[ KATRINA’S POV ]
"You really did it, you brat!"
The crowd erupted in cheers while Chloe sat confidently in the stage prepared for her. Tumabi si Jazer sa kanya at nagsimula na silang asarin ng mga tao.
Nakapagtapos na si Chloe at nakuha na niya ang Master's degree niya sa NUS. Sabi niya, mags-stay na raw siya for good sa Pilipinas dahil magiging CIO na rin siya sa isang subsidiary company nila rito.
Habang nagce-celebrate sila ay hindi rin naiwasan na itanong kung kailan nila balak mag-settle down ni Jazer. Magt-twenty six pa lang naman siya pero excited masyado ang mga tao sa paligid nila.
"Naku, mukhang mauunahan pa kayo nina Queenie at Iñigo, ah!" sigaw ni Kuya Larry.
Nagsimula na naman silang magsigawan at syempre, napunta sa dalawa ang attention.
"Not yet!" sigaw ni Queenie. "Saka na kapag nagka-boyfriend na 'yong isa r'yan!"
She and Chloe snickered while Jazer and Iñigo both looked at my direction. Ugh, these couples really like to make my life miserable.
"Ha-ha, okay then, huwag na kayong magpakasal," I replied while raising my drink.
"Don't worry, ako na ang maghahanap for you!"
Nang bumalik na ulit kina Chloe ang spotlight ay saglit akong napangiti. My life isn't going to the path I wanted to take but I'm thankful that I met them. Nang nag-decide ako na lumuwas sa Manila noong college, akala ko magiging okay ang lahat. Sinubukan kong lumapit sa mga sikat na personality sa campus dahil gusto ko ring maranasan 'yon. I heard a lot about Iñigo and Queenie so I got curious about them. Nang makita ko siya for the first time, na-attract agad ako. He was close to my ideal type, however, he already had a girlfriend.
Napalapit din ako kay Chloe dahil sa isang subject. Actually, nagulat nga ako dahil sabi nila, masama raw ang ugali niya, pero nang nakausap ko siya ay na-realize ko na straightforward lang talaga siya. She doesn't like pretenses and I think that's one of her charms. But I didn't expect na magkakilala pala sila ni Jazer.
I admit, hindi ko in-expect na makita sa Manila si Jazer. Siya pa lang ang inaasahan ng pamilya niya noon kaya akala ko ay hindi siya lalayo sa kanya, lalo na at kailangan siya ng mga kapatid niya. It turned out he got a job here as his mother's substitute.
Napatingin naman ako bigla sa kanan ko dahil may tumabi sa akin. His smug face was irritating me so I glared at him in return. Naaalala ko ang mukha niya at isa siya sa mga workmate nina Iñigo at Jazer.
"What do you want?"
He started inching closer to me and was about to put his arms around my shoulder when a guy suddenly seized that jerk's shoulders. Nagulat kami sa ginawa niya kaya sabay kaming napatingin sa kanya.
"What the hell? Get your—"
"Uncomfortable, isn't it?" he asked, a mocking smile pasted on his face. "Get lost, dude, she's my friend."
Mukhang na-intimidate ang lalaking 'yon kaya agad siyang umalis at umupo naman 'yong gumawa no'n sa kanya sa tabi ko.
"Well, technically, you are her friend," he muttered.
"Why did you do that?" tanong ko sa kanya.
Naglagay naman siya ng vodka sa baso niya. "Your friend asked me to save you," sabay turo niya sa side ni Chloe. "Her man said that guy is a notorious flirt."
"Obviously," bulong ko naman sa sarili ko.
I glanced at his direction and I remembered his face from before. He was the guy who was with Chloe when she and her Dad went home.
"Ah. You're the old guy Chloe was talking about."
Mukhang na-offend siya sa sinabi ko dahil biglang niya akong sinamaan ng tingin. Dahil ba tinawag ko siyang old guy? Eh, 'yon ang description lagi ni Chloe sa kanya kapag nagkukwento siya.
"Did she really introduce me as old guy?” he asked in disbelief.
Tumango naman ako. “Yeah. So we thought you’re around 40-50 years old.”
“That woman,” bulong niya sabay tingin sa direksyon ni Chloe.
Tumingin ulit ako sa kanya at mukha ngang mas bata siya kaysa sa inakala naming edad niya. When I saw him the first time in the airport, akala ko ibang tao ‘yong tinutukoy ni Chloe since mukha lang siyang ka-age namin. Bakit nga ba old guy ang tawag niya sa kanya?
I looked at Chloe’s direction but my eyes drifted toward Jazer. He mouthed ‘okay ka lang?’ and I just nodded. Mukhang worried nga siya dahil doon sa lalaking umaligid sa akin kanina.
“You know him?” biglang tanong ng lalaking katabi ko. What was his name again? Did he introduce himself a while ago?
“Yeah. He’s my best friend.”
“Why? Jealous?” I teased.
Nang makita ko siya dati, hindi ako mapalagay dahil baka agawin niya si Chloe kay Jazer, lalo na at hindi sila madalas magkita. On the other hand, this guy was always by her side when she was still in Singapore. Isa pa, iba rin ang tingin niya kay Chloe. I could sense some lingering attraction and affection.
“What? No. She’s just my little sister,” sabi naman niya.
“Really,” he stressed. “I just want to know and see how he treats her.”
“Don’t worry, he’s the right person for her.”
“How can you be sure?”
Hindi ko alam kung ayaw niya ba kay Jazer o nang-aasar lang siya. I glared at him as I poured more wine in my glass. Gano’n din ang ginawa niya sa baso niya.
“I know him since we were kids. He’s kind, respectful and hardworking. He’s the kind of guy that parents want for their daughters,” sabi ko habang nakatingin kay Jazer.
“Did your Mom and Dad like him for you before?”
I gave him a pensive smile. “I don’t know. I don’t have parents to ask.”
“Oh, I’m . . . I’m sorry . . . I didn’t . . .”
“I know. It’s okay,” sabay inom ko sa wine na hawak ko.
Matagal ko naman nang tanggap na hindi na ako babalikan ng parents ko. They already have their own families to take care of. I was thankful that my aunt took care of me when I was a child but I also felt sorry because she didn’t have the chance to have her own family. Dahil busy siya sa pag-aalaga sa akin noon ay hindi na niya naasikaso ang sarili niyang buhay. Kaya ngayon, ako naman ang mag-aalaga sa kanya. I wanted to provide for her so she could live comfortably. I wanted to earn a lot of money so I had to work harder than everyone but it seemed like the guys I liked couldn’t understand that . . .
. . . except Jazer.
Well, technically, I didn’t like him. We grew up together and he was protective of me that was why when I decided to go to the city, he almost got angry. Alam ko rin na nagustuhan niya ako dati kaya naging mahirap para sa akin na kausapin ulit siya. I didn’t want to ruin our years of friendship because I treasured him so much. Kaya noong makilala niya si Chloe ay naging thankful ako pero unti-unti rin akong nainggit. Kahit hindi niya aminin ay alam kong may feelings na siya para kay Chloe at gano’n din si Chloe sa kanya. I was rooting for them but at the same time, I was sad because I traded my friendship with them to my greed.
Noong tinalikuran na ako ng mga taong sumuporta sa akin noong pasikat pa lang ako sa campus, doon ko na-realize na hindi sila ang mga totoong kaibigan ko. I also realized I almost ruined two relationships and that really threw me in the deep. That was why when Jazer, Chloe and Queenie became my friends despite hurting them, I promised to myself that I wouldn’t waste those second chances again.
“I was really rude. I’m sorry.”
Napatingin ulit ako sa kanya at mukhang masyado niyang dinamdam ang sinabi ko kanina kaya nginitian ko siya.
“And I said it was okay,” I replied. “I don’t really care about them now. Besides, I have someone who’s like a mother and father to me. And I’m pretty sure she’d also like Jazer for me.” I glanced at Chloe and Jazer’s direction and a smile escaped from my lips. “But we only have a platonic relationship. I’m also sure she would also see that right away. How about you?” sabay tingin ko sa kanya. “You liked her at first, right?”
Mukhang nagulat naman siya sa tanong ko kaya napainom siya bigla sa vodka na nasa baso niya.
“Fine. At first,” he confessed. “She was crying when I saw her the first time. But when she presented her project in front of the board members, I thought she wasn’t the same person. It was fascinating to see her headstrong side and I kinda wanted to protect her vulnerable side.” Napangiti naman siya habang nilalaro ang glass na hawak niya. “But I realized it wasn’t the kind of attraction I was hoping for. I just sincerely wanted to see her grow as a strong woman and to succeed in the path she has chosen. She was just a little sister, an annoying one, in my eyes.”
