“Jess? What are you doing here?” Martin put down the books he was holding and signaled to his assistant Kenny to take over with checking out of the items. He slid out of the cashier table and stumbled as he paced to meet me by the entrance door.
Tucking a few strands of hair behind my left ear, I greeted him with open arms. “You’ve been working out,” I commented as I hugged him. He felt brawny this time, while his scent was the same CK’s Eternity.
“Been carrying lots of books lately,” he chuckled panting, his chest moving up and down. “Is this a surprise? How long do you intend to stay this time?”
“I’m in town for a week, and I was wondering if I could crash.”
He seemed taller as he stood next to me with brows furrowed, “What’s wrong? What happened?” I swallowed, trying to hide my watery eyes. Nothing’s changed. Despite being surrounded by books and newspapers, he was still unaware of what’s happening. I don’t blame him, he never really liked reading tabloids, most especially the showbiz section. Coming back to Santa Barbara, I kind of anticipated he wouldn’t know.
I tried rummaging my brain for the right words to say so that he’ll understand my situation, but somehow, it wouldn’t come. The truth was too shameful, too embarrassing. How could I tell my best friend that I was sick of how the media treated me as if I was some cheap product they could easily ruin with their words? How could I tell him that I couldn’t stand the life I chose for myself? So empty and soulless. So ambitious yet so selfish. It was not the crowd that made me self-conscious, it was rather him who finally got the life that he wanted – own a bookstore and get married. Well, about to get married.
“Kenny, can you take over for a while?” he called out as he untied his brown apron with his bookstore logo. “I might not be back for the rest of the day so you can close this shop down at six!”
“Sure, I got you, boss!” the slender boy yelled back continuing to punch in the books to the sensor. The customer in front of him was talking on his phone and did not seem to notice or even care.
“Wait, you don’t need to do that. There are too many customers.” I exclaimed. “I can just go to your apartment, and we can talk about it tonight. I know where you live anyway.”
He ignored my comment, pushing the entrance door open. “Don’ worry, the boss can take a break whenever he wants to. And besides, I haven’t seen you for months, and I miss you.” He pulled me towards him, his arms wrapped around me. I could feel him inhaling my hair, a gesture he used to do only to me. It was then he noticed my suitcases. “That’s a big bag! Are you sure you’re only aiming to stay for a week?”
I brought two suitcases with me, and if only I could bring more, I would have carried all my life back too. Yesterday, I’d thought of starting fresh, which came at an opportune time because I was about to sign a re-contract today. I’d called my manager, Rina, and told her I couldn’t do it anymore. She tutted and suggested I take a break, saying she’ll wait for me until I was ready again.
“Yeah,” I nodded and directed a sheepish grin at my best friend. “I should be able to sort out everything after that. I’m sorry, I should have called and informed you first instead of putting you on the spot. Now, you have no choice but to take me in.”
His hand mussed my hair. “Nonsense. You know you’re always welcome to stay. You can stay for as long as you like. You understand?” Without waiting for me to respond, he took one of my suitcases, and we started walking down the street. Not so long ago, we would walk from our home to school and vice versa, passing the same route.
The fountain with two cupids, each with a bow and arrow, stood in the middle of the plaza. Adjacent to it was Bunny’s Café, which, over the years, had turned into one of the town’s iconic establishments. Standing next to it was the only Catholic church in the town, and a few blocks away, the historic city hall stood proudly with its gray stones and red-tiled roof.
“Oh, shit!” I snapped my forehead. “I completely forgot about Tracy!” I stopped walking and took the suitcase he was pulling behind him. “How can I forget? I’m the worst best friend in the world ever.” Tracy was his fiancé and she sometimes spends the night in his apartment.
He shrugged, “Oh believe me. She’s the least of your concern. I don’t think she would mind, anyway.” He continued walking after taking my suitcase back.
I don’t think she’d be happy that he’s still hanging out with me especially after what I did during their engagement party, and so I decided to shut my mouth. Santa Barbara had always been a home and it was the only thing I longed for. If only Mom kept the house even when she migrated to the US, I wouldn’t have this problem. And I’d rather not stay in a hotel because people in this town talk and after the recent showbiz controversies, my life story would be a feast for them. Still, Santa Barbara was far better than Manila when it comes to privacy. There was a time where someone once paid a hotel staff in Manila for letting them know I was staying there. “Have you eaten? We can go out once we settled in.” He looked at his watch. “It’s going to be a late lunch, I hope you don’t mind.”
