I awoke to strangeness. The mattress underneath me, the cold air hitting my face, the cozy warmth encasing me from head to toe, the sensation of being weighted down—all strange. Drifting through the shallows of unconsciousness, I tried to turn over on my side and found myself unable to move, caught up against something that radiated the most warmth, as well as a familiar yet unfamiliar scent. Despite the strangeness, some instinct whispered that I was perfectly safe, and invited me to sink back into sleep. Happily, I wriggled closer to the source of the warmth and felt it shift in response, the arm lying across my middle pulling me more securely against the body beside me.
Neither of them felt like they belonged to my little sister.
Alarm shot through me, chasing away sleep. I opened my eyes as wide as my thick, heavy eyelids allowed. For a few disoriented moments, I took in the vaguely familiar ceiling, the hum of the air conditioner, the sleeping bag on the floor that I was lying on, and the quilt covering me that Tita Cathy must have put over us earlier. Finally, I turned my head and found Christian’s sleeping face a few inches from mine, his breath tickling my nose.
Oh my gosh.
Memories of the night before came flooding in. Christian’s fairytale birthday dinner for me. The fun we had reinventing his failed birthday cake as chocolate sprinkles. His making me sing a church song, and then singing along with me until his mom made us stop.
And then…his telling me that he was going back to New York. That this would be the last time I’d get to see him in a long, long time. He swore he’d find me someday, and in turn he made me swear to wait for him. He held me, comforted me, and kissed me so many times I’d lost count. We turned off the video, curled up in each other’s arms, and kissed each other to sleep. And I swore to myself that I’d spend what remaining time I had with him collecting as many memories of him as I could.
Deciding to begin with the sight of his sleeping face, I simply lay there gazing at him, imprinting his features on my mind. My gaze was drawn to the corner of his mouth, where a thin line of saliva trickled down his cheek, and I bit my lips together to keep the laughter in. He certainly wasn’t looking all that princely at the moment, drooling into the pillow like that. What a weird image to remember him by.
“Mrrshumm,” he muttered, and draped his leg across mine. Did he think I was his pillow or something? I worked one arm out from under the quilt so I could plaster my hand over my mouth, but the quaking of my stomach muscles must have woken him up, because he suddenly said, in a voice husky with sleep, “What’s so funny?”
The giggles burst out. “You,” I said. “You make a mess even when you’re asleep. How do you do that?”
“Mutant powers?” He blinked his eyes open and grinned. “Hey, you’re right. Your eyes do look like a frog’s.”
“So do yours, you know.” I threw my side of the quilt over his head and sat up, trying to massage the swelling out of my eyelids. “Ah, I knew it. Now I wish I hadn’t cried so much. This is so embarrassing.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m glad.”
When I glanced at him incredulously, he sat up as well and gave me a somber look. “You cried because you were sad about me leaving, and that’s just right and proper. It wouldn’t be fair if you weren’t sad and I was the only one feeling like—”
I covered his mouth with my hand, stopping his words. “Let’s neither of us be sad anymore, okay? At least not for today. We’ve got only today left, so let’s just have as much fun as we can.”
He nodded, his eyes softening. Then he pulled my hand away and pecked me on the lips. “That’s how a husband greets his wife in the morning,” he declared.
There was a beat of silence, then both our faces screwed up. “Ew, morning breath!” we exclaimed in unison, before breaking down in peals of laughter.
We got to our feet, rolled up the sleeping bag, and tossed his pillows and the quilt back on his bed. I made my way back to the guest room to freshen up, and together we clattered down the stairs for a breakfast of waffles, bacon, eggs, mango slices and hot cocoa. I admit I pinched myself once or twice just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming up the feast before me. Tita Cathy came in from the patio where she was sunning little Alex, and I watched with amusement as Christian took his baby brother and began lecturing him about how to properly aim the next time the Poop-Meister made an appearance, causing Tita Cathy to snatch Alex back and frown at her elder son.
We watched cartoons for a while after breakfast, then Christian announced the next item on the day’s itinerary: swimming. We stayed in the pool the rest of the morning, playing a game where one of us would toss a coin into the pool and the other would dive down to retrieve it. Then we took turns swimming in between each other’s legs. As a natural floater, I had a bit of trouble with this, and at one point, I surfaced way too soon and accidentally knocked Christian off-balance. As he plunged down, he grabbed me and pulled me down with him in revenge, and we came up spluttering and laughing, entangled in each other’s arms.
