Unbeknownst to most of its subjects, the kingdom that had lost its prince gained somebody new: A nameless, faceless peasant girl from a distant land. A peasant girl who remembered the prince.
He had come to her country years ago and befriended her and her family. He charmed her with his princely manners and royal beneficence until she fell in love with him.
And then he disappeared.
She waited and waited for him, but he never returned. Then one day, she grew tired of waiting, packed up her bags, and set out to find him instead.
– – – – – – – –
I looked up from the paperback romance I was reading while munching on my pan de sal. “Hello, Jenneth.”
Jenneth slid into the chair beside me, bearing his own tray containing three pan de sal rolls, a sunny-side egg, a few slices of some sticky yellow stuff that was purportedly cheese, a cup of hot chocolate and a banana. Novel forgotten, I watched as he carefully tore a piece of pan de sal, dipped it into the hot chocolate, then put in in his mouth without getting a single brown drop on his white shirt. It was like watching a ballerina dance or a tai chi master go through his forms. His movements were measured and graceful, even down to the point and flick of his slim fingers, as if he gave great thought to the most insignificant flexing of his muscles. Not that he had any. Jenneth was just my height and slightly built, and his features—delicately arched brows, almond eyes, a small nose, and Mona Lisa smile—all combined to make him seem almost pretty.
He took out a textbook and opened it—Principles of Design, which meant he was probably reading Chapter 2—then picked up a slab of alleged cheese and brought it to his mouth, only to stop when he noticed me staring at him. “Like what you see?” he purred, taking a bite of cheese in an outrageously seductive manner.
I rolled my eyes. “You wish. You’re just making me feel guilty that I’m reading this riveting piece of work—” I raised my paperback romance “—instead of that riveting piece of work.” I nodded toward his textbook.
“Why? You’re the one who’s already finished the readings on Chinese culture. You can afford to slack off,” he countered. “Me, though, I’m really regretting following you into the Mandarin Chinese language program. Mandarin Chinese! I should’ve chosen Spanish! Do you know how much I regret choosing Mandarin Chinese? I regret it so much, I’m learning Mandarin Chinese just so I can tell you how much I regret it in Mandarin Chinese.”
I was already laughing before he’d even finished speaking. “Okay, I can sense that you’re feeling a tiiiiiny smidgeon of regret that you chose Mandarin Chinese. But we both know why you chose Mandarin Chinese. You did it because of your deep, abiding love for me, and you can’t possibly regret that. Plus, you thought Chinese characters are pretty.”
“What deep, abiding love? And they are pretty, and you know it,” he scoffed, giving us both a fit of the giggles that made the other people in the cafeteria glance over at us. Easy companionship and banter had been the hallmarks of our friendship ever since we met in our preparatory year. That, and a slightly greater level of physical closeness with a member of the opposite sex that I only allowed with Jenneth, by virtue of the fact that he was not only my first and best friend in St. Helene, he was also my first roommate.
It had been a minor comedy of errors that led to us being assigned the same room during our first term as preppies. We were both newbies at the House, and we didn’t know anyone well enough to be able to choose a roommate when our names were drawn, so the House reps simply listed our names and assigned us roommates according to sex. Nobody had thought to check Jenneth’s application form, and for some reason he himself had not been present during the room assigning, arriving much later than the other residents. I was in our room unpacking when he walked in through the door with his bags, very undisputedly a boy in the girls’ wing despite his slight build and feminine features, and it dawned on me, as we stared at each other trying to come to grips with the situation, that Jenneth had been less a variant of the name Jeannette and more a misspelling of the name Kenneth.
“It sounds like a joke, but it’s my uncle’s fault,” Jenneth explained after we’d recovered from our shock. We were sitting facing each other at the table with a stiff, almost formal air as we figured out what to do. “My mom had told him to put my name down as Kenneth in my birth certificate, but while he was doing so some nurse shouted behind him that the baby was girl,” he continued. “So he wrote down Jenneth instead, only it turned out the nurse meant some other baby, not me.” This was a speech I would hear so often that I soon had it memorized, down to the inflection of his voice and his occasional adlibs, and in fact delivered it for him whenever people expressed their confusion over his name and he wasn’t around.
