Hmm. Well, it helped that I started seeing a lot more of him, almost as if Miguel was making up for his negligence of the past month. He and his sister became part of our moving crew, which included Giselle, Jeff, Trey, and Trey’s cousin-by-marriage who owned a small truck.
It was a race against time, given that we only had a few days before registration for first semester began. The hours blurred into one mad shopping spree as Sharm, Erwin and I raced around Cubao, SM, the residences of friends and Divisoria, purchasing or begging for things to furnish our new home with. The other half we spent lugging things around and arranging them around the apartment; having guy pals came in handy when it came to the lugging around part.
Around mid-afternoon the first day, Miguel knocked on our door and politely inquired if there was anything he could do to help. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but since we were up to our elbows in boxes and shopping bags of stuff, we took his offer seriously. When we discovered that the boy was adept at assembling furniture, and could attach a shelf or a full-length mirror to a wall better than Sharm, Erwin or I could, his position as our moving-in tech-support was cemented. Young as he was, Migs wasn’t in Engineering for nothing.
Later, Reese came bursting in, still in her school uniform and whining about how it was so unfair that grade school students had to go back to school a full week before college students did. We hid our grins when Miguel forbade her from helping out until she finished her homework and sent her back to the house, although judging from her scowl I doubt Reese shared our sentiments. Migs could be one scary big brother when he wanted to be.
The next day went pretty much the same. The three of us went shopping in the morning, came home shortly after lunch, then started setting up. Our friends, Miguel included, arrived to help out, especially when it came to carrying up the old Santillan family refrigerator and washing machine. Then Reese dropped by—after finishing her homework, of course—and we had a snack consisting of Coke and anything else Sharm and I could scrape together.
By then, we’d accepted our adoption as Reese’s new pets. I suspected that half the time she was there to try and trip me up into admitting I was Shoujo Shine’s image model. I made sure to act the opposite of how the Shoujo Shine Girl was supposed to be, which wasn’t hard since all I had to do was be myself, but the girl was unfazed. She handled our smoking, cussing, crude jokes and teasing insults with such blasé acceptance that I wondered if she and her brother had been raised in different households. But when she watched hawk-eyed as I unpacked my clothes and makeup kit, I knew she hadn’t given up on her notion that I was the Shoujo Shine Girl. Stubbornness apparently ran in the family.
As for Migs, it got to the point where I began to forget that I’d met him just over a month ago. I felt as if he’d been my friend for years. He’d work quietly and intently, seemingly oblivious to our noisy banter, then come up with succinct, dryly humorous remarks that always made us stop and listen. Sharm and Erwin accepted his presence as easily as they had Reese’s, although they tended to introduce him to other people as “Ivy’s friend Miguel.” That annoyed me a bit, because somebody who’d hung up our shower curtain and helped drag our foam mattresses up the stairs was definitely not just my friend anymore. But I had to admit, it also sent a tiny thrill through me. What can I say? I liked having first dibs on Migs, even way back then.
Our other friends accepted him just as easily, although Giselle couldn’t help raising her eyebrows when she saw how young he was. Trey, who’s quicker on the uptake than Giselle, figured out who Miguel was and, in true student-council-politico style, immediately clasped his hand in firm handshake and asked if Miguel was aware of certain anti-student policies of the university administration and would Miguel be willing to invite his friends to a demo/rally to protest the aforementioned policies?
There was a bit of awkwardness when Miguel met Jeff for the first time. Giselle and Trey had arrived a couple of hours earlier, and everyone was scattered around the apartment when the doorbell rang. Miguel and I were on our knees on the floor assembling a shelf, and the electronic chiming of the doorbell surprised me into dropping the screwdriver I was holding out to him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled as Giselle leaped up and vanished out the door, calling out: “That’s probably Jeff!”
Miguel retrieved the screwdriver from where it had rolled away. I could feel him looking at me, but I kept my eyes focused firmly on the shelf. Erwin crossed over to the door and peered out of it. “Oh God, here come the honeymooners. Everyone, brace yourselves for the sugar shock.”
The sound of Jeff’s voice and Giselle’s giggling response arrived two minutes before they did. “Hey guys! Nice pad you’ve got here,” Jeff cried as he strode in. Untangling his arm from around Giselle’s waist, he prowled through the place, calling out greetings.
“Hey, where’s Ivy?” he demanded, as if he hadn’t spotted me the moment he’d stepped inside. I rolled my eyes. I used to find this running gag of his cute, but now as I watched him squint exaggeratedly and turn his head this way and that, I found myself wishing he’d quit the theatrics before he embarrassed us both. As conscious as I was of Giselle’s eyes upon us, I was even more aware of Miguel, who was observing Jeff with a thoughtfulness that for some reason made me feel like crawling away and hiding for a while.
After a painful minute or two, Jeff finally succeeded in locating me. “There you are! Didn’t see you there. Still haven’t gotten your growth spurt yet, brat?”
“Obviously not, and don’t call me brat,” I answered automatically. This, too, was a familiar script.
Jeff laughed as if I’d just made a particularly funny remark. “But that’s exactly what you are, Ives. A cute little brat.” He reached down to ruffle my hair, dislodging the chopstick holding it up in a twist.
“Great, thanks. Because I work so much better when I can’t see what I’m doing,” I muttered as my hair slid down my shoulders like a shaggy avalanche.
“But you look better that way. The witchy look suits you.”
“Must explain why you look so good with pins stuck all over you,” I said sweetly. “By the way, Jeff, I’d like you to meet Miguel.” I indicated the boy kneeling beside me, who hadn’t moved an inch throughout our exchange. “He’s our landlord, sort of. He lives in that house out front. Miguel, this is Giselle’s boyfriend Jeff.”
Miguel glanced at me, and my cheerful mask slipped a little. Don’t say anything, I begged him with my eyes. He pushed his glasses up his nose, breaking our silent communication, then got to his feet. He was shorter and slimmer than Jeff, but Miguel seemed more controlled, more dignified compared to the gregarious older guy. Watching the two of them size each other up was like watching a big, clumsy dog get stared down by a smaller but supremely self-possessed cat.
