He never called me, you know. Not even a text message saying, “What’s up? Or “U still alive?” or even “Found u in my contacts, who r u?” You’d think he’d at least have been curious about the strange new number in his phone. I mean, how many damned weirdos did he know who go around calling themselves Batman?
Okay, so I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t contact me. I spent about two weeks checking my phone every ten minutes and leaping into the air at the slightest beep, but nobody except me knew why. Well, Sharm and Erwin had their suspicions, but they were, for the first time since that lousy Valentine’s Day, totally wrong. They assumed I was still hung up over Jeff, still waiting for the smooth-talking tightwad to tell me that he’d made a terrible mistake and beg me to take him back. I won’t deny that a vain, vengeful part of me was still holding out for that, but it was rapidly shrinking until it was an insignificant thing, barely heard and easily brushed aside. It was kind of an eye-opener for me. If all it took to knock me out of my funk was one afternoon with a lanky, good-looking boy with messy black hair and coolly intense dark eyes behind a pair of silver wire-rims, then what did that say about my devotion to Jeff? I was disgusted at how fickle and shallow I was; I agonized about it for days. That is, when I wasn’t acting like Pavlov’s dog and salivating at the sound of my own phone.
I didn’t tell anyone the real reason behind my jumpiness. I just told them I’d bumped into Miguel at the kiosk, and when I recognized him as my favorite child prodigy, I chatted him up until he agreed to be my friend. I must have been a better actress than I thought if I convinced even Erwin, who’d witnessed that impulsive kiss I gave Migs. The truth was embarrassing enough as it was. I was not adding to that by admitting that I was obsessing over a thirteen-year-old kid I’d just met. It would have been hell to explain without me sounding like some sort of pervert.
Deep inside, I guess I wanted to keep the memory of our first meeting to myself. I’ve met a lot of people, but I’ve never felt that instantaneous connection with anyone except Miguel. The moment I saw him, everything just clicked into place. He was here, he’d found me, everything was going to be okay.
By the time the third week rolled around, I had to face it: he was never going to call. He obviously wanted nothing more to do with me. For all I knew, the first thing he did when I left was thank God the crazy, underdeveloped bitch had finally taken herself off before deleting my number and putting our encounter firmly behind him. I couldn’t blame him. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d overestimated someone’s interest in me. Cute and full of it, that’s me. Leave it to a child genius to hit it right on the head.
I was saved from sinking into an even grayer funk over that by summer classes. Summer courses in UP are just as tough as regular ones, except that you have to cram everything in just one-third of the time. Before I knew it, I was up to my hairline in readings, papers and midterms. Add to that the fact that the second batch of shoots for Shoujo Shine were just beginning, and every other weekend I had to haul my ass out of bed at four o’clock on a Saturday and head off to the roof-deck of a skyscraper in Ortigas or a rented vacation house in Tagaytay for a shoot, squeezing in some desperately needed studying during breaks, and coming back at nine in the evening—sometimes on Sunday—only to haul my ass out of bed at 6 a.m. to make it to my 7 a.m. class. On the weekends when I wasn’t on a shoot, I was out doing promo tours in malls. Those, at least, were much more fun than the shoots, which were more like boot camp with makeup.
So between studies and work, I had little time to dwell on the fact that the boy I thought I’d bonded with clearly did not feel the same way. Sometimes, I’d catch a glimpse of messy black hair and glasses, and I’d stop and turn, but I gave that up after a while. It was a big campus after all, and the chances of me running into him again were slim. Soon, the normal chaos of my life took over, and I never gave another thought to Migs again.
Or I never would have, if Sharm hadn’t stumbled upon that wonderful “apartment for rent” poster at the Shopping Center.
But first, let me tell you about our living arrangements.
Sharm and I had at that time been living in a boarding house. Before that, we stayed in dormitories, but something about the rules and curfews reminded us too much of home. Plus, Sharm and I never got to be roommates, and the roommates I did get had the tendency to: 1) steal my secret chocolate stash; 2) tease me about my portraying kids in the ads I appeared in, and; 3) nag me about the dangers my undeveloped body posed to my health and my need for immediate and extensive medical attention.
“All this concern for my well-being is driving me bat-shit,” I complained once.
“You know they don’t mean anything by it. They just don’t know how complicated the issue is to you,” Sharm told me in her role as the voice of common sense.
She was right, of course, but I preferred Erwin’s explanation: “They’re just jealous, girl. They know that when they’re fifty and their boobs are sagging and they can use their wrinkles to keep coins in, you’ll still look like a fabulous thirty-something while their husbands lust after you. You can’t blame them for sharpening their claws on you.”
Sharm would have had no complaints about living in a dorm if it weren’t for the ghosts. There are ghosts everywhere on campus. Every building has its own apparition, and some street corners are SRO with dead soldiers and white ladies. And every dormitory in UP is haunted. Cold drafts in an airless room, faces in the mirror, strange girls in old-fashioned clothing lurking inside closets, the whole shebang. The dorms are oozing ectoplasm, and Sharm—practical, down-to-earth Sharm—is absolutely terrified of ghosts. Perversely enough, the ghosts seem fond of manifesting around her, like cats around a cat-hater. But the night she saw a strange man staring despondently at her before slipping into a friend’s room, prompting her to run to the dorm head to report a thief, only to find the room occupied by just her friend who was looking ill—well, enough was enough.
