Q. HOW DID THE TWO OF YOU FIRST MEET?
He never called me, you know. Not even a text message saying, "U still alive?" or "How's it going?" or even "Found u in my contacts, who r u?" You'd think he'd at least have been curious about the strange new number in his phone. I mean, how many damned weirdoes did he know go around calling themselves Batman?
Okay, so I was a little disappointed that he didn't contact me. Glad too, because that meant he didn't have any problems for which he might need the services of a cheap psychotherapist. But still disappointed. I spent the next two weeks checking my cellphone every ten minutes and leaping straight up into the air at the slightest beep, but nobody except me knew why. Well, Sharm and Erwin had their suspicions, but they were, for the first time since that lousy Valentine's Day, totally wrong. They assumed I was still hung-up over Jeff, still waiting for the smooth-talking tightwad to inform me that he'd made a terrible mistake and to beg me to take him back. I won't deny that a vain, vengeful part of me was still holding out for that, but it was rapidly shrinking until it was a tiny, insignificant thing, barely heard and easily brushed aside. It was kind of an eye-opener for me. If all it took was one afternoon with a lanky, good-looking boy with messy black hair and coolly intense dark eyes behind a pair of silver wire-rims in order to knock me out of my funk, then what did that say about my devotion to Jeff? I was disgusted at how fickle and shallow I was; I agonized/ /about it for days. That is, when I wasn't acting like Pavlov's dog and salivating at the sound of my own cellphone.
I didn't tell anyone the real reason behind my jumpiness. I just told them I'd bumped into Miguel at the kiosk, and when I recognized him as my favorite child prodigy, I chatted him up until he caved in and agreed to be my friend. I must have been a better actress than I thought if I convinced even Erwin, who'd witnessed that impulsive kiss I gave Migs. The truth was embarrassing enough as it was. No way was I adding to that by admitting that I was obsessing over a thirteen-year-old kid I'd just met. It would have been hell to explain without me sounding like some sort of pervert.
Deep inside, I guess I wanted to keep the memory of our first meeting to myself. I've met a lot of people, but I've never felt that instantaneous connection with anyone except Miguel. The moment I saw him, everything just clicked into place. He was here, he'd found me, everything was going to be okay. But oh, I had to be stupid. I was certain all I felt was gratitude for his company, sheer bliss at making a new friend and a desire to make sure he was okay. I meant it about the big sister thing. It never occurred to me that it might be something more. I thought I had that with Jeff, and look how /that/turned out.
By the third week, I had to face it: he was never going to call. He obviously wanted nothing more to do with me. For all I knew, the first thing he did when I left was thank God the crazy, underdeveloped bitch had finally left him alone before deleting my number from his phone and putting that afternoon firmly behind him. I couldn't blame him. It wouldn't have been the first time I'd overestimated someone's interest in me. Cute and full of it, that's me. Leave it to a child genius to hit it right on the head.
I was saved from sinking into an even grayer funk over that by summer classes. Summer courses in UP are just as tough as regular ones, except that you have to cram everything in just one-third of the time. Before I knew it, I was up to my hairline in readings, papers and midterms. Add to that the fact that the second batch of shoots for Shoujo Shine were just beginning, and every other weekend I had to haul my ass out of bed at four a.m. on a Saturday and head off to the roof-deck of a skyscraper in Ortigas or a rented vacation house in Tagaytay for a shoot, squeezing in some desperately needed studying during breaks, and coming back at nine in the evening-sometimes on Sunday-only to haul my now exhausted ass out of bed at 6:00 a.m. to make it to my seven a.m. class on Monday, hoping that my professor would be late so I could gulp down the egg sandwich and Coke I'd bought at the kiosk in lieu of breakfast. On the weekends when I wasn't on a shoot, I was out doing promotional tours in malls. Those promo tours were a lot of fun, much more fun than the shoots. The shoots were like boot camp with makeup, but the promo tours were pure street theater. I'll get into that later.
So between studies and work, Ihad little time to dwell on the fact that the young boy I thought I'd bonded with clearly did not feel the same way. Sometimes I'd catch a glimpse of messy black hair and glasses and I'd stop and turn, but I gave that up after a while. It was a big campus after all, and the chances of me running into him again were slim. Soon, all thoughts of Miguel were swept aside by the normal chaos of my life-studies, photo shoots, promo tours, hanging out with friends, repeat from above-and I never gave another thought to Migs again.
Or I never would have, if Sharm hadn't stumbled upon that wonderful "apartment for rent" poster at the Shopping Center.
But first, let me tell you about our living arrangements.
Sharm and I had at that time been living in a boarding house. Before that, we stayed in dormitories, but something about the rules and curfews reminded us too much of home. Plus, Sharm and I never got to be roommates, and the roommates I /did /get had the tendency to: 1) steal my secret chocolate stash; 2) tease me about my portraying kids in the ads I appeared in, and; 3) nag me non-stop about the dangers my undeveloped body posed to my health and my need for immediate and extensive medical attention.
"All this concern for my well-being is driving me bat-shit," I complained once.
"You know they don't mean anything by it," Sharm told me in her role as the voice of common sense. "They just don't know how complicated the issue is to you."
She was right of course, but Ipreferred Erwin's explanation. "They're just jealous, girl. They know that when they're fifty and their boobs are sagging and they can use their wrinkles to keep coins in, you'll still look like a fabulous thirty-something while their husbands lust after you. You can't blame them for sharpening their claws on you."
