I take a deep, calming breath for what felt like the hundredth time today, and the thousandth time for the last couple of weeks. Between being swamped with school works, not spending enough time with Julia, and dealing with Janelle, I’ve just about had it.
Which is why when I spot Julia walking through the corridor on her way to her next class, I immediately grab her to the side. I note that she looks cute in a gray, sleeveless turtleneck before asking, “Do you have anything important to do for the rest of the day?”
Julia raises an eyebrow curiously before answering, “Not that I’m aware of.”
I nod. “Good. Let’s get out of here.” I take her hand and start making our way out of the school.
“Ooh, we’re finally cutting classes? I was waiting for this.” The excitement in Julia’s voice makes me smile.
I chuckle and tug her closer towards me. “You little rebel.”
Once on the highway, I ask her, “So, where do you want to go?”
Julia turns her head slightly. “Anywhere with you.”
I almost ran a red light.
She laughs heartily. “I just made Alex Alvarrez blush.”
“Stop it.” I try to recompose myself. I’m used to being the one who makes other people blush, not the other way around. “Lunch first? Did you make something?”
“Ribs and shrimp.”
I beam at her. She never gave me back my hoodie—not surprising considering every piece of clothing I lent her never made it back to me—but she brings lunch from time to time to make up for it. And honestly, I’m willing to buy a couple more hoodies to let her borrow just so she’d cook for me every day.
We both agreed to go out of town to lessen the chances of crossing paths with anyone who knows us. I’m trying to get on her father’s good side, and I doubt seeing us strolling around after cutting classes will help with my agenda.
Now, the only problem left is where to go. I mentally sort through a list of places where we can stop by and eat, and smile when the perfect place comes to mind. “Let’s stop by the mall first. I need to buy something.”
The plan was to stop by, buy a blanket, and leave. How we ended up with a bunch of junk food, a ringer dress for Julia, a sweatshirt for me, five new handkerchiefs, chew toys for Percy, and a travel pillow, I blame Julia. One pleading look from those puppy eyes and I watched the word ‘no’ fly out of my vocabulary.
On our way back to the car, she asks, “Wait. What were you going to buy?”
I stop dead in my tracks. “Shit.”
She laughs, pointing at the bags on my other hand that’s not intertwined with hers. “Distracted, are we?”
“It’s your fault.” I chuckle, steering her towards the department store.
Being stared at is nothing new to me. But staring is one thing; hitting on my girl is another, especially when I’m next to her, holding her hand, and very obviously in a relationship with her. It’s either you’re stupid, arrogant, or just plain disrespectful. So when two boys about our age come up to us with a flirty grin as we head back to the car—for real this time—I get a little pissed.
“Hey, we think you guys are cute. Wanna come hang with us?” One of them asks, his eyes darting from me to Julia. He's tall, square-jawed, and has dark brown hair. Average at best.
I raise my hand, taking Julia’s by extension, and say, “You see this?”
His friend cocks an eyebrow and tells the boy talking to us, “Yo, I told you they were together.” He looks at me. “We’re sorry.”
“Can I have your number, at least?” The tall boy addresses the question to Julia, whose face now shows casual disinterest. “For when you decide to play for the other team.”
“What’s your name?” She asks.
From the way his face lights up and makes a move to pull out his phone, he definitely thinks he’s got a chance. Poor guy. “Ansel.”
“Okay, Ansel, you can go fuck off.” Julia tugs at my hand and leads me away, leaving a gaping Ansel staring as we go down the escalator.
“That’s cold,” is what I say, but I have a feeling that Ansel would’ve gotten something worse than that if he tried hitting on me.
“He’s a dick.” Julia moves to stand one step above me, and I turn sideways and rest my arm on the handrail. With the extra height given by the step, we’re now standing face to face. She looks at the baseball cap I’m wearing, looks at my lips, and smirks before turning it around and kissing me. It was only a peck, but boy did it feel good.
Sometimes, Julia does things so out of character that I wonder if this is who she really is—a marshmallow.
The look of pure delight on her face when we get to the park only furthers this theory. There aren’t many people when we get there, probably because it’s the middle of the day and they’d rather stay indoors than bathe under the scorching sun. It’s a good thing the chilly November air makes the heat bearable. We pass the children’s playground and head for the giant oak tree a good distance away, where I spread out the baby blue blanket over the grass neatly under its shadow.
I toe my shoes off and sit cross-legged as Julia sits next to me. “This place is nice.” She says while taking out our food. She opens the container and reveals a mouthwatering baby back ribs coated in barbeque sauce. Another one holds the garlic shrimp, but what made my Asian stomach happy was seeing the rice. She sees me eyeing the rice and says, “I saw how you devoured that rice the other day. If you’d just told me how much you love it, I would’ve made every meal with it.”
“Damn, I love you.” I don’t expect her to reply, and honestly, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. They’re just words. What she shows me matters much more.
Julia smiles, her teeth and dimples showing. I love that smile. Feeling like my expression of love wasn’t enough, I chip in a kiss for good measure.
“Okay, I’m definitely wife-ing you,” I start after a bite of the ribs. “This is really good, babe.”
“I know how much you love barbeque sauce.”
“You’re the best.” I beam at her.
Julia forks a shrimp and feeds it to my already waiting mouth. “I used to cook a lot with my mom. But now I don’t usually have anyone to cook for at home so it really feels nice to cook for you.”
