FRIDAY, April 5, 2002
IT was hot this morning when I went to the Masbate pier with my older cousin John. School was out and the dry season had begun. The air was still, making it feel hotter yet—the usual breeze that comes from the sea seemed to have gotten lost somewhere. We were there to meet his college friend who was visiting our island for the first time. They hadn’t seen each other since his friend moved to the States right after they graduated from college. That was five years ago.
John pointed him out to me when he came down the gangplank off the ferry from Lucena. Although he did not look too unlike the other passengers, there was something uncommon about him. Maybe it was the high backpack and small bamboo suitcase he carried that made him look out of the ordinary. Or maybe it was because his shirt and pants weren’t neatly ironed like the others. His hair was mussed up but he didn’t seem to care. He didn’t exactly look like a bum—he even made it look like wrinkled clothes were what everybody else should have been wearing if they wanted to be in style. He looked like an exciting kind of guy who didn’t care what others thought of him—the kind who might just be the one I needed to make my life less humdrum.
He and my cousin exchanged greetings and talked for a while before he acknowledged my presence and introduced himself. “My name is Tim, it was really Timoteo before I went to Los Angeles.” He laughed as if he thought one had to go to Los Angeles to get an American nickname.
“I’m Minda, John’s cousin. My family and I live next door to him.”
“Oh, good. Then we’ll see a lot of each other.” After that, he promptly ignored me again and resumed his conversation with John.
John drove us home in his car with Tim in the front seat. I was in the back with Tim’s luggage. They had so many things to tell each other to get fully updated with what had happened since they last saw each other. I wanted to tell them there’d be enough time later for all that. I felt left out.
My cousin John had always been the most adventurous member of our clan. He went to college in Manila and did pretty well as far as grades were concerned. He surprised me when he returned to Masbate to stay and take care of his family’s cattle ranch. He did that after devoting four years of his life to earn a college degree. I couldn’t understand that.
I wish I can be like John but I can’t. Instead of Manila, I have chosen to go to Los Bańos for college when the school year opens. Not only is it closer, it is also less chaotic.
John has always been my favorite cousin because he is the only one in my family who can understand young people like me. I was born eight years after my older brother, who in turn was two years younger than John. That makes me a lot younger than all my siblings and cousins. It is sometimes an advantage in that they pamper me and let me get away with things they normally wouldn’t have. At the same time, it makes me feel lonely because I have very few people I can share my feelings with. Often, I’m afraid they will think the things that bother me are silly so I keep them to myself except when I can talk to John.
SATURDAY, April 6, 2002
I SAW Tim again this morning when I stepped out the front door. He was in the yard next door, looking lost and alone. He came over when he saw me.
“Oh, John will be back soon. He must have left early to check on the ranch.”
“What about you? Why aren’t you in school?”
“Don’t you know it’s summer break?”
“Gosh, I forgot. Summer in America starts in June.”
“Besides, it’s Saturday today.”
He looked at me sheepishly. “Oh, my God. I can’t even keep track of what day of the week it is anymore. I’m getting old.”
I didn’t mean to embarrass him so I was glad he took it lightly. I said, “It’s okay. It’s still Friday in America.” I was beginning to appreciate that the “useless” information I had learned in school wasn’t so useless after all.
He gazed at me as if trying to figure out what kind of person I was. I suddenly felt shy—it was a strange and unfamiliar feeling for I wasn’t a shy person. I didn’t know why I felt that way.
“Anyway, what school do you go to?”
“I just finished high school—I went to Sacred Heart College in Lucena.”
“That’s far from here. Do you have relatives there?”
“No, I stayed in a boarding house. I’m quite independent and can take care of myself.”
“You look so young…”
“Not really, I’m sixteen—I’ll be seventeen this year. And I’m going to college in June. Away from home. At University of the Philippines in Los Bańos.”
“That doesn’t necessarily make you an old woman.”
“But I’m not like the other sixteen-year-olds you may have met before.”
“I can take care of myself.”
He smiled but said nothing. I couldn’t tell if I impressed him or if he didn’t understand what I said. I wanted to say more but was unable to find words that would have explained further what I meant.
