When Ate Grace arrived to pick us up at school and came face to fender with a black SUV waiting at the school gates, with Faith and me sticking our heads out the window and waving, the look of shock and perplexity on her face could only be described as comical.
The shock wore off as we explained things to her while Christian went in search of a working faucet so he could wash off the worst of the mud and sweat. She stayed perplexed though, especially after Faith’s breathless recounting of the basketball game, Christian’s one-on-one duel with Federico and finally, his declaration of our relationship before half the student body of Don Mateo. Which was why, when we were sitting in the back seat as Mang Chito maneuvered the huge vehicle through the streets of our town, Ate Grace leaned sideways and muttered to me for about the twentieth time: “No, really, what is he doing here?”
“He’s taking us on a play-date, can’t you tell?” Before I could set Faith straight—he hadn’t actually told us yet why he’d showed up so unexpectedly at our school—she bounced around until she was facing the back of the car, where Christian was changing out of his filthy jeans and into an emergency set of clothes and shoes that somebody, who clearly knew him well, stowed in a gym bag in the back of the car. “Isn’t that why you came to our school, Kuya?” she burbled. “I mean, besides to show everyone how awesome you are and tell them that you’re Ate Joy’s boyfriend. Oh, haha, that’s weird. Your underpants are just boring old white. I think red would suit you better—mmrmph!”
I yanked my chattering monkey of a little sister down and covered her mouth with my hand, while Ate Grace snorted with laughter. “Sheesh, do you mind?!” Christian squawked, and even his voice sounded as if it were blushing ten shades of red. I started to giggle as well, especially since the erratic thumps in the back made it easy to picture him rolling around on the floor tugging on a clean pair of pants while trying to shield himself from view. He was obviously not used to living in close quarters with a too-candid-for-her-own-good sibling, but when his baby brother grew up he’d learn. Oh yes, he would learn.
Knocking my hand aside, Faith grinned slyly up at me. “Bet you wish you saw Kuya’s underpants too, huh?”
My laughter turned into coughing fit. “No way! Shut up!” I hissed, plastering my hand across her mouth again. Faith shoved me off and scrabbled backward, but before I could make a grab for her throat, Christian’s face appeared over the back rest, wearing an equally roguish grin.
“She can look. The rest of you can’t, especially you, Faith,” he declared.
I twisted around to glare at him while Faith clapped her hands to her face and squealed like a scandalized old lady. On my other side, Ate Grace howled and pretended to shudder all over. Ignoring my sisters, I climbed to my knees and faced him across the back seat, too indignant at the moment to appreciate how good he looked in the cargo shorts and white Beastie Boys T-shirt he’d changed into, even with his hair still a damp, spiky mess. “Who says I want to look at your underpants?” I demanded, flicking him on the forehead.
“Ow! Hey, it’s not like I’d be wearing them at the time. Is that what you thought?” he countered with a smirk, rubbing his forehead.
“No! I don’t think about your stupid underpants at all!” I lifted my hand to flick him again, but he evaded my strike by dropping back on his butt in the middle of the sweaty clothes, muddy shoes and dirty socks scattered about. “Come back here so I can flick you properly,” I mock-growled, leaning over the back rest and reaching for him, thumb and middle finger poised at the ready, while he laughed and scooted out of range.
“You are so gross, Christian,” Ate Grace gasped. “That’s it. Whatever you’re here for, I don’t want to know anymore.”
“Faith started it,” he protested, jerking his thumb at the innocently giggling offender. “How should I know what girls think about?”
“Not boys’ underpants,” Ate Grace and I said in unison. “You pervert,” I added for good measure.
“I’m not a pervert.”
“Per-vert! Per-vert! Ku-ya’s a per-vert!” Faith chanted.
A cunning look crossed Christian’s face. “Fine, but I’ve heard that perverts don’t treat annoying kids to chocolate ice cream. Right, Mang Chito?”
Mang Chito glanced at us in the rearview mirror. “Yep,” he said in the tone of somebody who was willing to say anything on the slim chance it would make the racket stop.
“Awww.” Faith pouted, then the next instant her face smoothed back into a sparkling smile. “Okay, you’re not a pervert. I love you, Kuya Christian,” she cooed, batting her eyelashes and managing to look adorable yet vaguely irritating. Then she ruined it by turning to us and asking in a normal voice: “What’s a pervert?”
In the middle of Ate Grace’s lecture on pervertedness, I glanced at Christian and caught him studying me with a strange expression. When our eyes met, he gave me a small smile that made me blush and drop my gaze. By then, the discussion had already shifted to what flavor ice cream my sisters were going to make Christian treat them to, and the sadness I’d glimpsed in his chocolate eyes had been masked again by their usual spark of humor. I frowned. He was acting weird, even though nobody else seemed to notice it, and I promised myself I’d get to the bottom of this real soon.
We dropped by Aling Pacita’s store for chocolate ice-cream bars before continuing on home. To our surprise, Nanay had come home early from work. As Christian greeted her, I noted that she seemed to have been expecting him. She even handed him a shopping bag full of presents for his mom, as well as the rest of Ate Grace’s fudge brownies packed in a plastic container for Mang Chito and his family. They talked about odd stuff, too, like “have you finished packing?” and “are you excited about school?” and “help your mommy with the baby, especially on the plane, all right?”
Packing? Plane? Were they going on vacation again or something?
Catching sight of me lurking behind a corner eavesdropping on their conversation, Nanay stopped and told me to get dressed. “Get dressed for what?” I asked, even more confused.
“Yeah, she just got home,” Ate Grace added as she walked by, having already changed into shorts and a T-shirt, moving to help Nanay with dinner preparations. Faith darted past and began setting a place at the table for Christian and Mang Chito.