“Oh,” I said. There was an awkward pause as we both wondered, What now? “Um, I suppose we should tell the House reps or the Director or Mang Caloy…”
I trailed off, my thoughts reflected clearly on his face. The House Director was out—she often was, as she spent most of her time attending conferences and also being Director of Guidance Counseling and Student Services. Mang Caloy, on the other hand, was officially Administrative Assistant but preferred the term “caretaker” for some reason. He was a wiry, middle-aged man whose perpetually scowling face and thunderous voice gave us the impression that he viewed us residents as barbarians coming to pillage his city, and we were too new to the House to know that Mang Caloy was really a gigantic pussycat who could be bribed by a hearty meal or a mere slice of cake, and cared for the House residents like we were his many, many children, as if he didn’t already have plenty enough of the biological sort. We didn’t want to trouble the House reps, and frankly, we were both too intimidated by St. Helene’s snooty, distinctly upper-class atmosphere to make any kind of move that could potentially offend anyone or draw attention to us.
That’s when it hit us that we were in the presence of the one person in the entire school who truly knew what we were going through. We were both scholarship kids after all, the only two scholarship kids in our entire prep class. As we continued to talk, I learned just how much Jenneth and I had in common. He came from a wild and wooly shanty-town just like mine, and had gone to a poor, overcrowded public school much like my own Don Mateo. He was the second oldest of six children, the only son of a tricycle driver and a cheese-curl vendor whose hope and dream were to see him rise high enough so he could in turn support his siblings through their own schooling. He gained attention when he represented his school in a local science competition and won by an almost preposterous margin. One of the judges in the competition was their local congressman, and he later took him and his parents aside and told them about St. Helene Academy and its generous scholarship. This was the birth of his parents’ dream for him, and ever the dutiful son, he struggled through many of the same challenges as I did to get to where he was now.
We went to the cafeteria for dinner still talking and went back to our room still talking, but now reminded of the small matter of our room assignment, which we were supposed to have been trying to solve instead of bonding with each other.
“If you want, we can—”
“You don’t have to worry—” he said at the same time.
We looked at each other and laughed. “You go first,” I said.
He smiled back, then his gaze slid away. “I was just saying you don’t have to worry about me being…you know, a guy and all. I’m used to sharing a room with girls, and I’m not really a…I’m not really into…you know…”
He made a complicated little gesture encompassing my entire body, and his meaning sunk in. “Oh. Okay,” I said, wondering whether to tell him that it had never once occurred to me that I would ever be in danger of being seen…you know, that way…by any guy. The issue seemed to be preying on his mind, though, so I left it at that. “Well, I was just about to suggest we hang a curtain between our beds so we could each have some privacy, if that’s important to you,” I went on, sketching an imaginary line dividing our room into halves. I had been thinking of ways to reduce the amount of time he would have to spend looking at me. Surely, a graceful gazelle like him wouldn’t want to be staring at a fat, dark blob like me all the time.
He peered skeptically at the concrete walls on either end of the room. “A curtain? How?”
Okay, I had clearly not thought this one through. “Um, really, really strong tape?”
We discarded the curtain idea with embarrassing haste, and simply accepted the fact that we were roommates now, a situation that would last for over a month before somebody noticed that the cute, short-haired girl who made daily trips to the boys’ communal bathrooms wasn’t a girl at all. “You don’t have to worry, either. I’m used to sharing a room myself,” I told him later just before lights out.
Pushing himself up on his elbow, he looked down at me from his bunkbed. “Yeah, with your sisters. But with a boy?”
I touched my wedding promise ring underneath my T-shirt. “I’ve slept with a boy before,” I replied with a small smile, before turning off the light.
“You’re going to tell me all about that later,” he’d mumbled sleepily. “Good night, Joy.”
“Hey, guys! Sorry, I’m late. Oh, you’re already eating. Let me go get a tray.”
Like a human tornado, Nathan burst into the cafeteria and bustled over to our table, interrupting our discussion on Mandarin Chinese. He dumped his backpack and binder in the empty chair beside me, then went off to the cafeteria line before either of us could say anything in response. My eyes followed him across the room, watching as he greeted the other House kids and the cafeteria staff, then proceeded to sneak in a couple more pan de sal rolls, a few more slabs of so-called cheese, and a second banana onto his tray.
“Mm-hmm. I saw that.”
I tore my gaze away from Nathan and turned to the smirking Jenneth. “You saw nothing. You are mistaken, sir,” I said haughtily, then ruined the effect by taking a ferocious bite of pan de sal.
“Oh, sure. That was totally nothing,” he mocked lightly. “So when did this start?”
