Hah, believe me, uncomfortable does not begin to cover it. It was like…it felt like my grandparents had gone and thrown a live grenade at my face. My mind just blew up all over the place, and for a while I was too shocked to even think of covering up the resulting wreckage. My Lola’s announcement took me completely off-guard. Frankly amazing, considering all my defenses were running at a record high that night.
And just to spice things up, she had to make that announcement in the presence of Tito Julio, who was the last person in the world I wanted having that kind of knowledge about me. It was…unthinkable. For the rest of the evening, every look my uncle sent me, every smile, every touch, every molecule of air he so much as nudged in my direction, hummed with meanings that went way beyond the teasing, brotherly joy he projected for my grandparents’ sake. He knew I remembered, he knew I knew he knew I remembered…bleagh. Honest to God, I was so not looking forward to dealing with the crap he was sure to dish out over this.
Look on the bright side, I consoled myself as I retreated into Erwin’s room and folded up on the mattress, making sure to lock the door behind me. My dinner was a success. Both Lolo and Lola liked Miguel, just as I’d expected. Okay, so they were slightly creepy about showing their approval of him, but then that too was kind of expected. And while it was clear that Migs and Tito Julio didn’t get along—pfft, actually, they hated each other’s guts is a better way to put it—I chose to take it as further evidence of Migs’ impeccable taste and Tito Julio’s lack of it. And speaking of taste, the food didn’t turn out so badly either. And dinner had ended on a light, relaxed note. Miguel and Reese had even enjoyed themselves—well, most of the time. Everything was fine. I was fine. I was—
God, I was tired. I lay like a dead thing on Erwin’s mattress, unable to muster the energy to undress or turn out the light or even take my cigarette case out of my pocket where it was digging into my hip. Night noises crept into my awareness: the ticking of Erwin’s alarm clock, the chirping of cicadas, the voices of my Lola and Tito Julio, the sound of water rushing through the pipes in the wall when someone turned on the tap in the bathroom. Eventually, I heard the other door close as my grandparents retired for the night, and a deeper quiet settled over the apartment, broken only by the occasional clink of a glass coming from the balcony where my uncle was finishing up the rest of the gin. I closed my eyes and breathed through my nose, willing the stillness to seep into me in the hope that it could hold back the tidal wave that was just waiting to crash down upon me.
The next moment, my eyes flew open and my body stiffened with a jerk when I heard the doorknob turning quietly. It rattled once or twice, then a voice spoke through the door, low and silky: “Here’s your chance, Angel. The folks’re asleep. I’ve got a couple of shots here with your name on it, so come out here and join me.”
I didn’t dare move. If I’d so much as opened my mouth, he’d have heard the thundering of my heart in my throat. Something thudded against the other side of the door, then slid across it with a hissing noise. “Open up, pretty angel,” he coaxed softly. “I wanna celebrate. Let’s celebrate, yeah? Let’s call it, The Coming of the Day We’ve Both Been Waiting For. How’s that sound?”
The door vibrated with his chuckling, while I shuddered and pressed my face into the mattress. It smelled like Erwin, and I found myself wishing that he and Sharm were here. This wouldn’t have been happening if my best friends had been here. I squeezed my eyes shut and willed myself to keep calm. Don’t move, don’t make a sound, he’ll go away soon, God, just go away, you bastard.
The doorknob rattled again. “Open the goddamn door, Ivy. I know you’re awake in there. You think I’ve forgotten you can’t sleep with the lights on?”
I glanced up at the light, but it was too late now to regret my earlier indolence. Several decades went by, with me staring sightlessly at a stack of Erwin’s CDs, breathing in shallow puffs, waiting for my uncle to give up, and marveling at his nerve. Finally, with a muttered oath, he gave the doorknob gave one last, irate rattle, then a few minutes later I heard the far more welcome sounds of the toilet flushing, followed shortly by the clinking of glass from the balcony again. I did some quick calculations. There were at least two more bottles left, and Tito Julio was tap-dancing on the edge of totally wasted as it was. All I had to do was wait him out.
Anger streaked red-hot through my head. Fuck this, I seethed. I’m not sixteen anymore. I shouldn’t have to be afraid.
Shaking off my paralysis, I got up and moved toward Erwin’s desk. A pair of scissors lay inside his desk drawer, and the feel of cold, sharp steel in my hand reassured me on a level that had little to do with reason. I couldn’t turn off the light now without alerting him to my deception, but the thought of lying in bed while my uncle was prowling around turned my stomach, so I settled down at the desk with my head on my arms, the scissors held loosely in one hand.
The hour bled into the next but there was no chance of sleep now, and it wasn’t long before the roiling stew of emotions inside me bubbled over. There was dismay and a sense of betrayal toward my grandparents and the way they had so easily fed me to the proverbial wolves, followed by heavy doses of guilt. How could they have known about Tito Julio and me? Lola still saw us as the childhood companions we once were—the stupid, hero-worshipping little girl tagging along after her cool, teenage rebel of an uncle. My grandparents didn’t know about the twisted history between us, and I’d have done everything in my power to make sure they never, ever knew. There was my hatred toward my uncle, crawling up from my gut like a living thing. And deeper still, the iron-hard core of anger toward my parents, who in their blind self-centeredness had never once given a thought to the child they’d left behind.
In the middle of all that was a confused welter of hope and fear and disbelief and outright denial and—I mean, treatment. A shot at normalcy. How do I even begin to explain what that meant to me? I wanted to curl up into a protective ball and hide. I wanted to run away screaming. I wanted it to be for real. I wanted it to be not real. I wanted to go to that doctor and demand that he tell me it wasn’t a joke. I wanted to go back in time and change things so Lola would never have spoken to Tita Mila at all.
Fear and hope and fear and back again, over and over, until I felt like throwing up from motion sickness. I didn’t want to think about it. If I thought about it, I mean really thought about it—about how my life, everything, would change…I don’t know. I’d have gone insane. Drooling-and-raving-to-myself insane. They’d have had to cart me off to a hospital all right, the kind with the special recreational facilities and padded walls.
