Q. 9: Aww. But your first date must have been so romantic. – IVY

READ IVY’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 8

IVY

Romantic? Our first date? Let me think… Hahahahaha!

Oh God, sorry. It’s just that I can describe our first date in so many words—and I will in a minute—but romantic?

Well, maybe that was the original intent. And yeah, that was how it went at first, but the way it turned out…You know, Migs and I agreed years ago not to count this as our first official date. We’ve only labeled it such because it was the first time he’d asked me out on anything that didn’t involve studying in the library, riding his bike around the neighborhood, drinking Cokes and hanging out around the campusor at the corner store or at our place. Not that I didn’t enjoy all that, it’s just that—well, you get it, right? This date was supposed to have been different. It was supposed to have been the first time we’d be together in public, not as friends just hanging around and chillin’ but as…as…

Pfft, honestly? I wasn’t even sure what we were. Definitely more than friends. I mean, you don’t kiss someone the way we kissed each other and still retain a prayer of convincing anyone that we were just good friends, practically brother and sister really, everything completely platonic and aboveboard, hey? But we weren’t together either. We couldn’t be together, not the way I dared to imagine he wanted us to be. Not the way I wished we could be. If he’d been a few years older, or if I’d been a few years younger… but we weren’t. And he couldn’t be mine. There was no way. It would break so many rules it wasn’t even funny.

And now, thanks to some bizarre twist of fate, it wasn’t even going to be a date date, more like a casual group date with a bunch of Migs’ old friends. By all rights, I should have been relieved. Somehow, it seemed as if the Universe was stepping in to make things easier for me to do right by him. With each touch, each kiss, we were crossing lines that were never meant to be crossed, and it was starting to occur to me that maybe there was a reason my subconscious mind had clung for so long to my general denseness when it came to my feelings for Migs. But now that the protective layer of my self-ignorance had been stripped away…

Miss Belle and Erwin were right. I had to end this…whatever it was between us before we found ourselves ass-deep in trouble. I had to keep it from going any further. Therefore, I should’ve been glad that our first date was shaping up to be as romantic and intimate as a school field trip.

I told myself that over and over again on the taxi ride on the way to SM, in the hopes that by the hundredth repetition it would finally snuff out the disappointed yearning and the resentful feeling that I’d been cheated somehow. It wasn’t working, though. I so had my heart set on this date, on giving myself a chance to find out what it would have been like if Migs and I were just a perfectly normal guy and girl becoming a couple in a perfectly normal way. I wanted a taste of that perfect normality before the rules finally caught up with us and forced me to give it all up. This date was supposed to have given me that, and I’d sworn that in return, I would have been content with it. I would have to be. But now it seemed as if I wasn’t even going to be given that much. Okay then, Universe, if that’s how it was going to be, then I would just have to take my own chances.

On the upside, I looked absolutely smashing.

Oh yeah, I was in full battle gear, all right. Nothing too flashy or overdone, just a sleeveless, peach-colored tank dress banded with pink and yellow stripes. The dress was quintessentially Shoujo Shine though, which is to say it appeared girlish and modest, but the pink and yellow stripes across the chest, waist and hem subtly hinted at not-so-girlish curves, and the skirt that ended a perfectly respectable inch above the knee tended to flare outward as I moved to reveal a flash of thigh every now and then. Innocent with a dash of naughty. God bless Orion Kenichi.

A pair of strappy sandals drew further attention to my legs, while the low-cut scoop neck of the dress, which would have been R-rated on a woman like Sharm, who actually had boobs, only served to highlight my complexion and the copper-rose necklace around my throat. My hair? Done up in a half-bun and held in place by the copper-rose chopstick, with the rest of my hair conditioned, blow-dried and brushed to shampoo-commercial levels of shininess, then left to flow down my back to tempt male hands into touching it. Well, one particular male’s hands, anyway. The dress’ inch-wide straps? So I’d have an excuse to snuggle up to said male and get him to put his arm around me should we find ourselves, say, in a chilly movie theater or something. The white, knit cardigan I’d tied around the strap of my purse? So I wouldn’t catch a chill for real and contract pneumonia and die a horrible death. I wasn’t completely dumb, you know.

Recalling Migs’ reaction to seeing me all done up for the photo shoot, I decided to forego makeup, except for some strawberry-flavored lip gloss. You never know, right? I just might succeed in stealing him away from his friends so we could spend some quality time together. Like, say, in a darkened movie theater or something. And as a final touch: vanilla perfume applied strategically. So as to make it clear that there were benefits to being with me that he wouldn’t get from his band of brothers.

Oh yes, I was armed and ready. Maybe even a little too armed, I thought when I noticed the taxi driver giving me “friendly” looks in the rearview mirror. Luckily, all he did was leer at me as I hastily paid the fare and scrambled out. As luck would have it, I was early—the mall security guards had yet to unlock the doors. Perching on a step among all the other mall-goers milling about waiting for the doors to open, I popped a pair of sunglasses upon my nose and dug out my chiming phone from my purse.

It was Migs. running a bit late. sorry abt dis. meet u at natl bkstore in 30 mins.

Sighing, I typed ok, see u soon, and clicked send.The skin on the back of my neck tingled with the familiar feeling of being watched. Looking up, I spotted a group of teenaged boys staring at me and elbowing one another as though egging one another to try and approach me. Rolling my eyes behind my sunglasses, I reached into my purse and pulled out my first line of defense: my cigarette case and silver lighter. As I lit up, I watched in amusement as the boys drew back in alarm. Several other people—adults, mostly—eyed me disapprovingly, but thankfully they appeared content to leave the clearly disturbed delinquent alone.

When the doors finally opened, I wandered around the mall for several minutes, then made a pit stop at the restroom to freshen up before heading to National Bookstore. Weaving through the throng of parents and kids raiding the school supplies section in preparation for the start of the new school term, I headed toward the relatively more peaceful sanctuary of the contemporary literature section. I scanned the book covers, running my hands across the spines, breathing in the scent of ink and paper. Ah, my own little religious moment. Who knew, right? Maybe one day I’d be gazing at a book shelf where my own novel would be displayed. What would it feel like to hold my book in my hands, run my hands over its spine and breathe in its smell? What would it feel like to see people reading a book I’d written, enjoying the places and characters I’d only seen before in my head?

I soon found myself drifting off into an impromptu brainstorming session. I already had the beginnings of an idea for a magical-realist novel germinating in a corner of my mind—this, despite my adviser’s campaign to get me to focus on my collection of short stories for my undergrad thesis—and as I scanned through the various books, a new idea about the plot and setting came to me. Holding my breath to keep the thought from fluttering off before I could capture it, I reached into my purse for the small notebook and pen I always carried and began scribbling madly on a page.

Then everything went dark as a pair of hands reached around from behind and covered my eyes. A smile broke across my face. I might have been lost in fantasy land, but I could instantly tell it was him from his touch and from the familiar sense of safety I always felt when I was with him. Of course, the delicious scent of his cologne helped. All at once, I felt flushed and lightheaded and alive, reveling in the knowledge that he was here, that he was close, and that I loved him more than words could say.

Still, there was the principle of the thing. With that in mind, I sighed loudly as I stowed away my notebook. “Richard, I told you, we can’t be together right now. My date might show up at any minute.”

The hands fell away and Miguel appeared, wearing an annoyed scowl. “Who’s Richard?”

I gasped and pressed a hand to my chest as though overcome with astonishment. “Migs! Oh my, what a coincidence running into you here. Tell me, are you alone or are you meeting anyone in particular?”

Understanding flashed in his dark eyes, followed quickly by humor even as he narrowed his eyes at me. “I’ll get you for that,” he vowed.

“Hey, you had it coming, thinking you could take me by surprise like that,” I countered with a laugh.

There was a brief pause as he examined that argument, then rolled his eyes to the ceiling when he was forced to concede. “Fine. But tell Richard he can do his own stalking from now on. I’m sick of subbing for him.”

“Oh, Richard. He can’t even make the effort.” I pretended to look mournful while Miguel nodded in sympathy. Then our eyes met, and we both cracked up at our silliness. In the moment that followed, we took the time to let our gazes roam over each other. I had to work to keep from sighing at the sight of him. He was wearing a gray and blue plaid shirt over a black T-shirt, gray jeans and sneakers. The plaid shirt was unbuttoned and pushed back on his shoulders, and his T-shirt was hanging loose—exactly the way I’d fixed his clothes on the trip to Belle Giardino. The boy did love his variations on the theme of black and gray; his wardrobe must look like the doorway to Depression City.

But he sure made unrelentingly neutral look so damn cute.

His gaze traveled from the top of my head to my feet and back up again. “You look—” He broke off and turned red, as though unable to find the words.

I shook my head, making the beaded chains of the chopstick sway along with my hair, drawing his eyes to it. “Normal, I hope?” I asked lightly.

“Amazingly normal,” he answered with that sweet, sexy half-smile of his.

“You clean up well yourself, Migs,” I managed before succumbing to another attack of blushing schoolgirl-itis.