Jeff broke the impasse with a friendly grin. “Nice to meet you, Miguel. You a freshman in high school or what? Wait a minute, don’t you guys have classes already?”
“I’m not in high school,” Miguel said as he shook Jeff’s hand.
“He’s a college student, Jeff. An Engineering major,” Giselle explained when Jeff looked confused. “Miguel Santillan. The one in the Sunday Inquirer article, remember?”
Jeff’s face cleared. “Hey, you’re that Miguel. Ivy’s favorite child genius. I heard about how you two met at the kiosk and how she forced herself on you.” He chuckled, oblivious to the way I had stiffened. “She did the same to me when we first met. In fact, she was so forceful that I ended up in the Infirmary with a bleeding head.”
I wanted to melt into a puddle and dissolve into the floor. No, I wanted to strangle Jeff then melt into a puddle and dissolve into the floor. The idiot was closer to the truth of how Miguel and I met than he could imagine, but it wasn’t something I wanted to brag about. Neither was my first, rather disastrous meeting with Jeff, for that matter. Although Miguel maintained an air of polite interest, I didn’t dare look up at his face for fear of what I might find there.
“For fuck’s sake, Jeff, not that story again,” Erwin called out wearily from the room he’d claimed as his own. I could have kissed him.
“Oh come on, it’s funny,” Jeff countered before turning back to Miguel. “Glad to meet you. Ivy talked so much about you that all I needed was to put a face to your name.”
“Likewise,” Miguel said, injecting so much irony into the word that I had to bite the insides of my cheeks to keep from snorting with laughter. Thankfully, nobody else caught on, least of all Jeff. Before he could open his big mouth again, Sharm called the Golden Couple over and demanded that they help her and Trey fix up the kitchen. She gave me a subtle smile, and I responded with a tiny, grateful nod.
When Miguel hunkered back down to deal with the shelf, the absorbed expression he always wore whenever he was working on something sliding back on his face, a rush of affection swept through me, mingling with relief and gratitude. Feeling my gaze upon him, he turned and looked at me questioningly. Was that okay?
I smiled. Yeah. Thanks.
He smiled back, then handed me the chopstick that had fallen on the floor between us. To my surprise, I could feel a blush rising up my neck, and I quickly averted my face on the pretext of fixing my hair until the urge to hug him had safely passed.
Apparently, Sharm hadn’t just been rescuing me when she’d commandeered Giselle and Jeff. By the time Migs and I finished the shelf, she, Trey and Erwin were deep in a discussion about the principles of feng shui and the best way to position the dining room furniture, although Giselle and Jeff looked far more interested in snuggling in a corner than in the ongoing three-way debate. I pushed the shelf toward our self-styled interior decorators and skipped away before they could rope me into giving opinions.
“Come on, this is going to take a while.” I towed Miguel out into the balcony, grabbing my cigarette case and lighter along the way. We perched on the balcony rail, chatting about our plans for the school year. I had just moved to stand downwind from him for a smoke when Giselle and Jeff tumbled out the door.
“This is a great place,” Jeff remarked admiringly.
Giselle twined her arm around his. “Isn’t it? I think the balcony’s the best part of the apartment. You should put some potted plants around here. You could have a little garden,” she said to me.
“Nah, I’d rather put ashtrays around.” Outnumbered by the non-smokers three to one, I tucked my cigarette away with a silent sigh. “We’d use the plants for the same purpose, and at least I wouldn’t feel guilty if the ashtray dies.”
“I’m sure you—oh, Ivy, should you be smoking around Miguel?” Giselle had caught sight of my cigarette case before I could stuff it in my pocket. “He’s just a kid.”
I shot Miguel a guilty look. I admit, the compulsion for nicotine had made me a little less careful around him than I should have been. “I really don’t mind,” he protested.
“Yeah, Giselle, that kid’s in college now,” Jeff said, drawing his girlfriend into his arms. “He’ll be seeing much worse than a chain-smoking little brat.”
“Would you stop calling me that?” I muttered, feeling increasingly uncomfortable around the lovebirds, as if I was an intruder in what was supposedly my own home.
Giselle playfully tried to push Jeff away. “Knock it off, Jeff, people are watching.”
“Who, Ivy?” Jeff mumbled into her hair. “Come on, she doesn’t care. Right, Ives?”
So you’d like to think, you jackass. Habit forced my throat to close up before the words could emerge. I waved a hand airily, as if watching my ex-boyfriend make out with one of my closest friends was no issue at all. I was about to tell them to go right ahead and give us a show when Jeff lifted his head from Giselle’s neck and looked at me. I froze, suddenly feeling flustered, and my only coherent thought was how much I needed a cigarette right at that moment.
Then Miguel was standing beside me, and everything snapped into focus again. “Hey, weren’t we supposed to go buy Coke?” he told me.
“Right! Coke!” I blurted, trying not to look pathetically grateful. “Ah, we’ll be right back.”
We headed out the gate toward the corner store at the end of the block. I walked beside him, taking refuge in the warm, solid comfort of his presence until the memory of that confused moment faded away. Jeff was an unwanted complication in my life, but with Migs, everything seemed simple and right. I could get used to this, I thought, peeking up into his face, only to find him looking at me with concern.
“I’m fine,” I answered his unspoken question. “That’s twice I owe you today, so thanks.”
He shrugged. “Just doing my job.”
“Yeah?” I snorted. “Since when has bailing me out of awkward situations involving my ex become your job?”
“Since I became the sole witness to your ritual,” he replied, eyes focusing straight ahead.
I winced and looked away as well. His voice sounded oddly tight, and for a moment I was afraid he was disappointed in me. I recalled the oath I’d made during an overwrought moment, and wanted to curl up in mortification. “Oh, right,” I said in a tiny voice.
