I think I’ve pretty much answered this question.
No. Not really, no. Like I said, I can’t explain it. I just…never doubted my feelings for her. There was no transition from a milder form of regard to something more intense. I knew how I felt about her from the start. Even during those years when all I wanted was to forget she ever existed, I never fooled myself into thinking I didn’t feel this way. Denial would only have been a waste of energy.
Um, I don’t know about that. Maybe it is kind of strange. Ivy said the same thing before. She’s got this notion that guys are generally emotional retards, and it annoys her that things were so simple for me. She might have a point. I’ve seen Alvin, Dennis and Vince moan and agonize over whether or not what they were feeling was love, friendship or hormones. I’ve done it myself, to a certain degree. But not with Ivy. Never with Ivy. With her, it’s that simple.
Yeah, she would say that. That’s because her side of the story involves a lot of angst and drama while I, the emotional retard, figured it out long before she did. I tell her I’m not being smug about it. I can’t help it if I’m naturally superior.
Yup, she’d have socked me in the gut by now.
Seriously though, I’m aware that between the two of us, I actually had the easier time of it. All I did was wait for her to notice that the kid she’s hanging out with liked her a good deal more than as a big sister. That and try to find out how she felt about me. You know, if there was the slightest chance that she liked me, too. We were friends, which was already more than I’d hoped for, and a part of me would have been content to leave it at that. But the rest of me wanted more, even though the possibility of that was slim to non-existent. A twenty-year-old fall for a thirteen-year-old? Nope, doesn’t happen.
But the thing is, I’d grown up doing things most people thought were improbable, even impossible. Deep inside, I believed that the impossible was only a matter of time. Ivy would be my girlfriend; any other outcome didn’t bear considering. Looking back, I realize how arrogant and naïve I was, but on the other hand, my arrogance and naïveté were what kept me from giving up on her completely. Back then, I really believed we’d be together, and because I did, it worked out somehow.
So I spent time with her. I followed her around to the point of being annoying, but she never minded. I learned to loosen up around her. And I tried to show her I cared every chance I got. She liked my drawings, so I bought a sketchbook and filled it with drawings. Mostly campus scenes like the steps in front of the Engineering Building, the view of the sunset from Quezon Hall, the trees at the Lagoon, the Sunken Garden. I must have produced more drawings during the months I’d known Ivy than the rest of my life put together.
She also told me about her chocolate stash, so every now and then I’d sneak a pack of M&Ms or a Kit-Kat bar into her bag. She figured out from the start where the chocolates came from, but I always denied it just to watch her face crinkle with frustration. Stuff like that. I was well into Stage Three by then. Stage Three—the actual courtship.
I kept this up for months, waiting for her to notice what I was doing. But she never did. At least, she never gave any indication that she noticed. It drove me nuts. Sometimes it seemed as if no matter what I did, we’d never be more than friends. I thought about the possible reasons for that, and every single one felt like a metal rod through the chest. But, like I said, I didn’t give up. I figured I’d wear her down eventually.
Well, I soon discovered why she was so determined to keep things casual between us. I’d been too wrapped up in her to notice how our relationship was affecting everyone else. And, to be honest, when I set out to win her heart and make her mine, I never realized I’d have to sell the idea to everyone else as well.
Let me put it this way. One question that always comes up whenever people hear about us is: how could a thirteen-year-old and a twenty-year-old even be friends? In fact, I give you credit for not asking—
Oh. That explains the look on your face.
Hmm. I’ll tell you something weird: People found it easy to accept that Ivy and I could be friends. Relatively easy. A lot of it has to do with the way she looked and acted. Whenever people saw us together, they didn’t see a thirteen-year-old and a twenty-year-old. They saw a couple of normal-looking kids, nothing to comment about. I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been if she actually looked her age.
Of course, the operative word here is “friends.” As long as she and I were just friends…right, you get it. Well, it took me a while to get it. Ivy got it from the start.
How people were reacting to us became a kind of gauge for our relationship. I mean the people who knew us, our friends and families. Some were okay with us being together, some were…not. And often this was even before they knew the truth about Ivy.
Case in point: Alvin and Leo. Ever since Lala let it slip that I was being chummy with a girl who was probably my cousin, they started coming over more often, even managing to get themselves invited to a few Santillan family affairs. Who knew what Lala’d been telling them about this alleged cousin of mine? Then again, the fact that this cousin was female would’ve been enough to get Alvin interested. Leo didn’t care either way, as far as I could tell. Sometimes I wonder how those two became friends in the first place.
It took three encounters with my relatives for Alvin to see the light. After he’d recovered from the last one, he fixed me a steely look. “Okay, Santillan. Start talking.”
“About what?” I asked blandly as I maneuvered my bike around the car in the garage.
“Don’t be thick. I already know she’s not your cousin.” He paused to shudder at the memory of his ordeal at the hands of my relatives. “So who is this girl, anyway? Is she a neighbor? She is, isn’t she? Or maybe she’s one of your tenants. Hey, Paras, you remember who lives in the apartments out back?”
Leo blinked slowly, then took his earphones off. “This is a cool track.” When Alvin repeated his question, he shrugged. “Some college students and a family. Ask him; he should know,” he added, jerking his head toward me.
“I’m trying, but he won’t cooperate,” Alvin complained.
I fought to keep from grinning at the look of frustration on his face. “Why are you so interested in this girl anyway? Run out of girls to harass in St. Helene?”