Then his laughter stopped, and he released me abruptly. I glanced over at him in puzzlement, and found him staring at a point somewhere below my neck, a visible flush climbing up from his chest to his hairline. “Why are you turning so red?” I wondered, still laughing.
He glanced away, swallowed, then looked back at me, this time fixing his gaze squarely on my face. “I just realized something,” he announced.
“Your boobs are getting bigger.”
My face froze in mid-laugh. Then the meaning of his words hit me, and my head exploded. “Oh my gosh, Christiaaaaan!” I screeched, splashing water into his face with one hand while my other arm flew up to cover the top of my swimsuit. While he sputtered and laughed and wiped his face, I trudged over to the pool’s ledge, where I sat hunched up with my arms crossed protectively over my chest and my knees tucked up to my chin, forming a compact fortress from which I shot death glares at him.
He attempted to wade toward me while I kept him at bay by kicking furiously at the water. “What? Come on, it’s no big deal,” he pointed out. “So your boobs are bigger now than the last time I saw you. I’m just stating a fact.”
“And you’re a pervert. That’s a fact, too,” I retorted, kicking at the water again.
“I’m not a pervert.”
“Yes, you are. Only a pervert would even mention my b-boobs to my face.”
“Well, it’s true. They are bigger. Whoa, hey, that was close.”
“Stop saying that!”
“Okay, okay! Calm down, already. Ix-nay on the splashing.” He sidled closer, and when I thrust one leg out to shove a wave at him, he caught my ankle and jerked me forward. I squeaked and planted both arms behind me to anchor myself to my perch, then kicked out again with my other leg. He managed to dodge a direct blow, and while I was blinked the water out of my eyes, he took advantage of my momentary blindness to slip in close. When I opened my eyes again, it was to find him right in front of me, his arms on either side of me pinning me to the spot, a grin of unholy glee on his face.
“Gotcha,” he drawled, scooping water up with one hand and pouring it over my face. “You can call me a pervert all you want,” he continued while I spit water out and wiped my eyes, “but I’m telling you I don’t mind your boobs at all. It’s normal for girls to grow them, right? Who cares how big they are?”
I moaned into my hands. “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe I’m talking to you about this, but you’re wrong. It’s not that they’re big. I heard Aling Betsy tell my mom they only look big because I’m so fat. Ouch! What did you—?”
Rubbing the spot on my head that he’d just bumped with his forehead, I gave him a bewildered look then went still. His chocolate eyes had grown flat, but I could almost feel his anger heating up the water around us. “Who the hell is Aling Betsy? You keep listening to all these stupid people when you should just be listening to me,” he said, his voice low and sharp. “And stop saying you’re fat or dark or ugly or whatever it is when you’re not. Just stop. It’s really starting to piss me off.”
I gazed into his face, and knew that, as unpredictable as his temper was, I could never be scared of him. How could I be, when his anger was meant only to protect me? Smiling, I threw my arms around his neck, and felt the tension in his shoulders relax as he hugged me back. “I’m sorry, Christian,” I murmured. “And thank you for thinking I’m not fat, dark and ugly.”
He pushed away from me and turned aside, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “I just said you’re not! I don’t think any of that about you, because you’re just not! Sheesh!”
I laughed, feeling a different kind of warmth spread throughout my body. “Well, if I’m not, then what am I?” I asked, then blushed, wondering if he noticed the uncharacteristic flirtatiousness in my tone.
He gave me a sidelong glance, blushed himself, and looked away again, flinging up handfuls of water and forming a shower of jewel-bright droplets. “You’re soft and round and cuddly all over. Nothing about you is sharp or bony,” he finally said, addressing the rippling surface of the pool. “Your skin makes me think of hot chocolate. In fact, everything about you makes me think of chocolate,” he added with rising passion, still not looking at me. “You’re sweet and nice and sometimes nutty. And you smell good, like cinnamon. Plus you’re really smart and loads of fun. Being around you makes me happy, and the more I’m around you, the happier I get. See? Just like chocolate.”
He turned to me, his expression a mix of earnest, self-conscious and challenging, as though he was expecting me to argue with him. I smiled again instead, deciding to let his “nutty” remark slide. The warmth was suffusing every part of me, setting me aglow, and a voice inside me seemed to whisper: Remember this. Remember his words. Remember all of it.
