Monday, June 28, 2010

an affair within an affair

At some point we all wake up from a dream, whether it's good or bad. Guilt has a way of doing that to you. It eats you up, consumes you. When there is still some senses left in you, you give in to that guilt and try to correct the wrong you know you are doing.

One morning I woke up to the fact that no matter how much in love Benjamin and I were, he was still married and had a family and they were his priority. He went back home everyday no matter what it was we did. That was where he belonged. I hated thinking that I was just a "side trip" but the truth boiled down to that fact. I could have him, easily - take him away from Diana and their children. But would I want to be the one to have to wreck little Daniela's heart? I didn't really care about Diana; technically she "stole" Benjamin from me. But my conscience told me Daniela and her two little brothers would bear the hurt if I were to assert myself. No, I told myself I couldn't do that.

How could I move forward if I was still living in the past? It took me long and hard to realize that I belonged to Benjamin's past and he belonged in mine.

Lee had reserved a table at the Palace dining room of the Shang-ri La Hotel in Singapore. We had flown earlier in the morning and he had asked me to find a suitable dress for dinner. I chose a knee-length sheath red haltered dress and accessorized it with a Jackie Kennedy pearl necklace and tiny pearl stud earrings, bare arms and white high heels. As the maitre'd ushered me to our table where Lee sat waiting, two gentleman, sitting in separate tables, stood up and vowed as I passed. Another one sitting at the bar doffed his hat.

"I saw that," Lee whispered with an amused grin as the maitre'd held the chair for me.

"And I saw YOU!" I teased him. "You were like a peacock strutting your stuff."

"I had to make a claim right away!" he laughed. "You are lovely by the way. That's probably why the jerks there couldn't help but admire you."

"I thought we had company, clients perhaps?" I said when we were alone.

"Just us," he said quietly.

Something was up, I sensed it. Expensive trip, expensive hotel, expensive dinner. He's dumping me, I thought. That's when I realized I had been playing fire for too long, that I was actually having two affairs at the same time, with two wonderful men. Was it really possible that one could be in love with two people at the same time? How would I feel about Benjamin if Lee and I were through? Or vice versa?

We ordered our favourite wine, and our appetizer. When he lifted his wine glass, I lifted mine and clinked his glass.

"Spill it, babe," I said with a wry smile. I was pretty sure he was dumping me.

I was wrong. And I was shocked.

"Let's get married," he said and it felt like a bomb.

We would go to the States and he would file a divorce against his wife. Then we would marry. He wanted to make an honest woman out of me. He wanted us to have a life. He wanted to have me exclusively.

"What do you mean exclusively?" I said, pretending I was hurt and insulted.

"I mean just 'us'. You and me." No more Rosaire or the thought of her standing between us. I would bear his name. And his child. If I wanted to have his child.

Only then did I notice the little black velvet box on top of my plate setting. Inside, there was a solitaire ring, a white gold band with very fine feligree etchings and a solitary diamond. He took the ring from the box, took my hand and slipped the ring in my finger.

"Marry me, Cynthia," he said softly.

I stared at the ring in my finger. It was the simplest piece of jewelry that Lee had ever given me in our five years of living together. It was also the most beautiful.

"Why must we fix something that is not broken? Haven't I proved myself to you in all these five years?" I asked. He tightened his grip on my hands. "Why don't we do this step by step, the first of which is for you to divorce Rosaire first, then let's take it from there."

"Was that a 'no'?" I saw the disappointment in his eyes.

"It's not a 'no'. But I will say 'yes' when you are already free to take my yes."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"the love you give and the love you make"

Benjamin's mother sat on a chair in the living room. I walked over to her and kissed her hand. She smiled and asked me to sit down.

"Thank you for helping Ben and his family." Her smile was sincere, her eyes had the same twinkle in Benjamin's, only hers betray the years of hardship of bringing together a family of seven children all by herself. Her husband died when Benjamin was a young boy.

Little Daniela had just come back from playing and when she saw me, she rushed to say "Hi".

"How are you?" I said as I patted the top of her head.

"I'm good. I"m so glad you came back." She looked at her mother who quietly poured Coke on a glass with small cubes of ice. Diana ignored her.

I held out a small tin of shortbread cookies to Daniela who eyed the shiny tin happily as she let out a short gasp.

"Share with your brothers, okay?"

The two Mrs. Suarez sat on separate chairs opposite each other, the older making small talk, mostly thanking me for my help and briefly chastising the younger one for not showing more appreciation. I was about to say something when Benjamin emerged from the bedroom. He hobbled towards an unoccupied chair but Diana stood up for him to take her chair.

From the looks in her eyes, one could see that Mrs. Suarez's favorite child is Benjamin. I understood that she gave birth to Benjamin after her family converted to their present religion. They were not rich but they were comfortable and I understood from their stories that the elders at their church had helped them a lot. This was why it was important that Benjamin married someone within the faith. Diana was the clear choice when she promptly converted to their faith. Not the obscure girl from a Catholic family.

A few weeks had passed before I saw Benjamin again. I had deliberately avoided visiting him as I felt uncomfortable with Diana's cold reaction to me and confused albeit understanding of Benjamin's family's wonderful treatment. I sincerely did not want Diana to feel like I was intruding, although I enjoyed the friendly reception of his mother and sisters.

Benjamin had no sign of his injuries and the lip stitches didn't seem to have left any mark at all. He had wanted to take me to dinner to thank me. I chose to go to a restaurant which I knew Lee would never go to.

