Then one day…
– – – – – – – –
The turtle was my only hint that the day was going to turn out to be…a little different from all the other days gone by. When I got back from my early morning wake-up jog, I found my wardrobe door partially open and my cartoon turtle cutout lying on the floor. Thinking nothing of it, I picked it up and stuck it to the corner of the mirror before sitting down at my desk to finish some last-minute homework and review the lessons for the day. When I finished packing my books and things in my bag, I noticed that my wardrobe door was slightly ajar again and that my turtle was lying on the floor, grinning up at me.
I stuck it to the mirror again and pushed my wardrobe door shut, then grabbed my bucket, bath towel and makeshift bathrobe and headed to the showers. On the way, I met up with Maisha and Honey, who were talking animatedly about some celebrity sighting. Or at least Honey was talking animatedly, gushing about how she’d only managed to catch a glimpse of him as he walked past their classroom door, but there had been something about him, some indefinable aura or charisma or magnetism that had drawn her gaze and made her want to follow him anywhere…
“So he’s got you willing to commit a crime after just one look? What a guy,” Maisha said sarcastically, looking less than impressed with Honey’s story. She shot me a “here we go again” look, and I hid a grin. We’d both known Honey long enough to know that she had a weakness for pop stars, especially hot, male, poster-worthy pop stars. We knew the signs of a burgeoning celebrity crush when it was salivating right in front of us.
Honey stopped looking star-struck long enough to give us both an annoyed frown. “You haven’t been listening, oy. He didn’t look at me at all. He was looking straight ahead, and all I saw was his profile.” She sighed mournfully at the lost opportunity as she headed toward a newly vacated shower room while Maisha rolled her eyes toward the bathroom ceiling.
“Ooh, we know who you’re talking about.” Annelie spun away from the sink, toothpaste foam still dripping from her grinning mouth. “Gemma and I saw him, too. Didn’t we, Gem?” she called out to her roommate, who was still in another shower stall.
“Yeah, on the way to Soc Sci class. He was talking with Principal San Juan and the high school sec,” Gemma yelled back. “And wowsie, he was hot. Those shoulders. Those eyes.”
“That smile. Aaaaah.” Annelie leaned back against the sink and pretended to fan herself.
“You got to see his smile? Aww, I’m so jealous!” Honey whined.
“You’d think they’d be done talking about this guy after last night,” Maisha muttered to me before calling out, “Calm down, Honey. Try not to drown in there.”
“Last night?” I asked, amused by the storm of female hormones raging around me.
“Yeah, in the rec room. Around the time you went to make a phone call.”
“He was wearing black and white, so we thought he was a student here, like maybe a transferee or something,” Annelie went on, “but it turned out he was just wearing a white T-shirt and black jeans.”
Ate Kath stepped out of the third shower stall and surveyed us archly, hand on her hip, while Maisha and I played rock-paper-scissors to decide who’d go next. “Well, so what if he isn’t from here? We’ve got celebs in St. Helene, too. Like Eljay Sebastian in 4B-Justice.”
I entered the stall after defeating Maisha in combat while the other girls started naming the other celebrities or children of celebrities in school that they knew. Then I heard Gemma ask: “What about you, Joy? Any celeb you know from St. Helene?”
Without hesitating, I shouted: “Miguel Santillan.”
For a moment, all that could be heard was the splashing of water onto the floor. “Who?” Maisha yelled back.
“Miguel Santillan. Well, okay, I guess you’ve never heard of him, but the Inquirer interviewed him last summer so…” Briefly, I explained about Miguel, the skinny, messy-haired third-grader with the cool, disconcertingly direct gaze that I, Mia and Renee had encountered during our very first foray into St. Helene. I met him again in my freshman year when I joined a handful of high school students who tutored grade-school students under the supervision of Father Ramilo. He’d been a sixth-grader then and was being tutored himself—not in sixth-grade or even high school math and not by any high school student, but in college-level precalculus and calculus by Father Ramilo himself. Miguel was a gifted child with a genius-level IQ, and last year he left St. Helene Elementary School and entered the University of the Philippines. He and I had sometimes talked in the year we spent together, and to be honest, I still missed his presence in Father Ramilo’s office.