“Except for your eyes,” he added thoughtfully. “They don’t remind me of chocolate at all.”
He tilted his head and gave me the warm, lopsided smile that always made my heart skip a beat. “Because they’re just beautiful. You’ve got the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh,” I breathed. Remember this. Don’t ever forget how you’re feeling right now, because you’ll need it someday.
His smile faded as he drew closer again, and I found myself reaching for him. Moving in unison, as if in a dance, we leaned toward each other and pressed our lips together in a lingering kiss.
“Ay, excuse me,” a voice called brightly. We pulled apart and turned to find one of the maids approaching, carrying a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and two tall glasses. “Refreshments are here. And Ma’am says lunch will be in an hour.”
“Okay. Just leave it on the table, thanks,” Christian replied, sounding perfectly calm. When she left, we glanced at each other and blushed. I rubbed my arms to ward off the chill, then looked up when Christian hauled himself out of the pool and padded over to the table, dripping water all over.
He grinned at me. “Hey, you want some lemonade? And I haven’t shown you my Lightning Strike Triple Turn Spinning Kick Jump yet.”
“Lightning Strike Triple Turn Spinning Kick Jump? Sounds like a whole bunch of overkill to me,” I teased him as I rose from the pool and wrapped myself up in my towel, grateful that the subject of my bosom had been safely forgotten.
He smirked as he assumed his launching position. “Don’t knock awesomeness until you’ve seen it. Now, watch this.”
We had lunch together with his mom—a relatively simple meal of roasted chicken with lemongrass, pasta with creamy mushroom sauce, tossed salad, and iced tea—with Christian pooh-poohing Tita Cathy’s somewhat hopeless bid to get us to settle down for a nap. “Mom, we’re not little kids, anymore,” he protested, laughing. “Maybe Mr. P needs to nap, but we don’t. Besides, we’ve only got the afternoon left, and we can’t waste any more time sleeping. We’ve got to go now.”
I swallowed back the pain at the reminder of how little time we had left together, and even Tita Cathy’s smiled a little wistfully. “Fine, then,” she sighed, giving up. “But rest a bit before going out. Where did you say you were going?”
“Just around the neighborhood. Maybe to Mahogany Park. Or hey, would you like to drop by the Colegio de San Agustin and check it out?” he asked, turning to me.
But his mother wasn’t finished yet. “And how do you plan on getting around?”
“She can take my bike and I’ll ride my skateboard. That’s okay with you, right?” he asked me again.
It touched me how he seemed so anxious to please me, but I could also see that his mother was looking doubtful, so I decided to settle for a compromise. “Sure, but can we hang around a bit in your room first? I want to see if you still remember how to play pusoy.”
He threw his head back and groaned while his mother shot me a grateful look. “Oh man, really? Fine, go ahead and kick my butt around a bit if it’ll make you happy. Just remind me never to play against you for real money.”
About half an hour later, after Batman and I stripped Christian and Optimus Prime of all their Monopoly riches for the third time, he huffed in disgust and threw his cards down on the floor, then grabbed my hand and pulled me up. Soon, we were exploring the wide, tree-lined streets of his neighborhood, with the overarching branches forming a lovely, dappling tunnel, as well as the rows and rows of eye-popping mansions.
I pedaled on his bike while he coasted along beside me, riding his skateboard with the same athletic grace he did everything else, and he kept up a steady stream of chatter as he pointed out this mansion where a senator lives, or that one where a famous actor and his wife resided, or that other one given by a five-star general to his only daughter. Not to mention the many embassies that were apparently located in this village. It was a bit of a long ride—for me at least—but we also managed to reach the Colegio de San Agustin campus, where we decided to take a break near a statue of St. Augustine, gulping down bottles of water he’d bought from a store near the school.
As we sat there, a sleek silver car roared down the street, then slowed to a stop when it passed us. Windows rolled down and doors opened, and a quartet of kids around our age—three boys and a girl—appeared.
“Yo, Christian! We thought you’d already left,” one of the boys called.
“Nope, still here. Our flight’s tomorrow,” Christian yelled back.
“Hi, Christian.” The girl smiled and waved at him.
“You remember my cousin Mattie, right?”