He was silent for a while before he spoke again. “How far is the public market from here?”
“Not too far, about a kilometer.”
“Do they sell cooked food there—do they have places where one can sit down to eat?”
“Yes, lots of them.”
“Can you come with me?”
“To eat? John won’t like it if he finds out you went somewhere to eat. They’re probably preparing something special for lunch.”
“Come on. Be a friend. This is my only chance to go and eat in a public market.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Because my friends always steer me away from places they think I shouldn’t see.”
I knew I was betraying a cousin, my favorite cousin at that, but there was something in his request that thrilled me. My father had always forbidden me to eat in the public market. I had gone there to eat with my friends a few times before, all without my father’s knowledge. I didn’t understand all the warning about sanitation—didn’t cooking kill any germs that may still be in the food?
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll take you there.”
“Go ask your mom for permission.”
“I don’t have to—we’re not going far. But I’ll have to tell our help where I’m going in case she asks.”
“Don’t you feel scared going with a stranger?”
“You’re not a stranger. Besides, you’ll never get off this island alive if something happens to me.”-
He laughed loud. I knew he was beginning to understand right then that I was not the typical sixteen-year-old he assumed I was.
We walked to the public market. The sun was hot but I didn’t mind. I wanted people to see me walking and wonder who the man with me was. I didn’t see anyone I knew but they could have been peeking from their windows, hiding from my sight.
He looked around the market, curious about everything. Vendors were cajoling us to come to their place—each claimed to have the best food in the market. I wanted very much to have known the area better so I could steer him to the right place. It maddened me that I didn’t.
“Whatever you’re thinking, don’t eat too much,” I told him when he started looking at the food on display.
“John will find out I went with you here and he’ll get mad. When we get back I want you to eat a lot of whatever they serve you.”
“Do you always tell people what to do?”
“No, but I know it will be a problem for me if you don’t eat lunch in my cousin’s house. You don’t want me to get in trouble, do you?”
He patted me on the shoulder and said, “I promise you won’t.”
So we each had an ukoy although I could tell that he wanted very much to try the kare-kare that looked so tempting. I felt sorry that I was always sensible—why couldn’t I have been more adventurous and off-beat like he was? All my life I had deferred to my elders, tried hard to please them. They praised me for being mature and responsible for my age. They didn’t know that I’d rather do things because they’re what I want to do, not because they’re what they expect from me.
SUNDAY, April 7, 2002
TODAY was a very busy day for everyone. John was having a party in his house in honor of Tim and my family was helping prepare the food. I was given the task of cutting the vegetables to pieces of the right size. There was so much to cut I was afraid it would take me the whole day.
I wanted to wear the dress my mother had given me for my graduation. It had been pressed and ready for me to put on. It was a simple but elegant off-white, sleeveless dress. My friends had gushed about how I looked in that dress. They said I looked like I was at least twenty years old.
I finished my assigned chore as fast as I could because I needed to go to the beauty parlor to have my hair done. I wanted so much to look nice for that evening. It felt like graduation day and a lot more.
I went early to Tim’s party—I wanted to have a quiet talk with him before everybody else arrived. I know people will say I’m being irrational but I like him very much. I like him because he is so modest—he never tells anyone he is from America. He isn’t like the boys in school who are too immature for my taste. I know he is right for me even though I have only known him for a few days. People don’t understand that a girl just knows.
We got to chat for a long time before the guests arrived. He told me about life in the U.S.—he said Filipinos who are used to getting pampered would have a hard time adjusting to life there.
“After working all day at the office, we still have to cook and clean up when we get home,” was one of the things he said.
“I’m glad I can take care of myself… I won’t have a hard time if I ever go there.”
He smiled with a smile that seemed to say, You may think so but there’s more to adjusting to a new life than that. Maybe he wasn’t convinced that I was an independent woman who can live alone.
I felt bold and asked him directly, “Do you have a girl friend?”
“Why not? Can’t you find anyone you like?” I hoped he didn’t notice the lilt in my voice that was there because his answer had pleased me.
“I’m sure there are lots of nice women around, it’s just that I have been busy the last few years trying to get my career going. You try harder when you’re in a new country.”
