Everyone seemed to be enjoying the night after the excruciating finals. They were dancing and laughing as the night grew deeper. Some were already drunk while others were talking about their academic activities, love experiences and ghost stories.
“Why are you here?”
Pagtingin ko sa gilid ay nakaupo na si Iñigo sa tabi ko. He was holding a can of beer and he let out a sigh of relief.
“Want some?” alok niya pero umiling ako.
“I have to stay clearheaded.”
I gave him a smile. “That’s a secret.”
We stayed silent for a few minutes. It was actually calming to have him by my side because he’s one of the people I’m most comfortable with. It was like we were in high school once again, but this time, we already sorted out our feelings for each other.
“Both of you seem to be distraught,” he suddenly said, breaking the silence between us. “You and Jazer, I mean. Did something happen?”
What I liked and hated about him before was his attentiveness. Maybe it was also one of the reasons why Queenie got attracted to him. He knew about her real personality and he didn’t mind. When everything got worse, he didn’t leave her side because the Queenie everyone hated was the Queenie he fell in love with.
“Is he?” I asked back.
“He keeps on glancing at your direction a while ago.”
Napatingin naman ako sa kanya nang bigla siyang tumawa nang mahina.
"Wala. I'm just glad that you finally let someone in."
"What are you—"
"Noong high school tayo, people think you're a difficult person to be with," he said while looking outside, as if reminiscing those times. "I feel ashamed but I kinda agree to that. Even though I was the only person you were close to, it felt like there was a thick wall between us. You were afraid to get out of your safe place and nobody wanted to risk getting in."
Hindi ko alam kung bakit pero habang pinakikinggan ko siya ay nahihirapan akong huminga. My emotions were a mess these past few days.
"Then I realized . . . Ah, maybe I wasn't the right person to break that wall. And maybe I, too, was afraid to know her well. I felt guilty when we drifted apart because I found happiness in someone else. Whenever I see you walking anf eating alone in the campus, my heart felt heavy. I was afraid to approach you because you already made it clear that you didn't want to see and talk to me."
He sighed and continued drinking his beer while I sneakily wiped the welling tears in my eyes.
"So when I saw you with Jazer, I felt relieved. He had something I didn't," he remarked while glancing at me. "The courage and stubborness to break your wall. And gradually, you unconsciously attracted people who feel the same way as you. People who were afraid to show their true selves. So I'm thankful to him because I get to see the side you kept on hiding and you became a friend to Queenie."
"I really hate that side of you," I muttered but he just chuckled in return.
"I hope you can finally find your happiness, Chloe."
Few years ago, I was annoyed that he confessed at me after finding Queenie. He was the only person I was comfortable with besides Nanay Fe, Nanay Meling and Kuya Larry. So when I lost him, I felt lonely.
My parents left me. Nobody wanted to be close to me. Iñigo walked away, too. I thought, maybe I was the problem. Pero ngayon, nagpapasalamat ako na may mga taong dumating at nanatili sa tabi ko.
Iñigo left when he saw Queenie getting drunk. Pinanood ko lang ang mga tao habang nagsasaya sila pero hindi ko makita si Jazer. Naalala ko bigla ang sinabi niya sa akin kanina.
"Kung hindi mo pa kayang mahalin ang sarili mo, hayaan mong ako ang gumawa no'n para sa'yo."
My heart skipped a beat. I still couldn't believe I heard that from him. All this time, I could only feel hatred and pity toward myself. Yet here he was, doing the thing I dreaded the most.
Lumipas ang ilang oras at unti-unting tumatahimik ang paligid. Most of them already passed out and some were too drunk to even realize what they were doing.
Tumayo ako at balak ko na sanang umalis pero nagulat ako nang makita ko si Queenie. She was glaring at me and her flushed cheeks made me think she was still drunk.
"Where are you going?" she asked as he groggily walked toward me.
Muntik na siyang mauntog sa pader pero nahatak agad siya ni Katrina. She looked annoyed but I could also see the worry in her eyes.
"How is she even alive after drinking almost a dozen of liquor?" she muttered.
"Excuse me, I'm still not drunk," sagot naman ni Queenie.
"Yup, definitely drunk," dagdag ko.
Nagkatinginan naman kaming tatlo at hindi ko alam kung bakit pero biglang naging awkward ang pakiramdam.
"Aalis ka na ba?" tanong ni Katrina.
