Christian baked me a birthday cake. Or so he said.
“What? It’s true,” he insisted when I stared at him. We’d cleared away the dirty dishes and set the chocolate cake in the middle of the table beside the bowl of tea-lights. I tore my gaze away from his face, and examined his supposed creation instead. The cake was small but exquisite-looking, covered with ripples of chocolate icing, with my name written on top in graceful lines of white frosting. In the golden candlelight, the cake looked as if it had been magicked out of one of the pages of a food magazine.
I hesitated. “It looks too good to eat.”
Christian chuckled. “What’s the point of a cake you can’t eat? Come on, dig in. It’s chocolate, your favorite.”
I glanced at him again, but his guileless expression never wavered. Giving in to his persuasion, I cut two slices of cake, placed them on the waiting saucers, then scooped some cake into my mouth with a fork, closing my eyes as moist, dark richness made my taste buds stand up and sing hallelujah.
“You like it? It’s good, huh?”
“Oh my gosh, yes!” Opening my eyes, I took another forkful and sighed blissfully. “This is the best chocolate cake I’ve ever—yummmm—tasted.”
He smiled back before his gaze dropped to his saucer. I watched him as he took a bite of cake. “It’s really good,” he muttered almost inaudibly.
He looked at me again when I set my fork down with a clink, and I stifled a giggle at the surprise on his face when he noticed my mostly uneaten cake. “Okay, I’ve tried this one. Now I want to eat the cake that you baked. The real one,” I announced.
Alarm crossed his features before he pasted his innocent mask back on. “What do you mean, ‘the real one?’ You’re being weird again, you know that?” he scoffed before proceeding to stuff his mouth with cake.
I burst out laughing. “Liar. I’m not the one being weird. You’re the one who’s going around calling himself Marie LaRoche.” Still laughing, I turned the cake around to show him the gap through which the logo of an expensive, high-class cake shop printed on the cardboard doily was clearly visible.
Christian’s face fell. “Oh. Shoot.”
“Admit it. This is the package you asked your mom to get earlier, isn’t it?” His cheeks darkened in a guilty flush, making me want to laugh even more. But the crestfallen expression on his face stopped me. “But you did bake me a cake, right?” I asked in a gentler tone.
“Yeah,” he admitted reluctantly.
I beamed. “I knew it. You didn’t lie about that. Well, I want that cake then.”
He twirled his fork around his fingers and gave me a gloomy look. “No, you don’t. It’s not any good. And I mean it’s really…not any good.”
“Come on, it can’t be that bad,” I said, standing up. “Where is it? Is it in the kitchen?”
“We threw it out,” he answered quickly.
Another spate of giggles escaped me. “Definitely the kitchen,” I declared as I gathered up the dirty dishes, intending to bring them to the kitchen.
Groaning, Christian came over to take the dishes from me. “Aw, no, Joy, you don’t have to do this. The maids can take care of—”
“It’s okay. I do this at home all the time. Besides, I don’t want to bother Ate Wilma and the others any more than I have to,” I said as I picked up some of the other platters. Christian plodded unhappily behind me, bearing his own share of dirty dishware.
We came into the spacious, white-tiled kitchen, where three housemaids were chatting around the kitchen table. They took the dishes from us and insisted that we leave the cleaning up to them, all while eyeing us with amused, knowing smiles. Muttering his thanks, Christian began herding me out of the kitchen. I pretended to go along with him, but then I veered off suddenly and ran back into the kitchen straight toward the sink, where a large, round plastic platter with a lid had been shoved into a corner.
“Oh no, you don’t.”
Christian bore down on me, grasping hands reaching out. With a shriek, I dodged and snatched up the platter, holding it close to my chest as I darted to the other side of the kitchen table. He chased me round and round the kitchen table, laughing and bellowing mock threats. Finally, I decided to make a break for the patio. Glancing behind me to see how close he was, I failed to notice the rug on the floor until I’d stepped on it.
“Watch it!” he yelled as my foot flew up into the air. He caught me as I fell, overbalanced, and together we crashed in an ungainly heap on the floor.
“Ow,” I moaned when air had seeped back into my lungs after the impact had driven the edge of the platter into my ribs. My moan was echoed somewhere underneath me, and I realized I was lying half on top of Christian, who’d somehow twisted so that he hit the floor first, cushioning my fall. With a gasp, I scuttled backward, my face burning with mortification. Oh no, he looks stunned. I must have crushed him beneath my weight. “I’m sorry,” I blurted. “Are you okay? I didn’t mean to—”
He laughed again, cutting off my frantic apology. “Ow. Warn me next time you want to try something like that, okay?” he joked as he sat up and massaged his elbow. “What about you? You’re not hurt, are you?”
I shook my head. “I’m so sorry.”
“If you’re really sorry, you can give me back that thing you’re holding.”
My gaze fell to the platter still wrapped securely in my arms. “I guess I’m not all that sorry after all,” I replied, sticking my tongue out at him.
“Sheesh, how stubborn can you be?” he grumbled as he pulled me to my feet. “But seriously, you’ve already got that terrific cake out there. Why are you so interested in that pile of crud?”
“It’s not a pile of crud,” I protested as I twisted the lid off the platter. Inside was a brown disk a few inches thick on one side, and sagging to about an inch thick on the other side. The sad-looking thing was so dry it was crumbling at the edges, and during our chase and subsequent tumble, it had broken into several pieces, some of which had nearly disintegrated into crumbs.
Christian recoiled at the sight of his cake. “It is so a pile of crud. Now will you give it back?”
Ignoring him, I picked up a scrap of cake and popped it into my mouth. It took all my will power not to screw my face up as the explosion of sweetness nearly made me gag, although I couldn’t help coughing when the crumbs stuck to my throat.