Alvin snorted as he and Leo followed me out the gate. “And I thought you were supposed to be some kind of genius. You were seen with a girl you weren’t totally ignoring. Any girl who can make you do that probably has mind-control powers or—”
He stopped short when he emerged, forcing Leo to prod him with his bike to get him to move. Like an angel of bad timing, Ivy was standing in front of her gate, wearing a short denim dress, sandals and a pair of sunglasses, with her bulging canvas bag under her arm. I silently uttered a prayer of thanks that she wasn’t smoking at the moment. That would have been a joy to explain.
She pushed her sunglasses up to the top of her head and smiled. “Hey, Migs.”
“Hey yourself.” I smiled back as I wheeled my bike over to her.
“You give any thought to that Chem. Eng. Society thing yet?”
I shrugged evasively. The previous week, Yna had come across an ad on one of the bulletin boards announcing the application period for the UP Chemical Engineering Society, and had since then been badgering the rest of us into trying out for it. the On one hand, I was leery of entering a situation where I’d be required to interact with a bunch of strangers and submit myself to their judgment. On the other hand, being in the Chem. Eng. Society meant getting a chance to compete in the Chemical Engineering Quiz Bowl National Championship. But between school work and wooing Ivy, I just didn’t have time for org activities. I was a bit reluctant to tell her, though. She truly believed the most important lessons in college were the ones you learned outside the classroom. Privately I couldn’t see how it happened, but I didn’t want to let her down.
Of course, she immediately picked up on my ambivalence. “Then again, maybe it’s yet not time for you to join an org,” she said lightly. “The planets aren’t in their proper alignment, right?”
“Something like that,” I admitted. “Promo tour today?”
“You can tell?” She glanced down at her dress, the one she often wore to work because it was buttoned down the front and was easy to get in and out of. “It’s at the Shangri-La. Can you believe I have to go to work on a Sunday afternoon? Bleagh.”
“Going to a fancy mall, wearing fashionable clothes and being worshipped by an adoring crowd. Yeah, I can see how bad you have it.”
Her lips quirked upward. “My, you’re really starting to get the hang of witty repartee, aren’t you? And what about you? Indulging in a little male bonding this afternoon?” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively.
“I really wish you wouldn’t call it that,” I muttered, shuddering, as she giggled. We stared at each other, and I only became aware that I was smiling goofily at her when Alvin appeared beside me, looking as if he’d just witnessed the beginning of Armageddon.
“I think I’ve gone insane,” he announced to no one in particular. “I could have sworn I just saw the cool and aloof Miguel Santillan make googly eyes at—”
“Will you shut up?” I bit out, flushing.
Alvin grinned in sly triumph. “Looks like we’ve found Lala’s mystery ‘cousin.’ Hi there, gorgeous.” He turned to Ivy, elbowing me aside in the process. “Alvin de Guzman of St. Helene Academy. Santillan and I used to be classmates until, well, you know what happened to him,” he said in a low voice, as if my leaving St. Helene was a tragic fall from grace. “That guy over there is Leo Paras, also of St. Helene. Well, since my buddy here oh so rudely failed to introduce us, will you do me the honor of telling me your name?”
Ivy tilted her head demurely, her eyes taking on a familiar, mischievous gleam. “I’m Ivy. It’s really nice to meet you,” she said in a voice like spun sugar while I groaned inwardly.
“Ivy, huh? A pretty name for a pretty girl.” Alvin was really turning on the charm. “So, Ivy, do you live around here?”
“I live in one of the apartments behind Migs’ house.”
“Ah, the family in the lower-floor apartment. Right, right. So, where are you headed?”
“To the Shangri-La. I’m, ah, meeting my friends there.”
He blinked. “Wow, your parents are cool, letting you go to the Shangri-La by yourself. Hey, I know. I can keep you company while you’re waiting for your taxi. Don’t worry, you’re safe with me,” he quickly added when she contrived to look slightly alarmed. “The perfect gentleman, that’s me. You guys go ahead; I’ll catch up.” This he directed to Leo and me, blissfully unaware of the violent turn my thoughts had taken.
Ivy widened her eyes and pressed a hand to her chest in a show of pure melodrama. “That’s really nice of you, Alvin, but you don’t have to do that.”
“Hey, you can’t be too careful nowadays. A young girl alone in the streets? Besides, I don’t mind. As long as you’re safe, Ivy,” Alvin added rather pompously.
“Gosh, thanks,” she replied in a voice tinged with laughter. She glanced over his shoulder and our gazes met. Relax, her eyes told me. He means well, even if he is kind of a dork.
I gave her a dry look. You have no idea.
At this point Leo, who’d been quietly observing the exchange, suddenly spoke up. “Alvin, I think you’ve got a death wish or something.”
He didn’t have a chance to explain that remark since Ivy’s taxi arrived at that moment. Alvin nearly tripped in his haste to open the door for her. She paused about halfway in to peer coyly at him over the rim of her sunglasses. “Thanks. Oh, and Alvin? I’m not as young as you think I am,” she purred. Then she turned to me and winked. “See you later, Migs.”
Alvin stared at me in astonishment as the taxi drove off. “She winked at you. She winked at you! What—how—what’s going on here? And what did she mean by that?”
I looked over at Leo, who was fiddling with his earphones. “You’ll have to spell it out for him, you know,” he told me.
“Spell out what? And what exactly did she mean by that?”
“Maybe when I feel like it,” I replied as I got on my bike.
“What?! What kind of a friend are you?! And will somebody explain to me what she meant by that?!”
