“I learned something today.”
I looked over at Christian, who was walking beside me with one hand in his pocket and the other hooked around the strap of my schoolbag, which he’d slung over his shoulder. With final period over, Mia, Renee and I were heading over to our homeroom to do our duty as homeroom-cleaners. As far as I could recall, there were eight of us assigned that week. Not half the class, and certainly not the female half, although that didn’t stop Diane, her friends and several other girls from drifting in the same direction, muttering something about needing to fetch stuff from our homeroom. Right. Nothing whatsoever to do with the boy walking at my side, apparently oblivious to the starry-eyed stares and blushing giggles he left in his wake.
He noticed me looking at him, with Mia and Renee peeking at him from my other side, and grinned. “I learned that school’s boring, no matter what school it is.”
“W-what school do you go to, Christian?” Mia ventured.
“When I’m here, I go to St. Helene. It’s kinda far from here though, so you might not have heard of it,” he answered, smiling at her to try to set her at ease. When I’d first introduced Mia and Renee, Christian responded with the same open friendliness he treated everyone, freely volunteering information when it became obvious that my friends were dying to ask him a hundred questions but were too bashful to do it. While I thought it was kind of him to smooth over my friends’ shyness, it hardly surprised me. He treated me almost exactly the same way the first time we met. Almost, I thought, smiling to myself as I recalled his very first marriage proposal.
“‘When you’re here?’ What does that mean?” Renee asked.
Christian’s smile seemed to dim, but only for a moment. “I went to this school in New York before we came back home when I was seven.”
“Oh.” The three of us exchanged glances, then Mia asked, “Don’t you have any classes right now?”
There it was again, the slight dimming of his smile. “Yeah, but I…had something else I needed to do today.”
Somebody called Mia and Renee over to one of the classrooms, and Christian and I stopped and stood aside to wait for them. With the modicum of privacy afforded to us by a nearby pillar, I finally had a chance to ask him my own burning question. “Christian, why did you come here? N-not that I’m not glad to see you. I am, I really, really am,” I added hastily, then colored at how impassioned I’d sounded. “It’s just that I never expected to see you. Here. In my school. At all.”
Idly, he slid my bag off his shoulder and began passing it from hand to hand. “Like I said, I want to hang out with you. What’ll it take for you to believe me?” he said, giving me an amused look.
“I don’t know. I just have this funny feeling about you.” I watched the rhythmic movements of my schoolbag as it flew back and forth between his hands, and recalled that one of Christian’s quirks was a tendency to launch stuff into the air whenever he was feeling nervous or anxious.
He tossed my bag straight up, and as it came down he slipped his arm through the straps and swung it back onto his shoulder. It was a nifty move, but I was more impressed by how much it revealed of his discomfort. “Heh, all right, you caught me,” he finally said, rubbing the back of his head. “I’ve got another reason for barging in here. But it’s a surprise, so you’ll just have to—what?”
“What’s that on your hand?” I demanded, grabbing his left hand. Drawn in black ink on the back of his hand was a fuzzy, elongated shape. “Is that a—a man who tripped and fell flat on his face?”
“It’s a scorpion. You gotta get your eyes checked,” he replied disdainfully.
I squinted down at the blob. “No, that looks nothing like a scorpion. It’s a guy. Look, there’s his face and he’s squinching his eyes shut.”
“Those are its claws—no, wait. Those are its claws. Those are just some artistic lines.”
I giggled. “That’s still not a scorpion.”
“It is so a scorpion,” he insisted, then grinned ruefully. “Fine, so it’s not my best work. I was bored, okay?”
“I know. I’m sorry you had to—oops, it smudged. Uh oh, you used the leaky black pen, didn’t you? I should have warned you about that one.” I scanned his front. Sure enough, there were multiple smears of black ink on the left side of his red polo shirt.
He followed the direction of my stare and shrugged. “Yeah, I kind of figured out about the pen after a while,” he drawled, raising the hem of his shirt to reveal more ink smears on the underside where he’d tried to wipe it off. I burst out laughing, and he began to chuckle himself. Good grief, the boy got dirty even when he was sitting quietly in one place. Whoever did his laundry must be either a superhero or a saint.
Still laughing, I fished out my hanky from my skirt pocket and held it up with the order for him to spit on it. “It’s ruined anyway, so I hope you don’t mind losing the scorpion,” I said as I rubbed the black mess off his hand with the moistened hanky. Then I became aware that his fingers had closed around mine, and glanced up.
He was staring at me with a serious, intense expression. “Joy, don’t ever—” He stopped, his own face turning red.
Thinking he wanted me to stop fussing over him, I tried to pull away, but he only tightened his hold around my hand. “Um, sorry,” I mumbled, puzzled and a little embarrassed.
