Part 2: The Wedding Vows, Chapter 3

READ PART 2: THE WEDDING VOWS, CHAPTER 2

“Hmm? What was that, Joy?”

Mrs. Santos, our Math teacher who was also our Science teacher, our homeroom adviser and our Music teacher whenever Mrs. Cruz was having one of her spells, barely looked up from the sheaf of seatwork exercises she’d collected. Behind me, kids were pushing their seats back and straightening their things, stretching and laughing and talking as they milled out of the classroom. I hovered in front of the teacher’s desk, clutching my hand-me-down plastic schoolbag so tightly the straps were pinching the inside of my arm, and glanced nervously around in case somebody overheard. Luckily, nobody was paying any attention to me, not even Mia and Renee, who were already headed out the classroom chatting animatedly with each other after I’d told them not to wait for me. Exhaling with relief, I offered to carry the stack of notebooks on one side of the table then trotted after my teacher, talking all the while.

“Um, I wanted to ask if—if you could coach me for a high school entrance exam this coming July. Or—or if you had any used high school science and math reviewers lying around that I could, um, borrow over the summer—”

Mrs. Santos, still a youngish woman despite the tired lines bracketing her eyes and mouth, gave me a distracted look as I followed her into the faculty room. “Oh, thank you. Yes, just put those on my desk, please. But what would you need to study for, Joy? There’s no entrance exam for GNS. You have nothing to worry about.”

GNS, which stood for General Narciso Sebastian High School, was the public high school located about three blocks away from our school. An overwhelming majority of the graduates of our school—if they managed to make it to high school at all—went to GNS. Ate Grace was at the time a freshman there, and it was assumed that both Faith and I would follow in her footsteps.

Only, I fully intended to buck that tradition.

I swallowed, feeling both the comforting, metallic lump underneath my blouse and the chill radiating from my clammy hands. “Um, no, Ma’am. I—I was thinking, I want to try getting into St. Helene Academy.” There, I said it, I thought. No backing out now.

“Into where?”

“St. Helene Academy, Ma’am.”

Mrs. Santos stopped in the middle of sorting the piles of papers and notebooks on her desk and looked at me, her expression a distillation of the essence of “I did not just hear you say that, did I?” “That’s a private school,” she finally said.

I bit my lip. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Wait a minute. St. Helene?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“That big private school in Libis? The one for elite children?”

“Y-yes, Ma’am.”

She emitted a high-pitched bark that was the beginnings of an incredulous laugh, only to taper off when she saw the look on my face. A couple of the teachers who’d been conversing at a nearby desk looked over at us curiously. Sweat trickled down my neck, but I kept my gaze focused steadily on hers, locking my knees underneath my skirt to keep them from knocking together. After a while, she sank down into her chair as though suddenly exhausted. “If this is some kind of spur-of-the-moment thing or some crazy new fad among you kids or…” she trailed off, waving a hand in the air.

“No, Ma’am,” I answered, then dived into the speech I’d been rehearsing all morning. “I’ve been doing a lot of extra studying on my own, and I’m willing to spend all summer reviewing for the exam, and I’m pretty sure I have a chance of passing their entrance exam, and I—I really, really want to attend high school at St. Helene, Ma’am.”

I panted a bit, having run out of breath by the end of that sentence. By then, Mrs. Santos’ face had frozen into a mask of polite, if faintly horrified, interest.  “Joy, St. Helene Academy is a very difficult school to get into. Especially for lateral entrants,” she informed me. “The school admits only students from the top fifteen percent of their graduating class. From what I’ve heard, some of its own elementary school students don’t make it to the high school level.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I-if you compute my grade-point average, especially this past year, I think you’ll see—um, well, I don’t think I have any problem in that area, I mean.”

