The year I turned twelve was the year I started running. Which is a strange thing to say considering how much time I spent sitting down.
I began the night Nanay and I came back from St. Helene. I sat at our dining table and buckled down to some serious studying, using a reviewer Nanay had bought for me. She was a much sterner taskmaster than Ate Marian, and our nights for the remainder of the summer was crammed full of math problems, science facts, English readings, and unending drills in pattern recognition and abstract reasoning. We also re-sequestered Ate Grace’s textbooks in science and history, and twice or thrice a week, Nanay would assign portions for me to read during the day. Then at night after dinner, we’d sit down together again and she’d explain the parts I didn’t understand and quiz me about the material I’d read.
She also made Ate Grace and Faith sit down with us during these sessions and do their own studying so my sisters would be able to prepare for the new school year. By the third evening, though, my sisters were looking wild-eyed and hunted, so Nanay took pity on them and released them from their bondage. With undisguised relief Ate Grace fled outside to chat with her neighborhood friends, while Faith kept herself glued to Tatay’s side in front of the TV, although she would occasionally shoot me perplexed, pitying looks from across the room, as though she was trying to figure out what terrible crime I’d committed that warranted such a terrible punishment.
June rolled around and the new school year began, and I discovered to my dismay that both Mia and Renee were in a different class. We still spent recess and lunch time together, but for the most part, I was left alone and friendless in my own class. Worse yet, Federico and Diane and their respective cronies were in my class, and without my two best friends to defend me, school became a daily exercise in self-control and stoicism in the face of their teasing, name-calling and snide comments. I couldn’t afford to be distracted by a troop of yammering monkeys now. I had only a month left to prepare for the first exam, the first major hurdle I had to go through.
Luckily, the summer I spent studying with Ate Marian and later with Nanay paid off in another way: school lessons seemed almost boringly easy now. I found it a relatively simple matter to finish all my homework during breaks in school, sometimes even in the middle of another class, and so free up my evenings for reviewing for the exam. I also soon discovered that studying at our dining table during the quiet hours of early morning, when it was still dark outside and I was the only one awake, worked out even better for me.
This is not to say I spent all of my time sitting on my butt. In my quest to come up with techniques and strategies for efficiently stuffing my head full of as much information as I could, I managed to stumble upon another gem, this time from an unexpected source—The Compleat Young Lady: A Teenager’s Guide to a Healthy & Beautiful Life, courtesy of Nanay’s coworker. Instead of tossing the book away, I kept it with me and flipped through the pages during breaks in my studying with a mixture of skepticism, curiosity and, I confess, a dash of hope. Then I read it again, occasionally sharing passages from the book with my sisters to get their opinion. Some of the tips in the book were straight up ridiculous. For instance, the author seemed to believe that teens should come in only two body and personality types: slim and sporty, or willowy and graceful. Which described my sisters perfectly, but not me. The lessons on health and beauty ranged from the obvious and commonsensical (don’t smoke, bathe regularly, wear clean clothes), to the impractical and sinfully wasteful (using a combination of cleansers, toners, moisturizers and mud masks to maintain your complexion, rubbing dark chocolate in your hair to make your scalp healthier), to the painful (using a pumice stone to exfoliate your face), to the clearly not meant for me (get suntanned, eat from a smaller plate to reduce your calorie intake, get a stack of magazines that weigh the same as you do then take away a magazine to keep track of how much weight you lose). There was a lengthy chapter on how to succeed in school while managing a social life, and an even lengthier chapter on how to attract boys, which Ate Grace thought was absolutely hilarious and which Faith reread several times, eyes narrowed and lips moving soundlessly.
But it was one sentence on the chapter on health and exercise that caught my eye: “Exercising also improves brain function. Anything that gets your heart going in the morning gives your brain a boost and helps you retain more new information.”