“I see,” bulong ko naman. “I guess we’re kind of the same.”
“Yeah. I could see that, too.” Bigla naman siyang humarap sa akin at inilahad ang kamay niya. “I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Shang Zuan,” he said with a smile on his face. “And please don’t call me old guy. I’ve had enough of that nickname. I can’t bear to have another person calling me that.”
Natawa naman ako sa sinabi niya. “Fine . . . Shang.” I reached for his hand. “Katrina Mendoza. It was nice talking to you.”
Pagkatapos no’n ay pareho kaming umalis dahil tinawag kami ng mga kakilala namin. I spent hours talking to different people and went outside to have some fresh air.
Malalim na ang gabi na kaya medyo malamig na sa labas. Napangiti naman ako nang makita ko ang buwan at mga bituin. Sa probinsya, sobrang liwanag nila at sariwa rin ang hangin. Nakaka-miss tuloy. Gusto ko munang bumalik ay magpalipas ng pagod.
Nagulat naman ako nang makita ko si Jazer sa tabi ko. He was also looking at the sky.
“Ha? Paano mo . . .”
“Isa ‘yan sa mga naging habit mo nang mapunta ka rito sa Manila.”
Napakunot naman ang noo ko. “Ang alin?”
“Kapag gusto mong umuwi, tumitingin ka lagi ka sa langit nang matagal.”
Nakatulala lang ako sa kanya matapos niyang sabihin ‘yon. Jazer was observant since we were young but I didn’t know he would notice even the tiniest habits of people around him.
“Kilalang-kilala mo talaga ako, ano?” sabay ngiti ko sa kanya.
Ngumiti naman siya pabalik. “Siyempre naman.”
“Nasaan pala si Chloe?” pag-iiba ko sa topic.
“Kausap ng Dad niya.”
Naalala ko naman bigla noong sinabi sa akin ni Jazer ang nangyari that time. Kinausap kasi siya bigla ng Dad ni Chloe at nakwento niya sa akin ang sinabi niya. Her father asked him if he likes her and his question caught him off-guard.
“Hindi ko pa po masasagot ‘yan sa ngayon,” he said.
“Why? Are you unsure of your feelings toward her?”
“Gusto kita o mahal kita. Hindi dapat gano’n kadaling sabihin at bitiwan ang mga salitang tulad nila. Dapat ay handa ka na sa lahat ng pwedeng mangyari oras na sinabi mo sila. Kaya hindi ko pa po masasabi ‘yan sa ngayon. Gano’n po ako pinalaki ng magulang ko.”
“I see. You’re a good kid. Then, will you answer me again once you’re ready?”
“Yes, Sir. Sorry po kung—”
“No need to be sorry. You’re right. People nowadays take those words for granted. It’s refreshing to see someone who knows the value and weight of them.”
I was really impressed when he told me that. Then I realized he was ready to risk it all when he confessed to me before. I was glad I turned him down or else his life would be ruined because of me.
“Anong oras ka aalis?” tanong niya kaya bumalik sa kasalukuyan ang isip ko.
“Hmm, ngayon na siguro.”
“11 PM na. Delikado. Mamayang umaga ka na lang bumiyahe.”
“Sa Bolinao ako pupunta. I want to see the sunrise by the beach so mas magandang umuwi na ako ngayon.”
Hinawakan ko naman ang magkabilang balikat niya at tinulak siya papunta sa pintuan. “Bumalik ka na sa loob, baka hinahanap ka na ng fiancée mo.”
Nang nasa loob na siya ay agad akong naglakad palabas. Magta-taxi na lang ako papunta sa sakayan ng bus. Mukhang maaabutan ko naman ang sunrise sa beach kung mabilis lang ang byahe.
Nasa gate na ako nang may mapansin ako sa gilid kaya napatigil ako.
“That woman. She said she’ll help me,” he muttered while typing something on his phone. Hindi ko na lang sana papansinin pero mukhang ang laki ng problema niya.
“What are you doing?” tanong ko at napatingin naman sa akin si Shang.
“Finding the nearest fine beach on my own because Chloe said she couldn’t help me anymore since she’s too busy blah blah. I’ll get back to her someday—oh.” Napahinto naman siya sa pagta-type. “You’re going home already?”
Ilang segundo kong pinag-isipan kung sasabihin ko ba na sa beach din ako pupunta pero hindi naman kami close at paniguradong magiging awkward lang.
“Not really but kind of,” sagot ko at napakunot ang noo niya.
“I see. I hope you just live around here since it’s already dangerous to travel alone at this hour.”
“Actually, it’s six to seven hours away from here.”
“Oh, I see—what?!”
Napaatras ako nang sumigaw siya. Anong problema nito?
“That’s way too far!”
“Well, I live in Pangasinan, that’s why.”
“Pang—wait . . .” sabay tingin niya sa phone niya. “Is that where Bolinao is? There are many beaches there, right?”
I heaved a sigh and decided to tell him. “Yeah. Actually, I’m going to a beach there. You can come with me at the bus station but please don’t sit beside—”
“No, come with me!” sabay lapit niya sa akin.
“W-wha-what are you—”
“I brought a car.”
“It’ll save you some time. Don’t worry, I won’t trouble or pester you during the travel. I just need someone to guide me if my navigation software app fails me. Is that alright with you?”
We were just staring at each other and I was still undecided that time but in the end, I agreed. It would benefit the both of us, after all.
And he did not bother me, just like what he just promised. We talked to each other when we had to or when both of us had questions but it didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.
We were just on time for the sunrise and it was a beautiful view. Pagkatapos no’n ay nag-rent ako ng room para matulog muna habang siya ay mukhang mag-e-enjoy sa pags-swimming. We did things on our own and I was thankful for that.
Nang hapon na ay pinanood ko naman ang sunset habang umiinom ng coffee at parang nawala ang pagod ko these past few days. After that, kailangan ko na ring bumalik sa Manila dahil may hindi pa ako natatapos na paperworks. I was about to say goodbye to him but I was surprised when he was there when I opened my door.
“Oh, hi. Uhm, I need to go back now since my flight would be tomorrow morning,” bungad niya.
“Actually, me, too. I still have unfinished work so . . .”
“Do you want to go back with me?”
“Is it okay with you?”
“Of course,” sabay ngiti niya.
Tahimik lang kami buong byahe at mukhang napagod din siya sa activities. Pagdating namin sa Manila ay nag-sorry siya dahil dumiretso kami sa condo niya. Kailangan niya raw kasing kunin ang mga gamit niya since ilang oras na lang ay flight na niya.
“I’m really sorry,” he said after getting his things. “Where do you live? I’ll get you there—”
“No need,” I said, cutting him off. “You can drop me off in the airport.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Medyo malapit na ro’n ang apartment ko.”
“Okay. Sorry again and thank you.”
Pagdating namin sa airport ay bumaba na ako pero napahinto ako nang makita ko si Chloe. Tinawag ko siya at tumakbo kami papunta sa isa’t isa.
“Babalik ka sa Singapore? Akala ko—”
“May aayusin lang ako sa company and kukunin ko rin ‘yong diploma ko,” sagot naman niya.
“Oh, okay. Akala ko matagal ka na naman do’n.”
“So . . . you were with the old guy,” bigla niyang sabi habang nakangiti nang nakakaloko kaya napaatras ako.
“You mean, Shang? And please stop smiling like that. You’re scary.”
Napalitan naman ang ngiti niya. It turned into a genuine smile. “Shang is a good man, even though he acts like a kid sometimes.”
“Oh, stop that,” I said. “You know my history with men.”
“I just have a feeling he’d be different.”
“Paano mo naman nasabi?”
“Because he’s like you. Both of you are too obsessed in working that you forget to rest and prioritize your own happiness. Maybe spending a few hours together would make you realize that.”
Pagkatapos niyang sabihin ‘yon ay naglakad na siya papasok sa airport pero napahinto siya at lumingon sa direksyon ko.
“I will cheer for the both of you! You two look good together!” sigaw niya at kinabahan ako dahil baka narinig ni Shang ‘yon.
Paglingon ko ay dala na niya ang mga gamit niya at mukhang hindi niya ‘yon narinig dahil busy siya sa pag-aayos ng mga ‘yon. Buti na lang.