He shook his head impatiently. “No, I mean—please don’t think I’m weird or anything but…don’t do this with anyone else, okay?” he said, his voice low and hoarse. “Don’t show your sweet side to anyone else, especially another guy. I can’t—just promise, okay?”
“O-okay, but what—”
“Joy, aren’t you on broom-duty? You and the others had better hurry.”
Diane’s hand came down on my shoulder as her cronies fanned out around us. Right on cue, Mia and Renee reappeared, which led me to believe that they’d finished their conversation a while ago and had been lurking around observing Christian and me.
“You guys need help? I’m game,” he said brightly.
All the girls, including me, gaped at him. “You want to help clean our homeroom?” Diane demanded in a queer, shrill voice, then blushed when he smiled at her.
“Sure. I’m pretty handy with a broom myself,” he declared as we continued on our way. Although I kept my gaze carefully averted, he still noticed the skepticism on my face. “Joy’s about to pop, but hey, you should have seen me hit a dead cockroach right out the window.” He swung my schoolbag like a baseball bat, reenacting his winning strike, then shot us a rueful grin. “For some reason, the girls were all screaming, and so was our Math teacher who was walking underneath the window at the time. But it got me out of broom-duty for the rest of the term. That takes some skill.”
We laughed, prompting him to share a few more tales of his misadventures at school. But as we passed by the basketball court where some of the boys were already playing, he paused in his story-telling to turn and watch the game. Noticing his look, I grinned and nudged him. “Forget about cleaning up. Go and watch the game.”
“Nah,” he said, turning back to me. “I already said I’d—”
His head swiveled again when a shout arose from the kids standing around the court. Suddenly, Christian stiffened as his gaze fell upon a particular player. “Hey, it’s that guy.”
I followed the direction of his stare. “Yeah, it’s Federico. He’s the best player in our class.”
“He is, huh?” A hard look slid over his features. “I think I’ll go check out the game after all.”
He handed me my bag and apologized charmingly to the others for reneging on his offer of help, although with the rapt way the other girls were gazing at him, he could have told them he was returning to the mother-ship via the girls’ restroom and they would have accepted it without batting an eyelash.
I caught the back of his shirt before he could walk off. “Christian, I know you didn’t promise anything, but please don’t…”
He gave me a quick smile, his gaze softening. “Don’t worry. I won’t do anything. I’m just gonna watch,” he said with suspicious ease.
Sure you are. Because you’re completely the type who’ll settle for just watching from the sidelines, I thought as I watched him stride off toward the court. Then as I turned, I collided into Diane’s glare. “All right, Joy, start talking. Who is he to you, and when and how did you meet?”
At first, Diane and the others hung around the classroom while we cleaned until I was forced to give them a condensed version of how I’d met Christian at a wedding when I was eight, and how our moms were best friends. Upon affirming that he and I were just friends, they departed for the basketball court, ostensibly to keep Christian from feeling lonely watching the game all by himself.
Soon, only the three of us remained, with Mia grumbling about our fellow cleaners’ dereliction of duty and banging the blackboard erasers against the window ledge with more force than necessary. “You’re right, Joy. Christian’s a total prince,” Renee remarked as she wiped down the shelves with a damp rag.
“Is he ever. And he’s nice, too, even if he did choose basketball over helping us.” Mia giggled, finally deciding to show the erasers some mercy.
“So you guys still think I imagined him?” I couldn’t resist teasing them.
Renee shook her head. “No, never. He’s real all right. And now that we’ve seen you with him, it’s pretty easy to tell that you like him a lot,” she added slyly.
The broom slipped out of my suddenly nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor. “It is?” I whispered in horror. Oh God, was I that obvious about my feelings for him? Had everybody seen it? Had Christian?
“Yep, it is,” Mia said cheerfully. “For one thing, do you know that you blush every time he looks at you? And that you haven’t stopped blushing since the moment he showed up?”
“Oh my gosh.” I dropped into a nearby chair and covered my flaming face with my hands. “Oh my gosh, this is awful. What do I do now?”
“It’s not awful at all.”
I peered blearily through my fingers at my friends, who grinned at each other. “Do you want to know why you’ve been blushing all this time?” Mia demanded, then promptly answered her own question: “It’s because he keeps staring at you. And you know what else? When you smile at him, you look—you actually look pretty. It’s true. It’s about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!”
Me, pretty? That can’t be right. “Okay, now who’s imagining things?” I joked weakly.
“No, she’s right. I saw it, too, and so did Arlene and Kay from the other section,” Renee put in. “Joy, are you sure you two are just friends?”
My face grew hot again as memories of Christian tumbled through my mind—our promise to marry each other, the moments we shared, the hugs, the kisses… “To tell you the truth, I have no idea what we are,” I admitted.