Compared to Erwin though, Sharm and I lived in paradise. Erwin had been ordered by his parents to stay with an aunt who lived in Tandang Sora. Unlike his dad and brother, she accepted the fact that he was gay. The problem was, she accepted it a little too enthusiastically. She loved cheesy variety shows, beauty pageants and overwrought teledramas, and spent hours in a beauty salon swapping showbiz gossip with her kumadres. She took it for granted that Erwin was just as passionate about her interests because he was, after all, as gay as a rainbow sherbet. Nothing he said or did could dissuade her. While Erwin does possess an eye for beauty and the sarcastic wit gay men are known for, his bookish ways and fondness for all things high-brow collided with his aunt’s more plebeian tastes. Before college, he was the lightest smoker among us. After several months of living with his aunt, he was puffing away like a jeepney with a busted muffler.
Some time in our sophomore year, the three of us swore, over a dozen bottles of San Mig Light and three thousand cigarettes, that we’d find a place of our own. We had our own friends by then, forming the outer ring of our little circle. There was Trey, Sharm’s friend whom she’d met in one of her classes; Giselle, Erwin’s friend whom he’d met in one of his classes; and Jeff, the tall, dark, handsome tightwad I’d met in one of my classes and brought along for Show and Tell. The three of them were witnesses to our vow.
It took us time to save enough money for our own place. It helped that we all got jobs. Sharm worked first as a student assistant at the Center for Women’s Studies, then as a staff member for a women’s rights organization. Erwin became a researcher for a policy research foundation. I was then working as Glittergals’ newest talent. Unfortunately, not only are new talents paid peanuts, they’re also lucky to be paid within a month of the date stated in the contract. The people in the business seemed to like me though, even if every role I got was for characters ten years younger. I’d already done several commercials and a couple of spreads by the time Shoujo Shine got hold of my VTR and signed me on. The work became more hectic and the contract was dauntingly strict, but the boost in my paycheck was satisfactorily exponential.
We were so eager to strike out on our own that we decided to pick the first boarding house whose ad we found on a bulletin board and just wing it. Erwin’s escape was thwarted when his mother decided that she’d like to spend a year with her sister-in-law in Manila, and see the kind of life her son was living. Sharm and I went ahead and rented a room at a nearby boarding house.
Our “room” was a rectangular cubbyhole furnished with a double bunk bed, a plastic chair, and a table that had been stolen from the university’s condemned furniture heap. There was only enough space for one person to move from the door to the window; two abreast would have led to an undignified spill onto the floor. We had to share the bathroom and the kitchen with the rest of the tenants. Over the months, Sharm and I collected a few things to make our cubbyhole livable—an electric fan, a full-sized mirror, a few shelves to hang on the walls, an art-nouveau poster, a study lamp that Sharm tied to the bedpost of the lower bunk so she could read in bed. It became clear, though, that we—including the now half-insane Erwin—needed to find a new place soon.
So we drew up a list of what our new apartment should be. It had to be affordable, of course. It had to be big enough for three. It had to be close to the campus. It had to be painted blue, white or yellow because Erwin loathed green and Sharm couldn’t abide pink. It had to have a working shower because I love taking showers. A kitchen, too, to give Sharm room to get creative. Dogs and cats were fine, but no rats, cockroaches, supernatural creatures or annoying tenants who poked their noses into our place then complained about the smell of cigarettes and the rose incense that Erwin loved.
At one point, we were tempted to give up on our dream apartment. Even with our paychecks and allowances, we simply couldn’t afford it. Then one day, I went back to our hometown for a visit and found my Lolo and Lola sitting in the living room with a fashionably-dressed woman. The woman turned out to be my mother, who had come back after an absence of thirteen years to deal with some paperwork problem at the DFA. So sorry she couldn’t stay; she had to go back to her LA mansion the very next day. She made some halfhearted attempts to bond with me—a limp hug, a fragrant kiss, a weak comment about how beautiful I’d grown—but all I could manage through the black fog filling my skull was a frozen smile and a steely demand that she fulfill her parental responsibilities by giving me an allowance of at least $500 a month. As the wife of a successful businessman, she could well afford it. Before she left, my grandparents and I ironed out a financial arrangement with the woman who’d given birth to me, so that by the start of the semester, I was pulling in at least twenty-five grand a month.
A month later, my grandparents visited me at our boarding house and informed me that my delinquent father had been tracked down. I suspected that my mother had something to do with this. Turned out he was now some hotshot AVP for a hotel chain in London, and was pulling in some major bucks. They gave me his email address and his phone numbers, and after a flurry of phone calls and emailing, I’d worked out a second deal to the tune of another twenty-five grand, making it a fifty-grand a month income, with extra from my job and my allowance left over.
Instant cash, easy-peasy. If my friends were appalled at my mercenary attitude toward my parents, they knew me well enough not to speak of it. With the money, we could now afford the monthly rent for an apartment. Erwin volunteered to pay the utility bills, while Sharm would pay for our food and grocery expenses. A nice, neat arrangement. All we needed now was the apartment.