For half an hour, Alvin tried his best to grill me about Ivy as we coasted around the hilly residential areas of the campus. Later, we bought some Cokes and sat around an empty basketball court, where I listened to Alvin’s muttered speculations about Ivy with half an ear until something he said made me tense up.
“…crazy but I think I’ve seen her before. What do you think, Paras?”
Leo looked blank, then pulled his earphones off. “You gotta listen to this stuff. These guys are good.”
“Hey, I need you to focus right now, okay? We’re talking about that girl Ivy—”
“She looks like the Shoujo Shine Girl,” Leo interrupted calmly. I choked on a mouthful of Coke.
Alvin brightened. “Hey, you’re right! She looks exactly like the Shoujo Shine Girl. Man oh man, now I’m really starting to hate you, Santillan.”
“Now what?” I managed between coughs, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.
“Work it out, genius. You’re practically living with the Shoujo Shine Girl’s twin sister and you didn’t tell us? No wonder Lala’s been going around with the world’s biggest wedgie for weeks.” He sighed, his outrage subsiding into a pitiable mournfulness. “You know, I’m kind of disappointed. If the Shoujo Shine Girl looks anything like your gorgeous little tenant, then I don’t think I did her justice at all.”
I jerked around to stare narrow-eyed at him as the meaning of his last sentence sunk in. Then I grabbed his backpack and pulled out his sketchbook, flipping through pages full of drawings, magazine cutouts and printouts of pictures from the Internet of females with little or no clothing until I found what I was looking for: not one but three pages dedicated to the Shoujo Shine Girl. The first was fairly tame, just a clipping of an ad. The next page was a drawing of the Shoujo Shine Girl—of Ivy—dressed in a stripper’s version of her school uniform outfit, sitting provocatively on a desk. The next page was even worse. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in an attempt to get the red haze of fury under control, then deftly tore the pages out.
“Hey, what’re you doing?!” Alvin yelled. “That’s private property!”
I stood up, hurling the sketchbook at him. “If you ever trash Ivy again or be a sleazebag to her in any way, I swear, I’ll—”
I bit off the rest of my words and stalked over to my bike, gripping the handlebars so tightly my bones creaked, while a part of me commented dispassionately that I was about to lose it. Worse, I’d given away her secret, and to the guy who thought “discreet” was an island in Greece. I glanced down at the crumpled pages in my hand. He’s right; this crud doesn’t look anything like her. I took my glasses off, wiped them on my shirt, then put them back on, using the time to calm down completely, then turned and found both of them gaping at me. I noted with cold satisfaction that Alvin had gone a tad colorless.
“Uh, I’m…sorry?” he said, bewildered.
“I’m taking these.” I folded the torn pages up and stuffed them in my pocket. “Come on, let’s get moving.”
They exchanged glances as they went for their own bikes. “Wow,” Alvin muttered to Leo. “So I guess this is what happens when puberty strikes. Eeek!” He leaned back when I glared at him. “I’m just kidding! Jeez! When did you start being such a hothead?”
“You need help with those suicidal tendencies, Alvin. Seriously,” Leo remarked.
“What? I don’t get it. What’s he got against the Shoujo Shine Girl, anyway?” he whined, while I sent up another quick thank-you to the god who had seen fit to make Alvin as thick as asphalt. “I thought she was supposed to be a public figure or something. I mean, just because she happens to look like someone doesn’t—”
I swerved abruptly, causing his front wheel to collide into mine. “Leo, when are your next quarterly exams?” I asked, never breaking eye contact with Alvin over the resulting tangle of our bikes.
“Week after next,” came the reply. “We plan to ask you for help.”
I nodded gravely. “You’re dead, Alvin.”
I know that as threats go, refusing to tutor someone in time for a major test doesn’t amount to much, but such are the standards of St. Helene that Alvin actually went ashen-faced. We biked the rest of the way with me listening to the sweet music of Alvin groveling at my feet, figuratively speaking.
After Leo and Alvin, it was inevitable that Ivy would meet my only other friend from my St. Helene years. Lala is…well, she and Ivy aren’t exactly, uh…
Shit. Let me put it this way: If I’d known how difficult things would be between them, I’d have locked myself in my room that day until the urge to do anything but stay safely at home had passed.
It was another Sunday afternoon, and for once, neither my relatives nor my moronic friends turned up on our doorstep. A typhoon had stomped through the city the day before but the weather had finally calmed down that morning. Going down to the kitchen for a snack, I happened to peer out the back door and saw a familiar figure exiting the second-floor apartment, wrestling with an umbrella that looked twice her size. Forgetting all about my snack, I pushed the door open but was stopped by my mother’s voice asking me where I was going.
“Outside,” I answered, still watching Ivy from the corner of my eye. “I won’t be long.”
“There’s a storm out, Miguel. This is no time to be going outside.”
“It’s over. The storm’s on its way to Taiwan by now. Look.” I showed her the view from the back door. True enough, a few milky rays had finally managed to slip through the cracks in the clouds. “I need a break. I’ve been studying since morning.”
Mama’s eyes narrowed fractionally as her gaze fell upon Ivy. “You’ll be with that Ivy again, am I right? You seem to be spending a lot of time with that girl.”
“She’s my friend, Ma. As are Sharm and Erwin.” I hadn’t realized that Mama had picked up on that, although in hindsight I guess I should have. Before she could say anything else, I mumbled a quick “I won’t be long” and made my escape.
