I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s something I haven’t told anyone, but since Migs and I agreed to come clean during this interview, I figured I might as well get it off my chest.
Okay, here it goes:
I hated Lala on sight.
Oh all right, that’s an exaggeration. It wasn’t hate exactly, more like a…a sludgy, corrosive sort of dislike. Maybe it was the way she looked at me the first time we met, with her arms crossed and her hip cocked just so, waiting for me to explain my existence. Or maybe it was just my general impression of her, which was that in her world, self-doubt happened to other people. Whatever it was, all it took was one look at her to make all sorts of warning signals go off in my head. Bzzzt! Bzzzt! Suspicious Person Alert. All Defenses Up. Better keep an eye on this one, Commander. She looks like trouble.
Of course, the annoyingly proprietary way she was eyeing Miguel had nothing, nothing at all, to do with it.
So we were—what? What? Okay, you’re right, it’s not much of a secret. I mean, everyone knows that hostile feelings toward a perceived rival is a major indication of your level of attraction to someone, right? It should have been a major clue, right? Well, you know why this was such an earth-shaking secret for me? It’s because I didn’t know I even had hostile feelings. I kept my feelings a secret mainly from myself.
I wish I could say I was kidding. Honestly, I got so good at suppressing those flashes of irritation that I was almost unaware of them. I even told myself, with moist-eyed earnestness, that she was a good match for him. Aaargh. Talk about suppression. If somebody had invented a brain machine with settings ranging from “denial” to “delusional” to “total amnesia”, I’d have been the perfect endorser for it.
It was just so…so embarrassing. A worldly-wise twenty-year-old woman with a college diploma nearly under her belt and a fabulous career in the works feel threatened by this—this pubescent upstart who’d never taken a step outside her sheltered world? No way, nuh-uh, impossible. I was over all that teenybopper drama, regardless of my looks. Been there, done that, left the high school yearbook back home to rot.
Tell the world, baby. Ivy Lopez is above it all.
Aaargh. Now you see why I call this my stupid period? And it wasn’t just about Lala either. It was damn near everything. You can ask Sharm, Erwin, even Reese, who was frigging eleven years old at the time. I was dense, obtuse, lacking in self-awareness while at the same time sunk in an inflated sense of satisfaction that this sort of thing could never happen to me. In a word, stupid.
Oh God, he is going to be sooo smug about this. Just because he caught on to things a bit faster than I did—pfft, well, so what? It’s not like you can make judgments on the average male by using him as a standard anyway. So there.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know Migs liked me. Anyone with two functioning brain cells could tell that the boy was seriously crushing on me. It showed in so many ways, and I doubt he was conscious of half of them. The way he’d stare at me whenever he thought I wasn’t looking. The way he blushed whenever our eyes met. The way his voice sounds different whenever he talks to me. Oh yes, it does. It’s pitched just a little lower, just a little huskier. And the way he says my name, as if he’s revealing something infinitely precious to him. It always makes me feel as if a flood of champagne bubbles are shooting up my spine and filling my head, a wonderful, half-drunk feeling.
And the way he smiles at me. He has a special smile just for me, you know. He rarely smiles at people, and when he does it’s in lightning-quick grins that you’d miss if you blink at the wrong moment. But that sweet half-smile that lingers on his lips and makes his eyes go warm and intense—that smile is mine. He never smiles at anyone else that way. I knew because I kept careful tabs on the people he bestowed his smiles upon. Of course, at the time I wasn’t aware I was doing so, and neither did I stop to wonder how I knew that that smile of his was meant only for me. Aaargh. Stupid period, remember?
Anyway, I’m sure he didn’t know about the thing with his voice and his smile and stuff, otherwise he’d have keeled over and died of terminal embarrassment. But the other things he did were deliberate. So deliberate, in fact, that I had a sneaking suspicion he’d drawn up a list and was working his way down it. For instance, the first time I found a Kit-Kat bar in my bag, I was almost afraid to eat it. I mean, who knew where the hell it’d come from? Then it happened again the following week, only this time it was a small bag of M&Ms, then the week after that it was a Cadbury milk chocolate bar, then the week after that a bag of chocolate eggs, and so on. It was always a surprise what kind of chocolate it would be and when I would find it, but the one constant was Migs’ slightly more poker-faced poker face every time I brought it up. Dead giveaway, that, although for some reason the idiot kept denying he was the one sneaking the chocolates into my bag.
So, chocolates? Check. Flowers? Check. A single rose, to be exact, but not any ordinary rose. This is Miguel we’re talking about. The boy with the soul of an artist and the mind of an engineer. Anything he does is bound to be unique.
It was late August, I think. I’d decided to surprise him one afternoon by waiting for him outside his lab. My writing workshop had ended early, and as soon as the final “that’s it for today” was uttered, I grabbed my bag and bolted out of the room. The sky was solid gray but the air was cool and fragrant with rain, and I took several deep breaths as I walked the short distance toward the chem. building. Good thing I did, too, because as soon as I entered the building, I was immediately enveloped in the throat-locking chemical smell that permeated the air inside the chem. pavilion.
I found his lab with minutes to spare, so to kill time, I wandered around the pavilion and scanned the bulletin boards. One of these sported a huge periodic table of the elements with the most amazing digital graphics for each element’s symbol. Who cared that I wasn’t a scientist and had in fact barely passed chemistry? It still would have looked great hanging on the wall beside my bed. I fiddled speculatively with the screws on the glass paneling—you never know, you could get lucky—until the sound of someone calling my name made me back away hastily from the bulletin board.
“I was just look—oh, hi, Yna,” I said with a slightly sheepish grin.
“You’re early today.” Yna smiled back as she emerged from the doorway. “He and Dennis are almost done. By the way, you didn’t happen to see our professor pass by, did you? Thin, short-haired man with glasses?” When I answered in the negative, she shrugged. “Oh well, he’ll turn up. You want to come in and sit with us?”
I peeked into the laboratory and shuddered at the sight of the tables bristling with metal contraptions and glass tubes filled with mysterious liquids. At one of the tables, Miguel was holding up a beaker and talking to Dennis. I ducked back into the hall and looked at Yna. “Let me get this straight. You’d trust me to sit near all those possibly flammable chemicals and not cause a disaster? With your professor about to show up any time?”
She laughed. “Oh, Dr. Caro’s cool, don’t worry about it. And if it makes you feel better, we’ll sit you in the corner where you can do the least damage.”
“Well, that’s a comfort—”
“Whoa, whadda we have here?” Allan poked his head out the doorway. “Two beauteous babes hanging around the chem. pavilion? Well, one babe at least,” he said, grinning at me while Yna frowned like a thundercloud. “Always nice to see you, Ivy. You know, I’ve been telling our baby bro to quit hogging you all the time. Hey, Miguel!” he yelled across the room. “Ivy’s here. Better not keep her waiting, dude.”
There was something so knowing about his expression that it should have clued me in that something was up, but I brushed it off as brotherly teasing between him and Migs. Nothing that affected me personally, no, and by the way that was not a blush warming my cheeks. That was just the fumes. I was not feeling like a schoolgirl caught spying on her crush. Really. The dryly amused, I-know-what-you’re-up-to smile on my face proved it.
Then another voice, loud and obnoxious, rose above the din. “A girl? No way. You mean the shrimp’s actually managed to land a girlfriend?”
“Nah, she probably needs him to assemble her computer or something,” someone else replied. “But then that probably counts as getting lucky for Wonder Brain here.”
Laughter spilled out, more toxic than any chemical stench. “It was worse last year,” Yna said quietly when she saw my expression. “Believe it or not.”
“You wanna repeat that, dela Rosa?” Vince’s distinctive rumble rang with challenge, causing the laughter to immediately subside. Without a word, I swept past Yna and Allan and halted inside the room. Every gaze swung toward me, including those of a trio of guys who seconds earlier had been shrinking from Vince’s and Dennis’ glares. Miguel, on the other hand, appeared as if he hadn’t heard the mocking words, but as the silence stretched he turned and glanced at me before ducking his head again. I’m glad to see you, his eyes said, but I hope to God you’d turned deaf in the last few minutes.