Sharm would have had no complaints with living in a dorm, if it weren't for the ghosts. There are ghosts everywhere on campus. Every building has its own apparition and some street corners are SRO with dead soldiers and white ladies. And every dormitory in UP is haunted. Cold drafts in an airless room, faces in the mirror, sad, strange girls in old-fashioned clothing lurking inside closets, the whole shebang. The dorms are oozing ectoplasm, and Sharm-practical, down-to-earth Sharm-is absolutely terrified of ghosts. Perversely enough, the ghosts seemed fond of manifesting themselves around her, like cats around a cat-hater. But the night she saw a strange man staring despondently at her before slipping into afriend's room, prompting her to run to the dorm manager to report a thief, only to find the room occupied by just her friend who was looking oddly ill-well, enough was enough.
Compared to Erwin though, Sharm and I lived in paradise. Erwin had been ordered by his parents to stay with an aunt who lived in Tandang Sora. Unlike his dad and brother, she accepted the fact that he was gay. The problem was, she accepted it a little too enthusiastically. She loved cheesy variety shows and beauty pageants, and spent hours in a beauty salon sharing showbiz gossip with her /kumadres/. She also took it for granted that Erwin was as passionate about her interests because he was, after all, as gay as the morning sunrise. Nothing he said or did could dissuade her. While Erwin does possess an eye for beauty and the sarcastic wit a lot of gay men are known for, his bookish ways and his love for intellectual discussions, not to mention his fondness for all things high-brow, collided with his aunt's more plebian tastes. Before college, Erwin was the lightest smoker among us, just one stick a day at the most. After several months of living with his aunt, Erwin was puffing away like a jeepney with a busted muffler, using nicotine to escape the evil forces of Eat Bulaga and the Sex Bomb Dancers.
Some time in our sophomore year, the three of us swore, over a dozen bottles of San Mig Light and three thousand cigarettes, that we'd find a place of our own. We had our own friends by then, forming the outer ring of our little circle. There was Trey, Sharm's friend whom she'd met in one of her classes; Giselle, Erwin's friend whom he'd met in one of hisclasses; and Jeff, the tall, dark and handsome tightwad /I'd /met in one of my classes and brought along for Show and Tell. The three of them were witnesses to our vow.
It took us time to save enough money for our own place. It helped that we all got jobs. Sharm worked first as a student assistant at the Center for Women's Studies then as a junior staff member for a women's rights NGO while Erwin became a researcher for a policy research foundation. I was then working as Glittergals' newest talent. Unfortunately, not only are new talents paid peanuts, they're also lucky to be paid within a month of the date stated in the contract. The people in the business seemed to like me though, even if every role I got was for characters almost ten years younger. I'd already done several commercials and a couple of spreads by the time Shoujo Shine got hold of my VTR and signed me on. The work became more hectic and the contract was dauntingly strict, but the boost in my paycheck was satisfactorily exponential.
We were so eager to strike out on our own that we decided to pick the first boarding house whose ad we found on the bulletin boards and wing it. Erwin's escape was thwarted when his mother decided on a whim that she'd like to spend a year with her sister-in-law in Manila and see the kind of life her son was living. Sharm and I went ahead and rented a room at a nearby boarding house. Our "room" was actually a rectangular cubbyhole furnished with a double bunk bed, a plastic chair, and a table that had probably been stolen from the university's condemned furniture heap. There was only enough space for one person to move from the door to the window; two abreast would have led to an undignified spill onto the floor. We had to share the bathroom and the kitchen with the rest of the tenants. Over the months, Sharm and I collected a few things to make our cubbyhole livable-an electric fan, a full-sized mirror, a few shelves to hang on the walls, an art-nouveau poster, a study lamp that Sharm tied to the bedpost of the lower bunk so she could read in bed. It became clear though that we-including the now half-insane Erwin-had to find a new place soon.
So we drew up a list of what our new apartment should be. It had to be affordable, of course. It had to be big enough for three. It had to be close to the campus. It had to be painted blue, white or yellow because Erwin loathed green and Sharm couldn't abide pink. It had to have a working shower because I love taking showers. A kitchen, too, to give Sharm room to get creative. Dogs and cats were fine, but no rats, cockroaches, supernatural beings or annoying tenants who poked their noses into our place then complained about the smell of cigarettes and the rose incense that Erwin loved.
At one point, we were tempted to give up on our dream apartment. Even with our paychecks and allowances, we simply couldn't afford it. Then in 2000, I went back to our hometown for avisit and found my Lolo and Lola sitting in the living room with a fashionably-dressed woman. The woman turned out to be my mother, who had come back after an absence of thirteen years to deal with some paperwork problem at the DFA. So sorry she couldn't stay; she had to go back to her mansion in LA the next day. She made some halfhearted attempts to bond with me-a limp hug, afragrant kiss, a weak comment about how beautiful I'd grown-but all I could manage through the black fog filling my skull was a frozen smile and a steely demand that she fulfill her parental responsibilities by giving me an allowance of at least $500 a month. As the wife of a successful businessman, she could well afford it. Before she left, my grandparents and I ironed out a financial arrangement with the woman who'd given birth to me so that by the start of the semester, Iwas pulling in at least twenty-five grand a month.
A month later, my other grandparents visited me at our boarding house and informed me that my delinquent father had been tracked down. I suspected that my mother had something to do with this. Turned out he was now some hotshot AVP for a hotel chain in London and was pulling in some major bucks. They gave me his email address and his phone numbers, and after a flurry of phone calls and emailing, I'd worked out a second deal to the tune of another twenty-five grand, making it afifty-grand a month income, with extra from my job and my allowance left over.