Neither of us was in a hurry to leave the corner store. I hung a distance away, fumbling for a cigarette, and let the stream of mentholated smoke calm my nerves. I stood there, cigarette dangling between my fingers, and mulled over the strange expression Jeff wore when he’d looked at me and, alternately, over why I was so worried about disappointing a thirteen-year-old kid. My thoughts were derailedwhen a hand appeared, holding a Coke bottle.
I looked at the bottle, then up at Miguel. “What’s this?”
“It’s a carbonated beverage,” he deadpanned, a glint of humor in his eyes.
“Very funny.” I took the bottle and sipped at the straw, relishing the sweet, cold fizz rushing down my throat. “Mmm, thanks. I needed that.”
“Want to sit down?” He gestured at the concrete steps in front of the store.
“Oh no, I can’t, the smoke will—”
He gave me a severe look. “You’ll ruin my image as a ladies’ man if you keep standing there while I’m sitting down.”
“A ladies’ man? You?” I said with a surprised laugh.
He blushed and pushed his glasses up. “I have to start somewhere, right?” he said with a small, self-deprecating smile.
I actually felt my heart turn over, he was so endearing. We stared at each other, then I whirled around and flounced down on the step. “Well, if you put it that way…”
A companionable silence settled between us as we sipped at our Cokes and, in my case, finished my cigarette. Finally, I looked over at him. “What are you thinking of?”
“I’m thinking your ex-boyfriend might be the most oblivious jerk I’ve ever met.”
I blinked, taken aback by his blunt, if accurate, assessment of Jeff. “Well, yeah, but it’s not entirely his fault.”
“I figured as much,” he said, giving me an uncomfortably perceptive look, “because Giselle’s acting just as weird. Why?”
I sighed and examined the pebbles under my feet. “Jeff and I had what you might call an amicable divorce. He believes I’m cool with the way things turned out between us, and for the most part it’s true, I am cool with it. I’m sincerely glad for him and Giselle, and you can see how sweet they are to each other. He was never that sweet with me.”
He stared at me in disbelief. “That’s crap,” he said flatly. “So that’s what you meant about pretending. You’re saying he has no idea at all how much he’s hurting you?”
“No, and I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your mouth shut,” I retorted, stung by his contempt. “Besides, it’s no big deal,” I added. “I’m starting to get over him anyway. In fact, I haven’t thought about him until now because I’ve been too busy—ah, too busy.” I stumbled, a little alarmed at how close I was to admitting that I’d been too busy thinking about him, Miguel, to think about Jeff. I’m sure he was dying to learn that bit of news.
His frown deepened, and in a flash I realized that it hadn’t been contempt I’d heard in his voice but anger. On my behalf. For some reason, he actually cared that I was hurting. Shock rolled over me, followed by a wave of warmth that made me feel lightheaded. Some of that warmth must have shown through in the smile I gave him, because he reddened and adjusted his glasses to hide his confusion.
“It’s okay, Migs,” I said quietly, laying a hand on his arm. “Jeff was never someone I trusted completely with my feelings. The only people who know how I really feel about this are Sharm, Erwin and you, and that’s perfectly fine with me.”
Something flickered in his eyes before his lashes lowered, his gaze dropping to my hand on his arm. I mentally ran through my last couple of sentences, and realized how they might have sounded to him. Suddenly uneasy, I snatched my hand back and jumped up. “Well, cigarette break’s over. Time to get back to the rest of the crew,” I babbled.
A few minutes later, I returned with a large bottle of Coke, which he immediately took from me. We strolled back home, still in no particular hurry to reach our destination, and when he spoke my name I turned to him with a lazy “hmm?”
“Thanks,” he said shyly.
“Nah, it’s me who should be thanking you,” I replied, knowing full well what he meant. “Anyway, I know where you live, so that makes things easier for me if I need to silence you permanently.”
He grinned. “Yeah? And how’re you going to do that?”
I gave it some thought, then brightened. “Well, for starters, I can do this!” Gving in to an urge that had been plaguing me since the first time we met, I reached up and ruffled his hair while he yelped and tried to duck away. “Oooh, your hair’s so soft and fluffy! You gotta tell me what shampoo you use on your crowning glory!” I squealed.
“Knock it off!” Laughing helplessly, he twisted away, using the Coke bottle like a lion-tamer’s chair to hold me off while I chased after him with arms outstretched, fingers waggling. “What does yanking my hair out have to do with silencing me?”
“Yanking your hair out?” I echoed mock-indignantly, planting my hands on my hips. “You big baby. That is not ‘yanking your hair out.’ That is just ‘mussing it up a bit.’ Believe me, you’d be able to tell if I do yank your hair out.”
He’d halted as well and was watching me carefully, his eyes bright with playful mirth, something I later learned happened so rarely it was practically a calendar event. “That doesn’t answer my question,” he pointed out.
“Oh all right,” I huffed, looking my most put-upon. “The answer to your question, Mr. Logic, is: absolutely nothing. This is entirely your fault.”
He looked so offended that I couldn’t hold back my own laughter. “It’s because you’re so cute when you’re wriggling around like that. Now be a good boy and hold still, will ya?”
“Oh no, you stay away from me, you pint-sized nutcase.”
“Pint-sized nutcase? Oooh, now you’re really going to get it!”
Just then, a car drove past us and a voice called out his name. A car window was lowered and a girl Miguel’s age stuck her head out, staring fish-eyed at us. Miguel instantly sobered, his arms dropping to his sides, all traces of hilarity wiped clean off his face. He nodded stiffly at the girl just before the car turned into the next street and vanished.
I watched him, amazed and amused at the way he’d hastily donned his armor of dignity again. “Friend of yours?”
“Neighbor,” he answered. “Used to be my classmate back at my old school.”
“Oh, really?” I teased. “Judging from the way she was looking at you, I can say there’s a definite feeling of friendship there. At least.”
He flushed. “That’s stupid. Come on.”
“Oooh, so gruff all of a sudden. Could it be I struck a nerve?” I sang out, trotting beside him, then giggled when he flushed even redder and glared at me. “All right, all right, I’ll let off for now.”