“I’m good with anything.” We rounded the corner and walked another block before finally reaching his apartment, a two-story part of a duplex. “Mrs. Chan still living there?” I was referring to the right part of the duplex.
“She’s still there. Current cat count? Ten!”
“You can’t imagine the orchestra of meowing every morning!”
After climbing a couple of steps, he withdrew the key from his pocket and unlocked the door.
As we walked inside, I noticed the new furniture arrangement, more minimalistic in style. It was unlike when I visited three months ago. Last time, I could barely walk without bumping into anything. I slumped myself on the blue sofa, which was once leathered-brown. Red checkered cloth covered the coffee table. Besides, it was a CD rack as tall as his bookshelves. Now, there was a huge blank space on the floor where a carpet was once. Tracy must have told him to get rid of it—I remember one conversation with her, where she told me that she hated carpets unless it’s Persian. “You’ve renovated?”
He nodded, “For a change.” He walked to the fridge and grabbed two bottles of cold beer. He handed me one, its coldness numbing my hand. “So, what’s your plan for the week?”
“Nothing really. I just want to get away from it all, you know?”
“How about another cooking night?” he suggested. It had been part of our ritual bonding. In high school, we would cook instant noodles with canned tuna while watching Japanese horror movies. It had evolved over the years because when we were in college, we switched to pizza and then to pasta every time we have a reunion.
“That’s a clever idea. You still have the curry book I gave you on your engagement party?”
“Of course,” he stood and went to his shelves, always systematically and neatly arranged. “I tried some of the recipes, but I never get the spices right. It’s either too spicy or too bland. I bought them all. You can check it out.”
I stood up and walked over to his kitchen, finding the many different bottles of spices – turmeric, chili powder, cumin, ground ginger, ground pepper, coriander. Hands on my hips, I remarked, “Impressive.”
I wasn’t sure why I even thought of buying a cooking book for him when I knew that we probably wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. He was about to get married, and I, the best friend, should know well enough to step aside. I should have given them more space to grow as a couple. Perhaps the curry cookbook was not meant for us even if I purchased it hoping for more cooking nights with him. Maybe I bought it for Martin so that he could learn how to do it with the person he’s going to spend the rest of his life with.
“Hey, about that night. Whatever I did that caused Tracy to get mad at you, I am so so sorry.” I hadn’t spoken to him since that night. In fact, showing up at his bookstore was a risk and I’d been pushing my luck with him ever since we were kids.
“Such a memorable night. I wish I had it on video,” he teased.
Despite being thirsty, I only stared at the bottle of beer in my hand. I tried avoiding it, not only because it made me bloated, but because the last time I drank, it was a total disaster.
Three months ago…
“Hey everyone, this round of beer is on me!” I looked around the bar filled with Martin and Tracy’s friends, their eyes in anticipation, waiting for what I was about to say next. One guy cheered, “Woohoo! I love you, Jessie!”
“I love you too!” I giggled. “Just one message from me, Tracy. I hope you know how lucky you are to have the world’s sexiest man alive, not in the physical sense, but in terms of the brain.” A laugh thundered from the crowd.
Martin who was dashing in his new haircut and contact lenses shot me a warning look. And there, for a moment, I regretted that I was just a friend. Oh, Martin. If only we’re here under different circumstances, I would have shagged you and that would have been acceptable. But this is your engagement party, unfortunately to another woman, and heck, I need to be a supportive friend. I couldn’t tell you that it kills me every time you look at her because you never look at me that way. Yes, I’m jealous.
I turned back to Tracy with her straight black hair and a red tube dress. She was beaming with delight. “I’m so happy that you two finally found your match. Imagine, billions of people in this world yet, you found someone who you’ll spend the rest of your life with. Anyway, I’ll save the longer and more heartfelt message for the wedding. Once again, congratulations!”
The audience applauded as I got out of my seat and went to the bar. I’d better go before I do things I regret. Besides, this blinking disco lights made my headache worse. After the TV commercial shooting that morning in Manila, I flew straight away to Santa Barbara to catch Martin’s engagement party.