He seemed to sense the awkwardness as well. Thrusting one hand into his pocket, he pushed his glasses up his nose and cleared his throat. “Do you mind—”

“Where’s every—?” I began at the same time. We stopped and looked at each other, then laughed in embarrassment. “You go first,” I said.

“Um, right.” He cleared his throat again, then said in a rush, “Is that book any good?”

I followed the direction of his gaze to one of the books sitting on the shelf beside me, which turned out to be a Milan Kundera novel. “This one? Yeah, I—”

The moment I turned my face aside, he swooped in and kissed me on the cheek. Sparklers burst into life inside me, and I gazed up at him in wonder as my fingers lifted to cover the heated spot on my cheek that his lips had touched. He was blushing like crazy, but when he met my gaze shyly and offered a small smile, I thought it safe to assume that he wasn’t really interested in anyone’s unbearable lightness of being.

Wouldn’t you know it, he did manage to take me by surprise after all.

When I remained unmoving, he dropped his gaze again. “We should go,” he mumbled, pushing his glasses up and turning away.

I grabbed the back of his shirt before he could take another step, and he turned to look at me. Drawing from my own core of determination, I looked him in the eye despite the furnace-glow of my own face. For now, I’m taking this. “You know you can do better than that, right?” I said softly.

His dark eyes widened slightly, then turned breathtakingly intense. I tilted my face up and let my eyelids slide closed as he lowered his head to mine, and our lips pressed together and clung sweetly.

“Holy—!”

At that shocked cry, we pulled apart so quickly I nearly gave myself whiplash, and found Alvin staring fish-eyed down at us over the top of a bookshelf. Somebody else muttered something, then Alvin disappeared with the sound of rubber scraping against wood, as though he’d been yanked backward off his perch on the shelf. Migs only had enough time to give me a regretful look before his friend came charging out from the other end of the aisle, followed by Leo, who as usual had a pair of earphones stuck in his ears.

“Holy mother!” Alvin blurted again, still gaping at Miguel and wearing the kind of expression that was usually followed by exciting scenes involving briskly efficient paramedics. “Did you just—did I just see you—guuhh! I did see you! Paras, pass me the brain-bleach, quick!”

“Shut up,” Miguel muttered but Alvin’s attention had already shifted. “Holy—” he choked off again as he took in the sight of me, then just stood there staring at me with his mouth hanging slightly open.

“Ah, was that a ‘hello’ or should I be making the sign of the cross?” I joked, amused by his antics.

“Hey, I’ll say ‘amen’ to you anytime, gorgeous.” Ignoring Migs’ glower, Alvin grabbed my hand and clasped it in both of his. “I don’t know where you came from, but would you do me a favor and spread the word there that I’m available? In the meantime, please take care of our buddy here. Despite what it seems, we’re pretty sure he’s an actual human being and not the bastard son of a Vulcan.”

“Alvin, try not to get yourself killed if you can help it,” Miguel said irately as he extricated my hand from Alvin’s grasp and folded it protectively in his.

Oblivious to his friend’s bad temper, Alvin threw an arm around the back of his neck to pull him down into a headlock and give him a noogie. “Oh man, oh man. Santillan, you are one steeeeenkingly lucky skink, you know that?” he announced while Miguel struggled to shove him off.

While all this was going on, Leo stepped up beside me. “You wanna listen?”

I blinked as he took off his earphones and offered them to me with the solemn air of an initiating officer in a secret society rite. “Sure,” I replied and obligingly put them on, a little hampered by the fact that I had to do it with one hand, since my other hand was still securely encased in Migs’. “Parokya ni Edgar, right?” I hazarded after listening for a while to the sound of raw guitars, crashing drumbeats and humorous lyrics.

“Yeah,” he said as he retrieved his earphone and stuck it back in his ear.

“Some of the band members are from UP, you know,” I added with a surge of school pride.

“Yeah, they are.” He gave me a long, thoughtful look, and it occurred to me that this dreamy, seemingly slow kid was actually far more perceptive than the hyperactive Alvin. Then Leo grinned. “Congrats.”

“Um, thanks,” I answered as a worm of unease uncoiled inside me at the realization that people were assuming that Migs and I were a couple. Not that I blamed them, given the way we were acting, but still… As we headed off to meet up with their other friends at the records section of the department store, Miguel fell into step beside me and gave me a warm, shyly intimate smile. I smiled back, floating with happiness, and determinedly shoved the unease to the back of my mind.

“—a little warning next time? Before you pull that sort of stunt again? You could cause some serious psychological damage, you know,” Alvin pretended to grouse.

“He did warn you. You just weren’t listening,” Leo admonished mildly.

“I was, too, but all he said over the phone was that he needed our help busting him out of the house so he could meet up with Ivy. He didn’t say anything about the two of them being all, you know, kissy-kissy and stuff.”

“Jeez, Alvin, how about announcing everything over the PA so everyone in the building can hear you?” Miguel grumbled, turning crimson and glaring murderously at Alvin.

“Hey, I’m just saying,” Alvin sniffed.

Hollering’s more like it.”

“He’s just jealous.”

Leo’s bland observation caused Alvin to puff up indignantly. “I’m not jealous. Here, watch this.” He spun around so that he was walking backward and looking at me at the same time. “Hello, Ivy. You are a total knockout. Can I kiss you, too?”

Before I could respond, Migs stepped in between us. “Back off,” he warned, sounding wholly—and chillingly—serious.

“Whoa, intense,” Leo murmured.

“You see that? So who’s the jealous one, huh?” Alvin crowed, turning to face the right way again. Then, proving that he had the self-preservation instincts of a banana cream pie, he gave me a hopeful look over his shoulder and asked, “So, can I?”

Migs growled low in his throat. “Nah-ah,” I said, shaking my head emphatically.

“You’ve got to find some other way to deal with your thrill issues, Alvin,” Leo advised.

As Alvin began to passionately profess that he had no issues whatsoever, Migs sent me a rueful look. “Sorry about this. Now you know why I left St. Helene.”

“Oh? I think it’s pretty cool,” I replied airily. “You never told me you used to be part of a comedy routine. Good to see you haven’t lost your touch. Aaah! Stoppit—what the hell?”

Laughing, I brought my arms up to shield myself from his sudden tickle attack, making a grab for his hand as he tried to poke me in the ribs again. I couldn’t help the thrill of joy when he twisted his arm and caught my hand instead, pulling me closer so that our arms brushed against each other as we walked behind his friends. Oh please, let this last, I prayed, gazing up at him as a wave of emotion crashed through me. If anyone up there’s listening in, please let this moment last. I won’t ask for more than this.

He pushed his glasses up with his other hand and gave me an evil grin. “You think I’m funny? Let’s see how funny you think I am after I kick your ass in the arcade, midget.”

“What? Wait a minute, no fair. I’m not a gamer,” I protested, laughing again.

“Oh well, that’s okay then. He’s finally found someone he’s actually got a chance of beating. Not that…anyone’s listening to me. Hello?” At Alvin’s mournful comment, I tore my gaze away from Miguel and faced forward to find that the two boys had halted to wait for us, wearing identical incredulous expressions as they stared at Migs.

Noticing the looks on his friends’ faces, Miguel flushed self-consciously but didn’t let go of my hand. “What?”

I barely heard his friends’ rejoinder. My gaze had fallen upon a large group of young teens—I counted eight girls and six boys—standing beside the record section of the department store right ahead of us, laughing and chatting with one another with comfortable familiarity. Every single one was a stranger to me, except for the girl with shoulder-length hair and a supercilious look on her rather pointy face, who was dressed in jeans and a pink, button-down blouse that screamed preppy princess. She was the focal point of the group, and the one who seemed to be directing everybody else while simultaneously checking on her phone. The instant I saw her, my entire body went cold, and I nearly tripped over my own heart as it dropped like a block of granite to the floor.

Oh no, he didn’t, I thought in numb dismay, my steps slowing to a stop. He couldn’t have…why is she…why her, of all people? Why on our date, our date?!

I became aware that I wasn’t the only one who’d ground to a halt as we beheld the people that comprised the rest of our group date—with emphasis, apparently, on the word group. Migs’ hand tightened unconsciously around mine as he muttered in disbelief, “What in frigging hell?”

At that moment, drawn by the sound of Alvin’s and Leo’s voices, Lala turned and looked at us. As her gaze met mine, I saw my shock and horror mirrored in her face. “Miguel? What—why is she—” I saw her mouth shape the words, but her bewildered query was drowned out by the excited greetings of their friends as they rushed over to mob Migs as though they hadn’t seen him in years, which was pretty much the case, I suppose.

In the confusion, he released my hand and I was shoved aside by the noisy, cheerful and above all young crowd. I stood nearby like a castaway piece of clothing, my face frozen in a mask of uncomprehending denial, my hands twisting the straps of my purse so tightly the leather creaked.

