I sat there frozen, staring after her disappearing form. The pressure in my lungs built up, forcing me to take a deep gulp of air. It was crazy how being around Ivy made me forget things. Like breathing.
It made me want to do things, too. Things I normally wouldn’t do, like punch my fist in the air and yell “YES!” right there in the middle of the library. Or chase after her, grab her and kiss her right back. Only it wouldn’t be on her cheek.
“That’s for the coffee,” she’d whispered. Against all reason, I found myself becoming even more anxious about the package I’d stashed in her bag. Would she like it? Would she think it was stupid or lame or cheap? There had to be a hundred cooler things a guy could give a girl he likes, and keychains probably don’t rank within the first two hundred. I thought about the drawing I’d spent three days working on. Ten minutes ago, I was almost positive she’d like it; she seemed to like the sketch I’d made of the apartment well enough. Now I wasn’t so sure. She might even think I was being presumptuous by putting my phone number on her ID. Or she might not even notice the gift at all. Or she might, but then she might just put it aside and forget all about it.
Then again, if she was so appreciative of a measly cup of coffee, it might not be so bad. And if I was really, really lucky, she might even kiss me again.
My face grew hot at the thought, and for the first time in my recollection, I felt too restless to stay in the library. I stuffed my things into my backpack, deciding to catch up with my friends at the cafeteria where they hung out during lunch time on Wednesdays. Sure enough, they were sitting at the usual spot when I got there, notebooks and textbooks spread out on the table. I spotted huge, hulking Vince first; it wasn’t hard, since he stuck out like a monolith among ant hills. He and Dennis were both poring over their notes while Yna coached them. Allan, the most laid-back guy in our group, was slouched in his seat, wearing a sappy look on his face as he exchanged texts with his girlfriend of the month.
Yna and Vince blinked at me in surprise when I dropped my backpack on an empty seat beside Yna. Dennis looked patently relieved. “Great, you’re here. Hey, can I borrow your notes in Physics 72? I wanna check something.”
“I was just helping you with that!” Yna cried indignantly, throwing a wadded-up tissue at him. “Haven’t you been paying attention at all? How are you ever going to pass mid-terms if all you do is copy off of Miguel’s work?”
When I came back with a lunch tray, Dennis was still stammering his way out of the hole he’d dug for himself while Vince glared at him for pissing their tutor off. Ignoring the commotion, I slid into the seat then reached across the table for the ketchup bottle. I noticed the silence a moment later, and looked up to find Yna staring pop-eyed at me.
“What?” I asked, confused.
She leaned over, took a deep breath, then straightened, grinning. “Wow, you smell good, Miguel. Is that the cologne you bought last Saturday? I knew it was a good choice.”
Allan finally managed to tear his eyes away from his phone. “Hey, I wear cologne, too. How come you never tell me I smell good?”
“Because the last thing you and your ego need is encouragement,” she answered primly before turning back to me. “So, anything special happening today?”
Plenty, I thought with an inward smile. For one thing, I’d finally gotten Mama to back off. It had taken patience and every scrap of courage I had to convince her that I was old enough to get to school on my own, but this morning alone made it worth it. I could almost see the look of barely concealed relief on my friends’ faces when they learned about this. The guys in particular found my mother intimidating, ever since she’d escorted me into the auditorium for freshman orientation, rounded up the four of them pretty much at random, and more or less ordered them to be my friend. After that humiliating introduction, I avoided them like the plague for an entire semester, and it was only thanks to Yna’s persistence and the guys’ easygoing acceptance that I discovered how much easier college life was with friends around. The prospect of not seeing my mother when she came to pick me up wouldn’t be hard for them to deal with.
Then again, they’d likely figure things out later when they find me commuting home by myself. Stage Two of the Plan had been successfully executed, and after this morning Stage Three had been officially launched.
“Gee, you can almost see the gears turning in his head,” Allan commented laughingly. “What’s up, little bro? Got something interesting to tell us?”
“I met her this morning. We went to school together,” I said casually even as my face heated up. No need to explain who “she” was. Two weeks ago, when I asked them for advice on how to court girls, you know, in the general sense, they instantly assumed that I was referring to one girl specifically. During the interrogation that followed, I was forced to confess that yes, there was a girl I was interested in, and that she lived in one of our apartments. I didn’t mention that she was seven years older than me, was a senior at this same university, and was working as a model. I figured the situation was difficult enough without going into the details.
My announcement was greeted by loud congratulations. “So you gave it to her, right?” Dennis asked, relieved to have Yna turn her attention to something else.
Yna nodded excitedly. “Oh right! You were going to give her a gift. How did it go?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I just sort of sneaked it into her bag. It’s just a dumb keychain, anyway. She probably hates it.”
“Good,” Vince grunted. “If you get her used to getting expensive stuff from you, she’ll expect it all the time. You’ll end up broke in two weeks, and girlfriendless in three.”
We stared at Vince, the youngest grumpy old man I’d ever met. “Dude, I don’t think you have to worry about spoiled girlfriends anytime soon. Or any kind of girlfriend, for that matter,” Allan murmured.
Thankfully, they soon dropped the subject of my love life in favor of electric field calculations, something I was more comfortable with. As we sat in class, I found my mind wandering back to the morning I’d spent with Ivy. She seemed happy to see me, almost as happy as I was to see her. All those afternoons spent helping her and her friends move into their apartment had gotten me used to spending time with her. Even though I’d deliberately avoided her for the past couple of weeks while I came up with the Plan, it hadn’t been easy. It was only when I saw her again that the strange, maddening feeling that I was going around with a part of me missing finally eased off. It kind of scared me how much I missed her.