After settling the bill, Tracy’s friends approached me and asked for autographs and selfies. One of the guys boasted of his enormous collection of every magazine that featured me on the cover. “I can’t believe I finally met you in person. Tracy should have told us beforehand, and I could have brought all my memorabilia so you could sign it!” His eyes widened in excitement. “You don’t have any idea, you were my first crush when I was like twelve, and I saw you posing for shampoo!” He kept babbling on.
“It’s their engagement party anyway so it wouldn’t be appropriate,” I responded. I was still in college when I started taking part-time jobs as a commercial model. I have been the face and hair of a certain popular brand of shampoo, one that shot to popularity, primarily because of me. I became a commercial model for napkins, skincare, soft drinks, shoes, clothing line, you name it.
“Tell me, you’re Martin’s best friend, right? Will you be the best guy or a bridesmaid?”
Neither, I would like to say. “I can be anything, I guess. Excuse me, I just need to–” My stomach suddenly turned upside down. When I stood this time, my head felt heavier. The three bottles of beer finally got hold of me. I paced to the empty bathroom and vomited into the bowl.
A second wave of nausea hit me and I was throwing up again, practically hugging the cold ceramic bowl for dear life. Just when I thought it was over, my stomach tightened again as I shot another projectile into the toilet. I groaned, closing my eyes, my head still throbbing. I realized I was shaking uncontrollably.
Seemingly from far away, I heard a knock. “Jessie, are you there?” It was Martin’s voice.
“I’m here!” I called out weakly, trying to stand up. Still dizzy from my exertions, my unsteady legs on high heels slipped on the floor, causing me to hit the unlocked door. Martin was standing right outside, and his arms flung out instinctively to catch me.
“Jessie, what happened?”
I started sobbing. “Please don’t let them see me like this,” I managed to say.
“Let me take you home.” With his arms, he carried me like a child. He used the backdoor that led straight to the parking lot. I tried holding my head up, but I felt so weak. All I could do was lean my head on his chest until we reached his car. Martin had just buckled me into the passenger seat when I heard Tracy’s voice.
“Honey, you’re leaving?” The clip-clop of her heels was getting stronger. “But the party isn’t over yet.”
I raised her head, eyes half-closed. “Hi, Tracy.”
“I need to get her back to her hotel, hon. She’s super sick. I promised it’ll be fast you wouldn’t have noticed I’m gone.” I heard Martin explained.
“M-Martin, is okayy,” I slurred. I couldn’t even control what I was saying. “J-just get me a taxi, would you?”
“Hon, I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Fine!” she scowled.
I was not sure what happened, but I heard the ignition started as I dozed off.
The next time I opened my eyes, I quickly rolled the windows down. Martin got the cue and slowly parked the car. As I stuck my head out of the window and threw the remains of the beer, he was pulling my hair back. “Easy, easy. There, let it all out,” he mumbled.
When I sat back to my seat, he wiped my lips with a tissue and handed me with a bottle of water. “Didn’t you eat dinner before drinking?” I shook my head. “That’s why you got drunk, Jessie. I have told you a thousand times not to do that again,” he scolded.
“I was late and I missed the dinner, okay.” I sniffled.
“Hey, are you crying?” He suddenly cupped my chin.
I started sobbing as I looked at him. “I won’t ever drink beer again. This is so, so painful.”
“You’re saying that now like how you said it before. And I don’t believe you.”
“Seriously, Martin de Guzman. What did you see in Tracy that I don’t possibly have?”
“Jess, you’re talking nonsense now but don’t worry. I’m gonna get you home.” He started the ignition again, but an inexplicable force made me grab the keys.
“Look at me, Martin! Don’t you get it? I like you and I’m hurting like hell that you’re getting married!”
“Do you still remember the things you said that evening?” Martin was cooking dinner. He was in front of the stove, stirring the pot, with his back to me.
I knew what he was referring to, but I pretended to not remember what I did or said that night. It was a conversation I would not be ready for my whole life. “Stop it. Whatever I said came from a drunk woman, and that means it did not happen at all!”
He chuckled, “You were asking me to marry you instead, you know.”
“What? No way!” This is a game I’m not going to lose.
Martin stepped away from the stove and into the living room. Picking up the remote from the coffee table, he turned the TV on in time for the news program. I came face-to-face with myself. Jessie Alonzo’s breakup with award-winning actor Ariel Santos was apparently big news.