The trouble with Benjamin and me was that whenever we saw each other, we acted like there's no one else in the world but us. Friends would see us together and greet us and we would barely acknowledge them, and it wasn't like we were hiding from anyone. We could talk about anything, big and small, important and trivial, with the same intensity and interest. Sometimes I felt inadequate for someone with a college degree and there were a lot of things that I didn't know about that Benjamin knew. He was up to speed on current events and could express either a biased or a non-biased opinion. And I was (and still am) a sucker for being pampered. I liked it that he held the door for me every time, holding my elbow as we walked through, being ahead of me when going down the stairs and behind me when going up; he shielded me from the rain and from the sun. He and Lee were a lot like each other.

The intimate part became inevitable, and it came with no warning, but with no surprise either. It just happened one night when Lee was away on business. We did not discuss it at all. When it happened we just let the circumstance lead us and we followed its flow. The one thing I learned from it was that the act of making love was so different and more fulfilling, emotionally and physically, when you are both so much in love with one another.

Not that I didn't love Lee. I'd give the world to him if that would make him happy. But I'd go to the end of the world for Benjamin. I would die for Benjamin. And I lived for Benjamin.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

we can't be friends...

As soon as Lee and I arrived back in town, I called St. Mary's Hospital to find out if Benjamin had been discharged as scheduled. The operator confirmed so. There was a hurt look in Lee's eyes as I pushed my bags in a corner of the living room and rushed out.

"Lee, honey," I said. "Benjamin's an old friend. Please don't be jealous."

Lee nodded and smiled, but I could see the hurt in his eyes. It had been a pleasant week at the beaches up north in Ilocos. I had never seen him so relaxed. I had to take him away from work and from his family so he could unwind. His wife had been creating so many problems for him and the children were not cooperating either. Lee had a tendency to drink excessively. The doctor had warned him about his already fragile liver. So I took him away for a week so he could relax. Of course, I had to ask the hotel for the use of the telex machine so he could still communicate with the office.

But now, we were back. To the city. To his business. To reality.

"If I divorce Rosaire, and we get married, would that be enough to keep you in the relationship?" he quietly asked, his face turned to the window, overlooking the financial district's skyline.

"That's not a fair question, Lee," I replied. "Am I out of the relationship? What are you talking about?"

"This Benjamin, he seems so important to you."

"He was in an accident. I promised to see him when I came back. He is a very good friend. I would like to know how he's doing."

"Were you thinking of him while we were away?"

I rolled my eyes in exasperation. "Lee, I have no time for this, please. And no, I wasn't. Thinking of him while we were away." I headed for the door. "And just so you know, I am still in the relationship right now, and when I come back. If you want me to." I opened door, stepped out and closed it behind me.

I didn't have a hard time finding Benjamin's house. He and his family lived in a big house where the other occupants were his unmarried sisters and brother and their mother. Benjamin's was a one-bedroom affair on the second floor. He was sitting on a chair when I arrived. Diana let me in, without as much as a single word. But at least she smiled at me.

"Who are you?" a little girl, their four-year-old daughter asked me, beaming a smile. One of her front teeth was missing.

"I'm Cynthia," I said. "What's your name?"

"Daniella," she replied. "I like you."

"I like you, too, Daniella. But what happened to your tooth?"

The girl laughed rather shyly and went to bury her face in her father's arms.

I spied Diana heading out the door.

"Are you leaving?" I asked.

"Yes, I have to go to the pharmacy," she replied, "to get his medicine." She waved her hand in Benjamin's direction. Then she was gone.

"Ben, is she really upset? Because if she is, I will leave right now. I don't want to cause you any trouble."

"She's jealous," he said. "I suppose it's a natural reaction."

Daniella sat on my lap.

"My mommy is jealous of you. I know why."

"Why?" I asked and Benjamin winked at me.

"Because you're pretty. She said you love my daddy."

"Oh, your mommy is very pretty, too, don't you think?"

"Yes," she said as her little hand caressed the curls of my hair. "You smell nice."

"C," Benjamin started to say. "Thank you for your help. I didn't ask to call you so you could help me, I want you to know that."

"It's okay, Ben. Everything comes down to us being friends. And if I can help, why not?"

"I didn't want to die without seeing you." He leaned against the window sill as he spoke. "Strangely enough, with each blow, with each punch, all I could think of was you." He slowly shook his head, eyes almost welling in tears. "I couldn't explain that. Not to Diana. Not even to myself."

"You told Diana?" I was aghast as he slowly nodded his head.

The brief moment of silence that existed between us seemed to take hours. I didn't know what to say, but I knew what to do: I wanted to embrace him and kiss him. I wanted to have Benjamin.

He broke the silence, and I was thankful for it.

"I won't be able to pay you right away. I mean, I can pay you little by little as soon as I get back to work."

I smiled at "little by little".

"I'm not asking you to pay me back. I'm not expecting anything back. I just wanted to help out, that's all."

"But that's a big amount of money."

I shrugged my shoulders and Daniella mimicked me.

"My mommy said she doesn't like you." Daniella said this with a smile. Benjamin's eyes bulged in surprise. "She said you and her cannot be friends."

"Why?" I asked in a playful tone.

Benjamin tried to stop Daniella, but the words already spewed out of the young girl's mouth.

"Because she said my daddy loves you more."

Monday, June 14, 2010

and so...

"Who was the handsome young man with you at lunch today?" Lee asked as he bent down to kiss me on the forehead.

We were at the L'Orange for dinner with one of his important clients, Mr. Pratt, the owner of the largest poultry farm in the country. Lee's company supplied and maintained the machineries and equipment for this client. Mr. Pratt wanted to sign the contract for a second batch of equipment for his company's expansion plans over at dinner.

