Well, it’s not the most awkward first meeting I’ve ever had. That record belongs to the time the prototype biogas converter blew a gasket and started spitting sewage water everywhere just as the Dean and the research grant committee chairman were walking into the lab. I must have been swearing for five minutes straight before I noticed they were right behind me. God, the stink alone was—
Uh, sorry. Anyway, the first time I met her was nowhere near as half-assed as that, but it was strange. Then again, Ivy was involved so that shouldn’t be too surprising.
The first time we met…
It was the height of summer. Right in the middle of registration for summer classes. Not as many people as there are during regular semesters, but enough to make the campus lose the deserted air it had during the Holy Week. More vehicles rumbling around, more noises, more figures going in and out of buildings and walking along the streets. Not just dappling shadows and the wind in the trees.
I was thirteen. A couple of weeks before, I completed my first year as a bona fide college student. I’d been allowed to take some higher Math courses back in St. Helene, but I still had some GE courses, and I’d decided to take summer classes so I could get a couple of them over with. The fact that I’d get an allowance if I went to school didn’t hurt.
It started out as a limbo moment, the sort you get during summer. Registration is done online, so I finished sooner than I expected. I was supposed to meet up with Yna and the guys, but that wasn’t for an hour or so yet. I didn’t want to text my mom to tell her I was done. She’d have either sent me home to do some advanced reading or she’d have made me come to her office to fix some computer problem. Besides, she was already stressing out as it was. The construction guys who were working on the apartments behind our house arrived early, and she had to stay home to oversee the work through the final stages, a fate worse than death for my workaholic mother. It took me a while to convince her that I could enroll on my own without her hovering over my shoulder supervising each step. Between her litany of instructions about what to do and where to go, and Reese’s crowing about how she didn’t have to go to school during summer freaking vacation, I couldn’t get out of the house fast enough. As a result, I made it through the tuition payment line an hour or so sooner than I predicted. By the time I was done, there was a seething mass of students waiting in line to pay. I got out of there before the place collapsed in on itself and turned into a black hole.
The day was yellow and hot, the trees were shady, and I’d had enough contact with my fellow humans for the day. Also, Newton’s First Law had kicked in. I was already on campus, and it would have taken less effort on my part to stay on campus than it would have to drag myself anywhere else. That’s how I found myself wandering down one of the paths leading to the Lagoon early that afternoon. In short, I had nothing better to do.
If you’ve been to the UP Lagoon, you know that the place is a lovers’ paradise. There’s a tree-filled park around it, with low concrete benches and tables. On an ordinary day, you can walk along the path and catch sight of heads bent close together. Sometimes you see small groups of friends. On weekends entire families come here to have picnics.
Nevertheless, I didn’t expect anyone to be hanging out at the Lagoon at that hour. It was too early, too hot, and everyone was busy with registration. That was exactly why I was headed that way.And I was right, sort of. Aside from the campus maintenance guy walking by with his broom, there was nobody else at the Lagoon.
Except for her.
She was sitting cross-legged on top of a table about ten feet away. All I could see of her was her hair tied back in a pair of long pigtails and the back of her white spaghetti-strapped shirt and denim shorts. There was a gray canvas bag lying beside her and a pair of sandals tossed nearby. Her head was bent as though she were reading something, but every now and then her shoulders would jerk and she’d swipe at her face with a hand.
That’s when I noticed the sound. Quiet sniffling, which I probably wouldn’t have heard if the heat hadn’t made the air so heavy and still. She couldn’t see me so she didn’t know she had an audience. Then I realized I was just standing there, as opposed to walking, just watching her.
A girl was sitting alone, crying. I wondered where she came from, how she got there, why she was so sad. She obviously wasn’t lost. Like me, she probably thought she’d get more privacy out here than anywhere else. I didn’t think she’d appreciate my barging in on her moment, and I was too lazy to make the effort to go up to her and ask her what was wrong. Besides, lone figures engaged in solitary introspection aren’t a rare sight on campus, and unless you’re a vendor, a panhandler or a religious missionary, you don’t bother people who clearly want to be left alone. Even as a dorky freshman I knew that. But I still didn’t walk away. The thoughts running through my head were the only parts of me actually moving.The rest of me just stood there like a lump.
She must have sensed somebody watching her, because just as I was about to head off, she turned and looked straight at me. Oops, she caught me, was my first thought. My second thought was just as clear: Wow. After that, things got a bit hazy.
