Haha, honestly? The words “emotional wringer” come to mind. That school break and the weeks that followed…not exactly me at my sanest. I still cringe every time I remember it.
It started out so well, too. My grandparents, here in Manila, standing right inside our apartment no less. I’d mentioned our apartment maybe once or twice during my visits home, but other than the usual questions regarding security and conduciveness to study, my grandparents never expressed anything more than a polite interest in our new living quarters. Then I wake up one day and find them on our doorstep. I admit my thought processes were a bit screwy at the time; late-night partying followed by late-morning panicking have that effect on me. Still, there was no way I could’ve foreseen how things turned out.
“Lolo, Lola, what are you doing here?” I stepped back from the family group hug and pressing the back of my grandmother’s hand, then my grandfather’s, to my forehead. Customary gesture of respect concluded, I planted both hands on my hips and scrunched up my face into a mock-frown. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? We might have missed you. We were just about to leave, you know.”
“Really, dear?” Lola glanced at our bedroom, where my travel bag lay as if it had tried to crawl to the bathroom to be violently ill but hadn’t quite made it. Then she turned and gave me a guileless smile. “My, we seem to have arrived just in time then. Would you like some help, er, unpacking?”
“Ah, thanks, but I can do it,” I mumbled, flushing with the embarrassment that always lurks close to the surface whenever my grandparents are around. Then I shook my head. “Never mind that. What you are guys doing here? Why didn’t you call or text me?”
“Surprise inspection, little firefly!” Lolo bellowed as he dropped into a chair and propped his feet up on another chair, the lord of whatever manor he happened to find himself in. “Wanted to see what kind of den you kids have made for yourselves, since you’ve been yakking our ears off about it. You ain’t got any liquor here, do you?”
A vision of the dozens of beer bottles shoved haphazardly beside the washing machine sashayed past the back of my eyeballs. “Ah, no, Lolo,” I replied, quite truthfully.
Lolo’s eyebrows bristled. “You sure about that? Because I’m smelling something in here, young lady, and it sure as hell ain’t the bracing, big city air.”
“Pretty sure,” I said, again most definitely not lying through my teeth, trying to act as if Sharm hadn’t just sidled up behind me and hissed, “Quick! Open the windows!”
“You really sure?” His eyebrows drooped with disappointment when I nodded over my shoulder. “Damn. What the hell kind of den are you kids running here? No liquor? Well, sunmabitch. Guess I’ll just have to go out and buy my own.”
As we flew about flinging windows open to get rid of the musty air, Sharm and I shared a look of helpless amusement, a companion to the embarrassment my grandparents tend to leave in their wake. Erwin had also heard Lolo’s remark; the clinking of the beer bottles he’d been hastily stuffing into a box stopped, and his face appeared in the doorway, looking disgruntled.
“Don’t mind him, dears,” Lola said from the depths of our refrigerator, which she was thoroughly investigating. “Your Lolo likes to pretend he’s still a teenage hotshot instead of a gouty retiree. Hmm, I do hope the bare state of your refrigerator means you children have finished up the food. I’d hate to open your cupboards and find nothing but instant noodles.”
Erwin’s head popped into view again, and he and I looked at Sharm. The kitchen was her domain, after all.
“Um, we cleaned out the refrigerator, Lola Rosa. We used up all the food so nothing would spoil while we’re gone.” I was glad to note that Sharm’s voice was also just a notch above sheepish. “But we’ve been eating good meals,” she added brightly. “I’ve been putting my own touches to those recipes you taught us.”
Erwin and I rolled our eyes at this bare-faced attempt to get on my grandmother’s good side. Lola looked pleased though; I’d always suspected she liked Sharm best. “Good for you, dear,” she said. “Maybe one day I’ll get to sample your specialties. Well, Ivy, this simply won’t do. We will have to restock your larder immediately. I hope you and Erwin have been helping out instead of letting poor Sharmaine slave away all the time. You still remember how to cook, don’t you?”