Nanay and Christian exchanged glances, and she nodded at him. “Actually, you’re coming with me,” he told me. “We’re having a sleepover at my house. I’ve already asked our moms for permission.”
Excitement and happiness nearly made me burst. “I am? We are? Really?” I squeaked, and he grinned and nodded.
“Yaaay!” Faith cheered. “We’re going to Ku-ya’s! We’re going swim-ming!”
Nanay shook her head. “No, anak. Just your Ate Joy and Christian.”
“Whaaaat?!” My sister’s face scrunched up like old newspaper left in the rain. “No fair! Why’s Ate Joy the only one going on a sleepover?”
A blush rose in Christian’s face. “Uh, sorry,” he muttered, tugging at the hair at the back of his head. “It’s kind of a…well, it’s a…”
“Christian’s prepared a little birthday surprise for your ate,” Nanay interjected, reaching out to smooth down Faith’s pigtails. “She’ll tell you all about it when she comes home tomorrow, all right?”
Endlessly intrigued now, I glanced at Christian, who reddened some more and shrugged. But Faith wasn’t about to give up when she was in the groove. “But I wanna have a sleepover, too,” she whined, training wide puppy-eyes on Christian. “Kuya, can’t I come with you? Please, please, pleeeease?”
“Oh, be quiet, you dummy,” Ate Grace snapped. “They’re not going on a play-date, they’re going on a date-date. You’re not his girlfriend, so of course you can’t come.”
Faith glared at her. “I am so his girlfriend. And so is Ate Joy, and so are you. We’re all his girlfriends, so we ought to come along, too.”
Nanay shook her head as a heated discussion of what exactly constituted a girlfriend ensued, then she looked over at me. “Joy, what are you waiting for?”
I jumped, realizing that all I’d been doing was staring at Christian like a dope. “Oh! Right, I’ll—oh my gosh, I have to pack.”
“No need. I’ve already packed your bag for you.”
Nanay pointed to a corner where our old travel bag sat waiting. Overcome with emotion, I threw my arms around my mother. “Thanks, ‘Nay.”
Then I stepped back and looked at Christian, who raised his eyebrows and said, “So are you coming or not?”
I zipped through a shower, helping myself to some of Ate Grace’s bubblegum-scented cologne, then spent a few minutes agonizing over what to wear, painfully aware that nothing I owned would ever make me look slim, fair-skinned and pretty. Settling for human-looking and decent, I decided on a stretchy blue shirt with bell sleeves that Ate Grace had rarely worn because she thought it was too girly, and a pair of tan shorts that looked like a skirt from the front. I ran a comb through my neck-length hair then tried on Faith’s oversized daisy hairclips. My reflection in the mirror made me cringe, and with a hopeless sigh, I yanked the hairclips off and planted a blue headband on my head instead. On impulse, I took my tin box out and pocketed the velvet pouch that contained my wedding-promise ring.
When I came back into the kitchen, everybody turned and stared at me. Convinced I’d overdone it, I ducked my head and began backing away. “Sorry. I’ll go change—”
I looked at Christian, who flushed. “You look really cute,” he said, and judging from the look on my mother’s face, he had just elevated himself to the status of hero in her eyes. “Anyway, we gotta go or Mom’ll start wondering if we’d gotten lost or something.”
He said his goodbyes to Nanay, who swept him into a hug. Not to be outdone, Faith threw herself at him, pleading with him to come and play with us again soon.
“Hey Romeo, take care of my sis or I’ll beat you up.” Ate Grace grinned at him as she pulled our flailing little sister off of him. “I don’t care how many black belts you’ve got, I’ll kick your ass if you make her cry.”
“Ate!” I exclaimed.
But all he did was grin back and salute smartly. “Got it. See you around, Ate Grace,” he said, and if he hesitated just the slightest bit, I was the only one who saw it.
We waved goodbye and climbed into the SUV, with Christian taking my bag and tossing it in the backseat. On the drive to his house, he told me all about the new videos he had that we could watch later, and his new PC and Playstation games that might interest me. He also asked me a bunch of questions about my school, and whether I preferred popcorn or potato chips when watching videos, and if Nanay had packed my bathing suit along. This last one led to us digging through my travel bag and unearthing its contents until the back seat resembled the disaster area in the trunk, triggering mournful sighs from Mang Chito.
I in turn asked him about his own impressions of my friends, what it was like for him with a baby in the house, and what kind of music he was into nowadays (that part thanks to his Beastie Boys shirt). The conversation bounced along easily, as though the few months since we last saw each never happened, with Christian cracking jokes and me teasing him about his slightly off-putting and perverted sense of humor. I marveled anew at how I could be so comfortable around him when by all rights I should have been paralyzed with nervousness. Here I was in the presence of the cutest boy I’d ever met, whose life was so different from mine it was like he was from another world altogether. A boy I happened to have the most horrible crush on. I should have been all stiff and self-conscious and hopelessly clumsy, alternating between scrutinizing my every move and questioning his motives and his sanity. Instead, I was relaxed and natural around him, even more so than when I was with my best friends. A part of me wondered if I wasn’t the one who had gone insane. Or if I was being, at the very least, laughably presumptuous. In the real world, things like this did not happen to girls like me. They just…didn’t.
Then again, I was well under Christian’s spell right now. Whoever said the rules of the real world applied when his magic was at work?
Darkness descended over me as my bath towel, which Nanay had carefully folded and packed into the bottom of my travel bag, dropped over my head. I pulled the mass of green terrycloth off and pretended to glare at Christian, who smirked as he smoothed down some strands of my hair. “So where’d you go off to this time?”
“What do you mean, where’d I go off to this time?”