She wasn’t exactly looking her best. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, her face was splotchy and damp, with strands of her bangs sticking to her cheek, and her nose was bright red and dripping. She’s not a pretty crier, or a neat one. But all I could think of was, she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
She watched me as intently as I watched her. Her eyes were wide, mortified and fairly annoyed. Then slowly, her gaze grew softer—relieved, puzzled, surprised and a little confused. I was so fascinated by how clearly each emotion shone on her face that I forgot how rude I was being. When she raised her eyebrow, my face felt as if it had been set on fire, and I knew I either had to say something or leave before I made a bigger fool of myself. I pushed my glasses up and cleared my throat, and realized only then that I hadn’t even been breathing in the past few minutes.
“Are you okay?” I tried not to wince. Not exactly impressive, but it would do.
She nodded. “Yeah, I guess. Or I will be in a while. Thanks for asking.” She wiped her nose with some wadded-up tissue, then peered at me. “Are you okay?”
She sounded genuinely concerned, as if I was the one who was sitting on a concrete slab crying her eyes out. By then, even my neck felt hot. “Yeah. Sorry,” I managed, turning aside before I choked on my own embarrassment.
The urgency in her voice stopped me. She had half-turned to face me and there was something indescribable in her expression. I waited while she chewed on her bottom lip and frowned at the ground as though debating with herself. Then she looked up.
“I’m Ivy,” she announced, and smiled.
Lack of oxygen was starting to make my head feel funny. A part of me hoped she’d tell me to go away soon, because I didn’t think I’d be able to will myself to walk away on my own. Not after that smile.
She smiled again, then consulted the ground some more. “Um, listen, I know this is going to sound really weird,but, ah…” She trailed off, grimaced, then exhaled gustily and gave me a look of mingled pleading, resignation and faint bewilderment, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was about to say. “If you’re busy, it’s totally okay. But if you’re not, if—if you don’t mind…would you stay with me for a while? Please?”
My mouth fell open. That, I wasn’t expecting. I sucked in a breath to tell her I was busy, I was on my way to register for classes or buy school supplies or chase ikot jeeps—anything as long as it took me away from this increasingly bizarre situation. Then she smiled again. A tiny, hopeful smile. Before I knew it, I was tramping through the grass, unslinging my backpack and settling upon one of the concrete stools beside her table. I took a moment to consider, briefly, what the hell I was doing and what had become of my plan to be alone for a while, and that if this girl drew a single Bible or pamphlet on me I’d be running so fast there’d be a sonic boom, killer smile or no.
The girl seemed as shocked as I was that I’d agreed. She blinked once, twice. Then her smile flashed brighter, a mega-watt smile of gratitude and relief. My fate was sealed.
She picked up the piece of paper she’d been reading and folded it haphazardly. Then she reached into her bag, pulled out a bunch of papers, and proceeded to arrange and rearrange them over and over. While her hands were occupied, her mouth kept up a stream of nervous chatter.
“I was, ah, supposed to be doing this purgation ritual—well, it’s not really a ritual, as in religion. I’m not going to light any candles and start chanting in a dead language. It’s just—ah, you know how you should let go of the past so you could be free to meet your future? Sharm, my best friend, said I needed to do this, even though I’m perfectly fine with Giselle dating Jeff. My ex-boyfriend. Or maybe I’m not so fine. Not even half as fine as I say I am. It’s just that I’m making myself sick with pretending I’m fine, so I thought I could deal with this once and for all then get on with the rest of my life…”
I barely heard a word she said. I was too busy staring at her. She was young, younger than I was. On the front of her shirt was a stylized drawing of an oriental girl in a short kimono. The shirt clearly revealed that she didn’t have curves yet, at least not the kind of curves I’d gotten used to seeing after a year spent hanging around girls age seventeen and older. This girl, Ivy, looked around twelve. And she was even more beautiful up close. Her hair was a mix of brown and red, and it framed her face before flowing over her shoulders like water. Creamy skin, perfect pink lips, a pair of dimples that occupied my full attention for a good three minutes, and a smile that was just… Her eyes, though, are by far her best feature. Large, light brown and expressive as hell, with the longest, thickest lashes I’d ever seen. Even her hands and feet were pretty, small and delicate. And—
All right, so I checked her out, okay? The most gorgeous girl I’d ever laid eyes on was sitting right there in front of me. What else was I supposed to do?
I figured she was the daughter of a college professor. That would explain her casual familiarity with the campus. Maybe she was a student at the nearby UP Integrated School. My thoughts spun into overdrive. If she was studying at the UPIS, I could go visit her or something. I could think up some excuse to see her, and since I wasn’t any older than the students there and not even remotely dangerous-looking, maybe they’d let me in. Or I could find out what course her mom or dad was teaching, and enroll myself in it. I was actually trying to remember how many electives we were allowed under the Chem. Eng. curriculum, and wondering how I could fit a course in Music Composition or the History of Asian Theater in it, when her words began to register.