“Yes, Lola, I do,” I said with a sigh. “And you still haven’t answered my question. Not that I’m not thrilled that you’re here and all, but I’d like to know why—”
“So where is he then?” Lolo rumbled, thumping the table soundly. “Where’s this sunmabitch who dared to break my firefly’s heart?”
“Who? What’re you talking about?” I frowned, perplexed though not really surprised. Conversations with my grandparents could zigzag worse than a mountain trail.
“Oh, you mean Jeff. You’ve met him, Lolo Simon. He and our other friends visited town once, remember?” Erwin came back in, fastidiously cleaning his fingers with some scented facial wipes. “I’ll carry that box as far as the gate, but you’ll have to bring it to the recycling center yourself. Use your feminine wiles and get Trey and Jeff to help you,” he told me, and I couldn’t help noticing that he hadn’t mentioned Miguel at all.
“Jeff? Is he the one?” Lolo demanded, thumping the table again. “Yes, you tell him to come here, missy. I’ve got something I’d like to discuss with him.”
“What? No! You’ll do no such thing,” I exclaimed, a little alarmed when Lolo cracked his knuckles and grinned diabolically. “Wait a minute, are you armed? Is he armed?” I spun around to face my grandmother. “Lola, please tell me you didn’t let him bring that old rifle with him.” I could just picture my grandfather sitting on the balcony reeking of gin and singing “I did it myyyyy waaaaay!” at the top of his lungs while he waved his ancient firearm around. Wouldn’t that endear us to our prim and proper landlady?
Then I blinked. My grandmother had unearthed a sponge and a box of detergent from somewhere and was now wiping down the kitchen counter. “Lola, we’ve cleaned that already,” I whined, rushing to take the sponge from her, with a flustered Sharm following close behind.
Lola smiled sweetly. “Oh, will you do it for me, dears? Thank you. Coming home to a clean kitchen is such a joy, don’t you think? You young ones should learn how to appreciate the simple things.” I caught Sharm’s eye as we swabbed down the counter. Oh yes, nobody wields the subtle blade of guilt like my grandmother. “Don’t worry about your Lolo, ineng,” she went on. “He had to leave his gun behind. It kept poking out of his bag. Besides, I trust he won’t have a reason use it?”
Her voice lilted upward in a deceptively gentle question. I shut my eyes, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on. Unfortunately, Erwin spoke up before I could.
“Absolutely not, Lola Rosa,” he said with an evil smile. “Jeff is ancient history. In fact, I believe Ivy’s gotten over him some time ago and now she’s more than ready to move on.” I shot him the Glare of Death, and so nearly missed the thoughtful expression that flitted over Lola’s face.
“Humph,” Lolo grunted, miffed at having had the wind taken out of his sails. “Well, you make sure to tell your new boyfriend, whoever he is, to come straight to me. You hear me, firefly? He and I have something to discuss.”
I muttered something dire while Sharm smothered a giggle, which turned out to be a mistake, as it served to draw attention toward her. “What I’d like to know, Sharmaine dear, is if you’ve found a boyfriend yet,” Lola questioned. “The last time I spoke with your mother, she was all but suggesting that you’ve turned down so many suitors. Could it be there’s something you’re not sharing with her?”
“Er, no. I, um, I really don’t have a boyfriend yet,” Sharm mumbled, blushing.
“And no girlfriend either. Such a waste of a pair of—yuck! You bitch! You ruined my shirt!” Erwin wailed when Sharm threw the sponge at him.
“Damn, have all the males here been castrated?” Lolo roared. “Sexy siren like you ought to have boys chasing you for miles around! I knew it. City boys are all pansies.”
Sharm stared at her feet, clearly uneasy. Ever since we were kids, any reference to her figure always made her hunch in on herself, as if she was trying to hide those lush curves that could have stopped traffic if she’d had a little more self-confidence. Then another relic from my past surfaced unexpectedly: A jagged spike of envy, and the acidic tang of resentment in the back of my throat. I inhaled sharply, then firmly shoved those feelings back down into the fetid swamp where they belonged.