In this school, perception is king and appearances its queen, he’d told me once when I complained about the bizarre number of social rules in St. Helene. Weird that an eleven-year-old kid could be perceptive enough to succinctly and even poetically sum up the entirety of St. Helene society. Then again, he’d always been different himself. And evidently the caste system worked in the elementary school too, because Miguel broke the rules simply by being too smart.
“So yeah, Miguel. He’s my favorite St. Helene celeb,” I concluded. And only then realized that I could hear only one shower still running—mine.
“Uh, that’s great, Joy,” Maisha said, her voice sounding as if it was coming from the doorway. “You better hurry or you’ll be late.”
When I got back to my room, I found that my wardrobe door had swung open again, and my turtle was back on the floor. Feeling annoyed now—caused in no small degree by having my audience run out on me in the middle of my reminiscing—I snatched up the turtle and turned it over to examine it. The strip of tape I’d used to stick it had obviously lost its adhesiveness. I started toward my desk for some fresh tape, then stopped. Did I even need this turtle? Honestly, did I really still need to be reminded of why I was here?
Wasn’t this turtle just another relic of my past that I needed to let go of if I wanted a real chance with Nathan?
“Forward, Joy,” I said encouragingly. Then I reached into the back of my wardrobe—discovering in the process the small bit of cloth that was hanging over the edge, which was the reason the door kept opening—and pulled out a battered tin box with a small padlock. I unlocked the padlock with the tiny key I kept inserted in it, and opened the box.
The box had once been crammed full of assorted gewgaws—small toys, arcade tokens, pretty stones and seashells, little cards and ribbons, even a plushie, things a child would keep as souvenirs in a keepsake box. I’d long since gotten rid of the baubles, and now all the tin can contained was a small sheaf of letters, several photos, and a green, plastic egg with a slip of paper inside upon which I’d written down the original amount that Christian had given to me before, plus extra to make up for inflation. I fully intended to return the full amount to him someday; I absolutely refused to owe him anything.
Oh, and there was one more thing: A small, crimson pouch containing a silver napkin ring, still threaded through with a black, woven cord.
At the top of the stack of letters was an envelope. I set the box atop my stack of clothes and picked up this envelope. It contained two photographs and folded sheet of white note paper. One photograph was that of a green and brown stuffed turtle arranged upon one end of a sofa. The stuffed turtle was about the size of a small child, and pretty threadbare and old-looking. In fact, the green and brown shell had already faded to a dull gray, even taking into consideration that the photo was over a year old.
The sheet of paper was a handwritten letter, dated late May of last year. I didn’t need to read the letter to know what it said. I’d read it often enough before, hoping in vain that the words would change if I just tried harder to reshape them in my mind, to decipher the hidden meanings in what he’d written. But the words never changed.
The letter read:
I want to tell you a story.
When I was a child, we lived in an apartment in the Upper West Side. One of our neighbors was a couple whose kid had grown up. This kid had this big, stuffed turtle (the one in the photo) that his mom kept because he used to love it so much. I was around two when I first visited their apartment, and Mom said I loved the turtle so much I wouldn’t let go of it. The neighbors were nice enough to let me borrow the turtle, and Mom said I took it everywhere with me, even tried to take it into the bath with me. I went to sleep hugging it. I even named it Turtley, which I know isn’t the most imaginative name but hey, I was a kid.
But then the neighbors moved away, and they took the turtle with them. Mom said I cried for hours. My parents bought me another stuffed turtle, but it just wasn’t the same. I got this photo now only because I tracked down our old neighbors and asked them for a photo of Turtley. I can’t believe they’ve still got him.
My parents were right, though. Pretty soon, I forgot all about Turtley. I grew up.
I’m telling you this because you asked me before why I called you turtle, and I’ve finally figured out why. You reminded me of Turtley, and that’s all there is to it. But things are different now. We’re changing. We’re growing up. You’re doing so well where you are, and I’ve got my life here. It’s a great life.
I hope you have a great life, too.
