Alvarrez is avoiding me.
How can I tell? First, she started going to school late. Not actually late, but later than what I was used to. She comes in just before the second bell rings, leaving us no idle time to talk to each other.
Second, she always has her earphones in. We’ve been seatmates for months, and I know for a fact that she only does this when she’s not in the mood to talk to anyone.
Third,—and probably the one I hate the most—she doesn’t meet my eyes. One of the things I like the most about her is her eyes. Not because they remind me of Jan, but because her eyes never lie.
Those mischievous green eyes and troublemaker smile is exactly what I’ve been keeping my distance from. She screams trouble, so I had my guard up against her. But it’s also because of that that she kept catching my eye. And suddenly, I found myself paying more attention to her.
Every morning before I enter the classroom, I wonder if she’s already there. Sometimes she’s earlier than me, sometimes not. On Fridays, she doesn’t bring her car. On her training days, I find myself glancing at the gym before going home.
Alvarrez wears her emotions on her sleeves. I can always tell when she’s having a bad day, or when her team won a tune-up game from the day before. Right now, the expression on her face is neither.
Her eyebrows scrunched up at the math problem on the board. She mumbles something under her breath. At first, I thought she was talking to me. But she spoke louder, addressing the teacher in front. “Sir, you forgot to multiply the constant. The derivative of 5x cubed should be 15x squared.”
The teacher checks his solution and sure enough, he did miss the constant. He thanks Alvarrez for the correction and proceeds to explain how everything happened on the board. It’s at times like this that I catch myself smiling for no reason.
Alvarrez is not who I thought she would be. The image I had of her in my head before was an arrogant, lying piece of shit who thinks she can get anyone she wants. I made myself hate her so that I’ll find a reason to stay away from her. But no, she’s not like that.
She’s kind and playful and honest. She greets the janitors when she passes by them. She always says sorry twice, sometimes more. She gives her handkerchief to people who need them. She curses in Tagalog—something I find amusing—when she’s really pissed. Because of that, I studied the language.
As much as I hate to admit it, Alvarrez has been a part of my daily routine. My day doesn’t feel complete without bantering with her.
The lunchtime bell rings. Kristina comes over to where we are sitting and asks Alvarrez to have lunch with her. The latter declines and scratches the side of her face with an index finger.
“Fire exit again?” Kristina asks. Alvarrez nods. Kristina sighs and gives her a sympathetic look. “Okay.”
Dan, one of the very few people in our class who talks to me like a normal person, butts in on their conversation. “Hey, party at my place on Friday, it’s my birthday.” She looks at me. “You should come, too, Alex.”
“I’m not sure.” I shrug.
“Consider it your birthday gift to me.” She beams. “Please?”
I sigh. “Okay, I’ll try. But I won’t promise anything.”
“You’re a tough nut to crack.” She laughs. “See you.”
Alvarrez takes a book out of her bag and leaves the room without another word. As for me, I make my way to the editorial office where I always eat my lunch. Sometimes, Leandro or Max joins me, but today, I have the office to myself.
These days, I don’t like being alone. The absence of people around me makes me focus on my enigmatic thoughts. It makes me miss the person who always bothers me whenever I get some time alone.
I miss Alvarrez. I miss her company and I miss her bothering me. I want to talk to her, want to know why she’s acting this way even though I have an idea as to why. But I want to hear it from her.
Don’t get me wrong. I also missed Jan. The woman I loved for as long as I can remember has come back, yet there’s still this lingering feeling of emptiness. I should be happy. Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. I hate myself for being unsure of my emotions.
I look at the packed lunch that Jan made for me. Not really having an appetite, I dump it back in my bag.
A sharp knock from the door startles me. Alvarrez comes in with a screwdriver on her hand. “Hi.” I stare at her, not knowing what to say. “I came here to fix the broken PC you reported to the tech.”
“Oh.” I stand up from my seat. “It’s there.” I point to the PC on the edge of the room. “Where’s Sir Adam?”
“He’s sick. I’ve been helping him with the tech stuff while he’s out.” She turns on the PC.
“It’s not working,” I tell her.