In the dim lighting of the restaurant, as Lee sat on the other side of the table, I saw the glint of jealousy in his eyes. Lee had always been the insecure one in the relationship, even though he's the one who was married, even though he's the one who flirts with women most of the time, even though he's the wealthy one and can afford any other women. The twenty-two years between us was like a nasty ghost that seemed to haunt him and no matter what I say to reassure him that I loved him, the insecurity still reared its ugly head.

"So you were at Sakura this afternoon! I wish I saw you. You should've said hello and I could've introduced you to Benjamin." I spread the large white damask table napkin over my lap. The waiter came with Lee's favourite wine which I had ordered as soon as I had arrived.

"Who is Benjamin?" Lee asked.

"Ex-boyfriend," I said, "from college."

I took a sip of the wine and looked at Lee squarely in the eyes above the rim of my glass. He winced. "No need to be jealous, darling. He's happily married and has three young children."

I pulled out a manila envelope from my brief case and took out copies of the company's bid for Mr. Pratt. It was also my way of changing the subject. Presently, Mr. Pratt arrived with a young woman clinging to his arm - a pretty young thing whose face was thick with make-up. Although such thickness still didn't hide the fact the pretty young thing is a convent girl, one who comes from a well-off family and studying or studied in an all-girls exclusive school which was run by nuns. I suspected, as Lee had earlier confirmed, that Mr. Pratt wanted me to be friends with his little girlfriend.

After the obligatory introduction, we sat down and ordered dinner. Mr. Pratt and Lee talked business while his young companion tried to engage me in conversation about hair, clothes and make-up. Of course, she was disappointed that I did not go to any particularly famous hairdresser, nor did I have my own "coutourier" and that my clothes were bought off-the-rack at a middle class department store. Horrors! Lee had in the beginning of our relationship tried to convince me to go to a named designer but when I finally got convinced, I chose a young aspiring designer to sew my dress for a wedding I had to attend. That was it! The only concession we agreed on was my expensive, high end make up. I did patronize YSL and Chanel but only to some extent. I believed then, as I do now, that it's how one carries the dress, and the makeup. As for the hair, I hate anyone fiddling with my hair, except to trim it once in a while.

When we drove home, Lee made several attempts at gushing about how pretty Mr. Pratt's young companion was. I knew it was all a farce.

"Lee," I said, "Benjamin means nothing; he's all in the past. You don't have to pretend to be attracted to whatever-her-name is to make me jealous, because I can't get jealous. Not with the little tarte," I said. We drove the rest of the way home in silence.

That night, Lee and I made love, but for the first time, I felt guilty because all throughout the act, I had been thinking of Benjamin.

What would it be like to hold Benjamin, or to be held by him. In college, when we dated, we went as far as kissing and petting. Benjamin was an excellent kisser and his hands were light, his touch felt like a feather floating in the air. And he was sweet, in words and in action. From that night on, I had always wondered how it would be like to be loved by Benjamin. Because of this, I chose to limit seeing him. I was afraid that I might fall in love all over again if I saw him often. Benjamin seemed happy with his family and I was committed to Lee at the time. I told myself that re-living the past would not bring any good to anyone.

But the thought persisted. And so this time, it was I who chose to stay away.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

a conversation

The head waiter stopped by our table.

"Hello, Miss Cynthia." He bowed his head slightly.

"Hi, Miguel," I said. "You're on the night shift today, I see."

I ordered tea and Benjamin ordered coffee. It was already well past midnight, after his three beers and my one glass of wine, and we still had a lot of stories to tell each other. I asked Miguel to bring the bill. After the waiter had left, Ben remarked, "I'm impressed, they know you here."

"I send them business all the time, why shouldn't they? Part of my job," I said as I fished out my credit card from my wallet and placed it on the table.

"You're out of my reach, C," he said, the sadness in his voice evident.

"What do you mean, I'm out of your reach?" I asked, although I knew what he meant.

"Look at you and your achievements, while I'm still a lowly sales clerk. You finished your course, I didn't. The only advancement I made in my life is I'm now a sales clerk for an expensive department store. But I'm so glad for you. And yet I feel guilty."

"Guilty?" I said. "Guilty about what?"

"That maybe I drove you into this situation you're in." He gestured his one hand towards me. "You're shacking up with a married man, despite the fact that he's separated. You deserve more than that, you know?"

"Don't worry about me, Ben. It's not anybody's fault I am with a married man. I chose to do this." I looked at him straight into the eye and said, "Remember, I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul."

He chuckled. In college, when he was still Danny's "bridge", I would join him and his classmates in digesting their literary assignments in English. That passage from William Ernest Henley's poem Invictus was my favourite.

"I remember what you told me one time when we were still in school." He fidgeted with his lighter as he spoke. "That getting a higher education is your one goal to get out of your family's poverty. I admired your conviction, and to see you actually doing it. I feel so envious and proud of you, at the same time, if it is at all possible to feel that way."

"The only regret I have is that Mother is no longer around for this." I looked away. Miguel came by with our tea and coffee and picked up my credit card.

"Well, I still feel guilty," Benjamin said. "It makes me think that it was I who broke you. It hurts me, C, it really does."

"Well, you did break my heart, you know," I said, but smiling. "But that was a long time ago. I've moved on, you've moved on. What happened after that has nothing to do with you. It's all my own doing." I searched for emotion in his face, but the sparkle in his eyes, no matter how sad he said he was, distracted me and I lost my trend of thought. I hesitated a bit before I said, "The way things are now is just fine with me, I assure you." I patted his hand and winked at him.