He groaned again and made another grab for the platter. “See? You’re choking on it. Literally! Give that back already, and go eat your cake.”
“No,” I rasped. “No, I want this cake.”
He stared at me, frustrated and utterly baffled. “Why?”
“Because you made it for me,” I answered patiently. “Please? If it’s all right, I’d rather save that other cake for my sisters. They’ve never tasted a Marie LaRoche cake before. But I want this cake much more than I want the other one. And I’m ready to pound you into the floor again to get it,” I added, pretending to brandish my fist in warning.
A blush rose up in his cheeks as he gazed at me in open-mouthed amazement. When I smiled at him, his blush deepened and he looked away, one hand coming up to tug at the hair at the back of his head. “But you can’t even eat it,” he muttered. “It’s too dry and way too sweet. You’d just end up choking again.”
I smiled again. “I’ve got an idea. Do you have any cream? And bananas too, while you’re at it.”
When his mom came downstairs to check up on us, she found us sitting side by side at the kitchen table, eating banana slices topped with dollops of cream mixed with chocolate cake crumbs, to which Christian, who’d quickly gotten into the spirit of the thing, added cornflakes, a sprinkling of toasted peanuts, and a dash of cinnamon. He’d have added chili flakes too if I hadn’t stopped him. We passed her a bowl of bananas and chocolate-cake cream, and Christian and I exchanged triumphant high-fives when she proclaimed our improvised concoction a success.
“Why, of course, you can take the cake home to your family,” Tita Cathy said to me, indicating the elegant box sitting on the table. “And the rest of the food, too. But you know, this is surprisingly good, too. How clever of you to find a way to use Christian’s cake, Joy. For a first attempt at baking, well, it—”
“Sucked,” Christian sighed.
“I was going to say it was a fine fertilizer you made for my plants, son of mine,” Tita Cathy corrected with a flash of impish humor, ruffling her son’s hair.
“I just thought about what Nanay and my sister would’ve done to keep the cake from going to waste,” I said. “Ate would’ve probably come up with something much better. She’s the best cook in our family. Nanay and all our neighbors say so.”
“Yeah, but it wouldn’t have been as fun as this. You’re the one who always thinks up the coolest ideas,” Christian said, giving me a sidelong smile that warmed me to my toes. I smiled back, then giggled when his next spoonful left a daub of cream on his lower lip. He blinked and asked “what’s so funny?” through a mouthful of cream. Still grinning, I reached up and wiped the cream off his lip with a finger, then without thinking, popped my finger into my mouth.
A shock went through me as I recalled that his mother was right there, observing us with a thoughtful expression. “S-sorry,” I muttered, dropping my hand onto my lap, feeling embarrassed and inexplicably nervous.
Then Christian took my hand and gripped it tight. I looked at him, and my breath caught at the storm of emotion in his chocolate eyes. He opened his mouth then closed it again, lowering his gaze to the table top as his fingers tightened painfully around mine. What’s wrong? Why do you look so sad? I wanted to ask, but the oddly tense atmosphere that had wrapped around us made my throat close up.
“My goodness, it’s 11:30 already?” Tita Cathy gasped theatrically, clapping a hand over her cheek. “Well, that’s enough dessert for both of you. Joy, you go ahead and get changed. Your things are in the yellow guest room, but you can bring them to Christian’s room later if you want. Christian, stay and help me clear up here.”
I found my travel bag, my balloon and my rose in the guest room. I washed up, brushed my teeth, combed my hair, then sent up a silent thank-you to Nanay for packing in my prettiest nightshirt, a pale green one laced with a ribbon, which I paired off with my sister’s old, white pajama bottoms. Then, at a loss as to what to do next, I wandered out of the guest room, heading toward Christian’s room. I walked past the master’s bedroom, which was also served the baby’s room, judging from the faint glow of a night-light spilling out through the half-open door. Then I noticed some large suitcases standing near the bed. The sight made me pause, and I recalled Nanay’s earlier conversation with Christian. They must be going on another family vacation. Another tour of Europe maybe, I decided, before continuing on to his room.
He wasn’t inside when I peeked in. What I did find was a rolled-up sleeping bag and an oversized soccer-ball beanbag waiting in front of the TV beside his bed. There was also a small stack of CDs and Playstation cartridges, plus several comic books spread out in a neat row. Neat for Christian, anyway.
I perched on the edge of his unmade bed and smoothed my hand over the sheets. He’d gone to such lengths to make sure every detail of this sleepover was perfect. That he would expend all this effort just for me…
The thought washed over me in warm waves of happiness, filling up the places where I’d been hollowed out until I was sure I was glowing from the inside. On impulse, I flopped face-down on his bed, then rolled over and wrapped his blanket around me, soaking in his scent. With a smile, I closed my eyes and whispered, “Christian, I love you.”
Hearing the words spoken out loud sent an anxious tremor through me. I bolted upright and glanced about the room. Nobody was there, of course, and with a relieved sigh, I got up and decided to make myself useful. The happiness continued to beat inside me though, and without being completely aware of it, I started to sing as I unzipped the sleeping bag and spread it across the floor, then hauled the beanbag on top of it.
A sound made me pause in my task. Christian was standing in the doorway holding a bowl of popcorn in one hand, a couple of orange juice boxes in the other, and a can of Pringles chips underneath one arm. He was watching me with a mixture of wonder and fascination, but when my gaze met his, he grinned.
“No, don’t stop, keep singing,” he said as he set the food down on the floor. “You’ve got an amazing voice, you know that?”
“N-no way, you’re just being nice. I really didn’t mean for you to hear that—I mean, I’m sorry,” I babbled, rattled by his compliment.
“I’m not being nice.” His clipped tone made me look at him just in time to catch the glint in his eyes. “I mean it about your voice and everything else, so stop apologizing.”
I swallowed. “O-okay. I’m sor—I mean, okay.”