“Well, I get the feeling Christian’s got a definite idea about what you are. Maybe you should ask him,” Renee said mischievously.
Before I could think of a response, one of our classmates burst into the room. “Guys, you’ve got to come see this,” she panted.
Mia scowled. “We’re not done. Maybe we would be if some of you’d stick around to help.”
“Forget about the cleaning. You’ve got to come now,” the girl insisted. “Joy, Christian’s playing on Anton’s team, and he’s slaughtering Fed and the others.”
We made it to the court in five seconds flat, pushing our way through the crowd of onlookers, which had gotten much larger than before. It didn’t escape my notice that many of said onlookers were girls from almost every grade level. And in the middle of the court, running around and passing the ball to the other boys, was Christian.
“What’s going on?” I asked one of the girls standing nearby, who happened to be another of our missing co-cleaners, raising my voice to be heard over the din.
“It’s Anton’s team versus Fed’s, but they were down on points then they lost two players because Henry had to go home and Carljoe got called by Mr. Jocson. But Christian was standing there and somebody asked him if he wanted to play on Anton’s team and—and it was just a friendly game at the start but now it’s turned fierce, and it’s incredible but Anton’s team is winning! They’re four players against five and they started out with an eight-point gap and now they’re leading!”
When she gasped for breath, the boy beside her took over. “It’s that guy in red! He’s awesome!” he exclaimed. “He’s been scoring points like it was nothing. He started out passing the ball to everyone else, but now everyone’s passing the ball to him. He even did this—whoa, there he goes again! Whoo-hoooo!”
As the crowd cheered, I spun around in time to see Christian land after his lay-up. Since we were standing near the basket where he’d just sunk his last shot, he quickly caught sight of us, and a huge, completely unrepentant grin broke across his face. Momentarily forgetting about the game, he headed straight toward me, stripping off his sweat-soaked shirt and shoving his sticky bangs off his forehead along the way.
“You’re done? Here, hold this for me for a sec, will you?” he said, handing me his shirt. “I just have to finish this game. Stay and watch me, okay?”
Off he went again, wearing only his jeans and Nikes, his upper body bare like the rest of his team. I looked at the sodden mass of red cloth in my hands, listening to the crowd rave about the outsider kid who played basketball like he was born to it, and decided that as much as I loved him, there were times when what I really wanted to do was give Christian a good kick to the shin. I was seriously beginning to understand his mother’s penchant for screeching his full name every now and then.
Don’t worry, he said. I’m just gonna watch, he said. Christian, you dummy.
Nevertheless, I was riveted to the game, anxiously tracking his every move with my eyes, and reveling in his displays of quick reflexes and nimble footwork. Even knowing that he’d been immersed in almost every kind of sport and martial art since he learned to walk—mostly as an outlet for his over-abundant energy—it always came as kind of a shock to witness firsthand how good he was. Pretty soon, I was cheering as wildly as everyone else and waving like a crazy person whenever he sent a grin my way.
Having the tide of popular opinion turn against them seemed to incense Federico and his team. Their playing grew rougher, and it soon became obvious that Christian was the target of their dirty tricks. Once, on the opposite side of the court where Anton’s team was playing defense, a skirmish resulted in Christian staggering backward when one of Federico’s teammates charged into him. The next happened when Christian was preparing to pass the ball, and was nearly knocked off his feet when Joel shoved one of Christian’s own teammates into him. The crowd shouted their disapproval, but since there was no referee to call the foul, the game went on. When another melee ended up with Christian down on the muddy, pockmarked concrete and Federico circling him with a triumphant look, it was all I could do not to rush onto the court and drag him to safety, and maybe give Federico a kick in a place where the sun didn’t shine like Ate Grace had taught me.
Instead, I settled for gnawing my lips and clutching his shirt to my chest, uncaring of the damp spot it left on my blouse. He got to his feet, and a thrill of fear shot through me when I saw the chilling blankness in his face and the dark fury in his eyes as he confronted Federico. Oh no. Christian was pissed. As the crowd tensely waited, the other players surrounded the two, with Anton, who was braver than I’d thought, stepping in between them.
Beside me, Mia bit her knuckle in distress. “This is bad. It’s going to be a fight.”
“Fed’s going to kick Christian’s butt. That mean, nasty jerk,” Renee muttered.
“No, he won’t,” I heard myself say. “If anyone’s going to kick butt, it’ll be Christian.” When my friends stared at me, I summoned a confident smile. “He’s been holding back all this time and letting his teammates shine. He’s got a lot more in him than this.”
“Ate! Ate Joy!”