“Anyway, I figured doing a purgation ritual couldn’t hurt. But I couldn’t do it at our place because I live in a sardine can, and the only privacy you get there is about three minutes’ worth in the bathroom before somebody starts banging on the door. So I enlisted as quickly as I could—thank God I’m done with GE courses or I’d still be standing in line—and I came out here and…and I meant to do it, only now I can’t, I’m stuck and—”
I frowned. “Excuse me, what?”
“What?” she said.
“What did you just say? About GE courses?”
“What about GE courses?”
“Did you say you’re done with them?”
She gave me a look of baffled innocence. “Did I? Weren’t you paying attention?”
I flushed guiltily. No way was I going to admit to that. “I’m sorry,” she spoke up at my silence. “I’m not making any sense to you, am I? I tend to babble when I’m nervous, see. But you’re free to ask questions if there’s anything I said that’s a bit confusing.”
This time, several retorts crammed themselves in my throat. I was under the impression that I was asking a question was a possible winner. So was everything you’ve said in the last five minutes is confusing. I opened my mouth to tell her off but she chose that moment to look at me through her lashes, and all I produced was a kind of “uuhhh” noise that made me sound vaguely sick. I wanted to find a rock and stick my head under it.
She let out a sigh.Then, to my shock, she started leaning forward, planting her hands in front of her and lowering her face until our eyes were about level. I caught the faint scent of strawberries, and realized it was her shampoo I was smelling, she was that close. My mouth felt as dry as sand, and I wondered what on earth I was supposed to do in a situation like this. Not that I could have done anything. My body felt as frozen as the concrete stump underneath my butt.
She gazed into my eyes while I blushed and swallowed and tried to remember to keep breathing. “Miguel?” she said.
“Huh?” I croaked.
“You think I’m cute, don’tcha?”
There was a bad moment when I was dead certain she’d read my mind. Then she grinned and leaned back. “I knew it! Look at you! You can’t keep your eyes off me. You do think I’m cute!”
“I do not!” I lied desperately.
“You do too!”
“Do—” I cut myself off and glared at her. “Do you do this with everyone you meet? Ask them if they think you’re cute?”
She tapped a finger on her chin, considering the question, then nodded cheerfully. “Yeah, when I need to. Usually people tell me outright, so I’m waiting for you to say it.”
“That I’m cute, silly! You can try to keep up, you know.”
I gaped at her, speechless. This Ivy was nuts, a complete basketcase. Try to keep up? Until that moment, nobody had ever told me I couldn’t keep up. Nobody. But then this mental case pops up and starts yammering about ex-boyfriends and sardine cans and religious rituals, then accuses me of not being able to keep up? Well, yeah, because nobody on this planet could keep up with that.
“Well?” She tilted her head expectantly. “Oh come on, it’s okay to admit you think I’m attractive. I promise I won’t hold it against you.”
That’s it. I stood up, grabbed my backpack. “Yeah, I think you’re cute,” I muttered, too pissed off now to even look at her. “Cute and full of it.”
Her hand shot out and snagged the hem of my shirt before I could stalk away. I whipped around to glower at her. Her expression had changed again, all traces of coyness gone. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I won’t bug you about that again. Sit down, okay? Please?”
Her hand dropped away and, feeling ten kinds of spineless, I sat back down. Her body sagged in relief as she murmured, “Thank you.”
I shrugged noncommittally. I was getting leery of the way her moods shifted like mercury, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like the next thing that came out of her mouth.
Sure enough, she grinned, her eyes alight with humor. “And thanks for saying I’m cute. Full of it, but still cute. Did you mean it?”
“You really want me to answer that?” I replied coldly.
She burst out laughing, and despite my irritation, I remember thinking she had a nice laugh. “Just kidding! Relax! You don’t have to be so serious all the time, not around me. You’re right, anyway. I am full of it. It’s just that sometimes I find it more convenient to get that crap out of the way as quickly as possible so we could move on to the important things.”
My eyebrows shot up.
“You’re listening to me now, aren’t you?” she added meaningfully.
She’s right, I realized with some surprise. Her beauty still affected me but it had sort of taken a back seat, and I was now actually paying attention to what she was saying. That she had known all along how dazzled I was by her was humiliating. Then she lifted one shoulder and hung her head in a comical, shit-happens way. Just like that, my embarrassment vanished and I found myself chuckling as well. “That’s either the most conceited thing I’ve ever heard or—”
“—or the most pragmatic?”
“It worked though,” she said brightly. “See? I’m not nervous around you anymore.”