She made no move to check her records, but neither did she argue the point. I was her best student; she’d told me so herself many times before. “I’ve heard that not only is it hard to get into St. Helene, it’s hard to stay in there as well,” she went on. “The classes there are more advanced than in GNS.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I don’t plan on slacking off even after I pass the entrance exam. I’ll keep studying as hard as I can,” I said while a part of me gasped in awe at my own audacity. Oh my gosh, “after I pass!” I can’t believe I actually said that!

My teacher shook her head. “It’s not even a question of academics. Do you have any idea at all how much tuition costs at St. Helene? In a way, you’re much luckier than many of your classmates, what with both of your parents working. But still, with your family’s income—I’m sorry, my dear, but think about it. While it’s very good to have a dream, at a certain point you have to be realistic.”

My heart sank. During the nights I’d spent lying awake in bed feverishly concocting plans and schemes, it was the money issue that emerged as the biggest obstacle. In fact, every ounce of rationality inside me declared, in no uncertain terms, that the money thing wasn’t just the biggest obstacle, it was plain impossible. Even with the low tuition rates of a public school, it was still a struggle for Nanay and Tatay to pay for the schooling of three kids on their salaries as a clerk in a government office and as chief mechanic in a car repair shop. And this was not even counting the daily allowances, the cost of books and school supplies and new uniforms, the PTA fees and other school expenses, plus commuting to and from school…good grief. As if my parents didn’t have enough on their plates already.

But still… “My mom graduated from St. Helene,” I said, throwing down my trump card.

Mrs. Santos raised her eyebrows. “Oh? Did she now?”

“Yes, Ma’am, she did. And she wasn’t rich or anything back then either. So—so there must be a way for kids like me to get into St. Helene. I can ask her—”

“Joy—” she began, massaging her temples as though fighting off a headache.

“—or the school if they know some way I can get in without having to spend so much. And—and my mom says the schooling she got from St. Helene was what helped her get into UP after high school. My mom graduated from UP, too,” I added somewhat desperately. From what I’d heard, getting into the University of the Philippines was ten times harder than getting into St. Helene, and the university’s entrance exam was known to spark annual floods of tears across the country. At least it did so in our neighborhood whenever somebody attempted to take on the UPCAT and failed.

She blinked slowly at me. “I see. And I suppose you plan to go to UP as well?”

To be honest, I hadn’t really thought that far. Just the idea of going to St. Helene had already threatened to overwhelm my poor brain. But at that moment, as I stared into my teacher’s gently skeptical face, a strange impulse swept over me and took control of my mouth. “Yes, Ma’am. I owe it to myself to try,” I heard myself say.

“Is that so?” she murmured. “Fine, then. What do you want me to do for you?”

Hope flared inside me. “Um, I was wondering if you could tutor me in some of the harder science and math subjects, especially the parts we haven’t covered in class. And—and if you could coach me for the test, especially over the summer—”

“I can’t.”

I stared at her as hope fizzled out.

She sighed and resumed sorting the papers on her desk. “I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m too busy right now. And over the summer I have to attend a teaching seminar, and there’s the Boy Scout Jamboree to see to. I simply don’t have time. Maybe you can ask someone else?”

I followed her sidelong glance toward the teachers at the other desk. They quickly looked away and resumed their conversation, talking a little more loudly than before. Yeah, they’re just tripping all over themselves to help me, all right, I thought glumly. “W-what about reviewers? Especially in science and math. Would you have any extra or used ones that I could borrow?” I asked, clinging to Plan B.

“I’ll see what I can find, all right?” was her dampening response.

With no choice left, I murmured my thanks and made my exit, then slumped against the wall right beside the door to the faculty room and hugged my school bag tight as reaction set in. I felt limp and shaky all over. If my teacher only knew how hard it had been to walk up to her, talk to her about my dream, and ask for her help—

Laughter ballooned outward from the faculty room as one of the teachers remarked: “St. Helene? UP? Good Lord, I never knew that moon-faced child had such…ambition.”

“I think it’s cute, actually,” said another one. “I’d always thought that girl was rather, well, dull, what with her always creeping around and hiding behind her friends—”

“Can you blame her, with the way she looks?”