It’s not the same, seeing her face on billboards and in the newspapers. That wasn’t Ivy I saw in those ads; that was the Shoujo Shine image model. Ivy was the girl who sat beside me on the library steps, who laughed and teased and kidded around with me, who looked at me with that bright gleam in her eyes. Her eyes have tiny gold flecks in them. I dreamed of counting those flecks. Then another image drifted in my head: Ivy sinking into her chair with her eyes closed, tilting her head back, parting her lips as she exhaled…
My head snapped up at the sound of my name. The professor was standing in front of the whiteboard on which he’d written a complex equation, and was waiting for me to supply the answer. The problem was, I hadn’t heard a thing he said in the last ten minutes. I stared at the whiteboard in an agony of shock and humiliation until my brain started working again and tossed up a likely answer.
“Very good, but I suggest you pay attention next time. There is very little room in this class for guesswork, no matter how lucky,” the professor said dryly before turning to write the answer on the board. I ignored the strange looks from Yna, Dennis and Vince, shaken by my near miss. I couldn’t ignore Allan’s knowing snort, though. I shot him a sideways glare, trying to pretend that I wasn’t blushing ten shades of red.
Fortunately, the rest of the period passed with no further mishaps. I got home a quarter before six, and found Reese sitting at the dining table with her homework spread out before her and a pair of earphones in her ears. The air was muggy and smelled of whatever it was Nay Loring was cooking for dinner. Out of habit, I headed to the back door, absently pushing Trinity down, and looked out toward the upper-floor apartment. The lights were on, and I could see a couple of figures lounging around on the balcony. I opened the door a little wider.
“She’s not home yet. That’s just Kuya Erwin, Ate Sharm and a couple of their friends,” Reese announced behind me.
I shut the door with a bang, and gave her an innocent look. “What’re you talking about?”
My sister rolled her eyes. “You are sooo obvious, Kuya,” was all she said.
As I passed the dining table to head to my room, I noticed a magazine peeking out from underneath one of her books. “Since when does a tomboy like you read Go Girl?”
“It’s not mine. I borrowed it from Lily.”
I smirked. “That figures. Just yesterday you were begging Mama to buy you new trainers. Again.”
“That’s because I use them,” Reese said wearily. “Fat lot you would know about sports. All you do is lift books and go biking on weekends.”
Ignoring her jab, I flipped through the pages of the teen magazine, scanning the titles with amusement. “What the heck is this? ‘Crush? Puppy love? The Real Thing? How to tell which is which.’ Jeez, who reads this…junk…”
I trailed off when I turned the page and saw what was on the other side. The glossy, full-color ad was a new one. It showed a street in front of a school. In the foreground was Ivy, perched on top of a concrete fence, kicking her legs out idly, one hand raised to brush back wind-tossed locks of coppery hair. She was wearing an outfit that resembled a school uniform, except I didn’t know of any school uniform that consisted of a blue pleated skirt that rode up to mid-thigh, a sailor-style blouse that exposed an alluring strip of her midriff, chunky shoes and knee-high socks. Her head was turned toward the camera, and her dimpled smile was an impossible mixture of sweet innocence and sly mischief. In the background, several well-dressed kids were lounging around, their gazes locked on her. At the bottom of the page was Shoujo Shine’s logo and the words “Simply shine” in elegant, serif font.
This time, it was Reese who smirked. “That’s Lily’s magazine, Kuya. Don’t drool all over it. Better yet, why don’t you go and buy your own copy?”
“Like I care.” I tossed the magazine down on the table and headed toward the stairs.
“You’re not only pathetically obvious, you’re a lousy liar too, didja know that?” Reese yelled after me.
I shot her a glare over my shoulder. “Shut up, gorilla.”
“Miguel, don’t talk to your sister that way.” Mamsa said sternly when I nearly bumped into her going up the stairs. “And you’re late. I told you to text me when—”
“Ma, it’s just six. Our agreement was six-thirty,” I reminded her.
She gave me a frigid look. “Six-thirty is too late. Your class ended at five. What have you been doing between then and now?”
“I was at the library. And it takes twenty minutes to commute home from UP.”
While the fact that I’d been at the library diffused her indignation somewhat, Mama still didn’t look completely mollified. “That’s ten minutes taken out of your study time. You’re not in grade school anymore, Miguel. You’re in college now, an achievement your peers can only dream of. You can’t afford to slack off, not if you want to maintain your university scholar status this semester.”
“I know, Ma. You want me to show you my homework for Math 54 so you can check it?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young man. I expect you to come home earlier next time.”
I sighed, deciding that flight was better than fight. “Yes, Ma. Please excuse me. I have a term paper to work on.”
She nodded and let me pass. As I closed the door to my room, I could hear her ordering Reese to take those earphones off and finish her homework. I set my backpack down, turned my computer on then glanced at the picture frame on my shelf. Papa stared back, waiting to see if I would do the right thing. I wondered what he was so worried about.
I finished the draft for my paper, then went downstairs and made a show of eating dinner. Then I went back upstairs and stared out my window, which faced the street. A glance at my alarm clock informed me that it was past nine. Still no sign of Ivy.
I went to the bathroom, showered and brushed my teeth in record time. Then I pulled out a book, but gave up after reading the same paragraph over and over without its meaning making the slightest dent. With a groan, I went back to standing guard at the window, then straightened when I saw a sleek, black car pull up in front of the gate. The door of the passenger side opened and a familiar pair of denim-clad legs swung out, but before the rest of her could step out, the door of the driver’s side opened, and a tall, extremely good-looking guy appeared. I froze, something bitter and unpleasant rising up my throat. The guy said something I couldn’t hear, and Ivy obligingly closed her door again. He jogged over to her side and opened the door for her, sweeping into a courtly bow when she emerged. She stepped out as regally as a queen, looked down her nose at the guy and waved her hand imperiously. Then they both dropped their playacting and laughed. I could hear the sound of her mirth through the glass pane, like crystal wings fluttering.
Still laughing, she waved goodbye, and turned to open the gate. The guy leaned against his car and watched her, lingering a moment longer to stare at the spot where she’d disappeared, before getting into his car and driving off.
I went to lie down on my bed. She was safe at home. Something tight unwound inside me, but as I lay there, a cold fog seemed to wrap around me. She hadn’t glanced up at my window the way she usually did. She’d been too busy fooling around with that guy.