We got back in time to see Sharm do her victory strut around the apartment, having just prevailed over both Trey and Erwin, who were looking miffed at having expended all that energy arguing for nothing. As far as I could tell, Jeff and Giselle hadn’t budged, except to get further entangled in each other’s arms.
To my surprise, it got easier for me to deal with the Golden Couple after that. Part of it was due to Reese’s arrival, her bright chattering about her day serving as distraction. Most of it, though, was because Miguel hardly left my side, drawing my attention away whenever he sensed my mood turning morose, comforting me by simply being there. His concern for me was touching, especially since I couldn’t think of any reason I should merit it, but whenever I tried to send a grateful smile his way, he’d merely shrug it off. Just my luck that the one person who witnessed me going all hideously melodramatic would turn out to be someone who’d take my oath even more seriously than I did. Although, mind you, taking things seriously did seem to be in keeping with Miguel’s character.
It took four days for us to fix everything up. I still remember the feeling of pride when we finally stood back and surveyed our new home. A rug and a bunch of yellow throw-pillows made up the living room. A small dining table and four chairs, all of which Sharm had covered with lengths of yellow checkered cloth to hide the fact that none of them matched, made up the dining area. A refrigerator, a microwave oven, a two-burner gas stove, a wooden dish rack and some wooden hooks for the pots and pans made up the kitchen. Erwin’s bed was a foam mattress tossed onto the floor, but Sharm and I were lucky enough to acquire a double bunk bed from Trey’s cousin.
Outside on the balcony, along with the old Santillan family washing machine, we set up another table and more chairs—a brand new, country-style set that I’d splurged on. With Erwin’s and Trey’s help, Miguel repositioned the light bulb on the balcony ceiling from the washing machine side to the “lounge area,” and installed a yellow tie-dyed shade around it. It gave the balcony a warm atmosphere. In time, a CD player and a computer would be added to our meager furnishings. Although our first real apartment would never have been considered luxurious, it was comfortable and cozy and, more importantly, it was ours. Be it ever so humble, and all that.
Just in time, too. It seemed as if only five minutes had passed since we finished moving in before we were waking up harassed and rushing about on campus again, armed with Form-5s and class schedules. It was an important year for all of us, our final year in college. Even for me, despite the fact that I’d shifted majors earlier. The good news was, I only had six courses left to take, three for this semester and three for the next. The bad news was, this included my undergraduate thesis, as my adviser had taken to reminding me in faux-pleasant tones every time I saw him. Just the thought of doing my thesis was enough to spark a full-fledged panic attack.
“You think you have problems,” Erwin grumbled over dinner of spaghetti with cheese, basil and mushroom sauce, one of Sharm’s early experiments. “You try digging through tons of dusty files at the Commission on Audit just to see if your topic has a leg to stand on while your adviser shoots down your ideas left and right. I swear, sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from pulling that old bitch’s armpit hairs out.”
I screwed up my face. “Ew, Erwin, we’re trying to eat here.”
“Bitch?” Sharm asked, puzzled. “I thought Dr. Oliver Cruz was your thesis adviser.”
Erwin curled his lip in an arch grin. “He is. And he is a bitch. He can deny it all he wants, but it rolls off of him in soft, pink waves. Hmm, that might explain the stick up his ass. It must be getting stuffy inside that closet of his.”
“I see.” Sharm rolled her eyes. “Well, why don’t you just find a new adviser if you find it so hard to get along with him?”
“I would, but he’s the only one qualified to advise me given my chosen field. I don’t want to have to do my thesis proposal all over again.”
“Pfft. I bet there’s some other reason why Dr. Olivia won’t let a stud-muffin like Erwin get away from him,” I said with a sly grin.
Erwin shuddered. “Don’t even go there, brat.”
“Just kidding,” I said, laughing. “But you’re right. Compared to you, I’m living in paradise.”
“It’s just your usual nerves, Ives,” Sharm pointed out reasonably. “You always get tense when you’re about to start a writing project. It’s just some kind of performance anxiety, and you get over it quickly enough.”
I sighed. “I know. It’s just that I’ll probably be zoning out a lot and being completely useless for days on end while I’m working on it. I feel bad about that.”
“You talk like it’s unusual for you to be completely useless.”
I dipped my fingers into my glass and flicked water at Erwin’s face. “You shut up or I’ll tell Dr. Olivia about your picture collection of young boys in their underwear.” Erwin reached over and smeared sauce across my arm, sparking a brief but messy scuffle between us.
“Kids, no fighting at the table, please,” Sharm cut in, looking aggrieved, and Erwin and I immediately ducked our heads. “Seriously, Ives, you can zone out as much as you need to,” she went on. “We know how you are when you’re in one of your creative frenzies, and someone will always be around to make sure you’re okay.”
I gave my friends a heartfelt smile, touched by their avowal of support. “Thanks, guys.”
To my surprise, Erwin and Sharm shared a grin. “She thinks you’re talking about us,” he stage-whispered, making her giggle.
“Oookay then, who were you talking about?” I kept the smile on my face, although the warm, fuzzy feeling of gratitude was quickly being replaced by decidedly non-warm, non-fuzzy suspicion.
“Oh, nobody.” Sharm waved a hand innocently. “By the way, I haven’t seen Miguel around this week. I’m starting to miss him. Have you seen him lately, Ives?”
“No, I haven’t.” Erwin snickered, and it hit me. “Migs?!” I exploded. “You’re talking about Migs? What the hell are you thinking?”
They laughed at my reaction, while I tapped my fork on my plate and waited for them to regain some semblance of sanity. “Relax,” Sharm said, still laughing. “We just think you two look really good together, that’s all. And I for one think his crush on you is cute, especially the way he seems so devoted to you.”
“C-crush on me? Devoted? Are you nuts?”
“Well, I saw it too,” Erwin informed me. “Jesus, Ives, the boy follows you around like a puppy, and when he’s not, he watches you as if he’s afraid you’ll sprout wings and fly back to heaven or something.”