“‘Ling, mind your blood pressure, please,” Lola admonished. “He didn’t mean to upset you, dear,” she said to Sharm. “In truth, I was thinking of something else. Your mother also mentioned that you are particularly good friends with someone in your circle. Charming boy, I keep forgetting his name, I think he ran for student council—”
“Trey?” Erwin and I cried in unison, while Sharm frantically shook her head.
“You and Trey?” I stared at her in disbelief, then burst out laughing at her horrified expression. “What is this, some kind of secret relationship?” I teased. “Because if it is, let me be the first to congratulate you on your success at keeping it a secret.”
“Ivy and Jeff, then Jeff and Giselle, and now you and Trey. It’s almost incestuous, isn’t it?” Erwin commented.
“I’m not going out with Trey, okay?” Sharm yelled in frustration. “We don’t have a relationship, secret or otherwise. I just happened to have had a tiny crush on him long, long ago, and I made the mistake of telling my mom—no! I swear, there’s nothing going on between us. He’s not even my type! In fact, I—” She squeaked and clapped her hand over her mouth, turning an interesting shade of scarlet.
Erwin and I leaned toward her. “Yes?” he prodded. “In fact, you what?”
To my puzzlement, she sent me a brief, fearful glance before dropping her eyes. “Nothing. Can we please change the subject?” she pleaded.
“Well, what I want to know is…” Lolo paused dramatically, raising an eyebrow like a hairy, accusatory finger at Erwin. “When are you going to introduce me to your young lady, son? Big, strapping fellow like you, all you gotta do is show ‘em some muscle and you’ll be beating ‘em off with a stick. Well? If it’s courtship techniques you want, you come to me, boy.” Lolo grinned a debonair grin that had the light glinting off his teeth as if he were in some cheesy toothpaste commercial. “Look at me now. Sixty-five, and I can still dance my way into any woman’s heart.”
Lola gave a surprisingly indelicate snort. Sharm and I shared a grin. It was Erwin’s turn to get his brains whipped into a frothy mass by my chaos-sowing grandparents, and we fully intended to enjoy it.
To his credit, he held on to his composure and forever won our admiration when he arched his own eyebrow and haughtily declared, “Lolo Simon, mon cher vieil homme, I could introduce you to hundreds of ladies, but in the end, there is only one true diva. And that would be me. Now if you’ll excuse us, I believe I hear our taxi at the gate.”
Lolo scowled but couldn’t think of a comeback. Sharm and I burst into applause as Erwin air-kissed my Lola, waggled his fingers at Lolo, picked up his bags and swept away in a flawless, diva-esque exit. Still laughing, Sharm hugged my grandparents and me goodbye before picking up her own bags and following Erwin.
“What the hell did that boy call me?” Lolo muttered darkly.
“It means ‘my dear old man,’ Lolo. And Erwin’s accent sucks.” I absently took the broom from Lola, who favored me with another sweet smile. At this rate, I’d have cleaned the entire kitchen by evening. “You know, you still haven’t told me why you’re here,” I reminded them with dwindling hope. I’d forgotten that my grandparents rarely answered questions unless doing so served their purpose. “You could have let me know you were coming. I didn’t buy you that phone just so you could look at it, Lola.”
“Well, I tried calling you on our way here, but my cellphone seems to be broken. Oh dear, what is that on the floor? Do you have a mop, ineng? Or a scrubbing brush? I’m rather tired from our trip, but I think I can get that stain out for you.”
The entire apartment, I silently amended. “It’s okay. I can do it. And your phone isn’t working? May I see it?” I tucked the broom underneath an arm and fiddled with my grandmother’s phone for a while, but gave up some minutes later. “I don’t know how to fix it,” I admitted as I handed it back to her. “Oh, well, I suppose we can have this repaired after we’ve…done whatever it is you came here to do.”