It was the last letter I’d ever gotten from Christian. I knew why he’d chosen to send me the photo of the stuffed turtle, why after years of silence he’d decided to write me one last time to lay that little mystery between us to rest once and for all. Just like Turtley, I was a relic of his childhood— outgrown, discarded, explained away, forgotten. For weeks, though, I fought against this letter, finding argument after argument with which to deny his message. Since he’d actually taken the time and effort to track down his old neighbors and ask them for a photo of the stuffed turtle, it must mean he cared for me even a little. Since he even bothered to write at all, then maybe I still mattered to him somehow. He addressed me as “Dear Joy.” That meant there was hope for me, right? Right?
Much as I hate to admit it, Nikki had done me a favor by saving me from months or even years of mental torture. One day, she stopped me in the middle of a crowded hallway while Jenneth and I were on our way to the cafeteria to buy lunches. St. Helene social strictures dictated that a lower-ranked student should be deferential when addressed by a higher-ranked student, but the look of malicious eagerness on her face had me taken aback so much that I couldn’t even get a word out.
“Hey there, Ugly. I’ve got something for ya,” she chirped, tossing a piece of cardboard at my face.
Not a piece of cardboard. A photograph. It showed a small group of kids posing casually on the steps of an apartment building. I hadn’t seen Christian in years, but I knew which one was him in a heartbeat. He was sitting on the steps, wearing a button-down shirt over a V-necked white T-shirt, a pair of shorts, and a smile that stretched from ear to ear. His head was tilted to the side to allow the beautiful girl with long, dark blond hair sitting behind him to place her chin on his shoulder, with her arms wrapped across his chest and her shorts-clad legs bracketing his. Their pose screamed intimate couple-hood, and if I had my doubts about their closeness, the way she was puckering up her lips to kiss the side of his jaw obliterated every last one of them.
Jenneth peered over my shoulder at the photograph. “Who’s tha—oh. Oh no,” he muttered.
I, though, had lost the ability to move or even think. I knew what I was looking at, but my brain had ground to a halt, producing nothing but a static noise in between my ears.
Then I heard the sound of giggling, and looked up at the unholy glee in Nikki’s face. “So I heard from Nathan that you’ve been going around calling yourself Christian’s girlfriend,” she began in a conversational manner, then reached over to tap the photo in my nerveless hand. “That’s Ashley, his real girlfriend. Compared to her, you’re less than nothing, so you can stop with your delusional lies because you’re not fooling anyone.”
His real girlfriend, I thought numbly, vaguely aware that Jenneth had put his arm around me in a gesture of support. “I don’t even know how you could get it into your head to come to our school,” Nikki continued with a shake of her head. “You actually thought you could transform yourself and go chasing him all the way here? God, that’s just pathetic. Oh by the way, that’s yours. I was just asked to give it to you,” she added flippantly.
“Who—?” I managed to croak.
She rolled her eyes. “Who do you think, stupid? Christian, of course. He found out that you’ve been ruining his reputation here and told me to put a stop to it.”
In direct violation of social rules, Jenneth stepped in between us, his back eclipsing the sight of Nikki. “Look, shut up already. You’ve said more than enough—”
“Back off, scholarship kid. I wasn’t talking to you,” Nikki snapped, shoving him aside. “Oh, great, now my hand smells like garbage. Yuck.”
The numbness was fading, and pain was punching its way in. “You’re such a liar, Nikki,” I said, beginning to tremble. “You’ve lied before—”
“Am I lying?” she cut me off, her eyes narrowing. “He told me he wrote you a letter. He talked about a stuffed turtle in it, didn’t he? So who’s lying now?” The look on my face must’ve struck her as funny, because she laughed again. “Consider this my first and final warning. Stop spreading lies about Christian. Trust me, you don’t want to get on his bad side.”
I came apart after that. That’s the only way I can describe it. It wasn’t just the simple heartbreak of learning that the boy I’d loved for years loved somebody else. Christian was my driving force. He was the reason I worked so hard to get into St. Helene to begin with. Because of him, I believed in myself enough to dream this big, and to ignore all the people who told me I couldn’t go this far or reach this high. Because of him, I believed there was much more to me than just a fat, dark, ugly nobody from a wild and wooly shanty-town with not much of a future to look forward to. Because he loved me, I actually dared to believe I could be the princess in my own fairytale.