I blinked, momentarily distracted by a ridiculous mental image of me wearing white robes and a pair of cardboard wings, floating skyward and strumming on a golden harp, while Miguel watched me with tears streaming down his face. Oh right, of course they’d think that, I realized. They didn’t know the real reason he stuck by me; they didn’t know the truth about how we met. What they saw wasn’t Migs in the throes of puppy love; it was just Migs being gallant, honorable and too serious for his own good. In short, it was Migs being Migs.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Guys, don’t you think you’re stretching things a bit?”
“Uh, no,” Erwin said. “Besides, I noticed you’ve been doing your fair share of looking as well. Not that I blame you, darling. He’s definitely eye-candy despite his age. It’s enough to make me wish I did have a picture collection of young boys in their underwear. He’d be centerfold material for sure.”
“Oh, God.” I shut my eyes, this time fighting back an image of Miguel dressed in nothing but a pair of skimpy briefs and his silver wire-rims, posing provocatively like a model in one of those naughty gay rags. That image was beyond ridiculous—beyond legal, certainly. I shook my head, dispelling the image. “Erwin, I’d like to remind you that the guy you’re drooling over is thirteen years old.”
“Oh, you think I’m the one who’s drooling over him?” Erwin countered smoothly. “Anyway, he acts older than his age, doesn’t he? You act more like a kid than he does, which, I admit, is not saying much. But hell, even Fraulein Maria here—” he pointed his fork at Sharm “—acts more like a kid than he does.”
“Fraulein Maria?!” Sharm yelled indignantly.
“Fine, Mary Poppins if it makes you feel sexier. Anyway, I’m wondering, is an abnormally developed frontal lobe part of the qualifications of a child prodigy?” Erwin mused out loud while Sharm sputtered in the background.
“No, I think that’s just Migs,” I said, smiling as I thought about Miguel. “And before you two get any more bright ideas about us, I know what it’s like when a guy has a crush on me, okay? Being the object of crushes by young, teenage males is part of my job description. And I’m telling you, Migs is not attracted to me in any way whatsoever. Maybe a brotherly kind of fondness, but a crush? No. End of discussion.”
They exchanged humor-filled glances, then acquiesced with questionable ease. Fortunately, they dropped the subject, and dinner was concluded without me having to break a couple of plates over my best friends’ heads.
But when the first week of classes came and went, followed quickly by the second week, without me seeing hide nor hair of Miguel—quite a feat considering we live in his backyard—a part of me wished that my appraisal about his lack of attraction toward me wasn’t so accurate. Also, that I’d had the sense to get his phone number while I was still reasonably sure we inhabited the same planet.
Our schedules must be different. Or maybe he’s just really busy with school, I consoled myself when the third week came rolling in. My own classes began at 9 a.m., and I usually left the apartment at 8:30. By then, the Santillan family car would have been long gone, and only Nay Loring, Trinity and occasionally Charlie would be there to greet me. Once, I worked up the nerve to ask Nay Loring what time Miguel left the house, and learned that Mrs. Santillan drove her kids to school at 7 a.m. before she headed off to work. Apparently, he came home early too, because whenever I arrived home at around seven, I’d look up to see the light on in his room. Aside from that, there was no other evidence that he was around, and I wondered irritably if he’d somehow forgotten all about my number in his phone.
One morning, I strolled toward the gate lugging several books under one arm and several more in my canvas bag. I wasn’t paying any attention to my surroundings; I was too busy mulling over my options for my thesis. The thesis required was a publishable work of fiction or creative non-fiction, and I was torn between writing a full-length novel and writing a collection of short stories. I’d already churned out several short stories some time ago, and all I had to do was polish them up, add a few more stories and be done with it. On the other hand, I’d always dreamed of writing my own novel, but if my adviser’s dire warnings were anything to go by, I’d be risking more years of drudgery in college if I gave in to blind ambition. I heaved a sigh at the choices I faced, then sighed again, this time in exasperation, when my arm moved the wrong way and sent my books spilling onto the ground.
“Shit,” I swore as I bent down, then swore some more when my bag slid off my shoulder and dropped heavily on my sandal-clad foot.
“Are you okay?”
I looked up in surprise to see Miguel standing in his driveway, dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, his backpack slung over his shoulder. He didn’t look any different from any other college student I’d seen, aside from the fact that he looked young for a college student, but I still felt a jolt in my insides at the sight of him. Definitely eye-candy, a voice in my head purred. It sounded creepily like Erwin.
Migs frowned and I became aware that I’d been gawking at him. I swore again as I collected my books, my bag and my wits. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I called. “Good morning to you, too.”
I let myself out the gate, and found him walking over to me. For a moment we stared at each other, and I gave in to impulse and let my gaze roam over his face, savoring the inexplicable sense of safety and belonging I always felt around him. I hid a smile when I glanced up at his hair, which must have been combed earlier but was now curling this way and that, giving him a rumpled, just-got-out-of-bed appearance.
Then I caught the faint scent of something spicy, musky and male, and my eyelids fluttered for a moment. Mm-mm. I didn’t know what cologne he was wearing—I didn’t even realize he wore cologne until that moment—but whatever it was, it smelled absolutely delicious. It made me want to close my eyes and lean in a bit closer…
I froze. Oh my God, what the hell was I thinking? This was Migs, for fuck’s sake; definitely not someone to go perverted over and scare the living shit out of. The rest of Erwin’s lewd imagery came back, and I felt like stomping over to the office where my best friend worked and kicking his ass around for putting ideas in my head. Calm down, I told myself sharply. This is Migs, remember? Besides, it’s not like your busted equipment’ll let you be perverted, anyway.
“Um, hi,” Miguel said softly. “You look…normal.”
My eyebrow lifted at that. “You sound surprised. Don’t I normally look, er, normal?”
He shook his head. “No, I mean, you’re dressed normally. Like an ordinary person. And your hair’s hanging loose.”