So I tried it out by going out for an early morning walk with Pocholo before settling down to study. Pocholo took to our new routine like a duck to water, and that first morning, I came back panting and exhausted after our dog had gone chasing after a cat, dragging me behind him halfway around the block. It definitely got my heart going, but instead of boosting my brain power, I nearly ended up falling asleep face down in my book. But I kept at it for a few more days, partly because of the pathetically hopeful looks Pocholo gave me whenever he saw me in the morning. The routine began to have the desired effect on me, and I soon got into the habit of going out for a walk with our dog first thing in the morning—a walk that inevitably turned into a part-sprint, part-jog, part-scramble, depending on whatever caught the interest of my new personal trainer, Pocholo.
July came, and one cloudy Saturday morning, my family and I took that long bus ride and two jeepney rides to St. Helene Academy. While I sat in one of the classrooms in the high school building taking the exam, Nanay gave my dad and sisters a tour of the school and held an impromptu picnic beside the soccer field as they waited for me to finish. It took me a few days to recover from the terror-induced stiffness, the dry mouth and the jitters, but the hardest part was yet to come: Waiting for the results.
Upon Nanay’s instructions, I kept myself busy by studying for the second round of exams, even though I had no idea yet if I passed the first one. I’d gotten used to that level of work since the summer break, and I liked how it paid off in my class performance. Besides, it wasn’t as if I had anything better to do. Recess and lunch times with Mia and Renee were still fun, but they had started hanging out with Arlene and Kay, who were also from their class, and during conversations I found myself feeling lost and left out more and more often. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly—far from it—but after I’d refused the first few times they invited me to hang out with them after school because I had to study, they stopped asking. By the time August rolled around, I was the undisputed loner in my class.
Then the letter from St. Helene arrived, informing me that I had passed the first exam, and so was qualified to take the second exam in November to decide my class ranking. I ran all the way to Aling Pacita’s store to tell her and Ate Marian the good news, then Nanay and Ate Grace cooked up a special dinner to celebrate. The very next night, Nanay turned drill sergeant on me again and our nightly review sessions resumed.
When I got to school, it was to find that something had changed as well. News about my passing the notoriously rigorous first exam for St. Helene Academy had spread, drawing surprised, curious looks in my direction. Even our teachers were stopping me in the corridor and congratulating me in front of our class. When I questioned Mia and Renee, they denied having told anyone about my passing the first exam for St. Helene Academy.
One day during lunch break, I received a summons to the principal’s office. I glanced at my friends, who shrugged back. “Did they say why?” I asked the boy who’d been acted as the messenger.
“Not really. All I know is it’s not just the principal. There’s a whole bunch of them there waiting for you. Teachers, I mean,” he replied.
That got me even more worried, and it must’ve shown on my face. “We’re coming with you, Joy. Just in case you need our help,” Mia told me, a determined look settling on her face, while Renee and the others nodded.
“Well, you better hurry, or you’ll be in even bigger trouble.” The boy turned to go, then paused and looked back at me. “By the way, congrats, Joy,” he mumbled, before ducking his head and walking quickly away.
We watched him flee, because that was exactly what he was doing, then my friends exchanged amused looks. “Did you see that?” Arlene said, and Kay giggled in response.
“Why? What’s wrong with him?” I wondered.
Renee smiled as she stood up and dusted off her skirt. “Probably nothing. Let’s go, Joy. Let’s get this—whatever this is—over with.”
And that was how I found myself standing in front of the principal’s office, with Mrs. Santos and several other teachers ranged around us and my friends hovering somewhere near the doorway. The principal congratulated me yet again for passing the first exam, explaining that St. Helene Academy had sent them a letter, too, informing them that a student from their school had passed the exam.
“You are the very first student from Don Mateo to achieve this. You are also the strongest candidate for valedictorian in your class. I certainly believe you have it in you to go far in life, Miss De Castro,” the principal said, and I could hear my friends gasp behind me. “As representative of our institution, you deserve all the support that we can give you, especially by way of helping you prepare for the second examination round and—I believe you are applying for the scholarship, are you not?” he added, shuffling through the papers from St. Helene and peering at me over his glasses. Whoever had sent the letter from St. Helene had evidently realized what kind of background a student of a school like Don Mateo would likely have, and attached the appropriate documents.
“Yes, Sir, I am,” I replied.
He beamed. “Well then. May I ask how your studies for the second exam going? I’m sure your teachers can schedule review and coaching sessions with you to help you prepare for it, as well as for the essay and interview required for the scholarship.”