I recalled the look on his face when he told me how he’d been picked on and ostracized in his freshman year, and a fierce protectiveness surged through me. Fuck this, I thought. Then I shifted my stance, flipped my hair back, and smiled blindingly at the room in general. Several jaws clattered to the floor. Really, all I needed were a stream of flashes from a camera and some bossy person yelling stuff like “that’s it, sweet and playful, turn your head a little to the side, babe, that’s it.” “Hello,” said I, the goddess of artless innocence. “I’m sorry to bother you. Is Miguel Santillan here?”
Several people pointed wordlessly at Miguel, whose head had snapped up in surprise and open suspicion. Ignoring his friends’ befuddled looks, I raised the wattage of my smile and aimed it at him. “Migs!” I cried, dancing over until I was pressed up against him. His deliciously familiar scent caressed my poor, abused nose, and when I rubbed my cheek against his shoulder in an affectionate greeting, I hardly had to act at all.
He stiffened. “What the heck are you doing?” he hissed in a voice only I could hear.
“Raising your market value, now play along,” I hissed back. “What’s the matter? You don’t look all that happy to see me,” I said aloud, pouting cutely at him as I plopped into a nearby empty chair, angling my body to give our audience a better view.
A dark flush rose in his face. “I—well, I—you’re kind of early,” he said weakly, and I tried not to roll my eyes at his inability to come up with better lines.
Fortunately, his friends proved a little more helpful. “Hey, Ivy,” Dennis said while Vince nodded at me. “Kind of unusual to see you here.”
I giggled behind my hand. “Yeah, isn’t it? School ended early today so I thought I’d come over and see Migs again.” I beamed at Miguel, who was looking more and more like a spectator at a really bad vehicular accident. “Oh, that reminds me. Could I borrow your cellphone, Migs? I want to check something.” He handed it to me, and I made a show of scrolling through his messages then leaning back with a theatrical sigh of relief.
“What’s up?” Dennis asked curiously.
“Oh, it’s just my sister,” I replied, wrinkling my nose. “She mentioned today that she’d gotten Migs’ number, and I was afraid she’d contacted him. Honestly, she’s such a pain. First she dumps her boyfriend, and now I swear she’s after Migs. What a skank.”
The three guys stared blankly at me, but I was paying more attention to the reactions of our audience, who were pretending so fiercely that they weren’t listening in that the room had taken on a skewed appearance, with everybody tilted diagonally in our direction while looking firmly somewhere else. Then my view was blocked when Allan materialized like an overly excitable apparition. “You have a sister?” he asked eagerly.
“Uhuh,” I chirped. “An older sister. They say she’s the pretty one in the family.” Ignoring the way a number of eyes bugged out at this, I sniffed and peered up at Miguel through my lashes. “You don’t think she’s pretty, do you, Migs?”
Exasperation and humor appeared to be waging a battle inside him, but judging from the way his dark eyes had begun to twinkle, humor was winning out. “You want the truth?” he asked solemnly, pushing his glasses up.
“She’s not much to look at.”
I managed to swallow the laugh before it escaped. He caught my eye and we shared a grin amidst Allan’s protestations that Miguel’s opinion could not be trusted. Then Yna came in, followed by a man who, since he fit her description perfectly, could be none other than their missing professor. When he came over to check Miguel’s and Dennis’ work, I edged my chair as far back as it would go and tried to blend into the wall, then heaved a sigh of relief when he finally moved on to the next table.
Miguel shot me an amused look. “The coast is clear. You can come out now.”
“Sure, go ahead and be patronizing,” I retorted as I hopped off the chair and watched him and Dennis clean up the remains of their experiment. “Just because you’ve never had to slog through high school chemistry…”
He moved his head in a “right, whatever” gesture. “So what was the point of that little skit back there?” he asked.
I surveyed his classmates, many of whom kept shooting him thoughtful looks. “How about a demonstration instead?” I murmured. “You see that girl in the blue blouse two tables away? She’s been sneaking glances at you for the past five minutes. Watch her carefully, and when she looks at you again, give her a smile. That’s it, just smile.”
He looked puzzled but did as he was told, although the movement of his mouth looked more like a spasm of pain than anything pleasant. The girl appeared startled at first, then smiled warmly back. “Hah, you see that?” I wiggled my hips in a restrained version of our victory jig. “My work here is done. I’ll send you my bill through the mail. Youch!” I jerked my foot back when he accidentally knocked his lab manual off the table and the corner of it hit my toe. “Jeez, I was just kidding! Consider it pro bono, okay?” I said in a tone of mock-hurt, rubbing my toe.
When he mumbled an apology but otherwise made no move to pick up his manual, I sighed and bent down to retrieve it. He took the manual from me and shoved it into his backpack without meeting my eyes. Mystified at his behavior, I glanced down at the table then went still. Lying upon the table top was a plain, ivory chopstick with silver-colored wire wrapped around one end. The wire flowed outward in coils and curves, forming the silvery outline of a rosebud about to bloom. The wire rose was simple and elegant, and had obviously been made with a lot of care. My hand shook a little when I picked up the chopstick, and with an inward sigh I acknowledged the truth that from this point on, any real flower would never quite compare with the one I held now.
I focused past the rose at Miguel, who blushed furiously. “I, um—I kind of noticed you like wearing chopsticks in your hair, so I had this idea…” He swallowed and pressed his lips together in annoyance.
“It’s beautiful. I love it.” I ran my finger along the edge of the rose, then looked up at him in wonder. “You’re really giving it to me?”
“No, I plan to slip it into Dr. Caro’s pigeonhole as a way of increasing my chances of passing Chem. 28. I heard he doesn’t like apples much,” he replied quite seriously.
I looked at him askance until I noticed the laughter lurking in his eyes. “Jackass,” I grumbled good-naturedly as I gathered my hair up and twisted it into a knot on the back of my head, thrusting the chopstick through it to hold it in place. Then I turned around to let him view the chopstick from all angles. “Well? Does it look good on me or what?”
In reply, he gave me a slow, warm smile that needed no words at all, then raised a hand and brought it to the side of my head. My skin tingled where his fingers brushed against my neck, then his hand came into view again, drawing with it a long lock of hair that I’d missed. He wound the lock around my bun, then did it again a couple more times when the lock refused to cooperate and unwound itself the instant he let go. I held myself perfectly still, my eyes riveted to his face and the soft, absorbed expression he wore, and a tiny, traitorous voice inside my head whispered, This is how he’ll look when he kisses…
Thinking about kissing turned out to be a bad idea. My face grew hot with the memory of his thank-you kiss, and against every drop of sense I possessed I found myself focusing on his lips, taking note of every curve and crease. When he finally managed to secure the errant lock around the chopstick, he pulled his hand back and looked into my face. Our gazes held, his dark eyes widening slightly when he realized how close we were. The moment spun delicately on a point, but neither of us looked away. Or spoke. Or breathed.
What the hell are you doing!? shrilled another voice in my head, one I thought of as my “sensible” voice. Move away right now! For fuck’s sake, don’t turn into an idiot again and scare him off like you did last time.
But just like before, my body paid no attention to my sensible voice. He doesn’t look so scared now, does he? the insidious little voice pointed out. I gulped and licked my lips nervously, but this only caused his gaze to drop to my mouth and…Oh dear, my sensible voice whimpered. Or maybe it was me.
“We hate to interrupt,” Allan drawled from the doorway, “but couldn’t you two pick a better spot for this than a chem. lab? The Lagoon’s not far—ow! What’d you do that for?” He rubbed his shin, casting an injured look at Yna, who crossed her arms and scowled censoriously at him. Dennis and Vince snorted with laughter.
The sound of a gunshot couldn’t have had a more sobering effect. Miguel and I jumped apart and, driven by the need to put some distance between us, I backed away until I bumped into a table. Various racks and glass containers rocked precariously, and with curse I grabbed onto the table’s edge to steady it. The cold shock that accompanied an averted disaster came as a welcome, if somewhat rude, return to rational thinking after that…that bout of temporary insanity. Probably triggered by prolonged exposure to chemical fumes. Yes. Right. That’s exactly what it was. A Chem. 28-induced head trip.
“How long have you guys been skulking around out here?” Miguel asked irritably as we joined his friends.
“Pretty much the entire time,” Allan replied with unrepentant glee.
Yna sighed. “We were waiting for you to come out. Everyone else had already left.” I wondered if I’d imagined the faint frown she sent me; it was gone so quickly I couldn’t be sure. Suddenly, going off somewhere for a steadying smoke sounded like a great idea.
“You didn’t have to, you know,” Miguel informed them.