“Of course not, but that’s not the point. It turns out now that this child has an active imagination. I think it’s a good development. Don’t you agree, Carmen?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Mrs. Santos replied with a sigh. “I’ve heard the kids come up with wild ideas like this before, and I doubt this one will last.”

“True. You’re right,” the previous speaker said. “The way these kids’ minds work, she’ll have forgotten all about this by next week.”

“Or who knows? She could be aiming for Harvard next.”

Laughter poured out again as the cracks on the floor that I was staring at suddenly swam. Frantically, I shoved myself off the wall and bolted to the nearest bathroom with my head lowered. Locking myself into an empty cubicle, I sat on the toilet, hunched over my bag, and pressed my hands against my eyes to stop the tears. I hate this, I thought miserably as I forced myself to breathe in quiet, even breaths. I hate that they can laugh at me so easily, like they don’t even notice I’ve got feelings, too. I hate that they can joke about something so important to me. And most of all— 

—most of all, I hate that I’m still a pathetic cry-baby after all this time.

“You can’t cry, Joy. You’re not allowed to cry when I’m not around to make it all better for you.”

Like magic I’d summoned from inside, Christian’s voice came back to me, along with the memory of the last time he’d seen me cry.

“I’m not allowed to cry?” I’d laughed at that even as I hung my head and swiped at the seemingly never-ending flood of tears. “What about if I’m feeling sad or hurt or lonely, and I’m all alone, anyway? I can’t cry even then?”

“Then you can cry a little, but you have to cheer up right after.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

He gave me a crooked smile. “Easy. Just think about me.”

The memory made me laugh in spite of my tears, and I clapped a hand over my mouth in case somebody heard. How anybody could be so vain, so self-inflated yet at the same time be so sweet was just…it just had to be Christian. And how unbearable would he be if he found out it actually worked? With a final sniffle, I reached into my pocket for my hanky, dried my eyes and blew my nose. Then I stuffed my hanky back and reached into my bag for my reminders notebook and a pen. Opening the notebook to the last page, I read through the list I’d made:

  • Mrs. Santos
  • Mr. De Villa
  • library
  • bookstores
  • St. Helene office
  • Ate’s old books
  • AteMarian – Aling Pacita (does she still have that old reviewer?)
  • Kuya Jake – Aling Betsy (last resort)
  • sneak out of school and sit in on Ate’s classes for a week
  • Nanay (ABSOLUTE last resort)

I crossed out the first item on the list and, after some thought, the second to the last item as well. Okay, no problem then, I decided as something inside me seemed to rise a little bit. After all, I’ve only just begun.

Wait for me, Christian. I’ve already begun.

A couple of weeks later, I was feeling a tad less upbeat. For one thing, Mr. De Villa, our English teacher, had reacted more or less the same way Mrs. Santos did when I asked for his help in coaching me for the English part of the exam. He even threw in a little piece of advice: if I had time to be indulging in impractical fantasies, then I had time to pull my head out of the clouds and start working on my book report.

Scouring our school library yielded several worn-out, outdated books on science, math, history and geography, which I began borrowing and reading during lunch, recess, vacant periods, after doing my homework at night, early in the morning after waking up—basically whenever I had some free time. The bad news was, it was a rather haphazard system of studying and, as interesting as the subjects were, it was kind of hard to decide what and how much to focus on. It also made me depressingly aware of how much ground I had to cover if I wanted to take the entrance exam on a more or less even footing with all those kids from the private schools. The good news was, at least now I had something to go on, and it made my actual school work go easier for me. As an added bonus, I discovered that the library was a sanctuary of peace and quiet, and that books were wonderful things to hide behind when I was trying to be invisible or to pretend I didn’t hear some hurtful comment about my weight again.