"You know, I still believe that if we're really meant for each other, it would happen even if we're seventy."

"Seventy? That's too old!"

He looked at me. A smile formed in the corner his lips.

"I don't want to be that old. I'd be all wrinkly and droopy by then!" It was at this point when Miguel came back with the bill.

"We won't be able to have sex by then!" The words poured out of my mouth in jest. I saw the shock in his face, the cheeks already red from the three beers he already had. Miguel smiled discreetly and hurriedly left.

I waved my hand in a dismissive gesture with a large grin. "I'm kidding."

Friday, June 11, 2010

catching up... after eight years...

By the time I came out of the fitness club, the mall had closed. Benjamin stood at the entrance to the fitness club, smoking a cigarette and speaking to one of the sales persons he was working with, Kevin, his young apprentice at the engraving shop. I held out my hand to shake Kevin's hand when Benjamin introduced us. The young man gushed, obviously impressed that Benjamin had an ex-girlfriend who shook hands and spoke English.

"Where can we sit down and have coffee?" I asked them, although my question was actually directed to Benjamin.

"Everything's closed," Benjamin said. "It's well past nine. Unless you want to have a beer..."

Kevin patted Benjamin's shoulder, said goodbye and walked away.

"I don't drink beer, but I can have some wine," I said, as I waved goodbye to his friend.

"Wow, you're a class act now. Wine!" he teased, grabbing the large shopping bag I was holding.

"Let's go the Inter-Continental. The coffee shop there is open 24 hours," I suggested. He chuckled and shook his head, as if in disbelief.

"Are you loaded?" he asked in a teasing tone.

"No," I said, "but I'm not broke either." I laughed.

"You looked the same as when you went in the club," he said on our walk towards the Inter-Continental Hotel. "Except your hair is wet." He lightly touched the back of my head, then the hand slid down the small of my back, a very light, but very powerful touch. My spine shivered, and he knew it. I reached for his hand and our fingers intertwined.

"It's been years..." he said quietly.

"Yes," I said, "eight years since I last saw you and yet you still have the same effect on me." I dared not look at his face. We were silent for the rest of our five-minute walk to the hotel.

We sat at a corner table overlooking the now quiet swimming pool. He wouldn't order any food so we ended up drinking, beer, for him, and a Mai Tai for me.

"I'm so glad you finished your studies. You were very smart, as I recall." There was a hint of poignancy as he talked. It was evident that we were both hurt by what fate had handed us. It was obvious we were still in love even though we had both moved on. He took my hand and noticed I was wearing a wedding band. "Who did you marry?"

"I'm not married," I said, lowering my gaze to my Mai Tai. I withdrew my hand and played with the little umbrella of my drink. "I can't marry anyone." After a short pause, I said, "I don't want to marry anybody. There's only one person I wanted to marry, and you know who that is. But it's all moot and academic now."

The coffee shop had a few occupied tables far away from us. I let the din of conversations linger.

Finally, I said, "I'm living in with my boyfriend. His name's Lee Cashman; he's American. And Lee wanted me to wear this ring. I like it though." I tried to lighten my voice as I stretched my hand to survey the glittering jewellery on my finger. "It took a while for me to get used to wearing jewellery."

"Is he married?" I felt his intense gaze. I took a sip of my Mai Tai. Both our pains were palpable in the short silence that ensued.

"Yes," I said. "But they're separated. And I didn't cause their breakup, if you must know."

"So what do you do? What kind of work, I mean," the smile on his face returned, albeit forced.

"I'm an executive assistant. I never practiced being an accountant. I can't even balance my own bankbook!" We both laughed and he said a joke that had now skipped my memory and we laughed some more.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

meeting him again, for the first time

I had to go to Joanne Drew, the fitness club in the tony financial district but I forgot to bring a towel. The salon was located right next to Rustan's, a high-end department store where the Forbes Park- and Bel-Air-type people shopped. I didn't have cash and only had a few hundred American dollars in traveller's cheques, leftovers from a recent trip to Australia. I went to Rustan's, searched and found the towel suitable for my purpose and paid for it with my traveller's cheque. The cashier asked me to cash the cheque first at the foreign exchange counter.

I had to walk across the floor to the FX counter. That day I wore a deep red sheaf dress with a high slit on one side, and high heels. The FX cashier was counting my money when I heard a familiar voice behind me. I turned around. Suddenly, Benjamin and I were facing each other.

You know in the movies, how a scene like that would be shown as a slow motion, the camera panning between the protagonists? It felt like that when I heard, then saw Benjamin. It seemed to me like everything else and everyone else were swept from the room and there was no one else in the scene except him and me.

"Ben!" I exclaimed, the excitement in my voice could not be contained.

The same smile, the same sparkle in his eyes, the same lithe body, I felt like I was 17 again. Had it only been eight years? It seemed like I saw him last in another lifetime. He had not changed.

The surprise and the excitement was also evident in his face. He had been working at the department store for a year now. How could I have missed him when I would shop here almost every week. When he saw the high-heeled lady, the slit of her red dress so high up her thigh, it aroused his interest. His fellow sales clerks dared him to speak to me. His post was at the engraving section and it was right beside the FX counter, so he had a reason to be there.

Automatically, his hands reached out to mine and there we were, standing in the passageway, staring at each other's eyes, stupidly smiling at each other. The FX cashier's voice broke the spell.

"Ma'am," I heard the cashier say. "Please, your cash!" As if waking up from a dream, I shook my head and walked back to the cashier. She started to count the money again but I didn't really care about it. She called me back again to give me my receipt. I felt my knees weakened as I walked back to the sales cashier to pay for my towel. Benjamin was right beside me, and I couldn't believe it.