“Dude, are you kidding?” Allan chortled. “And miss out on this important milestone in your journey to manhood?” Miguel gave him a flat, disbelieving look, which Allan ignored in favor of falling into step beside me. “So, Ivy, about this sister of yours…”
Then again, there was no reason for Yna to look worried, was there? Nothing happened, and nothing will continue to happen. That was the normal turnout for situations like this. Besides, I had everything under control. Well, mostly under control. In any case, I knew better now than to let that bizarre incident happen again. It was too…unsettling, even a little frightening. It felt as if a jagged cliff had opened up right in the middle of the nice, safe, pastoral scene I was blithely traipsing through.
“Maybe you could bring her over one of these days. Hey, would she mind if I got her phone numb—uh, hello?”
Nothing will happen, I repeated resolutely, and to smother that part of me that remained shaken and a bit disappointed by the nothing that had so recently happened, I fell back on my standard crisis coping mechanism, to wit: Fake it till you make it. With Allan still eyeing me curiously, I heaved a sigh and passed my hand over my brow in the manner vaguely reminiscent of a heroine fighting off a swoon. “Sorry. The smell of all those chemicals was making my head spin. Ah, what was that you said?”
When he repeated his question, I couldn’t keep from sputtering with laughter, ill effects of the chemical-soaked atmosphere completely forgotten. “Oh my God, I’m sorry, Allan, but I don’t really have a sister. I was just, ah, extemporizing back there.”
His face fell. “No sister?”
“No sister.” I gave him a sympathetic smile when he looked so forlorn.
There was a loud snicker, and when we looked over at Yna, she was smiling more cheerfully than usual. “I was just thinking I could do with some fish balls,” she said brightly. “You guys interested?”
We headed toward the fish ball cart on the street corner, although I had to dig in my heels when Miguel hesitated and tried to drag us both off to the library again. I mean, studying was all very well, but afternoon fish balls with friends were the stuff that college memories were made of. Soon, I was passing my lighter over to Vince and Allan while we waited for our fish balls to be done. I caught another odd expression on Yna’s face when she saw me light up, but I put it down to the usual reaction I got whenever people saw someone who looked like a twelve-year-old kid puffing away like a 35-year-old Malate bar habitué. Then Miguel came over with my stick of fish balls and that adorable half-smile on his face, and I quickly forgot all about Yna’s strangeness.
“So what do you think of our baby bro’s handiwork?” Allan asked me, gesturing with his cigarette at the chopstick in my hair.
“I already told him.” I winked at Migs, who blushed again. The guys continued to wheedle, so I tugged the chopstick out and examined it. The silvery lines of the rose glinted in the sunlight, graceful yet surprisingly sturdy. I looked over at Migs and smiled. “You really made this? You’re pretty clever with your hands, you know that?”
He shrugged, his blush deepening. “It was just a bit of work with a pair of pliers.”
“Modest, too. Ain’t he a prize?” Allan punched him on the shoulder, then leaned over to me and whispered loudly: “He’s been working on that for three days.”
“Wow, really?” I gushed, mostly for Allan’s benefit; he seemed to be expecting it. Then, still distracted by the guy’s unsubtle attempts to play Cupid, I added unthinkingly: “Gosh, I hope it doesn’t fall out and get lost then.”
There was a tiny beat of silence, then Miguel turned to frown at me. “You’re right. Your chopsticks do tend to fall out a lot.”
“Well, yeah, sometimes,” I said, a little uneasy about the thoughtful, narrow-eyed look on his face. “It’s no big deal, I just stick ‘em right back—”
“Maybe if I add a hook or something,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “Or a kind of clamp. It’d have to be two sticks, though—”
“How about a spring mechanism near the base of the rose?” Allan suggested.
The next minute, I found myself surrounded by four male Engineering majors wearing distressingly serious expressions as they tossed around ideas for features to add to the chopstick to improve its functionality, each one sounding more painful than the one before. With all avenues of escape cut off, all I could do was cower in the middle of the ring and clutch my chopstick protectively to my chest. “What the hell are you lot talking about?” I protested. “You can’t correct any design flaws on a chopstick. Tell them, Yna.”
“She’s right,” Yna said. I sagged with relief, until she followed it up with: “A cord or a chain would be better. Connected to a collar or something. So she won’t have to keep bending over to pick it up.”
“A collar?” I echoed weakly. Then Miguel was standing before me, holding his hand out. “Oh, don’t tell me. You’re taking it back?”
“Just for a little while,” he said.
“But couldn’t you just make a new one or—or something?”
“It’ll take longer if I do that.” He adjusted his glasses, and the light glinted off the lenses in a way that would have brought a nostalgic tear to a mad scientist’s eye. “I’ll give it back soon, Ivy. I just want to, uh, make a few improvements.”
Pouting for real now, I reluctantly surrendered the chopstick to him. It was either that or have them gang up on me and take it by force. The rest of the afternoon continued as usual, but I was so peeved with him for taking his gift back that I nicked his favorite technical pen, fully intending to hold it hostage until he returned my chopstick.
Well yeah, he did give it back eventually…I’ll tell you about that later. Hmm. Come to think of it, that too should have been a major clue. If any other guy had pulled that stunt on me—you know, gave me a gift so wonderful that it melts your heart then took it back not an hour later—he’d be looking at my swiftly disappearing backside. From a prone position on the ground.
But that was it, right? Migs wasn’t just any other guy. I got to know him better over time, and by the time the first semester ended I knew his quirks almost as well as I knew mine. For instance, I knew he disliked wasting time and believed every minute should be dedicated to the furtherance of some ultimate goal, such as learning or solving problems. I practically had to sit him down and explain the concept of “down time” to him. I knew he liked salty or full-flavored foods, but the only sweet things he liked were hot chocolate and Coke, precursors to his future caffeine addiction. I knew he didn’t like watching movies or TV much, except for science fiction shows. He’s a closet Trekkie, which is to say he’s watched all the episodes but would never admit he’s anything so pedestrian as an actual fan. When they first meet him, people think he has no sense of humor. Actually, he does. It’s the dry, snarky variety, with a touch of weirdness thrown in. Once he kept grinning for hours because of a mistake in a calculus equation that he apparently found hilarious. Needless to say, I didn’t get the joke, even after he’d explained it to me.
There were layers to him that few ever got to see. To most people he came off as self-assured, standoffish and unflappable to the point of being emotionless. When you were with him, you got the feeling he was wishing he—or better yet, you—were somewhere else. But you know, that cool and aloof act was precisely that, just an act, a way to hide his shyness and his confusion when dealing with people. It took time to get around that act, but it’s worth the effort. To his friends, Migs was a quiet, steadfast pillar of support, someone you could depend on to be there and to give you exactly the help you needed—a listening ear, a couple of bucks, a tutoring session, a hard truth you needed to hear. And he was, down to the marrow of his bones, a gentleman. I don’t mean in the artificially suave, calculatedly polished way. When he opens the door for you or helps you with your stuff or pulls up a chair for you, you can tell he’s not doing it to impress you. He does it simply because it’s the proper thing to do, a habit as second-nature to him as personal hygiene. What can I say? His Mama done raised him right, at least in this respect.
I let all these things about Miguel unfold before me. I was utterly fascinated by him. He seemed so different from me, and it was just amazing that this person who was almost my complete opposite could stand to be around me, let alone willingly seek out my company. I loved our afternoon Coke sessions, even the part where we stayed in the library. During the weekends, the prospect of being with him made the idea of staying home even more appealing, and as much as I enjoyed my job and nights out with friends, I found myself counting the hours until I could go home and tell him how my day went. I could talk to him as easily as I could talk to my best friends. I could tease him and play pranks on him as much as I wanted because I knew he’d give as good as he got, and he knew me well enough never to take my jokes seriously. And I felt such a burst of pride whenever he talked to me, simply because Migs had chosen me to reveal his inner thoughts and feelings to. This was nothing though compared to the joy I felt whenever I managed to make him laugh. It’s like sweeping every category in the Academy Awards.
But if, despite all that, I still needed proof that Migs was someone I could trust implicitly…well, there was always Wednesday mornings.