But when it’s 2 a.m. and you’re wide awake and stuck in a room with the lights on, there’s nothing else to do but think. So I did. I thought about Sharm and Erwin, how they’d have probably arrived at our home town, and were now sleeping in the welcoming arms of their families. Well, Sharm at least would be welcome. I just hoped Erwin’s asshole dad and brother wouldn’t give him too hard a time while he was there. But God, how I wished they were with me right now. How I was going to get through this mess without my best friends to watch my back, I had no idea.
Thinking about my friends reminded me of something I’d forgotten in the chaos of dinner. I pulled my phone out and browsed through it until I found Sharm’s text about the likelihood of Tito Julio’s popping up. Her warning had arrived a couple of hours too late, but what had struck me was the last part of her message: “i textd reese 2. don’t worry, didn’t tell her much, but I told her 2 tell miguel 2 stik close 2 u.”
When I’d read it, my heart had jumped in a way that had nothing whatsoever to do with my uncle. I quickly pounded out my own message: “4 fuck’s sake, why?!”
I could almost hear her speaking in her sensible voice in her reply: “he needs 2 knw hw 2 protect u. jst talk 2 him, ok? u cnt deal w/ dis alone.”
If there’d been a way to send a glare through SMS, Sharm’s phone would have been scorched black by now. “NO WAY,” I typed furiously. “he’s got nothng 2 do w/ dis. I CAN handle myslf, u know.”
The thought that Miguel and Reese had some idea about what was going on between my uncle and me filled me with a sick dread. Still, when I noticed Reese glancing at me with puzzled curiosity, a touch of concern and nothing more—and since Miguel acted no differently from the way he usually did—I allowed myself to relax, assuming that Sharm had mentioned no more than my mysterious need for further company. The look on Reese’s face told me she was dying to ask me what was going on, but I figured I could easily lead her off with some fabricated story. She looked up to me, God alone knew why; it would be a simple enough matter to get her to believe me.
Migs, though…Migs could see right through me. I couldn’t lie to him; he’d know for sure something was wrong. And he’d want to solve this problem that was my life, because solving problems was what he did.
He’d protect me, Sharm had said.
No. Just…no. Much as I loved her, Sharm was a crazy woman. I couldn’t talk to Miguel about this. If he knew how fucked up I really was…I pictured him looking at me with disgust and condemnation in his eyes or worse, with nothing but cold indifference, the way he’d looked at my uncle, and the image caused my chest to constrict. I was surprised by how much it hurt. I mean, I wanted him to get over his infatuation by getting to know the real me, didn’t I? But if he did find out how ugly I really was inside, he’d become just like all the other guys who’d liked me before—angry that he’d been deceived by the packaging, disappointed that the real me couldn’t live up to the illusion. If that should happen, if Migs should turn out to be no better than Jeff or the others before, if he ended up hating me instead…I couldn’t finish the thought. It was getting too hard to breathe.
Far easier to tell myself that sharing my past would only add to the ties between us, something I was beginning to realize was not a good idea if I planned to turn him down soon. I was already going to hurt him; I didn’t need to burden him further with irrelevant information.
Besides, he was so…innocent. So idealistic and sweetly naïve. He possessed an incredibly complex mind, but he thought in such straightforward ways. I loved that about him; even deep sunk in my stupid period, I knew that. Onstage or in front of the camera, I could project rays of wholesomeness like a radioactive daisy, but Migs was the real deal. He was honest and honorable, and he wore his integrity like a knight of old with his suit of armor, while I was—well, I was a fraud, a liar, and generally the opposite of innocent. How could I expect him to understand? But fraud or not, I could still protect those precious things about Miguel, and I would. I swore I would.
But still, a small voice whispered wistfully, don’t you wonder what it would feel like to be protected? Aren’t you the least bit curious about how it would feel to know that he was close and that he’d keep you safe?
Of course not, I shot back with whatever part of my fogged-up brain was still capable of conscious thought. Of course not, but…it wouldn’t hurt to imagine, would it? Just for a little while. He’d asked me earlier where I’d be sleeping that night. Probably something he said to be polite, but I was so frazzled that I bit his head off. Now, as my vision dimmed and my thoughts began to lose all semblance of sense, I wondered how he’d have reacted if I told him that what I really wanted was to sleep in his room. I didn’t care if it was on the floor or in his chair or in his closet, as long as it was dark and safe and full of his presence. As long as I could press my face into the mattress and smell him there…
The next thing I knew, I was forcing crusty eyes open and wondering muzzily where all the sunlight was coming from. My neck, back and arms creaked and popped when I stood up, while every other part of me felt as if they belonged to an old, old woman. I opened the door to another scene from my childhood: Lola bustling about in the kitchen, the smell of omelet and garlic fried rice thick in the air, while Lolo lounged in the balcony with his customary morning coffee and cigarette. Tito Julio, thank the gods, was still splayed out among the cushions on the rug, raspy snores emerging from his open mouth.
At Lola’s questioning look, I smiled wanly and escaped to the bathroom, then nearly gave myself a fright when I looked in the mirror. With the help of a cold shower, a toothbrush and the skillful application of makeup, I was soon looking and feeling less like a ghoul and more like myself, ready face the world. Or at least able to fake it convincingly.
I was a cross between Little Miss Sunshine and Party Girl Barbie that day as I took my grandparents sightseeing around the city. Determined to make sure they had a great time—partly as a way to get their minds off my issues—I took them on a tour of the Intramuros right after Sunday Mass, followed by lunch at the Chef’s Quarter at Robinson’s Place, Malate, then wrapped up the day with a mad shopping spree in Makati. Tito Julio helped matters by taking himself off before Lola could turn him into a pack animal, but not before gorging himself on lamb shank and lacing every sentence he uttered with hidden meanings until it was all I could do not to smack the leer off his face.
By the end of the day, it was hard to tell who was more exhausted, my grandparents or me. Nevertheless, if Lola hadn’t pleaded with me to bring them home, I’d have gone on and on, like an Energizer Bunny high on methamphetamines. A strange momentum had me in its grip. I had a role to play and play it I would; to stop would be to court disaster. In fact, I was trying to decide whether to take them to a movie at the Glorietta or to a concert at the Greenbelt Theater after dinner when Lolo flagged down a taxi, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and tossed me inside unceremoniously while Lola held the door open. When we got back to the apartment, my grandparents barely managed to thank me for an eventful day before staggering off and crashing for the night.