I knew for sometime that he had married. So I tried to act as non-chalantly as I could but my voice quivered when I asked him, "How's your family? How many kids do you have now?"

I heard the other sales clerks teasing him. "Aw, she knows you're married!" and they laughed.

"I have three kids, the eldest one is a girl, five years old now," he replied, while he waved his friends away.

"Look at you, you look so...pretty." It took a long time for the word sexy to come out of his mouth. "You look like you're doing well." Then, as if remembering something, "Are you still modelling?"

"No, not anymore," I said. "I'm going to work out next door but I forgot to bring a towel, so, here I am. Buying a towel from your store."

"And an expensive towel, too," he reminded me. "What time are you through?"

"About an hour plus a few minutes for a shower."

Then, we said at the same time, "Would you like to have coffee after?" and we both laughed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

life goes on

I kept Benjamin's letter for a long time. At one point, I had memorized its contents. In later years, I would read it back whenever a relationship went wrong. His letter served as my initiation to the realities of life. As a young person, I was told, I had read and I believed that love trascends all differences, that love conquers all. Benjamin's letter proved it was an ideal, something that is perceived only in the mind, that it could be attained but at an enormous price. In later years, Benjamin's letter served as a reminder to me that nothing good lasted forever. It kept me grounded whenever a new relationship started.

But Benjamin became my measuring stick. He was a complete gentleman. Whenever he walked me to the jeepney station, he walked on the outside part of the sidewalk, opened the door and let me enter or leave first, always holding on to my elbow. He was always ready to protect me. I had never seen him get angry. He was not a confrontational person. He was always ready to help out. Best of all, he was always smiling.

A year later, Danny heard that Benjamin had an accident. He made every effort so I could visit him. I didn't want to upset his family with my visit so Danny took E.S. along with us. We were to pretend we were all just his friends.

I saw the sparkle in his eyes when he saw me. I kept my best "just friend" look, but seeing his injuries, I broke down. Throughout the visit, I sat down opposite him unable to speak, unable to even touch him. When we were leaving, however, he did manage to come near me and squeezed my hand, whispered for me to not worry about him and that he was okay.

"Thank you for the poem," he said.

In May of that year, I wrote a poem for his birthday which got published in a magazine. He read the magazine, saw the poem, titled "Many Happy Returns of the Day, to my Benjamin". Before I could say anything to him, E.S. pulled me out of the house; she said Benjamin's brother and mother were staring.

While waiting for our ride back to the school, Danny said, "They knew you, Cynthia."

"I don't know why you couldn't restrain yourself from crying. Of course, his family knows you are the Catholic girlfriend!" said E.S.

I kept a picture of Benjamin in my wallet. It bore no writing at the back. Three years later, I got involved with a young engineer in my office. Whenever we would go to the canteen for a meal, Jaime always commented on the picture which he assumed was my father's. I never felt the need to correct him so that when one day, he heard one of the girls asking me about the picture, Jaime got so angry, he forced me to discard it. I refused. It was our first fight. In the end because I hated any more arguments, I gave in.

It was ironic then that when I was breaking up with Jaime two years later, it was Benjamin who made me make up my mind to do so. Jaime and I were having an argument while walking, when suddenly, Benjamin turned up. He didn't see me right away, but his name just came out of my mouth. When he saw me, walking with Jaime, Jaime trying to pull me away, I saw the hurt in Benjamin's eyes. I kept looking back to Jaime's disgust. Right then and there, I told Jaime we were through.

When I looked again in Benjamin's direction, he was gone.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

the letter

When the next semester came, to my disappointment, Benjamin did not register. The stress of school and work had gotten to him. But he came to see me sometimes in school, and sometimes at home.

One day, he forgot to hand me back my notebook when I got on the jeepney to go home. He picked me up the next day, we had a snack of pizza at the nearby market/mall and returned my notebook. When we got to the college, he said he wrote a letter in my notebook. He said that I should read it. He said he will be away for a few days, that I won't be able to speak to him, to see him. But he wanted me to read his letter.

The letter fit in one whole page. In his neat handwriting, tiny letters with loopy capitals, he wrote how much he loved me and that he was sure I was the one. The "however" part came in the middle of the page. He belonged to another religion, which he and his family practiced devoutly. He was the first to have been borne to this religion, after his family converted from Catholicism. He understood that my parents, especially my mother, was a devout Roman Catholic. He wanted to marry me, but he said we might have a problem because his religion forbade anyone to marry outside of that religion. Doing so meant excommunication, for life. He would not risk that.

For days, I walked around light headed and unable to sleep and eat. At some point, my stomach felt so bad I threw up until nothing came out. So this was how it was to be in love. And die at the same time. Everytime I read his letter, I had expected the contents to change; that I read it wrong the first hundred times. My young mind made a resolve, religion would not be a problem. I actually made up my mind we would marry civilly, and then I could adopt his religion, whatever it was. I assured myself my mother would understand.

I remembered the few times Benjamin and I talked about having a family. For God's sakes, we actually had names for our children: Pag-ibig (Love), Pag-asa (Hope), Ligaya (Happiness) for girls, and Benjamin Vincent if we had a boy. That was the one and only time I let myself be guided by my emotions and actually think I would marry and have children. Love has a way of changing one's perspectives. The only part of our dream that I had reservations was the fact that if we marry, I would have to stay home. But I thought, he would understand when the time came, my need for independence. But I would not let the dream be waken by my caprice and my ambitions.