I pushed my glasses up to hide my grin. Looking back, I think it was at that moment that I started falling for her. I didn’t know it back then. I was aware of feeling warm and tingly all over, but I figured it was the heat getting to me. I’m glad I hadn’t known. If I had, I probably would have bolted out of there in a blind panic.
Instead, I decided to play her game and save my questions for later. With a sigh, I plunked my backpack down, rested my elbows on my knees, and tilted my head in a wordless invitation for her to get on with it. She smiled, understanding perfectly. “Well, like I said, I was about to do a purgation ritual. It’s, ah, kind of embarrassing now that I think about it,” she added with a self-conscious laugh.
I gave her a look.
“Right. Like I’d let a little thing like that stop me,” she said with a roll of her eyes, again interpreting the look correctly. Taking a deep breath, she proceeded to tell me about her friend Jeff and the crush on him that she’d nursed for years. He’d given her the shock of her life when he asked her to go out with him last October, then shocked her again when he dumped her four months later. On Valentine’s Day, no less. Now he was going out with Giselle, another close friend of Ivy’s.
She still likes him. I found the thought disquieting, but I figured it was because she didn’t look that much older than Reese. If I learned that my little sister was having boyfriends and getting this hung up over guys at her age, I’d have felt a little weird about it, too.
“All this stuff I collected from when Jeff and I were together,” she said as she shuffled through the scraps of paper. “Tickets to movies and concerts we went to, his business card, the Christmas card he gave me—you know, he said he was broke and he’d make it up to me but he never did—his high school graduation picture and a class card, both of which I took from his wallet when he wasn’t looking. Even—ah shit, just saying this out loud gives me the shivers—even the love letters I never had the nerve to give him. It’s not much,” she added sadly. “Our relationship didn’t last long enough to fill a scrap book. I mean, I didn’t even get a fucking Valentine card.”
To my dismay, her eyes welled up and she started sniffling again. I wondered if now was a bad time to comment on her potty mouth, but was distracted when she buried her face in her hands and started sobbing. Not knowing what else to do, I waited for her to finish crying, then dug into my jeans pocket for my handkerchief and offered it to her.
Sniffling, she glanced down at my handkerchief, then smiled weakly and shook her head. “Thanks, I’m good.” She fished out a pack of Kleenex from her bag, and blew her nose loudly. “Sorry. Going all weepy on you isn’t part of the plan. Well, no, actually it is but you aren’t and… Oh shit, I never even thought—I’m boring you, aren’t I?” She gave me a wetly apologetic look. “I’m sorry. You don’t know me from Eve and here I go dumping my emotional garbage on you. I’m not even sure why you’re still here.”
I shrugged again. “I didn’t have anything better to do.”
She stared at me through eyes that had grown puffy again. “Would you believe me if I told you I don’t do this kind of thing? I’m not the kind of girl who goes around picking up strange guys and forcing them to listen to my woes. Well, except for that one time, but I blame the vodka. You see, it—it’s hard to explain, but when I saw you, I felt as if I’d met you before, only I can’t remember where. I was sitting here feeling lonely and sorry for myself and thinking that having a friend around might not be so bad after all. And then you showed up. I felt as if a wish of mine had been granted.”
What was with this girl? I grumbled inwardly, fighting an urge to squirm. She had a habit of blurting out every thought with no regard to other people’s reactions. She must have noticed the disgruntled look on my face because she suddenly giggled. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. You’re not much of a talker, are you?”
“No,” I said flatly.
“It’s okay,” she replied. “You’re a great listener and I talk enough for two, or so I’ve been told. Thank you.”
She smiled warmly at me, as if by sitting here I’d single-handedly saved her from a life of utter wretchedness. To my annoyance, I felt myself blushing again. “So what is this ritual anyway?” I asked a little more gruffly than I’d intended.
She smiled again. “I’m getting to it.” She scooted backward and piled up the papers into a small heap on the table between us. Then she rooted around in her bag for a few minutes before pulling out a small object.
It was a silver cigarette lighter. Her favorite cigarette lighter, I later learned. It was at this point that my first encounter with Ivy took a turn for the surreal.
“I’m sick of feeling miserable over him and pretending I’m not,” she announced while I eyed the lighter warily. “I’m sick of wishing he’d come back to me and hating myself for it. I’m sick of wondering what I could have said or done to make him stay, and sick of thinking I wasn’t good enough for him.” Her voice took on an edge that had me eyeing her instead of the lighter. “I’m just so done with this shit. So with you, Miguel, as witness, I hereby resolve to cease dwelling upon Jeff or any part of our past again. I now declare myself officially free.”
“What the heck are you doing?”I wanted to know.