Wednesdays were my writing days. Heh, to be honest, I never thought I’d have the guts to dream of becoming a writer. Everybody expected me to go into Theater or Broadcasting, some field that would capitalize on my looks and my bubbly, fluff-ball persona. Certainly nothing in my past indicated that I was the starving-poet type. More often than not, I was prancing around onstage in school productions rather than churning out brilliant editorials for the student paper. Before college, the only work of fiction I’d ever done was about six chapters of an action-fantasy novel; I gave that up when Tito Julio found the sheets of paper I’d written my story on and used these to mop up the gin he’d spilled on the floor when he knocked over a bottle. The closest I came to admitting that I might just be a tiny bit interested in writing, sort of, was when I asked a teacher what she thought about an idea I had for the school play. She smiled vaguely and told me that someone else had already written a play, and it was simply marvelous.
So nobody was more surprised than I was when I shifted to Creative Writing. Or maybe it wasn’t all that surprising. I was already in Comparative Lit anyway, and I soon realized that being in CL was just my way of tiptoeing around my dream in the hope that I could sidle in without anyone noticing. So I thought, “What the hell,” screwed up my courage, and the next thing I knew, I was in CW. For the longest time, I couldn’t walk five feet in my hometown without someone asking me if I was really, really sure about this writing thing, and maybe I should give it more thought because college tuition doesn’t grow on trees, and it’s not too late for me to go into Broadcasting. But I stuck with it because I’d discovered a core of certainty inside me that told me writing stories was what I truly wanted to do. It helped, too, that Sharm and Erwin supported me, no questions asked.
That’s how I found myself in my last year in college, working on my undergrad thesis. Normally, I write in fits and spurts. I’d have weeks when I was as dry as a desert, then an idea would come upon me, sometimes in the most inconvenient times such as when I was in the middle of a shoot or hanging out with friends. Then I’d have to go off somewhere quiet with my pen and notepad and let it all out. I’d be walking around like a zombie for days, barely aware of my surroundings, living entirely inside my head. Erwin calls it my evil twin, since I’d turn into someone completely unlike the Ivy everyone knew. I’d be dazed and unfocused and irritable and just totally out of it. Whenever that happened, Sharm and Erwin took it upon themselves to tell our friends to stay away, reheat my coffee or stub out my cigarettes whenever I forgot about them, and remind me when I needed to go to class or to work or to the bathroom for a much-needed bath. Other than that, they knew that what I really needed was to be left alone for a while.
With my need to graduate as added incentive, I decided to get my writing habits under control. Since I had Wednesdays free, I declared Wednesdays my Writing Days, when I stayed at home with nothing but cups of instant coffee, a pack of cigarettes and my pen and notepad for company. Then one Wednesday, I’d just settled down at our balcony with my notepad on my lap and a cigarette between my fingers when Sharm stuck her head out the door, grinning insanely. “Ives, guess who’s here.”
“Mm?” I said, flipping through the pages of my notepad.
“I said, guess who’s here.”
I looked up with a distracted frown. “Sharm, I’m kind of busy—oh.”
Sharm stepped aside to reveal Miguel. He looked uncertain, as if he wasn’t quite sure he was welcome. Behind him, Sharm was still grinning like a crazy woman and waggling her eyebrows. Ignoring the facial tic she’d spontaneously developed, I summoned up a smile and stuck my cigarette in the ashtray. “Hey, Migs, what brings you here?”
“You,” he said, then blushed and added quickly: “I was wondering if you wanted to go to the library today. Since you don’t have classes and all.”
“Actually, I’m staying home today to work on my thesis.” I tapped my notepad, hoping he’d take the hint and go away. Then the rules of basic courtesy rose up and whapped me on the head. “Oh, I’m sorry. Were you waiting for me? I should have told you.”
“I wasn’t,” he reassured me, but I knew he had been. Meanwhile, Sharm’s facial tics had developed into full-fledged body convulsions: she was pointing at Miguel with both hands and mouthing “ask him to stay, ask him to stay” at me. Her movements caught his eye, and when he turned to look at her, she dropped her arms and smiled with beatific innocence. “I have to finish getting dressed,” she said, backing away. “Erwin’s still in the shower, so I’ll leave you to Ivy’s tender loving care, okay?” Then without giving him a chance to say anything, she fled to our room and shut the door.
He stared at the space Sharm had vacated, then gave me a look that clearly said, “What’s with her?” By then, I was red with embarrassment and seething at my friend’s antics. Conceding that I owed him at least an attempt to be hospitable, I got up, padded over to him and reached up to tug the strap of his backpack off his shoulder so I could put it down on a chair. When the bag dropped from his shoulder, his arm automatically came up to snag it, and since I’d tried to catch it too, my hand got caught between the strap and his arm. The contact was purely accidental and not even remotely suggestive, but even his slightest touch did strange things to me. He felt warm and smooth and comfortingly solid underneath my hand. My breath stuttered a little, and as his other hand lifted to disentangle my fingers from the strap—I could have done it myself but for some reason I wasn’t moving—I found myself blurting: “Why don’t you stay here for a while?”
For a moment he looked surprised, then the light in his eyes glowed visibly brighter. “You don’t mind?” he asked shyly.
“No, but you might.”
I gave him a concise description of what I could be like when I was writing, but he just shrugged off my warning. “Not a problem. I won’t get in your way.”
I smiled at him, a real one this time. We then became aware of someone singing in a wobbly tenor—the kind of wobbly where the singer is attempting to sing in a soulful manner while trying not to collapse on the floor laughing his guts out. And wouldn’t you know it, it was coming from inside the apartment.
“You’re the meaning in my life, you’re the inspiraaation. You bring feeling to my life, you’re the inspiraaation…”
If my face was red before, it was likely shading to maroon now. I pulled my hand back, only then noticing that my fingers, now freed of the strap, had somehow curled themselves around his, and muttered: “Excuse me a sec.” Then I turned and stomped back inside to kick Erwin’s impertinent ass around a bit, and Sharm’s as well so she’d quit that annoying squealing. It turned out they’d been watching the whole thing, and when I gritted out that yes, contrary to my usual practice I’d asked Migs to stay, they grinned at each other with a smug amusement that was frightening to behold. When Miguel followed me inside, looking absolutely clueless in the face of my friends’ ribbing, Erwin drew him aside to give him elaborate instructions on what to do when I’d gotten to the stage where I was muttering to myself and how to revive me when rigor mortis had set in. To my relief, Miguel only ended up looking more bewildered than ever.
The two idiots eventually left us in peace, but as a parting shot, Sharm called out with deliberate ambiguity, “Told you we’d leave you in good hands!” while Erwin continued to croon, “And I know, and I know, yes I know that it's plain to see, to see, to see, to see. So in love when we're togethe-eer…” until his voice faded away in the distance. I watched my friends depart, still pissed off at them for putting Miguel on the spot like that, although their teasing had affected me far more than it did him. I was also dreading facing Migs, but since I’d gone and sold myself out, I had no choice but to resign myself to half a day of zero productivity.
Hiding my frustration and disappointment behind a bright expression, I turned and found Migs already seated at the table with his nose buried in a book, his binder and a few more books laid out neatly in front of him. It was rather disconcerting, and I had to blink a few times to make sure we were still on the balcony and had not been magically transported to the library. “Ah, you want anything?” I said somewhat lamely. “Some coffee—no, you don’t drink coffee. How about a glass of water? We’ve got some Coke in the fridge, and San Mig Light too, but of course you don’t drink beer either—”
He spared me a glance. “No thanks, I’m good.”
“Right. Um, okay. But if you’re hungry or anything, just let me know. We’ve got about a thousand packs of instant noodles and I can rustle up some fried potatoes in a jiffy. Or if you’re in the mood for something classier, Sharm’s got this can of fancy Danish cookies that her boss gave her, and she wouldn’t notice if we helped ourselves to some. Well, at least I hope she wouldn’t—hey, don’t touch that, put that do—what’re you doing?”
In the middle of my verbal diarrhea, he’d absently reached across the table and stubbed out my forgotten and still-smoldering cigarette in the ashtray. When I stared at him in astonishment, he got up with a sigh, herded me over to my chair, and sat me down. “Stop fussing and get to work,” he scolded before settling back down to his book.
Well, I never! “Fine,” I huffed, snatching my notepad up. In the beginning, the situation progressed exactly as I was afraid it would. Far from losing myself in my writing the way I did when I was alone, I was hyper-aware of his every move and wracked with guilt that I wasn’t being a livelier host. I watched him over the edge of my notepad, anxiously trying to anticipate his needs, with the result that I was a twitchy heap of nerves by the end of the first hour. When he laid his pen down and gazed out into the distance, I actually jumped. “H-hey, you want anything?” I burst out, aware that I was becoming repetitive.