I watched resignedly as Lolo began prowling around the apartment and peering into the rooms in a transparent attempt to skirt my questions. With a mixture of frustration and fond amusement, I gave my grandparents the grand tour and helped them settle in. Then Lola announced that she was thirsty and wondered if I would be so kind as to go out and buy some Coke. Plus a couple of bottles of Ginebra and a pack of Camels for Lolo to tide him over until evening. I slipped out of the apartment like the dutiful granddaughter I was, wondering when my grandparents would ever get around to explaining their presence here, until a sound make me stop and look around.
“Ivy?” Miguel stared at me in surprise, frozen in the act of wheeling his bike out of the garage. “What are you doing here?”
Despite the awkwardness I felt, the corners of my mouth turned up automatically at the sight of him. “Well, since I’d just paid the rent for this month, I sort of assumed that I live here,” I said lightly.
He frowned. “You know what I mean. I heard your taxi drive off a while ago. So last night, when you told me…you weren’t really leaving then?”
“No, I was, but something came up.”
I trotted over to him then hesitated when his shoulders tensed, his hands gripping his bike as if he was about to bolt. My heart contracted uncomfortably. He looked wary and unsure, as if he was waiting for some kind of outburst from me. I remembered the way he looked last night—the warm intensity in his eyes, the comfort in his simplest touch—and despite all good sense found myself missing that Migs immediately. This Migs didn’t look particularly glad to see me.
Well, hello, what did you expect? my sensible voice put in tartly. He’s obviously come to his senses, now that he’s had time to think about his actions last night. He’s probably realized what a mistake it is to like you. Something inside me crumpled at that, and I suddenly found it harder to maintain my cheery smile.
Then his guarded expression gave way to a flash of humor. “Do I get three guesses?”
“Are you going to tell me what it is?” he prompted.
“Oh! My grandparents are here. They arrived just as we were about to leave, although I have no clue why they’re here or how long they’ll be staying.” I glanced back at the apartment, amazed to find myself fighting off a wave of shyness. I mean, this was Migs, for crying out loud. More importantly, this was me, and I was never shy. Tucking a stray lock of hair behind one ear, I looked up at him through the links in the fence and took a deep breath. “Are you doing anything later tonight?”
His eyebrows rose above the rim of his glasses even as his cheeks reddened. I flushed too when I realized what I’d said. “I didn’t mean—I was only going to—aaargh!” I glared at him as if it was his fault. “What I meant was, I’m making a special dinner tonight for my grandparents, and I want to invite you. And Reese. You and Reese. Seeing as how neither of you could make it to our party last night. It’ll be an early dinner because my grandparents need to rest, so you won’t have to worry about staying out too late. And in case you’re thinking it, I may not be as good as Sharm but I do have a few culinary tricks of my own.”
Ah, there it was. His adorable half-smile. “You want me to meet your grandparents?” he asked wonderingly.
“Yes. You and Reese,” I corrected. “I kinda mentioned you before, and I’m sure they’d love to meet you. Both of you, I mean.”
“Right.” His gaze lowered for a moment. “I’ll tell Reese when I see her. She’s holed up in her room with a novel right now though, so you might get to see her before I do.”
“So you’ll come?” I asked eagerly.
His smile deepened. “I wouldn’t miss it. Thanks for the invite. And that goes for my sister, too.”
There was silence until we noticed that we were just standing around staring at each other. We looked away at the same time, blushing and clearing our throats. “So, ah, where’re you headed?” I asked, indicating his backpack with a flick of my hand.
“To Alvin’s place. His computer picked up some kind of bug, so I’m going over there to see what I can do. You?”
“The corner store. I need to buy some snacks and stuff.”
“Well, hop on. I can give you a ride there and back.”
I eyed his bike suspiciously, as if it might be whispering sinister ideas in his ear, then looked up just in time to catch his grin. “Oh, all right. If you must,” I relented, and reveled in the sound of his laughter.