We began our search early that year. We checked out a few apartments, but they were all wrong. One was too small. Another was roomy, but the bathroom was a lichen-infested disaster, and the kitchen gave Sharm the shudders. Still another was spacious, and the kitchen and bathroom were fine, except the place was entirely hemmed in by other buildings and was always dank, shadowy and sinister-looking, even at high noon. Then in April we found one that was almost perfect. The problem? It was painted the most hideous shade of green. Erwin nearly had a seizure at the sight of it, and even Sharm and I couldn’t stand to look at it for long without feeling nauseous.
Unfortunately, it was our best bet. We bribed Erwin with a new Sarah Brightman CD into agreeing to take this apartment and have it repainted. The paint job would be a major drain, but it was better than puking all the time from the radiation emitted by the green walls. Still, for some reason, we never got around to calling the owner to tell him we were taking it. Maybe our instincts were warning us away from those walls.
Then one day at the end of May, Sharm burst into our cubbyhole, reached up through the side rail of the upper bunk, and yanked my blanket off, flipping me over in the process since I’d been sleeping with the blanket wrapped around my waist. “Wake up, Ives. I want to show you something,” she said excitedly.
I lifted my head, glared blearily in her general direction, and went back to sleep.
“Wake up, brat, this is important.” She stepped onto the lower bunk and shook me. When I turned away from her to face the wall, she sucked in a breath, then yelled at the top of her lungs: “Ives, what’re you still doing in bed? It’s past 10! You’re late!”
“What?!” I shrieked, bolting upright. “Shit! I’ve got a promo tour to do! I have to go!”
I was half-way out of my bunk when I realized that Sharm was laughing her head off. Normal brain functions kicked in, and I remembered that not only did I have no promo tours or shoots scheduled for the week, summer classes were also over, giving me a few of days of freedom before registration started. Groaning, I tried to wriggle back into bed, fully intending to forget the last five minutes, but Sharm, in her other role as evil incarnate, grabbed both my ankles and pulled back.
“Leggo!” I whined, clawing at the sheets. “Leave me alone, I wanna sleep!”
“Get up, lazy,” Sharm grunted. “There’s something you have to see—let go of the mattress before you rip it to shreds!”
Finally, I sat on the edge of my bunk and glowered through tangled locks of hair. “All right, I’m up. This had better be good, or so help me…”
“I rather think it is,” she said loftily, handing me a piece of paper.
It was an ad for an apartment located at Maginhawa Street, a short distance away from the campus. Two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, a balcony and a garage. While the features were nothing we hadn’t heard before, I could see at once what had caught Sharm’s eye. In the middle of the ad was a beautiful sketch of the apartment as seen presumably from the gate. It was a two-storey duplex divided into two apartments, one on the first floor, which had the garage, and one on the second, with the balcony. There was a tree beside the building, its branches overarching part of the balcony—a caimito tree, judging from the delicate shading on the leaves. The drawing was lovingly rendered and wonderfully detailed. There was even a cat sitting on the balcony rail and a dog standing in front of the garage, wagging its tail in welcome. A smile spread across my face as I looked at the tiny work of art. Whoever did this had some serious talent.
“I found it at the Shopping Center when I went to pick up a book I had photocopied,” Sharm told me. “It looks lovely, doesn’t it?”
“The drawing looks lovely,” said I, the apartment-hunting veteran.
“Oh, I’m sure the real thing’s just as nice. Anyway, I called up that number to ask if the second-floor apartment had any takers, and the woman told me that nobody’s renting it yet. So what do you say we go check this out?”
I traced my fingers over the tiny cat. “Sure. Does Erwin know?”
Sharm nodded. “I called him up before I came to wake you. He’ll meet us here at two.”
“Two?” I echoed, perplexed. “Why not this morning?”
She waved a hand airily. “Oh, because the woman said the apartment owner and her kids had gone out for the morning and wouldn’t be back until after lunch.”
“What?” My eyes darted toward the alarm clock beside my pillow, which informed me that it was only 10:12 a.m. “Then why, pray tell, did you wake me up now?”
“No reason,” Sharm purred. “I just wanted to mess with you. You can be so entertaining, you know.”
Although her affectionate smile took away the sting of the joke, there was still the principle of the thing. Screaming Screaming a battle cry, I grabbed my pillow and swung it at her head, but she managed to duck under it and scamper out the door, laughing all the way.
At exactly two, Sharm and I came down to find Erwin sitting beside a window, watching a well-built guy in a muscle shirt amble down the street. He gave us a cursory nod, then returned to observing his quarry. “Hmph,” he muttered. “Beefcake.”
I peered into his face. “Oooh, and I suppose that’s not drool dripping down your chin?”
Erwin looked down his nose at me. “Unlike some people, I value a person’s ability to keep the other end of a conversation from dragging on the ground. Although a tight pair of buns is an acceptable consolation,” he added, eyeing the man lasciviously.
“Well, I’m sure you can think of other ways to put his mouth to work.”
“Ugh, knock it off, you two!” Sharm cried. “Perverts, the both of you. Let’s get going.”
Erwin and I glanced at each other. “Hark to Mother Superior,” I pretended to rebuke him, arranging my features into a virtuous expression. Erwin snickered.