He was handsome, suave, confident. He had a car. And he was just the right age for her.
I turned off the light and curled up in the dark, trying to get warm.
The next morning, I hurried through breakfast, trying to get out of there before she did. Not that I didn’t want to see her—ever since I’d met her, there was never a time when I didn’t want to see her—but the memory of her with that guy was still too fresh, chasing me into my dreams. I felt as if I’d been scraped raw. Being with her now would just be too uncomfortable.
No such luck. She was pretty much the first thing I saw as I stepped out the door. She was walking beside Erwin and Sharm, and as our eyes met, I felt that familiar electric shock, just before she dropped her gaze. Before I could dwell on the hurt of her withdrawal, her friends caught sight of me and greeted me warmly.
“Hey, it’s our landlord.” Erwin grinned at me as they waited for me to join them outside. “It’s so unfair that we don’t get to see you while other people do. We’ve had to rely on other people to tell us how you’ve been doing. You haven’t forgotten about us, have you?” He pretended to pout at me while Sharm tittered behind her hand.
I looked at him strangely, wondering why he was stretching out the words “other people” like that. Ivy, on the other hand, looked murderous. “You two are full of shit,” she snarled at her friends, her face perfectly matching the pink of her T-shirt.
Erwin and Sharm exchanged glances, then laughed uproariously. “Watch your language, brat,” Erwin admonished lightly. “Wholesome family fun, remember?”
Ivy muttered something that was the polar opposite of wholesome underneath her breath. I glanced at her, appalled, but she kept her eyes focused straight ahead. “Ignore them,” she told me through clenched teeth. “They’re not normally so hyper. It’s this new coffee blend Sharm’s friend gave her. They’re tripping on it.”
“And Ivy’s grumpy because she didn’t get much sleep last night,” Sharm tossed over her shoulder. “She was too busy working on some top-secret project. Just remember you’ve got a shoot on Saturday, okay?” she addressed Ivy seriously.
For a moment, Ivy looked mulish, then she sighed. “I know, I know.”
We walked toward the tricycle stop, her friends taking up the burden of the conversation. Then the peace was broken again when Sharm and Erwin decided to hijack the first tricycle that showed up, leaving us to wait for the next one. Ivy’s outraged screech startled several birds out of a nearby tree.
We stood on the curb as an awkward silence expanded between us. Finally, Ivy sighed. “Sorry about that. Sharm’s right. I do get cranky when I don’t get enough sleep.”
I shrugged noncommittally, pushing my glasses up. Noticing the look on my face, Ivy’s eyes filled with concern, but a tricycle rumbled to a stop in front of us, and no other words passed between us for the rest of the trip, except for a casual “see you” when we separated. I spent the day feeling as though my stomach had turned into a slab of lead. She hadn’t mentioned the keychain. Her bag was less lumpy than it had been yesterday, so she must have seen it. I was right; she hated it. Bet that guy with the car wouldn’t have given her a lousy keychain as his first gift to her, a voice whispered snidely in my head.
The next day, I woke up with a head that felt way too big for my neck. I’d woken up later than usual, thanks to a night spent composing text messages, and not sending a single one. After a cold shower and a sugar-loaded chocolate drink laced with a bit of instant coffee, I was feeling half-way human again, and fully resolved to simply ask her if she’d gotten the key-chain. Ten minutes later, she still hadn’t come out. Another ten minutes, I swore out loud, knowing I’d have to leave now or be marked absent from my class.
I’d just closed the gate behind me when I heard footsteps and a stream of curses more potent than the one I’d used. Ivy burst out of the other gate, then went still when she spotted me. “Migs? Don’t you have a class at nine? Why’re you still here?”
I opened my mouth, then shut it again when I realized that the words rushing forth had more to do with how glad I was to see her and less with how it was her fault I was late. Before I could say a word, she shook her head and grabbed my arm. “Forget it, you can tell me later. We’ve got to move.”
We ran toward the tricycle stop, then wasted precious minutes waiting for a tricycle to appear. I checked my watch, and winced. “We’re not going to make it.”
“Oh yes, we are,” she said fiercely, just before she stepped forward and hailed a passing taxi. It swerved to a stop, and she grabbed my arm again and began pulling me toward it.
I blanched, suddenly aware of how little money I had on me. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Don’t worry, I’m loaded. Now quit stalling and move.”
Oh well, desperate times. With a philosophical shrug, I piled into the taxi after her, surreptitiously breathing in her clean, strawberry scent while I was at it. I sat beside her, close enough to feel the silk of her hair against my arm, and noted with a thrill that she didn’t move away from me. Then I recalled her lighthearted banter with the car-guy. She hadn’t moved away from him, either. Weighted down by that thought, I felt myself sinking back into the cold fog that had kept me company for the past two days.
My dismal musings halted when she laid a hand upon mine. “Hey,” she said softly, shifting to look me full in the face. “What’s wrong, Migs?”
She made a skeptical sound and, to my disappointment, drew her hand away. “Right. And you’re sitting there looking like a impending storm signal because you’re a naturally cheerful and upbeat person. Come on, spill.”
I stared down at my bereft hand. “Who was he?” I heard myself ask, and groaned inwardly. That was not what I’d planned to ask her.
She blinked. “Who was who?”
“That guy the other night. The one who brought you home.”
Her brows drew together in confusion, but the next moment her face cleared and she giggled. Seeing nothing funny about the situation, I scowled at her until she swallowed her laughter. “So I did see you looking out your window that night. Pfft, serves you right for spying on me,” she answered, arching her eyebrow. “Anyway, that was Von. He’s a talent at DM Ross, like me. I bumped into him and some of our friends after our meeting, and we went out for a drink. He offered to drive me home that night since it was on his way home.”
I nodded gloomily. Figured the guy would be a model, too.
“Migs, look at me.”