“Well, sometimes you get this look on your face, like you’re watching something that no one else can see. It makes me wonder what you’re thinking of when you’re looking like that.”
Ignoring the telltale warmth on my cheeks, I tossed the towel over his head as I answered primly, “Well, you can keep on wondering, because I am not telling you.”
“Okay, now I have to know.”
His threatening tone was my only warning before he snatched the towel off and bunched it into a cord, then lassoed my neck with it and began tugging it briskly left and right, as though he was trying to quick-dry the back of my head. Squealing with laughter, I hunched over and tried to shove him away. We wrestled around on the back seat for a few minutes, the towel getting more tangled up between us, the big car shuddering as we simultaneously tried to tickle and throw the other off.
Finally, he went still. Thinking it was safe for me to peer out from underneath the towel where I’d been huddling, I found him leaning over me and gazing at me with that strange expression I’d seen before. He seemed to catch himself, and his expression turned evil. “So, are you ready to sing or should I continue with the…interrogation?”
“I’ll talk! Please, Sir, I’ll be good!” I struggled to sit up and raised my hands in surrender, my voice scratchy from laughing so much. “I was just thinking I hadn’t thanked you yet for your birthday gift. This sleepover—I mean, wow. It really surprised me. I love it, Christian. Thank you,” I finished in an almost-whisper, suddenly afraid that I’d revealed everything I felt for him in that little thank-you speech. It might be too late to hide the fact that I liked him, but at least I could try to keep from being too soppy about it in front of him. That would just be pathetic.
He blinked. “Wait, you think this sleepover is my birthday surprise for you?”
“Um, yeah. Isn’t it?”
He stared at me for a moment, then chuckled. “Heh, okay, you’re sort of right, I guess. Hey, was there anything you wanted for your birthday?”
“No, nothing,” I replied, a little startled by the abrupt shift.
“Nothing? There was nothing you wanted but didn’t get? Nothing at all?”
“Nothing at all. I had a great birthday yesterday,” I declared emphatically. “Nanay cooked pancit and dinuguan, and Tatay barbecued some pork ribs, and Ate baked her super-delicious fudge brownies for dessert. Faith even gave me a—a book I’d wanted. She actually saved up for it and everything.” I refrained from adding that the book in question was a romance novel that Faith had purchased from Aling Pacita’s store. Valentine romances were hardly what you’d use when trying to impress your crush with your refined taste in literature.
Christian grinned. “A romance novel again?”
“No, it is not.” Heat flared up in my face as my gaze skittered away.
He sighed. “So anyway, there’s really nothing you wish you had on your birthday?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. E-except maybe, um…”
“Yeah? Except what? What is it?”
I laughed in embarrassment. “Nothing. Sorry. It’s just something really dumb.”
“Joy, what is it?” he growled, brandishing the towel again.
“Balloons!” I blurted, then sighed in defeat. “Look, if you really want to know, we went to a birthday party last weekend, and there were all these pretty balloons there. The helium ones, the ones that can fly, not the boring ones on sticks. I guess I…well, never mind. I was just being childish. Besides, Nanay said helium balloons are bad for the environment because dolphins eat them and end up dying, so… Ugh. See? I told you it was dumb,” I grumbled, shooting him a disgruntled look at his having forced me to reveal my secret.
His lips curled in a self-satisfied smile before he turned to poke his head in the space between the front seats. “Mang Chito, you think we can go pick it up now?”
“Yep. We’re almost there,” Mang Chito replied.
Christian refused to say anything more as we swung into the parking lot of a two-storey shopping center. We got down, and I obligingly followed him up to a flower and party-favor shop on the second floor. I wandered around the shop admiring the profusion of cut flowers, balloon arrangements, stuffed toys and party decor while Christian spoke to the lady behind the counter. I had just bent down to a beautiful, long-stemmed red rose to breathe in its scent when I heard my name. Straightening, I turned and nearly bumped my nose against a gigantic yellow heart made of foil. The balloon was easily wider than I was, and a smiley face painted in the middle of the heart beamed as though enormously pleased at having managed to scare me.
Then the balloon flew up, revealing Christian’s face wreathed in a grin twice as big as the one on the heart. “Here’s your balloon, Joy.”
I took the string he was holding out to me, feeling the huge balloon pull on my hand as it turned to smile at a teddy bear on a shelf. “I—are you—this is mine?” I stuttered, feeling as if my head had turned as light and floaty as the balloon.
He nodded. “Your mom told me you wanted helium balloons on your birthday. So what do you think? I picked this one because it reminded me of your name. I don’t know about you, but it looks really joyful to me.”
“Yeah, it does, but a heart? Aren’t smileys supposed to be round…”
My voice petered off when his gaze turned tenderly amused. “A heart, huh? Gee, I wonder why,” he murmured before looking away, one hand rubbing the back of his head.
Oh my gosh, there goes my own heart. I stood still, holding my arm out in front of me as he tied the string securely around my wrist. The balloon spun around again and grinned down at me as if coaxing me to forget all about gravity and go flying with it. I pulled at its string with my other hand, and laughed as the heart bobbed and jiggled. The thing was big, bright, cute and impossible to conceal, and just looking at it cheered me to no end. It may have reminded Christian of my name, but I thought the balloon matched his personality perfectly.
Becoming aware that he had finished his task and was simply watching me, I gave him a heartfelt smile. “Thank you so much. I really love this balloon. And just look at it! With this balloon, you’ve even got Valentine’s Day covered,” I added jokingly, moving my arm and making the giant yellow heart dance again.
“That’s not Valentine’s Day.”
Reaching behind me, he plucked up the long-stemmed rose I’d been smelling, strode off to the counter to slap some bills down, then came back and solemnly offered the rose to me. “This is Valentine’s Day. I can give you Christmas, too, and New Year’s Day and Easter and Halloween. All the holidays, Joy, I’ll give them to you. Just tell me what you want.”