Instant cash, easy-peasy. If my friends were appalled at my mercenary attitude toward my parents, they knew me well enough not to speak of it. With the money, we could now afford the monthly rent for an apartment, with a big chunk left over for a tidy nest egg. Erwin volunteered to pay the utility bills, while Sharm would pay for our food and grocery expenses. A nice, neat arrangement. All we needed now was the apartment.
We began our search early that year. We checked out a few apartments, but they were all wrong. One was too small. Another was roomy, but the bathroom was a lichen-infested disaster and the kitchen gave Sharm the shudders. Still another was spacious and the kitchen and bathroom were fine, except the place was entirely hemmed in by other buildings and was always dank, shadowy and sinister-looking, even at noon. Then in April we found one that was almost perfect. The problem? It was painted the most hideous shade of green. Erwin nearly had a seizure at the sight of it, and even Sharm and I couldn't stand to look at it for long without feeling nauseous.
Unfortunately, it was our best bet. We bribed Erwin with a new Sara Brightman CD into agreeing to take this apartment and have it repainted. The paint job would be a major drain, but it was better than puking all the time from the radiation emitted by the green walls. Still, for some reason, we never got around to calling the owner to tell him we were taking it. Maybe our instincts were warning us away from those walls.
Then at the very end of May, Sharm burst into our cubbyhole, reached up through the side rail of the upper bunk and yanked my blanket off, flipping me over in the process since I'd been sleeping with the blanket wrapped around my waist. "Wake up, Ives. I want to show you something," she said excitedly.
I lifted my head, glared blearily in her general direction, then went back to sleep.
"Ivy! Wake up, brat, this is important." She stepped onto the lower bunk and shook me. When I turned over to face the wall, she sucked in a breath, then yelled at the top of her lungs: "Ives, what're you still doing in bed? It's past 10! You're already late!"
"What?!" I shrieked, bolting upright. "Shit! I've got a promo tour to do! I have to go!"
I was half-way out of my bunk when I realized that Sharm was laughing her head off. Normal brain functions kicked in and I remembered that not only did I have no promo tours or shoots scheduled for the week, summer classes were also over, giving me a few of days of freedom before registration started. I groaned and tried to wriggle back into bed, fully intending to forget the last five minutes, but Sharm, in her other role as evil incarnate, grabbed both my ankles and pulled back. "No, leggo!" I whined, clawing at the sheets. "Leave me alone, I wanna sleep!"
"Come on, you lazy kid, get up,"Sharm grunted. "There's something you have to see-let go of the mattress before you rip it to shreds!"
Finally, I sat on the edge of my bunk and glowered fiercely through tangled locks of hair. "All right, I'm up. This had better be good, or so help me..."
"I rather think it /is /good,"she said loftily, handing me a piece of paper.
It was an ad for an apartment located at Maginhawa Street, a short distance away from the campus. Two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, even a balcony and a garage. While the features were nothing we hadn't heard before, I could see at once what had caught Sharm's notice. In the middle of the ad was a beautiful sketch of the apartment as seen presumably from the gate. It was a two-storey duplex divided into two apartments, one on the first floor, which had the garage, and one on the second, with the balcony. There was a tree beside the building, its branches overarching part of the balcony-a caimito tree, judging from the delicate shading on the leaves. The drawing was lovingly rendered and wonderfully detailed; there was even a cat sitting on the balcony rail and a dog standing in front of the garage, wagging its tail in welcome. A smile spread over my face as I looked at the tiny work of art. Whoever did this had some serious talent.
"I found it at the Shopping Center this morning when I went to pick up a book I had photocopied," Sharm told me. "It looks lovely, doesn't it?"
"The drawing looks lovely," said I, the apartment-hunting veteran.
"Oh, I'm sure the real thing's just as nice. Anyway, I called up that number to ask if the second-floor apartment had any takers, and the woman told me no, nobody's renting it yet. So, what do you say we go check this out?"
I traced my fingers over the tiny cat. "Sure. Does Erwin know?"
Sharm nodded. "I called him up before I came to wake you. He'll meet us here at two."
"Two?" I echoed, perplexed. "Why not this morning?"
She waved a hand airily. "Oh, because the woman said the apartment owner and her kids had gone out for the morning and would be back some time after lunch."
"What?" My eyes darted toward the small alarm clock beside my pillow, which meekly informed me that it was only 10:12 a.m. "Then why, pray tell, did you wake me up /now /if the appointment's four hours away?"
"Oh no reason," Sharm purred. "I just wanted to mess with you a bit. You can be so entertaining, you know."
Although her affectionate smile took away the sting of the joke, there was still the principle of the thing. ScreamingScreaming a battle cry, I grabbed my pillow and swung it at her head, but she managed to duck under it and scamper out the door, laughing all the way.
At exactly 2:00, Sharm and I went down to find Erwin sitting beside a window, watching a well-built guy in amuscle shirt amble down the street. He gave us a cursory nod, then returned to observing his quarry. "Hmph," he muttered. "Beefcake."
I bent low and peered into his face. "Oooh, and I suppose that's not drool I see dripping from the corner of your mouth?"
Erwin looked down his nose at me."Unlike /some /uncultured people I can name, I value a person's ability to carry the other end of a conversation without letting it drag on the ground. Although a tight pair of buns is an acceptable consolation," he added, eyeing the beefcake lasciviously.