At 8 frigging p.m. I dawdled in the kitchen, wondering what to do with myself for the rest of the night. Well, that should have been obvious. I was beyond tired. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, my face hurt—hey, you try smiling for twelve hours straight. At least in a shoot you get to take breaks. Lack of sleep was also taking its toll. My brain was throbbing and full of flashing lights, as if someone had crammed a rave club inside my skull; every thought had to fight its way through the crowd just to reach the bar, figuratively speaking. I made my way to Erwin’s room, sinking down on the mattress while my aching muscles wept with relief, and closed my eyes. There was no Tito Julio around to disturb my peace. I was safe.
And tomorrow, I had a doctor’s appointment to look forward to.
Just like that, I was flung back into the emotional stewpot I’d managed to evade formost of the day. Fear and hope, fear and hope, beating against the walls of my mind. There were new memories now, adding their voices to the fray. I recalled how my grandparents pointed out every single Shoujo Shine billboard they spotted, and how they insisted on visiting the Shoujo Shine stores in the malls just to look at the posters of the Shoujo Shine Girl adorning the pink and white, sakura-patterned walls. It had been pretty embarrassing at the time. The customers and sales clerks had recognized me—hard not to with my face gazing down upon us from every angle—resulting in a minor commotion. It took some quick talking and an impromptu advertising spiel from the real-live Shoujo Shine Girl to extricate us from the admiring crowds, but it was worth it just to see Lola acting like a giggly young girl basking in the attention. Lolo grumbled and glared the whole time, complaining about all the fuss over some over-priced clothing from those sunmabitch Japs, but later I saw him willingly fork over money so Lola could buy a bunch of teen magazines to add to her collection of Shoujo Shine Girl memorabilia.
They’re proud of me, I’d realized, touched to the depths of my soul. They’d been opposed to my modeling job in the beginning, worried about its effect my grades and my health. Nevertheless, they respected my decision and supported me all the way; Lola had even gone so far as to build a little shrine chronicling my career. My grandparents really loved me, and ungrateful bitch that I was, all I could do was give them more reasons to worry.
At one point, I stood back and looked at one of the billboards, trying to see it the way other people would. The girl in the billboard was perched on a stool in front of a pink and white background, dressed in a pleated, black and white plaid miniskirt, a white blouse and black boots, with her long, long hair tied back with white ribbons. She looked fresh-faced and wholesome—wholesome enough to appeal to parents—but the twinkle in her eyes and her almost-but-not-quite-provocative pose offered an intriguing hint of naughtiness to appeal to girls at that I-wanna-be-grown-up-and-sophisticated phase, not to mention boys at every phase. “I’m a good girl, but not that good,” the girl on the billboard seemed to say.
Jeez, I’d mused, how did I ever pull that off without looking like a kid pretending to be a Playboy Bunny? Then I realized what I was looking at: a picture of a beautiful, innocent, twelve-year-old girl. Not a twenty-year-old woman who couldn’t even remember what innocent felt like.
But that was what I really was. Then again, I was also a twenty-year-old woman who happened to look like a twelve-year-old girl. Looking like a twelve-year-old was part of who I was. It was even my job description. Printed on my contract in black and white. Oh fuck, I thought as a fresh wave of gut-crunching fear assaulted me, what am I going to do if the treatment makes me stop looking like that girl in the billboard? What would Morisato-san and Miss Gutierrez do when they found out?
They’d slap me with a lawsuit, that’s what. For violating the terms of the contract. For not being beautiful anymore. I’d be ruined—
Shut up! I yelled inwardly. That is not going to happen!
But the inner stewpot was relentless. What if the treatment made me ugly? What good would I be if I lost my looks? I’d be nothing, worse than nothing—
You don’t even know if the treatment will work!
Well then, what if it doesn’t work? the inner stewpot returned mockingly. Do you really want to stay like this forever? A child until the day you die?
No! Shut up! I sat up abruptly, sucking in deep gulps of air to keep the tears at bay. Like an answer to a prayer, my phone chimed at that moment. I fumbled around in my bag for it, then let out a little sigh when I read the message.
“hi. r u home yet? or r u stll tryng 2 convnce ur grdprnts 2 move 2 manila?”
It was Miguel, and despite my inner turmoil, a tingly sort of bliss spread through me as I imagined hearing his voice, warm and shy and tinged with humor all at the same time.
“ya, we’re home. lolo & lola r poopd,” I typed back. “w abt u? noticd u’re still out.”
“yup, still @ restrnt. lola’s cuttng her bday cake now. ballrm dancng 2 follow after. lookng 4wrd 2 that.”
His dry sarcasm made me laugh. I miss you. The thought flitted through my mind, almost beneath the level of awareness. “hey, real men r not afrd of ballrm,” I typed as I headed out to the balcony with my cigarette case and lighter, welcoming any excuse to avoid sleep for a while.
“no, rly. take d tango, 4 instnce. dance f luv & passion. now man + woman = luv & passion. can’t get manlier than dat.”
“manly = dressng up lyk penguin + chewng on roses?”
“such ignornce. remind me 2 teach u d tango sumday. let’s see hw u hold up 2 d test of strength & stamina dat tango is.”
I hit the “send” button before it dawned on me that I’d virtually asked him to dance with me. And not just any dance; the tango. As in arms around each other, eyes locked with each other’s, bodies moving together in a sultry rhythm as old as instinct. I choked on a lungful of smoke, glad that nobody was around to see how red my face was. I hoped he wouldn’t take that offer seriously. I mean, it was obviously just a joke.
“as long as it’s u.”
I stared at his reply, trying to ignore the way my heartbeat had begun to race. Was he—did he mean what I thought he—?
“shouldn’t b 2 hard 2 haul a midgt lyk u arnd a dance flr.”