She flipped open the lighter and began flicking it. “Moi? I’m consigning the memories of my ex-boyfriend to the cleansing fire, that’s what I’m doing.”
“You’re going to burn them?”
“I knew you were a smart boy.”
“There’s a class card in there.”
“It’s not yours. You said you stole it from his wallet.”
“Good,” she muttered. “I’m getting rid of the evidence at the same time. Damn, I refilled this just last night. Come on, baby, work. Hah!”
She held the lighter to a corner of the pile until the flame caught. We watched as the scraps of paper in that pitiful heap slowly curled and turned black under the fragile flame. After a while, I looked up and our eyes met across the thin column of smoke. You know that cliché about how time stops and everything else fades into significance? It’s not just a cliché. But it was more than that. Looking at her, I suddenly, illogically felt as if I knew her. I knew her from top to bottom, inside out, backwards and forwards. I knew the power of her smile, the texture of her laughter, the reason for her tears. I’d never heard her speak until that day, but her voice was as familiar to me as my own. She was a total stranger to me, but at the same time she wasn’t. All I needed was to be reminded of all the things about her that, in a way I’ll never be able to explain, I’d always known.
It was the most unnerving thing I’d ever felt.
Fortunately, it didn’t last long. The sound of footsteps and the snap of a branch breaking jerked us back into awareness. It was the campus maintenance guy, and he did not look happy.
“Hey, what are you kids doing?” he demanded. “You can’t be burning things here. You want to start a fire or something?”
I glanced sidelong at Ivy. Her cheeks were flushed as she looked dazedly up at the man, giving no indication that she’d heard him at all. I sighed inwardly. No help there. “Sorry, sir,” I said, rising to stamp on the half-burnt pile until only ashes and a few scorched bits remained.
“You kids ought to know better than to play with fire,” the man scolded.
“Yes, sir. It won’t happen again.”
Ivy still hadn’t moved, except to turn and watch me stomp all over the remains of her relationship with this guy Jeff. Still grumbling about kids with pyromaniac tendencies, the maintenance guy came up with his broom and swept the pile into a garbage bag, then departed just as abruptly.
Ivy stared down at the sooty splotch where her little bonfire used to be. “Gee, I guess he doesn’t want to stay for marshmallows,” she said faintly.
I shook my head. She was such a kid. “Come on,” I said, grabbing my backpack. “You want to get a Coke or something?”
“A Coke. I want a Coke. I’m thirsty,” I explained.
She slipped her sandals on, picked up her bag, and got to her feet. I blinked. The girl was tiny. The top of her head barely came up to my glasses, and I hadn’t had my growth spurt yet. “We can go to the kiosk,” she suggested.
We set off toward the corner of the block where the Lagoon was located. A kiosk outfitted with benches and several sari-sari stores sat on the corner of the street. We bought a can of soda each and in an unspoken agreement headed toward the farthest bench, which offered the most privacy.
I popped my can open and took a swig, then noticed her absently fingering her own unopened can. Without a word, I took it and opened it for her. She looked at me in surprise, then murmured her thanks.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She sighed and took a sip of her Coke. “It just seems so anti-climactic, the way my ritual ended up underneath your shoe and in a garbage bag. I feel better though. I guess I have you to thank for that.” She peeked at me sideways, smiling softly.
I smiled back, then stared down at my own soda can. I should have been feeling annoyed and resentful that she’d taken advantage of me, but for some reason I wasn’t. It surprised the heck out of me. “Um, look, it really is okay, you know,” I said, surprising myself even more.
“What is?” she asked, puzzled.
“If you still want to talk…” I adjusted my glasses and cleared my throat. “I’m here to listen now so…” I gave a one-shouldered shrug to indicate that it was okay if she had more stuff to get off her chest. I had no idea where that came from, but I meant it. I truly didn’t mind listening to her. You could have knocked me down with a feather.
She looked startled, then her eyes lit up in another mega-watt smile. “That is the sweetest thing anyone’s said to me in a while. Thank you, but if I talked any more it would constitute as abuse on my part.”
“So you’re done?”
“More or less.”
“Good. I’d like to get some things straight.”
“Your name, for one.”
“My name?” She looked puzzled again. “I told you. It’s Ivy.”
“No, your full name.”
“Ivy Rosanna Lopez.”
“I’ve never heard of you,” I informed her.
She threw back her head and laughed. “I shouldn’t think so. Otherwise I’d have to revise my earlier impression of you, and that would just be tragic.”
I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Ah, never mind,” she said, flapping a hand. “Why are you asking about my name?”
“GE courses. You said you were done with them. I was under the impression that only college students took GE, but maybe the UPIS follows the curriculum system of the University.”
She made a face. “Jeez, I thought you’d forgotten about that already.”