"Well, I'm sure you can think of other ways to put his mouth to work," I drawled.
"Ugh, knock it off, you two!"Sharm cried. "Perverts, the both of you. Let's get going."
Erwin and I glanced at each other."Hark to Mother Superior," I pretended to rebuke him, arranging my features into a virtuous expression. Erwin snickered.
"I heard that!" Sharm snapped.
We found the address easily enough, but we wondered if it was the right one. What we found when we stepped off the tricycle was not a split-level apartment building with a /caimito/tree beside it, but a long, ornate black gate behind which stood a narrow, three-storey, cream-colored house with gleaming bay windows and a lush flower garden in the front lawn. We checked the ad again and exchanged puzzled glances.
"Maybe the address has a typo error?" Sharm offered hesitatingly.
"Well, that would just be pointless, wouldn't it?" Erwin said.
Just then, a fat, gray tabby cat sauntered around the corner, blinked disdainfully at us, then vanished toward the garage. Somewhere inside the house, a dog barked. A thought occurred, and I looked closely at the gate. Sure enough, concealed among the curlicues and fleur-de-lis was another, slightly narrower/ /gate. The large gate was actually two gates designed to look as if it was one seamless whole. "Nah, this is it," I said, grinning.
We rang the doorbell and waited. After a while, a middle-aged woman dressed in a housedress opened a small door cut through the main gate. She was as thickly-built as Erwin, but gave the impression that underneath her dark skin was power solidified. Her face was covered with laugh lines, but her black eyes gazed at us with open suspicion.
"G-good afternoon," Erwin said with only the slightest hesitation. "We're the ones who inquired after the apartment for rent. Er, are the owners here?"
When the woman's brows drew together, Sharm and I flashed our most charming smiles. "I'm Sharmaine Katigbak," she explained. "I was the one who called you earlier. Are you, um, Nanay Loring?"
At that, the woman's laugh lines deepened. "So I am, and so you are," she boomed, causing us to lean backward abit. The woman had a voice to match the rest of her. "Come in, come in. They're not here yet, but you can wait in the living room. I can't show you the place myself. Ma'am has the keys to the apartments."
She stepped back and we followed her inside. Beyond the one-car driveway and garage was the laundry area, where several shirts had been hung on clotheslines. On the left side of the driveway was a chain-link fence, and on the other side of that fence, a long, narrow driveway, leading toward the back of the lot. "This place is bigger than it looks," Erwin commented in a low voice as we followed Nanay Loring inside.
The inside of the house was exquisitely neat. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, white lace curtains covered the windows, and the marble floor gleamed where it wasn't covered by a red carpet. We sat gingerly on the couch-white leather upholstery, no little kids in /this /family-while Nanay Loring bustled off into the kitchen. To our right, underneath a large painting of pink and yellow swirls, was a piano. Tall, narrow shelves made of burnished wood and glass stood guard on either side of the piano, crammed full of crystal and ceramic knick-knacks. On top of the piano, between two tall crystal vases, were three picture frames. On our left side, right beside the doorway, was agilt-framed mirror, and underneath this mirror, a small marble pedestal upon which sat a statue of the Virgin Mary with several smaller saints clustered around it.
Nay Loring came back with a tray containing a pitcher, three glasses, and a plate of biscuits. "Help yourselves," she said, setting the tray down on the glass coffee table. "Orange juice, I hope you don't mind. I don't hold with letting children drink Coke. It rots the teeth, Ialways tell them."
I blinked up at Nanay Loring's guileless face while my two friends snickered into their OJ, the traitors. "Oh, I agree,"I twittered inanely. "That soft drink stuff is bad for you."
Nanay Loring fluttered. "Such apretty child. All of you, really, what an attractive trio you make. Are you siblings?"
I nearly spat my juice out. "No, we're-"
"/Naku, /I've forgotten all about the laundry!" she exclaimed, before disappearing toward the back door with a hasty invitation for us to make ourselves comfortable.
I set my glass on the tray, then moved the tray aside so it wouldn't bump into the crystal vase in the center of the coffee table, a copy of the ones on the piano. "I hope they get here soon,"Sharm muttered. "All this glass is making me feel twitchy."
"Don't move an inch and you'll be fine." Erwin rifled through the magazines under the table, eventually picking an old issue of /Time/. "Here," he said, passing a /Reader's Digest/to Sharm. "Ives, you want-where the hell do you think you're going, brat?"
I shot him a grin as I continued my exploration of the dining room and the kitchen. "You know, I don't think they use their living room much," I remarked as I inspected the large round dining table made of burnished wood, with a basket of fruit as a centerpiece. Both the dining room and kitchen were spotless.
"Do tell," Erwin said sourly.
"No, really. Look, only the living room is made of faux leather and crystal. The rest of the house is hard wood." I stuck my head into the bathroom beside the stairs then peered up the wooden steps, wondering if I had time for a little peek up there. "I bet there's a family room up there, with a state-of-the-art entertainment system and lots of fluffy pillows," I continued, uncaring of whether my companions were listening or not. "The living room is just a place to keep unwanted visitors in." I circled round to the living room and examined the picture frames on the piano. The one on the left was a studio picture of a baby girl in a pink dress, while the one on the right was a picture of a woman with the baby girl on her lap and a little boy standing beside her. Something about the pictures struck me, and I went up on my tiptoes for a closer look.