My head turned, obeying Ivy’s gentle command, and I found myself caught in her warm golden gaze. “Von’s a friend, nothing more. I mean, I like him, but not that way. And I doubt I’m his type either, considering what his ex-girlfriends all look like.”
Relief coursed through me like a shot of pure oxygen. She didn’t like him. She wasn’t interested in this guy. She had the wrong idea about him, though. She hadn’t seen the look on his face as he watched her, but I had. I’d recognized that look all too easily.
“God knows why I’m telling you this,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Listen, if and when I do get a boyfriend, I promise you’ll be the first one to know. After all,” she added with a flash of humor, “if I’m going to hold another ritual, I’d rather not go through the whole back story with you all over again. Okay?”
She smiled as she waited for me to agree. Just the thought of Ivy with a boyfriend who wasn’t me made me want to smash something, but I was never one to back down from a challenge. Even one the challenger wasn’t aware she’d made. “Okay,” I said.
She flashed a grin. “Good. Now get out.”
I stared at her like an idiot.
She shoved at me, laughing. “Go! We’re right in front of your building. You’ve got a lab class you can’t afford to miss, so start running.”
I halted half-way out of the taxi. “Wait a minute, how’d you know—”
“Go!” She yanked the door closed, forcing me to jump back to avoid getting my fingers flattened. Still laughing, she made shooing motions and mouthed “Go! Go! Go!”
For much of the day, I debated with myself whether or not to ask my friends for advice on how to handle the car-guy. Before I knew it, we were in our last class and I hadn’t spoken a word about it. I stared out the window, mulling over the idea of broaching Yna or Allan about this hypothetical situation where the girl you’re interested in has hundreds—no, too close to the truth—a couple other guys after her, and you have no idea how to deal with the dark, awful feelings twisting you up inside. I hadn’t even finished the thought, and I already knew I wouldn’t be telling anyone anytime soon.
I sighed. Sometimes, it sucked to be inexperienced, antisocial, and thirteen years old.
“Miguel? Class is over. Hello?”
Yna waved a hand in front of me, making me blink. “Huh?”
“Class is over,” she repeated. “The problems in Chapters 7 and 8 are up for Tuesday.”
I rubbed my eyes underneath my glasses then bent to pick up my stuff. “Uh, yeah, did them already. Where’s everyone?” She and I were nearly the only ones left in the room.
“The guys are waiting for us outside. They’re talking about checking out the featured movie at the Film Center. You want to come?”
“Can’t, sorry,” I muttered. “I have to look some stuff up at the library.”
“Oh, okay,” Yna said. “If you finish early, you can—”
Yna and I glanced over at Vince, who was looming in the doorway. He looked a bit dazed, which seemed odd considering that this was Vince. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Somebody here’s looking for you.”
“Who is it?”
A what? I thought, weirded out by Vince’s almost reverential tone. Stepping around him into the corridor, the first thing I noticed was the unusual number of males, Allan and Dennis included, loitering around and trying to look casual. Then the crowd parted, and I saw the petite, golden-eyed, copper-haired angel who was evidently the reason for the bizarre gathering. She was leaning against the railing, gazing out at the front lawn of the Engineering building, oblivious to the rapt stares from the guys around her. Absently, she raised a hand and pulled her ponytail over one shoulder. A dozen pairs of eyes followed the movement as though hypnotized.
Irritation swept through me. I stalked over to her with the half-formed idea of dragging her away from there. Then she turned and looked straight at me, a brilliant smile lighting up her face. I almost felt the breeze from the crowd’s collective sigh, but I’d lost the ability to be annoyed by it. That smile of hers is nuclear.
“Hi, Migs,” she called cheerfully. “Thank God, I was afraid I wouldn’t catch you. You know, this is the first time I’ve set foot inside the Engineering building. It’s cool.”
She glanced around as if to take in the sights, unmindful of the gazes tracking her every move. Too bad I couldn’t say the same, but you know all those envious, disbelieving stares in my direction? I found I could get used to them really quickly.
“What are you doing here? And how did you know where my last class was?” I asked.
Grinning, she fished around in her bag then waved a slip of paper underneath my nose. “Here. I’m done with it, thanks. Not that you missed it or anything.”
I grabbed the slip, recognizing it instantly. “My Form-5? You stole my Form-5?”
”I didn’t steal it,” she protested with a pout. “I just, ah, borrowed it for a while. I returned it, didn’t I? It’s not stealing if I return it.”
I looked at her until she dropped her gaze.
“The other day,” she muttered, answering my unspoken question. “When you went to get me coffee. I found it in the inside pocket of your binder.” She peeked up at me. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”
Mad at her? When she was looking so apologetic and uncertain and utterly adorable? I shook my head, and her answering smile made me perfectly willing to be the victim of her petty thievery any time she wanted.
One minute, it was just Ivy and me in our own little world. The next minute, I was nearly shoved to the floor when my friends pressed close, eyeing Ivy with undisguised curiosity. “Hello. Are you Miguel’s friend?” Yna asked brightly.
“Yeah. I’m Ivy,” she answered with a smile. “Migs is actually my landlord, so I figured I ought to be friends with the guy who has the power to turn me homeless. You must be Yna. Migs told me you were the high school valedictorian. I thought it made sense that his friends would be as smart as he is.”
Yna appeared delighted by this, although I could tell she was far more delighted at the chance to finally meet the girl of my dreams. From the looks on their faces, there was no doubt in my friends’ minds who Ivy was. “Yeah, Migs mentioned you too, but he didn’t tell us how pretty you are,” Yna said, putting a telling stress on the nickname and giving me a sidelong glare that promised more words on the subject.
“Thanks. Knowing Migs, it probably wasn’t important.” Ivy winked at me before turning toward the guys. “Hi there. You guys are?”
“Vince,” came the rumble from above.
“I’m Dennis.” Dennis stuck out his hand to shake Ivy’s.
He was knocked aside by Allan, who grabbed her outstretched hand and raised it to his lips. “I’m available,” he said in a husky voice. “Just say the word, babe.”