As for my fourth option, I suffered some serious misgivings, as well as a minor stroke, upon seeing the price tags on the high school entrance exam reviewers in a couple of the bookstores. Even if I started saving half of my weekly allowance right now, I still wouldn’t be able to save enough to afford one of those reviewers before the school year—and my supply of allowance—officially ended. Nevertheless, I started saving anyway, hoping that by the end of the school year, I could at least afford to pay for half the cost of the best, most updated reviewer. As for the other half, well, I’d have to think of another way to earn money. Like maybe sell an internal organ or something.

By the third week, my best friends had noticed my preoccupation with studying and wondered about it. Mia looked especially worried. “What? No, really, tell me. Is there a test I don’t about that I should? Did I forget to do a report?”

I laughed as I set my spoon down on my packed lunch of hotdogs and rice. We were eating at one of the rickety bamboo tables beside the field this time, just to be different. “No, there isn’t any test or report, so you can relax,” I said to her.

“Then what’s all this for?” she asked, perplexed, nodding toward the dog-eared chemistry book I had laid out on my lap. ”I can’t help but worry when someone smart like you is working so hard.”

“You have been pretty busy lately,” Renee remarked as she passed the quail eggs from her own packed lunch over to me. “You’ve been spending more time in the library, too. You didn’t even go with us the last time we went to Josie’s Bakeshop. Aling Josie thinks you don’t like her sugar buns anymore.”

“Oh, I do like her buns,” I said, thinking about the yummy, sugar-covered rolls that I could easily eat half a dozen of. “It’s just that I have to finish this book list before the school year ends and the library closes, or it might be too late.”

Renee scrunched up her brow. “Why? Too late for what? And why these stuffy books? What happened to the Valentine romances you used to sneak into class?”

“I don’t read Valentine romances,” I denied despite the guilty flush on my face. Mia and Renee exchanged glances, and I was forced to add primly, “Well, I don’t read them anymore. I don’t. I’ve got something more important to do than read romance novels.”

They looked at each other again. “Well? Tell us what it is, already!” Mia exclaimed.

I tortured them a little bit more by taking my time chewing the quail eggs. “Can you keep a secret?” I began, which caused my friends to lean forward in anticipation. “I’m studying for a high school entrance exam.”

There was a pause, then Mia started looking worried again. “Why? Is GNS going to have an entrance exam from now on? If it is, I’m in trouble.”

I giggled. “No, no. Not GNS. I’m taking the entrance exam to St. Helene Academy.”

“To St. Who?”

“That sounds like a private school,” Renee said with a frown.

“It is,” I replied, then proceeded to explain about St. Helene’s standards and reputation as a private high school for elite children, that is, for the super-rich and the super-smart. Both qualities in the same kid, preferably. “I’ve heard the entrance exam is in July, and since it’s a school for super-smart kids, it probably covers a lot of stuff we haven’t studied yet. That’s why I’ve been doing a lot of extra reading. I’m also trying to save up to buy a reviewer, but good grief, do you have any idea how expensive those things are?” I added with a groan.

For a moment, my two friends stared at me, stunned. Finally, Renee asked, “But why? Why go to a private school?”

I considered telling them about the strange thought—no, conviction—that there were better things in store for me than what GNS could offer, if only I had the strength and the guts to go after them. Then I realized how that might sound to Mia and Renee, who had known no world other than good old Don Mateo and our wild and wooly shanty-town with its belching jeepneys, roaring tricycles and crawling pedicabs. They would probably take it the wrong way, even though I’d mean no insult. So instead, I opted to show them the other reason I wanted to go to St. Helene. Reaching into my school bag, I took out a white envelope with a return address somewhere in New York City. “Because of this,” I said, handing them the envelope.

Inside was a letter from Christian, written in his messy scrawl on a couple of sheets of torn notebook paper. It was the last letter he’d written to me, and I watched eagle-eyed as my two best friends unfolded the precious sheets of paper and began to read. They sat across me so I couldn’t see what they were reading, but I’d long since memorized the letter’s contents and in fact recited words out loud whenever they stumbled over his handwriting.