“Uh, yeah. This is how I usually dress to go to class.” I looked down at my jeans, yellow T-shirt, both of which sported the cool-chick-from-Tokyo logo, one of the perks of my job. “I didn’t feel like dressing up much today. And my hair’s still damp. I’m waiting for it to dry out before I tie it back or I’ll be getting headaches all day,” I added, still at a loss as to where this conversation was headed.
“Right. Of course.” He glanced down at his feet and took a deep breath. “It’s just that when I saw you earlier this morning, you were wearing a totally different outfit. And you had a bandanna over your hair.”
“When you what?”
“I see you everyday, you know,” he went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “Every morning when I read the newspaper, and in the mall last weekend, just to be different.” He pushed his glasses up and gave me an impish half-smile.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “If this is some twisted way to get me to admit that I’m the Shoujo Shine Girl—”
“You are the Shoujo Shine Girl.”
I opened my mouth to unleash a flood of denials, saw the look on his face, then closed my jaws with a click. “Reese put you up to this, didn’t she?” I grumbled instead. “I swear, your sister’s just waiting for me to slip up, then she’ll be all over me with a camera, a tape recorder and a dozen of her girlfriends.”
“She didn’t,” he said, his smile deepening. “She’s convinced that you are, though.”
“Oh, and you’re not?” I said sarcastically.
“I know you are. There’s a difference.” I stared at him, and he laughed at the look on my face. “Don’t worry, Ivy. I won’t tell anyone. I, um…I just wanted to say you look better when you’re normal,” he added, then dropped his gaze again.
The compliment actually took me by surprise, so much that I barely noticed when he’d plucked my books from my arm and started walking briskly away. It took me a few seconds to recover and catch up with him. We walked toward the street corner, and I became aware that I was smiling goofily and moving with a little more bounce in my step, propelled by a lovely, buoyant feeling. I’d been hearing admiring comments about my looks for so long they’d become meaningless, but Migs’ clunky, long-winded compliment touched something in me. Not a lot of people said I looked better as my real self than as my expertly made-up, fashionably dressed, and thoroughly Photoshopped alter ego. It was one of the sweetest things anyone had ever said to me.
Funny how Migs seemed to be racking up points in the sweetness department.
We stopped at the corner to wait for a tricycle. “So where’re you headed?” I asked.
“Where are you going?” he asked at the same time. We looked at each other and laughed. “You first,” he said.
“To the Main Library. I need to do some research for my thesis. What about you?”
“Same as you.”
“Oh. Cool.” I smiled again, feeling better and better about how the day was turning out.
A tricycle rumbled to a stop in front of us, and we squeezed into the small passenger cab, although he was careful to sit on the edge of the seat so as not to crowd me. I wanted to tell him not to bother; there was enough space for him to lean back beside me, although if I were to be honest with myself, I’d have made the offer less out of concern for his comfort and more as an excuse to press closer to him so I could catch another whiff of his cologne. Just so I could identify it. I wanted to be able to inform whoever was going to be my next boyfriend that he would henceforth be using this particular brand of cologne.
Still, I couldn’t resist being in such close quarters with him and not doing anything about it. Grinning, I reached up and combed my fingers through his hair, feeling the soft, thick strands slide against my skin. He jerked reflexively then glared at me over his shoulder.
“Oops, sorry. My hand just moved on its own,” I apologized with sugary insincerity. He rolled his eyes and turned away, but not before I caught a hint of a smile on his lips.
We got off the tricycle, walked toward the jeepney terminal. We sat scrunched up beside each other in the tightly packed jeepney, my thigh against his, my arm brushing against his shirt. As the jeepney speeded up, the wind picked up his tantalizing, spicy-warm scent. I took a deep breath, memorizing the scent, then nearly jumped when he shifted in his seat and his elbow brushed against my arm. For some reason, that brief, unintentional touch felt electric, making goose bumps break out on both my arms. What is wrong with me today? I groaned inwardly, burying my head in the bag in my lap and smashing my nose against the edge of a book in the process. My eyes watered, but I welcomed the burst of pain. Anything to knock some sense into me.
I lifted my head and found him looking at me with puzzlement. I gazed into his eyes, partly hidden by the silver frames of his glasses. His eyes are a shade of brown so dark it’s nearly black. It’s a cold color, almost opaque, but it made me think of liquid heat and swirling depths and a rising tide of richness that made my blood pound…
“Coffee!” I blurted, then blushed as everyone in the jeep turned and stared at me.
His brow furrowed. “Coffee?”
“I need coffee,” I said in a steadier voice. “I don’t think I’m all that awake yet.” I passed a hand over my eyes in a manner that vaguely suggested I was on the brink of collapse due to lack of caffeine.
“There’s a vendo-machine right outside the library,” he said. “Um, after you.”
I looked out the window, and realized that we’d reached our destination. I could feel him watching me as we got off the jeep, crossed the street and headed toward the library, and I was overcome by shame. I was supposed to be the older one, for God’s sake. More mature, more level-headed, and not at all given to hormonal flights of fancy worthy of any randy adolescent. Attempting to throw him off the scent, I gave him a bright smile, one hand surreptitiously digging around inside my bag for my cigarette case.
All the while, a voice was shrilling inside my head: Why are you even feeling this way? You don’t have hormones, you idiot. Your body is screwed up like that, remember?
“Ivy, sit down.”
“Huh?” I glanced at him in confusion, then looked around. We were standing at the foot of the coral-colored steps outside the Main Library. Several students were sitting around studying or chatting with one another or fiddling with their phones. He gestured toward the steps, and I obediently sat down as he set my books and his backpack down beside me.
“Uh, mind telling me what we’re doing out here when we’re supposed to be in there?” I jerked my head toward the double doors of the Library.
“Just sit down for a minute,” he instructed in a tone I usually heard him use around Reese. “You’re looking kind of weird. Wait here while I go get your coffee.”
“What? No, you don’t have to do that, I can get my own—”
He silenced me with a look. “I’ll be back.” Then he jogged up the steps toward the line of vendo-machines near the library entrance.
