I received the best and the worst birthday presents the day after my tenth birthday. It began in the afternoon, in the middle of Social Studies class. I’d been doodling flowers in my notebook and drifting in and out of focus when I became aware of a minor commotion on one side of the classroom. Some of my classmates—those who were sitting closest to the windows that faced the school gate and the rectangular patch of dirt and mud we called a courtyard—were rising in their seats, craning their necks and whispering to one another. Luckily, Ms. Montes, who was qualified to teach history because she’d lived through most of it, continued to drone on and on about the various provinces in Mindanao while poking a stick at a ragged map of the Philippines, oblivious to the fact that she had just lost what little attention the class had been giving her. Propping my chin on my hand, I watched my classmates grow more and more excited, too drowsy myself to work up any real curiosity. When Diane and her friends muffled their squeals and clutched at one another, I figured the object of their attention was a boy. Maybe somebody was showing off by trying to scale the flagpole again. Who knew?
Soon, the susurration from the other side of the room grew loud enough for me to catch the actual words: “Oh my gosh, who is he?”
“He’s so cute!”
“Cute? He’s gorgeous!”
“Is he a child star? Are we going to be on TV or something?”
“Forget that. What I want to know is what someone like him is doing here.”
Yep, I thought. Definitely a boy.
Intrigued, Renee waited for Ms. Montes to turn her back to write something on the board before darting over to the window. She stood there for a minute or two, then snuck back to her seat, her face an odd shade of white. Mia, who sat in front of us, turned around and whispered, “Well? What’s going on out there?”
Instead of answering her, Renee turned robotically to face me. “Joy, remember the first time you told us about your friend Christian?”
“Yeah,” I said, giving her a quizzical look.
“Well—well, I’m sorry, but the truth is I didn’t really believe you,” she confessed in a rush. “It’s not that I thought you were lying about knowing him. I just thought that a—that someone like him couldn’t possibly, um, you know…”
Couldn’t possibly like me that way. It was easy enough to fill in the blanks. I remembered the first time I shyly admitted to having a crush on a boy and who that boy was. Renee hadn’t said a word, but the look on her face made her thoughts clear: I bet this thing between her and this boy is mostly in her head. Nice as she is, there’s no way a boy like that could actually like a girl like her. I didn’t blame her one bit. If I’d been watching Christian and me from a distance, I’d have thought the same thing. “It’s okay. That’s understandable,” I reassured her.
“Really? I believed her from the start,” Mia said sanctimoniously. “But what does this have to do with—”
Renee ignored her. “Listen, what car did you say Christian has again?”
I blinked. “A big, black SUV. They’ve got other cars, but the SUV seems to be mainly for Christian’s use.”
“Ah,” Renee breathed as her eyes grew even wider. “An SUV like the one in front of the vice-principal’s office?”
I shot out of my seat and rushed to the window. Sure enough, parked at the edge of the courtyard in front of the one-storey administration building, was the same SUV I secretly thought of as my fairytale carriage. The door on the driver’s side was open, and the now-familiar face of one of the Garcia family’s most trusted drivers and retainers was peering out from it.
“It’s Mang Chito,” I gasped. “What’s he doing here?”
I felt a sharp pinch on my arm. “You know him? You?” Diane demanded incredulously.
“Yeah, I do,” I said, rubbing my arm where her nails had dug into soft flesh.
“Then you know who that boy is?”
A small projectile whizzed right between our noses and smashed into a nearby shelf. We stared down at the shattered bits of chalk, then at Ms. Montes, who creakily lowered her arm, loose flap of skin still quivering. “You girls cease that prattling and go back to your seats,” she said in the same monotone she lectured in.
Chastened, I hurried back to my seat. But before Ms. Montes could render us unconscious again, the school vice-principal, a rather excitable lady, appeared at the door. “Excuse me, Ms. Montes. Is there a Joy de Castro in this class?”
All eyes turned to me as I meekly raised my hand. “Come out here for a moment, child. You have a guest,” the vice-principal announced.