I’ve never been fond of bicycles, mostly because I can’t trust them to remain upright underneath me, but riding with Miguel was one of my favorite things to do. He handled the bike with the same calm control he handled everything else, and with him I felt safe enough to close my eyes and enjoy the ride. And if I were completely honest, there was also the fact that he was so close I could feel his warmth despite the wind, and that if I turned to look at him my face would be mere inches away from his. But as you know, being honest was the last thing on my mind. I was sorry the ride to the store was so short, so I used my smoking habit as an excuse to prolong our time together. Not that he complained or anything; Alvin and his bug-infested computer could very well wait.
Oh, it was going so well. Migs would meet my grandparents, and although they were what polite people call “characters,” I was pretty sure Miguel would like them. He seemed okay with my own weirdness, after all. And I was sure they’d adore him, because really, what parental figure wouldn’t? So all in all, I was feeling pretty good as I chattered to him about my grandparents and what I’d planned to cook for dinner. It was as if the previous night’s near-disaster had never happened.
My good feelings vanished when we got back from the corner store and I saw the man standing in front of our side of the gate. He was thin and not all that tall, but when he moved it was with an arm-swinging swagger that gave the illusion that he occupied more space than he actually did. He was twenty-eight, but his pimple-scarred face and the permanent bags underneath his eyes made him look closer to forty. He could have done with a haircut too, not to mention some new clothes to replace his tattered jeans, grubby T-shirt and rubber flip-flops. I wouldn’t have troubled myself replacing his black leather jacket, though. God only knew where he’d gotten that smelly thing, anyway, or why he was even wearing it in this sweltering tropical heat.
He turned as we coasted toward the gate, and as his gaze met mine, the old shit-bucket of emotions—hatred, fury, betrayal, adoration and utter self-loathing—rose up and hit me in the gut. My voice died in mid-chatter and my whole body went as stiff as wire. Noting the change in my demeanor, Migs glanced down at me in concern, but I was in no mood to notice. All I wanted was to not be there right at that moment, to twist time and space so I wouldn’t have to witness this collision between my past and my present.
Of course, that kind of thing never happens in real life. As the bike rolled to a stop, I slid off and walked toward the man who was now smiling at me. I stopped while I was still well out of reach, with my back to Miguel so he couldn’t see the expression on my face, then crossed my arms and gave the man a metallic smile of my own.
“Well, fuck,” I said pleasantly. “I never thought I’d see you here.”
“Hey, Angel,” Tito Julio replied in a voice that poured over me like warmed oil. His voice had always been by far the most attractive thing about him. It was deep and mellifluous, and if he’d only had the patience or the inclination, he could have achieved superstardom as a radio deejay. That or a sex-line operator. “Damn, look at you,” he declared admiringly. “You’re more beautiful than the last time I saw you.”
“Thanks. Wish I could say the same about you.”
He had the temerity to grin. “And still as sassy as ever. But Angel, no tits yet? No ass to speak of? And you’re what, twenty now? I can’t believe you’re still posing for that kiddie company. I hope the pay makes up for the humiliation.”
“Gosh, how sweet of you to care about me. Well, about my pay, at least.” I gave a high, fluting laugh to keep him from seeing how much his words had hurt. Trust my uncle to sniff out my weak spot and trample all over it without a thought. When he began moving toward me, I backed up hastily and spun around on the pretext of fetching my plastic bags from the bike’s handlebars. I nearly bumped into Miguel as I did; he’d been standing behind me holding his bike, watching Tito Julio almost disinterestedly.
“Who’s he?” he asked, glancing down at me.
“So, who’s your friend?” Tito Julio said at the same time.
I took a deep breath to steady myself, the plastic bags rustling in my grip. Oh God, I didn’t want this. I didn’t want Migs to meet my uncle. I didn’t want him to see what I became around Tito Julio. I wanted to keep the two of them as far apart as I could—on different planets, if that was at all possible, where there was absolutely no risk of my uncle contaminating Miguel with his slimy presence. Instead, here I was, caught in between and compelled to actually introduce them to each other.