I turned toward the piping voice and found Faith trying to squeeze her way through the crowd, her face flushed and her long pigtails askew. I grabbed her hand and pulled until she popped out from the mass of bodies, and she immediately directed her attention toward the court. “Is that Kuya Christian? What’s he doing here? And why is that dumdum trying to pick a fight with him?” she demanded incredulously.
I opened my mouth to answer, but was distracted when the crowd began to cheer again. “It’s going to be a one-on-one, first to score two points,” the boy near us announced. “Man, I’ve never seen a game this intense!”
Sure enough, the other players had retreated until only three people remained in the center of the court: Christian and Federico standing facing each other, and Anton at the side holding the ball. Federico had his back to us, but from where we were, I could clearly see the cold, purposeful set of Christian’s features, his eyes like chips of stone. He said something to Federico that made the other boy stiffen and look over his shoulder at me, bewilderment and dawning dismay scrawled all over his face. Even Anton turned to look at me, as did the other players. Only Christian kept his eyes fixed on Federico until the other boy nodded jerkily to whatever it was he’d said.
I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed the exchange. “Joy, are they…talking about you?” Renee wondered.
“I can’t hear what they’re saying. Something about a deal?” the boy near us muttered.
A peculiar thought crossed my mind: Christian had intended for the game to turn out this way, with the two of them squaring off in a one-on-one match in lieu of an actual fight. A convoluted, impossible scenario unfolded in my mind: Christian focusing on boosting his teammates’ morale to win them over to his side, with his occasional displays of fancy shooting to impress the crowd—all intended to neutralize Federico’s advantage of being in his home-territory and having buddies around…Christian enduring all those flagrant fouls until that last one, which he promptly used to turn the game into a duel…Everything that happened he had deliberately and calculatingly used to produce this result.
And the result was nothing less than Christian showing Federico that hurting me could mean one’s total annihilation.
Admiration flashed through me at the way his mind worked even as the realization of what he was capable of when his dark side was in control left me feeling unsettled. That Christian had it in him to methodically and cold-bloodedly manipulate a situation just so he could get his way…I mouthed a silent prayer that I never got on his bad side, because he’d make one scary enemy.
He’s protecting me. Outrageous as it is, he’s doing this for me. I hugged his shirt more tightly as a wave of shivery-enchanting emotions filled me. Oh my gosh. Who’d have thought that fat, dark, unlikable me could know what it felt like to have a boy like Christian fighting for me? Although, to be honest, what it actually felt like was absolutely nerve-wracking.
Anton tossed the ball into the air, and the game began. And it was mercifully brief. Just as I’d thought, Christian had been saving his best moves for this moment, easily stealing the ball from a shaken Federico, feinting and spinning around him, and as a finale, scoring a perfect, almost casual three-point shot over the other boy’s head. The crowd went nuts, completely unconcerned that Christian was the interloper who’d just kicked the local superstar’s butt in front of half the school. His teammates, led by Anton, surrounded him, as did his fans. Even Mr. Pinto appeared from out of nowhere to bellow his congratulations. “Son, you’ve got enough talent to turn pro someday,” he proclaimed, clapping him on the back.
Christian flashed his lopsided grin. “Thanks, Sir, but I kinda like soccer better. But everyone played great, especially Anton and Fed. Thanks for letting me play, guys.”
Anton and his teammates beamed with pride. On the other side of the court, Federico and his friends were looking sullen and resentful. No surprise there, after Christian had served them a heaping bowlful of humiliation in the flashiest possible way. Then Federico’s glare shifted to me, and the hatred and contempt in his face made me flinch. Somehow, I had a feeling that despite Christian’s efforts, things had just taken a turn for the worse for me.
Since then, Christian’s status as a legend in Don Mateo was cemented. Months and even years later, people still talked about the handsome prince dressed in royal crimson and blue who rode in one day on a huge, black chariot, took on the school’s best players and trounced them all, then vanished as quickly as he’d come. Where once I worried that nobody would believe me if I told them about Christian, now I had an entire school gushing about him as if he was a character straight out of a fairytale. But the story of his mysterious appearance at Don Mateo didn’t end there.
Even while he was accepting the adulation of his fans, he kept turning his head this way and that as though searching for something. When he found me standing with my sister and two friends at the back of the crowd, his whole face lit up. He headed toward us, with the crowd parting to make way for him, until he stopped right in front of me.
“Hi, Joy,” he said, smiling crookedly.
I gazed up into his face and smiled back. “Hi, Christian.”
“Hey, Kuya, I’m here too, you know!” Faith cried, jumping in between us. “You were awesome back there. Awesome, awesome, awesome! How’d you learn to play like that? I thought all you could do was punch stuff while wearing pajamas. And what’re you doing here in our school? Are we going on a play-date? Did you come to pick us up? Is Ate Grace coming, too? Ooh, ooh, can you buy me ice cream along the way? I want chocolate ice cream, but strawberry’s okay, too. Can we—mmrmph.”