Alvarrez examines the computer, presses a key on the keyboard, and tries to turn on the monitor. “Must be the RAM.” She mutters to herself. She turns off the PC and unplugs the wires from the CPU. I watch as she opens the processor and removes a small rectangular chip. “Do you have an eraser?”
I grab an eraser from my table and hand it to her. Alvarrez works her magic, using the eraser to clean the chip. I don’t know how that is going to fix the computer, but I keep my mouth shut. She knows what she’s doing.
The silence between us is deafening. It’s the first time since the skating rink that we’re alone together. Somehow, she has found every reason to avoid going into the office.
“So how are things between you and Georgia?” I ask without thinking.
She stiffens. “We’re okay.” She blows the dirt off of the chip and returns it to its respective slot with a click.
“Are you guys dating?”
I exhale. “Aren’t you going to ask me questions?”
And what is with your one-word replies? Talk to me.
She returns the CPU to its place and turns on the computer. She stands up, faces me for the first time in a week.
She looks down, sighs, smiles in defeat. “Because I already know the answer.”
I can’t stomach the expression on her face. There’s a throbbing pain in my chest. “Don’t make that face.” I look away from her.
The sound of the PC turning on made us both look in its direction. “It’s fixed.” She says in a clipped tone. “Call tech if there are any more problems.” And just like that, she’s gone.
I return to my seat. Why am I feeling this way? I love Jan. I always have. But why does Alvarrez make me feel things I shouldn’t?
On my way out of the school, I come across Georgia. “Oh, hey Jan’s Alex.” She greets.
“What are you doing here?” I ask her, ignoring how she labeled me as Jan’s.
She brings out the bouquet hidden behind her back. “Do you happen to know where the gym is?”
I feel a pang of jealousy upon realizing who the flowers were for. ”Straight ahead, turn left at the second corner, then take a right,” I tell her against my will. “But just a heads up, her ex is part of the basketball team, too.”
Her face falls at the information I shared. “Is that so?” She hesitates, but it doesn’t stop her. “Okay, thanks!” She practically skipped to the entrance, catching the eyes of a few students on their way out.
Alvarrez is beautiful in an androgynous way. It’s no wonder she attracts boys and girls alike. Although none of the guys dare make a move on her—apparently because she’s more handsome than the greater half of the school’s male population—I see the way they look at her in admiration. While it’s true she dresses like a boy, her beauty still stands out.
I found myself driving to Books and Brews. What choice do I have? If I go straight home, Jan will no doubt be there, waiting for me. We’re neighbors for fuck’s sake. If she didn’t leave me, this would’ve been the perfect scenario for a love story—childhood friends who grew up together and eventually fall in love. But sadly, life doesn’t work that way.
After ordering my usual, I head upstairs where I find Isa, along with her son, James. When James sees me, he tackles me with a hug. “Julia!”
“Hi, James.” I smile at the cute 8-year-old and ruffle his dark brown hair. “Miss me?”
“Yes!!!” He shouts at the top of his lungs.
I chuckle before placing an index finger over my mouth. “Shh,” I tell him. “Your mom’s gonna get mad.”
“You told me you were gonna come over at our house and play,” he looks down. Pouts. “But you never did.”
I want to feel guilty but the cuteness of this sweet child in front of me makes me laugh instead. “But you didn’t even give me your address,” I reason with him. “How was I supposed to know where you live?”
“You should’ve asked my mom.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” I raise my hands in surrender. “I promise I’ll go to your house next time.” I sneak a glance at Isa. “If it’s not too much of a bother.”
“You’re always welcome there, Julia,” she smiles. “I’ll give you the address later.” To James, she says, “James, finish your homework or I won’t give the address to Julia.”
James looked terrified. He runs over to the opposite side of the room where his notebook and pencil are perched on top of a table.
“Kids are so full of energy these days,” Isa starts as she sits on the rug close to me. “How have you been?”
“Not good,” I admit. “Can I tell you something?”
“Of course,” she assures me. “You’re almost like a daughter to me.”
A warm feeling spreads in my stomach. Hearing her say those words is enough for me to open up my heart.