Ivy was near the gate, still struggling with her colorful monstrosity of an umbrella. As I drew closer, I caught a muttered “goddamn it” and “oh shit, I broke it” then watched, amused, as she shook the umbrella so viciously the chopstick holding her hair up slid free and fell to the ground. Her hair tumbled down, burnished copper strands swirling around her. I stared, marveling at how she managed to look so beautiful even from behind. Even dressed in a faded pair of denim shorts and a ratty T-shirt. There was no sign of the fashionable Shoujo Shine Girl anywhere. This was Ivy through and through.
“Having problems?” I asked, then lurched back with a yelp when Ivy spun around, swinging the umbrella at me.
“Oh! Sorry!” she exclaimed. “Haha, almost turned you into a shish-kebob there.”
“My fault.” I slid my glasses back up my nose and bent to pick up her chopstick. She took it from me with a half-embarrassed air. “Um, you need help with that?”
“Yeah. The stupid thing won’t open. Here.” She thrust the umbrella at me. “Save it, Doctor. It’s not ours. Sharm borrowed it from a friend of hers.”
She waited while I fiddled with the umbrella until it swept open. “Thanks, Migs,” she murmured, “but, ah, I just realized it’s not raining anymore, so we don’t actually need it. Sorry.” She chuckled sheepishly as I closed the umbrella again with a sigh.
“So where are you going?” I asked.
“To the supermarket. We ran out of food, and I drew the short straw.” She cocked her head. “You feel like walking today?”
The thought that she’d automatically assumed we’d be together warmed me all over. I gave her a slow smile. “I’ve got a better idea.”
A few minutes later, I wheeled my bike over to where Ivy stood. She eyed the bike with mistrust. “Oh God, please don’t tell me we’re going to ride that thing all the way there.”
“Why not?” I replied. “It’ll be faster than walking. Lose the umbrella, okay?”
“But what if it rains?”
“It’s not going to rain anymore. The typhoon’s moved on.”
“But the streets are slippery—”
I rolled my eyes skyward. “I solemnly swear to be careful. Now get on.”
“But—but—” I raised an eyebrow at her, and she scowled right back. “Don’t give me that look. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t exactly know how to ride a bike.”
Better and better, I thought, trying not to grin. “You don’t have to. I’ll do the balancing for both of us.” She stared hard at me, as if she half-expected me to start swinging my bike around like a club. I couldn’t hide my grin any longer. “Oh, I get it. You’re scared,” I said in my most condescending tone, which never fails to rile her.
She glared at me and marched over, tossing the umbrella back inside the gate. “I’m not scared of the bike, you idiot. I’m scared of the maniac who’ll be doing the biking. Where am I supposed to sit on this thing, anyway?”
I held the bike steady as she perched gingerly on the top tube in front of the seat, then mounted and nearly got jabbed in the nose by her chopstick. “Uh, Ivy? Could you—”
“Oh, right.” She pulled the chopstick out, and the scent of strawberries wafted around me as her hair came down. As I pushed off, the wind blew copper strands toward me, although she did her best to keep her hair out of the way while at the same time clinging to the frame with both white-knuckled hands. She was sitting right in front of me, with my arms encircling her…I was in heaven.
“If I fall, I’ll beat you over the head with your own bike,” she muttered.
“You really think I’d let you fall?” I said quietly.
She looked at me, her eyes wide and startled and…something else, something that made it a little harder for me to breathe. Then she turned away, hiding her expression. “That’d be up to gravity, wouldn’t it?” she said flippantly.
I turned a corner, making her squeak and tighten her grip. “Not gravity. Centripetal force. See, a bike basically works like a gyroscope…” I launched into an explanation of the physics of bike-riding until her amused expression made me realize that I was giving more information than was strictly necessary and quickly shut up.
She laughed, her body losing its stiffness. “Okay, Professor, I get it. As long as one of us knows what he’s doing, we won’t be cracking our skulls against the curb. Anyway, you’re right, this is fun. Can you go any faster? Wheee!”
I was panting by the time we got to the supermarket. Figures she’d be a speed demon, I thought ruefully as I chained my bike. I soon found myself following her around the aisles, a basket in hand, staring at her surreptitiously while she subjected each item to silent but intense deliberation before either dropping it in the basket or putting it back on the shelf.
She skipped over to the next aisle, and I was trailing a few feet behind when I heard someone call my name. I turned, then took an involuntary step back as another familiar figure came barreling toward me from the other end of the aisle.
“Miguel, hi!” Fortunately, Lala managed to slow down to a sedate pace before she knocked us both to the floor. “I can’t believe you’re here, too. How are you doing? It was an awful storm, wasn’t it? How did you guys weather it?”
“By staying indoors.”
“Well, duh, I know that. It was just a rhetorical question.”
She rolled her eyes and pushed her short hair behind her ear while I watched her warily. She was…well, it wasn’t that I didn’t like Lala. She was okay, as girls go. Kind of bossy, liked to poke her nose into other people’s business, but that’s what got her elected as student council president in the first place. She was also the only girl who talked to me when I was still in St. Helene. She always seemed to be hovering nearby—dragging me over to her table for group work, volunteering to be my partner for reports even though she had to do most of the talking, calling my name out for those stupid party games, and willingly becoming my dance partner for PE. My being an uncommunicative little snot never fazed her. I never understood why she did it, but I grew used to it. At best, she became a kind of constant in my life; at worst, a necessary evil.
At the moment, all I wanted was to make my escape and get back to Ivy before Lala started in on her campaign to get me to socialize more, but she spoke again before I could do so. “I’m sorry I didn’t callyou last night. Missy and I were up until ten emailing each other the draft for our Christmas dance proposal. The work was like ugh, but we finished it. Oh, and Paolo and Angel are going out now. Missy told me about it. It’s hard to believe after what he did to her in fifth grade, isn’t it?”