My fists clenched but Ivy was quicker to react, obviously used to amorous advances from total strangers. “Really?” she cooed. “Well, I’m underage. And I’ve got the Child Abuse hotline on my phone.” She pulled her phone out and waved it meaningfully. “Just say the word, babe,” she said in a throaty purr to match Allan’s.
The urge to hit Allan was replaced by an urge to laugh. Dennis actually snickered. Allan though turned white and dropped Ivy’s hand as if it was on fire, and was rewarded with a slap on the back of the head courtesy of Vince.
We walked together for a while, with Ivy and my friends chatting about the latest movie. Ivy and Yna hit it off, just as I thought they would, but Ivy was just as comfortable with the guys as well. Allan kept a wary distance at first, but as if to make up for their awkward introduction, Ivy went out of her way to get him to relax around her, cracking jokes and making him laugh. By the time we came to the corner where our paths diverged, the two were kidding around like old friends. But as fun as it was watching Ivy work her charm on my friends, I was also eager to have her all to myself again.
“It was really nice meeting you, Ivy,” Yna said. “I hope we can talk again soon. Maybe we could visit you at your school or something.”
“What for?” Ivy replied breezily. “The campus isn’t that big. We’ll probably bump into each other one of these days. Oh by the way, if you guys ever need someone to secure ringside seats for you at the Oblation Run, just text me. I know someone from APO who owes me a couple of favors,” she added with a grin.
Shock and confusion flickered across Yna’s face at Ivy’s casual reference to the annual ritual of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, where a bunch of frat men wearing nothing but shirts wrapped around their heads would streak around the campus, with hordes of screaming people as witnesses. I winced. It wasn’t something a real sixth-grader would know about. “We have to go,” I mumbled, tugging on her arm.
“Right with you, Migs. It’s been great meeting you all,” Ivy called.
“Hey, wait, I gotta know something.” Ivy halted at Allan’s hesitant request. “Would you really have sicced the cops on me, you know, back there? I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Ivy burst out laughing. “Are you kidding? And get myself arrested for molesting minors?” she chortled. “Truthfully, no. I just love messing with people. Sorry.”
I really had to get her out of there. “Yeah, you know, Ivy’s a real criminal type. Uh, see you, guys.” I marched her ahead of me, feeling Yna’s accusing stare burn a hole in the back of my head.
We strolled toward the library, with Ivy trailing cigarette smoke behind her. I watched her from the corner of my eye, then blushed and looked away when she caught me staring at her. “I can’t believe you want to do this,” I muttered.
“What? Hang out with you at the library? What’s so unbelievable about that?”
“Oh relax, will you?” she said, slapping me on the arm. “Just do whatever you need to do. I’ll be fine. Ah-ah!” She wagged a finger warningly. “If you don’t stop telling me how bored I’ll be in there, I’m going to punch your face in. I mean it. You’re starting to be insulting, you know.”
I snorted. “Yeah, right. You’re really threatening, you know that?”
She blew out a stream of smoke and smiled evilly. “I’m the Shoujo Shine Girl, Migs. And you’ve obviously never seen one of our promo tours.”
Turned out I was the one who cracked first. She sat beside me peacefully reading a literary anthology, and I found that my powers of concentration had deserted me again.
After a while, I gave up and closed my book. Ivy looked up at me in surprise. “You’re done already?”
I considered it for a total of three seconds. It was, for once, a golden afternoon after a week of gray, drizzly days, I was with the girl I liked, and my curfew was looming over the horizon. Only a complete moron would waste that time cooped up in a library.
I pushed my glasses up and smiled at her. “You want to go get a Coke?”
We soon found ourselves sitting on the grassy slope overlooking the vast, green field of the Sunken Garden. I watched the football players running around the field, every inch of me aware of the girl beside me. I was struck again by how right it felt to be with her. How comforting and deeply familiar her presence felt. I couldn’t explain it then and I can’t explain it now, but I’ve never questioned it. Being with her made me happy, and that was that.
Still, the memory of that guy with the car kept intruding, like a kind of mental toothache, a painful reminder of the gap between us. I knew Ivy liked me. She felt comfortable around me, and she treated me with a playful kind of affection. But it was the sort of affection you’d feel toward a favorite cousin or the kid next door. Somebody amusing and somewhat flattering to have around, but ultimately harmless. Somehow, I had to get past that, but my chances of success seemed nil. Ivy could have her pick of models and celebrities. What chance did a nerdy kid like me have?
“You’re brooding again.” She bent over to peer into my face.
Sighing, she stood up, took my now empty can and went to toss them in a nearby trashcan. When she came back, she surprised me by kneeling in front of me right between my feet and looking me full in the face. “Migs, this is me, remember?” she said quietly. “It’s okay. You don’t have to keep it all to yourself.”
I stared into her eyes as thoughts made tracks across my mind. You’re beautiful. Thanks for being here. Give me the chance to make you see me the way I see you. Instead, what came out was something totally unexpected.
“I don’t know what I am,” I whispered, and for a moment I didn’t recognize my own voice.
She nodded, and to my shock, the words came pouring out of my mouth, as if she’d flung open a door I hadn’t even known existed. I told her about the week I’d spent arguing with Mama over my going to school on my own. I told her how much I felt like the world’s biggest loser, needing to be ferried around the campus by his mommy like a dumb kindergartner—except I knew that my old classmates at St. Helene would consider it normal to have their parents drive them to school, walk them through registration, and speak to their professors about their grades. I told her about how Mama kept nagging me about my school work, as if I’d ever given her reason to question my abilities in that area—except I knew she was right. My classes were a hell of a lot tougher now, and I was going to have to work at it. Me, the kid who used to cruise through school on a combination of boredom, complacency and a few extra smarts. It was why I chose to be in this university in the first place. Here, I was surrounded by classmates who knew what I knew and could do what I could do, and teachers who were more likely to flunk me than coddle me. It was why I loved being a college student after all.