I covered her mouth with my hand as Christian, who’d been looking a bit overwhelmed, started to laugh. “Oh, Faith, it’s you. I thought a bomb had gone off somewhere,” he teased, pretending to stick his fingers into his ears and wiggling them.
Mia and Renee offered their own congratulations, and as he kidded around with them, I found myself staring at him as if hypnotized. Even mud-splattered and sweaty, with his hair sticking up in wet clumps, he still looked so good I half-wondered if I hadn’t dreamt him up. But unless everyone else was dreaming too, he was as real as I was, and I was suddenly, blazingly happy that I lived in a world where Christian existed.
I almost jumped when he turned to me. “So what did you think?” he asked casually as a blush tinged his cheeks.
“I think you lied when you told me you were just going to watch the game,” I pretended to scold him, shoving his shirt into his arms.
He winced, one hand coming up to rub the back of his head. “Um, yeah. Sorry. I guess I kind of got carried away. But at least those guys won’t bother you for a while.”
I nodded, unable to speak. He continued to stare at me, his expression edging into uncertainty. “You aren’t even a little impressed? It might help if you lower your standards,” he joked, tossing his shirt up and down.
“Christian—”He snatched his shirt out of the air and looked at me again. For once ignoring all the people still watching, I decided to go for broke. “I want…”
“Yeah?” He moved closer.
I peeked up at him and confessed in a whisper, “I really want to hug you right now.”
His eyes widened fractionally, then turned as warm as melted chocolate. “So why don’t you?” he murmured, his voice low and inviting.
I wrinkled my nose and stepped away from him. “You stink,” I informed him. “You’re dirty and sweaty and gross.”
He blinked, then twirled his shirt into a whip and began flicking me with it while I laughed and held my hands out to fend off his attacks. Then I heard someone call out: “Hey, Christian, are you and Joy friends?”
“Huh? No, we’re not. I thought I made that clear.” As I reeled inside from what felt like a blow to the chest, he slung his shirt over one shoulder and, in plain view of everyone, slid his arm around my waist and pulled me close until I was pressed up against the length of his bare, sweat-cooled side. “I’m her boyfriend,” Christian announced in a voice like steel wrapped in silk. “Joy’s mine and don’t any of you forget it.”
Like any fairytale, Don Mateo’s legendary prince had a princess. And for one magical moment, I knew what it felt like to be that princess. Even better, I knew what it felt like to be Christian’s princess. I turned my face into his shoulder, and smiled.
Cinderella never had it so good.
– – – – – –
My eleventh summer came as a mixed blessing. I welcomed summer vacation, which meant a much-needed break from all the teasing I was being subjected to almost daily at school by then. I was glad as well that Mia and Renee would get a breather from having to defend me all the time. I had the feeling they were getting sick of playing the role of my bodyguards, especially during those last few weeks of class. I couldn’t blame them. Sometimes, even I felt disgusted with myself and my lack of a spine. All I seemed to be able to do was run and hide and cry. If I was becoming someone strong enough to stand up for myself like I’d promised Christian, then there was precious little evidence of it as of yet.
However, summer vacation also meant that time was running out. I’d drawn a little calendar plotting the days till the first exam in July and stuck this on the side of the bureau beside our bed so that it would be the first thing I saw in the morning when I woke up. Seeing the little notches marking the days of the three months before July slowly getting crossed out filled me with an electric sense of purpose mixed with low-grade anxiety. There was so much I needed to do and so little time to do it, which is a nutty thing to think about when you’re eleven years old, and all you’re expected to fill your time with during summer break were chores, playing with the other kids, and watching as many cartoons as you could possibly get away with.
For the first few weeks, it seemed as if things were going my way. With Ate Grace being resolutely on vacation-mode as well, I had more or less free reign over her schoolbooks and notebooks. When she asked why I was so interested in her school stuff, I offered some spun-sugar tale about how my grades had not been as good as I’d wanted them to be this year so I wanted to do much better next year. She’d eyed me skeptically at first, but I put on a pious expression and nattered on and on about every single item in the finals that I’d answered wrong until she ended up fleeing the house entirely. Since then, she’d been content to leave me to my own weird obsessions.
As for Faith, who could out-pester a tabloid news-writer scenting a scandal, I threw her off by keeping several Valentine romances tucked among the schoolbooks, and switching books whenever she appeared. It tickled me to think that I used to do the reverse—reading romances while pretending to be studying—although I did end up actually reading a few novels while making my way through science and history. I soothed my conscience with the thought that it was still summer vacation, after all.