“Hmm?” He turned to stare right through me, his dark eyes filled with that familiar abstracted haze. “No, I just, um—I need to use the bathroom.”
He stood up and went inside. I frowned after him, feeling somewhat put out, then on impulse got up and peered at his binder, curious to see what he was working on so intently that he was being inconsiderately oblivious to my mental anguish. I got a face-full of eye-watering diagrams and equations filled with numbers that didn’t even look like proper numbers and words like “polymerization” and “PHB/PHV—check materials section” and “Escherischia c.—further study”. I turned the page and was met with more mysterious words and equations and a drawing of what looked like little bracelets strung with letters and numbers. “What the hell is this?” I muttered to myself.
“It’s just something I’ve been doing some research on,” came a voice behind me. “I’m considering doing my thesis on it.”
I leaped away from the binder as if it had just tried to bite me, but Miguel barely glanced at me, only picked up his book and his binder and headed to the kitchen. Genuinely baffled now, I followed him and watched open-mouthed as he laid his things down on the counter then proceeded to set our kettle on the stove, hunt around for our tins of coffee, sugar and coffee creamer, and take down a mug and a teaspoon. All the while, he would periodically go back to reading his book and occasionally jotting down notes in his binder. It occurred to me that interrupting him would be highly inadvisable; he seemed to have hit a groove and was simply letting a small part of his brain run his body while the rest of it got on with the business of higher learning. Something stirred in my mind and nudged me behind the eyeballs, but the kettle’s whistling distracted me. He turned the stove off, picked up the kettle—and stopped short. He turned toward me, his eyes now clear and focused. “Um, I don’t know how you take your coffee,” he said sheepishly, as if confessing to a habit of picking his nose in public.
“You’re making me coffee.” It was a statement rather than a question. Maybe if I said it that way, it would make it easier for me to get over the shock.
“Sharm told me I should just help myself.”
Oh, did she? “And ‘helping yourself’ would include making me coffee?” I said carefully. “She didn’t tell you to do that, did she?”
“No, I just thought you might want some,” he said, then winced as a thought occurred to him. “Sorry. I guess I should have asked you first. So, uh, do you?”
“What?” There was that thought again, tickling the back of my skull.
“Want coffee.” He raised the kettle pointedly, and appeared to be fighting back a grin. “You obviously need it.”
“Ha ha, Mr. Funny Man.” Bumping him aside with my hip, I took the kettle from him and mixed myself a cup.
He pulled a disgusted face. “Loaded with sugar and cream. I should have known.”
“No lip from you, servant,” I retorted, thumping him on the forehead with the teaspoon. “Now see to it that you prepare my coffee properly from now on.” I hid a smile as he rubbed his forehead and muttered something that didn’t sound terribly polite, and laughed outright when the Coke can I tossed him almost smacked him on the chin. “Oops, sorry about that,” I said gaily. “Better hold it away from you when you open it.”
We returned to the balcony and sat sipping our drinks and, in my case, making up for my neglected cigarette. After a while, I asked: “So what’s that you’re working on? If you don’t mind me asking, that is. Oh, and use small words please,” I added jokingly.
“This is why I don’t talk to non-nerds,” Miguel sighed, and laughed when I kicked him under the table. For the next ten minutes, he told me about biodegradable plastics, how it could be made from plant matter or produced by bacteria, describing the studies and experiments that had been done by other universities and the attempts several companies made to commercially launch biodegradable plastic. The problems were finding a plastic that degraded completely in land-fill conditions and coming up with a way of producing it that wasn’t so expensive. The challenges sounded pretty daunting to me, but he didn’t see it that way. Not in the least. To him, it was like solving a great big puzzle.
“You know, this is what’s so great about chemical engineering. It’s got such a broad range of possibilities,” he went on. “It’s like, I can go anywhere with this. I can go into plastics, into medicine, into petrochemicals, into manufacturing, anything. And all these fields have crucial implications for both the environment and the economy, so you can imagine how much—uh, sorry. I, um—was I boring you? I’m sorry.” Flushing, he cleared his throat and pushed his glasses up self-consciously.
“You weren’t,” I answered softly. It was true. He’d looked so animated and passionate when he spoke about his interests. There was an energy that lit up his face and made the air around him crackle, and for a moment he made me feel as if I, the science dunce, could be right there with him in those laboratories and manufacturing plants, helping build a better world. No wonder he seemed so distracted sometimes. I mean, why live solely in the outside world and end up defeated by all the problems you see, when you can enter your head, pick your tools from among your dreams and visions, and come back out and use these to reshape the world?
It was right about then that the thought that had been jumping up and down, trying to get my attention, lunged onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and screamed.
“You get it.” I spoke the thought out loud, gazing at him with wonder and a rising tide of happiness. “You know what it’s like to zone out, to live inside your head, you—it’s what you do, and—” I trailed off in frustration when my thoughts resisted attempts at coherence. Why was it that, when something was really important, I couldn’t seem to string words together to make sense?
I became aware that he was watching me with interest. “What about you?” he asked curiously. “What made you want to be a writer?”
Suddenly, I was the one cringing with embarrassment, especially when I realized that, compared to his dream, mine seemed so, well, so prosaic and shallow, selfish even. So I fed him the standard line: I really didn’t expect to be a writer, but hey, here I was. I might not be very good at it, but I do intend to graduate because it’s too late for me to shift majors again and college tuition doesn’t grow on trees, y’know.
He smirked. “You mean you didn’t dream of becoming a model?”
“Shit, are you kidding?” I said with a laugh. “When I was a kid I dreamed of becoming a princess and having wonderful adventures. Then I dreamed of becoming a reporter for National Geographic and having wonderful adventures. Then I dreamed of becoming a world-famous dancer and have wonderful adventures while touring Europe. In none of these dreams was I standing around in uncomfortable poses and smiling at a camera. Although, modeling is definitely an adventure,” I added. “Just not always wonderful.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” he said dryly. “But you still haven’t answered my question, Ivy. Why a writer?”
I frowned. “I just told you, didn’t I?”
“No, not quite. What you told me sounded more like a disclaimer. Something like, ‘this is all just an accident of fate, and I had nothing to do with it.’ As a reason to do anything, a disclaimer like that just doesn’t carry enough force. So what’s the real reason?”
Jesus, not very blunt, are we? I stared at him, this lanky, messy-haired boy with eyes that looked far too old for his age, and thought it unfair that this kid could be more perceptive than many people older than him. Then I tore my gaze away from his before he punctured any more of my defenses, and my eyes fell upon my notepad, with its lines of chicken-scratches scribbled in black ink. “Because stories kept me sane,” I heard myself say, and realized that I really couldn’t lie to him. With trepidation, I raised my head to gauge his reaction, and when his calm gaze met mine, I knew I was safe with him.
“When I was around six, I found a box of old books in my grandparents’ house,” I began. “It’d been crammed into a closet with the rest of my grandparents’ junk. There were paperback novels, hardbound books, textbooks, coffee-table books—every genre was represented. There was even a sex manual, complete with detailed illustrations.” Miguel actually blushed at this, to my surprised amusement. “One of those books was an ancient, leather-bound collection of nursery rhymes and fairytales, filled with woodcuts and drawings. I took this book home with me, and whenever my parents had one of their shouting matches, I’d go outside and sit under a tree and read out loud from the book and look at the drawings. When my dad ran out on us and my mom went off to the States and left me behind, this book kept me company. So did the other books, when I grew old enough for them. Even the sex manual,” I added, causing Migs to blush again. “Those books were my friends and teachers, and I promised myself I’d return the favor some day. I’d be a writer too and write books that would help some other person the way those books had helped me. So there. That’s the real reason.” I fumbled for a cigarette to ward off the awkwardness that was bound to result from all this outpouring of the soul. I was still kicking myself for even mentioning the sex manual.
He nodded. “I see.”
“You think I sound totally nutty, don’t you?”
“Nope,” he said solemnly. “I think that’s a damned good reason to be a writer.”
I blinked, taken aback by Miguel cussing, then his words registered and my insides turned into goo. “By the way, about what you said,” he went on reflectively. “You know, about living inside your head…I don’t think it’s precisely the same for you as it is for me,” he stated with what I thought was unnecessary conscientiousness, before he got up to take my mug and the empty Coke can back into the kitchen.