I opened my mouth to launch another denial, saw the expression on his face, and sagged in my chair. “I don’t know. Around the start of the term, I guess,” I admitted with a sigh. “I just…started noticing…stuff. It’s completely stupid. Please don’t tell anyone.”
“It’s different, that’s for sure. Especially compared to the way you acted around him before—hey, Nate, you didn’t forget your room key again, did you?” he said more loudly, addressing Nathan, who’d settled into the seat beside me. Immediately, the air beside me grew warm, and I surreptitiously inched away from him. Then I caught myself and stopped, irritation flashing through me as I reminded myself that I didn’t have to do those kinds of things around him anymore. Luckily, only Jenneth seemed to have noticed, judging from the slight arch of his eyebrow.
“Yeah, I didn’t. I mean, no, I have it,” Nathan said in reply to Jenneth’s question.
“And you hung your wet towel up? You didn’t leave it on your bed again?”
“Yes, Mom, I did.” Nathan rolled his eyes, although his grin indicated that he didn’t really mind his roommate’s nagging. He looked at me and smiled shyly. “Hi, Joy.”
“Hi, Nate.” I smiled back, then ducked my head as if intent on finishing my breakfast. My cheeks were growing warm, and I again fought the urge to move a little farther away from him, this time out of a sense of self-consciousness rather than an adherence to some dumb old warning from my past. Really, having a crush on a boy was turning out to be equal parts unsettling and bothersome, and I still wasn’t sure if I was keen on it. Just when I had gotten used to treating Nathan as I would any friend and fellow House kid, this had to happen.
I studied Nathan from the corner of my eye as he and Jenneth talked about stuff going on in the boys’ temporary wing. Nathan was an inch or two taller than me even sitting down and firmly on the husky side, with a head full of curls that he kept trimmed short in an almost military crewcut because otherwise they would spring all around his head like a fluffy Afro. He also had a baby face and a dopey grin that made him look more like a huge, friendly dog than a thug. He had been the latecomer in our five-man band, applying for residency at the House in our freshman year more or less because his parents had wanted to be rid of their dunce of a youngest kid, but didn’t want to spend enough on him to send him to a real boarding school in the US or the UK, the way they did for his brilliant, high-achieving siblings. It had left a wound inside him that had yet to heal, but made him a perfect fit among the rest of us House kids—the different ones, the broken ones, the ones who stuck out in all the wrong ways.
The way I acted around him before… My face warmed again, this time in shame as I thought about what Jenneth said. I had treated Nathan badly way back in our prep year, before he came to stay at the House. He’d been friendly toward me—a tad too friendly, in fact, with an edge of desperation that was somewhat off-putting. He used to hang out with a bunch of popular guys in our class, led by a boy named Tony whom, if I’d known what the word was way back then, I’d have described as a classic rich douche. The first time Jenneth and I encountered this group was during lunch period. We were standing in line at the cafeteria, which happened to take us past the table where Nathan’s buddies held court, when Tony suddenly called out, “Hey, you smell that? It stinks like garbage in here.”
Then he looked over at Jenneth and me, and snickered. “Oh, it’s just the scholarship kids. Never mind,” he said, while the others, including Nathan, laughed as though what he’d said was something incredibly hilarious.
I saw Jenneth go all stiff and angry behind me, but I couldn’t stop staring at Tony. I remembered him from another time, another place. He’d been one of the kids in a silver car, in a tree-lined street in the middle of a posh, exclusive neighborhood. Although he hadn’t spoken a word to me, but he’d been mocking then, too. I remembered the taunting in his voice, the hint of challenge—
And I remembered the way he backed down at the glint of steel in a pair of chocolate eyes.
I swallowed and started to turn away. This Tony was bad news, and the only safe place for us was anywhere he and his friends weren’t. Then my gaze met those of the nearly bald boy standing at the edge of the group as if waiting to be noticed, and his eyes were filled with recognition and surprised pleasure. This boy had been the only one who spoke to me back then. Are you one of Mr. Prasad’s daughters? This boy—Nathan, that was his name—he’d thought I was Indian, even though my name was Joy.
“Hey,” he began, turning to face me fully. “Hey, haven’t we met?”
Stay away from Nathan. I don’t want you to go anywhere near him.
I jerked a little as the voice from my memories seemed to speak directly into my ears. Oh my gosh, these guys go to St. Helene, too? “N-no. Let’s go, Jenneth,” I muttered, lowering my head and tugging Jenneth along by the arm.