Huminto siya sa harapan ko at ngumiti.
“Thank you again, Katrina. You were a life-saver,” he said.
“That’s an exaggeration.”
“Right,” he snickered. “When I get back here, maybe you could bring me to other beaches.”
Nagulat naman ako sa sinabi niya kaya hindi agad ako nakasagot. Hindi ko alam kung nagbibiro lang ba siya o seryoso siya sa sinabi niya.
“Just kidding,” he chuckled. “You don’t have to—”
“Sure,” I blurted and I realized what I just did. “I . . . I mean . . . uhm . . . I just—”
“I’m taking it back,” he suddenly said. “I’m not kidding. I hope you aren’t, too.”
Pagkatapos niyang sabihin ‘yon ay pumasok na rin siya sa airport habang naiwan naman akong nakatayo ro’n.
“See you next time, Katrina,” he said while waving at me and I waved back subconsciously. “Wait for me!” he yelled as he chuckled. “Definitely kidding!”
Pinanood ko lang sila ni Chloe hanggang sa hindi ko na sila makita.
Maybe Chloe was right. It was just a few hours but it felt like that was the most refresing and longest rest I had for a long time. Maybe being with someone who isn’t that demanding for time would be the best match for me.
“You, too,” I muttered. “See you next time.”
It’s been three days since we returned yet everything that happened that day still felt surreal. I was so dumbfounded that time that I couldn’t speak for a couple of minutes.
“Right in front of their families,” Katrina muttered while hugging Clark.
“Such bravery,” Shang added as he covered Czanelle’s eyes.
“What happened? What happened?” tanong ni Czanelle.
Nanghihina pa rin ang tuhod ko at nakaalalay si Jazer sa akin habang nakaharap kami sa kanila. Dad cleared his throat while Kuya Larry kept pursing his lips to hide his triumphant grin but failed in the end.
“Sir,” Jazer called while looking at Dad. Tumango lang sa kanya si Dad at lalo lang akong nanghina.
They were all looking at us and I wondered how Jazer could look unaffected despite what he just did, while I was just seconds from passing out.
“Okay ka lang ba, anak?” tanong ni Nanay Meling at napunta ang atensyon nilang lahat sa akin.
I drew a shaky breath. “May I collapse now?”
The atmosphere turned light and Kuya Larry started laughing. My surprise event got ruined but it was worth it. Now that they’re here, everything was worth it.
“Saka na kita hahalikan sa labi kapag kaya na kitang buhayin at panindigan.”
His words repeatedly echoed inside my head as I blankly stared at my room’s ceiling. Was that why he did that? Or he just acted on impulse?
“Damn it!” I cursed as I rolled on my bed but I halted when I heard a knock on my door.
Napabangon naman ako nang marinig ko ang boses ni Dad. Agad akong tumayo at pinagbuksan siya ng pinto.
“Why do you look tensed?” tanong niya kaya naubo ako.
His lips subtly curved upward. “I’ve already talked to him,” he said.
“W-what? What did you say to him?”
“What do you think?”
“Bumaba ka na. Kakain na.”
I could not really understand what’s going through his head. Hindi ko alam kung nang-aasar ba siya o seryoso, but teasing wasn’t his nature. Did he seriously talk to him?
Bumaba naman ako at tahimik lang akong kumain ng lunch pero na-realize ko rin na ito ang unang beses na kakain kami nang sabay-sabay. Dad was assisting Mom in drinking while Czanelle carefully watched Clark as he ate his meal. Napangiti na lang ako habang pinapanood ko sila. I didn’t know a simple thing like eating with your family would be this delightful.
After that ay umalis ako para kitain ang mga may kasalanan ng lahat.
“I swear, I didn’t tell him!” bungad ni Queenie nang dumating ako sa café.
“Me, too,” dagdag ni Katrina. “I didn’t know how he learned about it.”
“Actually . . .”
Sabay-sabay kaming napatingin kay Iñigo at napaatras siya mula sa aming tatlo.
“You told him?!” sigaw ni Queenie.
“I didn’t, but . . .”
“But what?” I asked, glaring at him.
He heaved a sigh. “Hinatid kasi siya ni Kuya Larry sa work at kasama niya sina Czanelle at Clark. Malapit lang ako sa kanila kaya nakita at narinig ko sila. Jazer asked where they would go and Clark blurted out ‘Ate.’ Czanelle covered his mouth and Kuya Larry just laughed it off and drove away. Siguro masyado siyang busy sa project niya ngayon kaya hindi niya agad na-realize ‘yon pero nang nasa office na kami ay bigla siyang tumingin sa akin.”
“And? You told him?”
“No. He searched for the arriving flights from Singapore and asked if I could drive him to the airport. I was so flustered that time that I couldn’t react. Hanggang sa tumakbo na lang siya palabas. Hindi ko kaagad siya napigilan kaya tinawagan ko si Katrina since nasa labas lang siya ng airport that time.”
“Then I saw him outside the airport that time. Tumakbo na rin ako papunta sa arrival area dahil alam kong ‘di ko na siya mapipigilan. I tried to warn you but then that happened.”
Napabuntong-hininga na lang ako dahil sobrang palpak ng naging plano namin. I didn’t think about the possibility that Czanelle and Clark might slip up like that.
“So what will you do now?” Iñigo asked.
“Nevermind that,” sabi naman ni Queenie habang nakangiti nang nakakaloko. “He freaking kissed you right in front of everyone! How did it feel?”
Blood immediately rushed to my cheeks when she said that. I could vividly remember the time he was running toward me and when he surprised me with a kiss.
“Oh, right. I have a video of that.”
Nagulat naman ako nang marinig ko ‘yon mula kay Katrina. The next thing I knew, the three of them were already watching it on her phone.
“Hey! Delete that! And why do you even have that?!” sigaw ko habang pilit na kinukuha sa kanya ang phone niya pero hinaharangan naman ako ni Queenie.
“Hiningi ko kay Kuya Larry,” sagot niya. “He got the whole scene recorded.”
“Oh my god, Jazer, that was smooth!” Queenie squealed.
“Wow. That was quite a reaction, Chloe,” dagdag pa ni Iñigo.
Dahil naririnig ko ang audio ay naalala ko na naman ‘yon. Napaupo na lang ako pabalik sa upuan ko at bumuntong-hininga dahil sa mga pinaggagawa nila. Couldn’t they feel my embarrassment? Damn these people.
“Nasaan pala si Jazer?” tanong ni Queenie at salamat naman, tinigilan na rin nila ang panonood. Humanda talaga si Kuya Larry sa akin mamaya.
“He’s with his sister. Mag-a-apply ng scholarship for college.”
“Oh, so he won’t be back for a while. Why don’t you do your event today?”
“Huh? Are you out—”
“She’s right,” Katrina chimed in. “You can still do it.”
“Para naman makabawi ka sa kanya. Besides, you still have a lot to say, right?”
Natulala na lang ako sa kanila habang bigla na silang naging busy sa preparations. These people just do everything they want to do without any considerations.
But perhaps, it might work out.
I sat down as I waited for their updates.
Even though the sky was clear and the sun was about to set, it felt like I came back to that time. He was the only person who saw me at my weakest. He comforted me a lot and I gave him a hard time because of that. Looking back, he was always there at the right moment, as if he knew what exactly I needed.
Napahawak naman ako necklace na binigay niya as a birthday gift. He did a lot of things for me. It’s my turn this time.
Nag-ring naman ang phone ko kaya agad kong sinagot ‘yon.
“He’s on his way there!” Queenie informed while sounding excited. “Good luck, witch.”
In-end niya ang call at hinintay ko naman si Jazer na dumating.
Weird. I thought I’d be a bundle of nerves but my heart was tranquil. Maybe what happened at the airport made me less anxious.
I was playing with my ring when I saw someone running toward my direction. It felt like that airport scene once again. Our eyes met and he loosened his tie as he walked toward me with a worried expression on his face . . .
. . . but this time, I was smiling at him.
“You’re here,” I greeted.
He was still huffing and he looked confused. “Hindi ka raw nila ma-contact. Wala ka sa bahay, sa park, sa paborito mong café. Kaya . . . inisip ko na nandito ka . . .”
“Yeah. I’m here.”
“Anong . . .”
Before he could ask his question, I stepped forward and hugged him. He was always the first one to hug me and I didn’t know the feeling of being hugged and hugging someone was quite different.