A gasp swept across the room, and as I got to the door I realized why: Christian stood a little behind the vice-principal, in plain view of the class. At the sight of him, my head went woozy, my hands turned clammy, and my heart banged hard enough against my ribcage to propel me forward, causing me to nearly trip over my feet. He was dressed casually in jeans and a red polo shirt. His straight, black hair was trimmed shorter than the last time I’d seen him, although his bangs still fell over his left eyebrow. He looked relatively clean, except for the mud splattered at the hem of his jeans and encrusted around his no-longer-white Nikes, which he evidently got from trekking around in our courtyard after it had been rained on. Mud, I noted, that he managed to track all over the floor behind him.
Dragging my eyes upward, I took in his tanned arms and his shoulders and his neck and his chin—oh, he’d grown taller. How cool. And beneath my almost clinical perusal of him was an endless loop of breathless, excited, flabbergasted, distraught, ecstatic thought: He’s here, he’s really here, Christian’s here in my school, in the flesh, right where everybody can see him, he’s here, oh my gosh oh my gosh he’s here…
My unblinking gaze completed its upward journey and met a pair of warm chocolate eyes. He gave me that familiar, lopsided smile that brought out the dimple in his left cheek. I heard a clatter from inside the room behind me. It sounded as if somebody had just fallen off a chair, the way you would if leaned too far forward. It was a relief to know I wasn’t the only one close to swooning at the sight of that smile.
“Hi, Joy,” Christian said in a voice that just about melted my insides.
I blushed, swallowed and twisted my shaking hands together. “Um, h-hi, Christian,” I stammered, aware of how idiotic I sounded. The vice-principal’s avid presence was not helping my composure either. Crazy as it sounds, I was more rattled at the thought of Christian finding his way into my world than at the thought of me bumbling around in his, which was saying a lot. I felt horribly exposed and acutely nervous, torn between happiness at seeing him again and frantic anxiety at the thought that he was seeing, too. Only he was seeing the crooked doors with the missing door knobs, the peeling paint on the walls, the busted faucets and drinking fountains, the scratched-up desks, the faded posters, the cracked floors. He was seeing the overcrowded classrooms, the hand-me-down uniforms, the ratty schoolbags, the worn-out schoolbooks recycled year after year, the ill-fitting shoes and rubber flip-flops, for those of us who couldn’t afford shoes. For this boy, this veritable prince born to a world of privilege and wealth, all this must have come as a rude shock to him.
But “all this” was my world. My life. Me. An ugly sort of shame made me shrink into myself. Good grief, what on earth must he be thinking now?
“Child, is that all you have to say to a friend who’s come so far to visit you?” the vice-principal demanded, shooting me a warning look, before turning back to Christian. “You must excuse her behavior. She’s a little surprised, that’s all,” she cooed, beaming moistly at him as though he was a visiting dignitary and not some outsider kid disrupting class. “In fact, since the class hasn’t finished yet, why don’t you go and sit in with her? Is this all right with you, Ms. Montes?” When Ms. Montes continued to chant and poke at the map, the vice-principal took this as a sign of approval. “Go on in. I’m sure you’ll find the lessons interesting.”
As she patted him on his shoulder, he turned to her and bowed his head respectfully. “Thank you for your help, Ma’am. And I’m sorry to disturb you and your staff.”
“Oh, it’s quite all right,” the vice-principal tittered, and I was unsurprised to find that she was blushing lightly, yet another victim to his charm and good looks.
When he glanced at me, I colored again and dropped my gaze. “Um, c-come on in.”
We slipped into the room, walking sideways against the wall in an attempt to escape further notice. It didn’t work, of course. Every single pair of eyes followed us. Even Ms. Montes had halted in mid-drone. Apparently deciding to just brazen it out, Christian stopped and straightened, flashing the class a friendly grin before bowing his head at our teacher. “Good afternoon, Ma’am. My name is Christian, and I’m a friend of Joy’s. May I sit in on your class?” he said, the epitome of politeness.
Ms. Montes nodded and pointed to the one empty chair in the room—mine. I glanced around in dismay, but aside from the teacher’s chair, there really was no other chair available. “Um, you can sit here,” I mumbled.
He frowned. “What about you?”
“It’s okay,” I replied quickly, snatching up my notebook, textbook and pen. “I’ll just, um, stay in the back. It won’t be long until class ends, anyway.”
He looked at the chair, then back at me. “How about we share?”
