BAI LOOKED AT me again and again. Maybe it was because my eyes were so puffy from barely having any sleep, but that was no excuse to keep glancing at me in class. I gave her a look.
“Did she talk to you again?” Bai whispered.
I turned towards the blackboard and nodded.
“Do you want to share baon today?” she asked. I told her yes.
After class, we waited until everyone else went to the canteen. Bai swiveled in her chair to face me and crossed her arms.
“Inah says we should choose our own friends. She’s right, you know.”
“Did she make you tuna sandwich?” I asked. “You can’t eat mine, it’s eggs and pork.”
“That’s three days now. Mrs. Corazon probably knows we’re sharing.”
“You can have my juice.”
Bai spent the rest of recess trying to help me understand the math lesson ahead. She explained things simpler than the teacher. As always, I understood better with her.
By the time the bell rang, I was feeling proud of myself. Bai pinched both of my cheeks.
“You did it!” she said. “You should smile more, Lila. You look like a teddy bear.”
“Teddy bear?” I asked. I thought of a huge, brown thing, the one people won at carnivals for hitting the bull’s eye. “That big?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that, Lila!”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Mama says I should start exercising, anyway.”
“What did she say this time?” asked Bai.
“The same,” I said in a tiny voice. “She said I’m not supposed to be friends with you anymore.” I pursed my lips and busied myself with putting away my lunch box. When she was sad, Bai pouted and widened her eyes like a puppy. She only did that when she felt really bad for me, which was becoming more and more often.
Bai adjusted the veil covering her hair. It was pink today. She held my arm and said, “Let’s go buy some stuff at the mall after class, okay? I’ll tutor you on the way.”
WHEN I GOT home, I hid the bracelets I had bought with Bai under my bed cushion. I wondered if I would ever get to wear them.
“Susmaryosep,” Mama said over her dinner plate. “It’s the same thing in every channel. Ampatuan massacre, Ampatuan massacre. We should start going to Church again. Hold your fork properly, Lila.”
It was on television again. The white vans in the same grassy field, the men with hats and shirts with S.O.C.O. printed on them, and the pictures of the men on the ground. That really got Mama going, and whenever she complained about anything, she shook her head so many times it made me dizzy. I was dizzy now.
“Look what’s happening to the world,” Mama waved her fork towards the TV. “Everything’s gone crazy, anak.”
“That’s in Maguindanao,” Kuya grumbled.
“And?” Mama argued. “You think those Muslims can’t march right up to Davao? There’s plenty of them here.” Mama frowned in my direction before I turned my eyes away.
I kept silent. I still didn’t know why Mama didn’t like Bai just because she was Muslim.
“Are you listening?” asked Mama. “You stay away from that classmate of yours.”
“But Bai says they don’t know the people on TV.”
“They’re Ampatuan relatives,” Mama almost spat the word. I flinched as she continued. “Mahar, Andal, Sangki—they’re all the same.”
Bai’s last name was Mahar but I didn’t care. I sliced my pork chop until I heard the plate clang.
“You still share your lunch with her?” asked Mama.
“Good. If she bothers you, I’ll go to the teacher myself. Lila, your fork.”
“But Bai is nice,” I mumbled over the buzz of the TV. “She helps me in school.” On the other side of the table, Kuya was staring at me. His eyes said, don’t.
“Stop it, Lila.” Mama put down her fork.
Silence. Even Kuya cowered in his seat, but Mama wasn’t done.
“Muslims sleep on the floor,” she said. “They don’t wash their hands, and they cheat people out of their money. Do you want to be friends with people like that?”
I said no.
“You can find other friends,” Mama was saying. “Look at your Kuya. He has a lot of friends in the varsity.”
“Batchoy isn’t on any team,” Kuya said. “Not in a million years.”
“She just has to lose some weight,” said Mama. “It’s just baby fat.”
Kuya shrugged. If I were him, I wouldn’t believe it, too. “Baby fat” was one of Mama’s more ridiculous excuses, along with me having big bones and slower metabolism. She and Kuya didn’t have any of those issues.
The following days at school, I paid attention to Bai more closely. When we split money to buy popcorn at the canteen, she gave me my change back to the last peso. I even tried to buy her a snack the next day, just to see what she would do. When I checked my wallet at home, there were five extra pesos that weren’t there before. Bai told me she slipped it in, for the popcorn I had bought her.
