Ianne had been clutching her chest since she left the campus. Her heart was beating fast and loud that she was having a hard time breathing properly.
Pag-uwi niya sa bahay ay napahiga na lang siya sa kama habang nakatingin sa kisame. Rico Blanco's Your Universe was replaying in her head for several times already, but instead of his face, all she could see was Benjamin's.
"Oh my god," she squealed as she rolled on her bed. Everything felt so surreal, she wasn't sure if they were even real.
Napahawak siya sa magkabilang-pisngi niya. They were still warm and tingling. It had been a while since she felt this happy, but she couldn't shake off the doubts lingering in her head.
Benjamin said he did not need an answer. He just wanted to tell her how he felt for her. But the truth was, she also did not know what to feel that moment. In fact, she remembered her emotions going haywire. It was euphoria, confusion, fear, and wavering all at the same time.
Muli niyang tiningnan ang phone niya at napatitig sa huling message ni Benjamin: see you next year.
Dahil start na ng Christmas break ay hindi niya ito makikita ngayong taon. It was also a good thing because she needed to sort out her feelings for him, too. Medyo naguguluhan pa rin kasi siya.
Benjamin was attractive. Besides his physical features, she liked his personality, especially his humor. Madali rin itong makagaanan ng loob kaya komportableng makipag-usap. However, after what happened with her previous relationships, she wasn't sure if she'd be ready to risk her heart again. Nandoon na 'yong takot na baka lokohin o iwanan na naman siya lalo na't gano'n naman ang laging nangyayari sa kanya.
What if he's just the same? That question dawdled in her mind for days.
They continued messaging each other, and she was thankful that Benjamin did not open any topic about his confession. Madalas ay puro asaran lang at kung ano ang ginagawa ng isa't isa.
Days passed by quickly and she spent her vacation binge-watching several kdramas and TV series. Halos umaga na rin siya natutulog kaya hindi siya agad nakakasagot ng chat nito at halos oras ang pagitan ng replies.
Her family also celebrated Christmas with the standard food on the table. Pagdating ng hatinggabi ay nagbatian sila ng mga kaibigan niya at nauwi sa group call.
"Wala bang magreregalo sa akin d'yan?" tanong ni Gray habang kumakain ng lumpia.
"Sige, shuta ka, reregaluhan din kita ng Katinko!" she retorted after remembering his gift for her birthday.
Natawa naman si Gray sa sinabi niya. "Essential kasi 'yon! Kunwari ka pa, ginagamit mo rin naman!"
"Galawang tita," Elle chimed in.
There were just laughs and banters for a good thirty minutes. Pagkatapos no'n ay nagkulong na siyang muli sa kwarto niya para manood ng movies, pero bago pa siya makapag-ready ay nakita niyang binati siya ni Benjamin sa chat.
Her lips automatically curved upward, much to her surprise when she realized it. Kahit wala namang tao ay na-conscious siya at agad na itinikom ang labi niya.
For the next few days ay magka-chat lang sila at nag-uusap ng kung anu-ano. Deep inside, she already knew that she liked him, too, and she wanted to tell him that, but her skeptical side was holding her back.
She knew confessing took a lot of courage, but the burden would always be on the receiver, because they would either accept or break someone's heart. But what made him different from the others was that he said telling someone you like her wasn't a question she needed to respond to. That his intent was just to sincerely express how he felt for her, and not for her to reciprocate it.
Still, she felt like she needed to say something about that, too.
Ianne decided to address it during New Year's Eve. Nagkakantahan na ang parents niya at ang mga kapitbahay nila sa labas pero nandoon lang siya sa sala nila habang kaharap ang phone. Pakiramdam niya ay lalabas ang puso niya sa sobrang kaba.
Nagcha-chat lang sila tungkol sa mga pinaggagawa nila at nang makahanap siya ng tyempo ay tinanong niya kung pwede siyang tumawag. Few minutes later, he replied yes.
With her trembling hands, she called his number and mentally noted the things she wanted to talk about.