I changed the channel because I could not stand it anymore. “That’s rubbish!”
Martin nodded, understanding dawning on his features. “Such an ass, that guy.” He went back to the kitchen and headed to the fridge.
“What do you have this time?” I asked. “After the nap I had in the afternoon, I’m ready for another round.”
Taking out a bottle of Chardonnay, he grinned. “The chicken curry would pair well with this.” He popped the cork and poured it into two wine glasses.
“And since when have you started stocking white wine bottles in your fridge?”
“This was from that recent trip from New Zealand. You remember? I just came back.”
Of course, that post-engagement trip with Tracy.
I took a glass from his hand and sipped the bubbly liquid, the cold spirit quenching my thirst. “I don’t want to go back out there. I’m tired of the limelight. You warned me about it, and I should have listened.”
“Maybe you can make use of your marketing course and work in the city. Or, remember your dream of becoming a writer? You can pursue that.”
“You were the only one who read my short story, and all you did was criticize it!”
“People will read your story regardless of how good or bad it is because, hello, you’re Jessie Alonzo!
“Oh, shut up!” If I was careful, my savings and investments should be enough to cover my expenses for a decade. Maybe he was right. I can pursue my other dreams instead. It has always been my mom who pushed me to be a model anyway. A few years ago, my mom migrated to the US and told me, I could do whatever my heart’s desire.
“Seriously though, stay in Santa Barbara for as long as you want.”
I took another sip and nodded, “Maybe, I will.”
Twelve years ago…
“How do I look?” I asked my sister, Ryza who just entered the room. I turned around trying to give her access to all angles. I curled my hair and applied my makeup myself. Wrapping my body was a blue satin tube gown I found in the market, and on my feet, were silver heels. “You think Jake will like it?” I was referring to my date for the prom. Jake was every girl’s dream in my high school, and I’m sure everyone would be jealous of me with him by my side. The chance was also high that we could win the king and queen of hearts by the end of the night.
Ryza sighed, “He can’t come.”
“What?” My stomach tightened, panicking in their ways.
“He just called and told me he’s suffering from severe diarrhea, and he was rushed to the hospital. He won’t be able to make it to the dance.”
Dumbfounded, I slumped into the chair. All this work for nothing. “I saw him earlier in class, he still looked fine.”
“Why don’t you ask Martin to go with you to the dance instead?” asked Ryza.
“He doesn’t believe in the value of JS proms. He opted out.” And I doubt that he would ever change his mind. Knowing him, once he’s decided on something, come hell or high water, he wouldn’t bend his decision. “Believe me, I tried.”
Ryza took the cordless phone from the table and started dialing.
“Who you’re calling?”
She ignored me. “Hi, Kuya Martin? It’s Ryza. Ate has a major problem, and I wonder if you can help. Yup, like what I expected, she got stood up by Jake.” She paused. “Yup. He’s not coming at all.” I tried taking the phone from her but even if she was younger than me, she’s two inches higher, and so I struggled and failed. “Uh-huh. You got to wear a suit and pick her up in like fifteen minutes.”
“You don’t have to, Martin!” I yelled in the background. “I swear I’ll be fine!”
“Great! See you then!” Ryza put the phone down and turned to me. She dusted her hands, “Problem solved. You’re welcome, big sister. Goodbye.” She abruptly went out of the room, banging the door closed.
It’s both a mystery and a miracle how he even agreed to do it, but enough pondering. I looked back in the mirror, fixed my curled hair, and applied another shade of my glittery pink eye shadow and shiny lip gloss.
Ten minutes later, I heard a car pulled in the driveway. That would be Martin! I checked myself one more time, and after making sure everything’s in place, I grabbed my clutch bag and rushed downstairs.
He stood in the bottom downstairs, with gelled-applied hair, glasses still on, and in an elegant black suit. He was holding a piece of rose in his mouth. “Martin, you’re a lifesaver,” I commented surprised as I climb down the stairs. When we stood next to each other, I light-punched him, “When I asked you to come, you did not even think about it, and you only said no. But when Ryza told you to, you immediately agreed. Don’t you think that’s unfair!”
He checked the mirror and fixed his collar. “The important thing is I’m here, and we can all go to the dance. Dad can drive us.”