He gestured to indicate the teachers around us, and I looked into the faces of Mrs. Santos, Mr. De Villa and the others—the same teachers who belittled my dream the first time I came to them for help. One or two of them fidgeted, while the others offered nervous smiles.
I reached up to touch my wedding promise ring underneath my blouse, and fixed Mrs. Santos and the other teachers a steady look. “I don’t need your help,” I stated clearly, and Mrs. Santos lowered her gaze.
Then I dropped my hand and turned back to the principal. “Not for review sessions anyway. My mother is helping me with those,” I said with a smile.
“Oh, really?” he murmured.
“But I do need more review materials,” I added. “And I could use some coaching for the essay and interview part, if that’s okay, Sir. Oh, and one more thing.”
“You did it! You really did it! I can’t believe how cool you were in there,” Mia crowed later as we exited the principal’s office.
“You even managed to get out of PE in exchange for doing extra credit work. I didn’t even know that was possible. Nice work, Joy,” Renee said with a laugh.
I laughed too, feeling a lightness I hadn’t felt before. Winning at negotiations, I’d just discovered, was a wonderful experience. “Only until I finish the scholarship application in February, and only if I pass the second exam,” I pointed out. “But what I said is true. I need more time to study, and PE isn’t going to help me pass the exam.”
“Aaaand you get to escape from that awful Mr. Pinto,” Renee added slyly.
I giggled again. “That, too. What a relief.”
“Oh, I’m so envious of you, Joy,” Arlene exclaimed, then wrinkled her nose. “Then again, I think I’d rather stick with PE with Mr. Pinto than have to study as much as you.”
“And besides, you don’t need PE anymore anyway,” Kaye said.
I glanced over at her. “What do you mean?”
She blinked. “Have you looked in the mirror lately? You’re looking better now than before summer started, and I don’t think PE has anything to do with it.”
“It’s not PE. It’s loooove,” Renee said teasingly, making me blush and touch my ring again.
November came, and once again, my family and I made the trip to St. Helene so I could take the second exam. There were noticeably fewer exam-takers this time, and I looked into the faces of my co-examinees, wondering which of us would fall away and which of us would be left standing. The knowledge that nothing was guaranteed, that I could still fail spectacularly and disappoint everyone, including my entire school, did nothing to help ease my terror, and Nanay had to take me aside and make me do breathing exercises to keep me from throwing up.
Oddly enough, it was my little sister who gave me the words that helped me calm down.
“You really want to go to this school?” Faith scanned the hallway with a vaguely disapproving expression, her hands planted on her hips. When I took another deep breath and nodded, she flipped her hair over her shoulder and eyed me up and down. “You look scared to death.”
I exhaled, counting silently to four. “That’s because I am.”
I gave her a look. “Uh, because I might flunk this test?”
“And if you do, you won’t ever get to see Kuya Christian again, right?”
I flushed and dropped my eyes, my heart flopping painfully as my sister voiced out one of my greatest fears. Faith snorted. “Ate Joy, you’re being really silly right now,” she informed me. “Silly, silly, willy-nilly.”
“Not as silly as your rhyme,” I muttered.
“I like the sound of it,” she chirped, then poked a finger against my arm. “Even if you flunk, it doesn’t matter.”
I rolled my eyes and counted silently to four again. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she insisted. “You’re still you. You were you before you’d even heard of this snob-school, and you’ll still be you even if you flunk this test. We’ll still love you, you’ll still have a school to go to, you’ll still have friends, you’ll still be the same smart nerd you’ve always been. And Kuya Christian found you before. He’ll find you again. So what’re you so afraid of, you scaredy-cat?”
I stared at her, and she lifted an eyebrow in challenge. All of a sudden, I laughed and hugged her, only to release her when she began to struggle in my arms. “You’re right,” I gasped, still laughing. “I am being a scaredy-cat.”