Christian obligingly excused himself and went over to them, kicking his skateboard up and snatching it in mid-air without even glancing at it. I couldn’t help but notice how well-dressed they all were, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. Especially the girl. She looks like one of Faith’s dolls, I thought, before returning my gaze to Christian. He was chatting with them with his usual friendly charm, and even with the smudges of dirt and mud on his T-shirt and socks, the grass stains on his shorts, and the streaks of some black substance on the backs of his legs—where did he even get those?—he was by far the most compelling figure among them.
How does he do it? I marveled. He drew attention and affection to him so easily. An entire vehicle full of people had stopped just to say hello to him. Then again, why shouldn’t he stand out? He was tall and good-looking, strong and confident, and so—so darned princely. And he wore this world of luxury and power like a second set of clothes.
He was so very different from me. Yet here we were. And—at least for a few more hours—he was mine. My best friend in the world. I sighed dreamily, wishing with all my heart that the spell he cast over me would never be broken.
Then I heard one of the boys ask, “So who’re you with?”
Jolted out of my reverie, I shrank into myself and tried to blend in with the scenery, but Christian was already waving me over. “Joy, come here. I want to you to meet my friends.”
With trepidation, I pushed myself to my feet and headed over to them, keeping my eyes trained on the ground to avoid meeting any of the kids’ measuring stares. Then a hand grabbed mine, and I found myself pulled close to Christian’s side. Startled, I raised my head, and found the kids watching us with an equal amount of surprise, although the girl’s mouth had taken on a distinctly downward curve.
Completely oblivious to the undercurrents, Christian proceeded with the introductions. “Joy, I’d like you to meet Tony, Nathan and CJ. They’re neighbors of mine. And this is Mattie, CJ’s cousin who’s visiting him. Guys, this is Joy, my girlfriend.”
My heart stopped, then started up again so furiously the sudden onrush of blood into my head made me dizzy. He said it so naturally! I can’t believe it!
“Your girlfriend?” Mattie said faintly.
“Are you one of Mr. Prasad’s daughters?” the boy called Nathan asked me.
When I sent Christian a confused glance, he explained: “He means Mr. Mahesh Prasad, the Indian Ambassador. We passed by their embassy a while back.”
Oh. I shook my head, knowing that the moment I opened my mouth to speak, they’d realize at once that I wasn’t one of them, and I’d end up embarrassing Christian horribly.
“Oh, Nathan, you’re such an idiot,” Mattie said, rolling her eyes. “Her name is Joy. How can she be Indian?”
“Sorry,” Nathan mumbled, red to his ears, while the others ribbed him about how stupid he was. A wave of fellow feeling swept through me as I watched him grin weakly and attempt to laugh with his companions. I’d worn that same look on my face myself countless times.
Wanting to rescue him from the pit he was sinking into, I looked straight at Nathan and smiled. “I didn’t mind,” I managed, my voice emerging as a croak.
Nathan smiled back in response, and I felt Christian’s arm go tense. Thankfully, the others seemed to have lost interest in making fun of him, and were now talking about their activities that afternoon.
“We’re going to play tennis at the VA,” one of the other boys said. “You want to come?”
I bit my lip. If he says yes, what am I going to do? I don’t know how to get back to his house by myself. Is our time together over already?
“Nah, some other time. We’re on a date right now.” My eyes snapped up to his face. “Since I’m leaving tomorrow, this is the only time I’ll get to spend with Joy.”
He didn’t even hesitate. Wow. From the corner of my eye, I saw some of my shock mirrored in the others’ faces. Then Tony grinned. “Living up to your reputation as a total Romeo, huh?”
Christian made a face as the others teased him good-naturedly. “Oh come on, not that again. It’s nothing,” he said to me. “My mom told their moms a bunch of weird stuff about me at a party once, and it sort of snowballed from there.”
“Suuuuure, stick with that story all you want, Christian,” Tony taunted.
“There is no other story,” Christian replied, and I could almost hear the steel sliding beneath his voice. He smiled again but this time his smile had a chill to it—a chill reflected in the glint in his eyes. Tony and the others fell silent, and Nathan flinched ever so slightly. “Anyway, we gotta go,” Christian went on in his normal, affable manner, and the inexplicable tension evaporated without a trace. “Oh, and if any of you guys ever find yourself in NYC this Christmas, give me a call and we’ll hang out, okay? See you!”
