“Send us messages, alright?” Zoe’s Mama reiterates, her voice cracking, then she forces a smile in a futile attempt to stop herself from crying. The dark circles under her Mama’s eyes show, wrinkles appearing as if she has aged in just one night.
Zoe nods timidly.
Meanwhile, her father drives quietly, lips pressed into a thin line. The worry in his face is evident as he repeatedly rubs his chin. He throws glances at the rearview mirror from time to time, and Zoe’s stomach churns in guilt whenever their eyes meet.
It is 7 in the morning. Zoe’s flight will leave at 8:30 AM. Seth couldn’t take her to the airport because he and Elle have classes for the day, and she didn’t want them to miss it. The three of them have always been grade-conscious, and it is probably why they became close friends.
I miss them already.
They only shared a short video call before she left the house. Zoe noticed the strain in Seth’s voice. Up until the last minute, he didn’t sound genuinely happy for her. She knows him well enough to sense when he’s forcing it.
The last few months felt like work—like there was something bad going on between them, but neither dared to talk about it. Zoe feared that any kind of acknowledgment would turn whatever ‘it’ was into a ‘problem.’ She believed that it would pass; if they pretended to be okay, then they’d be okay.
It seems to her that she was wrong.
Meanwhile, she and Elle cried as they exchanged their goodbyes. They’ve been best friends since their first year in the university, and they’ve always taken the same courses. It’s the first time they will be without each other.
Zoe inevitably harbors guilt for leaving Elle alone, but it is Elle who has supported her decision from the very start. She’s the only one who understood, saying that she’d never speak to Zoe again if she didn’t go. While Zoe knew that Elle didn’t mean it, her tenacity was so strong, even stronger than hers, that Zoe couldn’t dare stay.
Inside the car, Zoe’s fingers tremble. She clenches her fists, nails digging into her palms. She gulps as her gaze meets her father’s. In her head, she battles against the fear of uncertainty. She has fought long and hard for this, and until that very moment, she is fighting.
Any sign of weakness will give room for her parents to attack, and she can’t let that happen.
“Yes, Ma. I’ll send you a message as soon as I land at Haneda Airport.”
She sees her Ma press her lips against each other, forming the wrinkles close to her mouth.
They arrive at the unloading zone around 7:15 AM. Her Pa carries her suitcase out of the compartment as she slides her arms into her backpack.
“Are you sure you have your passport with you?” Ma’s voice is still croaky.
“Yes, Ma,” she says, patting the pocket of her backpack where she keeps her passport together with her ticket. Ma’s eyes become teary.
“Don’t forget to call us.”
Zoe heaves a sigh. “Ma, please don’t cry. I’ll be fine. I’m a big girl now.”
Mama pulls Zoe in an embrace, her apricot shampoo teasing her daughter’s nostrils. She kisses the top of Zoe’s head, although she is only a few inches taller.
“My baby’s all grown up.”
Zoe’s body weakens. Her Ma has always been stricter than her Papa, but Zoe knows it’s because of love. She understands that much.
Pa comes closer, embracing Zoe as well. He whispers in her hair, “Be careful, Zoe.”
She pulls away from both of them and holds onto her suitcase.
“After this, you’re entering law school,” Pa declares, his eyes not hostile yet firm. Zoe’s shoulders stiffen, so she looks away.
“I gotta go. Take care of yourselves. Go on a vacation. Visit our relatives.” And then her voice finally succumbs to anxiety. “I’ll be okay.”
Zoe attempts to appear strong so they’ll worry less, but she can’t conceal how afraid and tense she is, especially that she’s only a few steps away from the airport door—the entrance to a place where she’ll be alone without the people she loves.
But I wanted this. I chose this.
Her fingers quiver. It doesn’t help that Ma starts to cry. Pa takes her hand to comfort her.
Zoe hates seeing her like that.
Ma shakes her head vehemently. “I might never be able to understand what you want to see out there, but I’ll always be here for you.”
Ma speaks the right words, but her eyes say otherwise. They disapprove of her decision. They don’t understand why she’s leaving.
It’s because she became greedy—and she acted on it. She allowed the desire to take root, then she nourished and watered it every day instead of cutting it like a weed.
She started to want to become something else. To be something more. And staying wouldn’t make that happen.