He sighed, his annoyance melting away. “Just let me get changed. You can choose which video you want to watch, or if you want to play a videogame instead. Thanks for setting up the sleeping bag, by the way.”
As he spoke, he pulled his shirt off over his head and moved toward his closet. I followed him with my eyes, then hastily averted my gaze when I heard the sound of his jeans being unzipped, busying myself with sorting through the stack of CDs. I’d shared a room with two other people all my life, but it was beginning to dawn on me that there was a fundamental difference between sharing a room with a couple of other girls and sharing a room with a boy. But since Christian apparently thought nothing of it, I soon began to relax and focus on what I was doing.
Which was studying a few Disney animated videos, so new they were still encased in plastic, inserted among his usual martial-arts action movies. “You’re collecting Disney now?” I called out in amusement, glancing over at him.
“Are you kidding? I got those for you,” he snorted as he shrugged into a T-shirt over a pair of shorts, then went to adjust the air-conditioner. “So which one would you like?”
“Which one would you like?”
“Oh no, you’re not fobbing this off on me. You pick,” he declared as he plopped down on the sleeping bag beside me and grabbing a fistful of popcorn.
“But you hate Disney,” I protested.
“Says who?” He snatched a CD from my hand and waved it in the air. “I wouldn’t have gotten these if I hated them.”
I rolled my eyes. “I give up. You’re way too confusing.”
“Heh, well, we both get to watch Beauty and the Beast. I kind of like the music, if you really want to know,” he admitted as he set up the DVD player, but instead of pressing play, he just turned and grinned me, holding the remote control out of my reach. “But before we watch, you have to sing first.”
“Sing that song you were singing a while ago. It’s a church song, right?”
“Christian!” He merely lifted an eyebrow, and I shook my head frantically. “No, no, no! I mean, yes, it’s a church song. I don’t really know any songs from the radio, and church songs are the only ones I can remember. B-but you can’t be serious. Me, sing? You want me to bring this house crashing down around us?”
“You were singing a few minutes ago and, look, no shattered windows,” he pointed out.
“I can’t,” I whimpered, covering my flushed face with my hands. “I’ve never sung in front of anyone before. I—I can’t sing on my own. It’ll sound so awful.”
Warm fingers pried my hands off my face, and I found myself staring into a pair of somber chocolate eyes. “You don’t sound awful at all,” he said softly. “Please? I’ve never heard you sing before, and now that I’m—this is so unfair—“ He cut himself off, scowling, then released me and sat back. “Come on, I’ll sing with you. We sing that song during Mass at our school, too.”
I peered suspiciously at him. He merely raised his eyebrows and waited. Finally, I screwed my eyes shut and began to sing haltingly: “I will sing forever of Your love, oh Lord…”
“I will celebrate the wonder of Your name.” My eyes flew open when Christian joined in, his voice strong and confident, blending effortlessly with mine. My own voice soared as pure delight replaced my self-consciousness, and when Christian laughed as he sang, I found myself laughing, too.
“What on earth is going on in here?” His mother stuck her head inside the door and goggled at us. “Why are you singing church songs at 1:00 in the morning?”
He and I exchanged looks before dissolving into fits of laughter. “We, uh, felt like praying?” he replied innocently, making me laugh even harder. “But hey, Mom, did you hear Joy sing? Did you hear her? She’s got this really amazing voice.”
“Yes, I did. I heard both of you all too clearly.” Tita Cathy sighed then smiled warmly at me. “Dita told me about your musical gift, and I agree. You have a lovely voice, Joy.”
“Nanay said that?” I squeaked, flushing again.
“Yes, she did. She also told me she wishes she could hear you sing somewhere else besides church. She said you don’t notice it, but people actually stop to listen to you when you sing during Mass.”
Oh my gosh, they do? I thought as horror flooded through me. “Wait, so I’m the only one who didn’t know you can sing?” Christian demanded, glaring accusingly at me. I shrugged to tell him it was news to me, too.
“Well, now you know, son of mine,” his mom said dryly. “You both sing very well, but for goodness’ sake, not right now, please. You’ll wake the baby.”
We promised to be quiet and settled down to watch the video. We leaned back against the beanbag, but it kept scooting backwards and dropping us flat on our backs. After a few more attempts, we gave up, tossed all his pillows onto the floor, and sat cross-legged on the sleeping bag, our arms and knees brushing each other’s. I kept my eyes glued to the TV and munched nervously on chip after Pringles chip. But the strangely tense atmosphere back in the kitchen had crept back, even though Christian showed no outward sign of unease.
Finally, I peeked at him sideways, and found him gazing fixedly at me. Something in his eyes made my heartbeat speed up. “W-why are you looking at me like that?”
He moved his head as if to brush my question aside, then swallowed and dropped his gaze. “You didn’t make a wish, did you?” When all I did was stare at him, he lifted his head and twisted his lips in a halfhearted smile. “Everything went so weird with the birthday cake that you never got to blow your candles out and make a wish.”
“It’s okay. I’m too happy to think of anything to wish for anyway,” I confessed.
He flinched and stretched out full-length on the sleeping bag with his head pillowed on his arms. “Then would give it to me? Your birthday wish, I mean. There’s something I want to wish for,” he said, seemingly to the ceiling.
I blinked at that. “Oh. Okay, it’s yours. What do you want to wish for?”
“To be a grownup already,” he answered. “If I were a grownup—if we were grownups, we could get married right now and I could stay with you. I’d learn everything there is to learn about you, and I’d never miss out on anything again. I’d stay by your side and make sure you’re safe, and I’d never, ever let us be apart again—”
He stopped abruptly and turned on his side, facing away from me. My heart was pounding now as though I’d been running up and down the stairs, but my body felt chilled all over. Moving mechanically, I picked up the remote control and set the video on pause, then turned back to Christian, who hadn’t moved an inch. “What are you talking about?” I asked in a small voice.