“I heard that!” Sharm snapped.
We found the address easily enough, but we had to wonder if it was the right one. What we found when we stepped off the tricycle was not a split-level apartment building with a caimito tree beside it, but a long, ornate black gate behind which stood a three-storey, cream-colored house with gleaming bay windows and a lush flower garden in front. We checked the ad again and exchanged puzzled glances.
“Maybe the address has a typo?” Sharm offered hesitantly.
“Well, that would just be pointless, wouldn’t it?” Erwin replied.
Just then, a fat, gray tabby cat sauntered around the corner, eyed us disdainfully, then vanished toward the garage. Somewhere inside the house, a dog barked. A thought occurred, and I looked closely at the gate. Sure enough, concealed among the curlicues and fleur-de-lis was another, slightly narrower gate. The large gate was actually two gates designed to look as if it was one seamless whole. “Nah, this is it,” I said, grinning.
We rang the doorbell and waited. After a while, a middle-aged woman dressed in a housedress opened a small door cut through the main gate. She was as thickly built as Erwin, but gave the impression that underneath her dark skin was power solidified. Her face was covered with laugh lines, but her black eyes gazed at us suspiciously.
“G-good afternoon,” Erwin said with only the slightest hesitation. “We’re the ones who inquired after the apartment for rent. Er, are the owners in?”
When the woman’s brows drew together, Sharm and I flashed our most charming smiles. “I’m Sharmaine Katigbak,” she explained. “I was the one who called you earlier. Are you, um, Nanay Loring?”
At that, the woman’s laugh lines deepened. “So I am,” she boomed, causing us to lean backward a bit. “Come in, come in. They’re not here yet, but you can wait in the living room. I can’t show you the place myself. Ma’am has the keys to the apartments.”
She stepped back and we followed her inside. Beyond the one-car driveway and garage was the laundry area, where several clothes had been hung on clotheslines. On the left side of the driveway was a chain-link fence, and on the other side of that fence, a long, narrow driveway, leading toward the back of the lot.
“This place is bigger than it looks,” Erwin commented in a low voice as we followed Nanay Loring inside.
The inside of the house was exquisitely neat. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, white lace curtains covered the windows, and the marble floor gleamed where it wasn’t covered by a burgundy carpet. We sat gingerly on the couch—white leather upholstery, no little kids in this family—while Nanay Loring bustled off into the kitchen. To our right, underneath a large painting of pink and yellow swirls, was a piano, with two wood and glass shelves crammed full of crystal and ceramic knick-knacks standing guard on either side of it. On top of the piano, between two tall crystal vases, were several picture frames. On our left side, right beside the doorway, was a gilt-framed mirror, and underneath this mirror, a small marble pedestal upon which sat a statue of the Virgin Mary, with several smaller saints clustered around it.
Nay Loring came back with a tray containing a pitcher, three glasses, and a plate of biscuits. “Help yourselves,” she said, setting the tray down on the glass coffee table. “Orange juice, I hope you don’t mind. I don’t really hold with letting children drink Coke. It rots the teeth, I always tell them, but do they ever listen?” She clucked her tongue and shook her head.
I blinked at Nay Loring’s guileless face while my two friends snickered into their OJ, the traitors. “Oh, I agree,” I twittered inanely. “That soft drink stuff is bad for you.”
Nay Loring fluttered. “Such a pretty child. All of you, really, what an attractive trio you make. Are you siblings?”
I nearly spat my juice out. “No, we’re—”
“Naku, I’ve forgotten all about the laundry!” she exclaimed, before disappearing toward the back door with a hasty invitation for us to make ourselves comfortable.
I set my glass on the tray, then moved the tray aside so it wouldn’t bump into the crystal vase in the center of the coffee table, a copy of the ones on the piano.“I hope they get here soon,” Sharm muttered. “All this glass is making me feel twitchy.”
“Don’t move an inch and you’ll be fine.” Erwin rifled through the magazines under the table, eventually picking an old issue of Time. “Here,” he said, passing a Reader’s Digest to Sharm. “Ives, you want—where the hell do you think you’re going, brat?”
I shot him a grin as I continued my exploration of the dining room and the kitchen. “You know, I don’t think they use their living room much,” I remarked as I inspected the large round dining table made of burnished wood, with a basket of fruit as a centerpiece. Both the dining room and kitchen were spotless.
“Do tell,” Erwin said sourly.
“No, really. Look, only the living room is made of faux leather and crystal. The rest of the house is hard wood.”
I stuck my head into the bathroom beside the stairs, then peered up the wooden steps, wondering if I had time for a little peek up there. “I bet there’s a family room up there, with a state-of-the-art entertainment system and lots of fluffy pillows,” I continued, uncaring of whether my companions were listening or not. “The living room is just a place to keep unwanted visitors in.”
I circled round to the living room and examined the picture frames on the piano. One was a studio photo of a baby girl in a pink dress, while another was a picture of a woman with the baby on her lap and a little boy standing beside her. Something about the pictures struck me, and I went up on my tiptoes for a closer look.