“Thank you for finding me,” I whispered and I could feel his heartbeat getting faster and louder. “Thank you for everything.”
That moment, he hugged me back and he laid his head on my shoulder.
“Do you still remember what happened here?” tanong ko at naramdaman ko ang pagtango niya. I smiled, remembering how he calmed me down and accompanied me here when I learned that Mom was in the house that time. “The rain was falling hard and we got stranded here. Then I realized I lost my bracelet and you made me a temporary one using flowers. Maybe I just didn’t want to accept it but that time, you were already special to me. That kind of feeling was unfamiliar to me and I got scared thinking that I might get hurt again. But you know what? Someone told me that acknowledging my feelings isn’t a crime. She told me to love fearlessly. And even though she can’t remember any of that anymore, I’m beyond thankful that she pushed me to be honest with my feelings.”
Napangiti ako nang maalala ko ang oras na ‘yon. Mom said I could run to her when I get hurt and whatever happens, she would always be my ally.
I gently pushed him to see his face. His eyes were welling up with tears but he looked straight at me and I did the same.
“That’s why I’m grateful that you exist. Thank you for being in my life,” I said as I reached for his face.
“Chloe . . .”
“I know we still have a lot of responsibilities to our respective families. We are still learning about life and still trying to be our better selves. But after I finished my Master’s degree . . . or maybe whenever you’re ready . . . are you willing to spend the rest of your life with me?”
The wind blew right after I said those words and we both went silent.
My heart started to race and anxiety kicked in. Saying it was easy but waiting for any kind of response made me distressed. I should’ve planned this better. Damn it.
“I . . . I mean . . . it’s just . . . uhm . . .”
I was about to step back but he suddenly held my hand and pulled me closer to him. Our face was just inches apart and I could feel his breath and heartbeat. My heart melted the moment he smiled.
“Did you just propose to me?” he whispered with a playful expression on his face.
I immediately averted his gaze because I was too embarrassed but my cheeks felt hotter when he suddenly chuckled.
“W-what’s funny, you—”
“Inunahan mo ako,” sabi niya kaya napatingin ulit ako sa kanya. This time, I couldn’t take my eyes off him anymore. “Sa tingin mo bakit kita hinalikan sa labi?”
I was getting dizzy because of his gaze and smile but that question made me scream internally. “Uhm . . . I . . .”
“Handa na akong panindigan ka,” he said as the tip of our nose touch each other. “At maghihintay ako hanggang sa maging handa ka na. Pakakasalan kita.”
The tears I was trying to hold back streamed down my face but he gently wiped them off and gazed at me intently. The next thing I knew, his lips was already pressed against mine.
For the first time, I was living in the moment. I didn’t care about the past or the future.
I was just here. With him.
It was just the two of us.
Dad was still in the living room with Czanelle and Clark when we returned. Dumiretso naman si Jazer sa kwarto niya at doon ko lang din napag-alaman na aalis na siya rito. He said he already got an apartment near his work so he was planning to move out next week. Umakyat na rin ako sa taas pero napahinto ako nang nasa tapat na ako ng room ni Mom.
I carefully opened the door and she was sitting on her bed, her upper body leaning against the headboard. She didn’t pay attention to me but I sat right next to her and hugged her.
“Mom, thank you,” I said. “You said I should run to you when I get hurt, but this time, I’m here because I’m happy. I want to tell you that.”
Sa ilang series at movies na napanood ko, daughters usually inform their mothers first whenever something good happened to them. It always warms my heart how the mother gets happier than her daughter when a scene like that plays. I knew it would never happened to us but I still wanted to do it. I wanted to share my happiness with her.
Humiwalay ako sa pagkakayakap ko sa kanya at hinawakan ang kamay niya. She had a vacant expression on her face but that didn’t stop me from telling her everything.
“I never thought I’d be given a chance to be happy,” mahina kong sabi. “Sa totoo lang, nawalan na ako ng pag-asa noong tumigil na kayo ni Dad sa pagdalaw sa akin dito dati. I closed off my heart to everyone, including my siblings, but he was the one who opened it again for me. You told me not to live a life full of regrets. You told me not to follow the path you have chosen. That’s exactly what I’m doing right now, Mom. So, thank you, for telling those things to me.” I kissed her hand and I felt a lump of emotions in my throat. “The only thing I regret right now is that I’m only telling you these when you can’t even understand me anymore. I want my voice to reach you but it’s hard. I just want to hear again how proud you are of me.”
Natigilan naman ako nang naramdaman ko ang paggalaw ng kamay niya. He weakly squeezed my hand and my heart sank when I looked at her face.
“M-Mom . . .”
Tears were falling from her eyes and she gave a weak smile while looking at me.
It took me a few seconds to take in what just happened and I sobbed my heart out because that was the first time she showed any kind of reaction.
And for me, that meant a lot.
They say when you’re at the peak of your happiness, life will always find a way to balance it.
Two days after I confided to her, she passed away in her sleep.
Dad’s yell woke me up and everyone went to where he was—in their room. Kuya Larry called for an ambulance but deep inside, we already knew it was too late. We couldn’t feel her heartbeat and pulse anymore. She finally found her peace.
It was a busy week because of Mom’s funeral. I thought I’d cry hard but ironically, I just felt relieved. Mom was struggling for years and it pained me to see her live like that. It was time for us to let her go.
“Siguro hinintay niya lang na mabuo kayo bago siya tuluyang magpaalam,” sabi ni Nanay Meling habang inililibing si Mom sa tabi ng parents niya.
Napangiti naman ako nang marinig ko ‘yon. “Yeah. I’m sure she did.”
Nang umalis na ang ilang nakilibing ay lumapit ako sa puntod niya. I sat in front of her and placed a flower bracelet on her grave.
“We made you wait for a long time, Mom,” I said. “I’ll take care of Dad, Czanelle and Clark so you have nothing to worry about. You can rest peacefully now.”
When she left me before, the hope that she’d return turned into hatred. That was what influenced me to live my life without letting anyone in.
When I learned about her disease, I was eaten up with guilt and all I could think of was what if I have forgiven them before? Maybe things would end up differently.
When she forgot about me, it felt like I had already lost her. It was hard to accept at first but she said before that it’s okay to get hurt because that feeling would teach me a lot of lesson. I had learned to accept the reality that she wasn’t the same person anymore and we would lose her sooner or later.
Maybe that was why I had handled her death with a less heavy heart.
I stood up and smiled at her one last time.
“I will always remember you, Mom. Good bye for now.”
"So, when will you come back again?"
"Inform us beforehand."
"No way," I said. "You're going to ruin everything again."
Halos sabay naman akong tinaasan ng kilay nina Queenie at Katrina matapos kong sabihin 'yon. They had been lenient with me after what happened to Mom but I told them not to and just act like normal.
I'd leave later and they went to our house this morning just to see me off. Nauna naman na si Dad sa akin. He left four days ago since he was needed in the board of directors meeting.
"You're going to leave again?"
Napatingin naman ako kay Clark habang dala niya ang favorite blanket niya. It was already too short for him but he still liked it.
Umupo ako para makita ang mukha niya. "Yup, but I'll be back after a while. Can you wait for me?"
He nodded. "Yes."
"Be a good boy, okay? Listen to your ate Czanelle."
Sakto namang bumaba si Czanelle mula sa second floor. She ran toward my direction and handed me a notebook. I stared curiously at her and she was trying so hard to control her expression.
"Take that, Ate."
I carefully opened the cover and I inhaled sharply when I saw what was inside. It was like a story book.
"Did you draw all of these?" tanong ko sa kanya.
"Mmm," she pouted, "but Kuya helped me, too."
"I see. Thank you for this."
Browsing the pages, I saw how she based the story on our family. There were only four members at the start but turned into five, and then into three, and finally into four. I was worried about them because of Mom's death but Czanelle had already grown into a dependable sister.
I kissed them good bye and turned to Queenie and Katrina. Ngumiti naman ako sa kanila.
"Are you sure na ayaw mong magpahatid?" Katrina asked.
Umiling naman ako. "No need. But please, stay for a while. Look after them," sabay tingin ko kina Czanelle at Clark.
Napatingin naman kami sa front door nang may marinig kaming kumatok. Nagmadali akong pumunta ro'n at binuksan ko ang pinto.
"Ah, kaya naman pala ayaw magpahatid," Queenie muttered.
Jazer helped me with my suitcases and trunks. Nag-book na siya ng car kaya naman inilagay namin agad ang mga gamit ko ro'n. Umuwi kasi si Kuya Larry kaya walang magda-drive ng kotse.