The exam proctors came to tell us to go to our designated rooms, and I waved goodbye to my family and walked off to meet my fate. My sister was right. Somehow, in the middle of all this, I’d lost sight of what was real. Whether I got into St. Helene or not, I was still me. I wouldn’t lose anything truly essential by failing. In fact, I’d already gained so much just by trying my best. I’d gotten this far; if my journey ended here now, I wouldn’t have any regrets, and I’d just have to chart a new course.
My study routine eased up after I took the second exam, although I still took Pocholo out on our early morning walk-sprint-jog-scrambles—I couldn’t stand the way he looked so betrayed whenever I deviated from our routine. I also got so caught up in the Christmas festivities that I almost forgot all about getting into St. Helene.
Then the letter came in early January. I swear, opening that cream-colored envelope with the blue and gold logo was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I spent minutes just clutching the sheet of paper contained in the envelope to my chest, too scared to read it, until finally Ate Grace lost her patience and snatched it out of my hands.
“What? What does it say? Is it bad? Come on, tell me!” I wailed, my stomach cramping with tension as I watched her read the contents of the letter with a stony expression, with Nanay, Tatay and Faith drawing closer, equally eager to hear the results.
Finally, she looked up, a mournful expression on her face. “I’m so sorry, Joy—”
My heart dropped like a stone.
“—but you’ve got the lamest section names in St. Helene,” she continued with a grin. “I mean, PA-Barasoain? It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?” she added, wrinkling her nose.
As I stared uncomprehendingly at her, Faith piped up, “Hey, I know Barasoain. It’s a famous church in Bulacan. We did a report on that. But what does PA stand for?”
“Preparatory Year-A,” Nanay said faintly. “In St. Helene, there’s a preparatory year meant to bring all students up to the same baseline level before the first year of high school. And the A stands for—” she sent Tatay a wide-eyed look, and he smiled hugely back, looking fit to burst himself “—the A stands for the section where the highest ranked students are placed. Joy, you did it! You not only passed, you’re in the top percentile of the examinees!”
When I got to school a few days later, I found a tarpaulin poster hanging at the school gates, showing a photo of me taken in the fifth grade and the words “Congratulations, Joy Althea De Castro! Topnotcher in the SHA Exam! 1st in DMPES!” As I walked through hallways, people stopped to congratulate me and exclaim at how smart I was to get into a school like St. Helene. Even students from the years below ours began pointing me out and whispering my name, and when I looked back they would smile shyly and wave. Faith, who was in the fourth grade, openly basked in the glow of the attention-by-association. I, on the other hand, secretly basked in the knowledge that, for once, I was the sister in the limelight, not the one blending into the background.
The news soon made the rounds in our neighborhood, too, after I ran all the way to Aling Pacita’s again, waving my acceptance letter in the air. Almost overnight, I went from being known as Dita’s and Ramon’s chubby, unassuming middle child to Dita’s and Ramon’s brainy little scholar. A few times, I even heard somebody call me a genius. Somewhat unexpectedly, this bothered me more than being called fat, plain and uninteresting.
“It’s like they don’t see how hard I worked for this,” I complained to Aling Pacita one afternoon as I helped her bundle up rice, canned meat and vegetables into dinner sets, which I was gratified to see she continued even after I stopped working part-time at her store. “I studied my brains out for this. I gave up hanging out with my friends so I could study,” I went on. “I’m not a genius or anything. Do they actually think it was easy for me to pass those exams? And if it turns out that I can’t go to St. Helene after all, I just bet they’re going to stop calling me a genius and call me stupid and a failure instead.”
Aling Pacita raised an eyebrow, and I sheepishly stopped taking my frustration out on the sardine and tuna cans. “Child, why are you so upset at being given yet another label? From what you’ve told me, this is nothing new to you.”
I pouted, unwilling to let go of my temper tantrum just yet. “But it’s so unfair. Why can’t they see who I really am? All they see are bits and pieces of me. I’m fat and my skin is dark and I’m ugly, so that’s all I was to them. Now, I’m a genius just because I did this thing, and that’s all I am to them. I hate it.”
Our conversation halted as she and I dealt with arriving customers. When the crowd finally thinned, she beckoned me over again. “What’s this about you not going to St. Helene after all? I thought you’ve passed all the exams you needed to pass.”