Slowly, I took the rose and brought it to my nose. “D-does it have to be a holiday?” I managed through the catch in my throat. “Can’t it just be you?”
He gave me a heart-stopping smile, his chocolate eyes turning impossibly warm, then stepped closer and laid a hand on my shoulder. Forgetting to breathe altogether, I slowly began to close my eyes.
The clashing of bells as the door opened made us jump. I swayed a little, dizzy with embarrassment at the realization that I’d been waiting for Christian to kiss me right there in the shop, in full view of the lady behind the counter and the customers who’d just walked in. It was…impossible. Unthinkable. I could almost hear my best friends shrieking their lungs out over the way I was acting, to say nothing of what my sisters would think. Oh my gosh, a girl like me thinking a boy like Christian was about to kiss her, I thought, turning aside to press a hand against the pounding in my chest, frankly astounded by the unreality of it all.
Christian looked up at the ceiling, then out the window, a move that revealed the dark flush that had swept all the way down to his neck. “Oh man, what time is it?” he suddenly groaned. “Mom’s probably scorched the floor by now. We’ve got to go.
“By the way,” he added as we pulled out of the parking lot, the mini-blimp wedged in the space above the floor of the backseat, “the balloon’s not your birthday surprise.”
I gaped at him. “It’s not?”
“Well, it’s part of it,” he amended. “But not all of it.”
“B-but what more is there?”
I received no answer to that until later when we rumbled up their curving driveway and stopped in front of their house. Every light on the premises was blazing, making their lovely, Spanish villa-esque mansion glow against the evening sky. As I wrestled with the mini-blimp, trying to get it unstuck from its crevice while juggling my travel bag and the shopping bag from Nanay, a hand reached over my shoulder and winkled the balloon free. I turned to thank whoever it was, but before I could get a word out, I found myself enveloped in a warm, perfumed hug.
“Hello, Joy.” Releasing me, Tita Cathy stepped back to look me over, her smile every bit as warm and welcoming as Christian’s. “Oh my goodness, look how you’ve grown! Tell me, how are your mom and dad? And your sisters? It’s been so long since you girls last came to visit. How is school, dear? Dita tells me you’re at the top of your class. Oh, and happy tenth birthday, by the way.”
I returned her greeting and answered her questions as politely as I could, taking her hand and pressing the back of it to my forehead before handing her the shopping bag. The traditional gesture of respect made her face light up with pleasure, even though she laughed and told me to stop being so formal and to feel right at home, especially since it wasn’t my first time to visit anyway. I looked at her animated face, and tried to picture her and Nanay when they’d first become friends in high school. It was a little weird imagining it. Nanay was serene and softly rounded, moving with placid grace, like a bamboo swaying in a breeze. Tita Cathy, on the other hand, was tall and almost skinny despite the pregnancy curves that still clung to her figure, and her movements were quick and energetic, as though she could barely keep herself from breaking into a run. Theirs must have been an odd friendship—two very different girls from two very different worlds. Yet here they were, still friends even decades later. I had to admit, it was pretty inspiring.
Then Christian reappeared, toting his own gym bag where he’d stuffed his muddied clothes and shoes. Seeing him, his mother crossed her arms and put on a frown that was too severe to be completely sincere. “Christian, you and Mang Chito should have been here an hour ago. What took you so long?”
“Sorry, Mom. We had to stop by The Village Square for this.”
His mother glanced up at the yellow heart floating above us. “I see. It’s very…er, big, isn’t it?” she said doubtfully, which made Christian and me exchange humor-filled grins. Then she looked at him again, and sighed. “Tell me, son of mine, will I ever see the day when you come home in the same clothes you were wearing when you left?”
“I don’t know, Mom. I just played some basketball at Joy’s school. I honestly didn’t think I’d get this dirty.” He flashed her an angelic smile as we walked into the foyer, with him holding the front doors wide enough to accommodate the mini-blimp.
At which point, his gym bag gaped open and out dropped his Nikes in all their filthy, stinking glory, scattering specks of mud across the pristine terra cotta floor. Tita Cathy looked at them, and shook her head. “Never mind. Give your things to Wilma and go shower and change. And be quick about it or the food will grow cold.”
“Will do. Joy, um, wait here a while, ‘kay? I’ll be back real soon,” he told me as he walked backward toward the huge, curving staircase, handing his gym bag to one of the maids along the way. He took the stairs three at a time, then paused at the top step. “Mom, you got the—uh, the package…?”
“Don’t worry, son of mine,” Tita Cathy said, looking as if she were trying not to laugh. “Mang Efren and I had more than enough time to…get the package. Now please, go and get cleaned up. I’ll entertain Joy in the meantime.”
While another maid took my stuff upstairs, including the rose in a tall vase, Tita Cathy brought me to the den where a nanny was rocking a small bundle wrapped in a blue blanket. For the next several minutes, I got acquainted with little Alexis Nathaniel Garcia, who expressed his opinion of me by yawning in my face and going to sleep.
I was sitting on the couch cradling little Alex in my arms, with his mother watching with a benevolent eye, when his big brother walked in. Looking at him, I suddenly felt my stomach do a pirouette. He had changed into a clean pair of jeans, a green tennis shirt, and black sneakers. His hair still damp from the shower but neatly combed, though his bangs still flopped over his left eyebrow. As I stared at him in blushing admiration, he hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans and gave me a crooked smile that brought out the dimple in his left cheek, clearly basking in the attention. Good grief, he’s even vainer than Faith, I thought with an inward roll of my eyes. Although I had to admit, he had a right to be vain.
Then Alex squirmed, and I found my voice again. “A-are we going somewhere?”