For the next several weeks, Nathan and I played an odd game of tag all over school. He’d spot me somewhere in the hallways or in one of the classrooms and try to get my attention, and I’d run away and give him the slip. Jenneth, Maisha and Honey grew increasingly puzzled over why I was so committed to avoiding this boy who, as far as they knew, I’d never met before. Us being in different classes worked in my favor, but I’d underestimated his tenacity. One afternoon, the four of us were walking back to the House, and he proceeded to shave a decade off our lives by jumping out from behind some bushes and rushing toward us with arms akimbo.
“Yawa! What the hell is your problem?” Honey yelled, lapsing into her native dialect in her fright.
Nathan backed away a bit and raised his hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just need to ask something, okay? It’s just this one thing.”
“Yeah, well, you can ask but we don’t have to answer,” Maisha retorted, stepping forward with her arms on her hips.
“Not all of you. Just her.” He pointed at me, causing all eyes to turn toward me. “Please, I want to know. You’re Joy, aren’t you?”
I bit my lips, debating whether or not to answer, but the mixture of appeal and uncertainty in his face was just too hard to resist. And really, what was the harm in talking to him? It’s just talking, right? “Yes,” I answered.
“Well, of course she’s Joy. What kind of question is that?” Maisha muttered in the background, only to be shushed by Honey.
He smiled in relief. “I knew it. I knew it. I remember you. You’re Christian’s girlfriend.”
At that moment, I realized what the harm was in talking to Nathan. At the sound of Christian’s name, my heart seemed to burst inside my chest, pain and happiness crashing together in a thunderous clap. Here was someone who, however briefly, had been part of my memories of Christian. Suddenly, those memories were rising all around me, causing me to waver between past and present, like a magic spell that had been triggered. I instinctively reached up to grasp my wedding promise ring through my blouse; right now, it was the only thing keeping me from bursting into confused tears.
You’re not my girlfriend. You’re my bride. My future wife. Mine. Just like you promised. Don’t you ever forget that, or I’ll make you sorry.
“Yes,” I croaked, aware of the startled gazes of my three friends. “Yes, I am.”
“That’s great,” Nathan exclaimed, oblivious to the emotional uproar he’d caused. “I wanted to talk to you before, but you kept avoiding me. I’m not even sure why—did I do something wrong? Should I be apologizing to you?” he asked worriedly. When I shook my head, his grin returned. “Whew, that’s good to know. Anyway, I wanted to ask if you’ve heard anything from him. Even Nikki says the news they get is pretty vague.”
“Nikki?” I asked faintly.
“Yeah, his cousin, Nikki. She’s in PB-Callao. She says he’s supposed to be coming back anytime now, but there’s nothing definite.”
Nikki. Another face drifted out of my whirlwind of memories—an adorable little poppet with the personality of a wet cat. Princess Starlight. She’s here in St. Helene, too? I thought dumbly. This is turning out to be a regular reunion.
“There’s this rumor that he got into some trouble at his school, so his parents decided to keep him there longer.” With some effort, I refocused on what Nathan was saying. “It’s just a rumor, though, and somebody else who’d met him in New York last year said it wasn’t trouble in school but something else entirely. It’d be great if he could come back, though,” he added, sounding wistful. “Things were different when he was around. He was someone who shook things up wherever he went.”
My chest ruptured again. Stop, I wanted to tell him. I don’t want to know about Christian getting into trouble when I’m not there to help him. I don’t want to know how different things were when he was around, because he isn’t around… and God, I wish he was. I wish he was.
But Nathan wasn’t done yet. “So I wondered if he’d contacted you or something. Nikki said the last time he emailed her was back in April but that was only to forward some jokes to her. I figured that as his girlfriend, you hear from him more often than his cousin does.”
“No,” I heard myself whisper, my fingers digging into the cloth of my blouse as I clutched my ring even more tightly. “No, I haven’t heard from him. Sorry.”
Sorry, because the last time I heard from him was that letter he wrote me two years ago. That letter lies in a box inside my wardrobe now, crisp and yellowed with age. Sorry, because he hasn’t seen fit to write me again, not even a postcard to tell me that he still thought about me sometimes. Sorry, because you and Nikki and the rest of the world know more about him than I do. His supposed girlfriend. His so-called bride.
Don’t even think that I’d forget you for one second, said the Christian inside my head. I’ll come back someday and I’ll find you, so you had better be waiting for me or else.