When I asked her if she and her family slept on the floor, Bai laughed. “No,” she said. “But Nanay said I almost fell out of my crib when I was little because I was so fussy. We pray on the floor, though.”
“On the floor?” my heart sank. “No pillows?”
“No, but we have a special rug. Does that count?”
“Oh, it counts,” I sighed in relief. “You use it so you don’t get dirty?”
“Yup. We also wash our hands first.”
So Mama was wrong. We didn’t even wash our hands in Church, whenever she forced me and Kuya to go with her on a Sunday once or twice a month. Bai and I continued walking to PE then, and I thought nothing more about pits, shootings, or Bai being dirty. I followed her blue-covered head all the way to the school gym.
AFTER A MONTH, I was suddenly called out from class. Bai still hadn’t arrived because I was early that day. The teacher told me to bring my bag along, which was odd. Then, she told me at the hallway that I’m being transferred to another section.
I didn’t even get a word in. She just said, “Ask Mrs. Corazon when you get home,” and led me to a classroom upstairs. Just like that, I was on new territory. The expected stares and whispers assaulted me the whole day long.
At one point in class, everyone had to work in pairs and the subject teacher set me up with a boy who did nothing but sleep. I did the entire seatwork and didn’t put his name in.
I couldn’t face Bai at lunchtime, so I ate alone on my seat. She didn’t find my new section. Of course, she wouldn’t. She probably thought I was sick.
Later, while I slunk on the gate bench waiting for a tricycle, Bai plopped down beside me out of nowhere. She had a red veil around her face. Her arms were crossed and her eyes were angry.
“Where were you?” she demanded.
“I was transferred,” I told her. “To another section.”
“Ha? Why?” she said, taken by surprise. “What section? And why didn’t you come to lunch?”
“Why do you think?” I asked crossly. “My mother made me transfer. She doesn’t want me hanging around with you. The last time, she said she’d go to the teacher.”
“And you blame me?” Bai was now raising her voice too. “What do I have to do with it?”
“Well, for starters,” I said. “Your relatives are on TV. And not in a good way!”
“We don’t even visit Maguindanao anymore! You’re being stupid.”
“Right, that’s me. Your fat, stupid friend who always needs your help.”
Bai just stared at me. As she grabbed her bag, she turned to me and took off her bracelet. She always wore it from the day we bought matching sets. I didn’t know exactly what she meant by it, but she handed the bracelet to me. I took it and I watched her go down the steps and disappear into the crowd.
I immediately went to find Kuya, and found him near the vending stalls.
“’Choy,” he said. “What’s up?”
“I was transferred to another section,” I said. “Do you know anything about that? Mama didn’t do that, did she?”
“’Course, she did,” said Kuya casually. “Told you so.”
I couldn’t bring myself to respond. Before both of us knew it, I was sniffling and mopping up my face with my hands. Kuya was frantic.
“Jeez, Lila, you’re such a crybaby. There are people here!” He gave me his handkerchief. “Let’s get out of here.”
Kuya carried my backpack while we walked. When we reached a sari-sari store, he stopped and made me sit on the makeshift bench made of wood. The whole thing creaked under me.
“I told you to keep quiet about Bai,” Kuya lectured. “Three ice candies po,” he said to the old man in the store.
“She’s the only friend I have.”
“So? You two sneak around then.”
“But she’s angry with me because I fought with her.”
Kuya rolled his eyes. “She’ll come around. Friends are funny like that.”
“Mama doesn’t make you choose your friends,” I complained.
“She doesn’t like me because I’m fat.”
Kuya paused. “She just likes my grades. That’s all. Pull your grade up a little and start asking for things.”
“That’s not it.” I swallowed. “You’re her favorite.”
“Want to know the truth? She’s only that way because she’s afraid you’ll grow up,” Kuya shrugged. “It’s stupid. Of course you’ll grow up.”
“I wish Papa was here.”
Since Kuya was such a Mama’s boy, Papa had always been the one on my team. He had a heart attack two years ago on the ship where he’d been working. I could still remember Mama’s face as she crumpled against the wall when that telephone call came.
For the rest of the afternoon, Kuya and I ate mango-flavored ice candies. I felt better by the time we got home. Mama even tucked me to bed and kissed me good night before I slept. I let her.
MAMA WAS IRONING my uniform. It was the weekend after what happened with me and Bai. I still didn’t know if it was a fight; it didn’t feel like one, and in the pit of my stomach I knew she would come around. Just like Kuya said.