Ngumiti naman ako. "Yeah."
"Are you okay?" muli niyang tanong.
"Obviously not, stupiiiiiid," Queenie butted in and I couldn't help but smile at their banter.
I never had any female friends because of my attitude. It was okay with me because I hate their dramas and they always gossip about other people. I never expected to be friends with these two because our personalities often clash but when I'm with them, I can be myself.
I was used to people leaving me, but this time, I'd be the one leaving and it freaking hurt.
"I'm sorry," I softly said while looking at them.
"So, it's true," Queenie whispered while looking down. "You're leaving, aren't you?"
I was surprised to hear those words from her. How did she know?
"When I saw your parents during your birthday, I kinda have an idea about what's going on. And seeing you being like that these past few weeks, I thought it must be because you're leaving. Am I right?"
Bagay nga talaga sila ni Iñigo. They were both perceptive of the people around them.
"Is that true?" tanong naman ni Katrina.
I was flustered with their questions but after several seconds, I heaved a sigh. Might as well be truthful.
Ngumiti ako sa kanila. “Yeah, it’s true,” I confessed. “I’ll leave the country later and I don’t know when I will be back. It’s a difficult decision but it’s for the better.”
Nagulat naman ako nang biglang binato ni Queenie ang suot niyang slippers sa akin. Buti na lang at nakaiwas ako dahil kung hindi ay ibabato ko talaga ‘yon sa kanya pabalik.
“Why didn’t you say anything, you witch!” she exploded while attempting to throw her other slipper.
“I thought we were friends!”
Natigilan naman ako nang sabihin niya ‘yon. We were the type of people who wouldn’t say those words directly to each other so I was caught off-guard. She looked frustrated and upset.
“We are,” I said and both of them stared at me as if I just said something strange. “It’s kind of embarrassing to say, but yeah, you two are my friends. I just thought it would be better to be silent about my departure since I’m not really used to this kind of farewell.” I flashed a genuine smile at them. “I’ll be back and when that time comes, I hope we’re still friends.”
Pagkasabi ko no’n ay natahimik silang dalawa at paniguradong nagtataka dahil sa kinikilos ko ngayon.
“Take care of yourself,” Katrina said as she gave me an encouraging smile.
“You better come back or else, ipapakulam talaga kita. Oh, wait, you’re a witch. Are curses even effective against you? Damn it,” Queenie retorted and I guess the alcohol inside her body made her crazier.
Hindi ako lumapit sa kanila dahil pakiramdam ko ay maiiyak lang ako kapag ginawa ko ‘yon. They must have thought the same because they started walking away from me. Well, the reality was Katrina ended up dragging Queenie away since she couldn’t even stand straight.
Napabuntong-hininga na lang ako at tuluyang naglakad pero bago paglabas ko sa bahay ni Queenie ay naabutan ko sa gilid si Jazer. He shifted his gaze to me and smiled.
Nandito lang pala siya.
“Uuwi ka na?” tanong niya habang palapit sa akin.
“Mmm,” I nodded. “Sabay ka?”
“Oo,” he replied. “Tara?”
Nag-book ako ng kotse at tahimik kaming naghintay. Pagtingin ko sa oras, 3:49 A.M. pa lang. It was the time between wee hours and daybreak and everything seemed to stay still.
I glanced at Jazer and he was just looking at his feet. It was strange to see him like this. Then I realized, it was always him who made me feel okay. He became my emotional anchor and saw me at my worst even though I didn’t want him to.
He did everything for me but what did I do for him?
“Jazer,” I called and before he could respond, I was already holding his hand.
My heart was beating crazily fast and my head was getting dizzy but I didn’t let go. I could see him looking at me with a puzzled expression on his face and it was hard to turn to his direction because I was too embarrassed.
“Thank you,” I added. “I know I’ve been saying this for a while now but really . . . I’m thankful to you. You’re always there for me. You’re my hiding place. You saved me a lot of times. It must be tiring to always see me like this.”
Huminga ako nang malalim at tumingin sa kanya. I was always hiding. Always running away. Always showing my weakness. But this time, I wanted to face him head-on.
“I want to be happy,” I said. “Not because I have to or I need to. I sincerely wish to be happy for myself.”
“Chloe . . .”