Dear Joy, 

Writing to you would be so much quicker if you had email. Email is a letter you send through the Internet, which is a whole lot of computers all around the world that are connected to each other, so you can send stuff from one computer to another computer even on the other side of the planet. We’ve got Internet at school and at home, so if you ever get an email address, email me at christianrocks@xxxxx.xxx. 

That’s my personal email address, by the way. My school email address isn’t as cool as that. 

I’m doing okay. School’s boring as usual. I was thinking of trying out for the soccer team, but right now I’m focusing on karate and taekwondo since the tournaments are coming up. I’m learning ju-jitsu and hwa rang do, too. Sometimes I ask myself why when my senseis and saboms are a bunch of sadists who stay up nights thinking of new ways to torture us. 

I’m not surprised your teacher thinks that about you. I always knew you were smart, way smarter than me. And you’re not just smart, Joy, you’re cute, too. I think that if you really got your heart set on something, there’s nothing you can’t do, and that’s what makes you cute. 

I don’t know if I’m popular or not. Who decides those things anyway? I’ve got a lot of friends at school, but what’s cool is I’ve got this gang at home. Don’t worry, we’re not the kind of gang that goes around destroying stuff and bullying people. Mostly we just hang out. 

Alex is a year old now. He’s become a little more interesting than when he was just a crying, sleeping, pooping machine. He’s gotten pretty noisy, too. I’m teaching him to call me Kuya so he’ll know who to respect around here. 

About your question, I asked my mom and she said we’ll be going back home in two years so I can start high school at St. Helene Academy. It’s funny to think that I’ll be in high school at 13 when all my friends here will still be in 7thgrade. But I think St. Helene’s got this extra preparatory year, so I’ll officially be a freshman at 14. Lots of things are different between the US and back home, and I guess this is one of them. 

That’s it for now. I can’t think of anything else to say. Take care of yourself and write soon. 

I miss you, too, Turtle. 

Christian

“Turtle?” Renee asked, raising her eyebrow. I smiled and shrugged.

Mia squealed. “Wow, he misses you! And he thinks you’re cute! That Christian is such a…such a…prince!”

“Yeah, he’s amazing,” Renee said with a sigh, then glanced up at the date written on the letter before passing it back to me. “He wrote this in October? It’s February now. Don’t you have any newer letters from him?”

I busied myself with stowing Christian’s letter back inside my bag to keep my friends from seeing my expression. Since he’d gone to the US, the intervals between his letters had grown longer and longer. In fact, after this one he hadn’t written back, even though I’d written him a reply the minute his letter arrived. And another one the following month. And a Christmas card I’d made myself. “No, but it’s okay. He’s probably just really busy,” I said, hoping that by saying the words out loud it would make them sound more believable to me.

“Hmm.” Renee tapped her chin reflectively. “So he’s going to attend high school at St. Helene. And you’re…going to meet him there?”

I nodded, toying with the straps of my bag. “Before, he’d always been the one reaching for me,” I said, thinking of all the times Christian had asked us over for play-dates at his house or on mall-trips with our moms. The last time we were together, he’d even surprised me by coming all the way to my school just to pick me up. “This time around, I want to be the one reaching for him,” I went on quietly. “I want to be there for him anytime he needs me, and I can’t do that if we’re in two different schools. So yes, I’m going to St. Helene so I can meet Christian there when he comes home.”

My friends stared at me for an uncomfortably long moment. Then Mia clasped her hands together and looked dreamy. “Oh wow, that’s so romantic. I get it, I get it. You’re working hard so you can be with the boy you love.”

“So that’s it,” Renee murmured while I blushed at the words “the boy you love.”

“Actually, I’m kind of glad you guys brought it up. I’ve got a favor to ask.”

Mia blinked. “What is it?”

“I’m going to St. Helene tomorrow, and I—um, I was wondering if you’d come with me.”

I held my breath as they absorbed this. “You mean—” Mia began.