"Ivy, get back here," Erwin hissed. Outside, a car horn blared. Ignoring both, I stared at the picture in the middle-that of a little boy with unruly black hair and slanted dark eyes staring solemnly at the camera, several medals hanging from his neck. He looked around nine and he wasn't wearing glasses, but I felt a cold shock go through me anyway. I'd have recognized those cat eyes anywhere. "No way," I breathed, unaware of the noises drifting in from the garage. "Oh hell no, it couldn't be-"
The screen door banged loudly, and I jumped and spun around. There, standing in the doorway carrying grocery bags in each hand, was Miguel, staring at me in utter shock. I'd have burst out laughing at the bug-eyed expression on his face, except I was just as completely floored as he was and certainly looked just as funny.
As he continued to gape at me, ayounger girl who was likely his sister opened the door and ran smack into his unmoving back. She rubbed her forehead and glared at him, then froze, her own jaw dropping, when she saw who her brother was gawking at. Reflexes honed by years of modeling kicked in; I smiled and forced my body to relax. "Hi," I said with perfect aplomb, as if turning up in his living room unannounced was something Idid every day. "I was just looking at your pictures. You were a cute kid."
His pale cheeks were suddenly stained red. Another voice spoke up. "Miguel dear, move out of the way so we can come in."
He flushed even redder before he hefted his bags and fled to the kitchen. His sister followed at an almost dreamy pace, her eyes never leaving me. I gave her a friendly smile, which she returned with surprised pleasure.
"Well, hello." A woman came in, followed by Nanay Loring carrying the rest of the bags into the kitchen. The woman, who looked to be in her mid-forties, was slim, pale and strikingly lovely in asharp, cold way, like an ice sculpture. She wasn't any taller than Sharm, but her bearing gave her the illusion of height. Her crisp white blouse, brown slacks and cream-colored cardigan were elegant, fashionable and expensive-looking, and she moved with an airy grace that made me feel clumsy and gauche. She looked at me, her cat eyes that looked so much like Miguel's sweeping me from head to foot, and I suddenly wished I'd chosen to wear something a little less, well, babyish than a pale blue shirtdress and a pair of flip-flops, with my hair hanging down my back in a low ponytail. I must have looked as if I'd gotten lost on my way to a children's party. My reflexes saved me again, and Imet her stare with a disarming smile, moving to close ranks with Sharm and Erwin, who'd both risen to their feet.
We introduced ourselves as both my friends were subjected to her laser stare. "I'm Amelia Santillan. You've come to inquire about the second-floor apartment?" she said, her sweet tone striking me as somewhat at odds with her stainless steel gaze.
"Yes, Ma'am," Sharm answered. "We saw your ad at the UP Shopping Center, and we wanted to check it out."
Mrs. Santillan nodded when Erwin showed her the ad. "Ah, that one. You must be lucky. My son only made a few of those because he thought the illustration made the poster look cluttered."
"Excuse me, but I have to ask," I interrupted. "Who drew this? It looks as if it was done by a Fine Arts student, or even a professional artist."
She smiled, graciously ignoring my rudeness. "Why, my son did. Miguel is a very accomplished boy. Maybe you've heard of him? He's studying in UP too; at the College of Engineering in fact."
No shit. I craned my neck to look over her shoulder at the dining area, where Miguel and his sister were eavesdropping shamelessly while pretending to sort the groceries. Sensing my gaze, he looked back at me, and I could read the embarrassment in his eyes.
I lifted my eyebrows. Really?
He shrugged. It's no big deal.
/Right/, I thought, rolling my eyes. /No big deal that your genius extends to the visual arts/. Erwin glanced at me curiously, having caught our silent exchange, and I quickly focused on the ongoing discussion between Sharm and Mrs. Santillan.
"So you're saying the three of you are friends and that you're all studying at UP?" Mrs. Santillan appeared to be having trouble digesting this. The reason for this became clear when her gaze landed upon me, lingering on my legs in particular.
Following her gaze, I blushed and inched forward on the couch until my feet were touching the floor. "I'm older than I look, Ma'am," I reassured her.
A delicate eyebrow arched."Really? I'm sorry, dear, but you look younger than my son. Closer to my daughter's age, in fact."
The pleasant expression on my face never wavered, although inside I was gritting my teeth. "A /lot/older than I look. I turned twenty last April 4." Miguel's sister squeaked and clapped a hand over her mouth. "I'm an incoming college senior," I added, ignoring the interruption. "It's just that-well, I haven't really-I'm actually-"
"It's a medical condition, Ma. It's not our place to pry."
At that gentle reprimand, all four of us turned toward Miguel, who was now standing just behind his mother with his sister hovering behind him. He pushed his glasses up and regarded us calmly, his manner every bit as dignified as his mother's now that he'd recovered from his shock. Then his gaze met mine, and for a moment I thought I saw his eyes glimmer with warmth. I recalled the casual way he opened my soda can for me, as if being gallant was second nature to him even though he had no reason at all to feel gallant toward me. I suppose not calling me was his own polite way of telling me off-he'd already gone over and beyond the call of duty by staying around to listen to a strange female's sob story. And even though I'd gone and blundered back into his life, however unintentional, here he was, still being agentleman. I was impressed. I guess boys didn't turn into jerks until the age of sixteen.
"My son is right. I apologize," Mrs. Santillan said. "I can't help noticing that you two seem to know each other."
"We've met." I smiled, summoning the lie with practiced ease. "I saw him on campus and when I recognized him from the Inquirer article/,/ I more or less introduced myself."