“I have, but if I can’t get full scholarship, I can’t go. St. Helene is just too expensive, and I—I don’t want to be a burden to my parents.” I thought about what I’d left unsaid, about Tatay and the specter of Libya hovering over him like a burning yellow sun, full of threat and malice, just waiting to swallow him up. The plain and simple fact was: I had no choice but to ace the essay and interview for the scholarship. No full scholarship, no St. Helene. It would hurt terribly to give up on my goal, especially now that I’d come this close to reaching it, but it would hurt me more to see my family torn apart because of me. Forget the fact that my sisters would murder me; if I let something like this happen, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
Then I looked up. “May I continue to work here, Aling Pacita? During weekends and next summer, too, if I can get my parents’ permission? I want to learn how to stand on my own two feet as soon as I can. I won’t be a burden to my family. So please, may I?”
She heaved herself off her chair and placed her hands on my shoulders. “Child, you can come work for me anytime you want, as long as your mother and father are okay with it. It’s like I’ve been telling everyone: You’ve been my lucky charm all last summer. The store’s profits have never been higher. Now, how much do I owe you for tonight’s work?”
I clasped my hands together, trying to contain my happiness. “About the same as one dinner set,” I told her after doing some quick calculations. When she reached over to hand me one of our dinner sets, I shook my head. “If it’s okay, I’d rather take my dinner set home some other time. We’ve got enough food for now, but maybe one day, money’ll be a bit tight and we could use some extra food. So maybe I could have a—a piece of paper or a coupon for one dinner set that I can get later on…or something?”
“You mean a voucher?” Aling Pacita said, blinking. I nodded, and she gave me a small slip of paper that I could exchange for one dinner set sometime in the future. Over the next months, I converted part of my pay from working at Aling Pacita’s store for dinner set vouchers, which I then passed on to Nanay and Ate Grace, who managed our food supply. That, too, felt great, knowing that I helped make sure that our family wouldn’t go hungry anytime soon.
Of course, if I were to be completely honest, a lot of it stemmed from me trying to assuage my guilt at giving my parents so much stress. Caught up in the euphoria of my passing the two exams, I’d almost forgotten just how badly I needed that full scholarship to St. Helene, and how the competition for this would be even fiercer than for the two exams. There were only two scholarship slots and who knew how many applicants vying for them, after all. But the reality of my situation and the difficulty of the last hurdle I faced didn’t really sink in until one night in February. It was well past midnight, and Faith was lying on her side beside me, fast asleep. I, on the other hand, was still up, reading a Valentine romance by the light of an old penlight. Then our bunkbed shuddered as Ate Grace clambered down from her bed, yawning and mumbling about needing a drink. Moments later, she reappeared beside me, grabbing my arm and making me drop my penlight in surprise.
“Shhh!” she shushed me. “Come with me. There’s something you need to hear.”
“Come with you where? What’s going on?” I whispered back, but my sister only glared back at me and put her finger to her lips, signaling me to be quiet.
She was slowly and carefully pulling the door open, when a voice piped up. “Where’re you going?”
We turned to see Faith sitting up, and Ate Grace immediately shushed her, too. “Why’re you creeping around in the dark? And no fair leaving me behind,” Faith grumbled.
“Shut up,” Ate Grace hissed. “Go back to sleep. This has got nothing to do with you.”
“No way. I’m coming, too,” Faith retorted, scrambling off the bed. Ate Grace took one look at her mulish expression and rolled her eyes.
“Fine, but if we get caught because of you, I’m throwing away all your stupid hair junk,” she said, not a threat to be taken lightly considering how much our little sister loved her collection of cheap yet tacky hair accessories.
The three of us tiptoed through the dark past the closed door of our parents’ bedroom. We could hear our parents’ voices behind the wooden panels, but Ate Grace gestured for us to keep moving. We maneuvered soundlessly around our sleeping cats, slipped out the front door and into the chilly night air, and made our way around the house until we reached our parents’ bedroom window, where our parents’ voices could be heard more clearly. Crouching down underneath the window, we pressed as close as we could to the wall and tried not to breathe too hard, with Ate Grace keeping a warning eye on Faith.