This sparked another wave of murmuring. Then a boy said loudly enough for everyone to hear: “He’ll fall on his butt. Or the chair’ll break and Fattycakes’ll crack the floor.”
The others laughed while I went hot and cold all over. I lowered my gaze and tried to summon a sickly smile, wishing that I did have the power to make the cracks in the floor swallow me up. I was used to the teasing, but this was different. This time, Christian was on hand to witness my humiliation. The one boy in the world I wanted to impress. Why oh why did he have come here anyway?
Then I noticed his hand curling into a fist. Alarmed, I looked up in time to catch the chilling glint in his chocolate eyes as he looked sidelong at the boy. Oh no…
“Oy, oy, he’s looking pissed,” one of the other boys commented.
“So?” the first boy scoffed. “What’s a rich, pretty boy going to—ow!”
Another chalky missile launched itself from a wrinkled hand and struck the boy square on his temple. “You, Federico, and you, Joel. Present a report on the geography and economy of the Caraga Region on Monday. The rest of you, sit down and prepare for a quiz.”
As a chorus of groans rose all around us, Mia leaned over and whispered, “Joy, you can share my seat. Christian can stay in yours.”
We settled down, with Christian taking my chair and me perched on the edge of Mia’s chair, hunching over my textbook and sheet of paper. As I was scribbling madly, a folded piece of paper appeared from my peripheral vision. Puzzled, I unfolded the scrap of paper, taken from my own pad, and read the words written with one of my extra pens from my pencil case: Sorry. I was just going to wait outside for you but the VP found me and dragged me off.
I swallowed a giggle. I suppose he couldn’t have known that if he’d remained outside, clearly visible from the windows of several other classrooms, he would have ended up causing a far greater disturbance. He was simply too striking, too gorgeous and too…different to go unnoticed. The vice-principal had had no choice but to take him away. It’s OK, I wrote, drawing a little smiley face beside the words to show no hard feelings, then folded the paper and surreptitiously passed it back to Christian.
The paper returned after a minute. If you want, I can come back later.
I stared at the words. Even though I’d spent the last several minutes tying myself into knots over Christian’s unexpected appearance, the thought of him leaving, even for just a short time, caused a sharp ache inside. But maybe he wanted to get away. Maybe he’d had enough of the inquisitive stares, the sweltering heat inside the classroom, Federico’s moronic attempt at one-upmanship. Only if you want to, I scribbled then passed the note back to him.
I’d just finished writing the answer to one of the questions on the board when the folded piece of paper dropped in front of me again. What I want is to be with you. The VP did me a favor by showing me your room.
My heart did a little flip-flop. When I peeked sideways at him, he smiled crookedly and mouthed, “So may I?”
My blush deepened, and I found myself smiling back. But before I could form a reply, his eyes flicked to the side. In a flash, he lunged forward as his hand shot up and snatched at the air several inches away from my face. A squeak emerged from my throat, while everyone else turned to stare at us again. Then his hand opened, revealing a half-crushed piece of chalk.
We both turned to Ms. Montes, who smiled faintly back. “No talking, passing notes or flirting during a quiz.”
Complete silence greeted our teacher’s dry admonition. I wasn’t sure what had stunned everyone more: the fact that Christian had caught one of Ms. Montes’ deadly air-strikes, or that Ms. Montes had sounded almost teasing. Then I realized that if any other boy and girl had been the target of a dig like that, there would have been raucous hooting and catcalls and chanting of “he liiiikes her!” by now. But all my classmates did was give us bug-eyed looks, although it cheered me to see Federico looking a bit sick after realizing what Christian had done.
Simply put, there were no catcalls or hooting because nobody considered me the kind of girl that could interest anybody that way. But right then and there…
Christian rubbed at the back of his head and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, Ma’am. I won’t bother her again.”
…I found that it didn’t matter, because what I had was so much better.
Our eyes met, and the gleam of laughter I saw in them filled me with sweet, giddy bliss. As I bent over my sheet, I realized I’d somehow found myself in the middle of a fairytale again. That by invading my world, Christian was infusing it with his own brand of magic—the power to transform everything around him, including me, into something better, even for a little while. Within these dreary walls, surrounded by the dreary faces of my everyday life, I felt myself coming alive for the very first time.
Smiling, I let myself fall under his spell once again.