“I have a good memory,” I said with a small smile. “I’m starting to wonder about the students at UPIS. Or maybe you’re a special case. At least, I hope you are.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Your ex-boyfriend is a college student. You own a cigarette lighter. You drink vodka. You swear like a character in a bad action flick. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a little disturbing coming from someone your age.”
She gaped at me, her mouth opening and closing a couple of times. A part of me wondered if I wasn’t coming off as a bit self-righteous, not to mention priggish, but I had too much of my St. Helene upbringing and too much pride to back down. Finally her expression settled on knowing amusement, which confused me. “I’m not a UPIS student,” she said calmly.
“Miriam College then?”
“Holy Family School? Holy Spirit Academy? Uh, Philippine Science High School? St. Bridget?”
“Jesus, no!” she exclaimed, laughing again. “I don’t go to any of those schools. Proud and true iskolar ng bayan, that’s me.”
Being wrong was a rare experience for me, and I found I didn’t care for it much. “You’re not in the special placement program,” I pressed on, testing my second theory. “I know Kat, but I’ve never heard of you, and Dr. Alarcon would have mentioned you since you’re even younger than us.” Katrina de Asis was at the time fourteen years old and a Physics major in her second year. She entered the program a year ahead of me, a statistical wonder in itself. Dr. Alarcon was Dean of the College of Education and head of the special placement program committee.
Ivy squinted into the distance. “Special placement program? Now where have I heard that be—oh my God!” she suddenly cried, jumping to her feet. “No wonder you seem so familiar. You’re that kid in the newspaper. Miguel Santillan, the youngest Engineering major, who got into college at age twelve. There was a feature article on five child prodigies in last Sunday’s Inquirer, and you’re one of them. Holy shit, this is so cool!”
She was bouncing around so much that I had to take her soda can away before she spilled Coke all over herself. “Uh, yeah,” I said, the uncomfortable feeling I usually got whenever that article was mentioned washing over me. “Kat’s there, too. That’s the only media appearance we’re allowed under the program.”
“I remember that article,” she chattered happily. “There was a fourteen-year-old Physics student—your friend Kat, I presume—a sixteen-year-old concert pianist, an eleven-year-old chess grandmaster, and an eighteen-year-old art film director. I remember you most, though,” she added, winking at me. “I told everyone I thought you were cute. Now I can tell them you’re much better-looking in the flesh.”
“Um, thanks,” I mumbled, feeling my face grow hot again. She thinks I’m cute. My brain filed away this bit of information, to be examined later. “As I was saying—”
“Can I shake your hand?” she cut in. “Please? Just so I can tell my friends I’ve shaken hands with a child genius.”
“I’m not a genius,” I muttered as I took the hand she offered and shook it. Her small hand felt so absurdly perfect in mine that I had to pull away quick before she noticed the way my pulse was hammering.
“Yes, you are,” she countered. “I know all about you, thanks to that article. Oh my God!” she shrieked again, holding her hand up in front of her as if it had been possessed. “I’ve shaken the hand of a child genius! Do you think it will rub off?”
“Kidding! Seriously, though, what’s it like to be so smart you’re allowed to skip high school entirely? How do you manage to get such good grades anyway?”
“Good time management.” It was the same answer I’d given in the article.
She crossed her arms and pouted. “Pfft. I was hoping you’d say something else.”
“What did you want to hear?” I asked, trying not to grin.
“That eating fish and wearing a metal pyramid on your head made you smart. Something to justify my own mediocrity. But good time management? Screw that.” She blew her bangs out, turned her back on me and pretended to trudge away stoop-shouldered with defeat. Despite the fact that I normally detest having to explain myself, I found myself grinning at her antics. “No way around it,” she said mournfully. “I’ll have to pray that I’d be able to finish my thesis on time and graduate by the skin of my teeth.”
Thesis? Graduate? “What do you mean by—hey, where’re you going?”
She’d kept walking backwards until she was now several feet away. I frowned and half-rose to follow her, unwilling to let her go just yet, but she shook her head. “No, no, stay there. I’m not going anywhere. I just want to—where is that thing?” She dug around in her bag while I watched, bemused. “Here it is!” she exclaimed, pulling out a red, rectangular metal case and the silver lighter. “You don’t mind if I stand here for a while, do you?” she called out to me.
I couldn’t answer. My eyes were riveted to what were her hands were doing. She’d opened the lid of the case and was pulling out a slim, white object, which she stuck between her lips. She flipped her lighter open, lit up, took a deep drag then blew out a stream of smoke with a look of satisfaction. “God, I needed this,” she declared. “Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh, right, the special program. No, don’t come closer, you’ll breathe in the smoke—hey! What the hell?”