Why,you— Scowling, I set my thumb to my phone, but his next message beeped in before I could rip off a scathing reply. “no wait, 4get it. jst saw my uncle hubert dancng w/ my aunt. m scarrd 4 lyf.” Then, about three seconds later— “sry, gotta go. i think ma’s going 2 make me dance w/ my cuz. hv 2 get out f here. c u l8r.”
And that was it. I lowered my phone, feeling vaguely indignant. What on earth was all that about? And where did he get off saying something so—so downright flirtatious, then taking it all back with an abruptness that was nearly insulting? I ought to make him dance the tango with me after all. I could use it as an excuse to wipe the floor with him.
One moment I was glaring at my phone and puffing angrily at my cigarette, the next I was laughing quietly to myself. Last night, it had been Reese who helped me get a hold of myself before my drama ruined dinner altogether. Now I owed her brother for taking my mind off my problems for a little while. Sharm and Erwin weren’t my only guardian angels; the Santillan siblings were looking out for me too, in their own little way.
The memory of Miguel standing close, gazing down at me with warm dark eyes behind his lenses, flickered in my mind. Migs dancing the tango, I thought with a grin. Boy, would I love to see that someday.
As long as it’s you he’s dancing with, right? whispered the tiny, bedeviling voice.
Duh, of course, I responded sharply. I’ll have to teach him the steps, after all. But after I’m done with him, he’ll be able to dance straight into the heart of any girl he fancies.
Oddly enough, the thought failed to cheer me up. I lit another cigarette and stared into the darkness, fighting back fatigue, melancholy and an intense if inexplicable wave of longing. After a while, I picked up my phone again and sent Giselle a text asking her if she and Jeff were anywhere near Sarah’s. Yes, it had gotten to the point where I much preferred to hang out with the Golden Couple rather than spend time in my own company. When an electronic voice informed me that Giselle’s phone was unavailable, I tried Jeff’s phone and hit paydirt.
“hey, u’re here? thot u’d gone home w/ erwin & sharm. ya, we’re here ryt now @ sarah’s. trey’s here 2, so come n ovr.”
After scribbling a note to Lolo and Lola telling them where I went, I did as Jeff instructed. That was another thing we loved about our apartment—its relative proximity to Sarah’s. Are you from anywhere near the campus? Oh, well then, Sarah’s is a popular watering hole located in the campus’ outer perimeter. It’s not exactly what you’d call swanky. It’s just somebody’s—presumably Sarah’s—house, garage and front yard converted into a restaurant via the addition of several non-matching tables and chairs. They don’t serve hard liquor at Sarah’s, it being technically inside the campus, but there’s an endless supply of beer and your choice of fish balls, squid balls, isaw, pork barbecue and chips. I like hanging out at Sarah’s. The waitresses know me there. I don’t have to produce two IDs, my birth certificate, plus one or two reliable witnesses to testify for me, just to be able to order an alcoholic beverage, which happens with aggravating constancy in every other bar or club I go to, even now. At Sarah’s, I can act my age without drawing dark looks from security personnel. For one thing, there are no security personnel, unless you count the group of burly men who were some of the regulars. Just one big happy family, that’s what we are at Sarah’s.
I found my friends at one of the tables. Giselle greeted me with a blunt comment about how awful I looked, which Jeff countered with the completely unbelievable remark that “awful” on me counted as “gorgeous” on anyone else. I eyed the Golden Couple carefully, noting the strained look on Giselle’s face, the charming smile Jeff was beaming at me, the distance separating the two, and finally, the ill-concealed look of gratitude on Trey’s face—then went to sit in the chair nearest Trey. Something strange was going on between those two, and by strange I meant “with the potential to cause extensive damage within a fifty-kilometer radius.” Safer to keep my distance until the worst blew over.
Conversation was awkward at first, with Trey and I forging on as best we could in the face of the cold war between the United States of Jeff and Soviet Giselle. But as the bottles of San Mig Light kept coming, the air cleared until the two began to act a little more like their normal, cuddly-wuddly selves again, much to our relief. Soon, I added smashed to exhausted, sleep-deprived, depressed and borderline psychotic as my current condition, and by the time Trey brought me home, the events of the past three hours had turned into a confused goulash of sounds and images soaked in alcohol.
It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d felt nothing at all when I looked at Jeff and Giselle. No jealousy, no bitterness, nothing. Erwin was right. I had gotten over Jeff, almost without my being aware of it. Pfft, how’s that for anticlimactic?
I woke up the next morning sprawled half-in and half-out of Erwin’s mattress, still dressed in the clothes I came home in. My ponytail had come undone during the night, and my hair stank of beer and cigarette smoke. Ugh. I sat on the floor, wondering why the hell I was awake when, judging by the way I was feeling, I should have been pronounced dead by now. The knock on my door answered that question.
“Ineng, wake up and eat your breakfast before it gets cold,” Lola called. “We have to go to the SSS this morning, and your appointment with Dr. Peña is at 1:30 this afternoon.”
Oh, right, that’s why. “Coming,” I replied, failing for a moment to recognize my own raspy croak. This time, I avoided my grandparents’ eyes altogether as I fled to the bathroom with my trusty makeup kit. I even refused to look straight in the mirror until I’d thoroughly cleaned up and repaired the worst damage the night had inflicted upon me. The improvement in my appearance boosted my spirits a little.
It was boring at the SSS. We spent most of the time sitting in uncomfortable chairs while we waited for Lolo’s name to be called. Lolo decided to use the time wisely and went to sleep with a newspaper draped over his face. I couldn’t do the same, much as my body was craving sleep. I was too busy being terrified, hopeful, anxious, full of bravado—you get the picture.
Lola soon noticed how tense I was; the way my clammy hands were gripping each other tightly might have given me away. She put down the copy of Go Girl she was leafing through, turned to me and said comfortingly, “Ineng, it will be all right. No matter how this turns out, everything will work out for the best.”
I forced my hands to relax. “I know, Lola. I—I guess I’m missing Sharm and Erwin, that’s all.”
“I understand, dear. The three of you have gone through everything together. It must feel so strange for you to do this without your friends to help you.” I nodded, feeling a rush of loneliness and longing for my friends. “I just want to know,” Lola went on, “how long have your friends known about your…condition?”