Oh, Christian, I thought. Did you lie about this, too?
An arm slid across my shoulders in a partial hug, pulling me out of the quicksand I was sinking into, and I looked up in surprise at Jenneth. “There. You have your answer. And now we have to go,” he said to Nathan, who looked taken aback at the closeness Jenneth and I apparently shared. He, Maisha and Honey escorted me away, while Nathan stared after us in confusion.
“But we can be friends, right?” he called after us. “I—I’ll talk to you again tomorrow, okay?”
I glanced at him over my shoulder, and it struck me how lonely he looked. He needs a friend, I realized. He doesn’t belong anywhere, least of all with Tony and his gang, no matter what Nathan wants to believe. But instead of befriending him as my instincts were telling me to, I redoubled my efforts to avoid him. I couldn’t seem to get past the pain and shame and disappointment I felt every time I saw him. Most of the time, I couldn’t even see him without seeing the past, too—the silver car, the tree-lined street, the boy standing beside me, introducing me as his girlfriend. So I evaded him at every turn instead…and Nathan ended up without a real friend or a place he could belong to.
Until last year, when he came to stay at the House, and Jenneth chose him to be his roommate. The year the last message from Christian arrived. The year Nikki gave me a photograph of him. The year I finally woke up to the truth. Only then did I learn to see Nathan for who he was.
“Hey, what is it?” Nathan asked around a mouthful of banana. “Uh, Joy?”
I blinked. “Hmm? What is what?”
Jenneth reached over and poked me on the arm. “Joyous, you’ve been staring at him for the past five minutes. Let him eat in peace, will you? That’s got to be bad for his health.”
“I have? I’m sorry. I was just thinking—oh, never mind.” Flushing with embarrassment, I rose and brought my tray over to the bussing area, sorting the dirty plates, cup and cutlery in their proper bins. When I came back, Maisha and Honey had already arrived, with Maisha, wearing in a hot pink hijab and a long-sleeved version of our school blouse, trying to stuff a sheaf of papers into her bag—printouts of the information that she had hastily researched on the Internet early that morning with Honey’s help. Our table got significantly noisier as the two girls argued their way to the cafeteria line, then argued their way through breakfast, apparently over who had used whose shampoo and conditioner without permission, with the evidence pointing to Honey, who countered that if it hadn’t been for her, Maisha would be showing up for group work emptyhanded.
I sighed inwardly. Really, those two were hopeless.
“Everyone, move out already, or we’re going to be late for morning assembly. You know how the teachers just love it when we House kids are late,” Ate Kath admonished from the doorway to the lobby, eyeing the rest of us sternly.
That galvanized us into action, with Maisha and Honey forced to stuff their uneaten pan de sal and bananas into their bags, to be munched on later. As we grabbed our bags and things and headed out the door of the House, Jenneth looped his arm around mine and pulled me close, forcing the two of us to fall behind the others.
“He’s been watching you, too, you know,” he said in a low voice. “He has been since prep year, only you wouldn’t give him the time of day.”
My eyes darted toward Nathan’s wide back as we walked down Hyacinth Street heading toward the high school building. As if he’d felt the force of my gaze, he turned to look at me over his shoulder. Then he stopped and stepped aside, and I realized he was waiting for us to catch up.
No, he was waiting for me to catch up.
I blushed as a flock of butterflies awoke in my stomach. I glanced frantically at Jenneth, but he only gave me a knowing smile. “Listen, Joyous, it’s about time you opened yourself up again. Look around, and you just might find somebody who’s been waiting for you all this time.”
Then he released my arm and trotted on ahead on the pretext of asking Maisha and Honey a question. As Nathan took Jenneth’s place at my side, blushing faintly himself, I discovered that some other boy could make my heart race, could make my breath come a little faster, could make my hands shake and turn clammy. The feeling wasn’t quite as I remembered it, but neither was it wholly unwelcome.
This is Valentine’s Day. I can give you Christmas, too, and New Year’s Day and Easter and Halloween. All the holidays, Joy, I’ll give them to you. Just tell me what you want.
My throat closed for a moment, and I had to tell myself not to turn away from Nathan and run back to Jenneth’s side. Not long-stemmed roses, I thought fiercely. Not birthday balloons. Not fairytales that aren’t real or dreams that don’t come true. What I want is what’s right in front of me now.
So go away, Christian. Stay far, far away from here. Never ever come back.