I must have gone a little insane then. The sight of her standing there, looking so young and innocent in her white spaghetti-straps, shorts and pigtails, then casually lighting up as if she’d been doing it for years—which she had, she’d been smoking since high school—well, it looked obscene. The image of my sister appeared and immediately got tangled up with the image of Ivy, and I remember thinking, as I launched myself from the bench and stormed over to her, that if I ever caught Reese smoking cigarettes, I would make her life a living hell. Ivy was too astonished to put up any resistance as I snatched her cigarette out of her hand.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I demanded, surprising myself by how much I sounded like Father Ramilo, our chaplain back at St. Helene.
Eyes wide, she looked at me, then at the cigarette I held above her head, then back at me. “That’s mine,” she told me.
“Not anymore,” I snapped. “How can a kid like you even be smoking? Don’t they teach you anything at—at—don’t you know anything? These things are dange—hey!”
I jerked back when she made a sudden leap for the cigarette. “Give that back!” She made another grab, forcing me to quick-step away. “Give it back! Give it back! Give it back!”
“No!” I shouted as we did an odd little waltz, round and round. “Will you quit that? I’m trying to—are you laughing?!”
Sure enough, she let out a high-pitched squeal of mirth. “Ow, shit!” she gasped as she bent over, hands pressed into her abdomen. “I’ve got a bitch of a stitch in my side. Ow!”
When I approached her to check if she was okay, she sprang and grabbed my arm, pulling it lower so she could pry my fingers off her cigarette. When she wouldn’t give up, I shifted the cigarette to my other hand, dropped it on the ground and stomped on it with a smug, victorious grin.
“Oooh, you meanie.” She bent over to peer down at the flattened remains of her death-stick. Then she looked up at me and promptly dissolved into fits of laughter. “God, the look on your face! You were—and then we—oh God. Ow. Now I really have a stitch in my side.”
I maintained my glare, but when she plopped down on the ground clutching her stomach, a mental image of how we must have looked crept up and my own lips began to twitch. Soon I was laughing just as hard, which, coming right after my bout of horror followed by righteous indignation, really struck me as insane. I couldn’t believe I was acting like this around a girl I’d just met. The only people with whom I let myself loosen up like this were my sister, Alvin and Leo. Not even Yna and the guys had seen me like this, even after a year together. But after an hour or so around Ivy, I was already acting like a raving lunatic.
When our laughter subsided, she flashed me a cheeky grin and held up both hands. “Help me up, Migs,” she commanded.
Ignoring the name she’d called me, I pulled her to her feet then took off my glasses and wiped them on my shirt while she dusted off the seat of her shorts. “You’ll be grateful to know that I’ve decided to forgive you for the murder of my cigarette,” she announced.
I raised an eyebrow at that.
“There’s more where that came from, anyway. A whole pack, actually,” she went on in a way that made it clear that she was goading me.
“You’re not smoking any more cigarettes,” I stated, channeling Father Ramilo again.
“Why not?” she asked breezily, digging around in her bag for the metal case. “Last time I checked this was a free campus. I don’t see any ‘no smoking’ signs out here, do you?”
She was exasperating. “Because!” I countered, then winced. Now I sounded like Mama. “You’re too young to smoke!” I finally burst out.
She paused in the middle of drawing out a fresh cigarette. “I see,” she murmured, although judging from the glint in her eyes she’d been ‘seeing’ quite clearly all along. “And exactly how old do you think I am?”
I narrowed my own eyes. Is this a trick question?
Giggling, she poked a finger into my chest. “I’m twenty years old, Miguel. Of legal age, you know.”
“What?” I said dumbly.
“I’m an English major and an incoming senior. If the fates prove merciful, I’ll be graduating next year. So you see, I’m not on any special program. It’s my body that’s on a deferred development plan.”
I stared at her. She’s twenty years old. She’s seven years older than me. Uncertainty and embarrassment swept over me, making me feel slightly ill.
“It’s okay,” she said, noting the look on my face. “People make that mistake about me all the time. I’m used to it. Actually, I think it’s—”
“Ivy! Ives, get your ass over here right now.”
We both turned toward the new voice. A thickly-built young man with gold streaks in his hair and a pair of sunglasses perched on his nose was heading toward us, mouth turned down in a frown too severe to be genuine. Then the sunglasses flashed in my direction and the guy slowed, the mock-frown dropping away. I could see his eyebrows poking up above the frames as he stared at me.
Ivy’s face brightened, and she waved the guy over. “Erwin, come over here! Miguel, I’d like you to meet Erwin Ocampo, Public Ad major and one of my best friends. Erwin, this is Miguel Santillan, Engineering and my newest friend.”