Without him, what was I even here for? Why was I struggling so hard to stay in this impossible school, slowly choking on rules and rankings and the idiotic pretensions of the upper class? What was the point?
I sank into a depression that lasted for months. It nearly cost me my scholarship, to the point where I got called to the Office of Guidance and Counseling and was issued a gentle but unmistakable warning from our elusive House Director herself. In the end, though, I managed to snap out of it before I got myself kicked out of St. Helene altogether, and I had my friends and my older sister to thank for it.
I didn’t feel all that thankful to Ate Grace at first, though, not after she’d shaken me so hard I nearly broke a tooth. “You stop it already, you hear me?” she roared in my face while Faith huddled on the lower bunk we shared and watched us with saucer-wide eyes, quiescent for once in her life. “Stop thinking this is just about you and that stupid Christian. God, if I ever see him again, I’m going to kill him!”
She released me abruptly and paced around our tiny room while I toppled dizzily onto the bed and touched my mouth to check for blood. Then she turned to face me again, making me lean away from the accusatory finger she was pointing at me. “Stop being so self-centered, Joy. This isn’t just about you,” she growled. “Have you forgotten how Nanay and Tatay worked so hard to get you into this school? Have you forgotten all about Aling Pacita using your ideas to grow her store? You bust your ass cleaning toilets and waiting tables for that old goat Lola Delia, you spend hours you can’t afford tutoring those kids, you’ve literally left your family behind—don’t tell me you’ve forgotten why.”
“Um, Ate, you’re, ah, not making much sense,” Faith said with uncharacteristic meekness, only to shrink back when our older sister aimed a scorching glare at her. Ate Grace in one of her rages was as open to negotiation as a volcano in mid-eruption.
“You be quiet. And you, Joy, if you quit now, I am never going to respect you again, ever,” Ate Grace uttered in granite tones.
I glared right back. “If I remember right, you didn’t even want me to go to this school in the first place. Why are you acting so high and mighty now?”
Ate Grace slammed both hands against the railing of the upper bunk, causing the entire bed to shake. Then she leaned over me, her face menacing. “Because, you idiot, whether you like it or not, your dream isn’t just your dream anymore. Aling Pacita calls you her lucky charm to this day, and she brags about you so much you’d think you were her own kid. You planning on letting her down, too? Don Mateo has this permanent poster of you hanging near the principal’s office so other kids will be inspired to do what you did. You gonna tell them that poster’s wrong?”
I glanced in surprise at Faith, who nodded. “It’s true, Ate Joy. It’s kind of amazing.”
“You’ve gotten Nanay and Lola Delia talking again, even if it’s only over the phone and about you. You don’t see the look on Nanay’s face when she talks to that old goat, but we do,” Ate Grace went on. “And Tatay’s been talking to people about opening his auto repair shop, saying that if you can work for your dream, then so should he. Do you see what I’m getting at? If you quit now over something like this, you’ll be telling everyone who believes in you that people like us don’t have what it takes to get through even the first sign of trouble. They’ll be throwing their self-respect away, because you did so first.”
The next day, I looked out the window and found Jenneth and Maisha standing outside our house. After I let them in and introduced them to my family, Jenneth solemnly handed me a computer-printed document and told me to read it. It turned out to be the essay I’d written for my scholarship application, and it was about how I someday planned to use the education I acquired from St. Helene. Jenneth had encircled one paragraph in particular:
I plan to use my St. Helene education to help people who want to work hard to achieve their dreams by showing them that if I can do it, so can they. I plan to pass on the quality education and important lessons I learn here to other children from poor communities like mine. If enough of us can share these lessons with others, I believe we can change society for the better.
“Christian wasn’t the one who studied hard to get into St. Helene, Joy. You were,” Jenneth told me. “He wasn’t the one who helped you get that scholarship. He’s not the one who made you valedictorian, and he’s not the one making sure you stay in St. Helene. You’re doing it all on your own.”
“You never needed him, Joy,” Maisha added earnestly. “You’re complete just as you are.”
I cried. A lot. Then I hugged my parents and little sister, punched my smug older sister in the shoulder, and packed up my bags. I returned to St. Helene and to Ascension House with Jenneth and Maisha that very same day, to be met with welcoming smiles from Honey and Nathan.