Pumwesto naman kami sa backseat at napabuntong-hininga ako nang unti-unti na kaming lumalayo sa bahay.
"Huwag kang mag-alala, akong bahala sa kanila," he said.
Napangiti naman ako. "I know. Thank you."
It was a long, eventful month. My emotions were at their peak during my stay here and leaving this place felt heavy.
I reached for his hand for comfort and he looked at me in return.
"We only have an hour left. This sucks."
He squeezed my hand back, his ring brushing onto my skin. I couldn't help but smile. When I gave that to him, I never thought he would wear it everyday. It looked good on him.
I suddenly remembered my 'proposal' to him. He said he would wait for me. He said he would marry me. I wanted to hear those words again but it would be too embarrassing.
Mabilis namang lumipas ang isang oras at agad kaming nakarating sa airport. It was finally time to leave.
Nakatingin lang ako sa kanya habang inaayos niya ang mga maleta ko. I couldn't read his expression but I didn't want to leave him without doing anything. While he was busy with my things, I carefully stepped closer to him until we were standing right in front of each other.
"Okay na 'tong mga gam—”
My lips gently brushed against his and I was reminded how much I would miss him this time.
I stepped back, my heart still racing, while he was at a loss for words.
“Just like what you did that time,” I teased. “Surprise me more next year.”
He was still in a daze when I was walking away and he looked too cute when he had that confused expression. Napahinto naman ako sa paglalakad at muling lumingon sa direksyon niya.
“Jazer!” I called and we stared into each other despite the distance.
I never liked announcing my feelings but for the first time, it was what I wanted to do.
“Mahal kita. Sobra,” I uttered and grinned widely at him.
Hindi ko na hinintay ang reaction niya dahil dumiretso na ako sa ticket counter but I couldn’t help but smile when he shouted the same words I just told him.
“Mahal kita! Sobra!”
Some people might think this wasn’t the right choice. Why would I leave my guy and my family behind? I would be happier here.
They have a point but I want to be better. For myself. For my family. For him. For our future.
We still have a lot of responsibilities and careers to build. I think being mutually understanding of each other’s dreams makes a couple’s bond stronger. Being too dependent on each other would just exhaust both of us and I’m glad that he, too, prefers to have space and freedom for ourselves.
Several years ago, I was a teenager who hated everything. There was no room for positive emotions in my heart because I already built a fortress, thinking I was protecting myself. But there were people who tried to break my walls and dragged me out of my safe place. I didn’t know beyond that was something I was unconsciously craving for—a place called happiness.
Here, I learned to accept my siblings.
Here, I learned to forgive my parents.
Here, I made friends.
Here, I finally loved myself.
Here, I am growing and healing.
And I hope I can stay here for a long time, together with the people who helped me reach this place.
It took me a while but finally, I can say these words sincerely.
"I am happy."
- Chloe Zurbano
“For real?! When?!” Queenie yelled and I immediately pulled my phone away from my ears.
“Damn it bitch, you’re too loud.”
“She’s drunk,” Katrina said, and based from Queenie’s whining, it seemed like she snatched her phone away.
I smirked. “Oh, so you’ve turned into her babysitter.”
“Oh, please,” she groaned. “Kaunti na lang, iiwan ko na ang bwisit na ‘to rito. Nakakahiya at nakakairitang kasama. Anyway, are you really coming home?”
“Yeah. For one month.”
“Wow, that’s a surprise, considering that the longest stay you’ve ever had here was three days.”
“Well, it was Dad who suggested it,” sabi ko naman.
“For real? Now, that’s big.”
“Yeah, but hey, but don’t tell him that I’m going home.”
“Jazer?” she asked. “Bakit?”
A smile escaped my lips. “I want to surprise him.”
She groaned one more time. “Why do I have to be surrounded with couples who love to surprise one another? You guys are so troublesome.”
“Fine, fine. I won’t.”
Napatingin na lang ako sa phone ko pagkatapos niyang i-end ang call. That woman. She became grumpier after the guy she was dating dumped her. Idagdag pa na siya ang nagiging emotional dumpsite ni Queenie tuwing mag-aaway sila ni Iñigo.
Katrina wanted to earn a lot of money so she dedicated most of her time working. She wanted to provide for her aunt who raised her by herself after her parents left her to start their new lives, and to live comfortably in the future. Since she was too busy, she couldn’t give him her time and in the end, he dumped her.
Naiintindihan ko naman kung saan siya nanggagaling. I, too, wanted to save money as long as I could so I wouldn’t have to worry about our future. On the other hand, Queenie always tells us to give ourselves time to rest and time to be with our loved ones. I think one of the reasons why their relationship is still strong is because they still have time for each other despite their busy schedules. Ang problema nga lang, laging stressed si Queenie kaya nadadala niya sa pagkikita nila ni Iñigo. He must be the reason why she was drinking tonight.
Tumayo muna ako para mag-stretch dahil kanina pa ako nagliligpit ng gamit. I had already packed two luggages of stuff and it still felt not enough. Napahinto naman ako nang makita ko ang pictures sa bed-side table ko. I smiled upon looking at their faces. I had been busy working and studying that I never realized how much I missed them.
It’s been three and a half years since I got here and tomorrow would be the first time I’d get a proper vacation. I felt excited and nervous at the same time. Excited because I would finally see them again. Pero kinakabahan din ako dahil alam kong magkakaiba na ang mga mundong ginagalawan namin.
My thoughts got disrupted by the knock on my door.
“Finished?” asked Dad.
I shook my head. “Not yet. You?”
“I’m already done.”
We met each other’s gaze and there was something different.
“May I talk to you for a second?” he asked in a calm yet serious tone.
Tumango naman ako at umupo kami sa gilid ng kama ko. He was in casual clothes, which was a rare sight. I would always see him in his suits. When we’re at home, we’d just stay in our own rooms to have our personal time and rest.
“Do you want to stay there?” bigla niyang tanong kaya hindi agada ko nakasagot.
“S-stay? You mean . . .”
He smiled. “Yeah. In the Philippines.”
I just stared at him for a few seconds, refusing to believe what I just heard. Did he really say that? Could I really stay there?
“Why?” I carefully asked. I wanted to know why he said that.
“Your performance as the deputy CIO was praised by the board members,” he said. “Because of your strategical planning, we managed to raise the profits of our company, as well as our subsidiaries. Now, you have been granted the rights to be the CIO of one of our subordinate companies either in the Philippines or US. The question is, can you do it?”
His statement lingered in my head for a while. I never thought I’d hear praises from the board members because half of them were in the Mao faction. I just did my job as an information officer but this kind of accomplishment made it more gratifying to the point that I almost teared up. I was given a chance and it was tempting but I knew I already had my answer before I could think about it.
“I’m beyond grateful, really . . .” I looked at Dad and smiled. Looking at his expression, he must already know my decision. “But I want to get my Master’s degree. Besides, I still have a lot to learn from my CIO. I can surely do it but not this early. So can you ask me that question again after some time, Dad?”
I knew some people would think I wasted an opportunity. Queenie would probably yell at me for choosing this path rather than staying with my family but this was my way of becoming better. I wanted to be someone I could be proud of.
“Of course,” Dad replied with a gentle smile on his face. “I knew you would say that.”
Tumayo naman siya mula sa kama ko at naglakad palabas ng kwarto pero huminto siya nang nasa pintuan na siya.
“You’ve grown well,” he said as I watched his back. “I’m beyond proud of you.”
“Dad . . .”
My voice faltered upon hearing his words. He’s a man of few words so I get flustered and moved whenever he says anything heartwarming.
“I know you’ve been chasing my back since you were young and you’ve been supporting me these past few years.” He turned around and looked at me right into my eyes. “This time, take the lead and keep moving forward. And if you stumble, I’ll be right behind. Because this time, I’ll be the one supporting you.”
He walked away after saying those words and my throat hurt trying to hold back my emotions. I breathed deeply and clutched my necklace. I must face him head-on. That would be the only way to show my resolve.
“Thank you, Dad,” I whispered.
This time, I am only looking forward.
“How are you feeling? Excited? Nervous? Both?”
I rolled my eyes at him. Bakit ba kasama namin ang isang ‘to?
“Shut up, old man,” I ordered.
“Ah, nervous, I see.”
“Why are you even here?”
“What? Am I not allowed to have a vacation? Philippines has a lot of beautiful beaches, right?”