She beamed expectantly. Erwin pushed his sunglasses up to the top of his head and shook my hand, his mouth curling upward in a dry smile. “Her newest friend, huh?”
“That’s debatable,” I muttered, my gaze darting back to Ivy.
Erwin peered at me. “Hmm, you have this look about you. Oh no, she’s been messing with you, hasn’t she? Don’t let her get to you; she does this all the time.” He leaned over and stage-whispered to me: “Sure, she looks like a vestal virgin, but she’s really as old as my grandmother. You know, all withered and dried up in the—”
“Shut up, bitch.” Ivy aimed a kick at his shin, making him dance away, laughing. She cleared her throat exaggeratedly. “Erwin, don’t you think there’s something familiar about Miguel? Like maybe you’ve seen him somewhere before? In the newspaper maybe?”
Erwin squinted at my face, then his expression cleared. “Oh sweet Lord, you’re that boy-genius from the Sunday Inquirer article. Well, well,” he said, looking me over from head to foot. “I must admit, Ives, you’re right about him.”
Ivy winked at me again. “Of course I am. So, are you done? Should we go get Sharm?”
“Yeah. I was about to text you when I spotted you from the jeep. Lord, it’s hot. Let’s go get something to drink first. Sharm can wait a minute longer.”
“You go ahead. I’ll catch up with you at the kiosk.”
Erwin glanced at Ivy, then at me. “Okay. Nice meeting you, Miguel. And remember, don’t give the brat the satisfaction.”
“Ignore him,” Ivy told me as her friend walked away. “He likes messing with people as much as I do, which is why we get along so well. Hey, can I borrow your phone?”
Wordlessly, I fished my phone from my pocket and handed it to her. She keyed in something in my phone, then took my hand and pressed my phone into it. “Here,” she said softly. “If you ever need someone to talk to, someone who can be a friend and big sister to you, call me. I’ll be there, I promise. I’ll even bring my lighter if you need it.”
Don’t go, I thought as my fingers tightened around hers. “How do you know I don’t have a big sister of my own?” I asked just to prolong the moment.
“The article, remember? And your reaction to my little vice.” A sad light came into her eyes. “Jeff acted just as over-protectively around me as you had. He’s the oldest boy in his family too, and he said I reminded him of his little sister. That’s the reason he dumped me. I reminded him too much of his little sister.”
I was sorry I asked. She shook her head, dismissing the melancholy that had wrapped around her. “Forget that. Truth is, I wouldn’t mind being a big sister to someone. Especially if it’s you.”
She gave me one last grin, then spun around to follow Erwin, who was watching us from the kiosk with a bottle of water in one hand and a cigarette in the other. But she hadn’t gone more than a few feet before she skidded to a stop, spun around again, and ran back to me. Before I realized what she was doing, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed me on the cheek.
“Thanks again, Migs,” she whispered, and then she was gone.
I felt Erwin’s thoughtful gaze on me through his sunglasses before the two of them left, with Ivy moving lightly and gracefully on her feet, like a butterfly. When they were gone, I returned to the bench for my backpack and tossed our soda cans into a garbage bin. My phone beeped; it was Yna, telling me that she and the guys were done and that I should meet them at the Melchor Hall lobby. I checked my phone but couldn’t find Ivy’s entry. What I did find, when I scrolled through my contacts list, was a new entry under B—Batman. How does she expect me to remember her name if she didn’t key it in? I grumped, but it was a lie and I knew it. I’d definitely remember her name. The problem would be trying to forget it.
And I swear, I could still feel the imprint of her lips even when I was already in bed, trying to sleep and failing dismally. I’ve always been quick at figuring things out, and by then, I knew for sure. With every passing minute since she left me standing there, I was falling for her—falling hard and fast. I knew I didn’t stand a chance, and that was even before I opened up the newspaper the next day, and found her smiling up at me from a full-spread ad for a clothing line with an oriental-girl-in-a-kimono logo, while Reese babbled to Mama and Nay Loring about how she and her friends hoped they could catch a Shoujo Shine promo tour at the mall so they could get to meet its totally cool, totally gorgeous image model.
And that, I thought as my stomach dropped into nothingness, was that. There was simply no chance in hell that a twenty-year-old woman, and a popular commercial model at that, would look twice at a thirteen-year-old nerd with no social skills. In less than twenty-four hours, I learned that meeting someone for the first time—and discovering that she was completely out of my league—were no guarantees that I wouldn’t fall hopelessly in love with her almost right off the bat.
I also learned that girls have ways of dealing with relationship problems that guys are never meant to find out. Not if they valued their mental health.