I kept the letter and photograph Christian had given me. Both photographs, even the one he’d given through Nikki. Because looking at the original photo of the stuffed turtle hurt too much, I found a cartoon turtle, cut it out and taped it to my mirror as a reminder of the real reason I was in St. Helene—to make my own dreams come true, and to show everyone who loved me that if I could do it, then they could, too.
Then I took off my wedding promise ring, and got busy learning just how great my own life could be. Even without Christian.
Great enough, I thought now as I stood in front of my wardrobe, that I don’t need this turtle anymore. So I slipped the cutout turtle into the envelope, packed it away into the box, and shoved it back behind my clothes. Then I changed into my uniform as quickly as I could, because to my dismay, I was running seriously late.
“What happened, Joyous? Did you fall asleep or something? Here, take these.” Jenneth pressed a boiled saba banana and a boiled egg into my hands as I came rushing into the lobby, skipping the cafeteria and breakfast altogether, trying to tie my necktie with a couple of library books clamped underneath one arm. Jenneth elbowed Nathan none too subtly and nodded toward me. Nathan twitched as though coming awake, then took my books from me so I could stow my breakfast in my bag and tie my necktie properly while we walked toward the high school building.
Maisha and Honey exchanged grins. “Nah, she wasn’t asleep,” Maisha said slyly. “She was daydreaming about some mythical boy genius from elementary school who’s her favorite St. Helene celebrity. But don’t worry, Nathan. He’s long gone now, and she’s aaaall yours.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. That’s cool,” Nathan mumbled.
“Hey, Miguel’s real, you know. Ask Father Ramilo if you don’t believe me,” I protested, still fiddling with my necktie, this time while trying to keep my hair from falling into my eyes since I didn’t have enough time to pin it back out of my face.
“Oh stop, you’re making a mess of it.” With a disgusted huff, Jenneth pulled me onto the sidewalk and out of the path of an oncoming car, then knocked my hands aside and tied my necktie himself.
“Thanks.” I smiled in gratitude, tucking my hair back behind my ear and taking my books back from Nathan. “I wish I could do something about my hair, though.”
Nathan blinked. “Why? You look cute that way.”
“Ooooooooooh!” Honey, Maisha and Jenneth all whooped, making Nathan and me blush.
“Stop, you two. You’re making me wish I had my own soul mate to be lovey-dovey with,” Honey said with a heartfelt sigh, before suddenly throwing her arms out at her sides and crying, “Asa ka, akung gugma? Oh where are you, my sweet prince of yesterday?”
Maisha cringed and tugged her scarlet hijab lower over her face. “Somebody stop her,” she whimpered.
When Nathan flinched again, I looked up at him, and only then noticed how pale he was. “Nathan, are you okay?”
He gave me a quick smile that looked more like a grimace. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Look, you’re not going to pretend you’re okay then crash in the middle of class, are you?” I said skeptically, then reached out to touch his arm. “Maybe you should go to the clinic—”
He jerked his arm away as though I’d burned him, then when I looked at him in surprise, turned beet-red. “Sorry,” he muttered, averting his gaze. “Look, I’m okay, really, just—”
“Hey, what’s going on?” Maisha suddenly asked.
A small crowd had blocked up the high school entrance, and with the number of students streaming toward the door, the crowd was getting exponentially bigger. We arrived at the edge of the crowd, which was still several feet away from the short flight of steps leading to the double doors, craning our necks to see what the commotion was.
Soon, actual words began to filter out of the cacophony of bright, excited voices, emanating from the densest knot of students on the top step, right in front of the doorway.
“It’s so wonderful to see you! You should’ve told us you were coming.”
“Long time no see! When did you arrive?”
“You’ve changed so much. Oh my God, you’re so tall!”
“So you’re joining the soccer team, right? We could do with your skills, unless you’ve completely rusted.”
“How was New York, man?”
An icy wave crashed over me, and my head suddenly felt detached from the rest of my body, drifting upward to sway among the clouds. Maybe it’s somebody else. Some other visitor from New York. Yes, that’s right. It’s somebody else.