He showed up in school after a week. The gang was ecstatic, but I had started the process of staying away from the group. He found me sitting alone in an empty classroom, doing my accounting homework. I didn't know how to react. First of all, I didn't know whether he was breaking up with me in the letter or simply telling me facts. He noticed that I lost some weight. For the first time, I cried in front of him. When he put his arms around me, the whole world changed.

When you are young, you are guided by your dreams and wishes and your ideals. At 18, I was full of ideals. But actual events could make you want those dreams direly or abandon the ideals entirely.

For the next several weeks, we went about as normal as we could. When I learned which religion he belonged to, I knew we were not meant to be together. But we were in love. I didn't want to give up just yet. The catalyst was when he told my mother his religion and the prospect of us getting married. My mother said in no uncertain terms, she would want us to marry Catholic. After that, I can join his religion if I wanted to. In one of our conversations, I asked him, "Can't we marry before a judge?" He said no, the church elders did not allow that. "And what if we elope?" No can do, he would be excommunicated. This religion only allowed marriage within that religion.

My first heartbreak was just around the corner. I channeled my broken emotions into writing poems and I doubled my reading time. I remember as a child, we had two books at home about stories from different places. I used to "travel" through those books to forget the abject poverty we were in. This time, I turned to reading again to forget and heal my broken heart.

After a few months, on my nineteenth birthday, I came home and my mother handed me a package. Benjamin came by in the middle of the day and brought me a present. It was a green and pink knitted dress. He left a small note, he wanted me to have that beautiful dress to remember him by. He had told his family of our predicament and they adamantly opposed our relationship. The only way to change their mind was for me to convert to their religion, now. He wrote that he had found a job in a far flung place. But he said we weren't breaking up. He loved me too much to let go. But a separation was in order for us to think about our circumstance. In my heart I knew we had reached the end.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Benjamin tried to endear himself to my parents. One evening, he arrived at my doorstep after supper, looking dapper as always. My father had met him before but had largely ignored him, even when Benjamin tried to engage him in conversation.

When he arrived, my father was playing chess with my young brother, who showed not an ounce of interest and the game ended as quickly as it had started.

"That's an interesting chess set," Benjamin said. The board was hand-made by my father, and the men were leftovers of different discarded sets.

"Do you want to play?" Even I was surprised by my father's invitation. My mother egged Benjamin on who promptly pulled a stool and placed it on the opposite side of the chessboard.

I never played chess and I didn't know the rules of the game, so I went about my chores in the kitchen although I had a good view of the living room. Both men wore serious looks in their faces, the concentration visible in the clenched jaws. Obviously Benjamin knew the game quite well and that posed either an annoyance or a challenge to my father. If Benjamin won, he would in all likelihood be annoyed because he lost; but if Benjamin loses, he'd think my boyfriend is dumb. I was of course rooting for Benjamin.

When Benjamin won the match, to my surprise, my father laughed it off, telling Benjamin, "Were you not supposed to have let me win?"

Benjamin smiled, "Really? Is that the rule? We can have a re-match, if you want." And they both laughed

My father got up and took a bottle of rum from one of the drawers of his work table, asked for two glasses, handed one glass to Benjamin, and poured rum in the glasses. They engaged in discussion of the news, history and traded opinions on a number of issues. The night finished without me talking to Benjamin.

When the semester ended, I saw less of Benjamin. It meant he would have to come and visit me instead of us seeing each other in school. I had no excuse to leave the house so I contented myself waiting for whenever he showed up. One late afternoon, I was upstairs ironing the family's clothes when I saw him arrive, holding a whole package of sliced bread. He looked up and saw me through the window, nodded and smiled. As the good daughter of a rather conservative parent, I waited for my mother to call me to come down. I could hear them talking, sometimes laughing. It was dusk when I finished my ironing chores and I decided to come downstairs. Benjamin had already left.

"Where's Ben?" I asked my mother.

"He left, a while ago."

"Why didn't you call me?"

"I was going to, but he said he came to visit me, not you."

I couldn't hide my disappointment and I was almost in tears. I haven't seen or talked to Benjamin for almost a week and he didn't even say "Hi" to me.

The next afternoon, I was playing some records on the turntable after siesta. Actually, it was just one record I played over and over. It was the 45 of Bobby Goldsboro's "And I Love You So".

"That record is going to have holes in it," my mother commented. When the needle started to jump, she said, "See, the needle's gone!"

And I still kept playing the 45.

At four o'clock, I heard a knock on the door. My mother said, "Must be your prince charming. Now you can stop playing that damn record!"

Indeed, it was Benjamin.

"Thank God you came!" my mother said to Benjamin as he kissed her hand. "Cynthia kept playing your theme song and frankly I got sick and tired of it. You have to find a new theme song now." Then she and Benjamin laughed.

"Did you come to see me?" I asked.

"Of course," he replied.

We sat around and talked, mostly about what happened at the store where he worked, and we played the rest of the family's record collection. We cannot hold hands, nor kiss. My mother chat with us for the most part. The few times my mother left the room, he whispered I love you then stared at my face with a slight grin. He wasn't paying attention to the record he was setting up on the turntable and the needle arm dropped on the rubber surface of the spinner. The needle broke. We would have to explain that to my father.

At the Angelus hour, he got ready to leave. We were standing inside the door and my mother had gone to the kitchen when he suddenly bent down and planted a quick kiss on my cheek. I thought my heart skipped a beat.