“Are you really looking for beaches? Or is it the one with a different spelling?”
“Hey! Do you think I’m that kind of person?”
“You . . .”
“Shut up, I’m going to sleep.”
Nilagay ko ang earphones sa tenga ko at tumingin na lang mula sa bintana. I could see the ocean and landscape below and that made my heart race. Malapit na kami.
I couldn’t sleep last night because I was too busy planning everything. Iñigo told me he would distract Jazer in case he sensed something wrong since they were working in the same place. Susunduin naman ako nina Queenie at Katrina sa bahay at ihahatid kung nasaan siya. I just hope everything would go well.
Lalo lang akong na-rattle nang nag-announce na magla-land na kami. It felt like my heart would explode any moment.
“We’re finally here!” Shang exclaimed.
Nagsimula nang tumayo ang mga tao, maging sina Dad at Shang. I tried to calm myself by breathing slowly but the thought of finally seeing him after a long time made me more anxious.
“Damn it, calm down,” I muttered.
“Hey, relax,” Shang suddenly said as he gently hit my back. “You’re too stiff.”
“Come on, granny,” he said, smirking. “You’re going to to see him, right?”
Natulala na lang ako nang sabihin niya ‘yon, but at the same time, it made me calm. Matapos kong huminga nang malalim ay kinuha ko ang bag ko at sumunod sa kanila ni Dad. We waited for our luggages and walked toward the arrival area.
“Ah! It’s them! Daddy! Ate!”
The tension in my body momentarily disappeared and I broke into a grin when I saw the people waiting for us. I missed them.
Halos matumba ako dahil sa pagtakbo at pagyakap niya sa akin. I hugged her back and she hugged me tighter. After that ay tumakbo rin siya papunta kay Dad habang si Clark naman ang sumalubong sa akin.
“Hey, Clark,” I greeted.
“Ate,” he called and he almost tackled me with a hug.
“My god, ang laki mo na. I can’t believe it.”
Hindi naman na siya ulit nagsalita at nanatili lang na nakayakap sa akin. I carried him because he didn’t want to let go while Czanelle walked with Dad. Napahinto naman ako nang makita ko rin sina Nanay Meling at Kuya Larry pero natulala ako dahil sa mga katabi nila.
“Gusto ka rin niyang makita,” sabi ni Nanay Meling.
“Hindi namin inaasahan na dadalaw siya ngayon pero h’wag kang mag-alala, hindi niya sinabi sa kanya,” dagdag ni Kuya Larry.
Waiting with them was Mom who was in a wheelchair. She was holding a photo of our family as she stared curiously at us.
“Mom . . .”
“Kanina pa niya kayo hinihintay.”
My eyes drifted to the person standing beside Nanay Meling and Kuya Larry. She was holding Mom’s wheelchair and my eyes started to well up when I saw both of them.
“Nanay Fe . . .”
“Na-miss ka namin, Chloe.”
I walked toward them while carrying Clark and Nanay Fe gave me a tender hug. Umupo naman ako para maging ka-level si Mom at ngumiti sa kanya. She didn’t give me any expression but seeing her here was enough for me.
Dad was right behind me and his expression softened while looking at Mom. Ibinaba ko naman si Clark at hawak nil ani Czanelle ang magkabilang kamay ko. Dad crouched and smiled at Mom.
“We’re here,” he softly said. “We’re home, dear.”
Dad kissed her forehead and took over Nanay Fe in pushing Mom’s wheelchair.
Sabay-sabay kaming naglakad papunta sa exit pero nagulat ako nang makita ko si Katrina. She was running toward us with a panicked expression on her face.
“Chloe!” sigaw niya. “I’m sorry!”
Napatigil naman ako nang marinig ko ‘yon. Sorry? For what? Wait, was she talking about our plan? What happened?
“We tried, but . . .”
I was about to ask what she was sorry for when a familiar figure appeared right behind her.
He loosened his necktie as he frantically ran and searched for someone. His face was covered with sweat and he was having a hard time to breathe but he didn’t stop looking around . . . until our eyes finally met.
It felt like the world suddenly stopped moving and I could only see him. His tanned skin . . . the deep dimple on his face . . . his broad shoulders . . . the way he looked at me . . . I missed them. I missed everything about him.
He froze for a few seconds, maybe still in disbelief that I was here, especially since I didn’t tell him anything. However, he started walking toward me with a bizarre look on his face. Seeing him getting closer made my head buzz. My heart was beating too fast and I couldn’t breathe properly anymore.
He was just a few meters away . . .
Few steps . . .
Few seconds . . .
Few inches . . .
I was scared to say anything. I was scared to face the present him but I had to. We were finally in the same place at the same time. I wanted to say the words I was longing to tell him.
I spent sleepless nights to plan an event for him but it only took him a single action to surprise me—he kissed me on my lips.
My knees felt weak and it felt like I would collapse anytime but he held me closer and supported my weight. The moment our eyes met again, his curious expression gently broke into a smile.
“Welcome home, Chloe,” he whispered. “Na-miss kita. Sobra.”
"Happy birthday, old guy," I greeted when I saw him walking toward me.
"Thanks, middle-aged woman," he retorted.
He just turned 27 and he was becoming more anxious since he'd reach 30 in a few more years. Smirking, I reminded him how old he was and he arm-choked me. He demanded s free lunch so I bought him his favorite food and a cake.
"Who are you?" he asked. "Why are you suddenly nice to me?"
"They say we should always be nice to elderly."
"Ha ha very funny."
Inasar ko lang siya nang inasar hanggang sa mapunta ang usapan namin sa love life.
"You're going home this year, right? You're finally going to see your husband," he teased.
I threw a crumpled napkin on him. "Idiot."
"Hey, respect your superior!” he whined.
“I don’t want to.”
“Is this the effect of being a wife?"
"Whatever, girlfriendless old man."
Pagkatapos naming kumain ay dumiretso ako sa office ko. Yup. I already have my own office as the deputy chief information officer. The HR reviewed my curriculum vitae when I applied right after I graduated and they conducted a series of interview to assess if I was qualified for the information officer position. It would be easier if I had Dad’s recommendation but I that would just cause rumors. Besides, I didn’t want to be just known as his daughter. I wanted to have my own name and identity.
After two years, I applied for Master’s degree and got promoted as deputy chief information officer. Of course, some thought I pulled some strings to be promoted in such position just after two years. I learned not to care about those rumors since the people around me knew how hard I worked to reach this place.
Being a deputy chief was too demanding and carried a lot of responsibilities. For the first few months, I had a hard time adjusting since it involved overseeing all IT operations and project management functions. In addition, I had to report to the CIO, which was Mr. Gives who was part of the Mao faction. But I persevered, and a year later, the CIO position was given to Shang. I was beyond happy when I learned he was my new superior. Everything became easier and more comfortable.
Of course, rumors arose once again. As a young inexperienced woman, who’s also the daughter of the CEO, I had to be tougher than anyone else to survive this kind of world. But sometimes, it gets too suffocating.
I had to breathe.
Umuwi ako noong Christmas two years ago at last year. I was so happy when I saw my siblings again. Czanelle grew taller and Clark could already talk. Mom, on the other hand, just stared curiously at me. It was still hard to look at her like that but I learned to accept everything. We could not bring her memories back anymore or create new ones. We had to bear the fact that she was just merely existing, not living the life she wanted to.
Lumabas din kami noon nina Queenie at Katrina. We updated each other about our lives and it seemed like they got closer so I kept teasing them.
"Hindi mo ba hihintayin si Jazer?" Queenie asked, shifting the attention to me.
Katrina smiled. "Oo nga. Christmas vacation kasi kaya umuwi 'yon sa kanila."
"He should spend more time with his family," I replied. "Besides, aalis na rin naman ako bukas. I still have a lot of unfinished paperworks."
“My god, you and your priorities!” Queenie complained. “Don’t you miss him? You haven’t seen him since you left.”
I do, I wanted to say but I just gave them a smile.
“His family should be his top priority,” sabi ko sa kanila. “Mas madalang na siya umuwi sa kanila because of his work. I’m sure they missed him so much, especially his mother.”
“Sabagay, parang quarterly na lang siya umuuwi,” Katrina said. “Jazer’s too busy.”
Nagkwentuhan pa kami hanggang sa inabot na kami ng hapon. Queenie continuously grumbled about some of her officemates while Katrina annoyed her with her constant wisecracking. I went home afterwards and saw Czanelle and Clark waiting for me in the living room.