“And I like eating,” I smirk, letting the overtone hang. “Win-win.”
She rolls her eyes. “All bark, no bite.”
I don’t have any retort for that—because it’s true—so I continue eating. All we’ve ever done is kiss except for that one time at my house.
We talk and laugh and tease and laugh some more until I felt bloated and just wanted to lie down and sleep. After we finish eating, I stretch a little and find a comfortable spot to rest.
I lean against the sturdy tree behind me, checking and double-checking that no ants or any insects are crawling near. Julia, instead of scooting next to me, wedges herself between my splayed legs a moment later. I bring my knees up to better support her.
One of the things I didn’t expect was Julia being so... showy. Especially in public. Between the two of us, she’s the one who’s more likely to initiate a kiss. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. I just didn’t expect her to be so open about it, considering her family doesn’t know she’s gay.
The weight of Julia’s body presses against my chest as she leans back. There’s still a hint of her green apple scent left on her hair. I wrap my arms around her torso, and she makes small adjustments so we’re both comfortable in our position. “How’d you find out about this place?”
“During the afternoons, old men come here to play chess. They stay over there.” I point to the only wooden table in the area around the playground. “I play with them occasionally. Reminds me of home.”
“Yeah. Ninety percent of the time, my opponents were much older than me. Most of them are old enough to be my grandparent. Also the best ones to play with because they didn’t care if I was just a kid. They’d play with the intention to crush me with no reservations.”
Julia rubs my hands with her thumb. “Can I ask you a question?”
The tentative tone of her voice exposes her question before she’s even asked it. So I answer, “No, it’s not because of my Lolo that I stopped playing.”
A heartbeat passes. “Then why?” One of her hands is now intertwined with mine, making small circles on my sweaty palm.
Maybe it’s because she can’t see my face. Because I won’t be under the scrutiny of those piercing gray eyes to pick apart every emotion behind my words. Because I won’t be able to see the pity, the disappointment in her face, that people seem to always show without meaning to when they find out who I used to be, that I finally admit, “I’m scared.”
“Throwing my life again.” Julia shifts and tries to face me, but I hold on to her tight. “I just got it back. All those years I’ve been obsessed over getting that damn title so much I forgot to live. You’ve seen the photos. In any of my birthdays, did you see any friends with me? Was there anyone else other than my family and relatives?”
Julia shakes her head almost imperceptibly.
“The person I am now is far different from who I was back then. I had no time for anything but my academics and chess. I didn’t bother making any friends. All I had on my mind was winning. Win and win and win some more until I was at the top. As you know, I fucking did it. It lasted for a day. A fucking day before the whole world came crashing down on me.
“I stopped playing. Literally just dropped everything related to chess and tried to catch up to all the things I’ve sacrificed to achieve what I had. I tried other sports, and I think it’s one of the things that really helped me pull myself together.
“Well, I didn’t last six months without a board, so I got back to playing chess. I told myself to just play for fun, though. I can’t really just throw away something that shaped more than half of my life. It has worked for me so far.”
It was only when I stopped that I realize how much of that I’ve been carrying around for years. I felt lighter, somehow.
Julia silently absorbs the information. She doesn’t say a word for the longest time, and I thought she was just gonna let it pass without saying anything—which is totally fine with me—until she moves. She supports herself with an arm and looks me dead in the eye. “Are you happy?”
It’s so easy to say yes. To say that I’m happy because I still get to play without the pressure of the world on my shoulders. To say why wouldn’t I be? I achieved my dreams and I got nothing left to prove. But my voice breaks when I say, “I’m rotting here.”
“I don’t feel any sense of accomplishment in winning anymore. I haven’t in a long time until I played with your brother. That day I played with him was a giant slap to the face. The thrill, the challenge, the satisfaction when I win against a strong opponent? That’s what I was missing. It’s what basically kept me going all those years.
“I’m better than this.” The words come out in a harsh whisper. “I know I’m better than this.”
“Baby,” she says, her voice soft and soothing. She gently cups my face. “Baby, look at me.”
I meet her gaze and the look she gives me is disarming. “From the first moment I ever saw you play, I admired you. You had this look in your eyes and in a way, I felt like I was only seeing you for the first time. You were beautiful to look at. How you managed to do that by sitting and moving around plastic pieces around a checkered board, I have no idea.”
“So you’ve had a crush on me since I’ve gone to your house?” I say in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Julia, thankfully, sees it for what it is and rolls her eyes. She continues, “I’ve never seen someone so passionate as you. And if you can go to such lengths to fulfill someone else’s dream, I have no doubt that you can do anything once you put your mind to it. I’m proud of you, and whatever you decide to do, I promise I’ll be right beside you.”
Someone else’s dream. My mind mulls over those words over and over. Fucking hell. It wasn’t my dream, was it? It was a promise I made. I never dreamt about becoming anything. When I won the title, I felt more relieved than happy that it was over.
I laugh. Fucking hell, how did I never realize that? Julia looks at me with an eyebrow raised. I wonder if she thinks I’ve gone crazy. “Have I told you how much I love you recently?”
“Only every five minutes.” She smiles.
I tug her closer and kiss her deeply. “Mahal na mahal kita.”
“Mahal na mahal din kita.”
A chill runs down my spine. Goosebumps spread over my skin. And the next thing I know I’m crying.