Okay, introductions I could handle. It didn’t have to go any further than that. “Tito Julio, this is Miguel, our landlady’s son. Migs, this is my uncle Julio,” I chirped, praying my uncle would leave it at that.
Tito Julio looked Miguel up and down, a condescending smile playing on his mouth. Miguel returned his regard, dark eyes cool and unflinching behind the glint of his lenses. As the stare-fest continued, the tension in the air thickened, making my nerves jangle.
It was Tito Julio who broke the impasse. “So you’re Migs, huh?” he said affably. “What’s it like, living with every prepubescent boy’s fantasy? I bet your buddies are all jealous of you. You better watch your back. I wouldn’t put it past some dick to jump you after school to…express his displeasure. A word from the wise.”
Miguel shrugged. “Hasn’t been a problem yet.”
My uncle let out a bark of laughter. “You got some faith in yourself, kid. What, you know something we don’t?”
“A lot more than you do, at least,” Miguel replied blandly.
Gee, a pissing contest. That’s just what I needed. “Okay, knock it off, you two,” I growled, then passed a hand over my brow. “Come on, Tito, we can talk inside. Lolo and Lola are probably expecting you, anyway, although God knows how you managed to find this address. Migs—” I tried to smile at him, to let him know everything was okay, but my eyes couldn’t quite meet his and I ended up making a weird face at his chin instead. “Thanks for the ride. I—I’ll see you later, okay?”
His lips flattened into a thin line and for a moment I was afraid he’d insist on sticking around, but to my relief he murmured his farewell, got on his bike and rode away. I stared after him, then stiffened when I felt my uncle’s fingers running through my hair. Shuddering, I flinched away, then covered my reaction by marching over to the gate to unlock it.
“Pretty stuck-up, ain’t he, for a four-eyed shrimp?” Tito Julio remarked. “And what’s with that attitude? Think his face’d crack if he smiled?”
I shoved the gate open and glared at him. “Do not talk about Miguel that way in my presence. Ever. Understand? You have no idea—”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Jesus, Ivy, no need to go ape-shit on me. Huh, you’re pretty protective of that kid. What, you discover you like being the one in control? You like ‘em young and submissive?”
I walked faster, trying to escape from the barrage of ugly words and uglier insinuations, but a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. “I’m sorry, Angel,” he crooned before I could suck in a breath to scream bloody murder at him. He gentled his hold, then his hand began traveling up and down my arm in soothing strokes. “I’m sorry,” he said again, his voice low and hypnotic, as his other hand found my other arm and began its own ministrations. “I didn’t mean to piss you off. All right, I won’t talk bad about that kid anymore. I should have guessed you’d have a soft spot for him from the way you let him act around you last night.”
Last night? Last night?! My head snapped up so fast it made me dizzy. “That was you?!” I hissed, aghast. “You were the creepy man in black staking out this place?”
He grinned with boyish pride, which made me think of the way he’d been years ago, all wild rebelliousness and wicked humor and loving attention to a lonely little girl. Helplessly, I could feel my walls start to crumble as the filmstrip of memories began flashing upon my inner screen, and the caressing motions of his hands on my arms were only making things worse.
“What, you mean you didn’t figure it out?” he chortled. “How do you think I knew where to bring my folks when I picked them up at the bus station? But I’m hurt, Angel. You didn’t invite me to your little party.”
“Couldn’t you have done it without scaring half the fucking neighborhood?” I gritted out. “What if you’d been caught by the tanods? Of all the reckless, idiotic—”
“They didn’t catch me, did they? Shit, they’d probably been sitting around the barangay hall and drinking for hours before they got the call. Like those bastards’d still be keen at fucking eleven p.m. on a Friday night. Besides, it was pretty damn hilarious.”
Despite myself, I could feel a reluctant smile tugging at my lips. I suppose it was kind of funny, I thought, seeing the neighbors act like chickens with their heads cut off. And technically speaking, he didn’t do anything wrong. “You are such an asshole,” I told him, with a tad less heat than before.