One afternoon, I paid a visit to Aling Pacita’s house at the end of our block. The house was dominated by a mini-grocery store tended by Aling Pacita herself, who reigned over the store like a loud, gregarious queen, her matronly figure resplendently dressed in garish, multicolored house-dresses. She spotted me and waved me into the store, asking how Nanay and Tatay were doing and if I’d topped my class again this past school year. She directed me to the rows of sweets and potato chips, and when I shook my head, she pointed instead at a shelf displaying the latest Valentine romance novels. I shook my head again, and when she lifted her eyebrow questioningly, I stammered, “Um, is Ate Marian here? I—I wanted to ask her something.”
Ate Marian, Aling Pacita’s youngest, was a junior in college then. I found her in the kitchen beginning preparations for dinner, and when I asked her if I could borrow her reviewers, she gave me a confused look, then went upstairs and reappeared with a couple of massive books that turned out to be college entrance exam reviewers.
As I stared down at the incomprehensible questions, she said, “If you’re looking for high school reviewers, I’m sorry, but I don’t have any. I attended GNS myself.”
“Which doesn’t have an entrance exam,” she added meaningfully.
I looked up into her face. “I’m going to try for a private school, Ate.”
“Really? Which one?
“St. Helene Academy.”
Her eyes went wide. “Oh. Then you do need reviewers, I suppose. When’s the exam?” When I’d shared some of the details of my plans with her, she pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Have you tried Jake over at Macopa Street? It hasn’t been that long since he took the exam for that all-boys’ school.”
I couldn’t repress a small sigh. Kuya Jake had been my next option, but I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about approaching him. Not after he’d dubbed me “Butterball” and kept bugging me about going on a diet every time we encountered each other and he bothered to remember who I was. In short, he reminded me of a Mr. Pinto Junior. But I was running short on options, so Kuya Jake it would be.
Noticing my dispirited expression, Ate Marian smiled again. “You know something? You remind me of me, Joy. I understand what it’s like to work for a dream. I know what. I’ve got classes most days, but if it’s okay with you—and if you can get your hands on a reviewer—I can tutor you in the subjects you need every…let’s see…Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings for an hour and a half. Sunday, too, if you’re up to it.”
“You will? Really? I mean, yes! Yes, please,” I gasped, gazing at her with such joy and gratitude that it made her laugh.
We walked back to the store, and Aling Pacita nodded approvingly when Ate Marian explained to her about our tutoring schedule and the reason for it. “Nice to see children spending their time wisely instead of just playing computer games,” she said. “But St. Helene Academy? The tuition there’s no can of beans, from what I hear. Do Dita and Ramon know something I don’t know? Maybe I ought to ask—”
“No, please, don’t tell them, Aling Pacita,” I blurted in a panic, then winced when both Ate Marian and Aling Pacita stared at me. “I—I haven’t told my parents about my plans yet. I don’t want to worry them or be a bother to them. I might not even make it past the first exam, and then I’d have worried them for nothing.”
Aling Pacita gave me a stern look. “Child, you must tell your parents. This isn’t something you can decide on your own yet.”
“I know. I mean, I will.” It wasn’t a lie. I did intend to tell Nanay…er, well, soon enough. Tatay as well. Both the application form and scholarship form did require at least one parent’s signature. But my heart balked at the idea. I could imagine three scenarios: My parents refusing to sign the application because we couldn’t afford a St. Helene education anyway so why bother; my parents signing the application form and giving me their full support, only to end up disappointed in me when I failed the exam; or me passing the exams with their approval but failing to get the scholarship and having to either give up on my dream or watch my parents break their backs just to keep me in that expensive school. I honestly didn’t know which one was worse. “Right now, I just want to see if I could…I want to try doing this for myself for now. So please, don’t tell them yet. Let me tell them first,” I finished somewhat lamely.
“I see,” Aling Pacita said. “You want to try standing on your own two feet, eh? Very well. How about this, then? You can help tend our store on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoons. You can explain to your parents that you’re working here. Of course, I can give you a small commission, depending on how much the store earns on those days. You can save up for your own schooling. What do you say, Joy?”
I walked home in a happy daze. The next day, when I went over to Kuya Jake’s house to borrow his reviewers, his painful pinches on my cheek and remarks about my Butterballness barely registered. For the next weeks, I spent the mornings studying and doing my chores, then every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons went over to Aling Pacita’s. She would put me to work stacking cans, bottles and packages on the shelves, freshening up the vegetables in their baskets and the rice in their bins, arranging the school supplies, magazines and romance novels on the racks, dusting, wiping, cleaning windows and sweeping the floor, and any other task she set me to, up to and including making her coffee and relaying her messages to her small army of sons scattered across the neighborhood. I did all those willingly and gratefully.