Mentioning the article was apparently the right thing to do. Mrs. Santillan's armor of chilly politeness instantly warmed and her smile became genuine. "Oh, really? A lot of people have been curious about Miguel ever since that article came out, and we've had to turn down numerous requests for interviews. I'm so relieved that UP has forbidden any more media appearances for both my son and Miss de Asis. So much trouble from just one article! Ah, well, let me show you the apartment before I talk you to sleep."
The phone rang just as we stood to follow her out the door. "Ma'am, it's Mr. Sanchez," Nanay Loring announced, one hand wrapped around the receiver.
Mrs. Santillan frowned. "Oh dear, now? Tell him I-oh, never mind. I'm sorry but I have to take this call," she said to us. "Miguel can show you the apartment."
"I'm coming too!" his sister blurted out as her mother handed a bunch of keys to Miguel.
"All right, but don't get under foot. Please excuse me."
Sharm, Erwin and I watched her move to take the phone, then turned to look at Miguel. "This way," he said shortly.
We followed him out to the laundry area, dodging various articles of clothing on the clotheslines. His sister trotted beside me, practically vibrating with curiosity. "Hi, there. My name's Reese," she announced.
"Ivy, as I'm sure you hadn't heard," I said with a wink.
She flushed a little. "You're so pretty,"she blurted out.
"Thank you. So are you." And she was. She was tall for her age, nearly as tall as her brother, and had boyishly short hair, round, curious eyes and a friendly smile.
"Are you really twenty years old? I mean, you don't look anything like as-"
"Reese," Miguel said sternly. We were waiting around a small gate cut into the chain-link fence in the backyard while he sorted through the keys.
Reese frowned at her brother."What? I was just asking-"
She was cut short by a loud bark. A Golden Retriever came bounding up, crowding happily at our feet. "Nice dog," I remarked. "What's its name?"
"Trinity," Miguel answered, still fiddling with the padlock.
"Oooh, Matrix fan, are you?" I scratched Trinity behind the ears, and got a handful of wet tongue in response.
He glanced at me. "You like dogs?"
"Yeah. I used to have a dog named Blackie when I was a kid. He died at the ripe old age of fourteen."
Reese made a face. "Blackie?"
"What? It's a nice name for a dog,"I said in a mock-wounded tone.
"It sure is," Erwin drawled. "Especially since Blackie was white."
Reese giggled while I pretended to pout. A flash of humor streaked across Miguel's face before he turned and opened the gate. I felt like hugging myself with joy. Who'd have thought I'd get to see his cute half-smile again?
"Do you guys like cats too?" Reese asked. When all three of us answered in the affirmative, she went on: "Great! I have a cat. A fat, gray one named Charlie. You'll get to see him later, he just kinda pops in every now and then."
We trooped through the gate, spotting the caimito tree instantly. The duplex was painted a sunny yellow with white lintels and a black roof, and was obviously newly constructed. The roofed balcony with its black metal railing extended on the front and left side of the apartment. Miguel unlocked the front door and stood aside to let us enter. The floor was polished, gray-green concrete and the walls a lighter shade of yellow. To our right were two bedrooms with a bathroom tucked in between. To the left was a door leading out to the balcony. Straight ahead was the kitchen, and outside on the balcony was the laundry area. The whole place looked light, airy and clean.
"This apartment's smaller than the one on the first floor," Miguel told us while Reese flew about like a small tornado, throwing open shelves, doors and windows. In a more sedate manner, her brother proceeded to point out things such as light switches, electrical sockets and the fuse box.
Sharm, Erwin and I nodded at one another, then with brisk efficiency, separated to inspect those parts that were under our jurisdiction. I darted into the bathroom, which was tiny but so new the bathroom mirror still had bits of newspaper stuck to its frame. I clapped my hands with delight at the sight of a showerhead, and uttered a loud "yes!" when I twisted the knob and the cool spray hit my outstretched arm.
I turned to see Miguel standing in the doorway with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, looking amused."Oh yeah," I replied. "I definitely like."
"There's no hot water, though,"he said a little apologetically.
"Who cares?" I exclaimed. "We can always just boil some. And I love how this mirror's so big. I won't have to stand on some dumb little stool to see my reflection while I'm shaving." His brow furrowed with confusion, making me giggle. "Just kidding. None of us shaves, not even Erwin. We're all girls here."
"Stop slandering my name, brat!"Erwin hollered from the other room.
Miguel smiled, making my breath hitch. He really had the most adorable smile. Then a thought occurred, and Iturned to face him fully. "By the way, why don't you tell me all about this'medical condition' of mine?"
He shrugged. "It's called hypopituitarism. It means your hypothalamus hasn't given the go-signal yet to your pituitary gland to produce the hormone that stimulates s-sexual development. That's why you-"
He stopped uncertainly. "Haven't hit puberty yet even though I'm way past the expiration date," I finished for him, looking down at my depressingly childish figure. "How do you know all that anyway?" I said, keeping my tone light.
"I looked it up on the Internet,"he admitted. "You told me about your body's deferred development plan, and I-I wondered about it and, uh..." My head jerked toward him in surprise. "I'm sorry,"he mumbled, dropping his gaze. "I shouldn't have-"
I shook my head. "No, it's okay. Ijust can't believe you remembered me saying that."
"I did mention my prodigious memory,"he intoned blandly, adjusting his glasses.
I rolled my eyes. "So you did. Prodigious, was it?"
"Ives, come see the kitchen. It's great!"