And then there was Lala’s tendency to discuss people as if I had the slightest idea what she was talking about. I let all the names and bits of gossip drift over my head while she homed in on her point. “All in all, I think we’ve got a good chance of getting our proposal for the Christmas dance approved. The PTA’s on our side in this. So leave your schedule open for December, okay? I’ll text you the specifics as soon as I can.”
“Don’t bother. I’m not going,” I cut in.
She smiled benignly, the same smile she always gave me whenever she thought I was being difficult. “Oh yes, you are. Every member of St. Helene Class of 2005 is positively required to go. I mean, hello? It’s just the most important event of the year.”
“I hate to break it to you, but I’m not a member of St. Helene Class of 2005 anymore.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course you are,” she said dismissively. “So anyway, are you here with your mom? My mom’s right over there; I wonder if they’ve seen each other yet.”
I sighed, deciding it was too much effort to get Lala to change her mind. “I’m not here with my mom.”
“No, I—I’m with, uh, someone,” I said lamely, craning my head this way and that as if searching for somebody. “We, um, we got separated. I have to go.”
I turned and hurried off without a backward glance, peering into aisle after aisle searching for Ivy. I found her parked at a booth offering free samples of chocolate pudding, with a small plastic cup and a spoon in her hands.
“Sorry,” I said as I headed over to her. “I met so—mmph!”
My mouth was suddenly filled with something cold, soft and chocolatey. Then Ivy pulled the spoon out of my mouth, grinning all the while. “What do you think? Good, huh? I just love that nutty tang at the end. Oh no, it’s all gone.” She tossed the cup into a nearby bin and turned to look at the guy manning the booth with puppy-dog eyes. “Could I have another one? Please? I gave him the last scoop.”
I watched as the guy handed her another cup filled with a brown substance, which she consumed with relish. “How many have you had?” I asked suspiciously.
“Seven,” the man muttered.
She frowned at him. “Seven then. But this stuff is free, so it doesn’t matter how much I eat. Here, Migs, want some more?”
“Uh, no thanks.”
The man turned toward me with an air of cheery desperation. “Ah, but maybe Sir would rather purchase a pack of Chocolicious Dessert Pudding, six cups in every pack—”
“No,” I repeated, dodging the spoon Ivy was poking at my face.
“But Sir, you can buy it for your girlfriend. She seems to like it well enough.”
Ivy and I both froze, with her still holding the spoon halfway to my ear. Our eyes met for a moment, just enough time for our faces to turn a matching shade of red. Then the next instant, a voice split the awkward moment in two.
“She’s not his girlfriend!”
We turned to find Lala standing a few feet away, looking mortified by her outburst. Her hand flew to her mouth as two spots of color appeared on her cheeks. “I—I mean—”
“Damned right I’m not!” Ivy boomed. Something inside me twisted as she slung an arm across my shoulders, leaning against my side in order to reach up comfortably. “I’m his aunt, twice removed on his mother’s side,” she informed our bewildered audience. “I was just visiting my nephew here. Such a fine, well-mannered boy. He’s a genius, you know.” She beamed me and ruffled my hair fondly. I looked away to keep her from noticing my expression.
Lala’s jaw dropped. “You’re his aunt?”
“She’s your aunt?” the salesman echoed.
“Uhuh.” Ivy nodded as she pulled away. “I know, it’s totally bizarre that I’m younger than him, but you know how it is, with a family tree in dire need of pruning. Well, my nephew here just busted his allowance on a new computer game and can’t afford to buy his dear auntie any chocolate pudding, so thanks anyway.”
We left the salesman staring after us in bemusement, while Lala’s gaze flew between Ivy and me before settling on Ivy. “Hello,” she said a little uncertainly. “I’m Melanie Rivero. My friends call me Lala.”
“I’m Ivy,” Ivy replied.
“Are you really Miguel’s aunt?”
“No, she’s not,” I said exasperatedly while Ivy snickered beside me.
Lala frowned at me. “Your cousin then?”
“Cousin?” Ivy burst into giggles while I shot her a quelling look. “We’re not related,” I explained to Lala with leaden patience.
“You’re not?” She gave me a piercing look, before turning toward Ivy again. By then, her entire demeanor had lost its hesitation, as well as any hint of deference. “So who are you really?” she asked, crossing her arms in front of her.
Ivy smiled at her. “Nobody important. Listen, Migs, I need to get some pork cutlets,” she said to me. “Meet me at the checkout, okay? I’ll leave you two to talk.”
Taking the basket from me, she gave a little wave and trotted away, once again leaving me to deal with Lala and her razor-edged stare. I ended up telling her what Alvin and Leo knew—that Ivy was our tenant, heavily implying that she was the daughter of the family who lived on the first floor. When Lala’s mom finally called her over, I was free to make my way to the checkout, where Ivy waited with a couple of grocery bags. I unchained my bike and hung the bags on the handlebars, then we walked for a while because she needed to smoke. A blue Mazda drove past, and I caught a glimpse of Lala in the passenger seat. Glancing sideways, I was relieved to find that Ivy was holding her cigarette at her side, so it was unlikely that Lala had seen it.
“She likes you.” Ivy took take a deep drag, blew out a stream of smoke, then grinned at me. “You player you.”
I frowned. “More like she feels sorry for me.”
“Yeah, because cute, smart, talented guys like you are only to be pitied,” she replied sarcastically. “So tell me about her. What’s this Lala like?”