Benjamin was singing Balisong when Ianne called and his relatives were watching so he had continue the song. Palibhasa ay binibida siya ng mga magulang at kapatid niya sa mga ito kahit average lang naman ang boses niya. Ayaw niya rin naman magpatalo sa mga pinsan nila dahil ganoon naman lagi kapag New Year. Laging may pagalingan sa pagitan ng mag-anak.
"You mesmerize me
With diamond eyes
I try to fool myself
To think I'll be alright
But I am losing all control
My mind, my heart, my body and my soul."
"Hello?" Ianne greeted, clearly confused, because he was just singing. "Bakit ka kumakanta?"
"Never in my life have I been more sure
So come on up to me and close the door
Nobody's made me feel this way before
You're everything I wanted and more."
He was worried she would end the call but she listened quietly until he finished the song, though there were moments where he could clearly hear her stifling a laugh.
"Whoo! Ang galing naman ng songer na 'yan," she teasingly cheered.
Agad naman siyang tumakbo papasok sa kwarto niya at halos magkandadapa-dapa siya sa hagdanan nila.
"Ang condescending 'pag galing sa 'yo," he retorted. "Porque mas magaling ka lang kumanta sa akin nang slight."
He realized she could sing during the fair. Noong sinasabayan nito ang mga kanta ay nagulat siya na maganda pala ang boses nito. Perhaps that was also one of the many reasons why he was enthralled with her that night.
Ianne cackled. "Sigurado ka ba d'yan sa slight?"
"Medyo magkaboses naman kami ni Rico Blanco."
He heard her gasp. "Hoy mahiya ka naman kay Rico! 'Di siya napipiyok nang gano'n!" she remarked, referring to how his voice cracked earlier.
Natawa naman siya sa reaksyon nito. "Oo na, oo na. Bakit ba kasi si Rico lagi ang kumakanta 'pag magkausap tayo? Sa fair, tapos ngayon naman. Pahamak."
The line went silent for several seconds. He thought the call got cut and was about to check his screen when he heard the faint but quivering breathing on her end. Narinig niya ring humugot ito ng malalim na buntonghininga.
"S-speaking of fair . . ." Her words hung in the air, making him hold his breath. "You know . . . 'y-yung sinabi mo sa akin that time . . ."
"Ah, 'yon . . ."
"Uhm . . . ano kasi . . ."
The rising tension and brief silence were making him dizzy. Hindi niya alam kung ano ang maririnig niya, lalo na at mukhang nahihirapan si Ianne na sabihin ang gusto niyang iparating.
He heaved a sigh to calm himself. "Sabi ko naman sa 'yo, hindi mo kailangang—"
"No," she interjected. "Gusto kong sabihin na gusto k—"
Parehas silang napasigaw bago pa matapos ang sasabihin ni Ianne. Bigla na lang kasing nagpaputok ang kapitbahay niya at nagulat si Ianne sa pagsigaw niya.
Puta, mamaya na kayo magpaputok! he cursed in his head as he hastily closed his windows.
"Ano ulit 'yon?" tanong niya. "Hindi ko narinig."
He heard the first words, but he did not want to assume anything. He wanted to hear it again, this time, clearer.
"Wala na! Ayoko na!"
He chuckled at how flustered she sounded. "Ang duga nito. Hindi ko nga narinig."
"'Di ko na kasalanan 'yon!"
"Kasalanan nga ng paputok! Dali na, 'di ko nga talaga kasi narinig, promise."
Ianne breathed deeply and the silence that followed made him hear his own pounding heart. "I . . . feel the same. Gusto rin kita."
For a moment, he thought he just misheard it. No, he wanted to believe that he misheard her because what she just said was beyond belief . . . and that the sprout of hope he had been hiding in the deepest part of his heart would grow and bloom out of his control.
"Pakiulit . . ."
"Ewan ko sa 'yo! Bahala—"
He cracked up at her reaction. "Sorry na. Hindi pa kasi nagsi-sink in sa akin."
"Gusto kita," she repeated, and he blushed because he did not expect her to say that again. Narinig naman niya ang isa na namang malalim na buntonghininga. "But I'm so sorry, I . . . I'm not yet ready for any commitment."
Parang lumubog naman ang puso niya sa narinig, hindi dahil sa sinabi niya, kundi dahil sa tono nito. He could hear the pain and fear in her trembling voice.