He rolled over onto his back again, one arm flung over his eyes, hiding his expression. “We’re going back to New York,” he said in a somewhat roughened voice.
“Y-you’re going on vacation?”
“No, we’re going to live there. Dad’s been there for months already, but Mom says we have to go to where he is so our family can be together. We’re expanding our sister companies abroad, and he’s got to stay there until the North America branches have grown big enough to be left alone, so I don’t really know when we’ll be back.”
All throughout his toneless narration, I’d grown colder and stiffer until I was convinced I’d never be able to move again. I’d just have to sit there like a hunk of rock until somebody came and threw me out. Maybe if I was lucky, I would turn into a hunk of rock, and I’d never have to feel this awful constriction in my chest, I’d never have to feel my breath coming in like shards of glass, I’d never have to feel anything ever again…
“When?” I heard myself ask in a voice that, to my surprise, sounded fairly even.
“Our flight’s on Sunday afternoon.”
But that’s the day after tomorrow. No, it’s tomorrow already! “Oh,” I said, still in that weirdly distant tone. “That explains the suitcases I saw in your mom’s room. And you and Nanay were talking about it earlier, only my sisters and I didn’t get it.”
He stayed silent.
New York, I thought. The other side of the world. He and his family used to live there, and now he was going back and staying there for who knows how long.
He’s leaving. In less than 48 hours, he’ll be gone.
More thoughts tunneled like worms through my brain. I understood now why he’d worked so hard to make this sleepover perfect, even going so far as picking me up at school and planning a birthday dinner for two. It wasn’t just a birthday celebration; it was a farewell party as well. It was his way of saying goodbye.
It was a terrible thing, this knowing. I’d been so much happier when I hadn’t known how little time I had left. I’d been so happy…stupid, stupid. I should have known there’d be a catch. This kind of happiness didn’t come without a price, not for someone like me. All the things he did—telling everybody he was my boyfriend, giving me the balloon and the rose, cooking a special dinner and baking me a birthday cake… With every little thing he did that made me feel special and pretty and cared for, he was saying goodbye to me and I didn’t even know it.
New York. So far away, and so different from all that I knew. And he would spend his days there, go to school there, make friends there. He would meet so many different people there. Beautiful people, rich people, glamorous people. His life would be so exciting and full of adventure, and I—
I’d be left behind. He’d go charging full throttle into his future the way he always did, and he’d never have time to remember the fat, dark nobody he’d met at his aunt’s wedding and promised to marry. And I’d be left alone, remembering for the both of us.
He’s leaving me behind, and oh, it hurts…
His voice cracked as he said my name. No wonder he’d been acting so weird. He must have been so worried about how I’d react to the news. How much courage had it taken him just to tell me?
In that case, I was not going to make it any harder for him than it already was. I could do that much for him.
“Joy?” I heard the sleeping bag rustle as he sat up. “Come on, say something. Please?”
With monumental effort, I willed my hand to move and close around the remote control. As the video resumed, I took the Pringles can and began chewing my way through it, despite the fact that my stomach felt like an old sack filled with mud. When he called my name a third time, I threw a smile over my shoulder, a Pringles chip still stuck between my lips. “Will you write me when you get there?” I asked, turning back to the TV screen.
“I will. I’ll write you every chance I get. I—will you—”
“Good. I want to know all about your life there. New York may be your second home—well, actually your first home—but it’s all new to me. Oh, and if you can, will you send me a postcard of the Statue of Liberty? And that giant Christmas tree in—where is it?”
“Rockefeller Center. Joy, look at me, please.”
“That’s the one,” I rambled on, ignoring him. “You told me you used to go there every year when you were a kid. Wow, and now you’re going back after all these years? I wonder how much things have changed since you left. It must be really exciting—”
“Stop! Is that all you’re going to say?!”
The anger in his words barely registered before he grabbed my shoulders and turned me around to face him. He used so much force that the Pringles can flew out of my hands and rolled away, sending the few remaining chips leaking out onto the floor. His fingers dug painfully into my skin until I raised my head and looked him square in the eye, revealing the tears that were pouring down my face.
His hands dropped away, his anger turning to shock, then to dismay and finally to naked pain. I swiped a hand across my face as the wave of emotions broke through my flimsy mental dam. “What else should I say?” I sobbed. “That I don’t want you to go? Well, I don’t. I hardly get to see you as it is, and now you’re going to be even farther away from me and I’ll n-never get to see you at all. Should I tell you I’ll miss you? Because I will, Christian. I’ll miss you every single day that you’re gone, and it’s going to feel so much w-worse than missing you when we’re apart for just months and months.”
My words were running together and becoming less and less intelligible. I ground the heels of my hands against my eyes to try and stem the flood. “I d-didn’t want to give you any t-trouble so I lied, but even if I told you the t-truth, it wouldn’t change anything. You’ll still l-leave, even though all I want is to be with you forever. And I’ll still be left here thinking about you even when you’ve already f-forgotten all about me—”
My barely coherent rant was interrupted when Christian hauled me against him, wrapping his arms around me so tightly my ribs creaked with every hiccupping sob. He buried his face against my neck, and with a start, I realized that the wetness soaking my collar was coming from him, and that his body was shaking just as badly as mine. He was crying, too; when I’d thought he was being completely unfeeling, he’d been crying all along.
“Don’t even think that I’d forget you for one second,” he said fiercely. “I’ll come back someday and I’ll find you, so you had better be waiting for me or else.”
A shiver went down my spine at the ominous warning in his voice. “Y-you will?”
“Yeah, I will.” He lifted his head and stared into my face, his eyes darkly glittering. “You’re mine, Joy. You promised me, remember? And I already know that you won’t ever forget about me, because I made sure of it.”