I stared down at my hands as my guts twisted with guilt. I knew where this was headed, and I couldn’t do a thing to stop it. It needed to be said, after all. “Since high school,” I answered in a small voice. “They noticed I wasn’t, well, growing bigger like the other girls were, so they asked me straight out and I—I couldn’t deny it.”
I closed my eyes briefly and prayed for forgiveness. What I’d told her was the truth, but not the entire truth. There was no question of me ever telling her what really happened; some things were better left behind the steel doors of the past.
“And you talked to no one else about this?” Lola’s quiet words belied her pain. “What about your school nurse or your health teacher? And the doctors at the UP Infirmary? Weren’t you required to undergo a medical exam as an incoming freshman?”
“I lied.” I shrugged, tacitly admitting that I’d lied to her as well. “During the medical exam in UP, they just checked to see if we were reasonably healthy, and I am healthy, Lola. I never get sick, ever. That’s why it’s so easy for me to stay away from doctors.”
“But weren’t you worried at all—” She caught the look on my face and shook her head. “Madre de dios. I wish you’d come to me about this sooner. We could have gone to a doctor and spared you years of needless aggravation.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled to my hands.
Lola sighed and reached out to stroke my hair. Her gentle touch and her concern in spite of all the worry and pain I’d caused her nearly undid me. “You were always such a vibrant child. Always smiling and laughing, always trying to make everyone around you smile and laugh as well. When your parents left, I thought you would lose that light inside you, and I was so relieved that you didn’t. Perhaps—perhaps I let that relief blind me,” she murmured, almost to herself. “I failed to see that you had learned to shut yourself up inside. Perhaps if I’d paid closer attention—”
“Lola, stop, please. It’s not your fault.” I stood up, unable to endure hearing any more of my grandmother’s self-incriminations. I’d never felt so low in my life. Summoning a smile from God knew where, I picked up her hand and squeezed it. “It doesn’t matter now. We’ll talk to that doctor and see what he has to say. I—this treatment, maybe it will—I’ll think about it. I mean, my parents…”
“These damn bureaucratic sunmabitches. All this waiting around is making me thirsty.” Lolo pulled the newspaper off his face and yawned, then turned to regard me steadily. “How about you go fetch your Lolo a beer, eh, firefly? A nice cold one—no, on second thought, I’ll come with you.” He rose to his feet, an eager grin slashing across his face. “I can do with a smoke as well. Now, I thought I saw some stores out in—”
“Ling! You can’t leave! You’re supposed to wait here until they call your name,” Lola scolded.
“But I want to—”
“No. Sit down, Simon. I refuse to wait in line again tomorrow if you miss your turn.”
Pouting, Lolo slumped back down in his chair. “Well?” he barked at me. “What are you still doing here? Go fetch me that beer, young lady.”
“No drinking alcohol inside government premises, Lolo. You’ll have to make do with a Coke,” I informed him with a grin.
Lolo waved me away. “Fine, fine, whatever you can find. Now off you go.”
With a sigh of relief, I went off in search of said drink, and if I took extra time to hide in a quiet corner where I could smoke and collect my thoughts, my grandparents breathed not a word about it.
By the time we arrived at the St. Luke’s Medical Center, I was as calm and composed as I could possibly be. There was a bit of a wait here, too; the receptionist informed us that Dr. Peña had gotten stuck in traffic and would be a little late. I sat stiffly between Lolo and Lola until I realized how much it made me look like a scared kid at her first dental appointment, so I got up and started pacing around the waiting room instead.
I’m not afraid, I chanted to myself. I’m not afraid. Everything will be fine. I’m fine.
The door burst opened, making me jump three feet in the air. “I’m so sorry,” gasped the man who came striding in, white coat flapping. “There was an almighty fender-bender back on—oh!”
I spun around, one hand clutching my chest, causing the man to halt halfway inside and gape at me. I gaped right back. The man—Dr. Peña, I presumed—was in his late 40s, of average build, with a receding hairline and a pair of spectacles. He would have been completely nondescript, except that he had the kindest, sweetest face I’d ever seen on anything that wasn’t a baby or a statue of the Buddha. The man exuded an aura that invited instant trust and affection, which must come in handy in his profession. I was in awe. I wanted to drop to my knees and beg him to teach me his secret technique for inspiring such faith in total strangers.
“Miss Ivy Lopez?” the Buddha spake unto me, sounding equally astonished. Then his brows scrunched together. “Hmm. This is going to sound strange, but have we met? You seem familiar, somehow.”
“Miss Lopez has an appointment with you this afternoon,” his receptionist supplied.
“Yes, I can see that.” When he continued to gaze at me in confusion, however, I decided to take a more proactive approach.
“Do you have daughters, Doctor?” I said with a smile. “Age ten to fifteen, maybe?”
He blinked. “Why, yes, I do. Twin girls, in fact, age twelve. And a fourteen-year-old son—oh!” His face suddenly cleared. “My goodness, you’re that lovely young girl in those ads from the Japanese clothing boutique. My daughters are always whining to their mother about buying them new outfits from your store. Ah, and I think I’ve recently heard my son mention you when he was talking to a friend on the phone.”
“Your son?” I asked, surprised.
It was his turn to smile. “Yes. It was in relation to how attracted they were to you—that is, to the girl you portray in your ads. Although now that I’ve seen you, I’m beginning to understand the reason for his fascination. In any case, I’m Dr. Luis Peña, head of the Endocrinology Section here at the St. Luke’s.”
His manner became more professional as he shook my hand and introduced himself to my grandparents. We followed him into his office, and I sat gingerly on the chair in front of his desk while he scanned the form his receptionist had asked me to fill up, then picked up a pen. “Your aunt, Mrs. Milagros Baes, already gave me the basics of your case. Your main concern is that you have not yet undergone puberty even though you’re already 20 years old, is that correct?”
“Yes,” I said, then repeated it in a voice more audible than a thready whisper. I was awash in a sense of unreality. Here I was, sitting in front of a doctor and talking about what a freak I was. Exactly the situation I’d tried for years to avoid. Until now, that is.