I told her about Lala’s well-intentioned pestering from grade school to the present. Ivy wore an abstracted look as she listened, and I wondered what she was thinking. “She’s liked you that long, huh?” she finally murmured, flicking her cigarette away.
“I told you—”
“I know, I know, she feels sorry for you,” she said with a roll of her eyes. We headed home in silence, immersed in our own thoughts. As I pushed my bike down her driveway, I was stopped by Ivy’s voice saying my name. Her gaze was warm when I looked at her, causing my heart rate to jump. “My offer still stands, you know,” she said.
“To be a big sister to you. Seems to me you might need some big-sister advice pretty soon.”
There was that awful twist again. “What makes you say that?”
“Let’s just say I know a territorial bid when I hear one,” she said wryly. “Lala seems nice, don’t you think?”
God, she just doesn’t get it! I turned away and began pushing my bike again. “No thanks,” I gritted out.
“You need me to draw you a map? I’m turning down your offer,” I snapped, looking round at her. “I get enough unwanted advice from Yna and the guys as it is. I don’t need it from you.”
Her smile disappeared, and I sensed her pulling away from me. Then, in the next instant, she was smiling again. “Okay, you do have a point. I’m not exactly the best advice-giver in the world. Hell, I just might single-handedly ruin your love life for you. Anyway, thanks for the ride. It was fun.”
As she reached for the grocery bags, I suddenly had the feeling that I was witnessing the birth of someone like the Shoujo Shine Girl. Someone who wasn’t quite Ivy. This girl looked me square in the eye and smiled, and she was graceful, beautiful and completely unattainable. I felt stupid and childish around her—well, even more stupid and childish than I already felt.
“See you, Migs. You too, Reese,” she added, looking past me at my sister, who had been giving Trinity her dish of water and had apparently heard the entire exchange. I wanted to stop her, to explain things to her, but all I did was stand there as she walked away.
“Real smooth, Kuya,” Reese commented disgustedly. “Maybe you can give lessons on how to be a jerk to the girl you like.”
I glared at her but my heart wasn’t in it. She was right, after all.
“Well?” she demanded as I pushed my bike past her.
“Aren’t you going to apologize?”
My glare wasn’t halfhearted this time. “Butt out of my business.”
“Chicken!” she hollered after me.
All throughout dinner, Reese kept shooting me meaningful looks, which I ignored. I returned to my books, checked my email, surfed the Internet a little, drew up my schedule for the week, but I felt as if I was operating with only half a brain. I gave up and fell across my bed, staring blindly at my cranes beside my pillow, then turned the light off and went to sleep.
Or tried to. I lay on my back, seeing the brilliance of Ivy’s smile and the wall behind her eyes superimposed on my ceiling. She fakes those smiles so easily. Thousands of people have seen her smile; just how many of those are real and how many are just an act? Hours later, I was still awake, and the misery had only gotten worse. Finally, I rolled out of bed and felt for my glasses. Moving as fast as I could in the dark, I threw on a T-shirt and pocketed my phone, then crept out of my room and down the stairs. Slowly, carefully, I unlocked the back door and slipped out, then nearly had a heart attack when Trinity jumped me, barking madly.
“Quiet!” I hissed, and she thankfully settled down. The gate in the fence gave me pause; the hinges creaked whenever the gate swung open. I considered going back into the house for the can of oil, but decided it was too risky. After a pause, I climbed over the fence, then darted up the stairs to the darkened second-floor apartment. I tapped on the window of Sharm’s and Ivy’s room, and when that didn’t work, took out my phone and hit Ivy’s number, hoping she’d left her phone on for the night.
For a few minutes, all I heard was a faint electronic tinkling inside the room. Then there was a muffled sound, and a voice said “shit.” I winced; I’d managed to wake Sharm up. More noises, followed by “Ivy, Ivy, wake up, answer your phone, it’s Miguel.”
Ivy muttered something unintelligible, then the ringing stopped. “Migs? Whu’izzit?” her voice spoke into my ear.
“I’m right here at your window. Come outside.” I cut the connection, although I could hear her incredulous “what?!” through the window pane.
I was waiting at the door when the light came on. Then Ivy was standing in the doorway, looking sleepily indignant. My lips twitched upward. She was wearing a nightgown with a stick figure of a girl in a Santa suit, with the words “Santa’s Little Girl” printed beneath it. Her feet were bare, her hair was a tangled mess, and her face had creases from where she’d been lying on her side. She looked adorable, even looking as if she was seconds away from slamming the door in my face.
“It’s two o’clock in the morning,” she said darkly. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I—” Suddenly, coming here didn’t seem like such a great idea. “Um, I, well—”
She crossed her arms. “Yes?”
Sweat beaded on my forehead. “Um, I came to apologize.”
“For waking me up in the dead of the night? Damn right you should.”
“No, not that—well, okay, that too, but—” I swallowed, desperately marshalling my wits. “I—I should have helped you carry your bags up earlier.”
Her arms and her jaw dropped. “You came here to apologize because for one fleeting instance you failed to act like a gentleman?”
“No, that’s not what—I mean I just—” Jeez, Santillan, you sound like an idiot! I closed my eyes for a moment, regretting the impulse that brought me here. Ivy was going to think I was a lunatic. “I’m sorry about what I said,” I intoned hopelessly.
There was a long silence, then she sighed. “You’d better come in. You want some cocoa? I think we’ve still got a couple of sachets.”
She stepped aside, and as I moved past her I dared a glance at her face. She met my gaze and smiled a little, and I noticed with relief that the wall behind her eyes was gone. Maybe coming here was a good idea after all.