He blinked, and his cocky smile dissolved into a laugh. “No, we’re not, but you’ll see. Come on. Oh, Mom, could you take Mr. P?”
“Mr. P?” Tita Cathy and I asked in unison.
“Yeah. It’s short for PM,” he said as he gently scooped his baby brother out of my arms and placed him in his mother’s.
“And what does PM stand for?” Tita Cathy wanted to know.
Christian grinned. “Poop-Meister.”
“Christian!” his mother exclaimed, while I tried unsuccessfully to smother a giggle.
“What? I think it’s awesome. Just a few months old and he’s already mastered the art of ballistic pooping. He even managed to get poop on the walls. Brilliant.”
With his mother still scolding him for calling his brother names, he grabbed my hand and began to tow me in the direction of the patio in the backyard, beyond which lay the pool and Tita Cathy’s ornamental garden and green house. Halfway there, he stopped abruptly and turned to face me. “Close your eyes.”
“Because it’s a surprise,” he answered with exaggerated patience. “Come on, Joy. I’ll guide you so you won’t trip.”
With a theatrical sigh, I closed my eyes, and let him lead me the rest of the way. I heard voices around us, including the maids’ and Tita Cathy’s. I knew we were on the patio when a breeze carrying the faint scent of grass and flowers threaded through my hair. Christian released my hand, although I could hear him yelling “not yet, keep them closed, don’t peek, are you peeking? no, not yet” as he ran about the place.
Then for some reason, music began to play. Soft, slow, oldies love songs, the kind of music Nanay and Tatay listened to on the radio on Sundays, drifted in the air. Then the mouth-watering smell of food joined the faint scent of greenery, making my stomach rumble. Oh my gosh, is that pizza? And—and pasta? And, oh my gosh, hotdogs! That had to be roasted hotdogs!
After what felt like an eternity, I finally heard Christian say the magic words: “Okay, you can open your eyes now.”
I did, and nearly fell over. An ornate glass table and two chairs had been set up on the grass near the pool. The center of the table was dominated by a glass bowl filled with floating tea lights, with identical glass cups containing a floating tea light each placed beside the table setting for two. The path leading from the patio to the pool and one side of the pool itself was lit up with tea lights floating in what seemed to be every single bowl, cup and mug in the house. Christmas rice-lights formed a twinkling ring upon the grass around the table, and about a dozen white, helium balloons formed an outer, pearlescent mid-air ring, their strings tied to a variety of weights lying on the ground.
As I wandered around the small corner of Fairyland that had opened up before me, I saw another table illuminated by a sensible ultraviolet lamp hanging from a nearby tree branch. This table was laden with platters of baked macaroni, mini-pizzas, breaded chicken nuggets, roasted hotdogs with marshmallows on barbecue sticks, vegetables cut into cute shapes, plus a tall pitcher of lemonade and an ice bucket. In the middle was a chocolate cake with the word “Joy” written in white frosting.
I whirled around and found Christian standing just outside the fairy ring, watching me with a warm smile curving his lips. “Happy birthday, Joy.”
“Oh my gosh.”
Looking toward the patio, I saw his mom and their housemaids smile and wave before going back into the house, leaving the two of us alone. I glanced around again, dazed and overwhelmed. Even the touches of the ordinary added to the beauty surrounding me, like the ashtray, jam jars and one or two empty tuna cans that served as tea-light-holders, and the rocks, hand tools, unattractive figurines and even a man’s leather shoe that anchored the balloons.
How long did it take you to set this all up? How much effort did you put into this? And do you have any idea at all that you have just given me the best birthday gift ever? The words crammed themselves in my throat, fighting to emerge, but all I could croak was, “Oh my gosh.” I turned toward him again and opened my mouth to thank him properly, only to bite my lips when tears unexpectedly flooded my eyes.
Christian strolled over to me, looking even more like a fairytale prince in the midst of the glowing, golden lights. “Well, you look surprised. And here, you get some more helium balloons, just like you wished for. Mom and the maids helped out—a lot—and so did Mang Chito, but I did the candles, the balloons, the hotdogs and the mini-pizzas myself. I even baked the—hey, are you crying?”
Consternation filled his voice as I wiped away my tears with my fingers and sniffled. “No. It was just the—um, the smoke. From all the candles.”
He cast a dubious glance at the tea-lights, then shrugged it off. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he smirked at me instead. “So I guess you like your birthday gift, huh?”
I nodded, once again unable to speak, my fingers laced together in a tight knot in front of me. “C-can I ask you something?” I finally managed in a small voice.
“Why?” When he simply looked puzzled, I gestured to indicate at the food, the candles, the balloons and the velvet voice crooning “Love Me Tender” over the breeze. “I don’t understand. You don’t have to do this, Christian, so—so why? And why me?”
For a moment, he just gazed at me somberly. “You’re right. I don’t have to do any of this,” he said in a quiet voice. “But I want to. Because you’re Joy. Because you’re the most important friend in the world to me. And because you’re my bride.”
Taking his hands out of his pockets, he held up his right fist, turned it over and opened it. Lying on his palm was his silver wedding-promise ring. I gave a little laugh as I reached into my own pocket and pulled the velvet pouch out, shaking out my own ring onto my palm. With a solemn air, I placed my ring beside his then covered his palm with mine, the silver bands clinking together between our hands. We looked at each other and smiled, and I discovered that I’d gotten it all wrong. This—the wordless reaffirmation of our promise to each other—was the best birthday gift ever.
Then he raised our hands and brushed his lips against the back of my hand. His face when he met my startled gaze was unreadable, and his chocolate eyes were dark and intense. “One more thing: I did all this because I want to make sure you never forget about me.” His eyes narrowed fractionally. “Ever.”
