"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.”