He lowered his pen and smiled his Buddha smile. “You look nervous, Miss Lopez. I understand how uneasy you must feel, but I assure you I won’t do anything that would cause you discomfort, so please try to relax. I must admit I was a little confused by your aunt’s description of your symptoms. And perhaps her, er, rather fanciful theories regarding the underlying causes of your condition were not very helpful either.”
My face burned with humiliation, while Lolo muttered something unflattering about his niece and the wet cotton she had stuffed in the space between her ears. We all had a good idea what Tita Mila’s theories were, and trust me, none of them were the least bit scientific.
The good doctor coughed. “At any rate, I’d like to get a clearer picture of your case before we can find the best way to treat your condition. Follow me, please.”
He gave me a thorough physical examination, then proceeded to gently grill me and my grandparents about my and our family’s medical history. I noted with increasing apprehension that his expression grew more and more somber, despite his soothing manner and Buddhic aura.
Eventually, he returned to his desk, looking deep in thought, then reached for a pad and a pen. “I’m going to ask you to undergo some blood tests so we can check for chromosomal abnormalities and hormone levels. I’d also like to rule out any other conditions that might have caused your delayed development, such as anemia or diabetes. A bone x-ray, too, which really should have been done much earlier.”
He rattled off more instructions and filled sheet after sheet with incomprehensible scribblings. I gave the resulting sheaf he handed to me a cursory glance, then looked up at him. “What’s wrong with me, Doctor?” I blurted, then cringed inwardly at the horrid, medical-drama cliché I’d just uttered.
Dr. Peña exhaled. “From what I can tell, your body’s development seems to have been arrested at the earliest stage of puberty. You have not had menarche or pubarche, but you appear to be in your Tanner Stage 2 development. That is, your breast buds have begun to develop, but nothing else has. This non-appearance of any signs of puberty is already a huge red flag in a sixteen-year-old, much less a twenty-year-old. I’m astounded at how you managed to hold off medical treatment until now. Hiding in plain sight, so to speak, hm?” he queried with a knowing twinkle.
I leaned forward again, ignoring my guilty blush. “But what’s wrong, really? Why is my body…like this?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. We’ll have to wait for the results of the blood tests and bone x-ray before we can narrow down the possibilities.”
“But it can’t be what my niece-in-law said. Isn’t that right, Doctor?” Lola interjected with a fake-sounding laugh. “There’s no a curse or anything, ah, supernatural involved?”
Lolo’s eyebrows drew together. “Rosa, the man already said—”
“Yes, I know what he said,” Lola retorted. “I just want to know exactly what to say to Mila the next time I speak to her.”
“It can be several things,” Dr. Peña answered. “Growth hormone deficiency, Kallman Syndrome, Turner Syndrome—”
“Hypopituitarism,” I murmured, recalling Miguel’s research on my condition.
“Yes, hypopituitarism is also a possibility. But with respect to Mrs. Baes, I doubt the supernatural has anything to do with your granddaughter’s condition.” Dr. Peña sighed and regarded us gravely over his steepled fingers. “Miss Lopez, I’m sure you and your grandparents are aware that treating your condition will be a little more complicated than treating, say, an infection or a simple injury. I have other patients like you, and I have found that their treatment works best in tandem with therapy or counseling to help them adjust to the changes, both physical and emotional. I’m telling you now, it won’t be easy. Especially in your case, given your chosen career, so I want you to think long and hard about what you’ll be committing yourself to.”
My eyes widened. Does that mean I can say no? An escape route! A light at the end of the tunnel!
“While her modeling is important, Ivy’s health comes first,” Lola declared.
No! The light at the end of the tunnel has vanished! “Yes, I’ll think about it,” I said tiredly, wanting nothing more than to be gone from there. We were about to exit his clinic when another thought occurred to me. “By the way, Doctor,” I said, turning to him.
“About my condition…please don’t tell anyone, especially—”
Dr. Peña smiled warmly. “I won’t, Miss Lopez. Doctor’s confidentiality. Besides, it’ll be nice to have one up over my children again, even if they won’t know about it. I’ll see you soon.”
I felt exhausted and terribly drained by the time we arrived home. A heaviness seemed to envelope me, making it hard for me to move or think or feel. I wanted to crawl into a safe place where my churning inner stewpot couldn’t reach me and just let go, but I couldn’t. Not when my grandparents were trying so hard to cheer me up. Lola was mother-henning me to death—cooking up an elaborate meal to celebrate my first medical appointment, letting me take my time in the bathroom instead of getting me to clean up immediately, telling me how brave and poised I’d been in that doctor’s office. Lolo, on the other hand, was extra-loud, extra-jovial, and twice as abusive toward the table. I didn’t have the heart to tell them off. A good actress stayed in character all the time, no matter the circumstances, and I did just that, shoving aside all thoughts of treatment, of changes, and of vibrant children who shut themselves up inside.
To my surprise, people seemed to view the fact that I’d finally seen a doctor as some sort of milestone. Erwin and Sharm both texted, asking how the appointment went and congratulating me on my scrounging up the guts to actually go through with it. Reese texted as well, as did Trey and Giselle, even though I had no memory of telling them about the appointment. Betrayed by Sarah’s and San Miguel.
Even more mystifying was Jeff’s message, in which he told me how happy he was that I’d finally decided to face my fears and what my decision meant for us in the future. One big, fat “HUH?”, that one. I stared at my phone askance, then decided to leave off attempting to decode the ramblings of this half of the Golden Couple.
I also got a text from Alisha, Morisato-san’s secretary at Shoujo Shine, informing me that Morisato-san would like to meet me over lunch tomorrow. I knew a moment of icy terror, thinking that they had somehow found out about my visit to Dr. Peña, but I calmed down a few minutes later. They couldn’t have found out. I hadn’t told anyone—well, okay, I hadn’t told anyone who had anything to do with Shoujo Shine, DM Ross, and the clothing and fashion industries in general. This was probably about some upcoming event. Everything would be fine. Probably.