“Yes,” I said, wincing. “We’ll have to skip morning classes then sneak back to school in the afternoon…”

“We’re going to play hooky?” Renee asked.

“If you don’t want to, I understand,” I answered quickly.

“But you’re going anyway, right?”

I looked at her. “Yes, I am.”

She and Mia exchanged grins. “Are you kidding?” Mia demanded. “Count us in.”

That was how I got my first sight of St. Helene, with my two best friends standing on either side of me as we gaped up at the large, blue and white metal gates with the words “St. Helene Academy” above them. Finding the school turned out to be slightly more complicated than I’d thought. For one thing, it was an entire bus ride and a couple of jeepney rides away from our school. We’d spent the beginning of the trip giggling at the thought of breaking school rules, lax as they were to begin with, then quivering with excitement at this adventure we were on, then later on progressing to staring out the window in increasing unease as we got deeper and deeper into unfamiliar territory. We’d changed out of our school uniforms and into regular clothing at a McDonalds, but when we finally stood in front of the gates, I imagined the security guards saw us as exactly as what we were: a trio of painfully unsophisticated schoolgirls from a poor public elementary school getting their first intimidated eyeful of an actual private school for elite children.

And what an eyeful it was. St. Helene was huge. After getting off the last jeepney, we spent half an hour trudging down street after street lined on one side with towering condominiums, office buildings, and high-class shops, cafes and restaurants, only to find out that the entire block we were circling, with its high concrete wall topped with lethal-looking metal bars, was the school.

We didn’t stop gawking as we made our way through the school grounds. From the outside, St. Helene Academy looked like an armed fortress partially disguised as an urban center, like an assassin blending in among well-dressed people at a high-society party. On the inside, the St. Helene campus was a lush, tree-filled park dotted with flowerbeds and concrete benches and veined with flower-lined stone pathways and covered walks that led to clusters of stately white buildings, some of which looked like a cross between a cathedral and a shopping mall. The grounds were perfectly maintained, with no bare patches of dirt and absolutely no litter anywhere. The walls all gleaming, the lamp posts freshly painted, and the bills and notices hanging on the bulletin boards were properly lined up. As we passed one building painted in brighter colors than the others, we could hear the piping chorus of children’s voices coming from a window as they sang a nursery rhyme along with their teacher.

“Is this heaven?” Mia wondered out loud.

We stood back to watch as an entire class of preschool kids dressed in identical royal blue shorts and white T-shirts emblazoned with the St. Helene logo trooped out the building’s entrance in an orderly line and headed toward the nearby playground, led by their two teachers. They eyed us curiously as they filed past.

Renee followed their progress in amazement. “They’re not running or screaming or biting each other. Wow.”

We continued on until we came upon an elegant building painted a blinding white with bands of royal blue and gold. We barely took a step inside the arched entrance with the words “Lux in obscurum” engraved above it when we were stopped by the security guard. “Where do you think you’re going? Only St. Helene students and official visitors are allowed inside.”

With my friends cowering behind me, I looked up at the guard’s unsmiling face and quavered, “I’m sorry. W-we just want to get an a-application form for the high school entrance exam.”

“This is the elementary school complex,” he informed us, then proceeded to give us directions to the high school complex. Just then, a skinny, messy-haired boy dressed in blue pants and a starched white shirt turned a corner and headed toward the exit, walking with his nose buried in a book. The security guard halted in mid-sentence and moved to block his passage. “Hey now, where’re you headed? Don’t you have classes at this time?” he said in a tone of amused patience, as though he’d done this routine many times before.

The boy stopped and looked at the security guard over the edge of his book. “I’m going to the high school library.”

“You been given permission to go? Let’s see your permission slip.”

“I am allowed to use the high school library,” the boy pointed out.

“Right now?”

A faint expression of disappointment and annoyance swept across the boy’s otherwise solemn features. “No, Kuya,” he said shortly. As he lowered his eyes, his gaze met mine, and for a moment we regarded each other in silence, his gaze cool and impassive, mine startled and not a little awed. This kid looks like he’s younger than me, and he’s allowed to use the high school library?