In the midst of the churning turmoil of disappointment and rising annoyance, I was gratified to see the look of panic on Miguel’s face as his old classmates swarmed over him, demanding that he tell them all about his wild adventures in college and how different UP was from St. Helene and if he knew any sexy college babes he could introduce them to. He had obviously not known that the “few others” we’d be hanging out with today would turn to be over half an entire class. Maybe he wasn’t the one who’d invited Lala along on what was supposed to be our first date after all. Maybe it had been Alvin or Leo. As to inviting the rest of the St. Helene student population, I found it hard to believe that it was Alvin’s or Leo’s doing, seeing as the two were nearly as taken aback as Miguel was at the sight of so many of their classmates.

Which meant somebody else had been making the decisions. Unfortunately, I had a pretty good idea who it was. I watched as Lala plowed determinedly through the crowd, hooked her arm through Miguel’s as though she owned him, and pulled him away to a more private place beside a rack of men’s shirts. They stood close together—too closeas they launched into a low and intense conversation. My insides twisted as tightly as my hapless purse straps. Why, you prissy wench, I seethed, wanting nothing more than to go over there and make it clear to her that only I got to invade Migs’ personal space like that.

However, at that moment I was a bit preoccupied myself. Deprived of their main object of interest, the crowd took notice of me, and I soon found myself surrounded by teenaged boys all wearing similar expressions of rapt awe while the girls took up the remaining space. All of a sudden, I was being pelted by a barrage of questions.

“Hello. What’s your name?”

“You’re with Miguel, aren’t you? Are you two friends or something?”

“Are you in sixth grade? Or are you a high school freshman?”

“Where do you go to school?”

“How do you know Miguel?”

“Wow, you’re so pretty. Are you a model?”

“What’s your sign?”

“What’s your number?”

“Wait, hold on a minute,” I muttered, raising my hands to ward off my interrogators, most of my attention still trained on the couple whose conversation seemed to have deteriorated into an argument, with Miguel scowling darkly and Lala looking sullen and pinched as she gestured every now and then toward me. The next instant, I found myself flanked on either side by Alvin and Leo, forcing the others to back away and give me some breathing space.

“Hey, hey, no poaching allowed, she’s Santillan’s, you know,” Alvin told the others. He then proceeded to introduce me to everybody and everybody to me, seeing as the guy who was supposed to be doing the job was still deeply engrossed with some other girl. The stream of names and faces blew past me until something Alvin said made my ears prick up. “And that one over there is Lala, a.k.a. Class President for Life. She and Santillan came here together, although I’m not sure who picked up who because he had to go over to her house so her mom could drive them here.”

A chill went through me. “They came here together?” I said faintly. So this was the “stuff” he had to take care of? The reason he and I couldn’t go together was because he went to her place instead? And her mom approved of them being together so much that she drove them to the mall herself. Did that mean… “He asked her to come today?” I managed through the rock that had somehow gotten lodged inside my chest.

“Yeah, right after he called us,” Alvin answered, completely oblivious to the way his words had just crushed all my hopes and dreams for my first date with Miguel. “From what he told us, it’s really important for Lala to be with him today so he—”

“Hey, Alvin, you can stop now,” Leo said, looking a little worriedly at my face.

By then, Lala and Miguel had finished their discussion and were walking back toward the group. Migs had an air of grim resignation about him; I guess he’d lost the argument. Lala on the other hand was smiling, and I noticed, with a flash of pain, that her arm was once again linked around his and he wasn’t pulling away from her.

Yeah, exactly what I was thinking. For such a smart guy, he can be such a dense, oblivious idiot!

As I watched him walk beside the girl who’d been chasing after him since the dawn of time, anger suddenly rushed through me, sweeping aside the pain and the sense of loss for now. Then I glanced at Lala, and found her looking back at me, her eyes and the tilt of her pointy little chin practically glowing with self-satisfaction. My anger seemed to solidify, and I gave her an evil look. You’re on, bitch.

Then I drew myself up and flipped my hair back in a move guaranteed to keep all male eyes riveted upon me. Including, to my dark pleasure, Miguel’s. “Oh, I’m sorry, I—I was a bit overwhelmed. I’m just so glad to be meeting all you guys,” I said, laughing a little breathlessly. “My name’s Ivy and—um, to be honest, I’m not really good with names, so if you don’t mind, could you run your names by me again?”

No, they didn’t mind, especially the boys. As each person introduced himself or herself, I made sure to smile and inject as much charm as I could in my greeting, although five minutes later I still couldn’t remember any of their names. Truth was, I was paying more attention to Lala’s and Miguel’s reactions than to anything else. My little Scarlett O’Hara act worked, though. A moment later, Migs left Lala’s side and came to stand close to me, looking all jealous and possessive again. That is, until somebody asked, “So, you and Miguel are—?”

“She’s my gir—” Miguel began.

“—good friend,” I cut in smoothly. “We’re good friends, Migs and I.”

“Just friends?” somebody else, who must have seen us holding hands when we arrived, asked skeptically.

For an instant, I found myself wanting, longing, to say something else. To be something more than a friend to him. To show the world how much I loved him. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t. Instead, I nodded and said, “Yeah, just friends. Neighbors, actually. I live in one of the apartments in the back of his house.”

Then I became aware that Miguel had gone stiff beside me. I glanced up into his face, and the stricken look in his eyes damn near broke my heart. I thought about all the kisses we’d shared, all the tender moments, and felt his hurt and sense of betrayal like it was my own. Then I looked around, and saw Alvin’s and Leo’s confused, disappointed faces, then Lala’s relieved expression—and self-loathing added its weight upon my chest.

Oh Migs, I’m sorry. This is all my fault.

But I couldn’t apologize yet. I was in the middle of a performance, after all. Then somebody else threw another question at me. “So where do you go to school, Ivy?”

I smiled again. “Oh, I go to UP, same as Migs.”

All the faces around me went slack-jawed until Miguel quickly interjected: “UP has a grade school and high school, too, under the College of Education. It’s called the UP Integrated School.”

As one, the faces nodded in understanding. A dark feeling swept over me. Ah, so that was how it was going to be. Another lie, another role to play. A UPIS student this time? Sure, I could do that. Clever of him to figure out a way to lie without having to actually lie, which allowed him to sound at least half-way believable. Pfft, I guess not even Migs thought I could be seen with him in public as his date, or even as his friend, as simply myself. And he was right, too. After all, the two of us together was just…fucked up.

For a moment, my eyes stung with tears. But I couldn’t cry now. I had to save my crying for later. Later, later, later. I had run out of time—too soon, Jesus fucking Christ, how fair was that?—but right now, I had a show to do.

“Yeah, a UPIS kid, that’s me,” I chirped, as bubbly as can be, raising one hand and making a victory sign. “So we’re all here now. What do we do first?”

This seemed to galvanize the rest of the group, and at once the boys, including Alvin and Leo, began chanting: “Arcade! Arcade! Arcade!”

“Oh come on, let’s go watch Zoolander,” said one of the girls.

“How about The Mummy Returns?”

“No, Shrek!”

“I want a pizza. Let’s go to Shakey’s.”

“It’s too early for pizza. We just got here, for Pete’s sake.”

“You mean for pizza’s sake. Hur hur.”

“Um, I want to check out some new outfits at Shoujo Shine. Can we go later?” one of the girls asked shyly. Somehow, I managed to hold on to my composure despite my entire being doing a faithful interpretation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I vowed silently to do everything in my power, including but not limited to hurling myself onto the floor and spinning my head 360 degrees in a stark reenactment of a demonic possession, to keep them from getting anywhere near Shoujo Shine.

“Oh yeah! I saw the cutest skirt there the other week. Then maybe we can go check out Beauty Bar later. I found this perfume I wanted to try out,” another girl added brightly.

The boys let out a chorus of groans. “Awww, no girly stuff! Arcade! Arcade! Arcade!” I may have added my voice to their chanting once or twice. Hey, anything to keep them away from the Shoujo Shine outlet.

Finally, Lala held up her hand to get everyone’s attention, then reached into her purse for a small notepad and a pen and began—oh Jesus, could it be?—ticking off a damn checklist. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” she said in a briskly efficient manner that made me want to make faces at her behind her back. “We’ve got enough time to go to the arcade and watch a movie—”

Both the arcade and movie proponents cheered.

“—but I don’t know about the pizza—”

“Awww, how come?” the pizza lobbyist asked plaintively.

Lala tucked her hair behind her ear and sighed. “Fine, Shakey’s it is, then. We’ll just have to pool our money. Is everyone fine with that?”

“Yay!” the pizza lobbyist cheered, while the others nodded in resignation.

“Then maybe we can drop by Shoujo Shine after pizza?” Lala offered while the other girls nodded and the boys protested in disgust. “Okay, how about we vote on it? All in favor of going to Shoujo Shine then Beauty Bar later?”

All the girls except me raised their hands, which caused the girls shoot me curious looks. “All in favor of not going to Shoujo Shine?” Lala said with a roll of her eyes.

All the boys except Miguel raised their hands. With the voting tied, everybody turned expectantly toward us. Migs and I glanced at each other, and another stab of pain shot through me at the flat expression in his face, his dark eyes behind his silver wire-rims opaque and coldly detached as they met mine. There was no warmth, no shy tenderness, no trace at all of the playful light that had so astonished his friends. I turned aside quickly, unwilling to let him see how much his indifference hurt. Then we looked at Lala and said in unison: “No.”