“I won’t,” I assured him, wondering about the tiny chill that ran down my spine. For some reason, it made me think of the way he looked when he faced Federico on the basketball court—and the way he always seemed to get his way in the end, with anyone and in any situation. I wasn’t afraid of him, but still, it made me wonder.
It wasn’t until years later that I truly understood the cruelty in what Christian had done.
He suddenly grinned, and any strange chills and dark musings melted away like fog before a blazing sunrise. “Hey, you know what? I’m starving. You have any idea how hard it was to keep from horking down those mini-pizzas? Let’s eat!”
I laughed again, and without further ado, we settled down to the birthday feast like a couple of hungry ten-year-olds. Later, I looked up at the clear night sky, sated and unbelievably happy, and wondered how Christian had managed to command even the weather, which had been drizzly all morning, to obey his will tonight.
Then I shrugged, smiled, and let myself fall even more deeply under his spell.
– – – – – – – –
One night, I came home from my tutoring session with Ate Marian, and found Nanay and Ate Grace in the kitchen preparing dinner. Nanay greeted me with a gentle smile and asked me how my afternoon went at Aling Pacita’s store. Before I could answer though, I found myself being dragged away by my sister, whose hand was clamped firmly around my arm. “Just a minute, ‘Nay, Joy and I need to talk about something,” she threw over her shoulder.
She shoved me into our room, locked the door, and pushed the back of the chair against the doorknob. She stalked over to the study desk the three of us shared, brushed aside some of Faith’s artistic forays to pick something up, then turned to face me. “Joy, what is this?” she demanded, her face tightly furious.
I looked at the St. Helene packet that she was holding, and my insides went cold. “Where did you get that? Did you go through my stuff? Ate, you know I hate it when—”
“No, I didn’t go through your stuff. I was looking for paper and I found this in your drawer,” she cut me off. “Now answer me: What is this?”
“I-it’s an application form. For high school,” I said, trying not to sound too quavery.
My sister rolled her eyes. “I know, okay? I’m talking about this.” She stuck her hand in the envelope and pulled out the entrance exam application form, which I’d already filled out, as well as the full-color brochure of St. Helene Academy. “This is a private school, Joy,” she said in a low, angry voice, throwing down the documents onto the desk. “What are you thinking? Do you know how much private school tuition costs? You’re supposed to go to GNS, like me and Faith. Nanay and Tatay never said anything about us going to a private school, not even once. So why? Why are you wasting your time over this? What’s the use? You’re too good for GNS, is that it?”
“It’s not that,” I denied, although deep in my heart I wondered if it wasn’t exactly that. “It’s just that I—I—I want to at least try, Ate. I want to see if I can make it into a school like that. There’s nothing wrong with trying, is there?”
She crossed her arms and regarded me with narrowed eyes. “So you’re doing this just for kicks? Just a little personal dare you’ve got going on? Because this is what you’ve been doing, right? All this studying even when it’s summer vacation, working at Aling Pacita’s and coming home at night with your bag popping from all those books.” She pointed at my battered schoolbag, which had dropped on the floor beside my feet, revealing Kuya Jake’s reviewer. “It’s for this, isn’t it? This entrance exam. And if you pass—that’s it? You’ll walk away, feeling proud of yourself, and go to GNS?”
“No. No. That’s not what I want.” I shook my head vehemently, then had to bite my lip against the stinging in my eyes. Why oh why was it that whenever I was angry, I ended up bawling like a baby? “I want to go to this school, Ate. I want to attend high school at St. Helene. Just like Nanay. Don’t you recognize the name? This is Nanay’s old school, and I—I want to do what she did. You can think I’m conceited and thinking I’m too good for GNS and—and whatever, but I don’t care. This is what I want to do. S-so there.”
My sister’s expression had grown more and more thunderous throughout my speech, until finally she planted her hand in the middle of my chest and shoved me until I plopped down on our bed. “Don’t you dare bring Nanay into this,” she snarled, her face flushing deep red. “And don’t you even mention St. Helene to her, you got it? You don’t know anything. Don’t you ever wonder why Nanay never talks about her time in St. Helene? Or why she never asked us if we wanted to go to her old school?”
I stared at her, stunned and confused. “B-because we can’t afford it?”
Ate Grace laughed unpleasantly. “Oh, so you’ve figured out that part on your own, huh? But it’s not just that. Going to St. Helene just ended up causing a lot of hurt for Nanay, and Tatay, too. So don’t you bring it all back for her by being a bigheaded brat.”
“I don’t understand.” I frowned as I tried to take in all the incomprehensible hints and half-clues my sister had dumped over my head. “What happened to her in St. Helene? And what does Tatay have to do with it?”
My sister sighed heavily, a sure sign that the worst of her anger had already been spent. “It’s not about what happened to her while she was there. It was about what happened afterward. Then again, you were only a baby when you met Lola Delia, so it’s no surprise you don’t remember anything.”
“Who’s Lola Delia?”
“She’s Nanay’s aunt, the one who took care of her when Nanay’s parents died. And that included putting Nanay through St. Helene. Look, forget it. All you need to know is that Lola Delia is a mean, horrible, old goat who loves money more than people, and we are never, ever to have anything to do with her again.”
I stared at the floor, trying to process this new revelation about our family. I knew we didn’t have grandparents on Nanay’s side, just a couple of uncles, an aunt and several cousins, all of whom seemed rather distant, but it had never occurred to me to wonder about it before. We’d always been closer to our relatives on Tatay’s side, but I never thought to question why. Until that moment, I hadn’t even known that Lola Delia existed. Now, not only did she exist, I also knew that she was a “mean, horrible, old goat,” and that she was part of the mystery of Nanay’s St. Helene past.