Oh well, might as well spend my time wisely. In the blink of an eye, I’d lit a cigarette and was taking deep drags while I visualized myself sorting through the recent barrage of thoughts and sensations, then dumping the entire lot into a deep, dark hole in my mind. My little mental exercise worked; by the time Miguel came back with a paper cup full of steaming coffee, I was feeling more in control of the situation.
I accepted the cup with a murmur of thanks. “What about you?” I asked when he sat down beside me.
“I don’t drink coffee,” he said, which only goes to show how much people can change.
“Oh.” I turned the cup around, letting the warmth seep into my hands. “How come I don’t see you anymore, Migs?” I asked before I could stop myself, and prayed he wouldn’t notice how plaintive I sounded. “We miss you, you know. Sharm, Erwin and I,” I clarified. “We got used to having you over every day, so now we’re suffering from withdrawal symptoms.”
He reddened. “My mom’s been driving my sister and me to school really early in the mornings.”
Although I already knew that, I still grimaced in sympathy. “Sucks to have a 7 a.m. class, huh?”
“I don’t have a 7 a.m. class. All my classes begin at nine or later.”
“You’re kidding. What do you do then in the two hours or so before class starts?”
“Study,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Usually in the library, but any quiet spot will do.”
I gave him a look of mock-horror. “Ugh, that sounds positively dreary. What do you do after class? Or during vacant periods? National holidays? Or when classes are canceled?”
He thought about it, then shrugged. “Study. Or hang out at the Engineering laboratories or the library until Mama comes to pick me up.”
Jesus, somebody is in desperate need of a life, I thought as some of my pretend horror became real. “So, what’s different today?”
He shrugged again. “I convinced Mama that I could make it to school and back on my own. Besides, I could study just as well in my room as out here.”
“Oh.” His expression remained neutral, but I could sense the conversation was making him uncomfortable, so I decided a change of subject was needed. “Hey, are you thinking of signing up for any orgs this year? You’re not a freshie anymore; you’re allowed to join any org you want. Except frats. They’re bad news,” I added, recalling the lousy reputation fraternities had earned thanks to their tendency to indulge in testosterone-induced orgies of violence. Just the thought of Migs being subjected to paddling, mauling and general abuse at the hands of drunken macho idiots was enough to turn my stomach.
“Hey, we’ve got a pretty decent frat in Engineering,” Miguel said, rising to the defense of his college, then grinned at my fierce expression. “Okay, okay, no fraternities, got it. I can’t, anyway. If word got out that a frat’s on my tail, the special program committee would come down on my head faster than you can go from alpha to omega.”
That earned a giggle from me. “Okay, how about an org then? There’s got to be something you’re interested in. College life isn’t just about academics, you know.”
“So I’ve been told,” he commented with a sigh.
He was silent for a minute or two. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I’ve never really thought about it.”
I decided he’d had enough. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound like a guidance counselor. What you do with your free time is none of my business, right? Besides, if I’d spent more time studying and less time on extracurricular activities, I’d probably be…ah…” I screwed up my face, trying to imagine what I would have been like if I’d devoted as much time to studying like Miguel did instead of focusing on things like work and hanging out with pals at Sarah’s getting boozed up.
“Probably be what?” he prodded.
I gave up with a laugh. “I don’t know. More broke than I am now, that’s for sure. And such are the choices that define our lives,” I declared in the tones of the worldly wise as I stood up, tossed my cigarette butt and the now empty cup into a nearby trashcan, and collected my things. “Come on, break time’s over. Your sterling example has inspired me to greater heights of scholarly industry, and I now go forth to follow in your footsteps.”
He rose as well, smirking as he took my books from me. He said nothing as we entered the library door in single-file, slowing to let the security guard inspect our IDs. Then, just as I was preparing to move on, he murmured quietly, almost right into my hair: “You’ve got a long way to go before you can catch up with me.”
“Excuse me?”I whirled around to glare at him, and was in turn glared at by the security guard, several library-goers and a couple of librarians at the main desk. I smiled an apology at them, then turned back to Miguel, who still wore his coolly infuriating smirk. “First of all, I may not be a genius like you, but that doesn’t give you the right to be all snooty around me,” I hissed at him as we made our way toward the reading room. “Second of all, if one of us is going to be snooty then it ought to be me, or haven’t you heard about this thing called respecting your elders? And furthermore—what in hell is so funny?”
He wasn’t actually laughing, but his lips were pressed together in a twitching line, and his eyes were glinting in a highly suspicious manner. I became aware that we were drawing stares again, and this was likely due to the fact that we’d halted in the middle of the reading room, and I’d been poking my finger into his chest repeatedly to drive my points in. My nails weren’t exactly talons but they weren’t harmless stubs either, and every poke must have hurt him. When his lips twitched again, I scowled and drew my arm back for a final jab, only to have him catch my hand before it could make contact. The feeling of his long, warm fingers wrapping firmly around mine jarred me out of ranting mode, and I nearly choked on my next breath.
He was looking around as well, taking in the curious looks in our direction, then without releasing my hand, turned and marched toward the tables, dragging me behind him. He chose a table some distance away, then pulled out a chair and settled me into it before taking the chair across mine. He’d let go of my hand, and I found myself missing the contact immediately.
“Well? Aren’t you going to apologize?” I muttered with some asperity.
“Sorry,” he whispered back. “If I’d known you’d hit the roof like that, I’d have said it before we entered the library.”
“That’s your apology?”
“Just getting back at you for something you said to me the first time we met,” he drawled.
My jaw hit the table with a thump. “What the—you’re still stuck on that?”
He tapped a finger to his temple. Prodigious memory, remember?
I sucked in a breath to lambaste him further,then noticed the twinkle of humor in his eyes. My outrage fled, and I muffled a laugh. “Sooo, looks like you’re the vengeful type, huh?” I remarked, delighted by this little peek into Migs’ personality.
“No, I’m not.” I stared at him until he squirmed. “Yeah, I am,” he admitted reluctantly. “It kind of comes with the memory thing.”