And that was that. My secret identity was safe for now.

Lala ticked off a few more items in her checklist, then tucked her hair back behind her ear again. “Okay, here’s the plan: First, we go check out the movie schedule for—wait. What do you guys want to watch?” Her run-down of our itinerary was interrupted again so we could vote on which movie to watch, with Zoolander winning by a slim margin over The Mummy Returns.  “As I was saying, first we go check the movie scheds, then depending on what time the movie’ll start, we can go to the arcade. Everyone okay with that?”

Everybody agreed. As Lala and her troop of high school freshies went on to thoroughly hijack what was supposed to have been my first real date with Migs, my spirits sank lower and lower. Worse yet, as we headed to the movie theaters to buy tickets, Lala snagged Miguel’s arm and tugged him unresistingly away from my side and toward the front of the group where her girlfriends were. None of the girls spoke to me any more than necessary. Of course they wouldn’t, I thought jadedly, observing the surreptitious, measuring glances and their unencouraging politeness toward me, taking their cue from their exalted leader.

The boys, however, flocked around me, eagerly asking question after question—what was my school like, what kind of foods, movies, games, whatever I liked, did I have a boyfriend or anything—and vying with one other in trying to impress me with displays of suavity and coolness or kooky humor or sense of adventure. Judging from the chilly, disgusted looks the girls shot us, the boys’ behavior was doing little to endear me to our female company, but I didn’t care. I was beyond caring. The only boy whose opinion I gave a damn about was walking ahead of me instead of beside me, his back ramrod straight and his shoulders stiff, listening to Lala chatter animatedly at him while ignoring me completely. When he did deign to look my way, he showed no emotion at all, not even a flash of jealous annoyance at the way his old classmates were fawning over me.

And I quickly discovered that yes, it was entirely possible to miss him even when he was standing a few feet away from me.

To my surprise, Alvin and Leo continued to stick by my side. I’d expected them to distance themselves from me after witnessing how I’d callously trampled their friend’s heart into the dirt. Then I wondered if they weren’t making a play for me themselves. Alvin, especially. But as I observed them some more, I noticed that Leo was more like a laidback, semi-distracted escort bobbing his head to the beat of his own personal background music, smiling drowsily and insinuating himself between me and any boy who got too chummy. And Alvin spent the time entertaining me with jokes and making fun of the other boys’ attempts to impress me until they were grumbling and shooting him nasty looks. They were, I realized, protecting me on Miguel’s behalf, working to keep the others from “poaching” on their friend’s “territory”. As perfectly offensive as that sounds, I couldn’t help but be touched by their loyalty. I hoped Migs knew how lucky he was to have friends like those two.

Soon, I found myself gravitating more toward Alvin, despite his over-the-top flirting. I felt more comfortable with his joking, mischievous antics, and tendency toward reckless self-endangerment. I was grateful to Leo, too, but I kept finding him watching me with an enigmatic look in his eyes, as though he was seeing right through my fakery and reading my true intentions. It wasn’t as if he was judging me. It was worse; he was seeing right through me and calmly accepting the truth he saw, as if he was thinking, “Oh, so that’s how her mind works. That’s interesting.” He’s a good guy, but frankly, his too-perceptive scrutiny made my scalp itch.

I wonder if my stare makes Miguel’s scalp itch, I thought as I stared intently at the back of his head while he and Alvin sat side by side in identical faux-leather seats and raced each other down a video-game track. They played the Daytona racing videogame thrice, and each time Alvin managed to soundly beat Miguel. As I followed the three boys around in their methodical sweep of the arcade, it became clearer and clearer that it didn’t matter what video game they played—the results were the same. Whether it was careening down a racetrack or shooting zombies or reenacting NBA fantasies or trying to brutally KO each other as ridiculously superpowered martial artists, Alvin invariably ended up kicking Miguel’s ass, while Miguel fumed and growled and challenged Alvin to yet another game, whereupon Alvin would kick Miguel’s ass again, growing more unbearably smug with each victory. It was like the circle of life, unending and inevitable and strangely awesome to behold.

“Are they always like this?” I asked Leo, pointing at the two racers, one furiously defiant and the other obnoxiously superior.

Leo looked up from his Discman. “Yeah. You should’ve seen them when they were playing Grand Theft Auto. Miguel nearly punched Alvin’s lights out.”

I blinked. That sounded rather uncharacteristic of Migs. Then I took in Miguel’s flushed face, his clenched jaw, his curled-back lips, his dark eyes spitting with rage behind his glasses as he pumped the pedals and wrestled with the steering wheel, while beside him Alvin whooped and yelled, “Eat my dust, Santillan! Victory is mine again!”

I took a cautious step away from the two raving maniacs, then looked at Leo again. “I believe you,” I told him earnestly.

When the screen in front of him flashed “game over, try again” for the umpteenth time, Miguel slammed his hands on the steering wheel and threw himself out of the seat, snarling an oath that sounded uncomfortably like something my friends and I would say. Oh dear, maybe we should have been watching our language around him. Still, it was kind of funny seeing this ferocious side of Migs when he was normally so cool, calm and collected, and I had to clap a hand over my mouth to smother a squeak.

Too late. He whipped around and glared at me. “Did you say something?”

“No, I didn’t say anything,” I said, opening my eyes to their most guileless extent. Then I dented my own credibility by puffing my cheeks out in a vain attempt to contain my laughter. As he continued to stare at me suspiciously, tears gathered in my eyes and, realizing I couldn’t hold it in anymore, I gasped out: “You suck.”

I quickly covered my mouth again, afraid I’d just made things worse. But instead of giving me a cold look and walking away, he raised an eyebrow at me even as his cheeks turned pink with embarrassment. “Yeah, right. Like the opinion of a non-gamer counts,” he scoffed.

I stepped closer, encouraged by the fact that he wasn’t completely ignoring me this time. “Do you want to play a game with me? You did say you were going to prove how, ah, unfunny you are,” I added a little hesitantly.

As he continued to gaze at me, his eyes softened by infinitesimal degrees. Then Alvin popped up and elbowed him in the side. “Yeah, take her on, Santillan. You might have a chance to know what winning feels like. It’ll do you some good.”

“Shut up, Alvin,” Miguel said, before looking at me again. He still wasn’t smiling, and he still looked wary and distrustful, but he was actually looking at me again instead of right through me. It was progress, of a sort. “Why don’t you pick the game?” he told me.

I smiled and opened my mouth, but before I could say a word, Lala appeared, grabbed Miguel’s arm, and began tugging him over to the row of claw machines. Some of the girls were clustered around a particular machine, gazing longingly at the plushies inside. “Miguel, forget about trying to beat Alvin and help us out,” Lala said as she and Miguel walked off without a backward glance. Before they reached their destination, she bumped him with her hip, which somehow made her stumble and forced him to steady her with an arm on her back while her delighted smile twinkled up at him.

I looked down at the floor and said glumly, “Okay, not air-hockey then.”

After an awkward silence, Alvin laid a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Oh well, you know, it’s no fun playing against him anyway. We don’t get it either. He’s a genius when it comes to everything else, but when it comes to video games, he’s like, three steps away from Loser-ville. You don’t have to feel bad—”

“Alvin, I challenge you to a match.”

Alvin stuttered in mid-babble. “Eh?”

I raised my head and looked straight at him. “I challenge you to a match. A video-game challenge. The stakes are Migs’ honor, so you can think of me as his champion.” I tilted my head and gave him a smile. “If I beat you, you’ll have to stop provoking him into a raging frenzy every time you win. Is it a deal?”

“What? His champion? Are you kidding me?” Alvin started to laugh, saw my smile, and groaned instead. “Ivy, you know I’d just eat you alive. I’m the Supreme Overlord here. It’s all give-up-now-while-you-still-can from this point on.”

My smile widened. “So why don’t you give yourself a little handicap? You could even the odds a little, since I’m a non-gamer and all. Do you agree to the terms?”

He patted my shoulder condescendingly again. “Fine, fine. You choose which game we’ll play. But I’m warning you, there’s no game in this place where I don’t totally rule.”

“Okay.” I beamed at him as I pulled my chopstick out of my hair, undid the links connecting it to the necklace, and stowed it in my purse. I didn’t want it falling out in the middle of our match. I shook my hair out, uncaring of all the hard work I’d put into fixing it up for our date. What good did it do, anyway, when the target of all my efforts was busy showering attention upon every girl in our group except me? Then with a dramatic flourish, I spun and pointed at the one game in the entire arcade that I was a master at. “That one,” I announced.

Both Alvin and Leo followed the direction of my gaze toward the Dance Dance Revolution machine standing in a place of honor beside the entrance to the arcade. A small crowd of people were gathered around it, watching the DDR kids show off their cool moves. At the sight of it, Alvin blanched for an instant then recovered himself enough to grin cockily at me. “No problem. But, uh, people are still using it.”