I frowned and shoved at him, which did nothing to loosen his hold around me. “That is such a…” I began then trailed off when I became aware of our positions. I was nestled between his knees with my hands on his chest, his body securely encasing mine. His face was close to mine, heartbreakingly handsome in the flickering lights of the video we’d almost entirely ignored. I lifted a hand to trace the tear tracks on his cheek. Sniffling, he closed his eyes and leaned his face into my palm.
“I’ll miss you, too,” he said brokenly as more tears leaked through his eyelids. “You’re still here, and I miss you already. Is that c-crazy or what?”
I shook my head, unable to speak. Then I threw my arms around him, pressed my face against his shoulder and simply gave in. His scent, his warmth, the sound of his voice, the feel of him in my arms…all these were mine, if only for a little while longer. I only had a few hours left to be with him, and I intended to make every single second count. I’d store up my memories of him so I’d have something to hold on to when he was gone. The thought of losing him hurt me with an intensity that stole my breath away, but I was beginning to realize that the pain was just the flipside of the happiness he’d given me. They were a package deal, the pain and the joy; I couldn’t have one without the other. For the first time in my life, at the age of just-turned-ten, I made the choice to take them both, because it meant I would have more precious memories to treasure.
Looking back now, I think I grew up a little bit at that moment. And once again, I have Christian to thank for it.
“Don’t cry anymore, Joy.”
I became aware that I was still crying in quiet, shuddering sobs. Embarrassed, I pulled back and scrubbed at my face, taking in deep gulps of air. “I’m sorry. I turned a crybaby again,” I said, ducking my head to spare him the sight of my red, puffy visage.
He brushed my hair back and pressed a kiss on my forehead. “I don’t mind you being a crybaby. As long as it’s you, Turtle.”
I peeked up at him, and found him smiling tenderly at me. Well, at the very least, maybe I could get to the bottom of this long-standing mystery. “Why do you call me Turtle, anyway?”
He blinked, then raised his eyes to the ceiling as though searching for the answer there, absently wiping his runny nose on his sleeve while he was at it. Then he shrugged. “I have no idea. Because you’re cute and cuddly?”
I giggled. “Puppies are cute and cuddly. Kittens are cute and cuddly. But turtles?”
“Heh, well, turtles don’t rub it in people’s faces like puppies and kittens do. They’re classy that way. And I told you to stop crying already. You’re going to tire yourself out,” he added before leaning forward to kiss away a stray teardrop.
I blushed and lowered my head again, but not before I’d caught the warm light in his eyes. If we were going to make the most of our remaining time together, his eyes seemed to say, then I shouldn’t be exhausting myself like this. Unfortunately, the thought just brought on a fresh wave of tears. “S-sorry,” I muttered. “Oh my gosh, I must look like a boiled frog. But since I’ll probably cry again when I get home, I might as well get used to looking like a frog. Ow, my eyes hurt.”
“You can’t cry, Joy. You’re not allowed to cry when I’m not around to make it all better for you.”
What? That latest bit of outrageousness startled a laugh out of me even as I swiped at the never-ending stream of tears. “I’m not allowed to cry?” I teased. “What about if I’m feeling sad or hurt or lonely, and I’m all alone, anyway? I can’t cry even then?”
“Then you can cry a little, but you have to cheer up right after, okay?”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” I wanted to know.
He gave me a crooked grin. “Easy. Just think about me.”
I gaped at him, rendered speechless by the conceit and utter vanity contained in that statement. He waggled his eyebrows and I burst out laughing, hastily covering my mouth with my hands to muffle the noise. By the time I was rubbing away the stomachache caused by holding my laughter in, my tears had dried up completely. “Okay, fine, if you say so. But what if it doesn’t work?” I chortled.
“Then think about me doing this,” he said as he pulled me close again, resting his head against mine. Sighing blissfully, I burrowed against his neck and twined my arms around him as a memory teased me. We were eight and had just met each other earlier that day, but that hadn’t stopped him from convincing me to climb up a water tower with him. Underneath a starry sky, we’d shared both my sweatshirt and a warm embrace. I’ll remember this, too, I thought to myself. I’ll remember everything.
Then he whispered: “And if that still doesn’t work, then think about me doing this.” And before I could wonder what he meant, he pulled back and covered my mouth with his.
My heart flew out of my chest and my brain flipped upside down, while every other part of me felt airy and full of silvery light. His lips were warm and softly insistent; they tasted of tears and buttered popcorn and Christian. I closed my eyes and kissed him back with everything I had, and felt him smile against my lips. After a while, we parted to catch our breaths, stared silently into each other’s eyes, then kissed again. And again. And again and again and again.
This part’s a little bit different than when we were eight, I thought later, when the flickering lights had dimmed and the music had died away, and my world was filled with the thudding of his heart underneath my fingertips and the feathering of his breath against my hair. But I’ll definitely remember this.
– – – – – – – –
“Ah, it’s good to be home. The commute’s been rough today. Oh, it smells divine in here. You girls have started dinner already?”
I rose from my task of plucking the stems off a bundle of dark green kamote leaves as Nanay came into the house, petting Pocholo on the head before pulling her black pumps off with a sigh of relief. Ate Grace putdown the ladle she’d been stirring a pot with, and together we went to our mother and touched the back of her hand to our foreheads in a respectful greeting.
“Yeah, it’s pork adobo,” my sister replied cheerfully. She was always cheerful when she was cooking, which gave the rest of us a welcome break from her grumbling and sarcasm. “I’m experimenting with frying the meat and potatoes first before putting the sauce back in. I figured if we add more potatoes, we can save on the pork cubes and the potatoes will be even tastier. Joy, aren’t you done with that yet?”