“There’s this girl I love.” I begin. I observe her face for any sign of violent reactions, but none shows. I figured as much. Isa’s not the type of person to judge others by the person they love. “She’s my childhood friend and I’ve known her for most of my life. She’s perfect. Eventually, we fell for each other and started dating. Then she left to go to God knows where. She didn’t say a word, didn’t say goodbye—nothing.
“Now, after three years, she came back. And after finding out the reason why she left, I found myself unable to reject her. I—” I falter. “I loved her too much.”
Isa stayed silent, waiting for me to continue.
“But in the time she was gone, there was another girl who’s been keeping me occupied. She’s annoying and bothersome and flirty and she drives me crazy. I’ve only known this girl for a few months, but a lot of things has happened, and we’ve become closer, unknowingly. I’ve started to enjoy her company.
“The annoying girl saw me and my ex together. The expression I saw on her face was like a stab in the chest for me—she was hurt. And I hated myself for being the cause of that pain. Now she’s avoiding me and it’s more irritating than when she was annoying me.” I bury my head in my palms. “Ugh, that damn Alvarrez.”
“Who?” Isa asks.
I raise my head and look her in the eyes. Soft, brown, and round. Almost familiar. “Oh, it’s her last name.”
Isa opens her mouth to say something but was interrupted by someone coming up to the second floor. Guess who?
“Double espresso and a slice Red Velvet cake for Julia!” Alvarrez announces when she reaches the floor’s landing. She’s holding a tray with my orders. Her eyes find me. “Gray?”
Alvarrez glances at the tray on her hand. “This is for you?” She walks to my table, setting down the tray she was holding. She then takes Isa’s hand and touches the back of it to her forehead. “You know each other?”
“Julia’s a regular here.”
"Ate Alex!” James shouts from the other side of the room. He runs to Alvarrez’s side and she pats him on the head. I try to process what’s happening in front of me.
No. No. No. Something tugged at the back of my mind. Isa and I have talked about her family during my early stays here. I know she has a daughter who goes to the same school as me, but I don’t remember her name. Thinking back, those were the days that I was unfocused—not wanting to talk to anyone—but somehow, Isa found a way to make me feel better.
And the cake—the one Alvarrez brought as a gift from her mother for giving them Percy—I knew it tasted familiar.
“I offered to bring these here since Mark has his hands full downstairs. The things you asked me to pick up are with him.” She reports to Isa.
“Wow. You own this place?” Another voice joins in. Georgia’s standing in the room’s entrance, looking around the room in awe.
“Well, technically, my mom does.” She turns to Isa. ”Ma, this is Georgia.”
“Hi, Mrs. Alvarrez.” Georgia flashes a sweet smile. “Oh, hey Jan’s Alex. I’ve been seeing you a lot today.”
I bite my lip to prevent myself from making any unnecessary comments about how awkward the situation is. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Alvarrez flex her jaw.
“I’m going out with her,” Alvarrez points a thumb at Georgia.
“Can I go with you, ate?” James inquires. “I’m done with my homework.”
Alvarrez raises her eyebrows at Georgia for approval. The latter smiles and walks toward them—us. She kneels in front of James. “What did you say your name was again?”
“My name is Alexander James C. Alvarrez. I’m eight years old.” James says, his back straight, his lips formed into a toothy grin.
“Another Alex?” Georgia chuckles. “I’ll just call you James. Let’s go, then. You want ice cream?”
“Yes!!!” James was practically jumping when he and Georgia went downstairs, hand-in-hand.
“Don’t stay out too late. It’s a school night.” Isa reminds Alvarrez.
“I’ll try.” Alvarrez grins before disappearing downstairs, in a hurry to leave the premise.
Now that it was only Isa and me, I suddenly felt nervous. And now that I think about it, isn’t she an Alvarrez, too? God, everything feels so weird now. All this time I had no idea I’ve been opening up to Alvarrez’s mom about my problems.
Isa looks at me, a strangely familiar mischievous glint in her eyes. “Now, what were you telling me about that annoying girl named Alvarrez?”
Ate is an honorific used in the Philipines to refer to an older sister or a girl older than you. Pronounced as ah-te.