He knew her commitment issues and fear would not disappear overnight. It would not magically go away just because she liked someone again. And he could completely understand that.
"Okay lang," sagot niya. "Hindi pa rin naman ako makapaniwala kaya 'di pa nakakarating 'yung isip ko sa commitment na 'yan," he snickered. "Wala namang nagmamadali rito."
"Sorry . . ."
"Bakit ka nagso-sorry?"
"Feeling ko kasi ang unfair ko," she mumbled.
"Bakit unfair?" balik niya. "Dahil hindi ka ready mag-commit?"
"Ako rin naman," tawa niya. "First time para sa akin lahat ng 'to kaya hindi ko rin alam kung ready na ba ako o hindi pa. And one more thing, you're allowed to have doubts. It's natural to feel worried, especially after what happened to you."
"Benj . . ."
"Let's take things at our own pace," he continued. "And maybe, one day, kung darating man, kapag ready ka na, saka natin pag-usapan 'yan."
The sounds of fireworks filled the silence between them.
Ianne pondered on the words he just said. She had been in bad relationships, so perhaps it became natural for her to wonder if the next one would end up like that, too. But what comforted her was when he said she was allowed to have doubts. That even if she thought she was with the right person right now, the fear would still be there, and that her mindset would not magically change.
But the thought of being with the right person also made it less frightening to risk her heart again.
"Hypothetically speaking," she said, breaking the silence, "kung magiging tayo man, can you promise me one thing?"
She choked back the dread rising in her throat. "Kapag na-fall out of love ka na, o kung nagsisimula ka nang magkagusto sa iba, can you tell it to me honestly?"
His brows furrowed in confusion. "Ha?"
"I mean . . . break up with me first before falling in love with someone else." She forced a laugh. "Kapag naka-third strike ako, maniniwala na akong malas ako at baka sa akin nga ang mali."
He heaved a sigh with a scowl on his face. She was practically asking him not cheat because of what she had been through. Ianne had always been confident when talking about herself, but when it comes to relationships, her self-esteem had taken a nosedive. He couldn't help but get resentful at her ex for making her doubt herself when she did nothing wrong.
"Okay," sagot niya makalipas ang ilang segundo. "Pero hypothetically speaking, kung magiging tayo man, bakit breakup agad ang nasa isip mo?"
"Parang doon naman lagi napupunta 'yung akin," she snickered.
"Malay mo hindi na. Paano kung umabot sa kasalan?" biro nito.
Natawa naman siya sa narinig. "Matagal pa 'yun, wala pa akong pera."
"Ah, so pera ang problema mo, hindi ako?"
Ianne's face immediately felt hot. "Luh wala naman akong sinabing gano'n! Bakit kasi napunta sa kasalan?! Advanced ka mag-isip!"
He laughed heartily. "Eh ikaw rin naman, advanced masyado mag-isip."
Natabunan na naman ng ingay ng mga paputok ang usapan nila. Pagtingin ni Benjamin sa orasan ay mag-a-alas dose na. As if on cue, his relatives downstairs started the countdown while both of them remained silent. Once the clock struck 12 AM, the whole neighborhood cheered in celebration. Fireworks lit up the sky. Adults clanged metals outside their houses. Kids excitedly jumped, believing they'd get taller.
He grinned widely. "Happy new year!" sigaw niya dahil hindi na sila magkarinigan.
Ianne was laughing, too. "Happe new year din! And thank you!"
"For understanding," sagot niya. "Sige, need ko na bumaba! See you next week!"
"Mm. See you!"
After the call ended, he stared at the screen for a few seconds, trying to take in everything that had transpired. Hindi naman niya napigilan ang pagngiti niya.
Next week. He couldn't wait for next week.
Ianne was excited for the new year, but the paperworks upon returning to work were something she wasn't looking forward to. Idagdag pa na ang daming bagong projects ngayon at thesis students kaya ang daming dapat asikasuhin.
They were busy the whole January that they did not even have the time to hang out. Mabuti na lang at nakakausap niya pa rin si Benjamin sa chat kaya kahit papaano ay nakakapagpahinga siya.