“Leave that to me,” I said, heading determinedly toward the DDR machine. Honestly, at that point, it didn’t really matter to me whether I won or lost our match. I just wanted to enjoy myself, dammit, and to stop feeling like shit frozen over.

Behind me, Leo chuckled and said, “This looks interesting.”

The DDR kids looked to be in their mid-teens. Two boys were setting the dance platform on fire, one tall and lanky and dreadlocked, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt with a ganja leaf on it, the other not quite as blessed in the height and hair department. A few similarly dressed boys and girls were sitting around watching them, particularly the dreadlocked one, who seemed to be the best dancer of them all. The three of us hovered nearby, waiting for our chance. It came when the dreadlocked one caught sight of me while he was selecting a new song, blinked, then gave me a lazy smile. “Hey,” he said.

“Hello.” I smiled back, keeping a balance between flirtatious and reserved, just in case his girlfriend sprung out of nowhere and attacked me. When the girls around them just looked curiously at me, I considered it safe to shift the balance of my smile more toward the flirty end of the spectrum. “You guys are pretty good,” I told him.

“Thanks.” Dreadlocks smiled back and stepped off the platform, picking up a towel from a bag and wiping his face as he approached me. “Can I help you with something?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.

I let my smile widen a little more as I let my eyes dart over his face, down to his chest, then back up again in a practiced move that, I admit, probably looked much wilder coming from someone who looked for all the world like a sweet, fresh-faced, twelve-year-old girl. I hoped Dreadlocks didn’t freak out or anything. Beside me, Alvin’s nervous glance shifted from me to Dreadlocks, but Dreadlocks’ eyes just gleamed with interest. “Actually, you can,” I said, then went in for the kill. “My friend and I have this bet going on about which one of us is better at Dance Revo. We were wondering—if you guys don’t mind, that is—is it okay if we take over for a while until we settle this? You and your friends can be the judge,” I added.

Dreadlocks smiled again. The next moment, Alvin and I were standing side by side and tapping our feet on the platform as we decided upon which song to start out with, with Leo, Dreadlocks and his DDR posse watching. “Hey, Ivy,” Alvin muttered to me.

“Yeah? Oooh, let’s start with this, I like this song. Basic first, okay?”

“I can start with trick if you’re up to it. Anyway, I wanted to ask you, why’re we doing this again?” he asked, glancing apprehensively at the gathering crowd of onlookers.

I tossed my hair back and grinned as the music began to pump through the air. “Because it’s fucking fun, that’s why.”

I caught a glimpse of his shocked face, and laughed inwardly when I recalled Miguel’s story of how Alvin had gotten the thou-shalt-not-swear lesson drummed into him. The next several minutes were a whirl of pounding beats and electronic music and pink and blue arrows flying up a screen, and very soon, I was smiling and laughing as I jumped up and down and stomped my feet. Alvin kept up with me for a couple of basic-level songs, then a trick-level song, but by the time we got to the maniac-level songs, it had become clear which one of us had won the match.

“You’re pretty good yourself,” Dreadlocks said as Alvin dragged himself off the platform and collapsed at Leo’s side. Taking Alvin’s place on the platform, he slanted a smile at me as he picked one of the toughest songs in the mix. “You mind if I dance with you?”

I smiled back. “It’d be my pleasure.”

Dreadlocks and I danced one song and damn, he was good. It was almost a surprise that I could keep up with him. Almost. Because, simply put, I am one bitching dancer. I’d taken lessons with a ballroom dance instructor for most of my childhood, and I’d often danced solos or choreographed performances all throughout high school. My body was small and undeveloped, but what it lacked in curves and actual maturity, it made up for in lightfootedness, flexibility and grace—handy qualities to have when it comes to modeling. Not to mention I’d spent an entire summer playing Dance Revo preparing for my role as the Shoujo Shine Girl, part of which was getting a feel for J-pop music. So yes, playing DDR was actually part of my professional training.

When the last song ended, Dreadlocks and I gave each other congratulatory high-fives. Then I turned and acknowledged the crowd’s enthusiastic applause with a wide smile and a curtsy. As I stepped off the platform, I heard one of the DDR guys say to Alvin, “That’s some girl. She your girlfriend?”

“No, man,” Alvin replied. “She’s his.”

My heart jumped to my throat. I turned and found Miguel standing at the edge of the crowd, staring at me with an unfathomable expression. Lala stood beside him, her arms crossed and her features pinched with disapproval, with the rest of the group arrayed around her. I became aware of how I must have looked at the moment, with sweaty patches on my dress, my face red with exertion and my hair streaming like a crazy bag-lady’s over my shoulders. Embarrassed, I meekly followed Alvin and Leo toward the rest of the group, only to freeze when I passed right in front of Miguel. With trepidation, I forced myself to meet Migs’ impassive gaze.

“Ah, hello. I didn’t know you were there,” I said lamely. “Did you see us? I was just—ah, Alvin and I were just—”

“I know. Everybody saw,” Miguel said abruptly, pushing his glasses up. “Are you done?”

I nodded, and without another word, he turned and walked away. I stared at his back in aching despair until it was eclipsed by Lala’s sharply contemptuous face. “We have to go,” she announced to the group at large, although her glare was directed solely at me. “We’re going to be late for the movie, and it’s all because somebody had to show off for a bunch of strange guys.”

“That’s not what I—” I began, but found myself addressing thin air as everybody shuffled off after Lala and Miguel. Even my erstwhile fan-boys. They’d practically been worshipping at my feet earlier, but now that I’d shown signs of being a flesh-and-blood human being and not at all the sweet, innocent maiden whose image I was projecting, they couldn’t disappear fast enough.

And you’re surprised because? You went through this shit before. Serves you right for hanging out with a bunch of high school kids, the voice in my head mocked.

“Hey, Ivy, come on already.”

I looked up to see Alvin and Leo waiting for me, and my eyes stung for the second time that day. Migs’ friends are really good people, I thought as I ran to catch up with them. Trailing well behind the rest of the group, I was in a perfect position to see Lala link her arm through Miguel’s again, her face flushed and bright as she talked to him. Boy, that pickle-faced wench is really making the most of her chance to be with him, huh? the same voice in my head commented.

“Yeah, and I don’t get it,” I muttered out loud.

“Huh? Get what?” Alvin asked.

“Nothing.” I shook my head and frowned at the couple ahead of us. As before, Miguel didn’t resist when Lala hugged his arm and pressed against his side. Come to think of it, it was kind of weird that he was so passively allowing her to manhandle him like that. The Migs I knew tended to be leery of any kind of casual touching. I clearly remembered all the times he tensed or flinched away every time I’d so much as slung an arm across his shoulders or ruffled his hair. Now, it was as if he wasn’t even aware that she was practically swinging from his arm.

“Something weird’s going on here,” I mused, once again speaking out loud.

“What? Who’re you talking to?” Alvin wanted to know. We were standing in line waiting for the movie ushers to let us into the theater—turned out we weren’t late for the movie after all—and I was still intently observing Lala’s and Miguel’s interactions as they stood a good distance ahead of us in line.

“Nothing. I was just thinking that Migs is acting a bit odd,” I said nonchalantly.

“Oh, you mean the way he keeps letting the Class Prez stick to him like flypaper to a fly? Yeah, it is kind of weird,” Alvin remarked, while I nearly fell over in surprise.

“I think it’s because he owes her,” Leo reflected. “He’s got to keep her happy or else.”

“Or else what?” Migs owes Lala? What in the world was going on here?

Leo gave me a long look, then changed the track on his Discman again. “Maybe you should ask Miguel.”

“Ask him what?” Alvin demanded, looking every bit as befuddled as I felt.

Leo shook his head. “You’re hopeless, Alvin.”

I attempted to stare Leo into giving up the secrets he knew, but he was as tough a nut to crack as my grandparents. Finally, I sighed and looked off to the side. “I wanted to be the one beside him right now, you know. Instead, he’s with her,” I said wistfully.

Alvin stopped trying to shake Leo into giving up the secrets he knew, and looked at me, perplexed. “Wait a minute. You were the one who said you and Santillan were just friends. Even after you—even after I saw you two—guuhh…”

I rolled my eyes. Then Leo asked, “Why did you do that, anyway? You know, he really wanted to be with you today, too. Everything he did, he did just so he could be with you.”

My chest ached, and I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “I said that because…I can’t be his girlfriend. Even though…even though I really want to be,” I confessed in a tiny voice. It was the first time I’d dared to voice my true feelings about Miguel to another person, but somehow, I sensed that my secret would be safe with his two closest friends.

Then I peered at Alvin and thought ruefully, Well, safe with Leo, at least.

“I don’t get it,” Alvin said, scrunching up his face. “Why can’t you be his girlfriend? You guys are like—and I even saw you—guuhh. I don’t get it at all.”

I smiled sadly. “You know, the screwy part is, I’m willing to tell you why we can’t be together. Just so you’d understand. But maybe it’s better if Migs told you himself.”