I considered launching into an offended rant—what? you don’t think I can have something in common with a child prodigy? is that it? huh?—but the chance to do so had come and gone. I picked up my notepad, feeling deflated and a little hurt, and when he came back and sat down, I slumped further into my chair and attempted to hide behind the thin stream of cigarette smoke. But instead of burying himself in his book again, he just stared pensively into the distance. “It’s funny,” he mused. “I think I’ve been ‘zoning out’ all my life, one way or another. I just hadn’t thought of it the way you do.” He pushed his glasses up and looked at me, his brewed-coffee eyes warm and completely unguarded. “It’s kind of nice to be able to do it in peace,” he said with small smile.
[/He gets it. I can trust him. He understands.
The next second, I was on my feet and crossing over to him, forcing his head to try to swivel 180 degrees in order to keep me in sight. With one hand I held my cigarette away while the other slid down his shoulder and across his chest in a one-armed hug from behind. Propping my chin on his other shoulder, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath—God, he smells good—and smiled blissfully. “Thanks, Migsie,” I whispered.
He’d gone rigid with shock at first but gradually relaxed. One of his hands came up to cover mine while the other curved around my arm, trapping it in place. “For what?”
“I don’t know. For being you, I guess.”
“You’re welcome. When it comes to being me, I’m the resident genius,” he quipped, then he leaned into me and tilted his head back until it rested against my shoulder. His responsiveness both surprised and thrilled me, and when I peeked at him for a moment, I found that he’d closed his eyes, too. “Ivy?”
“Can I—um, when you’re finished, will you—?”
“Yes,” I replied without hesitation. “But only if you promise to tell me exactly what you think. Be brutally honest, okay?”
“I think I can manage that,” he drawled.
For that bit of cheek, I pulled away and ruffled his hair, giggling when he growled and jerked away. “One more thing,” I added as I returned to my seat. “You have to tell me how your own research is doing. Using small, easy-to-understand words. Deal?”
His grin flashed. “Deal.”
From then on, it was easy for me to sink into my writing even with Miguel there. I didn’t have to worry that he’d be bored, or that he’d find the silent, distracted, grouchy me too unpleasant to be around, or that he’d make fun of my writing and tell me to stick to modeling. If he happened to surface before I did, he’d make me a cup of coffee and put out my forgotten cigarettes despite my orders for him not to touch them. If I surfaced first, I’d fetch him a Coke and make instant noodles for us. Somehow we found a groove that fit us, and it got to the point where I found myself feeling dispirited and vaguely frantic whenever he had to leave for his afternoon class. It’s the same for us now. I know he can get caught up in his work, and there’d be weeks when he’d be functioning on autopilot, reduced to faraway looks and monosyllabic responses, and I know other girls would probably give him ten kinds of hell for not being attentive, but you see…I get it, too. I know what it’s like for him, just as he knows what it’s like for me. I get caught up in my work as well, and I still try to stick to a regular writing period. Whenever that happens, I know there’ll always be a cup of coffee waiting for me beside my laptop.
He probably won’t mention this. Or if he does he’ll do it casually. It’s just part of the dynamics of our relationship to him. But those Wednesdays were a kind of miracle to me, my own private acknowledgment of the bond we shared. And before you start rolling your eyes behind that notebook of yours: Yes, friendship was what I had in mind back then. I valued our friendship beyond comprehension, and I was willing to wait until every extraneous thing between us died a natural death, leaving only a pure, platonic friendship.
That’s why I’d decided that the best way to deal with his crush on me was to ignore it until it went away on its own. Well…pfft, okay, that’s not entirely true. A teensy little of me was flattered to death that he liked me. Okay, okay, maybe it wasn’t just a teensy little part. I mean, come on, the guy was well-bred, good-looking, extremely intelligent and, except for occasional moments when I had to wonder what the hell went on inside that powerhouse brain of his, adorably sweet. And he happened to have a crush on me. What girl with a still-beating heart inside her ribcage wouldn’t be flattered? So…yes, much as I hate to admit it, part of it was sheer ego trip. But—and this is a very big but, mind you—just because I got a fluttery feeling in my stomach every time he so much as looked at me, just because the slightest physical contact between us made my thoughts go rocketing off into space, and just because I seemed to be inexplicably preoccupied with the subject of kissing lately—none of these meant that I, personally, was affected by his attraction to me. His crush was a purely one-sided affair; it’s just that I liked him too much to break his heart by turning him down directly.
Hellooo, stupid period!
No, no, I swear, I really was convinced that it was just an infatuation on Miguel’s part. And I knew all about infatuations. Not to be conceited or anything, but I’ve been the object of infatuations for as long as I can remember, and one thing I’ve observed was that infatuations are decidedly short-lived. The longest I knew of lasted…mm, a little over a year before the guy declared I was too weird for him and moved on, presumably to somebody more mentally stable. Or possibly a rock. And that’s the other thing about infatuations: they rarely stand up to the test of familiarity. Those guys who crushed on me back in high school didn’t really know me. What they had was an idealized version of me: Ivy the Shirley Temple Wannabe, who was always vivacious, wholesome, dainty and cute. Definitely not Ivy the Cornball, who loves off-color jokes. Or Ivy, She Who Shakes Her Booty at the Drop of a Hat. Or Ivy, the Queen of Improvs, who makes up little stories to explain the cigarette lighter in her school bag. When those guys saw anything that didn’t fit their tinsel version of me—well, some of them can be unforgiving. And in case I still needed a reminder of the idiocy of putting your faith in fleeting things, there was always Jeff and his fabulous idea for a Valentine’s Day date.
You can bet I didn’t want that to happen with Migs. I might not return his feelings, but I didn’t want to lose his friendship either. Since turning him down directly would jeopardize that friendship, I had to find another way to let him down. So I decided to just act naturally, which to my delight turned out to be easier than I’d thought. Around him, I was plain old Ivy, warts and all, and I had no doubt that in time he’d be purged of his romanticized image of me and he’d see the wisdom in just being friends. Yes, indeed, I thought, this was the way to go, because when you got down to the basics of it, no matter how smart he was or how mature he acted, Miguel was still just a thirteen-year-old boy.
Me and a thirteen-year-old kid. What a screw-up. The age gap between us loomed like the Great Wall of China; if you looked the other away you could pretend it wasn’t there, but you always ended up crashing into it no matter which direction you went. At thirteen, he was just beginning to discover things like hormones and puberty and all that growing-up stuff no book could ever teach him. In fact, I was willing to bet I was his first crush. All the signs were there: his awkwardness, the panic and uncertainty that sometimes flickered in his eyes, his tendency to freeze up for a second or two whenever I touched him. The responsibility weighed heavily on me. As his friend and the object of his first infatuation, I’d have to steer him through some murky waters, and even though he’d reacted badly to my offer to be a big sister to him—a misjudgment on my part, of course he’d be hurt by it—well, whether he liked it or not, a big sister was exactly what I was supposed to be.
But sometimes it was so easy to forget about that damned age gap. There were moments when he and I seemed to connect on a level that was…well, it wasn’t just friendship or a benign big sister-kid brother relationship. It was so easy to lose my head, and that scared the shit out of me, so much that my mind saw fit to suppress the thought of it—the shame of it—and the result was a stupid period that lasted for months.
Anyway, suffice it to say that those months before the sem. break, I wasn’t doing much thinking. It was too uncomfortable to ask myself what was going on between us or to think about how my actions were affecting Migs. I coasted along, content to explore this great new friendship, enjoying his company, and brushing aside hints that things weren’t as simple and convenient as I’d imagined they were.
I got my first wake-up call just before the semester ended. It was a hectic time for all of us. I got to see less and less of Migs, and the few times I did see him, he was too busy studying for his finals to stay for more than just an exchange of “hi’s” and “you take care’s”. I myself had a hundred papers due, and my adviser had taken to stalking me in the corridors of the Faculty Center, demanding that I present him with at least half a thesis. I knew he was serious this time; my puppy-dog eyes didn’t work anymore.
Our own apartment had turned into a hotbed of tension. Some time ago, we pooled our money and bought a secondhand computer, and now spats broke out over whose turn it was to use it. These were resolved only after we’d discussed the underlying issues, such as which one of us had the most urgent deadline, which one had the longest paper, and which one had the typing skills of a hardboiled egg. (Here’s a hint: it’s Sharm.)