Wordlessly, I gathered up the kamote leaves and stems from the table, stepping over a couple of not-really-Tatay’s-pet cats who were lying on the floor like living rugs to get to the sink. I threw the stems in the trash, washed the leaves underneath the tap, then put water in a pot to boil the leaves in and set it on the stove. I dug out a few tomatoes from our ancient refrigerator, washed these in the sink, then turned and found Ate Grace frowning at me.
“Would you snap out of it already? You’re starting to get people down. She’s been so moody lately.” She addressed the last part to our mother, complete with eye-roll. I rolled my eyes inwardly as well. Attention, Kettle. The Pot would like to have a word with you.
“Yes, I’ve noticed. You’ve been much quieter than usual, Joy. Are you feeling all right? You’re not coming down with something, are you?” Nanay laid a hand over my brow, then peered concernedly into my face.
I summoned a smile. “I’m okay, ‘Nay. Just tired. I shelved a lot of cans and stuff at Aling Pacita’s earlier.”
Nanay took the tomatoes from me and began slicing them. “Getting a job at Aling Pacita’s store has been a stroke of inspiration. You’ve been blossoming since you started working there. But while I see how happy you are with your job, I don’t want you to overdo it. You’re still a child, Joy,” she added gently as she set the knife down. “You still have a lot of games to play and friends to make. You still have to have lots of fun. Leave the worrying about jobs and money to the adults, all right? And don’t be snickering behind my back, Grace, because the same goes for you, too.”
My sister snickered in plain sight. “Oh, sure. In other words, be more like Faith: silly and easily amused.”
I turned to head out to the backyard to play with Pocholo for a little while, then paused. “Um, here, ‘Nay,” I said, fishing out a small, red envelope from my pocket.
“What’s this?” Nanay asked as she took it from me.
“It’s my pay for the week. The store’s been earning more since we started the dinner sets, so I pulled in a little more this week. You can add it to our grocery money. Oh, and if you want, I can ask Aling Pacita to exchange some of my pay for items from her store, so you won’t have to go out of your way to buy them.”
My mother gave me a troubled frown. “But this money is yours, Joy. You worked so hard for it. Are you really fine with giving this to me?”
“It’s okay,” I said with a shrug. “I’m not going to use it for anything anyway. Um, but I did get some new Valentine romances out of it.” I smiled again to keep my mother from worrying. As I stepped out the back door, I heard my sister snort and say, “She’s got to have her romance, of course.”
It had been a little over a week since I told Aling Pacita and Ate Marian that I wasn’t taking the St. Helene entrance exam anymore, carefully ignoring the looks of sympathy on their faces. Over a week since I endured another round of cheek-pinching and Butterball-ing to return Kuya Jake’s reviewer to him. Over a week since I returned Ate Grace’s schoolbooks, threw away the practice exams Ate Marian had given me, and took down the little calendar from the bureau.
But I couldn’t forget the date on that calendar that I’d encircled in red marker: Friday, May 24. The deadline for the submission of the St. Helene entrance exam application form. Which happened to be tomorrow. Neither could I bring myself to throw my St. Helene packet away. It still lay in my desk drawer, still singing its siren song to me, but for some reason, my hands would turn into bowling balls every time I attempted to toss the light blue envelope and its contents into the trash. I figured my reluctance came from the fact that I’d paid so much for it. All that money going straight into the city dump? Good grief, that stung.
But really, what was the use of keeping it? All it was doing was take up space in my drawer. So I resolved to throw it away on Saturday morning, the 25th of May, when no shadow of a doubt remained in my mind that the application form was useless. Until then, I’d have live with a few more days of that siren song in my head, singing of dreams and wishes and regret.
That turned out to be easier said than done. All throughout that day, the 23rd, I’d been so depressed and listless that Aling Pacita had sent me home earlier than usual—just in time for me to get bossed around by Ate Grace, which did little to improve my mood.
Later at bedtime, Nanay came into our room and sat beside me on the bed. “Tomorrow, Joy, you don’t have to go to Aling Pacita’s, do you?”
“No, ‘Nay,” I answered.
“Good. Then I want you to come with me to—”
“Where?” Faith popped up like a possessed Jack-in-the-box. “Where’re you and Ate Joy going, Nanay? Can I come, too? Can we go eat at Jollibee? And after that, can we—”
Ate Grace groaned. “Shut up, you little monster. She wasn’t talking to you.” Scowling, Faith lay back down, curled her butt upward, and kicked both feet up at the upper bunk. “Ouch!” Ate Grace yelped, then leaned over the edge of her bunk. “Why, you—”
“Girls, that’s enough.”
At our mother’s quiet but firm command, both my sisters settled back down. “Faith, what have I told you about interrupting people? And Grace, please refrain from calling your sisters names,”Nanay chided them, prompting my sisters to mutter apologies. “In any case, I’m asking your Ate Joy to come with me to work tomorrow. Would you like to come along then?”
Faith made a face. “Work? You mean to your office? In that big, ugly, brown building? But it’s so boring in there! I’d rather stay with Tatay at his shop. I already have friends there, didja know? There’s Kuya Lloyd and Kuya Den-Den, and Mang Cardo said he’d teach me how to—”
“Yes, well, that’s nice, anak. What about you, Grace?”
“Nah,” came the reply. “Eileen, Tina and I are going over to Janet’s house tomorrow.”
Nanay looked at me expectantly. “Okay, Nanay,” I said dully, unable to muster enough curiosity about why my mother wanted me with her.
She smiled and stroked my hair. “Go to sleep, anak. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
Early the next day, I followed my mother down the hallways of the government building where she worked. I had to agree with Faith on this one. The building was big, ugly and almost completely brown, from the walls to the floor tiles to the elevator doors to the heavy office furniture. Even the people were brown, thanks to an office uniform that consisted of a cream-colored blouse or shirt, and tan skirts and pants. The observation made Nanay smother a laugh when I pointed it out to her.