I watched the car drive off, then mounted the bike when Christian called my name. We rode through the streets until we came to a small, tree-filled park, whereupon I fell off the bike, staggered toward the grassy patch underneath a friendly-looking tree, and plunked down on the ground, sweating and wheezing with exhaustion. I peered up at Christian, who’d once again kicked his skateboard into the air and caught it in mid-flip with casual ease. He wasn’t even breathing hard, I noted with disgust.
He gave me a rueful grin. “Tired?”
“No. Dying,” I retorted, rubbing my aching legs. “I can’t believe…I biked that far. If only my PE teacher…could’ve seen me.”
He chuckled and lay back down on the grass beside me. “We’ll rest a bit before we head for home. It’s okay, don’t worry, our house isn’t far from here,” he added, laughing some more when I whimpered pathetically.
Home, I thought, gazing up at the sky. The sun was beginning its slow descent, and golden strands of light flickered through the leaves above us at an angle. It would be sunset soon. Just a little while longer, I prayed. Please, let me be with him a little while longer.
“Where are you, Joy?”
At his plaintive question, I gave him a smile before looking up at the sky again. “You shouldn’t have told them that, you know,” I said softly.
“Told them what?” he asked, sitting up.
“That I’m your girlfriend. You shouldn’t say stuff like that so easily. I know you said it yesterday at my school because you were covering for me, but you shouldn’t pretend around your friends.”
“Is that what you think? That I’m just pretending?”
I shrugged, suddenly filled with doubt as I recalled what Tony had said about Christian’s reputation as a “total Romeo”. He jumped to his feet and began to pace, his movements quick and furious. Suddenly, he stopped. “You’re right. You’re not my girlfriend.”
I wasn’t prepared for the pain that crashed over me, stealing my breath away. He offered a hand to help me up. Still dazed from the blow he’d dealt, I unthinkingly placed my hand in his, only to have him clamp his hand around my wrist and haul me to my feet, as if I wasn’t tubby and overweight and all.
Then I got a closer look at his face, and gulped. His features were dark and granite-hard, his eyes blazed with anger, and his hand was like an iron band around my wrist as he walked me backward until I was pushed up against the tree, and a part of me wondered if now wasn’t a good time to start being afraid of him.
“Christian!” I raised my other hand to shove him away, only to have it caught in his grasp as well, enabling him to pin both my hands against the tree on either side of me. “What’re you doing? Ow, that hurts.”
“You’re not my girlfriend,” he growled. “You’re my bride. My future wife. Mine. Just like you promised. Don’t you ever forget that, or I’ll make you sorry.”
I stared up at him, stunned into silence.
“I’ve never pretended, and I never will. I’ll tell the world you belong to me, Joy. I’ll make sure everybody knows it, because—”
Abruptly, he released me and stepped back, the dark, scorching fury draining away, leaving him looking pale and oddly vulnerable. And in that moment, I understood. “Are you scared?” I asked gently, rubbing my chafed and aching wrists.
He exhaled and looked away, yanking at the hair at the back of his head. “Stay away from Nathan,” he replied harshly.
“What? Nathan?” I gaped at the sheer unexpectedness—and utter ridiculousness—of that.
“Stay away from him. I don’t want you to go anywhere near him. I don’t want any guy to see you the way I do. I just don’t—” He trailed off and cursed underneath his breath.
“Are you scared?” I asked again. “It’s okay, you know. You can tell me.”
Finally, he sagged and nodded dejectedly. “I don’t want to leave you,” he confessed. “I—I’ve got this awful feeling I’m about to lose you.”
Ah, I knew it. I stepped closer and wrapped my arms around him in a tight hug. At first, it felt as if I’d missed completely and hugged the tree instead, but then his body relaxed and his arms closed around me as well in an equally tight grip.
After a while, I stepped back and looked him full in the face. “Christian, you’re not going to lose me. You know why? It’s because I believe in you,” I stated, willing him to see the truth inside me. “I’ve always believed in you, even though I sometimes say stupid things. But you’ve got to believe in me, too. I’ll become a better person. I’ll become someone you’ll be proud to call your girlfriend, you’ll see. And when you come back home, I promise I’ll be here. I promise I’ll wait for you.”
He opened his mouth—probably to make some silly protestations about how I was a great person already—and I shook my head to stop him. “Look, the point is, you’ve got to believe in me. Can you promise me that?”
Slowly, he nodded again, his expression solemn, his chocolate eyes warm and glimmering. “I love you,” he blurted, his voice hoarse with tears. “I love you, Joy. I’ll always love you.”