Later, Ate Marian would come home, and I would sit in the kitchen with her doing practice tests from Kuya Jake’s reviewers and going through Ate Grace’s old schoolbooks with Ate Marian’s help. Sundays were a little different, what with Mass in the mornings, but the days and weeks soon followed the pattern. Sometimes, Nanay or Tatay or Ate Grace and Faith would drop by Aling Pacita’s to visit and, in Faith’s case, try to finagle a free popsicle or stick of ice candy from me. Sometimes, I’d feel Aling Pacita’s eyes on me, watching and questioning, “Have you told them yet?” and I’d duck away and busy myself with work to keep from meeting her gaze.
Besides securing Ate Marian’s help, working at Aling Pacita’s gave me my first taste of what it was like to earn my own money, most of which I put into my St. Helene savings, with a little going to the nest-egg Christian had given to me to grow. From the moment I received my very first pay, enclosed in a little red envelope, I discovered a love for earning money and the creativity involved in it. With my pay hinged on how much the store earned per day, I took a personal interest in raising the store’s earnings. It started simply at first, with me making note of which items left the shelves the fastest and which gathered the most dust, and reporting this to Aling Pacita who, bless her, took me seriously enough to keep my tentative observations in mind when she restocked her inventory. I arranged the shelves as attractively as I could and kept the store meticulously clean.
Upon observing that in the early evenings, a lot of the customers bought vegetables, rice, dried fish or canned food for dinner, I asked Aling Pacita’s permission to arrange a kind of buffet with bunched “sets” of vegetables, pre-packed rice in bags, dried and canned food and spices on a rack in front of the store so it would be easier for the customers to just pack the items they need into a bag and hand it to me to be rung up. In the afternoons, people tired out from the heat would seek shelter for a while in the store’s shade, so I learned to put a few bottles of water and sodas, snacks and posters advertising popsicles and ice candies on display at the front of the store.
Eventually, Aling Pacita began to trust me enough to handle the sales. She showed me the store’s account-book and which column to log in a sale and how to do the math. I remember my stage-fright the first time I handled a sale, with my voice whispery and my hands trembling even with Aling Pacita looking over my shoulder. I remember the flush of triumph I felt after, and how handling sales got easier for me after that. One slow afternoon, she even taught me how to do the inventory and where she went for the best bargain prices for wholesale stock and how to markup items by no more than 20 percent, because affordably-priced items meant more customers and more earnings overall. Yes, Aling Pacita was my very first business administration mentor, and I carried the lessons she taught me throughout my life.
But most of all, I watched the way she dealt with the customers, addressing each one by name and inquiring about their family or some other personal detail. She even remembered the products the customers came to her store to buy, and would often tell me to fetch this and that item even before the customers had finished asking for what they wanted. Her memory was mind-boggling, but it was her unflappable good humor that attracted people to her the most.
What amazed me was that she was a big woman herself, which meant she got her fair share of teasing from the neighborhood folks and the jeepney and tricycle drivers. But the teasing remarks just rolled off her like water off a duck’s back, and she’d often turn the comments back on whoever inflicted it with a dose of witty banter. She never ran and hid, she never tried to grin and bear it, and she never tried to make herself seem smaller or invisible, which was impossible anyway, given her choice of outfits. Most of all, she never bothered with anyone’s opinion of her.
I found myself observing her surreptitiously. Later, in what had to be one of the scariest things I’d done to date, I began experimenting with imitating her approach with the customers, smiling and greeting them as they entered the store and asking if they needed help instead of retreating behind the counter. To my amazement, the customers responded warmly to me for the most part, and it made me feel good to see them leaving the store with smiles on their faces, and to know that I and the store had made their lives a little bit easier.
But the teasing and criticisms about my weight still stung, making me curl in on myself and want to hide away. This became rather inconvenient, since many of the customers’ first impulse upon seeing me was to make some comment about my weight and my looks and call me a cutesy-sounding but hurtful name like Miss Chubby or Piglet.
When I haltingly asked Aling Pacita what I could do to make people stop teasing me or calling me names, she threw her head back and laughed. “Child, what impossible thing are you asking for?” Upon seeing the hurt, incredulous look on my face, she reigned in her laughter and waved a hand in the air apologetically. “Listen, my dear. People will talk. People will always say nasty, hurtful and untrue things, and people will always want to believe them. You can be beautiful, rich, powerful, whatever, and people will still find something wrong about you. Why do you think we sell so many of those?” she said, pointing at the rack that held the tabloids and showbiz gossip rags.