Mama called me over. She showed me how to smooth my uniform, but I was totally zoning out.
“Are you listening?” asked Mama. There was real concern in her voice that made me feel warm.
“Ma,” I said softly. “I was transferred to another section last week…you didn’t do that, did you? Bai and I fought about it.”
“She wasn’t good company, Lila,” said Mama. She folded my blouse, and set it aside. “I was the only parent in your class who had the guts to pull you out.”
“That’s not fair.”
“I’m only being protective,” said Mama “Where it concerns you, I should be.”
“Why don’t you tell Kuya to stop seeing his friends?” I asked. “Why don’t you make Kuya transfer sections? Why don’t you tell him to sit up straight and hold his fork properly all the time?”
Mama paused. She looked hurt, just like Bai did, but I was already fed up. Kuya was the one on the team, Kuya was the one who had lots of friends, Kuya could do all the things he wanted. Mama played favorites, and I knew where I stood. I knew all right.
I rushed to my room and shut my door.
That night, I dreamt about big men eating insects from the ground. They were all butt-naked and at their center was a huge pile of money. Joined by our matching bracelets, Bai and I watched from the corner.
BEFORE THE WEEK ended, I looked for Bai in our old classroom. Right after dismissal, I caught her looking down at the quad with her arms along the railings. As if sensing I was there, Bai looked up. Her hair was all wrapped up in yellow.
She already looked sorry, and that made me forgive her even more. I walked up to her and we both made up. As easy as that.
“I can’t believe I gave you the bracelet,” Bai laughed.
“Can you still tutor me?”
Bai’s eyes lit up. “Why don’t I teach you at our house? I’ll show you all my K-Zones, and we’ll buy nail polish. It will be so much fun!”
“I’m not sure…”
“Let’s do it!” Bai shrieked. “This weekend.”
“Mama won’t like it,” I told her. “And Kuya will probably tell on me.”
“Bring him, then! Just don’t tell Mrs. Corazon.”
“Won’t your mother be angry?” I asked.
“Inah says Mrs. Corazon shouldn’t have transferred you, that it was really insulting. She was really concerned about it,” Bai shrugged. “But I told her to take it easy. She wants to meet you, you know.”
“Your Inah wants to meet me?” I asked, nervous.
I’ve never been over to a friend’s house before. At that moment, it sounded like an adventure. I couldn’t possibly say no when Bai and I just made up.
“Saturday at lunch time,” I told her. “How do I get there?”
THE WALLS WERE not too high. I thought there would be barbed wire around tall concrete columns but just ten minutes off the highway of Matina Crossing, the Mahars only had a white-painted fence and pots filled with flowers. As I got down from the tricycle, Bai met me halfway and walked with me through their front door.
“She’s here!” Bai squeaked excitedly. The house was even bigger than ours, and it looked cozy. For some reason, I expected everything to be grimy and dusty, but the walls, tables, even the sofas were clean. Rugs covered the floor.
I was both disappointed and relieved. Bai’s house looked like any other house, and why wouldn’t it? Not everything Mama said was true.
“So, you’re Lila,” a woman said. She walked into the room with her arms covered in oven mitts, on top of which was a large casserole. With a heavy thud, she put the dish in the middle of the table. Her hair was covered in black.
Mrs. Mahar was even prettier than Bai. Her eyes were covered in beautiful make-up and I felt unsettled when she smiled in my direction. She seemed to be making her mind up about me as we sat at the table.
“You two girls eat,” she finally said.
The three of us ate comfortably while Bai talked. My responses were a series of nods because I wanted to seem decent to Mrs. Mahar. Her eyes kept flicking over to me as she offered me dish after dish.
“How come your brother’s not here?” she asked. “Aren’t you two close?”
“We are po,” I told her right away. “He’s staying at home for some chores.”
Kuya was actually staying home to cover for me. I felt too embarrassed to say it out loud.
“What about your mother, Lila?” Mrs. Mahar asked. “Isn’t she home?”
I tried to make my expression as open as possible. “She works on Saturdays po,” I told her carefully. “But we all have dinner together.”
“Dinner is always for families,” said Bai’s mother. “Maybe you’d join us sometime, if your mother lets you.”
I said maybe. Mrs. Mahar smiled a little bit. “I hope you‘ll talk to your mother, Lila. She’s right. We are related to those people you saw on the news. But we’re as distant as any two families could get. Bai’s father abroad made sure of that.”
On the other side of the table, Bai’s cheeks were red. She looked embarrassed.