“Miguel Santillan: He never forgives and he never forgets,” I declared, sketching my hand through the air as though reading a movie marquee for some cheesy action flick. He snorted at that, and I went off to return the books, still laughing quietly.
We spent the next couple of hours studying. Or rather, he was studying while I did a spectacular job of pretending I was. He kept his focus trained upon the pile of books spread out in front of him, the now-familiar look of absorption on his face. I glanced at him every now and then, waiting for him to come up for air, frankly in awe at and a little intimidated by his powers of concentration. No wonder he was the child prodigy, and I was just an average-ranking student.
I shook my head and tried to get back to work. But a mere half an hour later, I gave up, closed my eyes and leaned back in my chair, letting my head loll against the backrest. My thoughts drifted back to my thesis. It would have to be a collection of short stories. A novel would take too much time, and a full-length play would mean having to start from scratch. Neither I nor my adviser would be thrilled about that. But if I introduced an underlying theme to my stories, maybe in the new ones I had to write…
I opened my eyes, feeling somebody’s gaze on me. Miguel seemed just as intent on his book as before, and a quick glance around revealed that nobody else was looking our way. With a mental shrug, I propped my chin on my hand, flipped desultorily through a couple of pages in my own book, then glanced at Migs again, who was busily scribbling something in his binder.
“What’re you working on?” I asked impulsively.
I half-expected him to be annoyed. He didn’t strike me as the type who appreciated interruptions, but I was too bored to care. Instead, he looked at me and smiled, the abstracted glaze in his eyes melting into a soft, clear warmth that had me blushing lightly in response. “It’s for Comm III,” he answered. “I’m writing a term paper on the mathematical realities that would allow you to divide by zero.”
I gaped. “You’re writing a term paper on what? For Comm III? And they let you?”
“Just kidding,” he said with a quick grin. “Funny, though. Yna reacted the same way when I said that to her.”
Something cold threaded down my spine. “Who’s Yna?” I asked casually. “Friend of yours?”
He nodded. “We met last year. She and the guys are in my class in Engineering. Yna was valedictorian of her high school class.”
“Oh.” Of course he’d be friends with someone nearly as smart as he is. Before I could say anything more, my phone buzzed against my thigh. I dug it out my pocket and scrolled through the message, then cursed softly and shoved my phone back. “I’m being summoned,” I explained at Migs’ questioning look. “Work stuff.”
“It’s not a pictorial, is it?”
“It’s called a shoot, and no, it isn’t,” I said absently as I sorted through my books. “The shoot’s on Saturday. This is just a meeting to discuss our schedule.” My head jerked up when I realized what I’d said, and thus had the dubious pleasure of seeing his expression turn obnoxiously self-satisfied. “Oh, shut up,” I grumbled.
He watched, frowning, as I began stuffing things back into my bag. “You’re leaving?”
My heart lurched a little at the disappointment in his voice. “I have to. The meeting’s at 1:30, and the office is in Makati. If I don’t leave now, I’m going to be late. I’m sorry, Migs,” I added softly. “I was really looking forward to having lunch with you today.”
That last part of my admission I hadn’t intended to reveal, but it slipped out anyway. Horrified, I hurried off to return several books to the shelves. When I returned for my bag, Miguel still hadn’t moved from his chair. “Will you be okay?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied cheerfully. “I’m a big, tough girl, ya know? I just go around looking like a kid to fool people into thinking I’m harmless. What about you?”
“I usually have lunch with Yna and the guys before we go to class.”
“Oh. That’s great.”
“Um, see you later, then.”
I stared at him, marveling once again at how good-looking he was, with his black hair glinting underneath the high fluorescent lights and his slanted, brewed-coffee eyes gazing up into mine. It occurred to me that he looked right here, that this whole place—the library, the laboratories, the entire university in fact—was his element, a place where he fit in perfectly. A master of the realm of knowledge and intellect. I smiled wryly at my fanciful phrasing. Once again acting on impulse, I bent down and kissed him on the cheek. I’d intended it to be a quick, sisterly peck, but the luscious scent of his cologne and the smooth warmth of his skin drew me, and the kiss lingered a tad longer than I’d intended.
“That’s for the coffee,” I managed through a throat gone dry. Then I spun around and walked way quickly, willing myself not to pat the flames out of my own cheeks.
Shit, I thought when I was standing outside on the curb, a lighted cigarette clamped between my lips, waiting for a taxi, waiting for my heart to stop trying to knock a hole through my ribs. Shit, shit, shit. A thirteen-year-old kid. I’m going certifiably nuts.
When a taxi finally arrived, I clambered in and took several deep breaths to calm myself. Only then did I begin to tear open the small, irregularly shaped lump wrapped in plain white paper that I’d found stuffed into my bag. I’d read the attached note a few minutes ago, written in Miguel’s neat, even script. It said, rather tersely:
You guys didn’t have a housewarming party, so here.
Inside the layers of paper was a keychain consisting of a red carabiner, so I could attach it to my bag or the belt loop of my jeans, and a tiny red flashlight that produced a surprisingly bright beam of light. The keychain was relentlessly practical, much in keeping with a guy’s idea of a gift. But what had me wanting to melt into a puddle right there on the back seat was the white, ID-sized plastic card that came with the keychain, the kind you can have custom-made at certain booths in a mall. Printed on one side of the card was my full name, Ivy Rosanna Lopez; my new address, which was very nearly Miguel’s address; and two phone numbers—my phone number and his home phone number. Which made sense, since we hadn’t gotten around to having a landline phone installed in our apartment yet.
Then I turned the card over and very nearly did melt into a puddle. On the other side was an exquisite ink-sketch of a window overgrown with climbing vines and wild roses. Ivy and roses. I stared down at the tiny work of art, then realized that the arrangement of the vines and roses, which seemed random at first, actually formed an image—that of a girl with long, ivy-strewn hair looking over her shoulder and laughing playfully at the viewer, a rose tucked behind one ear.
I bit my lip, pressed the keychain to my chest, and stared unseeing out the window. Well, whadda you know? I thought dazedly. He does have a crush on me after all.