“What?! Again?!” Alvin yanked at his hair in frustration, while Leo nodded understandingly. “Our buddy’s been dealing in secrets. I think we should bring him to an abandoned warehouse and tie him to a chair and make him sing like a bird,” Alvin muttered as we handed our tickets to the usher.

“You’re hopeless, Alvin,” was all Leo said.

I excused myself then, telling the boys I had to use the restroom and urging them to go on ahead into the movie theater. The movie theater’s restroom was plenty crowded, but I didn’t mind waiting in yet another line. It gave me a chance to process everything that had happened so far, and maybe figure out how our date, which had started out so wonderfully, had turned into this catastrophic mess. First of all, Miguel owed Lala? Owed her what? As far as I could tell, he’d done her the favor by inviting her to this group date, thus giving her a clear shot at him. The officious little bitch. She had no right to be making any further demands on him, not after today.

Odd, though. Lala had been as unpleasantly surprised to see me as I was to see her. Miguel hadn’t thought to inform either of us that the other was coming. Well, in my case, it was probably because he simply couldn’t conceive of Lala as somebody who liked him romantically and was therefore my rival. But then, he’d clearly told Alvin and Leo the reason he was asking them to—

Wait a minute, what was it that Alvin had said earlier? Something about Migs needing their help to bust him out of the house today so he could meet up with me?

The worm of unease I’d felt earlier poked its head up again as I followed that particular train of thought. I recalled Leo’s words: He really wanted to be with you today. Everything he did, he did just so he could be with you.

For some reason, it made me recall Miguel’s oddly worded but terribly earnest vow from last night: I’ll always want to see you, Ivy. I’ll always find a way to be with you.

He hadn’t been that melodramatic when he’d asked me out. So what could have changed? What brought this on?

Then it hit me. Why would he need such an elaborate scheme just to get out of the house today? Oh, Jesus. Why would any teenager need to come up with a convoluted escape plan like that? He’d been forbidden to go out, that’s why! The stupid, taciturn, arrogant, stubborn, macho idiot had been grounded, that’s why! Because, obviously, his mom had discovered him and Reese sneaking out of the house under false pretenses, and coming home way past curfew to boot. And it was all my fault. Oh holy fucking hell.

He said he was okay! I thought furiously. I asked him, and he said he was okay, when it turns out he wasn’t! I’m going to strangle that jackass, I swear!

I felt a tap on my shoulder, jolting me out of my mental orgy of Migs-related violence. “Miss, you can go in now,” the lady behind me said.

“Oh. Thanks.” I slipped into the cubicle and locked the door. And wouldn’t you know it, the instant I did, a group of chattering females entered the restroom, dominated by a bossy, all-too-familiar voice. I froze in the middle of pulling my undies down. Aw hell, is it my lucky day or what?

“…hasn’t said anything about it, but you know how he is,” Miss Class President of Prissy Bitches was saying to her cronies. Just to add a special touch to things, it sounded like she was standing in line for my cubicle. “Oh, I can’t wait. I just wish those bozos hadn’t voted against dropping by Shoujo Shine today. I wanted to check if they’ve got a dress I can wear to Ate Queenie’s ball. It’s going to be so grand.”

Ate Queenie? I thought. She can’t be talking about Miguel’s equally bitchy cousin Queenie, can she?

“Wow, I’m so envious,” one of the girls said from another line. “A masquerade ball with your crush as your date. I can’t believe he actually asked you out. I remember he barely used to talk to any of us in class.”

Lala laughed. “Well, he’s growing up, I guess.”

“Yeah, you’re right. He’s so much cuter now than before. College really suits him.”

“You know, we can always take a detour to Shoujo Shine,” said another girl. “What can the boys do? Run away screaming?”

“No, that wouldn’t be fair. We did vote on it,” Lala said. “Besides, it’s not really the boys’ fault. It’s that bimbo, Ivy. It was her vote that broke the tie. If she hadn’t voted no, I could have forced the boys to agree with us.”

I gritted my teeth. Oh, a bimbo, am I?

“By the way, did you see how she was acting with the boys? What an airhead! And was it me, or was she flirting with every boy she met?” one of her cronies commented.

“What did you expect? People who look like that are usually short in the brains department,” Lala added in such a knowing tone that I longed to slap her one.

“Well, I kind of thought she seemed nice,” another girl said tentatively.

“She’s not nice,” Lala snapped. “Ate Queenie told me about her. Miguel’s entire family hates her. Do you know he got grounded for two months because of her? And she’s teaching his little sister things like how to lie and how to smoke and drink alcohol and—”

“Smoke?! Alcohol?!” the girls squeaked.

“Yeah. Like Ate Queenie said, that Ivy’s nasty. She looks nice, but she’s a total delinquent, and that’s why the family’s trying to get him to stay away from her. Only he’s being a typical boy about this and can’t see past her pretty face.”

“Oh, and did you see that weird contraption in her hair earlier? I checked it out, and it looks like the chopstick’s actually connected to the necklace. I wonder where she got that thing,” another girl added with a giggle.

“What is taking so long?” the lady directly behind the cubicle door muttered.

Oh shit. Suddenly remembering where I was, I quickly did my business and straightened my clothing. Just before I opened the door, I took the copper-rose chopstick from my purse and gripped it in my hand the same way I gripped the kitchen knife when I faced down my uncle to protect Migs. These girls can insult me all they wanted, but I was not going to let them insult Migs. Or his gifts.

Lala’s laugh ended in a surprised choke when she saw me emerge from the cubicle, a small smile on my lips. All eyes turned to us as the restroom was suddenly permeated with the scent of drama, which blended rather well with the scent of lemon-scented cleanser. Lala and her cronies had been talking loud enough for everyone in the restroom to hear, so now, as everyone looked at me—at my dress, my hair, the chopstick in my hand, and the expression on my face—it was easy for them to figure out who I was.

To her credit, Lala didn’t shrink away in embarrassment. Instead, she straightened and stared right back, although I did notice her throat working as she gulped. My smile widened, like a shark’s. “Hello, Lala,” I said conversationally. “That’s a classy thing you’re doing, talking trash about someone who isn’t around to defend herself. Just the kind of behavior you’d expect from a St. Helene class president. Only, surprise! It turns out I am around to defend myself. But you know what? I don’t think I will. Someone like you, who’ll take any old hearsay as gospel truth—it’s just not worth the effort to try and get you to change your mind.”

Moving around her, I went to the sink to wash my hands, projecting Audrey Hepburn levels of elegant grace. After a moment of astonished silence, Lala spun around and said stridently, “Since you heard anyway, stay away from Miguel, you—you—”

I gave her a bored look in the mirror. “Bimbo, yes. And delinquent. And I think slut was in there, too. I heard you the first time, darling. In fact, everybody did, right?” I added, looking at everyone’s reflection, and felt a laugh bubble up my throat when several heads bobbed in agreement. I dried my hands, then turned and held up the chopstick, tossing my hair back to give Lala and the rest of our audience an unimpeded view of the copper-rose necklace as well. “By the way, you see this weird contraption here? Miguel made it for me. You can ask him about it yourself,” I purred. “In fact, if you ask him nicely enough, he just might agree to make you one, too. Ciao, ladies.”

With a wave of my hand, I sashayed out the restroom as though it had suddenly turned into a runway in Milan, and smiled again when I heard a smattering of laughter and cheering coming from inside the restroom. You don’t mess with a diva, amateurs, I thought as I walked into the movie theater, my dignity gathered around me like an ermine coat. Erwin would have wept tears of joy.

Speaking of tears, it appeared there were some spilling down my cheeks right now. How very un-diva-like. Erwin would not approve. The movie previews were playing, filling the darkened movie theater with flickering light, but all at once I couldn’t find the energy or the will to rejoin the group, wherever they were. Besides, the tears were coming down faster, and damned if I was going to present myself to Lala and the others looking as if I’d been crying. It would totally ruin my image. Not that I have any image left to ruin, I thought, recalling the outstanding opinion Lala and her friends had formed of me after just one meeting.

He’d asked her to his cousin’s ball. His family approves of her. She’d never get him into trouble the way I did. He’s so much better off with her.

A tiny sob emerged, and I hastily untied my cardigan and shoved it against my mouth to prevent any more embarrassing noises from escaping. Deciding quickly, I plopped myself down in a random seat in time for the film’s opening sequence. A thought occurred, and after I set my phone on silent mode, I began composing a text message.

am here n d theater. just sitting sumwhere else. pls tell alvin & leo so they wn’t worry. i’ll meet u guys outside aftr d movie.

I pressed a kiss upon the screen then sent the message to Miguel. I scanned the audience for a while, wondering where he was, wondering if he’d try to look for me, wondering if he’d even set his phone on vibra-mode. I was about to give up when I noticed a familiar, messy-haired head several rows down and on the opposite side of the aisle rise and look around. I smiled to myself, then when his head turned in my direction, sank further into my seat and covered my face with my cardigan until his gaze had moved on.

Thank you, Universe, for reminding me exactly why he can never be mine.