“…one-third of that is mine. One-third of the intestate share,” Nanay was saying. “My brothers took theirs years ago…I was only twelve, so Auntie Delia tied up mine up in a trust fund…must have matured by now.”
Tatay said something we couldn’t hear, but our mother’s response was suddenly crisp and clear. “I won’t be asking her for a loan. I’ll be claiming what’s legally mine. My parents didn’t have much, but they had some money after they sold their property in Cavite. And if Kuya Rod is right, that would be worth almost half a million now. It’s enough, Ramon.”
I covered my mouth to muffle my gasp, while beside me, Ate Grace did the same for Faith. Half a million bucks? Half a million? What could we do with half a million? What couldn’t we do? That much money—it boggled the mind. Was Nanay talking about her inheritance from our deceased grandparents? And Auntie Delia—was that the same Lola Delia my sister mentioned before? I shot Ate Grace a questioning look over Faith’s head, and she nodded grimly back.
“…won’t get it. She’ll just say you got your share years ago,” Tatay said.
We heard Nanay’s sigh and the creak of their bedframe as she sank down upon it. “I know. That’s why I wrote my brothers about this. I’ve also spoken with the lawyer who helped settle our inheritances before. He can testify that my share was locked up in a trust fund.”
“Then she’ll say you’ve spent your share already, trust fund or not.”
She gave a short, humorless laugh. “Yes, as reimbursement for my education. She might even present me with a bill for the cost of my schooling. With interest.”
The bedframe creaked again as Tatay sat beside her. “I don’t like it,” he said heavily. “I don’t like the idea of you going back to that woman, for any reason. And I like the idea of her getting anywhere near our girls even less.”
“I don’t like it either. And I swore—I swore—I’d never go back after the way she treated us the last time. But it’s our best chance, Ramon. It’s Joy’s best chance.”
My hand curled into a fist against my mouth as tears stung my eyes. Nanay sounded so small and tired. She’s scared. She’s doing something that’s scaring her, but she’s doing it for me.
There was a grunt, then Tatay’s low, pained voice. “Dita, you know it doesn’t have to be like this. If I go—”
“No,” Nanay cut in sharply. “No. It hasn’t come to that yet. I refuse to let you leave until we’ve exhausted all the options we have here. I refuse to allow our family to be broken like that until we can see no other solution. Let me do what I can first,” she added more quietly. “The solution is out there. Auntie Delia may have grown hardhearted in her old age, but she’s still family. She cared for me once. We will find another way, mahal, just wait and see.”
Silence fell except for the creaking of the bedframe as they settled down to sleep, and Ate Grace released her death-grip around Faith’s head to signal us to move away from the window and creep back to our room. But instead of going back to bed, the three of us sat on our bed on the bottom bunk, digesting all that we’d just heard.
Then Faith spoke up: “Who’s Auntie Delia?”
Ate Grace sighed and leaned back against the bunkbed’s ladder. “You’ve never met her. Nanay was pregnant with you the last time we went to Lola Delia’s house. She’s Nanay’s aunt, Lolo’s sister. Nanay lived with her after Lolo and Lola died, but she left when she got married to Tatay.”
“Also, Lola Delia’s a horrible, old goat.” I turned to Ate Grace. “She is, right?”
“Yeah. She is,” my older sister replied darkly. “She’s a mean, selfish old hag who’s got nothing going for her except the fact that she’s rich. And she hates us. All of us, even you, Faith, even though she’s never met you. But it’s Tatay she hates the most.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Faith said in a plaintive voice.
“You told me about her before,” I went on, my heart and mind racing. “You said Lola Delia’s the reason Nanay doesn’t talk about her years at St. Helene. And you also said that I’ve met her, only I was too young to remember.” I fixed my older sister a determined look. “Tell me about that day you met her. That’s the last time Nanay ever spoke to her, right? Tell me everything you know about Lola Delia.”