“Ivy, get back here,” Erwin hissed. Outside, a car horn blared. Ignoring both, I stared at a particular photo—that of a little boy with unruly black hair and slanted dark eyes staring solemnly at the camera, several medals hanging from his neck. He looked around nine and he wasn’t wearing glasses, but I felt a shock go through me anyway. I’d have recognized those eyes anywhere.
“No way,” I breathed. “Hell no, it couldn’t be—”
The screen door banged loudly, and I jumped and spun around. Standing in the doorway, carrying grocery bags in each hand, was Miguel, staring at me in utter shock. I’d have burst out laughing at the bug-eyed expression on his face, except I was just as floored as he was and certainly looked just as funny.
As he continued to gape at me, a younger girl who was likely his sister opened the door and ran smack into his unmoving back. She rubbed her forehead and glared at him, then froze, her own jaw dropping, when she saw who her brother was gawking at.
Reflexes honed by years of modeling kicked in. I smiled and forced my body to relax. “Hi,” I said with perfect aplomb, as if turning up in his living room unannounced was something I did every day. “I was just looking at your pictures. You were a cute kid.”
His pale cheeks were suddenly stained red. Another voice spoke up. “Miguel, move out of the way so we can come in.”
Flushing even redder, he hefted his bags and fled to the kitchen. His sister followed at a dreamy pace, her eyes never leaving me. I gave her a friendly smile, which she returned with surprised pleasure.
A woman came in, followed by Nanay Loring carrying the rest of the bags into the kitchen. The woman, who looked to be in her late forties, was slim, pale and strikingly lovely in a sharp, cold way, like an ice sculpture. She wasn’t any taller than Sharm, but her bearing gave her the illusion of height. Her crisp white blouse, tan slacks and cream-colored cardigan were elegant, fashionable and expensive-looking, and she moved with an airy grace that made me feel clumsy and gauche. She looked at me, her eyes that looked so much like Miguel’s sweeping me from head to foot, and I suddenly wished I’d chosen to wear something a little less, well, babyish than a pale blue shirtdress and a pair of flip-flops, with my hair tied back in a low ponytail. I must have looked as if I’d gotten lost on my way to a children’s party. I met her stare with a disarming smile, moving to close ranks with Sharm and Erwin, who’d risen to their feet.
We introduced ourselves as my friends were subjected to her laser stare. “I’m Amelia Santillan. You’ve come to inquire about the second-floor apartment?” she said, her sweet tone striking me as somewhat at odds with her stainless steel gaze.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Sharm answered. “We saw your ad at the UP Shopping Center, and we wanted to check it out.”
Mrs. Santillan nodded when Erwin showed her the ad. “Ah, that one. You must be lucky. My son only made a few of those because he thought the illustration made the poster look cluttered.”
“Excuse me, but I have to ask: Who drew this?” I interrupted. “It looks as if it was done by a Fine Arts student or a professional artist.”
She smiled, graciously ignoring my rudeness. “Why, my son did. Miguel is a very accomplished boy. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He’s studying in UP, too, at the College of Engineering.”
No shit. I craned my neck to look over her shoulder toward the dining area, where Miguel and his sister were eavesdropping while pretending to sort the groceries. Sensing my gaze, he looked back at me, and I could read the embarrassment in his eyes.
I lifted my eyebrows. Really?
He shrugged. It’s no big deal.
Right, sure it is, I thought, rolling my eyes. Erwin glanced at me curiously, having caught our silent exchange, and I quickly focused on the ongoing discussion.
“So you’re saying the three of you are friends and that you’re all studying at UP?” Mrs. Santillan appeared to be having trouble digesting this. The reason for this became clear when her gaze landed upon me, lingering on my legs in particular.
Following her gaze, I blushed and inched forward on the couch until my feet were touching the floor. “I’m older than I look, Ma’am,” I reassured her.
A delicate eyebrow arched. “Really? I’m sorry, but you look younger than my son. Closer to my daughter’s age, in fact.”
The pleasant expression on my face never wavered. “A lot older than I look. I turned twenty last April.” Miguel’s sister squeaked and clapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m an incoming college senior,” I added, ignoring the interruption. “It’s just that—well, I’m actually, um—”
“It’s a medical condition, Ma. It’s not our place to pry.”
At that gentle reprimand, all four of us turned toward Miguel, who was now standing behind his mother. He pushed his glasses up and regarded us calmly, his manner every bit as dignified as his mother’s now that he’d recovered from his shock. Then his gaze met mine, and for a moment I thought I saw his eyes glimmer with warmth. I recalled the casual way he opened my soda can for me, as if being gallant was second nature to him even though he had no reason at all to feel gallant toward me. I suppose not calling me was his own polite way of telling me off; he’d already gone over and beyond the call of duty by staying around to listen to a strange female’s sob story. And even though I’d gone and blundered back into his life, however unintentionally, here he was, still being a gentleman. I was impressed. I guess boys didn’t turn into jerks until the age of sixteen.
“My son is right. I apologize,” Mrs. Santillan said. “I can’t help noticing that you two seem to know each other.”
“We’ve met.” I smiled, summoning the lie with practiced ease. “I saw him on campus and when I recognized him from the Sunday Inquirer article, I more or less introduced myself.”