Na-open niya na rin sa friends niya ang tungkol dito nang lumabas sila noong birthday ni Chi last January 29. Alam nilang rare occasion na makalabas si Chi sa ospital kaya naman kahit busy sila ay naglaan sila ng time para rito. Besides, mahigit isang taon na rin noong huli silang nagkita-kitang lima.
"Hoy gago, 'wag ka muna mag-jowa," Gray said as soon as he finished singing. Nasa KTV kasi sila at ngayon na lang ito nakainom kasama ang friends niya. "Paunahin mo si Chi!"
Chi laughed at his remark. Kumakain lang ito ng nachos dahil hindi siya pwedeng uminom. "Wala na, Gray, tayong dalawa na lang ang nasa single's club. Mamaya ikaw na 'yung sunod ha?"
"Maghanap ka na kasi ng mayamang doktor," Elle chimed in. "Wag matanda."
"Sa fiction lang naman may gwapo, bata, at mayamang doktor," dagdag ni Cayleigh.
"Truth!" sigaw nila sabay cheers.
"Pero anong status n'yo?" asked Chi, shifting the topic back to her.
"Hmm, parang more than friends? M.U?" she chuckled. "Shuta akala mo high school pa rin, eh 'no?"
"At least walang ghosting, 'di ba, Cayleigh?" pang-aasar ni Gray.
Cayleigh drank her cocktail drink. "True."
"Okay lang 'yan. Maghihintay naman 'yan kung seryoso sa 'yo. Saka anong magagawa mo kung hindi ka pa talaga prepared?" Elle said. "Mas mahirap i-maintain ang isang relationship kung hindi mo na-sort out nang tama ang feelings mo. You'll end up hurting not just yourself, but the other person, too."
"Oo nga, saka natural lang naman na matakot kang pumasok ulit sa isang relationship lalo na't you've been cheated on twice," dagdag ni Chi.
Cayleigh nodded in agreement. "But you know, if you feel like he's the right person, then don't let that fear gets in the way of a potentially good relationship. Loving someone is always a risk, so . . ."
"Yes naman, Miss Cayleigh, expert ka na rin sa pag-ibig!" sabay akbay ni Gray rito. "Wala na akong masasabi kaya bahala ka na sa buhay mo. Desisyon mo pa rin naman 'yan. Malaki ka na."
"Wow maraming salamat sa napakamakabuluhang statement!"
Matapos ang seryosong usapan ay nagsimula na silang uminom nang uminom. That night, all the doubts and worries that kept her real feelings at bay were washed away by the liquor.
When February came, she decided to go on dates with Benjamin so that they could know each other better. However, they became more cautious of their actions. They might have held hands before, but that was because of some circumstances. Now, they were both aware of each other's feelings so the intent would be different.
Napansin niyang lagi nang nasa bulsa nito ang mga kamay niya kapag naglalakad sila nang magkatabi. She asked about that one time and was surprised with his reply.
"Baka unconsciously kong abutin 'yung sa 'yo, eh," he jokingly said. "Dapat ikaw mag-initiate para alam kong pwede."
She did not tell him, but her heart fluttered that time because despite holding it several times already in the past, he still respected her personal space. Natutuwa rin siyang nandoon pa rin ang closeness nila sa isa't isa kapag nag-uusap sila. She was grateful that they could still talk like friends and laugh at each other's humor and teasing.
Siya rin ang kasama niya noong week ng Valentines. They didn't want to spend the day in the malls so they had a quick getaway. Nagpunta sila sa malapit na beach at naglakad-lakad doon.
She found it refreshing because instead of flowers and chocolates and other romantic stuff, they spent the day running around and playing in the water.
"Hoy, burahin mo 'yan! Parang tanga 'to!" sigaw niya nang kuhanan siya ni Benjamin ng candid photo. "Ang panget ko d'yan!"
He ran away while laughing. "Ipo-post ko 'to sa birthday mo!"
Hinabol naman niya ito at pinagtinginan pa sila ng mga tao dahil para silang mga bata. But she was happy doing childish and weird things with him.