“Ate!” they beamed as they ran toward my direction. Czanelle hugged my left leg while Clark clung onto my right. I suddenly remembered the times they did this and how I felt uncomfortable at first. This time, it was the kind of comfort I was looking for. It felt like home.
Pumunta kami sa room ni Mom pero pagdating namin doon ay tulog na siya kaya dumiretso kami sa room ko. They immediately ran to my bed while I showered quickly. Pagbalik ko, naghahabulan na sila sa kwarto at nadapa si Clark. Czanelle hurriedly approached and helped him while he tried his best not to cry.
“Sorry, sorry. Are you okay?” she asked while caressing his tummy.
“Mmm,” he nodded.
Nang makita nila ako ay bumalik ulit sila sa kama at humiga lang kaming tatlo ro’n.
“Are you going to leave tomorrow, Ate?” mahinang tanong ni Czanelle.
I sighed. “Yeah. I’m sorry if I can’t spend more time with you.”
Nagulat naman ako nang biglang bumangon si Clark at humiga sa akin. What surprised me more was when he hugged me tight.
“Can we sleep here, Ate?”
My heart melted when I heard those words from him. When I left, he could just giggle and mumble but look at him now. I felt so proud that I hugged him back.
“Of course,” I said. “Did you miss me that much?”
“Yes,” Czanelle answered and she clung onto me, too.
Czanelle and Clark fell asleep after an hour and I had to carefully lay them in the bed to avoid waking them up. Bumaba naman ako at naabutan ko ro’n sina Nanay Meling at Kuya Larry. I smiled when they saw me and walked toward them.
“Kumusta naman ang businesswoman namin?” Kuya Larry teased.
“On her way to success,” I said. “How about you?”
I poured a glass of wine and listened to their stories. Hearing them talk about their families with smile on their faces made me relieved and happy.
I was chuckling while listening to Kuya Larry’s absurd narrative when my gaze drifted to Nanay Meling. She was looking at me with a warm smile and her eyes were welling with tears.
“What’s wrong, Nanay Meling?” I asked, worried.
She smiled again. “Wala. Nakakatuwa lang na nakita ko kung paano ka nagbago, anak. Noong bata ka pa, puno ka lang ng galit dahil sa mga magulang mo. Noong mga nakaraang taon naman, halos kainin ka na ng kalungkutan. Pero tingnan mo ngayon, nakakangiti at nakakatawa ka na. Ang gaan sa loob na makita kang masaya, anak.”
Her words almost made me tear up but I didn’t cry. I just smiled back at her and took a sip of wine.
I lived most of my life in between gray and dark because I thought that was where they forced me to be. That was where I thought I belong. But the truth was, it was my choice. I didn’t want to get outside of it because I already became comfortable with anger, loneliness and solitude. Those negative emotions were my comfort zone. Then those people came. Those who tried to get me out of it—my guiding lights.
“Maybe because I found the right path for me,” I said. And they, too, were my guiding lights.
“Itong mga ‘to naman, naiiyak na rin tuloy ako,” dagdag ni Kuya Larry kaya natawa na lang kami ni Nanay Meling.
“Ewan ko sa’yo, Kuya Larry.”
“Pareho kayo ni Jazer,” he muttered. “Bagay nga kayo.”
“Wala, wala,” sabay iling niya.
“Bukas na nga pala ang alis mo, ano?” tanong ni Nanay Meling at tumango naman ako. “Hindi na naman kayo magkakaabutan.”
Noong una kong uwi ay hindi ko rin siya nakita dahil may vacation trip sila ng officemates niya. Hindi ko rin naman kasi sinabi na uuwi ako dahil gusto ko silang i-surprise lahat. It seemed like I wouldn’t see him this time, too.
“Naku, sinasabi ko sa’yo, bakuran mo na ‘yon dahil maraming umaaligid sa kanya lalo na sa trabaho,” Kuya Larry said and that made me stop drinking.
I put my wine glass on the table and looked at him. “I’m listening.”
“Uy, selos,” he cackled and I glared at him in return. “Heto na nga o, ikukwento na namin.”
“Alam mo namang matipid si Jazer, hindi ba?” simula ni Nanay Meling at tumango ako. “Kaya kahit noong magsimula siyang magtrabaho ay nagbabaon pa rin ‘yon ng pagkain niya. Nagluluto ako habang tinutulungan niya ang mga kapatid mong maghanda para pumasok sa school.”
“One time, sa sobrang pagmamadali niya ay nakalimutan niya ang baon niya kaya naman hinatid ko sa pinagtatrabahuhan niya since madadaanan ko naman ‘yon kapag hinahatid ko si Czanelle,” dagdag ni Kuya Larry. “Pagdating ko ro’n, hinihintay niya ako sa labas pero may isang babae na tumabi sa kanya. Mukhang interesado sa kanya, e. Meron ding ibang patingin-tingin pero ‘yon din ata ‘yong time na pinadala mo ‘yon.”
He looked at my hand and I instinctively reached for my ring.
“Syempre, dahil concerned ako—”
“You mean, makiki-tsismis,” I muttered.
“Ayon nga. Patago akong lumapit sa kanila habang nakasunod din sa akin si Czanelle at heto ang naging usapan nila.”
“Oh. So you’re married?”
“Uhm . . .”
“Or maybe not? You’re too young to be married anyway. Is she—”
“Ewan ko kung sinasadya niya ba o ano pero biglang lumabas si Czanelle sa pinagtataguan namin at tumakbo papunta kay Jazer kaya nagulat silang dalawa. Pero alam mo kung ano pa ang mas ikinagulat ng babae?”
“What is it?”
Ngumiti nang malawak si Kuya Larry. “Tinawag ni Czanelle na Dad si Jazer at binigay sa kanya ang baon niya.”
Tawa nang tawa si Kuya Larry matapos niyang sabihin ‘yon at napangiti naman sa gilid si Nanay Meling. Somehow, I, too, felt amused.
“I raised her well,” I said while taking a sip of my sweet wine.
“Iba talaga ang mga Esguerra. Nakakatakot.”
Napatingin ulit ako sa singsing na suot ko. Jazer wrote me letters every month and because of that, I decided to send him handwritten letters, too. I didn’t know typing and writing what you wanted to say to someone would feel different. Writing it down just felt . . . more personal.
Communicating through letters might not work for people who could not wait that long for someone’s reply. It would put someone’s patience to the test. However, talking like this would also make you look forward and anticipate for the next letter to come.
One year after he gave me my necklace, I realized I haven’t given him anything yet. That was why I asked for Jemimah and Jessamine’s help. I told them I needed to know his ring finger’s size. That month, I sent him a letter along with a ring similar to mine.
Pagkatapos magkwento nina Kuya Larry ay pumunta ako sa kwarto ni Jazer at iniwan ko ro’n ang letter na dapat ay ibibigay ko nang personal sa kanya.
“When will we finally see each other?” I whispered.
That moment, I knew it would take a long time to be back again.
“Hey, congrats!” Shang greeted. “Your first year as a graduate student has finally ended.”
Sumandal ako sa headrest ng passenger seat at pumikit sandali. He fetched me in the university after my final exam. I checked the time and it was already 8 P.M. My mind and body was already exhausted from work and grad school. I just wanted to sleep.
Ginising ako ni Shang nang makarating kami sa bahay at nagpaalam din naman agad siya. Pumasok ako sa loob at nakita ko si Dad sa dining room. I stared curiously at him as he set the table for dinner. Ngayon na lang ulit kami nagkaabutan na pareho kaming nandito sa baba at gising.
“Yeah. You haven’t eaten yet?”
Binaba ko ang bag ko sa gilid at tinulungan siyang mag-set. Maybe the housekeeper who only goes here thrice a month was the one who cooked the food.
We were eating in silence when he suddenly said something.
“Your semester ends today, right?” he asked.
“Yup.” I can finally rest.
“Do you want to go home with me?”
Napatigil naman ako nang marinig ko ‘yon sa kanya. We usually don’t go back together since the company needs either one of us so his question caught me off-guard.
He nodded. “Shang and the others said they can take care of the upcoming board meeting. We can stay there for a month.”
“Really?” I beamed, failing to hide my excitement.
“Yeah,” he replied with a subtle smile on his face. “Let’s go home, anak.”
“C’mon, let’s eat first.”