The guard smiled. “Well then, just get on back to—”

“Miguel!”

A short-haired girl dressed in a pleated blue jumper skirt and a white blouse came skidding round the same corner the boy had come from and grabbed him by the arm. “Where do you think you’re going? It’s our turn to do the science report in class.”

This time, the boy’s face looked distinctly pained. “Class is boring. Besides, I’ve done my share.”

“Yeah, but I don’t understand any of the stuff you put in our visuals! They’re all drawings of molecules and weird math equations. That’s it, you be the one to explain them,” the girl huffed as she began dragging the boy back where they came from.

“That’s just comparing oxygen to its allotrope.”

“Its what?”

“Ozone. If you’d read the materials I sent you…”

We stared after the two as they disappeared round the corner, then my friends and I turned to the guard. “That boy’s famous around here. He’s in third grade, but they say he’s got a genius-level IQ. Keeps trying to sneak out to the high school library, though,” he said by way of explanation.

“That was weird,” Renee commented as we headed down the tree-lined street that led toward the high school complex.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mia said, then giggled. “I thought that boy was cute.”

Renee gave her a withering look. “He’s a nerd. A third-grader and a nerd. I mean, yuck.”

Mia stuck her tongue out. “I meant ‘cute’ as in adorable, like a kid brother. Anyway, what do you think, Joy? You were looking at him, too. I saw you.”

“She was? Uh oh, Joy, you’ve already got Christian, remember? His Royal Highness, the Prince of Hotness himself. No looking at nerdy third-graders,” Renee teased.

I cleared my throat. “Actually, I thought that boy was…”

“Yeah?”

“I thought—I thought he was awesome! This whole school is awesome!” I gushed, unable to hold it in anymore. “It’s even got genius-level students, and they’re taking chemistry in third grade!” Then a chilling realization nearly made my heart seize up. “Oh my gosh, I didn’t understand a word he said!” I wailed in dismay. “And if they take chemistry in third grade here, then what kind of questions are they going to ask in the high school entrance exam? I’ll never be able to catch up at this rate.”

“Aw, it’s okay, Joy,” Mia said placatingly. “His classmate didn’t understand him either, so maybe it’s just—oh wow.”

As we rounded a street corner marked by a charming white church decorated with stained-glass windows, then slowed down to a stop at the top of an incline as the St. Helene high school complex came into view. The entire St. Helene campus is actually located on a hill, with the preschool and elementary school complex located at the top and the high school complex flowing like a bride’s wedding veil down the slope. On one side of the hill, gleaming pearl-white in the sun, was a massive, four-storey building with a distinctly Gothic flavor. Across the street from it were some smaller, more modern-looking buildings. Beyond these, lower down on the slope, were the blue dome of the gym and the soccer field outlined by the track oval, with more forest-like gardens everywhere else. I stared at the field in particular, and found it easy to imagine Christian racing around it with a soccer ball. Oh, this place is perfect for him, I thought with a blissful sigh.

We headed toward the main building, which looked more and more like a medieval castle the closer we got to it. The same words, “Lux in obscurum,” greeted us at the threshold. Upon inquiring about the entrance exam, we were directed by the security guard to the Admissions Office. The inside of the building seemed more convent than medieval castle though, with its white marble and blue-tiled floors, gleaming white pillars and walls, rows of windows with pointed arches and flower-beds laden with pink and purple bougainvillea, mahogany doors, and alcoves with burnished wooden benches and religious art. Everything was dauntingly neat and orderly as a pin.