“Yeeesh, I don’t even know why you’d want to study in a stuffy old private school,” Ate Grace muttered, picking up the brochure and thumbing through it disgustedly. “From what I’ve heard, the boys are all smug jerks and the girls are all stuck-up snobs—wait, hold on. St. Helene? Isn’t this Christian’s school?”
One look at my flushed face told her all she needed to know, causing her to slap a hand on her forehead and mutter several curses that Nanay would have given her an earful for. “Oh, for crying out loud! I thought you were smarter than this!” she exclaimed as her rage reignited. “You want to go to a snobby, overpriced private school just to be with your so-called boyfriend? You’re telling me you’ve been busting your brains out all summer just to chase after some…some guy? A guy who, by the way, isn’t even around to appreciate everything you’re doing for him?”
Angry tears filled my eyes again as I shot to my feet. “This isn’t about Christian, Ate.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s all about Christian!” she yelled before starting to pace around our tiny room like an agitated tiger. “Ugh, I should’ve known. Wake up, Joy. He’s gone, okay? I know you two played at being boyfriend-girlfriend back when you were kids, but it’s over. He’s gone to New York and who knows when he’ll be back—”
“He’ll be back in two years. He said so.”
“—while you need to grow up and get real,” she went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “And even if he does come back, do you seriously think things between you will be the same as before? Seriously? He’s a popular rich kid, and you’re just a—we’re just—”
“I know, okay?” I snapped, fists curled at my sides, tears spilling heedlessly down my face. “I know all about how we’re not like them, even better than you do. And I don’t care. I’m still going to try for St. Helene. I’m still going to do the best I can to make it there. And I’m still going to be Christian’s friend. He never cared that we were different before, and guess what? Neither do I. So you can bellow like a mad bull all you want, Ate, but I still won’t change my mind.”
For a moment, my sister and I stood nose to nose, glaring at each other. Finally, she threw her hands up and turned away as the angry flush began to drain out of her. “Yeeesh, where’d you get that stubbornness from, anyway?” she grumbled. “Look, it’s time you faced it. If—okay, fine, when he comes back, he’s not going to be the same kid we knew before. It’s just not likely that he’ll still want to be your friend. Heck, he’s not even your friend now. Tell me, when was the last time he wrote you back?”
My heart contracted painfully, forcing me to drop my gaze. My lack of an answer was answer enough.
Ate Grace sighed. “I thought so. Give it up, sis. This plan of yours of going to that school just to chase after a boy who might not even be there, and wouldn’t want to have anything to do with you if he were—I mean, it’s a terrible idea, don’t you think?”
There was a faint thump from somewhere behind Ate Grace. “You’re wrong,” I said as I moved to the door, wiping my tears with the back of my hand. “You’re the one who keeps saying I’m doing this just to be with Christian. I already told you. I’m doing this because I want to do it.”
“Then you’re just being selfish, and that’s a whole lot worse,” my sister retorted.
Before I could think of a reply, the thump sounded again. I yanked the chair out from underneath the doorknob so that the door flew open, sending our little sister spilling onto the floor. With Ate Grace and me staring at her, Faith picked herself up, dusted herself off, then raised her hand like a traffic cop. “No, no. I wasn’t listening at the door at all. But Ate Grace, you do bellow like a mad bull, and Ate Joy, you do sound selfish, and both of you need to come to dinner right away or Tatay’ll get mad.”
During dinner, I found myself in the odd position of having my role and Faith’s reversed. Usually, it was Faith and Ate Grace who were constantly bickering with each other, and me trying to keep their spats from getting out of hand. This time, it was Faith who kept our parents from noticing the tension between my older sister and me by chattering about how much fun she’d had hanging around car repair shop where Tatay worked, learning about cars and having every customer she met tell her how pretty she was. Or maybe it was just Faith enjoying the sound of her own voice. In any case, neither Ate Grace nor I brought up the subject of St. Helene or Christian again, although I noticed her scowling in disapproval every time I came home from a tutoring session. For my part, I fell back on my old ways of dealing with teasing, and did my best to ignore her and just go on doing what I had to do.
It was harder, though, than when I was in school. Being called selfish and bigheaded by my sisters really hurt, especially since all they’d done was voice out some of my deepest fears and suspicions. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that I was being selfish, pretentious and over-reaching, and that nothing good would ever come out of my crazy plan. It was why I had yet to tell my parents after all, even after a month of working at Aling Pacita’s. But just the thought of giving up my dream filled me with a hollow, desperate feeling. I was torn and confused about what to do about either of my feelings, and my mental state took a toll on my concentration until both Ate Marian and Aling Pacita began sending concerned frowns my way.
An answer came a few days later, once again over dinner. Faith had convinced Tatay to bring her with him to the shop again, which was odd given that my little sister had the attention span of a fruit-fly. I suspected that she simply enjoyed the attention from the customers, but had to reconsider when Tatay proudly reported that she’d already learned to tell a crescent wrench from a torque wrench from a spanner, and knew how to use all three. Ate Grace and I exchanged mystified glances until we remembered that we were supposed to be waging a cold war with each other and quickly looked away. But I realized that something else was brewing when Faith began talking about the prospect of putting up a car repair shop of our own.
“I already thought of ideas for names,” she said brightly. “My favorite is the ‘Good Faith Car Repair Shop.’ How does that sound?”
Ate Grace snorted. “Like a church group in the wrong line of business.”
“You’re just sore because it’s going to be my name on the sign, not yours,” Faith retorted, sticking her tongue out.
“I can think of other signs we should put your name on—”
“I don’t think it’ll work with any of our names,” I said before another argument could ensue. “It’ll just sound like we hold prayer meetings for the cars, not fix them. How about Tatay’s name? ‘Ramon’s Car Repair Shop?’ Or ‘De Castro Automotive Repair?’”