When we pushed through the glass doors of her department, we were met with good- morning greetings from her coworkers. Most of them were familiar to me; my sisters and I had been visiting Nanay’s office since we were kids. A handful of them—all middle-aged women with chattering voices and curious eyes—gathered round her desk before she could even set her purse down.
“My goodness, you’re a big girl, aren’t you?” one of them remarked after taking one look at me. “Dita, which one of your daughters is this?”
“This is my middle daughter, Joy,” Nanay replied. At a gesture from her, I crept out from behind her and one by one pressed the backs of their hands to my forehead.
This caused the gaggle of brown women to look me over once more. “Oh, the middle one,” one of them said. “You’re the one who takes after your daddy. She really doesn’t look much like you, does she?” she said to my mother.
“It’s the eldest daughter who looks like her. Her name is Grace, isn’t it? When she came here before with Dita, I said to myself, ah, the name suits that girl perfectly.”
“No, Sally, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s the youngest daughter who resembles Dita the most. Such a pretty little girl, and very lively and charming, too. You remember how she danced during our office Christmas party?”
“Oh yes, the little angel…”
I’m used to this, I told myself as I inched away, once again forgotten and unnoticed. This is how it’s always been and how it’ll always be. Then, remembering what Aling Pacita told me, I thought, very clearly: These women are farting like there’s no tomorrow. A laugh bubbled up, and I bit my lips to hold it in. Nevertheless, the second thought did make me feel much better than the first thought did.
Then I heard Nanay say: “Oh, I happen to think that Joy is every bit as lovely as her sisters. And she’s a very bright and talented child. In truth, while I love all my girls, I believe that among the three, Joy has the greatest potential to—”
At that moment, an authoritative-looking woman in a crisp pantsuit—brown, of course—strode in through the doors while flipping through a sheaf of papers. “Good morning. Oh Dita, a moment please. Can you do an analysis of this data…”
As Nanay went off, the brown ladies looked at me, then at one another, struggling to reconcile my mother’s glowing description of me with my unimpressive mien. “Really?” one of them chirped before the group lost interest in the subject and drifted away.
A few hours later, I was slouching in an extra chair behind Nanay’s desk, finishing the last of my new romance novels along with a Big Bang chocolate bar. Nanay had left her desk momentarily to fetch a document from the office printer, and I found myself glancing at the wall clock. The morning was almost over; only half a day remained before the deadline ended and I would be free at last of the siren song.
A figure appeared in my peripheral vision. One of the brown ladies, Miss Sally, was standing over me, wearing a vaguely pitying expression. She tsked and shook her head. “My goodness, child, it’s no wonder you’re so chunky when all you do is sit around eating candy. Here, I’ll give you this.”
Blinking, I accepted the object she was holding out to me with a muttered thanks. The object was a booklet about the size of my hand, with the title The Compleat Young Lady: A Teenager’s Guide to a Healthy & Beautiful Life arching over a picture of a svelte, big-haired, peppy-looking girl who looked like she’d jumped out of a 1980s teen movie. On the back of the book were these words: “It’s hard being a teenaged girl of today! You have to juggle schoolwork, extracurricular activities, friends and crushes, all while looking beautiful, slim, healthy and neat. Consider this book as your one-stop guide to healthy dieting, exercise, skin care, beauty and fashion…”
I stopped reading before blood could begin spurting from my eyes. Miss Sally beamed at the look on my face, which she apparently took to be gratitude. “You know, my dear, ever since I gave copies of this book to my nieces, they’ve been looking so much better. So I want you to take every page of this to heart, all right? You’re lucky that you can get a head start, because I’m telling you, my dear, you will never be happy with the way you are now.”
You will never be happy with the way you are now. The words, which sounded like an omen or a curse, struck me square in the chest. After I dredged up an appropriate response, Miss Sally smiled benevolently then returned to her desk, having filled up her quota of charitable acts for the day.
By noon, my mother and I were finally exiting the big, ugly, brown building. We boarded a bus, and Nanay explained that she’d told her boss that she was taking half the day off because she had a very important errand to attend to.
“Well, what is it?” I asked, finally beginning to wonder what sort of errand would require the presence of her chunky middle daughter. She merely smiled.
I shrugged and turned to stare out the window. What did it matter, anyway? All I was doing was killing time until I could finally bid my St. Helene dream goodbye and get on with my life. But after a while, something began to tickle at my brain, waking me up from my stupor. The passing scenery had become familiar somehow, as though I’d been here before…
We got off at the next stop and crossed the street, and Nanay laughed at my gaping, utterly flummoxed expression when I realized we were standing in front of the huge, blue and white gates of St. Helene Academy. To my stunned eyes, the words “Lux in obscurum” appeared branded against the sky, as ringing a welcome as an angelic chorus. She tugged at my arm to get me moving, and I watched dazedly as she reached into the depths of her purse, drew out an ID—a St. Helene Academy alumni ID—and presented this to the security guards.
“Nanay, what—why are we—what’s going on?” I stuttered, trailing behind her as she hiked up the tree-lined slope toward the main high school building. I noted foggily that the gate we’d entered was different from the one my friends and I had found. This one led directly to the high school complex, and once again, I found myself feasting my eyes upon the lush fairy tale kingdom I’d wanted so much to be a part of.
My mother gave me an innocent look over her shoulder. “You didn’t know? Today is the last day for submitting the St. Helene entrance exam application forms. I remember this school as fairly strict when it comes to deadlines, so we had better not be late.”
As she said this, she reached into her purse and pulled out a familiar blue envelope. “My packet!” I cried, completely floored for the second time in five minutes. “H-how did you—hey, wait!”