She gestured for me to sit, then proceeded to fill a small kettle with water and put it on the stove. When she pulled over a low stool and stood on it to reach the cupboards, I rose and fetched down a tin from the shelf for her.
“So, you want cocoa with marshmallows or, ah, cocoa with marshmallows?” she asked, holding up two identical sachets.
“With marshmallows, please.”
Her dimples flickered. “Excellent choice, sir.”
She took down a couple of mugs, then we leaned side by side against the counter, waiting for the water in the kettle to boil. I watched as she combed her fingers through her hair, trying to restore order to it, and wondered how she’d react if I offered to do that for her.
“I’m sorry, too,” she suddenly said, turning to face me.
I blinked. “Huh?”
“I took what you said too personally.”
That’s because you were supposed to. “I didn’t mean it,” I muttered. She stared at me, her expression gently skeptical, until my face began a slow burn. “A-at least, I didn’t mean for it to come out so badly. It’s just that I—”
She shook her head. “It’s okay.”
“But I want you to—”
She raised her hand and placed her fingers on my lips, stopping my speech. It was like she’d flipped a switch. My mind instantly went blank, but everything else—my pulse, my senses, every single nerve ending located on my lips—went into hyperdrive. She gave me a soft smile, and I lost myself in warm, gold-flecked eyes. “It’s okay, Migs. We’re friends; that’s the only thing that matters. Anything else is just garnish.”
What is she saying? My mental processes kicked in again as her meaning sank in, and an odd but irresistible emotion swept over me. Reaching up, I took her hand and held it in place as I closed my mouth, brushing my lips lightly against her fingers. As a blush bloomed on her face, I lowered her hand, my gaze never leaving hers.
“If you’d let me finish,” I began with a touch of humor, “I was just going to say that I don’t see you as a big sister or anything else. I see you as you, Ivy,” I confessed, my voice dropping to a near-whisper.
Her lips parted as she inhaled, then she swayed a little toward me, her lashes drifting lower. I panicked, suddenly realizing how far out of my depth I was. Oh shit, oh shit, what is she doing?! And what am I supposed to do now?! I thought, paralyzed with fear.
Two things happened simultaneously. A high-pitched whistling signaled that the kettle was about to boil over. And from the other end of the room, a raspy voice demanded: “What the hell is going on here?”
Ivy and I jumped apart, and she scrabbled to turn the stove off. Then she turned to face Erwin, who had emerged from his room and was eyeing us suspiciously. “We have a guest,” she said serenely, as if we’d just spent the last few minutes chatting about school or something. “And we’re having cocoa. You want some?”
Erwin raked his hand through his hair and scowled at us. “Do you two have any idea what time it is? Tomorrow is Monday. Correction: today is Monday,” he amended sourly after a glance at the clock on the wall.
“We’re sorry we woke you,” Ivy apologized as we went to sit at the table, kettle and mugs in hand. “There’s still enough water here for another mug, if you want it.”
Erwin growled wordlessly and stalked back into his room. Ivy winked at me. “Congratulations, Migs. You are now one of the privileged few who have seen what Erwin looks like in bed.”
Erwin’s door opened again and a wadded-up bundle of cloth came flying out, landing with uncanny accuracy on her head. “Aaah!” she squealed as she leaped up, batting at the cloth, which turned out to be an unwashed pair of boxers. “Oh, fuck! Ew! Erwin, you disgusting pig!”
Her friend’s door remained firmly shut as she kicked the offending garment into a corner. I coughed, then all at once I was laughing so hard my eyes were streaming and my stomach muscles were cramping with the effort of keeping quiet. Then Ivy was beside me, one hand clamped over her mouth to muffle her own gasps and the other making shushing motions. So my first night-time visit to her ended over hot cocoa and laughter. I snuck back home shortly thereafter and fell asleep instantly.
Yup, credit goes to Lala for sparking our very first fight.
That’s how it went most of the time. I’d try to get closer to Ivy, and she’d either pretend not to notice or deliberately misunderstand, then something would come up and we’d be back where we started. But I soon observed that she didn’t do those things with absolute consistency. Every once in a while, she’d slip up and be receptive, but that’s usually when I would step in and mess things up on my own. No matter how much research I did on the subject, the fact remained that I had zero experience with male-female relationships. Half the time, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. In fact, even days later, I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that I’d wasted a golden opportunity the night I visited Ivy. To make things worse, I was beginning to suspect what that lost opportunity had meant. It was enough to make me want to hit my head repeatedly on the nearest wall.
One day, my friends and I were eating lunch at a small family diner in the residential area of the campus. It’s one of the pleasures of life in UP, trying out all the different restaurants, diners, canteens and food stalls scattered all over the campus. Well, actually only Dennis, Vince and I were eating. Allan was over at the counter flirting with the two serving girls, while Yna gripped her fork and attempted to set him on fire with her glare.
“God, look at that idiot. Just what does he think he’s doing?” she fumed.
Dennis spared Allan a glance. “I think he’s trying to acquire a new girlfriend.”
“That pervert.That girl can’t be older than fourteen.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s wearing a UPIS uniform, for crying out loud!”
At that point, even Vince lifted his head. “Could be the other one,” he grunted.
Yna huffed. “The other one looks about forty. I think she’s her mom or something.”
“You never know,” Dennis said. “The possibilities are endless.”
She made a disgusted sound. “You’re all sick. I don’t know why I hang out with you Neanderthals. At least Miguel knows how to be a gentleman. He’s too pure and innocent to sink to your level of corruption.”