“So you’re going home, right?” I asked Erwin one night. We were hanging out on the balcony taking a breather while Sharm tap-tap-tapped away on the computer.
Erwin lit a cigarette and shrugged. “Don’t have a choice. Nanay called me up yesterday, and she sounded strange, like she was trying not to weep. Or scream is more like it. It seems the pater familias has been getting on her nerves again.” He said this offhandedly, but I knew he was at least a little worried about his mom. His dad could be a mean SOB, especially when he’d had too much to drink. “Why are you asking anyway? We’ve always gone home during breaks. Me, I’m looking forward to your Lola’s home-cooked meals, especially her kare-kare,” he added, licking his chops. “Call me when it’s kare-kare for dinner, okay? I’ll spend the night over at your place.”
“Sure. Okay. You’re right, it was a dumb question. Of course we’re going home.”
He slanted me a look. “Don’t jump around for joy or anything.”
“I mean, you don’t sound like you’re eager to go home. Don’t you miss your grandparents?” There was a pause as he gave me a measured stare through the blue-gray smoke. “He won’t be there, Ives. He’s somewhere here in Manila, remember? What’s he doing here anyway? Besides drugs, I mean.”
He’s talking about Tito Julio. I took a drag on my own cigarette, then stared at the red, glowing tip. “Not drugs. At least, I hope not. Lola said he’d gotten a job in some construction outfit. I hope he’ll last longer than a week this time, but something tells me I shouldn’t hold my breath.”
“Wise of you,” he agreed. We listened to Sharm’s cursing as her notes fell off the clipboard and onto the floor. “Maybe one of us should have volunteered to be her typist,” he said, jerking a thumb in her direction. “At this rate, we’ll be waiting in line for our senior citizen cards before she’s done with that.”
“Don’t look at me. She keeps changing her mind about what to write. That’s what takes her so long. She gets as far as two sentences, then she goes back and deletes everything. I think she’s got the capslock button and the backspace button mixed up.”
Erwin snorted with laughter just as Sharm turned around, looking irate. “Will you two stop talking about me? I can hear you, you know.”
We subsided into a chastened silence, then from out of the blue, Erwin said: “Miguel has a computer, hasn’t he?”
“Yeah,” I said cautiously.
“Well?” he demanded, as if I was being especially slow. “Go over there and ask if you could use it for a while. He won’t say no to you.”
I felt my cheeks grow warm, and frowned in annoyance. “He’s probably using it himself. Besides, it’s in his room. I’m not about to go in there.”
His eyebrows lifted. “And since when have you started worrying about propriety? It’s not like you’re going to seduce him or—you’re not, right? Tell me you won’t terrorize the poor boy like that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I snapped, my blush deepening as I tried to ignore the tiny stab of guilt. “Going into his room would mean I’d be inside his house, where his mother lives. I don’t think his Mama likes me much.” This was regrettably true. There was something about Mrs. Santillan that struck me as cold. Oh, she was civilized. Very civilized. Very into rules of behavior and doing “the proper thing”. The problem was, somewhere in the course of our—hah!—knowing each other, I must have broken one of her cardinal rules. Breaking the rules was a mortal sin that merited her eternal disapproval, and those times when we had to interact with each other, she made sure I felt it.
Erwin grimaced and said nothing. The silence crept back, broken only by the little clicks of my lighter and the faint tap-tap-tap of the computer keyboard. For some reason, I found myself growing apprehensive. There was a distant, troubled look on his face that meant he was about to say something I probably didn’t want to hear.
I was right.
“Ives, what’s going on between you and Miguel?” he asked point-blank.
My body went hot then cold all over. “What do you mean? Is there supposed to be something going on?” I hedged, injecting a lightness I didn’t feel into my tone.
He gave me a flat look. “Come off it. You know what I mean. Ever since the school year started, you two have been practically joined at the hip—”
“That’s not true,” I countered a little too quickly. “We hang out together, that’s all. It’s not like I’m with him every minute of every day, 24/7. I go to work, I go out with you guys and with Von and Tania and the others. I do have a social life—”
“He likes you.” That shut me up, and he lifted his eyes heavenward when he saw my expression. “Duh, I think we’ve already covered this. The boy is seriously into you and sinking fast. Ate Jenny from downstairs has been asking us if Miguel is your boyfriend. She’s been asking Reese and Nay Loring, too. For fuck’s sake, even Giselle has been wondering if you two are an item, and you know she’s not exactly the sharpest curve on the map. The only reason I said that no, you weren’t, is because I know you, Ivy. Well, I like to think that I do.” He fixed me a narrow-eyed stare that made me think of solitary light bulbs dangling above a chair in small, enclosed rooms. “I’ll rephrase my earlier question: What kind of game are you playing with him?”
I was breathing fast and shallowly. I felt as if I’d been sideswiped. “I’m not playing any game! Jesus, Erwin, what kind of a question is that? And where the hell is all this coming from? Not three minutes ago, you were telling me to invade his room and take over his computer. You make all these cracks about him, and you tease him—you tease us mercilessly, and now you’re acting as if I’m abusing him or something!”
“Now there’s some food for thought for you,” he remarked snidely, then took a couple of puffs to calm down. “Listen, I just want to make some things clear. Do you like him?”
“No! I mean, yes! I mean—” I made a frustrated sound and looked away, trying to collect my thoughts. “Yes, I like him. I consider him a really good friend. Just a friend, Erwin. This whole thing is—he’s infatuated with me, that’s all. You know how these things go. They never last. He’ll get over it soon.”
“You think?” he muttered, then shook his head. “The way you two act around each other…you’re not doing him any favors, you know. If you were someone other than my best friend, I’d say you were toying with him. You’re leading him on, or you’re using him to feel good about yourself. He doesn’t deserve that. He’s thirteen, Ivy. Just a kid. I don’t care what his IQ is, at his age he can’t tell up from down, or left from right, or infatuation from true fucking love. I saw the look on his face when Von came to pick you up for your little models’ get-together. I’ll tell you this: If this thing between you goes on any longer, Miguel is going to end up badly hurt.”
I’d forgotten about my cigarette. A twinge of pain alerted me to the fact that my cigarette was now nothing more than a burned-out stump. Moving numbly, I flicked the butt into the ashtray, missed it completely, and fought down an urge to burst into tears. “I know all that,” I said in a strange, tight voice. “I’m not as stupid as you think I am.”
Erwin sighed, his expression softening. “I don’t think you’re stupid, Ives. It’s just that sometimes you act stupid. Listen, I know you mean well. Your methods may be twisted, but your intentions are good. And I know for a fact that Miguel is important to you. You’ve got to be straight with him, girl. Do the right thing.”
“There is no right thing. No wrong thing either. Only what works and what doesn’t,” I said automatically, fishing out another cigarette with shaking fingers.
“Right, Yoda, whatever you say.” He rolled his eyes, although I could see a hint of a grin. “Anyway, I’m saying you’ve got to let him down now, as soon as you can. I know it’s hard, but right now, a clean break is probably the best thing you can give him. It wouldn’t work anyway, you and him. You’d end up being his nanny or his therapist or, Lord help us, his sugar-mommy. And darling, I can’t see you as the maternal type,” he added with a flare of his usual humor.
I laughed, wincing inwardly at how forced it sounded. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. I—I’ll think about it. I’ll figure it out. How to turn him down, I mean. Thanks, Erwin.”
He hooked an arm around my shoulders and gave me a fond squeeze. “Whatever happens, brat, you know we’re here for you. And since I’m already foisting unwanted advice on you, you might want to steer clear of his mom. I have to agree; I don’t think she likes you much.”
The days passed in a kind of nervous, sleep-deprived fog. Soon studying for finals and racing against deadlines gave way to studying the academic calendar and racing off to the bus station to buy tickets and make reservations. The day before we were to leave, Sharm and I were again rushing about our apartment but on pleasanter business: we were busy making preparations for the little post-semester celebration at our place that night. Erwin was still laying the last of his academic requirements to rest, but the sense of blessed liberation was already palpable. As Sharm and I bustled in the kitchen, we danced and sang along with Sharm’s CD collection of music from the ‘70s. Reese was there, too, dancing and singing along with us. I’m proud to say that it was thanks to the three of us that Reese had gotten hooked on Abba, Queen, the Bee Gees, the Village People and the like, thereby contributing significantly to her development as a well-rounded person. What? You mean you haven’t noticed it yet? Erwin isn’t the only one in our trio who’s gay. We’re all gloriously, divinely gay, dahling. It’s the only way to live.