I ended up keeping the cardigan pressed to my face for most of the movie, and I can’t imagine what the couple sitting beside me must have thought about the girl who sat alone and cried silently through a Ben Stiller comedy. About two-thirds through the film, I got up and made my way to the now-empty restroom, and stared at my puffy, frog-eyed reflection in despair. Wishing now that I’d brought my makeup kit along, I splashed water on my face and did what I could to repair the damage with press powder and lip gloss. As I was straightening my purse, I caught sight of my cigarette case, and wondered if enough time remained for a much-needed smoke or two. With that prospect in mind, I slipped out of the restroom, but I hadn’t taken two steps into the theater lobby when I noticed a familiar figure standing at the edge of the lobby scanning the crowd of passersby as though searching for something. He was standing with his back to me, and for a moment I found myself wishing with every ounce of my being that I had the right to run up to him, hug him from behind, and tell him how much he meant to me.

“Migs?” I said instead, making him turn around, his expression a mix of surprise and relief. “What’re you doing here? I thought you were watching the movie.”

Coloring, he stuffed both his hands into his pockets. “You didn’t go back to your seat. I was wondering if you were okay.”

My mouth opened even as my heart began to flutter back to life. He was worried about me. Even after I’d hurt him, he still came out here to look for me. I turned away, afraid he’d see my emotions shining in my eyes. “You knew where I was?”

“You were easy enough to spot with your white blouse over your face.”

“Oh.”

“Ivy?”

At the concern in his voice, I turned and lifted my gaze to his. His eyes were solemn as they met mine, but the cool indifference was gone. I rejoiced over that even as I felt like crying all over again at the loss of his warmth. And God, how I missed his smile. My face must have revealed something of my feelings, because he raised a hand to brush the backs of his fingers against my cheek, only to flush, pull his hand away and thrust it back into his pocket. “Wait here. I’m going to get you something,” he said, before turning on his heel and walking off.

I watched as he headed toward the refreshment stand, then came back carrying a tall plastic cup with a straw. “Here,” he said, handing me the cup.

“What’s this?”

“Coke. I thought you might need it,” he replied, adjusting his glasses so he wouldn’t have to meet my eyes.

“Thanks.” I took a sip then after a pause, offered the cup to him. “Here, have some. I think I’m not the only one who needs a sugar boost right now.”

He blinked then relented. For a few minutes we stood together, watching people drift by and passing the plastic cup between us. A silence that wasn’t quite comfortable but wasn’t altogether unpleasant either fell between us. I found myself sneaking glances at him, wishing I could rewind time to our kiss in the bookstore and freeze it right there. I knew I’d hurt him badly with my denial of this precious thing between us. I wanted so much to apologize, to do something, anything, to drive away the guardedness in his eyes and bring back his smile. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t. We couldn’t be together like that; I had several unhappy memories from this disaster of a date alone to prove it. I had to make him see that. Somehow, I had to make him understand.

But to do that, I would have to hurt him far worse than I already have. Erwin was right. I had been so unbelievably stupid.

I was distracted from my wretched musings when Miguel raked a hand through his hair and sighed. “This has not been a good day.”

“No kidding,” I snorted.

He glanced at me, and we shared a look of understanding. Then I lowered my face until I was staring at his collar instead. “Migs, why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“That your mom grounded you for two months for sneaking out and coming home late. You should have told me. I asked you, but you said you were okay,” I accused, looking back up at his face as my anger began to trickle back in.

His lips pressed together. “Who told you about that? Was it Leo?”

“No, I heard about it from Lala. That girl doesn’t mince any words.”

He frowned darkly, his entire demeanor frosting over again. “What would have been the point?” he said with a shrug. “It wouldn’t have changed anything, and all it would have done was make you feel bad.”

“I wouldn’t have made you come today if you’d just explained it to me,” I growled in frustration, grabbing fistfuls of his shirt in an attempt to shake some sense into him. “You wouldn’t have had to go sneaking around and involving your friends and making things so unnecessarily complicated for you. You wouldn’t have had to ask another girl out on what was supposed to be our date—” I shut my mouth, feeling a wave of incriminating heat climb up my face when I realized I’d just revealed the full extent of my jealousy. Conscious of his sharpened stare, I released him and took a step back. “I would have understood, Migs, if you’d backed out of our date because of that,” I said miserably. “I would have apologized for causing you so much trouble, and I would have understood.”

He was silent for a moment, then he turned and strode off. Fear shot through me at the thought that he was leaving me, but as it turned out, he’d only gone to throw the plastic cup into the trash bin. When he came back, he grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the dimly lit corridor that led into the theater, away from most of the milling mall-rats, then stood me against the wall and propped both hands against the wall on either side of my head. He bent his own head and seemed to focus on breathing for a while, as if he were struggling to maintain his composure. I tangled my hands around my purse straps just to keep from tunneling my fingers through the rumpled temptation of his hair.

“Ivy, why can’t you get it?” he said, his voice sounding oddly tight. He raised his head, his dark eyes pinning me to the wall and holding me immobile. I became aware of how close he was, and my insides turned into warmed jelly. “I wanted to see you. I had to see you,” he confessed brokenly. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you wouldn’t go out with me today if you knew. I told you, didn’t I? I’ll always find a way to be with you. You can count on that.”

I drew in a breath, touched to the depths of my soul, and a teardrop fell before I became aware of it. He followed the tear’s downward course, then leaned down and kissed it away, his lips lingering on my skin. Our eyes drifted half-shut as we turned our heads toward each other’s until his breath feathered my mouth, setting my lips to tingling.

“Wait, wait a minute, Migs,” I heard myself say, then astonished myself further by laying my hands on his chest and pushing him back. “What about Reese? Is she grounded, too?” I demanded.

He lowered his arms and looked dully at me, and for a moment I had the strange notion that I’d disappointed him. Before I could analyze this, he turned aside and ran his fingers through his hair again. “Not exactly,” he muttered.

“What do you mean? Tell me everything,” I insisted.

He pushed his glasses up and said with some reluctance, “Mama had been waiting for us that night we came home from Belle Giardino, and both of us were supposed to be grounded for a month. That meant Reese wouldn’t be allowed to attend her practice sessions with her school track team.”

I felt the color drain from my face. “What? But that would mean she won’t be able to compete in the Intrams.” And being able to compete meant the world to Reese, I didn’t need to add.

“Precisely. But it’s fine now. I made a deal with Mama and managed to convince her to let Reese continue training for the competition.”

Awash in horror at the trouble I’d caused for my favorite pair of siblings, I almost didn’t catch the last part of what he’d said. “A deal? What kind of—” Then it clicked. “You took her punishment. That’s why you’re grounded for two months,” I breathed, both awestruck and appalled. He gave a one-shouldered shrug as if it didn’t matter at all, and I fell a little more in love with him—with this caring, selfless, too-honorable-for-his-own-good boy—while at the same time feeling even more sunk in guilt and self-loathing. “You said your mom’s out of town. Is that why you’ve been able to sneak out today?” I asked, shifting my focus back to the conversation.

“Not…quite. While Mama’s away, my aunt and uncle are supposed to keep an eye on us. That’s why they were at our house when you and your Lola came to visit.”

“Oh. So how did you manage to get out today?”

“I had the idea to ask for Alvin’s and Leo’s help, but I knew it wasn’t enough. When I tried it out with Ate Queenie, she said she’d help me convince Auntie Laura and Uncle Gerry to let me go out with my friends today, on the condition that…”

“On the condition that?” I prompted when he trailed off hesitantly.

“That I call Lala up then and there, and ask her to come, too. My cousin’s got a soft spot for her, you see,” he explained with a sigh. “Lala said she’d bring a few friends along, but you’ve got to believe me, I didn’t know she’d turn this into a frigging class reunion. To be fair, I didn’t tell her about you either, but Lala agreed to keep it a secret from Ate Queenie for Reese’s sake.”

It’s because he owes her, Leo had said. He’s got to keep her happy or else. I stared at him in blank disbelief as the entire, awful picture unfolded in my mind. The movie had ended by then, and people were beginning to stream past us, bumping into Miguel’s back and forcing him to move closer to me until we were nearly pressed together. We looked at each other and blushed, but before either of us could speak, a shrill voice called out his name, and the next thing I knew, he was being swept away by a small crowd of girls, with Lala once again firmly attached to his arm.

“There you are. Where have you been? Why didn’t you come back to your seat?” she demanded while shooting me a venomous look over her shoulder. I didn’t get to hear his response because Alvin and Leo appeared, along with the rest of the boys who were chanting “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!” Miguel’s two friends managed to peel me off the wall and nudge me along, asking what had happened to me and whether or not Alvin was a dead-ringer for Zoolander.

Then just as we had exited the movie theater’s lobby, another voice called my name. “Ivy! Is that you?”

I stopped and turned. Jeff and Giselle were walking out of the same movie theater we’d come from. At the sight of me, he grinned eagerly and quickened his pace, while Giselle followed more reluctantly, a frozen smile affixed to her face. She looked as if she was having about as much fun as I was. Hmm. Was the Golden Couple turning out to be made of brass after all?