Shang started pushing me toward the doorway. Dahil gutom na rin naman ako ay nagpatulak na rin ako. We were discussing about the company history and how it runs. It might seem unnecessary, but he said I should give attention to these stuff since I would be sitting at the top someday.
“Wow,” he said in awe. “How do you even fit all those food in your stomach?”
I glared at him in return. “Shut up and eat, old man.”
“You know what, you should really stop calling me that,” he complained. “I’m 23, for god’s sake.”
“You’re turning 24 in a few days, right?” I shuddered. “Old man, it is.”
“I’m gonna call you an old hag when you turn 20,” he muttered.
His frustrated face made me smirk. Shang was really fun to tease.
It’s been five months since I got here. Everything was chaotic at first but I managed to adapt gradually.
As promised, after attending a bunch of special classes during my first week here, Dad got me enrolled in National University of Singapore to finish my Bachelor’s degree. Since I left before my last semester in my previous university, I had to finish it here. Fortunately, NUS credited my units from my previous university since it was affiliated with them and they’ve been sending students before for their foreign exchange programs. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, major in Management.
It was really a tough semester. I had to catch up with everything and I needed to work harder because it was the top university when it comes to business courses. I didn’t want to fail, and most importantly, I didn’t want to disappoint Dad.
For the last five months, I wasn’t able to rest. It was hard and exhausting, but for the first time, I liked what I was doing. Studying had always been an obligation for me, but when I finally realized what I wanted to do in the future, it changed my perspective. This time, I’m studying because I want to understand the world and the path I will be walking on soon.
“You have an email.”
Shang’s words brought me back to the present. I glanced at my phone and saw the familiar email address. My heart thumped nervously and I immediately read the message.
From: Dr. Zara Wina <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Chloe Esguerra <email@example.com>
We are pleased to inform you that your GMAT scores are eligible for the Master’s program in Business Administration. However, you are required to have a minimum of two years of post-university full-time work experience.
Halos mapangiti ako nang mabasa ko ang unang part ng email. I heaved a sigh of relief when I learned that I passed the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) since I applied for their Master’s program, but I didn’t know I have to have a work experience, too.
Tiningnan ko nang masama si Shang.
“You didn’t tell me about the work experience as one of the requirements.”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t know. I mean, I thought—”
“Now I have to wait for two more years to be eligible,” I said while rolling my eyes.
After naming kumain ay bumalik ako sa office niya habang siya naman ay dumiretso sa meeting nila. I slumped onto the couch, rested my head and closed my eyes. Memories from home came rushing in and I had to epen my eyes or else, I’d be overwhelmed again.
Napatingin ako sa phone ko at bumuntong-hininga. I actually bought this for work and business purposes. My personal phone was in my room and I rarely bring it with me nowadays. It felt like I would be held back once I saw the photos, contacts and memories there. I didn’t even know why I feel this way.
Tumayo na ako after a few minutes at dumiretso sa top floor kung nasaan si Dad. Pumasok ako sa office niya nang makita ko siya ro’n.
“Chloe. Why are you here? I thought Shang—”
“He’s in a meeting right now,” I replied.
“I see.” He walked toward my direction. “You need work experience, right?”
Nagulat naman ako nang tanungin niya ‘yon. How did he know?
“You knew,” I muttered. Hindi ko sinabi sa kanya na nag-apply ako for Master’s program.
He smiled at me, revealing the wrinkles around his eyes. “I just had a feeling you would apply for that. And you really did.”
I was planning to surprise him with that. My plan was already ruined.
Naupo naman siya sa tapat ko. He gently pushed a file toward my direction and looked at me curiously.
“I thought you would want to go home after finishing your degree,” he said. “It’s been months. I know you miss them.”
“How about you?” I asked. “Are you coming with me?”
Dad bowed his head and I already knew his answer. “Right now, I can’t.”
There was a few seconds of silence between us. I just stared at him and realized he had lost much weight. Half of his hair had already turned gray and white. Wrinkles had already covered his face and hands.
I had hated him before but deep inside, I’ve been looking up to him since I was young. Maybe because he was always the cool and strong father to me that I failed to notice he was also growing old. He had been carrying the company on his back for almost two decades and it was already taking a toll on his body.
“I’ve always been curious,” I said, breaking the silence between us. He looked at me and I breathed deeply. “Singapore is just a few hours away from the Philippines. Why couldn’t you visit me before?” I asked, choking back the tears threatening to fall. “Why couldn’t you come home when you weren’t busy?”
My voice cracked and faltered. “You know, when I was still a kid, my wish remained the same during my birthday: I hope Mom and Dad stay for a while. I hope they stay with me.” I choked back my tears and smiled. “But the opposite happened. You couldn’t come home for my birthday anymore. You couldn’t spend the holidays with me anymore. In the end, you stopped coming home. And I started hating both of you.”
“Chloe . . .”
“But you know, now that I’m here, I’m starting to understand your decisions.”
“I’m sorry,” he said and I could feel the pain from his voice. “Even if I tell you our reasons, they will only sound like excuses.”
“I know, Dad. I know. Because that’s what I’m feeling right now.”
Dad heaved a heavy sigh. He must know what I was talking about.
I always thought family should come first and you shouldn’t let go of the person you treasure the most when you found them. I couldn’t understand before why some people choose to prioritize their work than the people who mattered to them. After stepping into this world, I suddenly realized why.
It wasn’t just about their work or money; it was for survival. Most were for the survival of their families and theirselves. Some, for the survival of their passion and dreams. And as harsh as it might sound, these deep emotions could either help you move forward or hold you back from surviving.
When I was having a hard time, those people were my anchor. They helped me get through the difficult semester, but at the same time, made me want to quit and just go back. I was conflicted. I was in a mess. I thought I’d sink and drown, but when I thought about what Mom and Dad had gone through, everything became bearable.
Pakiramdam ko, kapag umuwi ako ngayon, hindi na ako makakabalik. I missed them so much, but I didn’t want to see them yet.
“I can’t go home, too, Dad,” I said. “Right now, I can’t.”
“I’ll stay with you.”
Dad got up and sat right next to me. He patted my head as he gently pulled me toward his shoulder. The next thing I knew, my tears were already streaming down my face.
“You’ve chosen a rough and dark path,” he whispered.
“How did you even bear it for so long?” I sobbed. “It’s lonely and heavy.”
“Because of your Mom.”
Despite the tears, a smile escaped my lips when I heard that. “I see. You had a guiding light.”
I went home after Dad approved my application. I’d start working in the company next week.
Papasok na ako sa bahay nang makita kong may iniwan sa mailbox ang postman. Napakunot naman ang noo ko. I didn’t know mails and postcards were still a thing.
Lumapit ako ro’n at pagtingin ko sa loob ay may limang envelopes kaya kinuha ko ‘yon at pumasok na sa bahay. Dumiretso ako sa kwarto at nilapag ang letters sa kama. There were no details about the sender but I knew it was from the Philippines because of the postage stamps.
Binuksan ko ang isa na mukhang five months ago pa na-deliver.
Kumusta ka na, Sungit?
My heart sank when I read the first line. That guy . . . how could he . . .
Alam kong magiging busy ka na at paniguradong hindi mo rin agad mababasa ‘to pero gusto kong sumulat sa’yo kahit isang beses sa isang buwan lang. Hindi ko rin naman kasi masyadong ginagamit ang phone ko at mas gusto ko ang ganito.
Napangiti naman ako nang mabasa ko ‘yon. He was really an old-school guy. Handwritten letters over digital messages, huh?
Sabi mo bago ka umalis, hindi ka na iiyak, pero sa tingin ko hindi mangyayari ‘yon. Sabi ko, pwede kang magtago sa akin pero mukhang hindi ko na ‘yon magagawa ngayon. Kung iiyak ka man, sana may mapagtataguan o masasandalan ka. At kung nahihirapan ka na, lagi mo lang tingnan ang litrato nina Czanelle at Clark.
Naalala mo ba ang isa mo pang sinabi sa akin?
“You deserve the better version of me.”
Hindi ko nasabi ‘to sa’yo noon pero hindi ako ang deserving para d’yan. Ikaw. You deserve the better version of yourself, Chloe.
Kaya sana, sa pagbalik mo, kaya mo nang harapin ang sarili mo. At pagdating ng araw na ‘yon, haharapin din kita.
I read all of his letters and the emptiness I felt these past few months were filled by his words.
He was right. He wasn’t deserving. He was much more than that. And he only deserved the best.
“Dad,” I muttered while holding his letters close to my heart. “I found my guiding light.”