“You taught me a lot of things and I learned a lot from people around me. Before I met all of you, I always thought it would be better for me to be alone. I was toxic to myself and blamed everyone for it. Opening my heart to people was difficult but when I felt the sincerity of those who cared, it became easier.”
I breathed deeply and his grip got tighter. Saglit akong napangiti dahil doon.
“This time, I don’t want you to see me crying. You deserve the better version of me. And when I come back, I hope I can finally say the words I’ve been longing to tell you.”
After saying that to him, he stayed silent and his ears became red. He didn’t let go of my hand and I felt relieved because for once, I took a step forward without needing a push.
Pagdating ng sasakyan ay tahimik kaming naghintay at walang nagsalita sa amin hanggang sa makarating kami sa bahay. Mukhang tulog pa ang lahat kaya naman nakahinga ako nang maluwag. Pagpasok namin ay agad akong dumiretso sa kwarto ko at inayos ang mga gamit ko.
My phone buzzed and I saw Greg’s message.
Good morning. I’m on my way to your house.
Siya ang susundo at maghahatid sa akin papuntang Singapore. It was kind of nostalgic since he was also the one who fetched me when Dad ordered me to go there.
Dahan-dahan kong binuksan ang pinto ng kwarto ko at inilabas ang mga gamit ko. Nagulat pa ako dahil nasa gilid lang pala si Jazer at tinulungan niya akong ibaba ang luggages na dala ko. Everything was going smoothly but I halted when I heard that voice.
Hindi ako nakagalaw. I could hear her footsteps going down the stairs and I felt a lump on my throat when she called me again.
“Ate? Where are you going?”
Nang makarating siya sa gilid ko habang nakatingin sa akin ay tuluyan na akong napaupo. When I looked at her curious and worried face, it felt like I did something terrible.
“Ate,” she called once again and pouted, but what made me tear up was when she held onto my shirt.
“Come here,” I whispered.
Agad ko siyang niyakap at siguro ay naramdaman na niya ang mangyayari kaya bigla siyang umiyak. It was heartbreaking to hear her sobs and I felt bad for making her feel this way.
“Czanelle, listen,” I said while facing her directly. “Ate will be gone for a while.”
Pagkasabi ko no’n ay muli na naman siyang naiyak pero mas nahihirapan akong tingnan siya dahil alam kong pinipigilan niya ang luha niya.
“C-Can I go with you?” she asked between her sobs.
“I’m sorry, but no. You need to stay here.”
“But why? I don’t want you to leave, Ate.”
“I know,” I whispered and I couldn’t see her properly anymore because of the tears in my eyes. “I know but I can’t bring you with me. Mom and Clark will be sad if you’re not here. You won’t like that, right?”
“Mmm,” she nodded.
“You’re an older sister to Clark, too. You should take care of him. Can you promise me that?”
She breathed deeply and tried hard to stop sobbing. Tiningnan niya ako habang hawak pa rin ang damit ko.
“Will you come back if I do that?”
Napangiti naman ako. “Yes, I will.”
Sakto namang nagising din sina Nanay Meling at Kuya Larry kaya tiningnan ko sila. They understood what I wanted to say and they held Czanelle who immediately cried on Nanay Meling’s arms.
Bago pa ako tuluyang mag-breakdown ay dali-dali na akong lumabas ng bahay. Greg’s car was already outside and he was waiting for me. Tinulungan ulit ako ni Jazer na ilabas ang mga gamit ko at nang mailagay na niya sa trunk at loob ng kotse lahat ay humarap ako sa kanya.
“Take care of them for me,” I said.
I was waiting for him to nod but I was surprised when he suddenly hugged me.
“Salamat din,” bulong niya sa akin. “Salamat dahil marami rin akong natutunan mula sa’yo. Isa ka sa mga taong pinahahalagahan ko at hindi magbabago ‘yon.” He paused for a while and he hugged me tighter. “Hihintayin kita,” he said.
I wasn’t able to speak anymore because of what he did next. He inched closer to my face until the tip of our nose touched each other. My whole body tingled and the next thing I knew, he already kissed me on my forehead.
He stared at me with a heartwarming smile pasted on his face while my whole system was still processing what happened.
“Saka na kita hahalikan sa labi kapag kaya na kitang buhayin at panindigan.”
After saying those words, he gently pushed me inside the car and that moment, I just knew everything would be worth it because there are people waiting for me here.
Despite leaving, for the first time, I felt really happy.