The bell chimed as we entered the building, so we got to see high school students filing out of classrooms with their binders and their school bags, talking and laughing with one another on the way to their next class. The boys wore black slacks, white shirts with royal blue neckties with the St. Helene logo embroidered in gold, and black leather shoes. The girls, on the other hand, wore pleated royal blue skirts, white collared blouses with similar albeit narrower neckties, and knee-high black socks and demure pumps. The three of us pressed back against a wall and boggled at the throng of elegant-looking people. Once again, I found it easy to envision Christian wearing the school uniform, and my heart went pitter-pat at the thought of how good he’d look in it. When I tried to picture myself wearing the girl’s uniform, however, I ended up alternating between shuddering with the effort of thought and quaking inwardly at the cost of the school uniform alone.

At the Admissions Office, I was given a light blue envelope with the entrance exam application form, a list of additional requirements, a set of instructions, fees to be paid and important dates to remember, and a glossy, full-color brochure of the school, which I paid for with almost every scrap of my allowance that I’d managed to save for the past three weeks. Good grief, I wasn’t even a student here yet and the expenses were already racking up. As I stood at the counter watching my savings and my life flash before my eyes, the clerk suddenly said, “Would you like to inquire about our scholarship program?”

I focused on her face with a snap as a vaguely humiliated flush crept up my face. I suppose it was rather obvious that the three of us were…not from around here. On the other hand… “Scholarship program, Ma’am?”

“Yes. St. Helene offers a very generous scholarship package for those who qualify,” the clerk said kindly enough. “You can ask the Office of Guidance and Counseling about it. They’re the ones handling the scholarship.”

Twenty minutes later, we stepped out of the main building and trudged back up the incline where we came from. At the top of the slope, I halted on the corner and turned to gaze upon the panorama before me. With the white spires of the main building rising like a medieval castle surrounded by smaller, darker buildings, green forests and grassy fields, the St. Helene high school complex looked for all the world like a fairytale kingdom come to life. I could almost hear the words being whispered in the faintly ylang-ylang scented air: Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a kingdom waited for its prince to come home…

Oh, good grief. And what did that make me? His princess? I giggled at that. I wasn’t a princess. I wasn’t even the humble goose-girl, because in the storybooks, even humble goose-girls were slim, pretty and golden-haired. I was just…a faceless, shapeless figure hidden in the crowd, who just so happened to have loved the prince for years and was willing to do anything to become part of his kingdom when he returned.

I giggled some more, both at my ridiculousness and at the bright hope that filled me from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. I’m doing this, I vowed, pressing one hand against the ring hidden underneath my shirt. I’m going to be part of this school. Wait and see, Christian. I’ll meet you here a year from now. Just wait and see.

“Joy, come on or we’ll never make it in time for English! Mr. De Villa’ll kill us!” Renee shouted.

“Yeah, I’m coming!”

I turned and hurried after my two friends, hugging my St. Helene packet tightly to my chest, buoyed by that strange, irrational hope. Irrational because, after that briefing by the clerk at the Office of Guidance and Counseling, I knew now that my actual chances of passing the St. Helene entrance exams were even slimmer than I’d thought. Yes, exams, as in plural. There were two exams, one to qualify you and another to rank you, and if you failed either one you were out. And to qualify for the scholarship, I had to beat out hundreds of applicants for two precious slots by writing a winning essay and acing a panel interview. The odds were discouraging and even my best friends knew it, judging from the looks on their faces. But I needed that scholarship. Without it, there was no way my parents could ever hope to afford the mind-numbing tuition rates of this school.

Yet despite all that, I hadn’t felt so lighthearted and energized since I’d started out on my personal quest. Images kept flashing through my mind—the castle, the fairytale kingdom, the elegant students… Everything felt right somehow, and I knew, I just knew, that I belonged here. That my path would take me to this school. That even though I didn’t have the looks or the money or the bloodline or the social polish, I had everything I needed to make it to St. Helene.

And I could be with Christian again. I could see him every day. His wide, crooked grin, his chocolate eyes, the sound of his voice—they’d all be real again, and not just memories that I clung to inside my head.

Wait for me, Christian. I’m going to do my best. From now on, I’m going to be strong enough to reach you.

READ PART 2: THE WEDDING VOWS, CHAPTER 4.1

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