So in short, I got a lot of messages. SMS was definitely thriving that night. But as the hours passed, I found myself feeling more and more dejected. Miguel hadn’t texted at all. The one person I thought would care enough to remember this major event in my life—I mean, his sister sent a message, so what gives?
Finally, I took matters into my own hands and sent him a text of my own. “hey migs, where r u?”
It took him some time to respond. “sry, jst got back home. wsup?”
My eyes narrowed. What’s up? Didn’t he know? “not mch. i hvn’t seen u arnd 2day. so where u been?”
“went 2 lala’s hse w/ alvn & leo. her dad gave her a ps2, helpd set it up. gave it a test run while i ws at it.”
Lala? That prissy little—that preppy girl who’s been in love with him since birth? Well, wasn’t that nice? He was bonding with her. And who knew, he might even sprout a clue, notice her feelings for him and return in kind, thus sparing me the dreadful task of turning him down. A win-win situation. Very promising. I started composing a teasing rejoinder about the joys of youth, but my phone chimed again before I could send it.
“ws it as bad as u thot it wd b?”
A little flower of happiness bloomed somewhere in the vicinity of my heart. So he did remember. Then I thought about his question, and was astonished at my own response.
“no, it wsnt,” I typed back, letting the remarkable insight sink in. “it rly wsnt.”
And the strange thing was, I could easily picture him smiling at me, almost as if he was standing there right in front of me. “gotta eat dinner,” he sent a minute later. “i’ll c u.”
I miss you.
I put my phone down before I unwittingly texted that thought. The heaviness surrounding me lightened a bit after our exchange, but as the evening wore on, I could feel the inner stewpot stalking me again behind my mask until I was almost afraid to go to sleep. Then again, why shouldn’t I sleep? Everything was okay now. I’d managed to get through that doctor’s appointment without expiring on the spot, Tito Julio was still blessedly absent, and besides, I needed to sleep. If I showed up at that luncheon meeting looking the way I did, my worst-case career scenario would probably turn into reality quicker than I could say “so sue me.”
That night, I lay in Erwin’s room with my eyes closed, listening to the ticking of the clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock…a soothing rhythm, leading me off to sleep in this bed that still smelled like Erwin. Gee, I hoped he was okay. I hoped his mom was okay. Oh shit, I hadn’t even thought to ask how he was doing, if he’d been keeping out of the way of his brother’s fists. No, no, he was fine. Sharm was there to watch his back.
Sharm, whom I used to hate. Sharm, who was everything I wished I could be. But now, I finally had a chance to be like her. I could finally grow up. A woman at last. At last.
Would that make it worth it, going through this treatment? The costs, the risks… Oh God, the blood tests. I hated the sight of blood. I hated physical pain even more. What was wrong with me, anyway? Why wasn’t I normal? Did Nanay do drugs while she was pregnant with me? Did Tatay hit her or something? No, he couldn’t have hit her. He was more about running away than confronting things head-on. It was Nanay who loved confrontations—couldn’t seem to get enough of them. But in the end, she’d run, too.
I opened my eyes and stared up at the darkened ceiling, trying to escape the images cascading through my mind like toxic confetti. Images from my childhood, memories I thought were dead and buried…why now? Why was I regurgitating this tired old shit? It was over and done with. I’d vowed never to look back.
A vibrant child, huh? Was that what I was like? And I had a light inside me? I suppose I did. At least until I learned to shut myself up inside.
But I had to. Because it worked, didn’t it? It kept me safe. And in the darkness of my mind, another door slammed shut, another floor felt cold and wet underneath me, the uneven tiles chafing my skin, the smell of puke sharp and sour but strangely welcome, my thighs still streaked with blood and vomit, still burning, burning—
“Shit!” I swore. It came out sounding like a sob. I glanced over at the clock and groaned into my hands. It was barely past 1:30. Yeah? Well, screw that, and screw sleep too. I got up and grabbed my cigarette case and lighter and, almost as an afterthought, my phone as well, then padded out to the balcony. I eschewed the lounge area in favor of sitting in the dark on the floor, with my back against the washing machine. I didn’t want to risk waking my grandparents, and besides, it matched the mood I was in.
I sat there until I began to lose track of both time and the number of cigarettes I’d consumed. In the dark, it was so easy to believe that I was all alone, that there was nobody I could reach out to, nobody who could help me get through this. The two people I trusted the most weren’t even around. Loneliness and longing mingled with a weariness that was bone-deep. I was beginning to disintegrate, and I knew it.
Just talk to him, Sharm had said. He’ll protect you. You can’t deal with this alone.
Almost on its own volition, my hand moved, picked up my phone and hit Miguel’s number. I only had a hazy idea what I was doing, and flat-out didn’t know what I was going to say to him. All I knew was that I needed to hear his voice. That was it. If I could just hear his voice, then I’d know I’d be fine. Everything would be fine.
His phone rang and rang, and panic shot through me. He wasn’t going to answer. Maybe he didn’t want to answer. Oh God, Migs, please answer the phone. Then—
His voice, low and gravelly with sleep, finally came through. I closed my eyes and let the sound wash over me, a couple of tears leaking from my eyelids. “Um, hi,” I managed around the lump in my throat. “Were you asleep? Of course you were. I’m sorry I woke you.”
“What’s the matter?”
I had to smile. That’s my Migs, all right. Mr. Wastes No Words. “I—I couldn’t sleep—”
“I’ll be right over.”
I looked blankly at my phone as the line went dead. What did he mean he’d be right over? As in here? Now? Why would he want to? And how soon could he get here? I lit another cigarette and gazed out into the darkness, ears straining for the sound of his arrival, and when he stepped out onto the balcony some minutes later, dressed in shorts and a sweatshirt, I swear my ghost flew out of my body and wrapped around him in a grateful hug.
After spotting me by the glow of my cigarette, he walked over quickly and knelt on one knee in front of me. Even though it was too dark to see him clearly, I could feel his gaze roving over me as though checking for injuries. I was glad for the darkness, which meant he couldn’t see how awful I looked. Stubbing out my cigarette in the ashtray beside me, I looked up into his eyes and smiled.
“Hey, Migs. Nice of you to drop by,” I drawled, only it came out sounding weak and quavery.