I smiled back. “I love you, too, Christian. I’ll always love you.”
In the red-gold glow of the setting sun, sheltered among the trees, we kissed one last time. Remember this. I let the memory sink in until it settled deep within my soul, enveloping the core of me with his magic. The way he looked against the darkening sky, the tenderness of his lips, the warmth of his hands on my face, the taste and smell and feel of him, the love shining in his eyes—I took all these and forged them into a talisman that kept me strong through all the days, weeks, months and years that followed. No matter what happened to me, no matter what anybody said about me, I would always have this.
The streetlights were blazing by the time we returned to his house. Tita Cathy greeted us at the doorway, but she didn’t say a word about us coming home much later than we were supposed to. I went up to the guest room to pack my things, and it was a bit of a trial, what with Christian dogging my every move and messing up my things.
Finally, I managed to finish packing, and he carried my travel bag for me to the black SUV waiting in the driveway, which Mang Chito then stowed in the back seat, along with the leftover food and all the white, helium balloons from my fairytale birthday dinner. Holding my rose to my chest while my yellow, heart-shaped blimp bobbed above my head, I turned toward Tita Cathy and the maids, who were seeing me off at the doorway.
“Thank you so much for letting me stay over, and for—for everything. And please have a safe journey. I—we’ll all miss you, Tita Cathy. Especially Nanay.”
“It was a pleasure to have you here, Joy. And give your family my regards,” Tita Cathy replied, before sweeping me into a warm hug. “Grow up strong, Joy. For you and for him,” she whispered, echoing the piece of advice she’d given me years ago.
“I will,” I promised.
Then I stepped back and faced Christian, who was standing absolutely still, for once. “You take care of yourself, okay?” I said lightly. “And good grief, try a little harder to stay out of trouble. And stop rolling around in dirt and filth all the time.”
He grinned back, his dimple flashing. “Look, I’ll try, okay? That’s the most I can give you.”
“As long as you write back.”
“Take care, Joy.”
We looked at each other, and I could feel myself trembling all over. Christian swallowed and tucked his clenched fists at his sides. Neither of us stopped smiling, though. We desperately wanted to hold each other one last time, but we both knew that if we touched each other now, we’d crumble into a million pieces.
If only we had more time.
“Um, I—I have to go,” I announced, somewhat unnecessarily. Then I spun around and practically dove into the car. The slamming of the door as Mang Chito settled into the driver’s seat, the voices of Tita Cathy and the maids saying goodbye, and the rumbling of the SUV’s engine tore strips out of me. Pushing my blimp down, I looked out the window, and saw Christian walking alongside the car, then running after it, stopping only when he’d reached the outside of their gate.
That was my last memory of him—a lone figure standing underneath a streetlight, watching the distance yawn between us.
Just as it happened when I was eight, the journey back home felt like a gradual awakening from a wonderful dream of castles and fairy magic and a handsome, charming prince, and finding myself back in dull, ordinary reality. Only it hurt so much more now. I sat silently in the car seat, gripping my rose and my balloon, and shook all over from the effort of containing the ripping pain and heartbreaking sense of loss, thankful that Mang Chito seemed to sense my mood and remained as quiet as well.
I’ll be okay, I told myself as I watched the passing scenery take me farther and farther away from the person I wanted to be with the most. We’ll both be okay. He loves me, and I love him. I’ve got so many new memories of him to treasure. And one day—one day, we’ll see each other again.
When I got home, my family greeted me with excitement, curiosity and a wary caution, as if they half-expected me to turn into a pile of dust the moment I stepped through the doorway, although Faith, at least, forgot all about treating me with kid gloves when she caught sight of the balloons and the leftover food, especially the Marie LaRoche cake. As I settled down to dinner with my family, with my little sister yanking at the yellow balloon and trying to get the cats to chase after the smaller balloons, I cheerfully answered their careful questions about the things Christian and I did, leaving out our crying in each other’s arms, all the hugs and kisses we’d shared, and our confession to each other.
“Aw, I still wish I went with you to his house,” Faith grumbled, sticking her lower lip out in a theatrical pout. “It’s so unfair. Why couldn’t I have said goodbye to him, too?”
“You said goodbye yesterday,” Ate Grace pointed out.
