see a boy like that here in our school. I mean, it’s been months but people are still talking about him, after he made all the boys here look like a bunch of clumsy monkeys.” Diane waved her hand, summarily dismissing the entirety of our school’s male student population, while her three friends giggled again. “Look, lots of people have been asking, okay? Is he really your boyfriend?” she added, arching an eyebrow at me.
“He said so, didn’t he?” Mia answered curtly before I could reply. “He practically shouted it in front of the whole school, or don’t you remember that part?”
“Hmm.” Diane’s smile made it clear that while she remembered that, she had reason to consider it suspect. “Well, he was really nice too, wasn’t he? It figures a boy like that would be nice to someone like Joy. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
“What exactly are you saying?” Mia started to rise until Renee grabbed her arm.
“He’ll be here, of course,” Renee told Diane firmly. “He’ll come to pick Joy up in his SUV and take her on a date so grand you couldn’t imagine—”
“No, he won’t.”
Everyone, including Mia and Renee, looked at me in surprise. I took a deep breath and said, “Christian’s gone back to the States, and he’ll stay there for years. So there’s no chance of you ever seeing him again, Diane.”
“Oh?” Diane shared a look with her friends, then shrugged again. “Gee, that’s too bad. We were so looking forward to seeing Christian again. You know, just to prove that he’s your boyfriend for real and not just some lame ploy to get people to pay attention to you.” They moved away, apparently losing interest in us, but just as she reached the door, Diane turned to her cronies and said in a voice loud enough for the three of us to hear: “Christian’s gone to the States, huh? That sounds a little too convenient, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, who does she think she is anyway, thinking a boy like that could actually like her? Talk about getting above herself…” The voices of the fearsome foursome soon faded away as they departed.
“Gosh, she’s nasty. They’re all nasty,” Mia growled. “I don’t get how so many of the girls in this school are so boy-crazy, anyway. It’s all boys, boys, boys! I mean, jeez, we’re only in fourth grade!”
“Well, think about it, Mia,” Renee replied quietly. “Our school? This whole neighborhood? There’s not much going for a lot of us here after graduation except to get married and find work. I bet you half of our class isn’t even going to make it to high school. But never mind that. Joy, what do you mean Christian’s gone back to the States? When? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, trying not to let them see what effect just hearing Christian’s name had on me. “He left in July, two days after the day he came here. I didn’t mean to keep it from you. It just…didn’t come up, that’s all.”
“Oh. That’s too bad. You must miss him a lot,” Renee said, looking sympathetically at me.
I gave her a bracing smile. “It’s okay. It’s not that much different from the way we were before.”
“Of course it is. He’s so much farther away now and—oops.” Mia winced when she realized what she’d said. Ducking away from Renee’s frown, she made a face and passed me her bag of chocolate candies by way of apology. “Drat. Sorry, Joy. It’s just that we’d been kinda hoping he’d come back and sweep you up into his SUV and take you to live in his castle or something. And maybe run over Diane and her friends along the way,” she added with a grin.
The three of us laughed at that image, and if our voices held the faintest traces of wistfulness, we didn’t speak of it. After all, we knew what Renee was talking about. We knew all about our school, and this whole neighborhood. We’ve seen enough of our upperclassmen graduate from this school and go straight into driving tricycles and pedicabs, or working as construction workers, or hawking cigarettes on the street, or worse, stealing cellphones or pushing drugs to make a living. Some of us knew older girls who’d graduated from the not-exactly-prestigious Don Mateo Public Elementary School and went straight into the business of getting pregnant at fifteen, Renee’s sister being one of them. It was just that kind of neighborhood, and just because we were in fourth grade didn’t mean we spent our days with blinders over our eyes.
This isn’t you, Joy. You can do a lot better than this, the thought whispered, and for a moment, it sounded achingly like Christian.
Time went on, and the thought continued to watch and listen and grow. Then one morning, I woke up and realized that the thought had become an idea. A dangerous, laughable, exhilarating, freeing, terrifying, insane and utterly unshakeable idea that, this time around, spoke to me in a voice I recognized as completely mine.
Later that day, while I was hiding inside a cubicle and changing from my PE uniform into my school uniform again, the words “St. Helene Academy” flitted through my mind for the first time. And just like that, I knew what I was going to do.
I was going to get above myself in the grandest way I knew how.