He snorted. “That’s got to be the tiredest line you could possibly come up with in this situation. And you didn’t even deliver it right.”
His actions, however, belied the gruffness of his words: he gently traced his fingers over my face, brushing my hair off my forehead, wiping away the remaining dampness on my cheeks with his thumb. I leaned into his touch, powerless to do otherwise. At that moment, it was entirely conceivable that my life was his to do as he pleased.
“Ivy,” he whispered huskily. “Hey, it’s okay.”
I’ve missed you, Migs. I bit my lip hard to keep those words from slipping out, but to my dismay, I couldn’t prevent a few more tears from escaping and spilling over his thumb. Embarrassed, I drew away and scrubbed at my face, trying to regain some composure.
“Sorry about this,” I said with a sheepish little hiccup. “Like I said, I couldn’t sleep. I—I guess I just needed some company, and you happened to be particularly unlucky tonight.”
I sensed his smile before he moved to sit beside me, his arms resting on his knees. I glanced at him across the six-inch gap separating us, then turned to gaze into the darkness again. We didn’t speak for a long time, simply letting the silence weave a cocoon around us while something tense and wounded inside me began to dissolve. Later, I would question how it had come to pass that his mere presence was enough to calm the worst of my storms. Right now, though, all that mattered was that he was here beside me, and that I was finally safe.
After a while, he tilted his head toward me and quipped, “Let me guess: When you said it wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be, you actually meant it was worse, right?”
I shook my head. “No, I didn’t. It actually went pretty well, in fact. Dr. Peña was so nice. He had the Buddha thing going for him.”
“The Buddha thing?”
“Yeah.Or the Gerber Baby thing, especially when he smiles.” Laughing a little, I told him about my initial impression of the good doctor, then continued on to Dr. Peña’s initial suspicions about my condition and my fear of blood tests.
“Well, it is kind of hard to tell what exactly you’ve got without those tests, since you don’t have any outward symptoms other than, uh, the obvious,” he said, his voice taking on the faintly lecturing tone he used whenever he was explaining something. “Your sense of smell is normal, but you still need to get your hormone levels checked to make sure it’s not Kallman Syndrome. Same goes for growth hormone deficiency and hypopituitarism. You’re short—”
“Hey!” I interjected. “I’m not short!”
“My bad,” he replied dryly. “You’re actually very tall but that hunch on your back makes it hard to tell.”
Giggling, I gave him a punch on the arm. “No, you jackass, I mean you’re not supposed to call a girl short. You’re supposed to call her petite or dainty or something similar.”
“Petite,” he echoed blankly, then rolled his eyes when I nodded. “Fine. You’re short—excuse me, you’re petite—but you don’t have extra folds of skin on your neck or any of the other physical features of Turner Syndrome—”
“Gee, you think?” I cut in again as my hands flew to my neck to make sure the amount of skin there remained the same.
He leveled a frown at me. “Quit interrupting. Anyway, you need those tests to figure out what the problem is and how to treat it. It might hurt for a little while, but it’ll make you feel better in the long run if you know what you’re up against,” he finished earnestly.
I looked at him in amazement. “Wow. You’ve given this some thought, haven’t you?”
“Um, yeah. Sort of,” he mumbled, pushing his glasses up in a familiar gesture of self-consciousness.
“And all that stuff about Kallman Syndrome and Turner Syndrome and—”
“I did some more reading on the Internet this morning. I knew your doctor’s appointment was today—well, I suppose it’s yesterday now—so I thought…”
So he thought he’d try to help me the best way he knew how.
“I’ll give you the printouts later,” he added. “You can read them if you want to.”
Turning away, I wrapped my arms around my middle to keep from closing that gap between us and hugging him. I couldn’t even speak for fear of what would emerge.
“Ivy.” I looked up at him, and his dark eyes filled my world. “You thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?” he asked quietly.
I gulped, feeling suddenly breathless. “I—maybe. I don’t know.”
“Idiot,” he murmured, shaking his head. “I don’t forget anything that involves you.”
“Oh.” Oh God, why is my heart beating so fast? “H-have you tried hypnotism?” I attempted to joke, desperate to get back on solid ground.
Instead of replying, he stared at me until my face grew hot, until I was convinced he was keeping quiet because he was listening to the hammering in my chest. Then he smiled his half-smile and held his hand out to me. I blinked up at him, then down at his hand. Then slowly, I loosened my hold around my waist and slipped my hand into his.
The contact felt like electricity, I kid you not. It made my nerves tingle all the way to the top of my head, and I couldn’t have pulled away even if I’d wanted to. It felt right to have his hand holding mine, his fingers enmeshed with mine, his warmth flowing into me… It felt perfect. A sense of peace invaded me, and I found myself smiling back, thanking him without saying a word. When he gave my hand a gentle squeeze, I knew he understood.
The silence returned as we gazed out into the darkness, our intertwined hands lying between us. I leaned my head back against the washing machine, feeling the pull of sleep but unwilling to let this moment end. I was also still wary of sleep, wondering if my inner emotional stewpot was lurking somewhere, waiting to ambush me, but my mind was quiet for once. I listened to the sound of Miguel’s breathing, savored the feel of my hand cradled in his, and soon my eyelids began to droop shut.
“That’s not the only reason you can’t sleep, is it?”
My eyes flew open as my body tensed. I can’t tell him, I thought frantically. He can’t ever find out. He’ll change, he won’t understand, he’ll end up hating me… “No,” I whispered without looking at him, “but I can’t tell you yet.” I can’t tell you, ever.
“Okay.” He squeezed my hand again. Then, in yet another surprise move, he scooted over until our shoulders were nearly touching, then gave me an oddly shy look. “Um, listen, it’s okay, you know,” he began, then pushed his glasses up and cleared his throat. “You can relax now. There’s no audience around, so you can sleep if you want to. I’ll watch over you.”
I stared at him as something inside me began to crack and splinter. Then all at once, I didn’t care anymore. With a grateful sigh, I snuggled closer into his side until I could breathe in the smell of him, laid my head on his shoulder, and floated away into oblivion.