That night, I didn't wash my face.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

at the dance


Yes, Benjamin and I were lovestruck. The mere thought of him, his face, his eyes, his smile, always made me feel light-headed. The mere sight of him made my heart beat fast. I loved it when the girls stared at us, both of us acting very cool about it and yet we knew how there's a raging fire inside us. When we were alone, all we'd do for the first five minutes was smile and stare at each other while we held hands. Everyday he would write on my notebook his "quote of the day" - C, what have you done to me? or I'm crazy about you. or Were you thinking of me last night? That's probably why I couldn't sleep.

There was a dance at the college and he picked me up from home. For days, I imagined us dancing and I was in a quandry whether I'd do the "discotheque" style for slow dance (both arms around his neck) or not. I wore a cotton sheath dress with purple crocus prints and white puff sleeves that my mother sewed by hand because she could no longer use the sewing machine.

We took a taxi to Dewey Boulevard and walked hand in hand along the boardwalk. At a point where there were only a few couples walking by, we stopped. He put my arms around his waist and holding the back of my head with one hand, my chin with the other, he kissed me. My knees felt like noodles. When writers wrote that you see stars in your first kiss, it was true. Well, because it happened that it was a clear, moonless night that night and all you can see above were stars.

Benjamin of course wasn't my first kiss. The year before I met him, I was dating my first boyfriend, Bob, and he gave me my first kiss. In that first kiss, I anticipated the "sweetness" I've so often read about first kisses and I was so disappointed that there was no sweetness at all. I was literally looking for the sweetness that was never there. Several years after that, an older friend, Tammy, told me that it was the intensity of the emotion that determines the degree of a relationship. She said that my first love was actually Benjamin even though my first boyfriend was Bob.

Benjamin and I sat on a concrete bench, staring at the stars, enjoying the early evening breeze, listening to the waves of Manila Bay as they hit the rocks at the breakwater, talking about the news, our classes and our educational plans. At eight, we decided we should show up at the dance.

We went straight for the dance floor. I couldn't remember what song was playing because Benjamin was singing "The Way You Look Tonight" while we danced under the stars in the school quadrangle. He did so just loud enough so I could hear him. While we were lost so deep in our la-la land, another couple bumped into us. Intentionally.

It was Danny and Mila. Danny asked to make a switch. It was my first and last dance with Benjamin because from then on, we got passed on to other partners. We only had a few men in our group of friends so I got off the dance floor while Benjamin did the "obligatory" dance with the girls. But the whole time he was dancing with and talking to them, he was staring at me and I was watching him. At the first opportunity, he grabbed my hand and we left the school dance.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

the cover

Neither Benjamin nor I formally told our friends that we were dating. We went about our normal ways. At least for a few days. Then one afternoon, E.S. confronted me.

"Are you Ben's steady?" she asked.

I sat alone in a vacant classroom, going over my Accounting assignments. I looked up from reading my notes, wrinkled my nose, and asked back, "Why do you ask me this?"

"Gloria told me she saw you together Tuesday night. Ben missed their subject, and when everyone one else were leaving, the two of your were just coming in."

"Gloria is a very malicious person." And had been very vocal about having a crush on Benjamin. I'd seen her throw herself onto Benjamin, always clinging to his arms, to everyone's annoyance.

"And Ben is always talking to you, and he's always walking you to the jeepney station."

"And Ben is always talking to you and the rest of the group, and he's always eating with you, and going out with you to drink. Does that make you his steady?" I shot back at E.S. with an even voice, then I went back to my notes.

"I thought we are friends," E.S. said, shaking her head, looking hurt.

"We are. But why does it matter so much that Ben and I are going steady, as you say. We are all friends in this group. However, my personal life and Ben's personal life, and your personal life, and Danny's personal life, are none of our business."

E.S. leaned on the back of the chair in front of me. "So, if we are friends, tell me, and I won't ask again: are you and Ben?"

I closed my notes and gave a sigh of exasperation. I felt clammy. To me, suddenly, things had become complicated. Before all this, the group was trying to match Benjamin with Debbie, who had a steady boyfriend in the first place. Lately, Debbie seemed to be into Benjamin. And from the group's conversation, it's only a matter of time and Debbie will give in. Benjamin had told me he was just playing along with the group, but no, he was not interested in Debbie. He got in with the group because of me. But Danny who had been with the group well before he did, had a big crush on me and asked Benjamin to be his "bridge". I was only in this group because of my brother Erick. Then my friend Mila got in with the group because we were always together, which was a blessing for her because Danny was her type.

"Are you and Ben?" she asked again.

I leaned back on my chair, lifted my feet onto another, cupped my forehead with one hand, and smiled at her as I shook my head.

Just then, Benjamin appeared. "How come you're here, girls? They're looking for you downstairs."

E.S. grinned. "Are you two...?" she pointed an index finger back and forth at me and Benjamin.

Benjamin gave her a hearty chuckle. "What is this, a third degree?" E.S. laughed.

Benjamin opened his notebook and handed it to me before sitting down. "Can you read this and tell me if it's good enough?" Then he turned to E.S. "I did my assignment at lunchtime. I didn't even know we had one until Debbie called me at the store."

I saw the words C, I love you at the bottom of the page. I felt the blood rushing in my face. As I read his assignment, Benjamin stretched his arms which gave him an excuse to leave one arm resting on the back of my chair. "I'm hungry, let's go to the canteen."

E.S. made a move towards the door, "Okay, I give up!"

Benjamin stood up and followed. "What do you want to eat?" he asked me. I ignored him.

A few minutes after they had left, Mila came. "Danny sent me here to speak to you."

"About what?" I asked.

"The mystery girl they're talking about, I know who she is," Mila said in a low voice.

"Ah, so there is a mystery girl!"