At Sharm's cry, we headed out to check the rest of the apartment, then joined Erwin and Reese out on the balcony."It's so peaceful and quiet out here," Sharm sighed.
"Nice smoking area," Erwin commented. "Put a table and some chairs here, and we'll have our very own Starbucks."
I ran over to the railing on the east side, overlooking the fence bordering the lot, and climbed up on the rail as high as I dared. "Check out that view!" I said excitedly.
"It's just a squatter colony," Miguel muttered as he came to stand behind me.
"Oh come on, set your sights alittle higher. See that?" I pointed at the sky above the rooftops of the shanties on the other side. "That's going to be the site of a great sunrise every day, free of charge and open admission to everyone."
He shot me a look of disbelief, but his sister cut him off before he could say anything. "So do you guys like it?" Reese demanded. "It's got everything you need."
She launched into a list of the apartment's virtues again, a real estate agent in the making. I glanced at my friends, then the three of us moved into a huddle. "Nice bathroom with working shower, check," I said.
"Non-green or pink walls, check,"said Erwin.
"Cozy kitchen and no ghosts, check," Sharm said. "What's left?"
We turned as one to face the siblings. Reese was anxiously shifting from foot to foot and even Miguel seemed to be holding his breath. "Okay, hit me," I said. "How much is it?"
"P6,000 a month," Miguel replied.
My face went blank. Behind me, Erwin muttered "ouch." We huddled together again, and the two of them looked at me, waiting for my verdict. At my silence, Sharm sighed. "It's a good price for a place like this, but it's still too much, huh? We'll have to give a bond of P6,000, plus two months' rent. That'd be, shit, eighteen grand in one pop."
"We can still take the other apartment and have it repainted." Erwin's voice was normal enough, but his face had turned pale.
"That would work," Sharm added unconvincingly.
I snorted with laughter. "You guys sound like you're talking about a prison sentence. Don't sweat it. I told you I'd been saving up the money I get from my folks, remember?"
"Are you saying you can get your hands on eighteen grand just like that?" Erwin asked skeptically.
I grinned. "No. I'm saying I can get my hands on thirty grand. I can pay the rent for the next five months."
Silence fell, only to be broken by my friends' joyful screech and attempt to smother me in a double bear hug. Sharm then launched into a victory dance, while Erwin wrapped both arms around my middle and spun me around. "Put me down, you big oaf, before you break my ribs!" I yelled between gasps of laughter as my feet flew through the air.
As soon as he set me down, Sharm grabbed my hand and together we danced around Erwin, who was singing The Village People's YMCA for some reason. On impulse, I offered my hand to Reese, who looked at me with wonder before joining our witches' coven with squeals of mirth. As we went round and round, I caught a glimpse of Miguel, naked hope shining in his eyes. The next time I looked, he was gazing off to the side, the light glinting on his glasses concealing his expression. I must have imagined it, I thought; likely just wishful thinking on my part.
When his mother came up, we informed her that we were taking the apartment. A discussion of payment agreements followed. We headed to an ATM, then returned at twilight with the money and several Jollibee takeaway bags. We celebrated our first evening in our new apartment with an impromptu picnic on the balcony, discussing where to scrounge around for second-hand furniture and appliances. Reese crept up to join us, drawn by the noise, followed by her brother who must have been sent to keep an eye on his sister. Despite how their presence cut into our smoking time, it seemed natural for Reese and Miguel to be there. In fact, the siblings were the ones who suggested we make an offer for their old washing machine and refrigerator since they'd just bought new ones. I remember feeling giddy, as if I'd downed acouple of shots of tequila really fast, at how everything just fell into place. In one day, we'd found ourselves our dream apartment. It was almost too much to take in.
Then again, not everyone might be feeling the same way. I looked around for Miguel and found him sitting on the rail, his feet hooked around the metal bars. Our eyes met, and I felt the impact of his gaze like a delicious burst of warmth in my stomach, spreading outward. Funny how that keeps happening, I thought abstractedly. He looked a bit dazed, as if things hadn't completely sunk in yet. I wandered over to him, deciding to feel my way around the subject first. "So. Looks like you're my landlord now."
"I'm not," he said. "My mom is."
"Well, it's almost the same thing, what with you being our landlady's son and all."
He raised an eyebrow. No, it's not.
With a sigh, I gave up and just dove right in. "Listen, I'm sorry about this. I know you're probably wishing that someone else-/anyone/ else was living in your backyard, but I swear to you, I had no idea this address was yours. It's just that we've been looking for a place of our own for a long time, and I couldn't bear to see my friends disappointed again. I'll stay out of your way, I promise; you won't be able to tell I'm around. "
He appeared genuinely confused. "What the heck gave you the idea that I don't want you around?"
Warmth shot through me again, but I ignored it in favor of crossing my arms and serving him an arch look of my own. "Gee, I don't know. Maybe it's the way you never said hi once? A text message would have been nice. I mean, I did give you my number." Okay, enough, I told myself sternly. Any more and I'd be confessing that I'd spent weeks obsessing over him, a surefire way to send him fleeing back to his house and locking the door behind him.
"I thought I wasn't supposed to contact you unless I had a problem," he said, frowning. "I didn't think you'd want to be bothered by anything more trivial than that."
My mouth fell open and my arms dropped to my sides. Of all the possible reasons I'd cooked up to explain why Inever heard from him again, I didn't quite consider his taking my little speech so damned literally. "Well, yeah, but..." I sputtered, then realized that, for once, I couldn't think of anything to say. His frown deepened when I continued to gape at him, and in the next moment I was shaking with laughter.