“Shorten it to RDC Automotive so it sounds official,” Ate Grace counseled, momentarily distracted from her normal sarcastic moodiness, while Faith grumbled, “I still think my name looks better on the sign.”
Tatay glanced over at Nanay, who nodded. He set his spoon down and laid his large, dark hands on the table, his permanently grease-stained fingers contrasting sharply with our ivory vinyl tablecloth. “Do you girls want to have our own auto repair shop some day?” he asked. All three of us nodded. We’d grown up hearing Tatay talk about putting up his own shop; it was family legend by now. “Well, your Nanay and I have been talking, and we thought that with my job at the shop, it will take too long to save up for a shop of our own.”
“Yeah, like about a thousand years,” Ate Grace muttered, causing Nanay to send her a warning look.
Tatay cleared his throat. “Yes, well, Cardo mentioned several openings for jobs abroad, and your Nanay and I have been thinking this would be a good opportunity for me to earn more and lighten the burden for Nanay and for our family.”
My heart seemed to drop to the pit of my stomach. “Y-you’re going abroad? Where? W-when?” I stammered.
“Libya, in the Middle East. And it won’t be for many months yet. I still have to apply for a passport and everything.”
“Tatay, you’re leaving?” Faith said in a small voice, while Ate Grace looked frozen.
Tatay chuckled. “Come now, what’s with all these droopy faces? If I do, Faith, it will only be for a few years, long enough to put you three through school. We might even be able to get you those new cellphones I keep seeing around. And we can save enough for our own shop. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Faith dropped her gaze to her plate and nodded miserably. “’Nay, you can’t possibly think this is a good idea,” Ate Grace demanded, turning toward our mother.
Nanay sighed. “Girls, while I would like to keep our family together, we have to support Tatay’s decisions because he’s doing this for us. That’s what family does. We support one another.”
“Yeah, exactly. We support one another, and that’s why Tatay doesn’t need to go off to work in Libya,” my older sister countered. “Look, we’ll be really careful with food and clothes and stuff so we don’t spend so much, okay? I’ll take care of that, so Nanay won’t be so burdened. And we don’t really need cellphones and whatever, and as for putting us through school—” she shot me an acid look “—we’re perfectly fine where we are. And when we’re older, we can all get jobs or something to get us through college.”
“We’ll be good, Tatay, so don’t go to Libya, okay?” Faith added earnestly.
And even though it made my chest ache, I nodded and said, “I’ve already got a job—um, sort of—so I can help save for our shop. We’ll make it work, Tatay, you’ll see.”
For a moment, Tatay remained silently glaring at the tabletop in a transparent attempt to keep us from noticing the moisture in his eyes. Then he looked at Nanay again, and she gave him a gently knowing smile, as if to say, “What did you expect?” Passing his hand over his brow, he shook his head and finally allowed a smile to break upon his face. “Well. What can I say to that?” he said gruffly. “You girls are—well. All I can say is, your Nanay and I are the luckiest parents in the world.”
Later, while I was crouching outside in our tiny backyard feeding Pocholo and the cats, I heard the backdoor slam behind me and looked up into my older sister’s unsmiling face. “You understand now?” she said without preamble. “If you insist on going to this private school, you’re going to give Tatay more reason to go to Libya, just so he can pay your tuition. And honestly? We need him to stay here with us more than you need to go to that school. Think about it,” she added icily, before letting herself back inside.
And that was exactly what I did. In fact, I couldn’t sleep that night for thinking about it. Finally, I rolled out of bed and felt for my tin box. Working by the thin, yellow light from a street lamp filtering in through our window, I managed to locate my St. Helene packet as well as my schoolbag. Clutching these in my arms, I crept out to the kitchen and settled at the dining table. Taking out all the money contained in the green, plastic egg and an old purse from my schoolbag, I carefully counted these out and checked the amounts against the record I’d made in a notebook, as Aling Pacita had taught me.
After a few more calculations, I finally laid my pencil down and buried my head in my arms. I had over two thousand bucks—three thousand and five hundred, counting our nest egg. But even if I saved every peso I had and worked at Aling Pacita’s every day for the rest of my life, I still couldn’t afford the seventy thousand every school term—for two school terms a year, for five years—that was the tuition at St. Helene. I stood a bigger chance of becoming the thinnest, prettiest, most popular girl in our class than finding the money to put me through even a single semester in St. Helene.
Raising my head, I absently thumbed through the brochure. The glossy photos of beautiful teenagers in various campus scenes seemed to suck me in, much like the mythical sirens luring sailors to their deaths. Maybe it was like that for me. Maybe it was all just a fevered daydream I took way too seriously because it was the only thing that made me feel as though there was something worthwhile about me. As though I wasn’t just the fat, dark, ugly nobody everybody said I was.
Besides, Ate Grace was right. Tatay and our family came first. The next time I went over to Aling Pacita’s, I’d tell Ate Marian that I’d changed my mind about taking the entrance exam. That I’d go to GNS like everybody expected me to do. That should make things right with the world.
The sheaf of photos in the tin can caught my eye. Picking them up, I leafed through them until I came upon one that wasn’t as clear as the others, as if whoever had taken the photo had done so through a window on the upper floor. It was a picture of a sprawling poolside garden at night, transformed into a field of candlelight. A ring of fairy lights and pearly balloons surrounded a table, and in the middle of this ring, a boy and a girl stood with their hands joined together. Even though the photo was too blurry to show it, it was easy to tell that they were smiling at each other.
I ran a finger over the photo, and wondered if Christian was thinking of me, too. Then I buried my face in my arms again and cried as if my heart was breaking.