Nanay, who was more energetic than I’d thought, stopped to let me catch up with her. “Would you look at this place,” she breathed as she gazed around her. “Those buildings over there—they’re standing on what used to be our fishpond and vegetable garden. Oh, but the macaroni benches are still here, and the acacia trees and—oh, they even repainted Annie.” She pointed to what looked like a statue of a woman wearing robes and a veil nestled in the middle of a grassy thicket.
I squinted at the statue. “Annie? But that looks like a statue of Mama Mary.”
She laughed merrily. “That is Mama Mary. We just call her Annie because of a joke that started long before we were freshmen. One of the oldest stories here in St. Helene is the rumor that this statue marks the site of an actual appearance of the Blessed Virgin. Some upperclassmen decided to play a prank by rigging up lights around the place and putting a sheet over the statue to make it look like a spirit. Unfortunately, they used the wrong kind of lights. So one night after the traditional Christmas ball, everyone was shocked when the statue suddenly lit up with flashing, multicolored lights. It looked exactly like a disco and not a Marian apparition at all. All that was needed was a mirror ball. From then on, people started calling her Annie Batungbakal from an old, ‘70s song about a girl who loves disco.”
“Oh.” I grinned, then laughed. It was my first story to tell about St. Helene. “Hi, Annie! Nice to meet you!” I hollered to the statue, making my mother laugh as well.
But when we got to the Admissions Office, my doubts returned full force, and I caught my mother’s arm before she could open the door. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” I muttered wretchedly. When she lifted her eyebrows, I drew in a breath and let the whole, sorry tale come pouring out: how I’d wanted so much to try out for this school; how I’d studied and studied and even asked Ate Marian to tutor me, which was how I ended up working at Aling Pacita’s; and how I’d ultimately decided not to take the exam after all because the tuition was sheer impossibility and it would only push Tatay into going to Libya, and besides, I really didn’t need to go to a private school anyway when good old GNS would do.
At the end of my confession, my mother sighed and drew me aside. “Joy, are you worried about your father hearing about this?” When I nodded miserably, she shook her head and said, “Well, you can stop, because he already knows.”
I was appalled. “What?”
“Tatay already knows how badly you want to try out for this school. And believe me, anak, he fully supports you in this.” She drew the application form out of the blue envelope. There on the bottom of the page, right beside Nanay’s gracefully curving signature, was Tatay’s thick, grease-stained scrawl.
My heart leaped, then sank like a stone. “Oh no, then does this mean he’s going to Libya? Oh my gosh, Ate is going to murder me,” I moaned.
“I’ve already talked to your Ate about this,” Nanay revealed, surprising me yet again. “In fact, she was the one who gave your application form to me. You haven’t checked your drawer in a while, have you?” When I stared at her through wide, uncomprehending eyes, she smiled and pulled me into a comforting hug. “Joy, the last thing your father and I would ever want is for you or your sisters to sacrifice your dreams for us. Your dreams for you are our dreams for you as well, and we will help you achieve them any way we can. That’s what family does, remember?”
“We support one another,” I spoke the familiar line, to which Nanay nodded. “But what about the tuition? What if Tatay goes to Libya because of this? And what if I flunk the exams? Or what if I pass the exams but don’t make the scholarship? Or what if—”
“Oh, hush, little worrywart,” Nanay interrupted gently. “You’re rushing so far ahead into the future that you’re leaving undone the work you should be doing now. So tell me, anak, what are you supposed to be doing now?”
I blinked, then thought about it. Then thought about it some more. Finally, the answer came. “I’m supposed to be studying, so I can do my best at the first exam in July,” I said slowly.
She nodded again. “Right now, there should only be room in your head for this. That’s what it takes to make your dreams come true. And about those things that are troubling you? The tuition, your father’s decision to go abroad, making the scholarship? Believe me, the solutions are already out there, and when the time comes we will find them. Together.”
“They are? We will?”
“Yes, we will. And I will help you,” Nanay declared in a firm voice. “From now on until the second round of exams, I will sit down with you for an hour and a half each night and tutor you. You can still work at Aling Pacita’s for the rest of the summer, but when school starts in June, you will have to get serious about this. Understood?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” I saluted smartly as though she were my drill sergeant, then threw my arms around her. “Thanks, Nanay. I love you,” I whispered through a throat clogged with tears.
“I love you, too. And thank you as well, Joy,” she added softly. “You may have given me the push I need to mend a few bridges in my life.”
We passed my application form two hours before the deadline ended. As my mother and I strolled through the campus, she stopped every now and then to point out a familiar landmark or share a story from her past. I thought about what Ate Grace said, about our mother never talking about her time in St. Helene. Watching her now looking as animated as a teenager, I wondered if it wasn’t because we’d never given her the chance. Maybe inside the woman we knew only as our mother was the young girl who’d gone to St. Helene, met Tita Cathy, and became best friends with her. A young girl who had dreams and insecurities, crushes and adventures, just like us.
The thought made me feel extremely weird, as though I was rifling through Nanay’s personal, private stuff. But it also made me feel kind of good to catch a glimpse of the girl she’d once been. For the first time ever, I looked at Nanay and saw a human being with a past to look back on and a future to look forward to—an ordinary woman who just so happened to be my very special mother.
So you see, like any self-respecting fairytale princess, I had a fairy godmother. In fact, I’ve had several in the course of my life. Aling Pacita was one of them. Lola Delia, who enters the scene much later, would turn out to be another. But before and above them all, my fairy godmother was my own mother. Because of the gift she’d given me that day, I found it in me to feel a little bit safer, to be a little less afraid, and to be a little more able to do the best that I can in whatever I do.
Because of her, I found it in me to be able to recall what Christian had told me before he left—I’ll come back someday and I’ll find you, so you had better be waiting for me or else—and to answer back with all my heart: I’m not waiting for you anymore, Christian. I’m running to you.