Except sometimes I didn’t feel like a college student. Sometimes I felt as if I were as much an outsider as I’d been in St. Helene. Worse, I felt like a fraud. I told Ivy about my freshman year and my inability to fit in. At best, I was the clueless kid who’d blundered into the world of cool, sophisticated grownups. At worst, I was the freak who acted as if he was better than everyone else. It hadn’t been all praises and adulation, being considered a child prodigy. The Inquirer article never mentioned the snickers, the cold shoulders, the names they’d called me whenever they saw Mama stalking through the halls in search of me. If it hadn’t for Yna and the guys, I had no doubt I’d still be as alone as ever.
By the time I had finished, the sky had gone from turquoise to red orange. My throat felt slightly raw, but I didn’t care. I was caught up in a wonderful sensation of emptiness. As if something hard and knotted inside me had come undone. I became aware that Ivy was watching me and quickly looked away, pushing my glasses up my nose to hide my embarrassment. I couldn’t believe I had it in me to talk so much.
“It’s tough being of two different worlds, huh?” she murmured beside me, drawing her knees up and staring at the sky. “People expect different things from you. You’re trying to figure out who you are, and you keep getting all these conflicting ideas. It must be even worse for you, given who you are: a kid who belongs in a university, and a college student who should have been starting high school. I mean, who wouldn’t be confused?”
She raised her hand idly as though to smear colors of the sky with her palm. I turned my own gaze upward, feeling content. “Hey, Migs,” she said after a while.
“Who do you think should be telling you who you are?”
I gave her a look.
“What? It’s a valid question,” she protested with a laugh. “Should it be your mom? Your professors? Your GPA? God knows, those nasty classmates of yours certainly took a shot at it. It’s you who decides what defines you. Whether you let other people do it for you is up to you.” She reached over and threaded her fingers through my hair, lightly rubbing my scalp and making a delicious shiver go through me. She grinned when I glared halfheartedly at her. “Mind you, there’s no right or wrong answer to that question,” she continued. “I don’t think there are right or wrong choices, anyway. Only what works and what doesn’t.”
I frowned. “That’s not right. There’s always a right choice and a wrong choice. People shouldn’t make the wrong choices because they’re, well, wrong.”
“Is that what you believe?”
“No, it’s what is,” I said with exaggerated patience. “It’s common sense.”
She tilted her head agreeably. “Fine, if that’s what works for you. Still, you’re an intelligent person, and there’ll be some difficult questions you’ll need to answer. Just remember, it’s perfectly okay to change your mind.”
“What exactly are you talking about?”
She gave me a long look, then smiled and shook her head. “Hell if I know. Dispensing wisdom is Sharm’s specialty, not mine.” She dug out a cigarette and lit it. “I can tell you this, though: If you’re ever feeling bad about stuff, come to me. We’ll deal with it together. Don’t know how, but we’ll figure it out.”
We’ll deal with it together. I nearly floated right off the ground. She gave me one last, wry look and got to her feet. As she did so, the hem of her T-shirt lifted and I caught a glimpse of a red object hooked into the belt loop of her jeans, with the rest of it disappearing into her pocket. Elation shot through me, dispelling the rest of my misery.
She’d found the keychain after all.
How about that? I thought. Not even a word of thanks. Not that I cared whether or not she thanked me. I was just so glad she liked the keychain enough to use it.
Then I realized with a start how dark it had become. The sun had well and truly set and I hadn’t noticed until then. I checked my watch and groaned. “Great, it’s almost 6:30. I’m dead.”
“You’ve got a curfew?” Ivy asked. I searched her face for any trace of mockery but found none. When I nodded, she flashed me a grin. “Leave it to me.”
Soon, we were once again sitting inside a taxi. I cringed at the thought of how much the taxi fare was going to cost, although she’d insisted again that she’d pay for it. I was considering telling her I’d pay her back tomorrow when she suddenly turned to me.
“Hey, I want to show you something.”
She unclasped the key-chain from her belt loop and held it up. She’d already hung several keys and a small cat figurine along with the flashlight and the ID card. “Look at this. Some guy sneaked this inside my bag, can you believe it? But that’s okay. I decided to forgive him because I love his gift. Do you know this flashlight is so bright it could blind people? But that’s not the best part. Look! Isn’t this the most beautiful work of art you’ve ever seen?” She turned the ID card over to show me the little portrait I’d made of her.
I struggled to maintain a neutral expression. “S-so, uh, do you know who gave it to you?”
“Oh, just some guy,” she said carelessly.
“Just some guy?” I croaked.
“Uhuh. He’s very practical, you know, but also very sweet. Just like his gift. In fact,” she added with an impish grin, “I bet he’s waiting for me to thank him with a kiss right now.”
My face burst into flame. “I’m not—you don’t—I wasn’t—” I spluttered in a hopeless attempt to cover my very real guilt.
She started laughing and didn’t stop until the taxi disgorged us in front of our gates. She convinced me to come in with her and go home via the gate in the fence, then tell Mama that I’d arrived home earlier and had just dropped by at her apartment for a while. It was a good plan, although the thought of lying made me uncomfortable.
“Migs, wait,” she called just as I was beating a hasty retreat through the gate. When I turned to her, she chewed on her lip and looked down on the ground. I waited for her to compose her thoughts. After a while, she sighed, then reached into her bag and pulled out a small, colorful paper bag. “Here,” she said as she held it out to me.
Puzzled, I took it and carefully tore it open. Inside was a stoppered test tube, the kind that could be purchased from a laboratory equipment shop at the Shopping Center. The bottom of the test tube contained a nest of gold and silver glitter, in which nestled two tiny, delicate-looking objects that gleamed even in the dim light. I held the test tube up to the light, and realized that the objects within were a pair of paper cranes, each one no bigger than my fingertip. One was made of shiny silver foil, the other gold.
My stunned gaze shifted from the cranes to her anxious face. “It’s, ah, it’s my thank-you kiss to you. For the keychain and the drawing,” she explained. “It’s not a thimble but you get the idea. Er, Peter Pan, remember?” she said weakly at my confused look.