"Yes, but Danny said that's you. Ben doesn't know how Erick would react when he finds out about you and Ben, so for now, he and Danny are tricking the group. I think Ben and Danny are going for a drink with Erick later on and Ben will tell him about the two of you." She paused, then, "Do you think your brother would disappove? Ben is wary he might think he just used him."

"But they were already friends before I met Benjamin." I said.

Ben had come back, a bottle of Coke in one hand and a sandwich in the other, and two straws.

"I told them," he said as he sat on the chair beside me.


"I told them about us, but I said to keep it quiet until I talk to Erick tonight. Danny and I are having drinks with him." He waited for me to say something. I knew my face was all red. "Is that okay?" he asked when I didn't say anything, then caressed my hair. "I just want everyone to know how lucky I am."

I circled the C, I love you written on the page of his notes. He took a pen and drew a heart around the circle.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

running in the heavy downpour

First there were just a few stray droplets, and then more. When Benjamin and I decided to walk back to the jeepney stop, which was a good fifteen-minute walk, it had started to rain quite heavily. He bought a newspaper to cover our heads because I refused to take his shirt. While others found the heavy downpour as an excuse to stay in the darker, covered part of the park, the two of us merrily ran towards Taft Avenue to get a ride. We were lucky an almost empty jeepney came by as we reached the stop. We were laughing our hearts out, partially wet and cold, as we headed back to the college.

When we reached the college, it was almost nine-thirty, the end of the last evening class, and a number of students had already started the short walk to the bus stop. Our usual group of friends were gathered in the middle of the quadrangle and we could hear them asking each other if they had seen either Benjamin or me. No one seemed to notice that we arrived together when all the students were already leaving. We were like salmon fishes going against the current.

Ben walked straight to where our friends were waiting. I veered to the right of the building administration and circled the group of men huddled around a Harley Davidson before joining our friends. At the same time, Mila and Danny appeared together.

"Hmmmm, something's strange," commented E.S.

She sized up Mila and Danny. I'm not sure if E.S. noticed the two of them holding hands. Danny leaned towards me and whispered, "Is everything good?"

I played coy. "What do you mean?" I asked in a low voice. Mila giggled and slapped my arm lightly.

The girls in our group were, as usual, huddled around Benjamin whose face seemed frozen with that knowing grin. He intermittently glanced and winked at me. Because of the earlier downpour, the group decided to disperse early to go home. When I announced my leave, one of the girls asked if I was walking alone. I said yes. Benjamin quickly stepped beside me, taking my books and said, "I'll walk her to the jeepney stop," then took my elbow and we walked together out of the school's gate.

We were halfway up the street when we heard my brother's voice.

"Where are you guys going?" he asked.

"Oh! Hi, Erick," Benjamin said. "I was going to walk her down to the jeepney station." I continued walking and Benjamin and Erick fell behind two steps as they chatted.

When we reached the station, Erick patted Benjamin's back and told him, "Okay, pare, thank you." And he waved Benjamin goodbye. I looked at Benjamin and gave him a shy smile, flipped back my hair and said goodbye. The grin in his face was still there.

On the ride home, Erick asked if I knew the girl Benjamin was secretly chasing. "No, I don't know."

"You're always talking to him and he never told you anything?"

"We don't talk about those things. We talk about the news, and assignments." After a short pause, I asked Erick, "How about you, what the heck do you talk about when you're together?"

"He's mentioned about liking a girl, but he wouldn't tell anyone her name. He thinks she's not interested in him, though."

"Ah," I said. "Who in the whole college does not have a crush on Benjamin?"

"Apparently you and another one," my brother said.

He was right, I didn't have a crush on Benjamin. But I liked talking to him, because he talked with sense, he could carry a conversation, he could argue and best of all, he could speak to me in English.

We were quiet the rest of the ride. Then it left me thinking, Was I that girl or was there another girl?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

a walk in the park

Manila Bay was still red with the sunset's residue when Benjamin and I reached the park. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, as we walked around. There was the fear of getting spotted by a neighbour and my parents would find out that instead of being in school, I was actually gallivanting with a boyfriend. There was also the excitement of being "the girl" of the best looking and smart guy in the school. And then of course the sudden realization that I was in love with Benjamin.

I talked to him everyday, didn't give any meaning to the way he smiled at me, or talked to me, or looked at me. He was my brother's friend, my friends' friend. And I didn't even know he was courting me for Danny. Was Danny crazy to have to ask Benjamin to act as his "bridge" without him thinking I might fall for this man instead?

"All the men are looking at us," he whispered. He placed his arm around my shoulders as he brought his face closer to my ear.

I looked around and I saw that all the women were staring at us.

"Why is that?" I asked him. I dared not turn my face to look at him. I knew a kiss would be inevitable if I did.

"You don't know why?" His breath was warm in my ear and it tickled. When I felt him straighten up, that was the only time I dared look at his face.

Only then I noticed that he was a lot taller than I thought he was, because despite the two-inch high heeled shoes I had on, I still had to stretch my neck to look up at him. Only then I noticed that the skin of his face was so smooth I wished mine was, too. Only then I noticed that his eyes sparkled even in the dark.

I felt the light touch of his right hand on my lower back. He was smiling at me, while the fingers of his left hand very carefully brushed my hair away from my face.

"Those men are envious, because I have a pretty girlfriend," he said, then pulled my face toward his chest. I felt him kiss the top of my head.

Oh, my God! My God, if he kisses me I will melt. Please don't let me melt! I seriously thought I would melt, and yet at the same time I fervently hoped he would kiss me.