“I’m what?” I frowned, perplexed, while Dennis and Vince exchanged “yeah, right” glances. Then the discussion drifted back to Allan and his depravity, and I let my mind wander back to its musings. Deciding that the voices of experience might be of help, I asked aloud: “How can you tell if a girl wants you to kiss her?”
The conversation died abruptly as three pairs of eyes focused on me. Then Dennis and Vince erupted in loud “you da mans” and “about damn times,” thumping me on the shoulder until I had to move my plate aside before I fell right in.
Yna’s reaction was more restrained. She looked at me with a faintly troubled expression, and when the other two quieted down, she asked tentatively: “Er, who wants to you to kiss her?”
I flushed. “No one. Just asking.”
She sent the oblivious Allan a helpless look, then proceeded to tell me about the importance of body language and non-verbal communication. Dennis and Vince emphasized her points with horror stories about the poor schmucks who made the mistake of misreading a girl’s signals. After several minutes of listening to them, I began to think longingly of mathematical formulas and molecular structures, which at least weren’t fraught with so much danger and ambiguity.
By the time we got up to leave, my head was spinning and I felt more confused than ever, not to mention vaguely traumatized. Allan loped over, holding a soda can and smiling like a cat. “I got a free Coke,” he informed us. “She said I was cute, too.”
“Yeah? Who said?” Dennis asked while Yna muttered “pervert” underneath her breath.
“Mrs. P did,” Allan said cheerfully. “Charming woman, cooks a mean beef caldereta. That’s her niece helping out, by the way.”
There was the short silence that accompanied a paradigm shift, then Yna scowled and threw her hands up. “Whatever. You’re nuts.”
Allan glanced at her. “What’s got into you?”
“Nothing, except that if you don’t walk any faster we’re going to be late.”
“Nah, I know what your problem is,” he drawled. “You’re jealous.”
When she gave him a look that promised a slow, agonizing death, he grinned and tossed the soda can at her. “You’re jealous because I get free Cokes from babes of all ages while you don’t get any Cokes at all. So what were you guys talking about back there?” he asked the rest of us while Yna spluttered and turned mauve. After the others filled him in, he chuckled and slung a brotherly arm across my shoulders. “You want to know what a kiss is, little bro? It’s magic. Pure alchemy. It’s the transmutation of all the different elements into that one, perfect moment when all the forces are exquisitely balanced and dancing on the crest of time, until there is no other choice but to take that final step and close the circle with your lips on hers.”
Another silence, this time broken by Vince’s rude snort. “You memorized that or what?”
“Could you be a little more specific?” I said dryly, pushing my glasses up.
Allan thumped me on the back, much like Vince and Dennis did. “You want specific? Okay, here’s my advice: Think fast, go slow.”
“What do you mean, ‘that’s it’?” he retorted. “That’s pretty major, man. It means you gotta pay attention to your girl so you’ll know what she wants and needs at each moment. The window of opportunity isn’t big, so you gotta be quick analyzing the situation. Ask her if you can kiss her or just go right ahead and steal a kiss—it all depends on the situation. You’ll make mistakes, that’s kind of unavoidable, but if you’ve done your homework and paid attention to your girl and not to your crazy thoughts and frying nerves, then you won’t have any problems at all.”
I frowned at the ground as I digested this. “Okay, what about the ‘go slow’ part?”
He suddenly grinned. “It means take your time. After all the work you’ve done, you’re entitled to enjoy the fruits of your labor.”
“Oh please.” Yna appeared alongside me, rolling her eyes. “Don’t listen to him, Miguel. He’ll only get you in trouble.” She shot him a glare which he returned with a mocking salute. “He’s right about one thing, though. You need to take your time. Don’t rush. You’re only thirteen; you’ll get to meet a lot of other pretty girls, and one of them will be perfect for you. It’s too soon for you to narrow your sights to just one.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. It was a refrain I’d be hearing over and over again for the next several years. “What are you trying to say?”
“Yeah, my thoughts exactly,” Allan added challengingly.
“I mean—what I’m saying is—” She broke off and sighed. “Just be careful, Miguel, okay? I don’t want you to get hurt. Just…just be careful.”
I remember thinking back then that Yna’s warning came too late. I got hurt every time Ivy ignored my clumsy advances. Every time she hung out with other guys, every time she treated me like a little brother, every time she acted as if the moments between us never happened… Sometimes I felt as if I was trapped in a world that held nothing but hurt, and the one keeping me there was the same one who could free me but if only she chose to do so.
And sometimes I was so insanely happy I felt as if I’d been drugged. A rollercoaster had nothing on the way my emotions spun in and out of control. And in the middle of it all was Ivy, my center of gravity. My universe revolved around her, and it drove me crazy that she didn’t know it. I tried to fight it, to regain some measure of control over myself, but then she’d smile at me and off I’d go, soaring again. Yna’s warning came too late; actually, ten minutes after I’d met Ivy was already too late.
Turned out the emotional chaos I felt back then was only a preview of things to come. I still wonder what would have happened if I’d listened to Yna.
As time went on, the people around us became more and more polarized, split between those who thought Ivy and I belonged together and those who believed we were a disaster waiting to happen. It was almost too much for a thirteen-year-old nerd to handle, especially one who was feeling his way around his first romance. Then the first semester ended and the semestral break rolled around. The break was a turning point for us. For one thing, our families became involved, and I got to see a side of Ivy that, in spite of my deep conviction that we were meant to be, made me wonder if I wasn’t making a serious mistake after all.