“You’re Bai’s friend, too. Now all your teachers are different, and you have classmates you don’t know. That bothers you quite a bit, am I right?”
Out of words, I just nodded at both of them. After we ate, Mrs. Mahar let us hang out in Bai’s room. Her walls were painted green and she had so many books in her shelf. She lent some to me. We pored over the comic sections of K-Zone and TotalGirl magazines, put glitter on the back of our hands, and pasted stickers in notebooks. When I got home, I displayed the books proudly on my headboard along with the bracelet I had bought with my friend.
IT WAS ONLY a matter of time before Mama found out. I had to keep more than just bracelets now. If I hid everything Bai had lent me under my bed, I’d never sleep comfortably again. I’d even gone to the Mahars twice already, even though Mrs. Mahar obviously had mixed emotions about my secret visits. I wasn’t choosing any sides, though. I was just trying to keep a friend.
I was on my third visit that one Saturday when a series of loud knocks came from the door. Mrs. Mahar turned the knob, and there on the threshold stood my mother. She was still wearing her bank uniform. The smile on my face—Bai had been telling a joke—froze. I had the urge to run away from the room and jump out of the window, any window, but Mama’s eyes landed right on me. Bai lifted her hand from my shoulder, and shuffled behind me on the couch. From where we sat, I could see Mama’s tense lips.
“Lila,” Mama said, “Time to go.”
“Sorry,” Bai whispered from behind me.
Mrs. Mahar was facing my mother. “Do you want to come in?”
Mama shook her head no. “No, thank you. Lila, now.”
“Lila’s not giving us any trouble,” Mrs. Mahar said out of nowhere. Mama looked embarrassed. Bai’s mother continued, “If she wants to stay, I don’t see why she shouldn’t.”
Mama really looked like she wanted to say something, but couldn’t. I hurriedly grabbed my things. “I’ll be right there,” I said.
“She wants to go,” said Mama, nodding in my direction.
“We’re not monsters,” Mrs. Mahar said in a voice so low I probably wouldn’t hear it if the room wasn’t so quiet. “Try explaining to your kid why you treat us like one.”
Bai’s red-covered head peeked out from the sofa cushions, towards her mother’s spot by the door. Cheeks flushed, Mama clutched my arm as I stepped out of the house. She didn’t reply to Mrs. Mahar at all. I barely managed to wave goodbye before the door closed softly behind us. She walked away quickly.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked.
“I’m deciding,” she said as she hailed a tricycle.
The tricycle took its time to get to us from the other side of the street.
“They don’t go back there anymore,” I told Mama. “They don’t want to, and they said the city’s safer.”
Mama still wasn’t speaking. I thought of what that must’ve been like for her, going up to a stranger’s house and asking for her daughter to come home. It was probably the first time she’d seen Mrs. Mahar. The first time she’d seen Bai, with her scared dog’s eyes. She was such a little thing to be frightened about.
As we went on our way home, I saw Mama’s face soften. She was probably thinking the same thoughts about Bai. Or maybe she saw the look on my face just before I saw her standing by the Mahars’ door. With a smile she hadn’t seen in days.
“I’M COMING BACK there next week.”
I couldn’t make out Mama’s expression. Right after we got home, I made up my mind and spoke before we even got to the couch. Kuya had already sought refuge upstairs.
“What did you say?” Mama asked. “I’m going back to Bai’s,” I said, resolute. “Next week. Because she’s my friend.” My heart was pounding, and I kept my hands balled into fists inside my pockets. Mama didn’t seem to know what to do either. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and said nothing. “I’ve been there three times now,” I continued. “They were perfectly nice. They’re not like what you said, not at all.” Mama sighed the smallest of sighs, but it was like a light had gone out from behind her eyes. Then, I saw clearer than ever the shadows under her eyes, the thinness of her cheekbones, and the way her eyes seemed to slope downward. She aged right in front of me, and there was a hollow feeling in my chest where my heart was supposed to be. Like gravity had suddenly loosened up a bit. “You decide, Lila,” Mama smiled tiredly.
Instead of being happy, I felt cast off. I had to remind myself that this was what I wanted.
Mama continued, “I guess you’re big enough now.”
“Grown up enough,” I corrected her.
Mama nodded. She then came near, patted my head, and walked past me deeper into the house.
There was no longer any pull for me to follow.
Arielle Calañas completed a BA in English (Creative Writing) degree in the University of the Philippines Mindanao.