The smell of synthetic lemon gushes into my nostrils as I hastily open the car door. There he is in the driver's seat, illuminated by a yellow faint overhead light. He smiles at me and I smile back while rubbing my hands together to warm myself up. Knowing how I hated breathing from the AC vent, he had already positioned it away from me before I even got in.
“I hope I don’t get the car seat wet” is the first thing I said. “Nah, it will easily dry up,” he replies with a knowing smile while looking at me fondly in my ragged P.E. uniform that reeks of rain, dust and sweat combined. It was another Wednesday night when he gets to pick me up without the anxiety of being seen together in his car.
Taking his time, he starts the engine and drives slowly toward the exit gate. I could have been one of those students stuck in the rain, I think to myself. In this hour, jeepneys en route my place are scarce and usually packed. I imagine my elder sister waiting despondently for ages at a waiting shed with other tired, hopeful passengers. I, on the other hand, am sitting comfortably in a car with Gregg, my English professor.
“How was your day?” he started.
“It was okay. Nothing special.”
“Nah, just a bit hungry.”
“Then I shall get you home as fast as I can, Madame!” he proclaims good-humouredly.
The awkwardness of being driven home by my 42-year-old professor has never really disappeared, even if he has done it several times. Yet he has a way of breaking the ice by making me laugh, even on a bleak evening such as this. It's one of the many reasons why I'm always looking forward to our long drive home every Wednesday night.
“I’ve never seen you in a white shirt before. You look really fresh!” I move close to him and sniff his sleeve. “You smell very good too. I like it---very natural.” He keeps his attention on the highway but I can see him blush behind the steering wheel.
“Don’t flatter me while I’m driving, young lady or I’ll never let you out of this car.”
“With you smelling like that, I might never wanna get out at all!
We break into laughter, then he turns his music player. “So…ready for the long drive home?”
The long drive home follows a route by the hill with scarce street lamps. Unlike the other route, it had more trees and fewer houses. The view was magnificent too.
“You know, your section gets to be mentioned a lot in the department. I heard Ma’am Roxas walked out of your class yesterday.”
“Well she’s too sensitive for a high school teacher. She should just teach kids, not teens.”
“I just don’t get it. Your class is one of my best so far!”
“That's because we like you as a teacher.”
“Yeah, you’re pretty cool. In fact, I know a lot of female AND male classmates who has a crush on you.”
“Are you one of them?”
“Nah, you’re too old for me.”
“Yet here you are!”
“It’s raining and I need a ride!”
“And it’s always my pleasure to drive you home.” He winks.
I look out the window, my thoughts running amok with emotions I can't quite place. What I feel for him was unlike anything I have ever felt for someone before. We bonded through similar interests, especially photography, and it was him who inspired me to take pictures. He provides me with mental stimulation and a vague form of intimacy that excites and scares me at the same time. No, I'm not oblivious to the fact that male teachers aren't supposed to constantly offer rides to their young female students. But I keep telling myself that for as long as nothing happens, we don't have to change anything about our friendship, even if we have to keep it a secret. He's the closest person I have to a father figure.
Before we drive up the hill, we make a stop beside a small clearing where the only signs of civilization were white lights from distant houses.
“Do you mind if we stop for awhile? I just wanna enjoy the night.”
"I don't mind at all," I said, "I'm not really eager to come home."
He turns the music up and stares at me. "Sometimes I wish I could just drive anywhere with you forever."
I don't know what to say back to him, but I have always wished the same.
“Do you really have to stare at me like that?"
"Am I making you uncomfortable?"
"No, it's just that... It makes me feel conscious about how I look."
He smiles, “You’re beautiful.”
I let out a chuckle. “Well if you turn the lights on, I’m sure you’ll think otherwise. I’m not even wearing lipstick!”
“As a self-proclaimed artist, I find you beautiful.” He slowly motions towards me, and like being drawn by a powerful magnet I filled in the space between us until our lips touched for the first time. I quiver at the unfamiliar sensation of having a man’s lips touch mine in a passionate way. He gently holds my head and kisses me slower until there is nothing else left for me to do but to surrender to his warm kisses, and free myself from inhibitions.
“Stop,” I speak out of the blue. A worried look crosses his face as I push him away.
"What is it?"
“Are we seriously making out to this horrible Bee Gees song?” I looks at him disapprovingly. Relieved, he scours through his playlists of old songs in search for an appropriate "make-out" soundtrack. Fortunately, a Beatles song comes to the rescue.
“That is so much better,” I finally declare. I press my body to his with a newfound confidence and kisses him even more passionately. He wraps his arms around me and takes a liking to kissing my lower lip. “Your lips are amazing,” he whispers.
“Mm, you’re just saying that to make me feel good. They must be chapped by now.” I gently touch my lips with my index finger.
"I can't really see. Wait, let me get some light," He presses a key on his mobile phone, automatically lighting up the screen that shows a picture of him sitting next to a well-dressed woman with a slim figure. Her head is on her shoulders and his arm wraps around her.
He shines the light at me and sees my smiles fade into a resentful anger. He swiftly put away his mobile phone, struggling for words to say.
Stunned, I stares straight into his eyes, unable to utter a single word.
“What are you feeling right now?”
"Was that her?"
He is speechless.
"I said, was that her?" My voice is shaking.
"So you were just using me??"
" No, I was not just using you. You know I'm seeing someone, and you also know how much I like you!"
I distance myself from him as far as I could, and I realize that he was right---I do know about her. He did tell me about the woman he's been seeing in the next city. She’s in her thirties, a Literature professor in a university. It's all coming back to me. I can't believe how I had forgotten all about it when he kissed me. He also told me that he liked me too, but that woman was the wallpaper of his mobile phone while I, a naive 16-year-old, is secretly taking rides from him at night, and kissing him in the middle of nowhere.
“Just don’t talk to me right now.” I fight back my tears, confused whether to be angry at him or at myself.
“I don’t want you to think that I’m just using you, because I’m not.”
“Just leave me alone!”
“I wanna go home.”
“No, I don’t want this night to end like this!"
“Please just take me home," I say firmly as I could.
“Alright, I’m taking you home.” He starts the engine and drives slowly into the poorly lit road, raindrops landing onto the windscreen. He glances at me from time to time, hoping I’d say something, anything for that matter. But instead, I just look straight outside the window, wishing I was riding in a crowded jeepney, away from him.
“You can drop me here. I’ll just walk the rest of the way,” I finally uttered.
“Are you sure? There’s still a little rain outside. Please just let me drive you a little closer.”
“I said just drop me here.” I grab my backpack and motions to the door.
He stops the car and watches me leave. I close the door and step into the mud, every step leaving a footprint behind. The orange streetlamp sheds light on the icy raindrops that look like small needles aiming at me. Halfway near my house, I catch a glimpse of two red tail lights passing by the cornfield.