Spending time with him made her realize that she felt safe whenever she was with him. That she was starting to trust him much more than before. However, when she thought about the future, there was a conception at the back of her mind that she could be deeply in love with a person, but also be scared to be committed to that person.
But there were also a lot of times when she thought she might have been treating him unfairly. Or if she was taking things too slow that he might think she was just leading him on. Sometimes, she would worry that she might make him wait for a long time and would end up pushing him away . . . and that scared her much more than her fear of commitment.
That was when she realized she would rather risk her heart again for her present happiness, than lose the chance because she was scared of getting her heart broken in the future.
"Saan tayo pupunta?" tanong ni Benjamin nang ayain niya itong lumabas.
It was March 14, Sunday, at nagpasama siya rito. She told him she'd buy something, but the truth was she was waiting for this day. In Japan, this day was also known as White Day, a special occasion when people give reciprocal gifts for their partners, lovers, or someone who confessed to them.
"Wait, bili muna tayo chocolates," sabi niya at mabilis naman itong nag-okay.
Halos marinig na ni Ianne ang tibok ng puso niya habang naglalakad sila. Nang makarating sila sa hypermarket ay dumiretso sila sa sweets section. Benjamin reached for her favorite chocolates with his left hand while Ianne was staring at his right.
She had been hesitant of going all the way these past few months and she knew Benjamin understood her reasons. She had kept him at arm's length to protect herself, but this time, she wanted to prove that even if she was scared of commitments, she could still make a commitment.
She reached for his hand and held it tenderly. It might be a small step, but for her, it was a leap of faith.
Benjamin, on the other hand, went rigid. Nang makita niyang hawak ni Ianne ang kamay niya ay parang huminto rin ang utak niya. And the next moment, his thoughts and feelings were all over the place.
He drew a shaky breath as he slowly shifted his gaze back to her face. Pagtingin niya kay Ianne ay nakatingin ito sa kabilang direksyon at nakatago ang mukha.
Benjamin grinned. "Ianne," tawag niya. "Itong chocolate ba?"
"Oo, 'yan na," she murmured, her face still facing the opposite direction.
"Hindi mo nga nakikita," biro niya. "Tingnan mo."
"B-basta 'yan na!" she exclaimed.
Benjamin stifled a snicker. "Tingin muna ng mukha mo."
Muli siyang napatingin sa kamay niya. He gently adjusted his hand, this time, lacing his fingers through hers and lightly squeezed it. Her warm hands reminded him of the time he first held them, and this time, he did not want to let it go.
"Akala mo ba special ka?" he chuckled. "Hindi lang naman ikaw ang pulang-pula na ang mukha."
He felt like all the blood in his body rushed into his face. Maging ang mga tenga at leeg niya ay namumula na pero wala na siyang pakialam. He was beyond happy after what happened.
"So, ibig sabihin ba nito . . ."
She heaved a sigh. "Alam mo na 'yun."
"Anong alam ko na?"
"'Yun na nga 'yun," she muttered. "Pag talaga ako niloko mo . . ."
"Maloko lang ako, hindi manloloko," he retorted.
"Tara na nga!" sabay hatak ni Ianne sa kanya.
Benjamin jokingly craned his neck toward her face. "Tingin nga muna kasi ng mukha."
"Parang tanga 'to," Ianne commented, but she was smiling. Nilapat niya ang kamay niya sa mukha ni Benjamin para hindi siya makita nito. "Kumain na nga lang tayo."
He laughed in response. "Hindi mo na bibilhin 'yung chocolate? Sige, saan mo gusto?"
This time, she turned to his direction and smiled warmly. "Ramen Nagi?"
"Okay, tara, marami tayong pag-uusapan."
They walked hand in hand with their beet red faces and radiant smiles. Being with someone who loved her as much as she did was something she could only wish for before. But right now, that someone was walking beside her and holding her hand.
Commitment still scared her, but someone like him did not deserve half the love, attention, and trust that she could give.
If it were him, maybe the fear would be worth it.
If it were him, risking her heart and believing he would never hurt or abandon her would be the right and best thing to do.
And if it were him, perhaps the idea of forever would be something she could finally look forward to.