There are at least two things that you yourself wouldn’t want to miss. One, seeing your dad at the audience area during your first ballet recital. Second, having your firsts.
Mama bore me with a furious mole on my cheek that swells every time I grin and has been resting itself for years on my eyeglasses’ rim. Next to that, I’ve never tried Victoria’s Secret for my scaly skin. Perhaps that was why my classmates never shared tables or sat with me during recess, or else they also thought I was a complete freak who lived in the attic. Although sometimes, I did believe Mama when she said that it was because of my high mental capabilities (Mama taught me that) that I’d get chewed gum on my skirt and lose my desk during Homeroom. But you see, that was more of the “not so good” part of my life. Just like Cathy and the girl behind her and the janitor who cleaned the girl’s restroom, I did have fun too.
Down from our ancestral house was a trail I made myself that led to a river that suffered much from the summer drought. On sunny days, the river would be so shrunk I’d see Papa fish and Baby fish lying lifeless on the gravel of its bed. Amazing though that I could count them. I’d take off my shoes and follow them as they increase in numbers, and, at times, I would have to stop for a while to count the fishes that were piled on top of each other. Sometimes, the big stones felt hot to walk on so I’d walk along the river’s shore and try counting the fishes from there. I’d do this when I’d miss my Papa, or when I become sad, or when my Mama wants me to wash the dishes. I get an inexplicable relief walking away from things I don’t want to feel.
Several days before my ballet recital, Papa’s secretary called to tell Mama that Papa was extending his business trip, and will not be able to make it to the recital. And just like the days when guys wearing red caps rung the doorbell at an unusual hour of the day and Mama would get flowers from Papa, I had mine that day too. Only, it wasn’t flowers. Only, the guy who was supposed to wear a red cap was not wearing one. Only, it was just Papa’s self-redeemed gift wrapped in a green box, which I did not open.
That day, instead, I ran down to the lifeless river. I ran as if I swam it. It seemed to me that both my feet wanted to outrun each other. That the other foot wanted to be the fastest but that the other one always kept up. I ran and reached my breath’s end. But I did not shout; I just got tired. I sat down, leaned my back under this rough, gray, and shriveling tree. I knew I was sitting there, and why I was there. But I did not know why the tree was there, or if I’ve seen it before. I finally caught my breath, and was ready to look at anything but was actually too lazy to see anything when I noticed a figure leaning towards me.
“Yeah.” I heard the dead leaves crunch as he placed himself beside me. That was also when I saw that there were dried leaves around me, and that the tree had no more leaves.
“Did it ever seem to you that you needed a friend?”
He was just an ordinary school boy. The one you thought you knew the face of but do not really know his name because he’s just among the rest of the guys in your school. Just like everybody else, he’d come late during school programs, has had at least one nobody girlfriend, and, perhaps, has had chicken sandwich and Chinese Zest-o-Cola for recess.
“I want you to be my friend.” It only occurred to me later that to this statement, I should have answered by asking him why. It occurred to me too late when I’ve already found ourselves comfortably talking with each other. So I decided that the same did not matter, perhaps.
It was a long conversation. The first I had with a stranger. The next was hellos. That day, we never really talked of something that made sense. No particular topic, no questions about who you were, or what you did last summer. No patterns that led you what to ask after the other had answered the question, or what to open up after you had answered the question that the other had asked.
Yet, as with all the other days, the sky turned orange and the lifeless river wanted to sleep. I told him we have to say goodbye to each other and that night became the first night I could not sleep.
You may think that I have become completely out of my wits in thinking that all the love songs were written for me, or that I could possibly write more sonnets than Shakespeare did. No I was not, and no, I did not. I just combed my hair and washed dishes that dinner.
The next day at the school’s cafeteria, I expected him to share the table with me. He did, and asked me how far I was working in our Math workbook.
“Almost halfway.” It did not need the sun for me to see his lips break into a smile, or how close he did lean towards me.
“Well, maybe you could help me?”
“After class?” What an answer I thought to myself.
“Whenever you wish.”
The rest after that became the words I wrote on the diary I’ve had since Grade Three.
Every morning he would greet me with hello, asked me how far I’m working, and if maybe I could help him. After class, I patiently waited for him by the withering tree. How it was possible, I asked myself, to sit and walk for an hour through the river and see nothing worthy of note, I know not why. Yet I’d honestly forgive him the next morning when he’d hold my hand and say, “My mom told me to buy her medicines,” or “My little brother had a problem. I was asked to fetch him. I hope I’m still your friend?”
It was neither a “thank you” nor a “forgive me,” at least for the nobility of waiting for him. But it was the most beautiful thing one could hear. One of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard.
Papa arrived the day after my recital. He apologized for not having enough time to make it to my ballet show. “You don’t have to be sorry. I was kinda expecting it.” I said to him.
I rushed to the school that day thinking he was waiting for me in the cafeteria, or maybe was hanging out with his friends right in front of our room. But he was not there. In his classroom, I did not even see his bag on his chair.
But maybe he was at the river waiting for me. Maybe he knew that it seemed to me that I needed a friend that day. Past our ancestral house, I took off my shoes and ran as fast as I could, and thought of the Papa fish and Baby fish I counted. I thought of summer drought, and the shrunken river, and the gray stones. I thought of how my feet felt when I’d stop to count Papa fish and Baby fish on the big stones, and to count the fish that were piled on top of each other. I thought of the river’s shore and how I counted only few Papa fish and Baby fish because I could not see them all from there. I thought of the river and the fishes. But I thought not of the rough, gray, and shriveling tree, and thought not of seeing him with Cathy underneath that tree.
The following day appeared empty. All I did see was him smiling, and leaning towards me.
“Hello Molly.” I looked up at him, and saw his face. I looked at him and that day, it occurred to me that it was the only time that I did really see that that was his face. That he had shrunken eyes, eyes that perhaps could not see all the fish in the river because they were hiding in their sockets. Eyes that stared at you, but you knew that they were not looking at you, and that they will not be able to see and count all the fish before it. He had eyes that were there, only that they were eyes that could not see.
“Hey, what’s the matter, why the long face?”
“I like you.”
“I saw you.”
“Hey, look, you’re not even cute? Wait, hey, who says I can’t be with somebody else anyway?”
“I came for you there.”
“I was never there, Karen.”
I opened the green box later that afternoon and found a new pointe shoes and a video cam with an attached note that read:
Tape the best day of your life.
I’m always here for you.
I wanted to think that you never had me at hello, but you did. But that night, in my bedroom and with all the things that mattered to me, my father and I talked.
Krisza Joy Kintanar finished BA English from UP Mindanao.