“They’re beautiful,” I murmured, lifting the cranes up to the light for a closer look.
She smiled a little less uncertainly. “Paper cranes symbolize peace, healing and long life. I used to make a lot of them when I was a kid. I loved giving them away, because the cranes were so pretty and they made people smile. Then one day, I…stopped,” she said, her eyes clouding over. Then she shrugged. “Those two are the first paper cranes I made in over ten years. Sorry if they look a little lopsided. I’ve gotten rusty, and I had to practice on dozens before I could make those two. I know as a gift they’re totally useless, not to mention unbearably girly, but I couldn’t think of anything else to gi—”
Before I realized what I was doing, I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, near the corner of her mouth. Her skin was soft against my lips, and I could feel her growing warm beneath me. And it wasn’t some quick, platonic peck either, not with a huge wave of emotions powering me. She stiffened in shock, her nervous babbling dying away like a radio with the plug yanked out of its socket. I drew back slowly, savoring that brief moment of peace before she slapped my face and stormed away. Fortunately, I seemed to have succeeded in stunning her into immobility. All she did was stare at me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, her blush visible in the weak light.
I wasn’t doing any better myself. My heart was pounding so hard I wondered if it was possible to die of cardiac arrest at thirteen. I can’t believe you did that! That wasn’t part of the plan! a voice ranted inside my head. I racked my brain for something to say, something charming, witty and gracious, something that would tell her how much her gift meant to me. Instead, what I heard myself say, in a voice that sounded hoarse even to me, was: “That’s a thank-you kiss. Get it straight.”
“Okay,” she squeaked.
Aaargh! the voice howled. Say something else, you idiot! Don’t just leave it at that! I swallowed and closed my fist carefully around the glass tube. Although I had absolutely no idea what to say at this point, I took a deep breath anyway.
“Miguel? You’re late.” Mama’s voice sliced through the moment like a laser. I didn’t know whether to be pissed about that or grateful. “Where have you been? And what are you doing out here?”
We both turned toward the back door where Mama was standing, with Reese peeking interestedly around her. I forced my brain to start functioning again and churn up some kind of explanation, but Ivy beat me to it.
“He was…with me, Ma’am,” she said, her voice sounding less and less shaky with every word. “We came home together, had a snack at the corner store and kind of lost track of the time. It was my fault. I’m sorry.”
I shot her an incredulous look. If that cover story had been any flimsier, spiders would have made their homes in it. Mama lifted her eyebrows, clearly skeptical, but before she could say anything Reese suddenly piped up: “Kuya, didn’t I tell you Mama was looking for you when she sent me to the corner store to buy noodles? I knew you weren’t listening to me.”
She crossed her arms and tsked at me while Ivy tensed beside me. Mama questioned us a little more, but Reese’s unexpected corroboration of Ivy’s lie seemed to have satisfied her. Thinking half-resentfully that scenes like this never happened in the movies, I glanced apologetically at Ivy, who smiled wanly.
“Go on,” she told me. “I’ll see you.”
Over dinner, Mama had more to say on the subject of responsibility and sticking to an agreed curfew. I managed to mutter my thanks to my sister the minute Mama’s back was turned. Reese flatly informed me that I owed her, but for once I didn’t mind having to tutor her in Math or fork over half my allowance so she could buy a new T-shirt. With my cranes tucked safely in my pocket and the memory of the kiss I gave Ivy fresh in my mind, I could have happily listened to several hours’ worth of Mama’s lectures. That night I fell asleep with the glass tube containing my cranes held loosely in my hand.
I didn’t get to see her the next day. I woke up at around five in the morning to the sound of a gate being carefully pulled shut. Peering out the window, I caught sight of a familiar-looking head disappearing into a taxi and remembered that she had a shoot scheduled that day. Maybe my being half-asleep had something to do with it, but some kind of weird impulse had me reaching for my phone and texting her a message: so u CAN wake up b4 8 aftr all. who knew?
Her reply was prompt. who d hell r u?
I grinned, waking up a bit more. I’d forgotten I hadn’t given her my number. guess, I sent back, wanting to see if she would figure it out.
This time, it took a little longer for her to reply. migs?
yup. u got me n trouble last nyt.
OMG, i’m so so SORRY didn’t mean to, sorry sorry sorry.
I could clearly picture her wringing her hands and looking contrite. Laughing a little, I glanced at the cranes lying beside my pillow. nah, was worth it. u take care.
I had nearly fallen asleep again when my phone beeped. u 2, migs 🙂
She didn’t come home until well past eleven, and so missed seeing the new tenants of the lower-floor apartment—a young couple with a baby, a stay-in housemaid and a silver Toyota—move in. I didn’t see her the next day either. Sharm told me that Ivy was exhausted after the shoot and was spending the day sleeping in. I was glad she was making herself scarce, because Alvin and Leo chose that afternoon to drop by my house much earlier than expected instead of waiting at the street corner where we usually met whenever we went biking together. I stood at the gate blinking at Alvin, who was wearing a stupid grin, and Leo, who was staring off into space as usual.
“Hey, Santillan. Is this a bad time?” Alvin asked brightly. When I shook my head, his grin widened. “So, are you letting us in or what?”
I stepped aside to let them wheel their bikes in. Reese poked her head out the door to see who was at the gate, took one look at Alvin, turned bright red, then fled to her room and wasn’t seen again until dinnertime. I rolled my eyes. Talk about being obvious. Lucky for her, Alvin was as perceptive as a cinderblock, despite his being a self-proclaimed connoisseur of women. Lucky for me, too, because just imagining Alvin and my sister together made my scalp want to crawl off my head.
“Hmm, nobody else seems to be here,” he muttered as I led them into the house. “No cousins or relatives coming around here this afternoon?”
I gave him a strange look. “Why do you want to know?”