She drags her suitcase as she waves goodbye, their faces becoming blurry with every step.
With a last glimpse, she sees Ma bury her face on Pa’s chest.
Even though her eyes brim with tears, she stares forward.
Keep walking, Zoe.
It was a rainy evening on the 10th of December when Zoe’s life began to change.
She jolted awake, face down on the pillow, a few strands of hair stuck on her cheek. With eyes half-opened, she slowly turned to her left side and gazed downwards on the carpeted floor. Her vision remained a little fuzzy, yet the crumbs of chips didn’t escape her notice. Her room needed to be vacuumed.
Her head pounded. She tucked her hair behind her right ear, then she stretched her arms and legs. The pink, rose-patterned blanket fell to the floor, making a soft thud sound. A couple of minutes later, she pulled herself up.
Her eyes flicked to the purple square wall clock whose hands glowed despite the darkness. She overslept. Guilt immediately crept into her core as she recalled the 500 words lacking on her final paper for the semester. With a sigh, she glanced outside the glass window. Fine raindrops landed on the window sill. The thick, dark clouds releasing them concealed the moon and the stars. An urge to go back to bed came quickly, but the guilt became stronger. She rubbed her eyes to awaken her senses.
She folded the blanket and then placed it neatly on top of the square pillow. Next, she checked her phone for messages. She squinted to adjust to the light. There were none. Seth said that he was going to play basketball with his friends at the local gym.
I guess the game is still ongoing.
She turned the wi-fi connection on.
The phone vibrated—it received a notification from Gmail. Her heart skipped a beat as she laid her eyes on the sender’s email address. Chills ran down her spine, goosebumps appearing on her skin.
The message was from the University of Tokyo. At last, they had sent the email she had been waiting for.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, her grip on the phone tightened. Her eyes stayed fixed on the screen which had turned black due to inactivity.
She quickly glimpsed at the door, carrying a tiny wish for Ma to barge in so she could open the email instead. The tingling sensation in her stomach was making her weak, like her strength had been completely drained out of her body.
But nobody came. The door remained closed. She drew a deep breath.
I can do this alone. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Over and over, she told herself. A light knock on the door snapped Zoe out of her daze.
“Dinner’s ready,” Ma said.
She couldn’t respond. Her gaze was still on the dark screen.
“Zoe? Are you up?”
The bedroom door swung open. Ma stood next to it with a frown.
Without looking up, she gathered strength and reluctantly pressed the correct icon to open the email. She gulped incessantly as she read the message, pausing several times as her eyes skimmed over some parts of the message: Congratulations... Thank you for applying... Here are the remaining requirements... We hope to see you soon.
A few seconds later, she looked back to Ma who was still standing on the same spot, arms folded.
“Is something wrong?”
Zoe’s lips broke into a smile. The tingling sensation transformed and gave her inexplicable, mixed feelings. Uncertainty. Shock. Fear.
But most importantly, hope.
Her heart was suddenly filled with anticipation—something she hadn’t felt in a long time.
“No, Ma. Everything’s perfect,” she replied, almost squealing.
Ma tilted her head in confusion before walking away. The door was left half-opened, an invitation for her to come out for dinner. She hurriedly turned on her bedroom lamp, grabbed her journal and pen from the drawer next to the bed, and sat on the chair in front of the wooden study desk.
Zoe scribbled her thoughts on a blank page as she held herself back from screaming. Her fingers trembled. Her penmanship became less legible, yet she needed to vent out the overflowing feelings in her heart.
I am going to Japan, the land of the rising sun.
She had heard a lot of good things about Japan: the Japanese’s strong sense of discipline and respect, the richness of their cuisine and culture, and their affluence. Naturally, she was aware of its dark side, especially its colonial history. Their homogeneity that might result in xenophobia, and possibly, racism, were also things she had mulled over. Her main concern, however, was the language barrier, which would be difficult to overcome in her day-to-day activities.
But these things did not terrify her at all. In fact, they made her yearn for it. Japan seemed so familiar because of its influential culture and cuisine and the fact that it’s in Asia. However, it also sounded so foreign because being part of the same continent may not mean anything at all. The Philippines has long adopted Western culture.
Nevertheless, it thrilled her to know that Japan was within her reach. That she could be far away from home.
At last, she felt alive.