– – – – – –
“De Castro, come here!”
I approached the front row with trepidation. PE had never been my favorite subject, mostly because of my teacher, Mr. Pinto, a short but extremely buff man with a face permanently set in a sneer and a moustache that kept trying to apologize for it. Mr. Pinto also taught Health, and the memory of his sex education lessons still gives me nightmares to this day.
My classmates, the boys in particular, had already begun snickering even before I came to a stop before Mr. Pinto. He stood in front of us, dressed in sweatpants and a white T-shirt with armpits damp from the heat of the sun, his fists planted upon his hips to display his pectoral muscles to their best advantage. As a firm believer in the tenet that being strong and physically fit was indicative of will power, mental prowess and superior character, he’d taken a kind of frustrated dislike to me from the start, and I braced myself for another scolding about my dismal performance in our last ten-lap session around the school grounds.
Instead, he came at me from a totally unexpected angle. “De Castro, what’s this I hear about you wanting to go to a private school?” he barked, his moustache looking especially sheepish above the contemptuous curl of his lip.
Cold dread flooded through me. It had been two days since Mia, Renee and I cut class to visit St. Helene, and for a horrible moment I wondered if he’d somehow discovered our misdemeanor. At least he hadn’t called Mia and Renee forward. With any luck, the role my best friends played in my little escapade would remain forever a secret.
“Well?” he demanded.
I drew myself up. “Yes, Sir, I do.”
“And it’s that posh school in Libis, is it?”
I didn’t say anything more; it was obvious Mr. Pinto already knew all about it, anyway. He gave the rest of the class a knowing glance, triggering a wave of muffled laughter. “You’re hopeless, De Castro. Why come up with this grand nonsense anyway? Going to a private school,” he jeered as he circled me like a drill sergeant. “You know the best thing you can do to help your poor folks? Go on a damned diet!”
He jabbed a finger into my middle, making me wince and my classmates laugh some more. “Right! Stop eating your parents out of house and home! Get off your lazy butt and go jogging!” he bellowed. “You know why you keep coming in dead-last in class? It’s because you won’t make the effort! If you can’t stop yourself from being a fat-ass, then forget about making it through private school. They’ll just chew you up and spit you out, and God knows you’re a mouthful. Now get back in line. Ten laps around the school, you little twerps. Now!”
Later, Federico and his friends cornered me as I was heading to the girls’ restroom so I could change out of my PE uniform. “Oy, so you’re going to a private school, huh?” he mocked as his sniggering friends surrounded me. For months after Christian’s visit to our school, Federico and his pals had mostly avoided me, which gave me a bit of a reprieve from all the teasing. But when he’d learned that Christian had gone back to the US, Federico took this as a sign that it was open season on me again, and went about making up for lost time with vicious enthusiasm.
“You’re crazy, Fattycakes. Why would any private school want you? You rich or something?” Joel called out.
“Maybe she thinks she’s gonna marry rich. Wasn’t that guy Christian supposed to be her boyfriend?”
The boys laughed, and someone else said, “The fat’s taken over her brain if she really thinks he’d marry a mud-skinned tub of lard like her.”
“Hey, scram, you jerks!”
Mia shoved Federico away, then glared at everyone else while Renee came up to flank me. The boys moved away, with Federico throwing one last parting shot: “So long, Private School!” By the following week, the new nickname I’d been given had shortened to “Privates,” replete with all the considerable nastiness a bunch of twelve-year-old simians could produce.
But to my astonishment and secret pride, not even their bullying and petty humiliations could make me give up on my dream. Sure, they hurt me—again and again, more times than I cared to remember, cutting me to pieces until I had to run and hide in the sanctuary of the library or in the restroom cubicle, fighting to keep the sobs at bay. But I didn’t break. Instead, I ignored them as best I could, helped along by Mia and Renee, and I went on studying and saving up, picking up my books and practice exam-sheets whenever Federico or Diane or any of the others knocked them to the floor with smirks and false apologies, and quietly going on my way again.
I had Christian to thank for that. Somehow, he’d left traces of his magic within me, transforming me into somebody who could be better, somebody who could be more. And if it was a spell I was under, then it was one I never wanted to wake up from.
READ PART 2: THE WEDDING VOWS, CHAPTER 4.2