“Would you prefer a Filipina or an American girl friend?” I wanted more details.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “But I know I want someone like you—pretty, happy, and not afraid to speak out. Too bad you’re too young.”
He was probably teasing me but I knew for certain I wasn’t too young.
“I’m not too young,” was all I could say, however. I wanted to tell him about John and Jacqueline Kennedy, how she was much younger than he was, but couldn’t do it. I didn’t understand why I could never say all I wanted to say when he was around. I let it go at that.
The food at the party was good and everyone was pleased. I felt proud when I told Tim I helped in its preparation. I haven’t done much cooking but I feel confident I can do a good job if I have to—I had watched my mother lots of times and remember most of the recipes.
I was thrilled when Tim asked me for the first dance. He said he didn’t care too much for dancing and would do it only with someone like me. I thought it probably wasn’t true so I asked why. He said, “Because I’m not a very good dancer and I know you won’t complain.” At least, he knows I’m not the complaining type.
The night would have been perfect if that Christina hadn’t showed up. She always comes late for anything and makes a grand entrance so she can be noticed by everyone. She tells everyone she is twenty-six but I think she’s really twenty-eight. I don’t like her because she thinks she is so beautiful that men find her irresistible. I know she uses too much makeup and spends too much money on clothes. She is lucky her father is rich.
She began to monopolize Tim with her conversation. She couldn’t tell that Tim was simply being polite to her. I hardly think he will fall for her because she is too old for him. Anyway, she ruined the evening for me. I don’t just dislike her, I really hate her.
TUESDAY, April 9, 2002
I’VE hardly seen Tim the last two days—John has been showing him around the island and I have been busy helping my mother arrange to ship live cattle to Manila. That was my family’s business, making sure cattle from the ranchers in Masbate get to their buyers in Manila in good shape. I saw Tim only in the evenings when everybody got home but never got to talk to him. I know it’s crazy but I miss him so much.
WEDNESDAY, April 10, 2002
WHEN my mother and I got home this evening, I found a package waiting for me. It was from Tim. I took the package to my room and found a book of poems and his sunglasses inside. With them was a note from him:
I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to see you today. I was hoping I could speak with you before I went away but they told me you wouldn’t be home till later. I’m leaving early this evening on the M/V Maria Carmela to go to Lucena and on to Manila. I wasn’t planning on leaving until Saturday but your friend Christina begged me to escort her to Manila. She said the trip always terrified her and I couldn’t refuse.
You have been my best friend on this island and I’ll never forget you. I’m giving you my sunglasses and this book of poems by Louise Glück that I have been reading during this trip. I hope you’ll like them, but more than that I hope they will remind you of a friend. You have been very nice to me and I wish to thank you for all the nice times I’ve spent with you.
I wish you all the success you deserve as you go on to college. I’m sure you’ll make your parents proud.
He was wrong. Christina wasn’t my friend. She was a shameless witch who would do all kinds of tricks to get men to like her. I couldn’t help but cry as I ran to the street to catch a tricycle to the pier.
The ferry had already left when I got there. The ship was still visible and I could see its lights in the distance as it sailed away. I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. Tomorrow, I would have been home the whole day because my mother had finished her work for the week. And I already knew how to tell Tim about John and Jacqueline Kennedy without making it look too obvious that we could be a pair. I also wanted to give him a picture of me when I graduated from high school and tell him to remember to write me in Los Bańos. He won’t even know how to get in touch with me after all this. I only needed one more day and that Christina had to ruin everything.
THURSDAY, April 11, 2002
I WOKE up late because I hardly slept last night. Perhaps, Tim will find a way to write me. Maybe John can tell him how to get in touch with me. But inside me is a terrible feeling that he will never write and that I will never see him again.
I don’t want to mope and feel sorry for myself but I really feel like crying again. Nevertheless, I’ll try to make this day a normal day for myself and not let anyone know. They’ll never understand.
I will read the book he gave me—maybe, there’s a message in the poems he wants me to read. I will wear his sunglasses when I go out later. But first, I will have a good breakfast and listen to the news on the radio. I need to know what’s going on out there for I haven’t been outside my own little world for almost a week. Ω
This story has previously appeared in print.