So Ate Grace did, recounting everything she could recall about her first and last encounter with our grand-aunt—a grand-aunt whom until that summer I didn’t even know existed. And when the day finally came when Nanay, pale but composed, told me to dress up nicely and come with her to an ancient, decrepit mansion crammed to the rafters with ceramic and crystal figurines of every shape and species—when that day came, I was ready. For what, I didn’t know. To charge into battle against a Gorgon? To act as my mother’s sword and shield in defense of our family? To argue, to plead, to grovel on my knees for the money? Whatever it was, I believed I was prepared to deal with it, my mind wrapped around an iron-hard core of resolve. And because of that, I ended up staring into a pair of tiny, scalpel-sharp eyes in an angular face that seemed to be supported mainly by caked foundation in the wrong skin tone, and proceeding to promise myself to years of service in exchange for enough money to pay for my tuition and all of my needs for all my years at St. Helene Academy.
It was a deal with the devil. I even signed a contract and everything. It left my mother in tears and my father in such turmoil that he went out and came home drunk. My sisters didn’t know whether to sympathize with me or pound me for being so catastrophically stupid. They needn’t have bothered. Even years later, I still cursed the crazy impulse that led me to offer myself as collateral in exchange for money that was ours to begin with, and quaked in fear over what was in store for me at Lola Delia’s house. But there must’ve been something I saw in those tiny eyes and curling mouth with lipstick so red it left imprints in the air, something I heard in that grating, high-pitched voice that shaped calculated insults and unconsciously cruel words with equal ease. There must’ve been something there, because even though Nanay and Tatay ordered me to never return to Lola Delia’s place, contract or no contract, I shook my head and stubbornly insisted that I would fulfill my promise to her.
As it turned out, it was a noble gesture I could’ve skipped entirely, as the third letter from St. Helene arrived in late March informing us that I had passed the application for full scholarship, entitling me not only to free tuition and school fees, but to free housing as well at St. Helene’s on-campus dormitory, if I so chose. It also included a food allowance, a uniform allowance, and a modest monthly stipend. It was an astonishingly generous package—almost as if St. Helene was paying me to study there. Then again, given the ludicrous amounts of money the school received from its full-paying students, I suppose it could afford to be generous.
And thus, it was official. I would be going to St. Helene Academy in the next school year, the first ever human being from good, old Don Mateo Public Elementary School—the first ever from our entire town—to do so. I would be part of that beautiful, fairytale kingdom I’d dreamed of. And just to add a little dash of fun to the whole, incredible situation, I even had a dragon in the form of Lola Delia to do battle with. Because what was a fairytale without a dragon to fight, after all?
Graduation day arrived in a blur of candlelight, half-wilted flowers, and heavy white robes that kept the heat of a thousand summer suns within their folds. As I stood at the podium to deliver my valedictory speech, I stared down at the sea of faces before me—my beaming, waving friends, my classmates, and even my erstwhile tormentors Federico and Diane—and wondered at how far apart from one another our paths would take us from now on. I once thought I knew exactly where each one of us was headed. I once thought that life never changed, that everything was just going to stay the same. But here I was now, standing on a stage to address the same people who’d ignored or made fun of me before, ready to step onto a brand, new path. All because of a tiny thought that became an idea that became a decision to change my life.
Who knew how many of the lives before me today would change because of a single thought? Who knew who we’d be a month from now, a year from now, a lifetime from now? Who knew how far any of us would go?
I reached up underneath the gold medal and floral lei hanging around my neck to touch the small bump of my wedding promise ring, then opened my mouth to deliver my speech. Much later, after the tearful hugs and promises to keep in touch from Mia and Renee and my other friends, after the warm congratulations from my teachers—including, to my utter amazement, a relatively subdued Mr. Pinto—after the celebration at our house that included Aling Pacita and Ate Marian, somebody presented me with a photograph of me standing at the podium. For once defying my personal rule to avoid any reflections or pictures that showed my face, I took this photo and slipped it into an envelope, but not before I wrote something on the back.
April 28, 1998
Me giving my valedictory speech at our graduation.
I’ll see you at St. Helene Academy next year.
I miss you.
Wait for me, Christian. I’ll be reaching you soon. Wait for me.
The year I turned twelve was the year I started running. Then the magic Christian had left within me took hold, and before I knew it, I had learned to fly.