Mentioning the article was apparently the right thing to do. Mrs. Santillan’s armor of chilly politeness instantly warmed over, and her smile became genuine. “Oh, really? A lot of people have been curious about Miguel ever since that article came out, and we’ve had to turn down numerous requests for interviews. I’m so relieved that UP has forbidden any more media appearances for both my son and Miss de Asis. So much trouble from just one article! Ah, well, let me show you the apartment before I talk you to sleep.”
The phone rang just as we stood to follow her out the door. “Ma’am, it’s Mr. Sanchez,” Nanay Loring announced, one hand wrapped around the receiver.
Mrs. Santillan frowned. “Oh dear, now? Tell him I—oh, never mind. I’m sorry but I have to take this call,” she said to us. “Miguel can show you the apartment.”
“I’m coming too!” his sister burst out as her mother handed a bunch of keys to Miguel.
“All right, but don’t get under foot. Please excuse me.”
Sharm, Erwin and I watched her move to take the phone, then turned to look at Miguel. “This way,” he said shortly.
We followed him outto the laundry area, dodging various articles of clothing. His sister trotted beside me, practically vibrating with curiosity. “Hi. I’m Reese,” she announced.
“Ivy, as I’m sure you hadn’t heard,” I said with a wink.
She flushed a little. “You’re so pretty,” she blurted.
“Thank you. So are you.” And she was. She was tall for her age and had boyishly short hair, round, curious eyes and a friendly smile.
“Are you really twenty years old? I mean, that’s so old but you don’t look it at all.”
“Reese,” Miguel said sternly. We were waiting around a small gate cut into the chain-link fence in the backyard while he sorted through the keys.
Reese frowned at her brother. “What? I was just asking—”
She was cut short by a bark. A Golden Retriever came bounding up, crowding happily at our feet. “Nice dog,” I remarked. “What’s its name?”
“Trinity,” Miguel answered, still fiddling with the padlock.
“Oooh, Matrix fan, are you?” I scratched Trinity behind the ears, and got a handful of wet tongue in response.
He glanced at me. “You like dogs?”
“Yeah. I used to have a dog named Blackie when I was a kid. He died at the ripe old age of fourteen.”
Reese made a face. “Blackie?”
“What? It’s a nice name for a dog,” I said in a mock-wounded tone.
“It sure is,” Erwin drawled. “Especially since Blackie was white.”
Reese giggled while I pretended to pout. A flash of humor streaked across Miguel’s face before he turned and opened the gate. I felt like hugging myself with joy. Who’d have thought I’d get to see his cute half-smile again?
“Do you guys like cats too?” Reese asked. When all three of us answered in the affirmative, she went on, “Great! I have a cat. A fat, gray one named Charlie. You’ll get to see him later, he just kinda pops in every now and then.”
We trooped through the gate, spotting the caimito tree instantly. The duplex was painted a sunny yellow with white lintels and a black roof, and was obviously newly constructed. The roofed balcony with its black metal railing extended on the front and left side of the apartment. We climbed a set of stairs on the right side of the duplex, then Miguel unlocked the front door and stood aside to let us enter. The floor was polished, gray-green concrete, and the walls a lighter shade of yellow. To our right were two bedrooms with a bathroom tucked in between. To the left was a door leading out to the balcony. Straight ahead was the kitchen, and outside on the balcony was the laundry area. The whole place looked light, airy and clean.
Reese flew about like a small tornado, throwing open shelves, doors and windows. In a more sedate manner, her brother proceeded to point out things such as light switches, electrical sockets, the fire escape and the fuse box. Sharm, Erwin and I nodded at one another, then briskly separated to inspect those parts that were under our jurisdiction. I darted into the bathroom, which was tiny but so new the mirror still had bits of newspaper stuck to its frame. I clapped my hands with delight at the sight of a showerhead, and uttered a loud “yes!” when I twisted the knob and cool spray hit my outstretched arm.
I turned to see Miguel standing in the doorway with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, looking amused. “Oh yeah, I definitely like,” I declared.
“There’s no hot water, though,” he said a little apologetically.
“Who cares?” I exclaimed. “I love how this mirror’s so big. I won’t have to stand on a stool to see my reflection while I’m shaving.” His brow furrowed with confusion, making me giggle. “Just kidding. None of us shaves, not even Erwin. We’re all girls here.”
“Stop slandering my name, brat!” Erwin hollered from the other room.
Miguel smiled, making my breath hitch. He really had the most adorable smile. Then a thought occurred, and I turned to face him fully. “By the way, why don’t you tell me about this ‘medical condition’ of mine?”
He shrugged. “It’s called hypopituitarism. It means your hypothalamus hasn’t given the go-signal yet to your pituitary gland to produce the hormone that stimulates, um, sexual development. That’s why you—”
He stopped uncertainly. “Haven’t hit puberty yet even though I’m way past the expiration date,” I finished, looking down at my depressingly childish figure. “How do you know all that anyway?”
“I looked it up on the Internet,” he admitted. “You told me about your body’s deferred development plan, and I—I wondered about it and, uh…” My head jerked toward him in surprise. “Sorry,” he mumbled, dropping his gaze. “Maybe I shouldn’t have.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s okay. I just can’t believe you remembered me saying that.”