He looked thoroughly bewildered, which made me laugh even more. "You know what, Migsie?" I burbled when I'd gotten my breath back. "You are absolutely right."
"Ate Ivy, is it true?"Reese piped up before he could reply. "Are you really a model?"
I blinked down at the awed, starry-eyed look on her face, then glanced at my friends. Sharm wore a guilty expression, while in small, crisp gestures Erwin pantomimed taking his shoe off and hitting her over the head with it. I smiled benignly, as if I found the idea highly amusing if totally farfetched. "Why? You think I could be one?"
Reese's eyes suddenly popped even wider, and she pointed a finger at me. "Oh my gosh, you're /her/! Shoujo Shine's image model! Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!"
She leaped up and grabbed my hands, pulling me into the light while I tried to draw back in alarm. "What? No, I-"
"You are her! No wonder you look so familiar!" Reese was in a world of her own as her hands fluttered over me, spinning me around as if I were her own personal Barbie doll. "Same hair, same face-you look taller in the pictures though. Oh my gosh, I can't believe it, Shoujo Shine's image model is our tenant, I can't wait to tell my friends-"
"No!" I yelled unthinkingly.
"Ahah!" Reese's grin turned wily."Then you admit it! You are her!"
Ah, fuck. /An image of aglaring Morisato/-san and Miss Gutierrez holding up a copy of my contract loomed threateningly behind my eyes. Then a hand closed around my wrist and drew me gently but firmly away from Reese. The next moment Miguel was standing close beside me, as if to shield me from his sister. "Quit it, Reese," he said quietly. "You've made your point."
I stared up at Miguel in astonishment. He didn't seem to notice that he hadn't released me, but I was noticing enough for the both of us. His hand was surprisingly large for a thirteen-year-old, his warm fingers wrapping completely around my wrist.
"I was just curious about her," Reese said defensively.
"I know, but you're scaring her."Miguel softened his words with a quick, humor-filled grin. Just like that, the situation was defused and Reese's mulish expression melted away into one of chagrin. I sighed, debating with myself whether my contract could stand a couple more violations, but once again Miguel beat me to it. "Even if she is a model, I don't think she can tell you anyway," he went on, still addressing his sister. "She might be under contract not to talk about it or something."
/Okay, that was just creepy/, I thought, dumbfounded for the second time in five minutes. When Reese's face fell and she mumbled an apology, I knew with a sinking feeling that I couldn't lie to these two, contract or no contract. Which left me with Plan B: change the subject while discreetly ignoring the question. "Pfft, forget about it, Reese,"I urged her good-humoredly. "It's not the first time someone said I look like the Shoujo Shine Girl, God knows why." I moved forward to sling an arm around her shoulder, only to be brought up short by Miguel's hand still on my wrist. He blinked down at his appendage as if he'd never seen it before, then abruptly released me, blushing furiously.
I hid a smile at how cute he was when he was embarrassed. "Besides, who wants to be a model and have to constantly watch your figure anyway?" I went on lightly. "You saw how I eat, right? Speaking of which, are there any french fries left?"
Thankfully, the ploy worked and nothing more was said about my being any kind of model. Soon, it was time for us to get back to our current domiciles to rest up for a week of moving in. Reese waved at us from the gate in the fence, but Miguel stayed to walk us to the main gate. Somehow, it felt equally natural to have him fall into step beside me.
"You didn't answer my sister's question,"he stated.
I was glad it was dark, otherwise there would have been no way to hide my telltale blush. "Hmm? What question was that, Migs?" I said innocently.
He glanced down at me, his expression distinctly knowing. "Fine. Be that way if you think it'll work."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I asked, frowning.
He smirked. "I can tell when you're lying, Ivy."
Horrified, I ground to a halt and stared at him. He stepped out the gate after my friends, then peered back, eyebrows raised as if to ask what I was waiting for. "Hmph," I sniffed, nose in the air as I moved past him. He chuckled, and despite my disgruntlement I couldn't help feeling elated at hearing his laughter again.
The four of us stood on the curb waiting for a tricycle, and out of habit, I pulled out a cigarette, passing astick to Sharm whose supply had run out. Instead of immediately lighting up like my friends had however, I idly spun the cigarette in my fingers, having noticed the carefully bland expression on Miguel's face.
"It's okay," he said, indicating the cigarette.
"Nah," I said airily. "Some big sister I would be if I let a growing kid like you suck in all that second-hand smoke." He looked away, but not before I saw the flash of hurt on his face. I felt instantly remorseful although I was confused as to what exactly I'd said that bothered him.
"Ivy, come on!" Sharm called before I could ask him. "Bye Miguel! See you tomorrow."
Sighing, I turned to tell him goodbye, only to have my words die away at the warmth in his eyes. "Ivy?"
He smiled shyly. "I'm glad it's you."
My own eyes widened, then as his meaning sunk in, I smiled back in pure happiness. Then I turned and ran for the tricycle, looking back to see him disappear inside the gate.
At that point, I realized that I'd already forgiven him for not calling or texting me. After all, if it wasn't for him and his wonderful drawing, we would probably never have found each other again. Sometimes I tell Migs how damned lucky he was that he'd decided to post one of his few illustrated "for rent" ads at the Shopping Center for Sharm to find. Sometimes he gives me this half-amused, half-exasperated look then pretends to ignore me. And sometimes he kisses me tenderly and whispers, "I know."
Goes to show it pays to remind a guy never to take the little things for granted.