“You know, most people, they don’t really think about what they say,” she went on as I set a cup and saucer of coffee in front of her. “The words just come out of their mouths to fill up the empty spaces with noise, and they don’t stop to think about what they fill the spaces with. They’re too busy moving on to the next thing that will make them feel good. It’s like farting, you know? When you fart, you feel good afterward, but it’s the other people who have to deal with your stink.” She flapped a hand in front of her face as though to ward off a bad smell, making me giggle. “That’s how it is with most people. They don’t mean to hurt you; they just don’t think. You can’t be spending all your time fighting unthinkingness. You’ll never get anything done! So let it go, child. Some things aren’t worth tiring yourself out with constant anger.”
I imagined the casual criticisms and name-calling as people’s verbal farts. I pictured some of the customers, Kuya Jake, my classmates and even Mr. Pinto as cartoon characters with plump, butt-shaped faces arranged in a pleasantly bland expression that was completely at odds with the noxious gray clouds and stink lines emerging from their mouths. I giggled some more. It was a ridiculous image, to be sure. “But Aling Pacita, some of them do mean it,” I said, thinking about Federico and Diane.
Aling Pacita smiled over her coffee cup. “Then choose your battles, child, and when you go into battle, don’t hold back. Believe me, your anger, in the right time and place, is your best ally.”
A customer came in then, and I picked up my small basket of cleaning materials and began to wipe down the bathroom and laundry detergents shelf, straightening the bottles into neat rows. When the customer left, I drifted back to the counter and watched her log the sale in the account-book. “How do you do it, Aling Pacita?” I wondered out loud. “It’s like you’re never bothered about what they say about you. But me, sometimes I wonder—I mean I know I’m fat and dark and ugly, but sometimes I wonder if I’m—if I’m as fat and dark and ugly as they say I am.”
I stared at the floor and twisted my rag in embarrassment. Oh my gosh, she’s going to think I’m completely pathetic. Why did I say all that anyway? But instead of telling me to get my pathetic self busy cleaning the shelves, she just fixed me a surprised, thoughtful look. “Who says you’re fat and dark and ugly, child?”
I shrugged. “Everyone.”
“Ah, that’s your mistake right there. You’re listening to everyone,” she pointed out, jabbing at the air with her pen. “Choose the people whose opinions about you matter the most. Choose the people you will listen to, and leave the rest where they lie. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“Which people should I listen to then?”
“Why, the ones who love you, of course,” she said matter-of-factly. “The ones who are most important to you.”
I thought about that. Who were the people whose opinions mattered the most to me? The ones who were most important to me? Well, that was easy. There were my parents, my sisters, Mia and Renee and now Aling Pacita and Ate Marian. And Christian, of course. Christian, who never once thought of me as fat and dark and ugly. Christian, who believed I could do anything I set my heart to. At the thought of him, my lips curved upward in a smile. But just to be sure: “How can I tell if they really love me?” I asked.
She laughed and shook her head knowingly, apparently able to tell that I was becoming a bit facetious. “Child, the people who really love you are the ones who build you up, not tear you down. They make you stronger, better and wiser. The ones who make you weaker, smaller and unsure of yourself? You leave them where they lie.”
“But how can I tell? What if I make a mistake and listen to the wrong person? How can I tell whether somebody’s telling the truth about me or not?”
“Why, you pay attention to the one person whose thoughts and feelings matter more than anyone else’s. That’s how you can tell the truth from someone else’s opinion.”
Just then, some neighborhood ladies came in and she began chatting with them, leaving our conversation hanging in the air. I huffed in frustration. The one person whose thoughts and feelings mattered the most? Who was this all-powerful, all-important person? Nanay? Tatay? My sisters? My best friends? Christian?
God? Ah, that was it. It had to be God. That was why we went to Sunday Mass after all, to get His opinion on stuff.
I shook my head and left it at that, focusing instead on ringing up some sales. But the question kept coming back to haunt me all throughout my tutoring session, until even Ate Marian commented on how distracted I was. Finally, I excused myself, dashed back to the store and waited for Aling Pacita to finish another conversation. “It’s God, isn’t it? The one person whose thoughts and feelings matter more than anyone else’s,” I demanded, fully expecting her to congratulate me on solving the riddle.
Instead, she seemed to give it some thought. “God? Ah, yes, I suppose. God loves us unconditionally. But child, until we meet Him face to face, we have to have other people tell us what He thinks. We are blessed to have His servants helping us, of course, but somebody else’s opinion about you matters even more than His servants’.”
I frowned, rather piqued now. “Whose? Who is this person?”
She laughed then. “Why, you, of course.”
I still didn’t get it then, and I spent a long time pondering what she said and what it meant to me afterward. But it is the single most important lesson that Aling Pacita taught me that one night in my eleventh summer, which turned out to be one of the best summers of my life. And because of that, I found that I’d grown a little stronger after all, a little more able to stand up for myself, and a little closer to fulfilling my promise to Christian and making my dreams come true.