He smirked, one hand cupping my cheek. “That’s why you love me, Angel.”
I blinked stupidly at him—at the smiling mouth full of yellow teeth, at the strange emptiness in his eyes, at the cloying smell of his sweat mixed with cheap cologne—as my inner home video of recollection came to its inevitable climax, accompanied by a wave of dismay and revulsion that made me want to flee to the bathroom and scrub myself raw.
“Don’t touch me,” I told him, my voice coming out hard and tight, as if I was spitting nails. I jerked away and gave him an icy stare. “Listen up. This is my home, Tito, and this time I make the rules. When Lolo and Lola leave, you will never show your face here again. You hear me? No coming here and no chatting up to any of the people in this house or in this neighborhood. I mean it. If you and I have to meet, it’ll be in a crowded place somewhere far away from here.”
He sneered and opened his mouth. “No,” I cut him off. “Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it. And don’t touch me. Don’t ever touch me again. You make my skin crawl.”
His smile disappeared and his eyes narrowed with fury, and despite my own show of bravado, the old, familiar worm of fear burrowed miserably underneath my ribs. “You’ve changed, Ivy,” he said, and his voice wasn’t seductive and intimate now, but low and menacing. “You’re so fucking full of yourself now. You forget, I know what you are. I know everything about you. You ain’t as great as you think you are, and no fancy modeling job and no high-class university education ain’t ever going to change that. Now make nice, you little bitch, because my folks are watching us. You wouldn’t want to be the cause of another family breakup, would you?”
“Hey, you down there! You coming up or not?” Lolo hollered impatiently.
I froze, my gaze locked with my uncle’s, and as if sensing the exact moment of my capitulation, he slid an arm around my shoulders and steered me toward the stairs. “Just saying hello to my favorite niece, ‘Tay,” he called up, once again all smooth congeniality.
“Oh, finally,” Lola said when she spied us entering the apartment. “Where on earth did you go, Julio? You brought us here then you left so abruptly. I hope you’ve straightened out whatever it is. Oh, it’s lovely to see you together again,” she added, looking first at my uncle then at me. “It’s been such a long time since you two last saw each other. I remember you used to be inseparable when you were children.”
“Yes, yes, it brings tears to my eyes,” Lolo said sourly. “Now where’s that gin I asked for?”
I slipped gratefully out of Tito Julio’s clutches and busied myself with fetching glasses and mixing a pitcher of iced tea to go with the gin. I could hear the conversation between my grandmother and my uncle—which construction outfit he worked with, how his prick of a boss was treating him, how his backstabbing coworkers were treating him, how he doubted his money would last him until payday—punctuated by acerbic bits of commentary from my grandfather. It was a scene ripped straight out of my high school diary. I put out an ashtray for Lolo, poured potato chips into bowls, scrubbed at a couple more foodstains on the floor, changed the bed sheets, put out new bars of soap in the bathroom, answered my grandparents’ questions, cracked my own jokes, and laughed at appropriate times. All of these while dancing out of reach of Tito Julio’s tentacles and acting as if I weren’t so tense I could have been used as a bow in a string quartet.
I was almost proud of myself. My uncle isn’t the only one gifted with acting ability and outright deceitfulness in the family. I was reprising an old role, one I’d hoped I’d never have to play again, but I found that if I didn’t focus on my hatred, my resentment and my fear too much, the half-forgotten lines and motions came back to me like magic.
I almost slipped though when Lola asked Tito Julio to join us for dinner. My special dinner to welcome my Lolo and Lola to my new home. The same one I’d invited Miguel and Reese to so they could meet my grandparents. Oh holy fucking hell. If I managed to get through the evening, let alone entirety of my grandparents’ stay, without stabbing either my uncle or myself with the ice pick, I’d count it as a major personal victory.
All in all, it was a great beginning to the most exhausting school break I’ve ever had. Pfft. And to think I hadn’t even started dinner yet.
READ MIGUEL’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 5