“But I didn’t get to go swimming with him and watch videos with him and eat all this great food with him—ow! Nanay, Ate Grace kicked me!” she whined, glaring at her assailant.
Ate Grace glared right back. “That’s because you won’t shut up, you thick-headed brat.”
“Oh, good grief, you two are acting so weird,” I interrupted with a giggle. “Look, I’m fine, okay? I’m just a little tired, that’s all.”
“That’s only to be expected,” Nanay remarked. “You don’t have to help with the dishes tonight, Joy. Just unpack your things and go straight to bed.”
“I’ll feed Pocholo and this bunch of freeloaders tonight,” Tatay added as he rose from his seat, causing all our cats to perk up with interest. Then he reached over and ruffled my hair. “We missed you, Joy. It’s been so quiet here without you.”
“Quiet?” Ate Grace snorted. “She’s not the noisy one here.”
“And you’re a nasty old hag,” Faith countered, and stuck her tongue out.
“All right, I was wrong,” Tatay amended with a long-suffering sigh. “It’s been noisier here without you to keep your sisters from turning into barbarians.”
“Hey!” both my sisters exclaimed.
“Go on now, Joy,” Nanay urged, and it was a relief to obey.
Minutes later, she knocked at our door, then opened it to find me huddled on the floor, clutching my wedding-promise ring to my chest, tears pouring down my face. “Nanay, it hurts,” I sobbed as I looked up at her. “What do I do? It hurts so much.”
“Oh, anak. I know it does.” She sank down beside me and took me in her arms, rocking me back and forth as I cried my wounded heart out. Ate Grace came in after a while to report that Faith was safely preoccupied with watching TV with Tatay, then perched on the edge of our bed, watching as Nanay rubbed my back and simply let me cry myself out.
“Wh-why does it hurt so m-much?” I blubbered as I fought to slow my sobbing down.
“That’s how love is, anak.”
“Love hurts?” I stared up at her, aghast. This was hardly the ringing endorsement for love that I’d learned to expect from my romance-novel consumption.
Nanay smiled as she pushed my hair back. “Yes, because love makes you feel alive. And when you’re alive, you feel everything.”
My sister grunted. “I’m never falling in love. Never. It sounds perfectly awful.”
“We’ll see, Grace,” Nanay murmured.
“But what—what do I do?” I went on in between hiccups. “He’s leaving me be-behind for a new life in New York, and I can’t do anything to s-stop him.”
“If you could, would you stop him?”
“I—” I paused, trying to sort out my jumbled emotions, and the memory of Christian inviting his friends to come hang out with him in New York popped into my head. Would I have stopped him? Would I have rather kept him chained to my side, unable to fly? Unlike me, Christian thrived among people. He belonged out there in the world, and he was walking forward into his future, as fearless and confident as ever. It was one of the things I loved about him.
“No,” I finally said. “The last thing I want is for him to be miserable, and he would’ve been miserable that way. He would’ve been…he wouldn’t have been Christian that way.”
“Well, the same goes for you, Joy,” Nanay said. “You can’t go back to the past, and you can’t stay stuck where you are. So where do you go?”
“Forward,” I answered promptly, then frowned. “What does that even mean? How do I do that?”
The door crashed open as Faith came bursting in, pulling my yellow blimp behind her. “Boo-waaah! Found ya!” she cried, plopping herself down on the floor. “What’s going on? What’re you talking about? And, yikes, why do you look all frog-eyed, Ate Joy?”
“Here we go,” Ate Grace muttered, rolling her eyes.
As Faith and Ate Grace prepared to square off yet again, Nanay got to her feet and said to me: “I’m sure you’ll figure it out, anak. Just take your time with it. Now get some rest.”
Forward, I thought later as I lay awake in our bed, with my little sister finally lying quiescent beside me. I can’t go back, and I can’t stay stuck. The only way I can go is forward.
The upper bunk squeaked as Ate Grace peered over the edge of her bed. “Hey, Joy.”
“Tell me when Christian comes back, okay?”
“Because I owe him a major ass-kicking,” she stated darkly, before turning over and going to sleep.
Despite the cloud of depression enveloping me, I found myself smiling in the dark. Forward, I decided as sleep claimed me. He believes in me, and I won’t let him down. I have to go forward.
A few months later, in the year I turned ten, I woke up one morning and knew I was going to change my life. I was going to move forward to where Christian was.
And later still, I discovered that “forward” began with St. Helene Academy.