“I did mention my prodigious memory,” he intoned blandly, adjusting his glasses.
I rolled my eyes. “So you did. Prodigious, was it?”
“Ives, come see the kitchen. It’s great!”
At Sharm’s cry, we headed out to check the rest of the apartment, then joined Erwin and Reese out on the balcony. “It’s so peaceful and quiet out here,” Sharm sighed.
“Nice smoking area,” Erwin remarked approvingly. “Put a table and some chairs here, and we’ll have our very own Starbucks.”
“So do you guys like it?” Reese demanded. “It’s a beauty, right?”
I glanced at my friends, then the three of us moved into a huddle. “Nice bathroom, check,” I said.
“No green or pink walls, check,” said Erwin.
“Cozy kitchen and no ghosts, check,” Sharm said. “What’s left?”
We turned as one to face the siblings. Reese was anxiously shifting from foot to foot, and even Miguel seemed to be holding his breath. “Okay, hit me,” I said. “How much is it?”
“Six thousand a month,” Miguel replied.
My face went blank. Behind me, Erwin muttered “ouch.” We huddled together again, and the two of them looked at me, waiting for my verdict. At my silence, Sharm sighed. “It’s a good price for a place like this, but it’s still too much, huh? We’ll have to give a bond of P6,000, plus two months’ rent. That’d be, shit, eighteen grand in one pop.”
“We can still take the other apartment, and have it repainted.” Erwin’s voice was normal enough, but his face had turned pale.
“That would work,” Sharm added unconvincingly.
I snorted with laughter. “You two sound like you’re talking about a prison sentence. Don’t worry. I told you I’ve been saving up the money I get from my folks, remember?”
“Are you saying you can get your hands on eighteen grand just like that?” Erwin asked skeptically.
I grinned. “No. I’m saying I can get my hands on thirty grand. I can pay the rent for the next five months.”
The stunned silence was broken by my friends’joyful screech and attempt to smother me in a double bear hug. Sharm launched into a victory dance, while Erwin wrapped both arms around my middle and spun me around. “Put me down, you big oaf, before you break my ribs!” I yelled in between gasps of laughter as my feet flew through the air.
When he set me down, Sharm grabbed my hand, and together we danced around Erwin, who was singing YMCA for some reason. On impulse, I offered my hand to Reese, who looked at me with wonder before joining our witches’ coven with squeals of mirth. As we went round and round, I caught a glimpse of Miguel, naked hope shining in his eyes. The next time I looked, he was gazing off to the side, his expression concealed by the light glinting off his glasses. I must have imagined it. Likely just wishful thinking on my part.
When his mother came up, we informed her that we were taking the apartment. A discussion of payment arrangements followed. We headed to an ATM, then returned at twilight with the money and several Jollibee takeaway bags. We celebrated our first evening in our new apartment with an impromptu picnic on the balcony, discussing where to scrounge around for secondhand furniture and appliances. Drawn by the noise, Reese soon crept up to join us, followed by her brother, who must have been sent to keep an eye on his sister. Despite how their presence cut into our smoking time, it seemed natural for Reese and Miguel to be there. In fact, the siblings were the ones who suggested we make an offer for their old washing machine and refrigerator since they’d just bought new ones. I remember feeling giddy at how everything just fell into place. In one day, we’d found ourselves our dream apartment. It was almost too much to take in.
Then again, not everyone might be feeling as exuberant about it as I was. I looked around, and found Miguel sitting on the rail, his feet hooked around the metal bars. As our eyes met, I felt the impact of his gaze like a delicious burst of warmth in my stomach. Funny how that keeps happening, I thought abstractedly. He looked dazed, as if things hadn’t completely sunk in yet. I wandered over to him, deciding to feel my way around the subject first. “So. Looks like you’re my landlord now.”
“I’m not,” he said. “My mom is.”
“Well, it’s almost the same thing, what with you being our landlady’s son and all.”
He raised an eyebrow. No, it’s not.
With a sigh, I gave up and just dove right in. “Listen, I’m sorry about this. I know you’re probably wishing that someone—anyone else was living in your backyard, but I swear to you, I had no idea this address was yours. It’s just that we’ve been looking for a place of our own for a while, and I couldn’t bear to see my friends disappointed again. I’ll stay out of your way, I promise. You won’t be able to tell I’m around.”
He appeared genuinely confused. “What the heck gave you the idea that I don’t want you around?”
Warmth shot through me again. Ignoring it, I crossed my arms and served him an arch look of my own. “Gee, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the way you never said hi once? A text would have been nice. I mean, I did give you my number.” Okay, enough, I told myself. Any more and I’d be confessing that I spent two weeks obsessing over him, a surefire way to send him fleeing back to his house and locking the door behind him.
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to contact you unless I had a problem,” he answered, frowning. “I didn’t think you’d want to be bothered by anything more trivial than that.”
My mouth fell open, and my arms dropped to my sides. Of all the possible theories I’d cooked up to explain why I never heard from him again, I didn’t consider his taking my little speech so damned literally. “Well, yeah, but…” I sputtered, then realized that I couldn’t think of anything to say. His frown deepened when I continued to gape at him, and in the next moment I was shaking with laughter.