“What’s up, Ives? We haven’t seen you since our last beer-fest at Sarah’s,” Jeff said as they drew up to me.

“Hey, Jeff. Hey, Giselle,” I greeted them a little dazedly. After spending several hours in the company of Miguel’s teeny-bopper friends and pretending to be as teeny-bopperish as they were, having to suddenly switch back to my normal, college-age persona was rather disorienting. “You guys on a date or what?” I asked.

Jeff shrugged, and I couldn’t help but notice Giselle’s faint grimace. “What about you?” he returned. “Are you alone? I thought you’d be out working or something.”

“No, I—” I glanced around, and saw Alvin and Leo hovering nearby. Miguel, who’d been walking a few feet ahead, had stopped and turned too, which meant Lala and everybody else had ground to a halt and were watching us curiously. “I’m with them,” I said with a sickly smile.

Jeff took one look at the throng behind me, and burst out laughing. “What? What are you, their chaperone? Did you take a babysitting job or something?”

“No, I’m—” My voice died out. How the hell was I supposed to explain that this little school outing was supposed to have been a date?

Jeff waved a hand, still laughing. “Nah, forget it. Listen, Ives, you wanna come hang out with us instead? You don’t mind if Ivy tags along, do you?” he said to Giselle.

I gaped at him, dumbfounded. Even his girlfriend was looking as though she’d like to get him intimately acquainted with the heel of her sandal. Holy fuck, this chump was once my boyfriend? “Jeff, are you high?” I said with a short, astonished laugh. “I’d rather stick with my chaperoning duties for now, thanks.”

“Fine, then.” Jeff sulked a little, then brightened again. “Hey, you know, Trey’s birthday is tomorrow. What do you say we drag him over to Tia Maria’s tomorrow night and see how much Cuervo he can take before he blows? It’ll be on his tab, of course, since it’s his birthday and all.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Alvin’s and Leo’s jaws plummet in a perfectly synchronized move. I hazarded a glance over my shoulder and was met with Miguel’s frigid glare, while Lala and the rest of her classmates stared at me with fascinated revulsion. All of a sudden, I didn’t give a flying fuck anymore what these St. Helene creatures thought of me. I wasn’t like them, and I sure as hell didn’t belong in their world. I was Ivy, the twenty-year-old ex-girlfriend of a cheap, insensitive boor who, because there seemed to be some sort of epidemic going on, had just dared to ask another girl to join him and his girlfriend while they were on a date. Driven by stony anger, I stiffened my shoulders and gave him a wide smile. “He was up to eight shots the last time we counted. Yeah, just text me what time to meet up. I’ll be there.”

With a final wave at the Golden Couple, I thanked Alvin and Leo for waiting. At the pizza parlor, I held my head high, looked everyone in the eye, smiled as as prettily as ever, joked with Alvin and Leo same as before, pretended not to notice that every one in the group, except for Miguel’s two immensely loyal best friends, were ignoring me, and did not ever—not once—offer any explanation for what I’d just said. I kept that up until the ordeal of a date finally ended and the high school freshies dispersed, with Alvin and Leo going off on their own, and Miguel leaving together with Lala via her mom’s car.

And if I felt broken up inside at the way Migs and I didn’t speak to each other after that, there was not a trace of that in the way I acted. None at all. When I’m good, I’m good.

And I’m proud to say I didn’t cry at all that night. Pfft, okay, maybe a little, later on. It was my grandparents’ last night at our apartment, which we commemorated with a mini-feast of pancit, steamed rice and Lola’s über-delicious kare-kare. I even managed to save some kare-kare, which I stowed in the freezer as a surprise for Erwin and Sharm when they returned.

For some reason, Tito Julio wasn’t around. Yes, hallelujah, because I wasn’t all that sure I was strong enough to face him across the table and pretend that he and I were A-OK. Not after what he did to me last night. Even with my grandparents there, I didn’t trust myself not to try and stab him with the kitchen knife again. But when I thought about it some more, it did seem a little odd. My grandparents had gone to visit Tita Mila and her family, and I knew Tito Julio was supposed to have escorted them there. Unless he didn’t, knowing how reliable he was. Still, I’d expected him to show up tonight of all nights. I was incredibly relieved that he didn’t, it was just…odd.

At least I’d been given more time to bolster my defenses before I faced him tomorrow, when he and I brought my grandparents to the bus station. The Universe owed me one, especially after today.

Anyway, it was a cozy, quiet, relaxing evening with my grandparents. It was an evening marked by numerous shots of Ginebra and even more cigarettes—and I must be the only girl in the world who holds drink-to-death sessions with her grandfather in her grandmother’s indulgent presence. It was an evening filled with Lola’s patient admonitions about how to clean a bathroom and maintain proper sanitation levels in the kitchen, and how Erwin and I were not to abuse poor Sharmaine’s sweet nature and help her with the cooking every now and then. It was an evening punctuated by Lolo’s table-thumping and raucous bawling about how I’d better send my next boyfriend straight to him so they could have a little “discussion.” It was an evening that almost made up for the ghastly events earlier in the day.

The only bad moment came when Lolo wondered out loud why Miguel never came back for the second half of their drinking session. I had to give myself a minute or two before I could respond with any degree of normalcy. “He’s not coming over anymore, Lolo,” I said lightly. “His mom told him and his sister to stop coming over here because she thinks we’re, ah, inappropriate company for children their age. Besides, Migs is thirteen, remember? He’s not legally allowed to drink yet.”

“Bah, I had my first lambanog when I was ten. Those were the days, eh? My own father dragged me over to join my first tagayan and…”

As Lolo waxed nostalgic about his debut into the world of alcoholic immoderation, Lola looked up at me from the travel bag she was packing. “But dear, didn’t you just go on a date with him today?”

“Oh, yes we did,” I replied, pasting a bright smile on my face. “But he had to sneak behind his mom’s back to come today and…and I don’t think he’ll be doing that again. Lying and sneaking around’s just not his style. Besides, it wasn’t a real date. We just hung out with a bunch of his friends, that’s all.”

I turned away, taking a drag from my cigarette in a vain attempt to keep my grandmother from seeing the look on my face. Damn my grandparents and their magical, truth-seeking eyes.

Lola shook her head. “What a difficult situation you’ve managed to get yourself into.”

“Humph,” Lolo grunted, slamming his shot glass down on the table. “I’ve said it before. Don’t go underestimating that boy. A babe in the woods if I ever saw one, but he’s got steel in his backbone. You tell him this for me, little firefly, when you’ve straightened things out in your head: I’ll be waiting for him at home, and he better be ready with that proof that I can take his offer seriously. I don’t care how long it takes—I’ll be waiting for him. You tell him that for me.”

I regarded him sourly. I didn’t even want to know what he was talking about. “You sound so sure of yourself, Lolo. I already told you he won’t be coming over anymore.”

My grandfather blinked at me, then threw his head back and bellowed with laughter. “Firefly, you’ve met your match and you know it. Oh, you young ones. Always good for a laugh,” he added when his mirth subsided without him snorting gin up his nose, much to my disappointment. “Well, it’s like I always say. The first always hits the hardest, eh?”

“He’s not my first love,” I protested, to which he gave me a piercing look from beneath his twitching brows. And just like that, I knew the truth. Damn those magic eyes, I thought again as I dropped my gaze.

Lola appeared beside my grandfather, startling him into actually snorting gin up his nose, her sweet smile belying the deadly look in her eyes. “Really, ‘ling? ‘The first always hits the hardest?’ If I recall rightly, you had eight lady-loves that I knew of before we were married,” she uttered in a deceptively pleasant voice.

“Uh, well…hu-hurmm.”

The alcoholic flush drained out of my grandfather’s face as he sent me a pleading look. I grinned instead and took my cigarette case and lighter with me back to Erwin’s room, weaving a little unsteadily, content to let Lola deal out Lolo’s comeuppance. Settling down on the mattress, I pulled out my cookie can and placed my latest treasure—the movie ticket from earlier—inside it. Then I picked up the handkerchief and pressed it to my nose, noting with a pang that Miguel’s scent had almost faded away.

I have to let him go, I decided as I stared down at the handkerchief. I have to make him understand that we can’t be together. I have to make him see how wrong I am for him.

At least…at least I got to know what it would have been like to be his. The kisses we shared, the teasing and the laughter, the warmth, the trust…I had a taste of that at least. It was just for a short while, but if that was all I was going to be given, then the memory of those few brief moments would have to last me a lifetime.

But I was grateful, nonetheless. Because at least I knew now that what Migs and I could have been…what we could have been together…was beautiful beyond compare.

Two drops of liquid darkened the white cloth. Gasping, I forced myself to open my hands and let the handkerchief drop back into the can, then hauled Erwin’s pillow into my arms and buried my face in it to muffle the sobs. Okay, so maybe I didn’t just cry a little. More like I cried for the remainder of the night, and when I finally fell asleep, I dreamed of that moment when I stood by his side, and he introduced me to his friends as his girlfriend—and I smiled and took his hand to show the world how true it was.

READ MIGUEL’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 9

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