There is nowhere else to sit but on the steps outside the high school building’s main hall. Every kid in my batch are playing patentero and sekyo base, and I was too late in joining them. I think I shouldn’t have spent so much time reading the Gironimo Stilton books in the library after dismissal time; I mean, yeah the books are good but I’d rather be out and running with the rest of them than looking stupid here all by myself.
It doesn’t help that P is suffering from chicken pox. His mom told my mom that he’d be stuck in the house for another week.
Pulling my legs closer to my chest, I rest my forehead on top of my knees to avoid the sunlight. Summer vacation was coming soon. It was bound to get this hot from here onwards.
“S,” cooed J.
My head shoots up and I see her sit beside me, to my right. She tucks her skirt beneath her for the second time and offers me her slurpee. “Why so sad? Tired from class? It’s impossible that you’re still not used to a whole day’s schedule. C’mon, it’s been a year already.”
I scowl at her. “I’m used to it.”
“Then what’s up? Someone bullied you?”
“I don’t get bullied anymore!”
“Okay, okay.” She tips her head back as she laughs. “No need to be so defensive! I’m just curious because you’re usually playing with the other kids. That’s all.”
I fold my arms across my chest and open my mouth to respond, but I catch a glimpse of L and I forget what I’m supposed to say. L takes small strides towards the school guard house and the guard, who is used to her commuting home, immediately whistles for a tricycle. I watch as he jots down its plate number and the driver’s name.
I must have been staring too intently because she sees me, smiles at me, and waves goodbye.
I shut my mouth and raise my hand in response. Then she slips into the sidecar and disappears in a blur with her pretty long hair and the pink bows she always ties around her ponytail. She must have been the prettiest girl I’ve seen in my life, but of course I won’t tell this to mom. She’d think I don’t love her anymore.
J whistles a descending tune as she leans back on her elbows. “Looks like S here has a crush on that cute girl.”
“I don’t.” Glancing behind me to check for eavesdroppers, I say, “Are you even allowed to drink that outside the cafeteria, J? Miss P said in the morning assembly that it’s not okay for us to-“
J jumps to her feet and shoots the plastic cup of slurpee into the nearest trash bin. She misses, shrugs, and returns to sitting beside me. I sigh because this is not the first time she did this, and I pick up the cup to throw it properly. My friends are still playing games and sweating hard and yelling at each other.
One of the high school students – I’m not sure if she’s J’s friend – approaches her to sell heart-shaped candies. Valentines day is coming, I suddenly remember, and I haven’t made plans as to how I should surprise L.
J buys two and gives one to me. I ask her why she’s giving it to me and she looks at me crazy and says, “It’s just a candy. And I love you, buddy. You’re the kindest man I’ve ever met. You deserve an early Valentine’s treat!”
This is weird coming from a woman I just met last year, but I let this pass.
She takes a bite out of her candy. “Aren’t gonna eat yours?”
I twirl it by the plastic stem and shake my head. “I don’t wanna ask mom for money to buy a gift for L, so I think I’m just gonna give her this on Wednesday.”
“L? Is that the girl who rode the tricycle by herself?”
“Yeah, that’s her.” I lower my head to hide my blush.
J inspects our surroundings, scoots closer, and lowers her voice. “So, does this chick know you like her?”
“She’s not a chick,” I say. “We’re still children. And I bet she can’t have a boyfriend yet, and mom would think I’m still too young to have a girlfriend. She’d say things like I don’t have a job yet and dad will remind me that he’s still buying my clothes for me. But I’m planning to change that after I give Thea a gift and tell her I like her.”
She pouts and nods. “You plan to get a job?”
“Yeah. What do you think?
“What job are you eying?”
“I can start by being a janitor, ‘cuz I read somewhere that some billionaires started out that way.” I smile at the heart-shaped candy in my hands. “But I won’t tell L or any of my friends because they’re still too young to understand. I’ll tell them my life-story once I’m rich on my own.”
“I see.” She nods at the distance and takes another bite out of her candy. “Those are big plans, S. Do you have an appointment already?”
“For a job interview, idiot.”
I tip my head to the right and stare at her. “What’s a job interview?”
J rolls her eyes. She gathers her hair in her hand and pulls it over her right shoulder the way she always does when she’s about to explain something she’d rather not explain. “Okay, how about me make a deal? I’ll not tell Aunt C and your dad about your crush and your janitorial ambitions, and you don’t tell anyone – ever – that you saw me smoking in my room. If you manage to comply with that agreement, I’ll give you a bonus of one hundred pesos to buy L a Valentines gift.”
The image of cigarette rings forming and drifting out of J’s bedroom window returns to me. It was a stench I’d only smelled on mom when she was still a smoker, and when she quit, I never expected to smell it in my house again. But there was J the other week, leaning over the window with a cigarette stuck between her lips while she was reading Teen Vogue. The stench was slightly different, though. It’s kind of sweet, and it made J’s eyes blood-shot.
I remember her chasing me out after she realized I had poked my head inside her room. Really, all I wanted to do was ask whether she wanted to accompany my siblings and me to the park that afternoon. She must not have been expecting anyone to bother her.
She kept on telling me that I was stupid and I should have knocked. I told her that I did knock. Her music was too loud. She was listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers. I couldn’t understand that kind of music.
J doesn’t seem to remember being mean to me. She is grinning the way she grinned when she apologized for accidentally spilling water on my math project. It’s a grin I don’t trust; it’s a grin she keeps on using on me.
But I really like L.
I stretch my hand out. “I need the one hundred pesos later. And you need to come with me to the mall, understand?”
We ended up buying a teddy bear that evening. Don’t go thinking it’s anything big or special – I learned that day that you can hardly purchase anything of value from one hundred pesos alone, and although I wanted to buy something bigger to impress Thea, my allowance of fifty pesos a day hardly helped considering I had to make that fit for both recess and lunchtime.
So the bear we bought was a small one that fit in an even smaller teacup. J told me it was cute enough to pass for L’s taste, but I wasn’t confident.
“She likes somebody else already,” I muttered on our way home.
J wrapped her arm around me inside the tricycle. The road going home to Sta. Rosa Village is bumpy but traffic-free. Mom and dad wouldn’t catch us having detours after school, for sure. “You don’t know that for sure, S. Stop being such a coward. Give her the fucking gift and – sorry, I meant to say ‘the gift’ – and show her how brave you are. So you’re not the most handsome guy in your class. Who cares? You’re going to work as a janitor and climb your way to the top, right? Cheer up! Your goal is to make her happy! If she doesn’t fall for you on Valentines Day, she may fall in love with you the day after or the month after or the year after or the years after that!”
I scratch my cheek and peek inside the paper bag. “Sure. I’ll try.”
Valentines day comes, and L receives a gift from three of us in class. Of course, we ended up being teased, but I do like the feeling of being brave. Afterwards, I performed better in class and felt a strange tingling in my gut that makes me happy for doing something I’ve never thought of doing before.
Hey, I might just go to a job interview and pursue my janitorial ambition. If I start now, I’ll be a billionaire by age twelve! L can’t say no to me then. Maybe the girls will start giving me gifts on Valentines Day.
I can’t wait to be rich.
I feel, that day, that I am wearing J’s grin. I wear it as I run to the high school department to tell her of my bravery. She is always lounging near the bookstore and reading a romance novel or a book about life’s purpose, so I head straight to her usual spot and find her sitting there surrounded by heart candies and a bouquet of flowers.
I stop at the curve of the hall, panting, silently watching her.
She does not eat the candies or smell the roses. She is staring at the book without turning the page, and I knew at that moment that I had never seen a girl be so sad.