He looked thoroughly bewildered, which made me laugh even more. “You know what, Migs? You are absolutely right,” I chortled.
“Ate Ivy, is it true?” Reese piped up before he could reply. “Are you really a model?”
I took in the awed, starry-eyed look on her face, then glanced at my friends. Sharm wore a guilty expression, while in small, crisp gestures Erwin pantomimed taking his shoe off and hitting her over the head with it. I smiled benignly, as if I found the idea highly amusing. “Why? You think I could be one?”
Reese’s eyes suddenly popped even wider, and she pointed a finger at me. “Oh my gosh, you’re her! Shoujo Shine’s image model! Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!”
She leaped up and grabbed my hands, pulling me into the light while I tried to draw back in alarm. “What? No, I—”
“You are her! No wonder you look so familiar!” Reese was in a world of her own as her hands darted over me, spinning me around as if I were her own personal Barbie doll. “Same hair, same face—you look taller in the pictures though. Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it, Shoujo Shine’s image model is our tenant, I can’t wait to tell my friends—”
“No!” I yelled unthinkingly.
“Ahah!” Reese’s grin turned wily. “Then you admit it! You are her!”
Ah, fuck. An image of a glaring Morisato-san and Miss Gutierrez holding up a copy of my contract loomed threateningly behind my eyes. Then a hand closed around my wrist and drew me gently but firmly away from Reese. The next moment, Miguel was standing in front of me, as if to shield me from his sister. “Quit it, Reese,” he said. “You’ve made your point.”
I stared up at Miguel in astonishment. He didn’t seem to notice that he hadn’t released me, but I was noticing enough for the both of us. His hand was surprisingly large, his fingers wrapping completely around my wrist.
“I was just curious about her,” Reese said defensively.
“I know, but you’re scaring her.” Miguel softened his words with a quick, humor-filled grin. Just like that, the situation was defused and Reese’s mulish expression turned into one of chagrin. I sighed, debating with myself whether my contract could stand a couple more violations, but again Miguel beat me to it. “Even if she is a model, I don’t think she can tell you anyway,” he went on, still addressing his sister. “She might be under contract not to talk about it or something.”
Okay, that was just creepy, I thought. When Reese’s face fell and she mumbled an apology, I knew with a sinking feeling that I couldn’t lie to these two, contract or no contract. Which left me with Plan B: change the subject while ignoring the question.
“Pfft, forget about it, Reese,” I urged her good-humoredly. “It’s not the first time someone said I look like the Shoujo Shine Girl, God knows why.” I moved forward to sling an arm around her shoulder, only to be brought up short by Miguel’s hand still on my wrist. He blinked down at his appendage as if he’d never seen it before, then abruptly released me, blushing furiously.
I hid a smile at how cute he was when he was embarrassed. “Besides, who wants to be a model and have to constantly watch your figure anyway?” I went on lightly. “You saw how I eat, right? Speaking of which, are there any fries left?”
Thankfully, the ploy worked, and nothing more was said about my being any kind of model. Soon, it was time for us to get back to our current domiciles. Reese waved at us from the gate in the chainlink fence, but Miguel stayed to walk us to the main gate. Somehow, it felt equally natural to have him fall into step beside me.
“You didn’t answer my sister’s question,” he stated.
I was glad it was dark, otherwise there would have been no way to hide my telltale blush. “Hmm? What question was that, Migs?” I said innocently.
He glanced down at me, his expression knowing. “Fine. Be that way if you think it’ll work.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I asked, frowning.
He smirked. “I can tell when you’re lying, Ivy.”
Horrified, I ground to a halt and stared at him. He stepped out the gate after my friends, then peered back, eyebrows raised as if to ask what I was waiting for. “Hmph,” I sniffed, nose in the air as I moved past him, making him chuckle.
The four of us stood on the curb waiting for a tricycle, and out of habit, I pulled out a cigarette, passing a stick to Sharm whose supply had run out. Instead of immediately lighting up like my friends had, I idly spun the cigarette between my fingers, having noticed the carefully bland expression on Miguel’s face.
“It’s okay,” he said, indicating the cigarette.
“Nah,” I said. “Some big sister I would be if I let a kid suck in all that secondhand smoke.” He looked away, but not before I saw the flash of hurt on his face. I felt instantly remorseful, although I was confused as to what I’d said that bothered him.
“Ivy, come on!” Sharm called before I could ask him.
Sighing, I turned to tell him goodbye, only to have my words die away at the warmth in his eyes. “Ivy?”
He smiled shyly. “I’m glad it’s you.”
As his meaning sunk in, I smiled back in pure happiness. Then I turned and ran for the tricycle, looking back to see him disappear inside the gate.
At that point, I realized that I’d already forgiven him for not calling or texting me. After all, if it wasn’t for him and his wonderful drawing, we probably would never have found each other again. Sometimes I tell Migs how damned lucky he was that he’d decided to post one of his few illustrated “for rent” ads at the Shopping Center for Sharm to find. Sometimes he gives me this half-amused, half-exasperated look then pretends to ignore me. And sometimes he kisses me tenderly and whispers, “I know.”
Goes to show it pays to remind a guy never to take the little things for granted.