He blinked innocently. “Oh, nothing. Just wondering how your family’s doing. You’ve got a pretty large family, don’t you? Lots of cousins and all that?”
I stared at him, then turned to Leo for help. “He wants to see that girl Lala said she saw you with,” he explained.
“Hey!” Alvin yelped.
“What girl?” I asked, although I had a feeling I knew the girl they were referring to. I distinctly remembered seeing Lala pass by our place a couple of times in the past, and once she’d actually seen us walking home together from the corner store. I thought about Lala’s frequent phone calls to relay the latest gossip about my old classmates, none of which I was interested in, and invite me to various St. Helene school activities, none of which I ever went to. I suspected she felt sorry for me for being deprived of a high school experience, and was making it up to me in her own, dogged way. Apparently, being class president included shepherding the lost sheep of St. Helene.
“The one Lala said she’s seen hanging around at your place,” Leo continued, ignoring Alvin’s frantic arm-waving to signal him to shut up. “She said you were acting pretty chummy with that girl, so she thought she must be a cousin of yours.”
Alvin crossed his arms. “Great, Paras, just great. You just blew our cover, you dumbass.”
Trying not to laugh at the idea of Ivy and me being related, I informed them that no relatives of mine were coming that day, relishing the look of disappointment on Alvin’s face. No way was I giving him any information about Ivy. She was mine.
In the end, I managed to get Alvin to back off on his mission to investigate this mystery-girl by agreeing to help them out with their Math homework. And you wonder why I went into teaching as a profession. I’ve had a wealth of experience, believe me.
I was more than a little nervous about seeing Ivy again the next day. Still, I was determined to salvage things and get the Plan back on track. When she appeared along with her friends, I nearly lost my nerve, but to my surprise she greeted me as cheerfully as ever, teasing me about helping out the new tenants like a proper landlord should. She acted as if nothing happened. As if she hadn’t given me the best gift ever. As if I hadn’t kissed her in return. While I was relieved to be able to fall back into our normal, comfortable routine, I was disappointed, too.
But why should the kiss mean as much to her as it did to you? I argued with myself. It’s not like she feels the same way you do.
That afternoon, it was my turn to surprise her by waiting for her outside her classroom. When she asked me how I knew where to find her, I told her I’d hacked into the Registrar’s records and got hold of her class schedule, along with a copy of her grades all the way back since high school. The look of horror on her face made my day, although my shoulder ached for hours from the clout she’d given me. At least I got back at her for stealing my Form-5.
What? No, I didn’t hack into the Registrar’s records. I asked Sharm for Ivy’s schedule, of course. Always rely on the simplest solutions. That’s one of my principles in life.
The next several weeks fell into that pattern. We’d go to school together, sometimes with Sharm and Erwin keeping company, sometimes just the two of us. We’d meet up again in the afternoons after class. Ivy and I would study in the library, then we’d buy Cokes and hang out in some cozy spot on the campus. Sometimes Yna and the guys would join us, sometimes Giselle and Ivy’s jerk of an ex-boyfriend would make an appearance, but more often than not we’d be left alone.
Except on Wednesdays. Wednesdays were Ivy’s designated Writing Days, when she often stayed home and worked on her undergrad thesis. Since I didn’t have classes on Wednesday mornings, it became my habit to stay at their place when Ivy was there, quietly studying at the lounge area on the balcony while she sat across me working on her stories. Her friends’ knowing smirks and Ivy’s flushed glares whenever I came over on Wednesdays confused the hell out of me until Erwin explained it to me much later. Sure, it was embarrassing, but what could I do? It was true, after all.
Weekends were erratic. Sometimes she’d be out on a shoot or on a promo tour and I wouldn’t get to see her until the next day or the day after. Sometimes she’d be out with her friends or I’d be hanging out with mine or attending some family reunion. But sometimes we’d both be home, and those times were always the best. We’d sit outside the corner store with bottles of Coke and a bag of chips and just talk, or hang around with Sharm, Erwin and Reese on the balcony. Sometimes I’d go with her to the supermarket or the Shopping Center or on whatever errand she needed to do. It was on one of those supermarket trips that Ivy and Lala met for the first time. I’ll get into that later.
We became pretty close over that period of time. There had already been that strange bond between us from the start, and spending time together only strengthened that bond. She was the one I was most comfortable with, the one I could talk to about anything that came to my mind. She was like this warm, fluffy blanket I wrapped around myself whenever I felt stressed out about my classes or annoyed with my mom or just plain confused. She didn’t even have to do anything. She could just be there, and it would be fine. And sometimes, when I was really pissed off about stuff, I wouldn’t even need to talk. She could read me like an open book, which was only fair, because I could read her too, just as easily. I could tell when she needed to be quiet or when she wanted to talk, when she wanted to play and have fun, or when she needed to cry and be vulnerable.
She was, simply put, the best friend I ever had. And yes, I was hers, too.
Was this part of my plan? Well, yes and no. You have to understand, I was thirteen and pretty stupid when it came to dealing with the opposite sex. So I fell back on what I knew. I did research, tackling the subject the way I would, say, organic chemistry or solid analytic geometry. For two weeks, I read books on courtship and surfed countless dating websites, asked my friends for advice, then hatched up an elaborate scheme to woo Ivy. I was going to make her see me as more than just a kid. That meant I had to stop being a kid and transform myself into this mature, confident specimen of masculinity who could win the heart of a beautiful, vibrant, twenty-year-old woman. Being best friends with her wasn’t part of the plan—I’d never had a best friend before, so it wasn’t as if I knew the mechanics of it. But in the long run, it did help me get closer to achieving my objectives, so there was that.
Yup, I know. It’s a ridiculous plan. Ivy laughed until she cried when I told her about it. Then she threw her arms around my neck, kissed me until I was seeing sparks, and told me that that very first thank-you kiss I’d given her had gotten me much closer to my goal than any half-assed plan I came up with.
As they say, hindsight’s twenty-twenty. Still, I can’t complain about how things turned out. So who knows? Maybe my Plan did work after all.