After a round of “Don’t Stop Me Now”, Reese threw herself onto the pile of throw pillows in our living room and tried to get her breath back. “I can’t believe you guys are really leaving. It’s going to be so quiet around here without you.”
I gave her a mock-glare. “I hope you’re not implying that we’re loud and unruly tenants. Besides, it’s just for a week and a half. We’ll back before you know it.”
“If you say so,” she said dubiously. “I’ll bet Kuya isn’t too happy with you leaving either. He’ll be climbing the walls until you come back.” She paused at the look on my face. “He does know you’re leaving tomorrow, right?”
“Um, I’ll tell him tonight during dinner.” I pasted on a reassuring expression to keep her from noticing my guilty flush. “You’re invited too, as a member of our moving crew.”
Reese brightened for a moment, then her face fell as a thought occurred to her. “We can’t. Mama’d pitch a fit. She doesn’t like it that we come over here so much. I’m only here now because she’s at work and Nay Loring promised not to snitch on me.”
I looked over at Sharm, who shrugged. It was news to her, too. “Why wouldn’t she let you come?” she asked. “Technically, you won’t even be leaving home.”
“She says it’s because you guys drink and smoke so much. You’re a bad example to dumb, impressionable kids like me. That’s a load of crock, but there’s no telling her. Ma’s always right.” There was a bitter note in her tone as she said this; there was more to this issue than just asking permission to have dinner in your backyard. “I’ll make sure Kuya comes tonight so you can tell him, Ate Ivy,” she assured me. “There’ll be no living with him if you just disappear without his knowing.”
True enough, there was no sign of Reese that night aside from a glum silhouette in their back door. No sign of Miguel either, and even when everybody had arrived and the party was in full swing, I found myself constantly glancing out the door, listening for the creak of the chain-link gate. Once, Jeff came over to hand me a bottle of beer and draw my attention back to the conversation, triggering memories of the way we used to be. This was tempered by the presence of his girlfriend, although my gossip radar was detecting a faint blipping somewhere in the arctic regions—trouble in paradise, maybe?
I’d just decided to corner Trey or Erwin and make them give me the dirt on the Golden Couple when Miguel knocked on our door. We cheered at the sight of him and I ran over to pull him in, but his unusually grave expression halted me. That, and the presence of a worried-looking Ate Jenny beside him. “Migs? What’s going on?” I said, confused.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said in a formal voice, his eyes giving nothing away. “Will you come with us for a moment? There’re some people outside who’d like to talk to you. All of you,” he added, looking past me at everyone in the room.
We trooped behind him and Ate Jenny, heading toward the gate. There was a small crowd of people on the street—Nay Loring, a wide-eyed Reese, a lady in a housecoat whom I vaguely recognized as one of the neighbors, a teenaged boy standing beside her, obviously her son. Mrs. Santillan, looking immaculate in a pantsuit despite it being well past ten in the evening—did she sleep in those clothes or what?—and wearing an expression of frozen displeasure. There were also three barangay tanods in their official-looking vests and caps, truncheons tucked prominently in holsters at their waists. Their van was parked nearby, its bright yellow paint turning a violent shade of peach in the glare of the street lamp. None of these people looked to be in a partying kind of mood.
My friends and I exchanged confused, troubled looks as the tanods explained the reason for their presence. It seemed the neighbor had spotted a suspicious-looking man hanging about the Santillan house, and had called up the barangay tanods to alert them to the presence of a possible burglar. She couldn’t see what the man had looked like; she described him as of average height, wearing a dark cap, a dark jacket, and dark jeans. The man had looked positively shifty. With a polite apology, the tanods asked all our guy-friends to show themselves to the lady, who verified that none of them was the man she’d seen. The tanods reassured the neighbor and the Santillans that they would keep an extra close watch on this street and be on the lookout for a man dressed in dark clothing. But just in case, Ma’am, check all the locks on your doors tonight, double-bar the gates, and make sure you have our number and the number of the nearest police station on speed dial.
It was all a bit surreal. From the corner of my eye, I saw Giselle crowd closer to Sharm, who patted her arm absently. I scanned the street, which had seemed so safe before but now sported sinister men in dark clothing behind every corner, and shivered as I imagined that man lurking nearby at this very moment, watching us, biding his time.
Without looking at me, Miguel moved his hand across the small space that separated us and brushed the back of it against mine in a reassuring touch, causing my heart to do a little flip. Then I discovered the reason why I’d been feeling as if I was being watched: the neighbor’s boy was staring at me in that flushed, stunned-bunny way I’ve long since gotten used to. At a time like this, that sort of behavior was just exasperating. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was aware of the direction of the boy’s attentions, because Migs stepped in front of me, blocking the boy’s view, a coldly annoyed look on his face.
Oh boy, I groaned, resisting the urge to slap a hand on my forehead. A surreptitious glance around informed me that aside from us, almost nobody had noticed Miguel’s possessive little gesture. Unfortunately, the one person who had noticed was his mother.
When the tanods left, everybody shuffled back inside, muttering among themselves. Miguel entered through our side of the gate, walking beside me in thoughtful silence. When we got to the gate in the fence, he hesitated. “If you want, I can check the locks on your doors tomorrow, to make sure they’re secure.”
I smiled. “Thanks, that’d be great. Oh, could you do it before lunch time? Our bus leaves at two, so we have to get to the station by 1:30.”
He went absolutely still. “You’re leaving?” he asked, his voice cracking a little.
“Yeah, we’re going back to our hometown for the sem. break.”
I nodded. He swallowed and turned aside, and for a moment he looked…lost. I hated that look on his face. It made my chest ache. “Oh, come on, enough of that,” I chided jokily in attempt to lighten the mood. “It’s only for a week and a half. You and Reese act like we’re moving to another country or something. We’ll be back in time to pick up our class cards, so until then, we’ll leave our little pad in your able care, okay?”
My cheery smile faltered when his gaze collided with mine, and I unconsciously pressed an arm across my abdomen to contain the answering flare of warmth spreading outward from my stomach. He didn’t look lost any more, oh definitely not. The intensity in his dark eyes took my breath away, and I had to struggle against a sudden wave of panic. Oh my God, you can’t, not yet, please not yet, I prayed desperately. I don’t want to have to turn you down yet, I don’t have the right words…I’m not yet ready to lose you!
He stepped closer to me. “Listen, Ivy, I—”
“Miguel, who are you still talking to out there? Come inside right now.”
I didn’t care if his Mama thought of me as something stuck to the bottom of her shoe; at that moment, I could have kissed the woman. Miguel shut his eyes, his jaw clenching as if he was literally biting back an oath. “In a minute, Ma,” he said in a level voice that he must have paid for in blood.
Mrs. Santillan’s gaze swept over me like an icy wind before returning to her son. “It is already late. You should be in bed, young man. Now come here before anything else—”
“I said, in a minute, Ma.” My eyes widened. I’d never heard him use that tone before. As if realizing his mistake, he turned toward his Mama and gave her a mollifying smile. “I’m going to see if I can find an extra padlock for this gate. Just give me five minutes.”
For a moment, I expected her to order him into the house, padlock or no padlock, but instead she turned around and walked back inside. He looked at me but the moment had been irreparably shattered, and was further ground into dust when Jeff called my name. The regret and disappointment I saw in Miguel’s eyes sent a pang through me, and without a thought to Jeff, I raised my hand and laid it gently on his cheek. “You are so…” I shook my head, dropped my hand, and said instead: “Goodnight, Migs.”
I woke up really, really late the next day, and was informed by Sharm that Miguel had already come by to check our locks and that I had approximately thirty minutes to pack before the taxi came to pick us up. Looking out from the center of the whirlwind I’d created out of airborne clothes and toiletries, I saw Erwin and Sharm enter the apartment and come to stand side by side in the doorway of our bedroom.
“Ives, I’m afraid we’ve got some bad news,” Erwin told me somberly. “You’re not getting on that taxi with us today.”
“What?” I looked bewilderedly at him, then at Sharm, who was trying without success to hide her smile. “What are you talking about?”
They moved aside to reveal the two figures who’d followed them inside the apartment. As I flew out of the room and into my grandparents’ arms, I heard Erwin say to Sharm, in a tragic voice: “One home-cooked kare-kare dinner, shot to hell. Fuck.”