Nathan shifted beside me. Dazedly, I sent him a look. “I’m sorry, Joy. I wanted to tell you yesterday but he told me not to,” he said, looking completely miserable.
“Christian!” a girl screamed from the middle of the crowd. “We’re so glad you’re back!”
The crowd shifted and swirled around the boy dressed in black slacks and a crisp white shirt with the top button unbuttoned, the St. Helene royal blue necktie loose beneath his collar, his black backpack slung casually over one shoulder. He was taller now, and his shoulders broader than I remembered, his tanned arms more muscled than before, even though he still tended toward the lean side. His straight, dark hair was cut short but not too short, and his bangs were still parted on the side, flopping over his left eye. Straight eyebrows above a pair of soulful chocolate eyes, a face that was less rounded than before, and a wide, sunny, lopsided grin that brought out the dimple in his left cheek.
And a dark smudge on his right sleeve, visible even from our vantage point in the back. For some reason.
“Aw, it’s him! It’s the prince from yesterday!” Honey squeaked, clapping both hands to her flushed cheeks.
“Fine, you’re right, he is hot,” Maisha murmured, staring fixedly at the boy. “Oh my.”
Oh no, no, no. Why?
“He seems like the flashy type, doesn’t he?” Jenneth commented, then his spine straightened with a twang. “Wait, did she call just him Christian?”
“Christian? That’s Christian?” Maisha demanded, aghast. Three pairs of eyes turned toward Nathan and me, and saw the confirmation in our faces.
Honey spat something we were glad we couldn’t understand.
Why couldn’t he have stayed away?
I took a step back, heart pounding, trying to decide if I wanted to hide behind Nathan or turn and flee back to the House. “Why is he here?” I whispered. ‘What is he doing here?”
“Yeah, I just transferred,” Christian announced in a voice that somehow carried over the din, replying to somebody’s question. His voice was deeper than I remembered, and hearing it made my head in the clouds spin even faster. It had been so long since I last heard his voice. “I was here yesterday to complete my enrollment, but I wanted to surprise you guys.”
The other students, who seemed to have spontaneously formed a fan club, expressed their excitement and jubilation over this fact. Then somebody asked him what section he was in.
“He’s in 2B-Del Pilar. Naturally.” Tony emerged from the doorway, followed by his buddies, looking for all the world like an ambassador arriving to welcome a visiting head of state. “Yo, Christian. Didn’t think you were coming back,” he said to Christian.
We couldn’t see Christian’s expression from here, but we could hear his reply. “But I am back,” he said silkily. Then he turned away from Tony to address the crowd. “Anyway, you guys have got it all wrong. I’m not in 2B-Del Pilar.”
“Are you in 2C-Luna then?” somebody else asked, while some girls from 2C-Luna squealed.
Christian threw his head back and laughed. “Nope. Guess again.”
“Not even, and if you ask if I’m in 2E-Mabini, I’m going to be hurt.” Christian laughed again, and the sound of his laughter seemed to turn the very air warm. “Check my placement exam results, yo,” he announced, brandishing some papers. “I’m in 2A-Rizal.”
My head danced in the gale winds. 2A-Rizal?
“That’s our section,” Jenneth said, sounding as stunned as I felt.
The crowd fell momentarily silent, shocked at this revelation. “You’re kidding me,” Tony finally snorted. “You’re in the nerd section?”
Christian raised an eyebrow. “Do I look like a nerd to you?” he asked, making several students shake their heads emphatically. “Oh, come on, admit it. I’ve always been smarter than you, Tones.”
“Huh.” Tony raised his hand and pointed straight at Jenneth and me. “There. Meet your classmates, Christian. And oh, yeah, isn’t that your girlfriend over there?”
This time, the entire crowd speared me with their gazes, half of them frankly disbelieving, the other half openly hostile. I barely noticed, though, because Christian had turned his head then to look straight at me.
And our eyes met for the first time in forever.
“Christian,” I heard myself say, my voice sounding thin and quavery. “I-it’s been a while.”
Christian’s gaze roved over Nathan beside me, and his eyes were chips of dark ice.
Then he smiled brightly. “Sorry. Have we met?”
– – – – – – – –
…the prince came back.