“You managed to convince Tito to come?” When I checked the window, his father on the driver’s seat waved at me. Even Tito looked well-prepared. Before I could react, he pulled me out of the house, and we head to the car.
Our JS prom picture where Martin and I were crowned as King and Queen of the night, was still displayed on his shelves amongst the books. “I still can’t believe how you got ready in ten minutes! If I have known better, you probably were wearing that suit even before my sister called you.” We just ate the spiciest curry complimented by my fifth glass of wine. I was feeling hot despite my thin spaghetti-strapped blouse. Martin insisted on washing the plates on his own, so I don’t have a choice but to roam around the house noticing what I normally miss.
He grinned as he wiped the last plate. “Were you happy that it turned out to be me and not Jake?” I noticed how his smile disappeared upon mentioning the name. “After all my hard work that night, you and Jake still became an item, and until now I don’t get it.”
“Are you jealous?” I sneered. “Well, he was fun for some time until that jerk broke up with me two months later. And when you said hard work, what exactly do you mean by that? All you needed to do was to show up for me that evening.”
“Not really.” He poured himself another glass of wine which he drank right away. “It was an evening I planned with Ryza.”
“What do you mean?” I asked as he poured himself another glass.
He sat on the sofa where I followed him. “Draw closer. I have something to confess.”
“Huh? Confess what?” Seriously, I was getting confused, but I obeyed and drew closer to him.
He cleared his throat. “I planned the whole thing with your sister and my Dad.”
I glared at him. “What do you mean?”
“See, I offered Jake two bars of expired chocolate which he devoured in a few minutes.”
“That’s what made him sick,” he sighed. “It was your sister’s idea and I thought why not.”
“But why would you and Ryza plan to poison him? Martin, what am I missing? What is it my sister knew that I don’t?” This is frustrating.
He turned towards the coffee table, not meeting my eyes. “Ryza somehow knew that I liked you for a long time and so, she helped me plan the whole thing. You were crushing on Jake, and when he finally asked you out, I knew you’d say yes, and well, you did.”
I remained quiet, trying my best to hide my shaking hands. My heart was thumping so loud, that I felt it was blocking my throat. Breathing was a struggle. “You liked me but you never said a word. I-” I drank the remains of my glass. “I mean, how can I know? There were no signs at all.”
“That is not true. How about those flowers every Valentine’s day? Those midnight calls and texts. I was always first in the scene not only because I am your best friend. I liked you very much, Jess. I probably have not told you, but I loved you.”
“Yes, you tell me that L word all the time.”
“And maybe I enjoyed saying it because you never suspected at all. I loved you more than a friend, Jess.” He lay on the couch, placed his legs on my knees, then stared at the ceiling. “Remember when we danced the whole night? I said to myself, my dreams are finally coming true. I saw you so happy we won that award. You even told me that you don’t need Jake to win the thing and that you should have asked me to the dance instead.” He shook his head, “I thought at that time you were falling for me too, but then a few days later, I heard that you’re finally a couple. I was heartbroken but I have done what I could and I couldn’t cheat again just to have you.”
I reached the bottle from the table and drank from it. Martin looked surprised by my actions, but he did not speak further. I removed my slippers and lay on top of him, my head on his chest. I could hear his heart beating. I turned to his face and removed his glasses. “You’re forgiven,” I whispered in his ear.
I ignored him as my lips traversed from the side of his neck to the front.
He moaned. “Jess?” He gently pushed me, so his eyes met mine. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt at that time. Maybe it was the wine talking or the curry. “We can’t do things we’re going to regret later,” he mumbled as I unbuttoned his polo shirt. “Once we cross this line, we won’t be able to come back.”
“Let’s not think about other people for now.” I successfully removed his shirt from him. My hands meandered from his abs to the back muscles.
He closed his eyes as he muttered my name, “Jess….” I could still feel his hand half-pushing, half-pulling me. “I love you.” Our lips finally touched, sharing a kiss that drowned us. A kiss filled with hunger and abundance of longing. He bit my lower lip as I sucked on his upper, our tongues dancing in each other’s rhythm. I let out a soft moan as his lips reached my neck. He helped me take my blouse off then his hands cupped my breast, stroking it gently like it’s precious. His hands traveled further down, slipping his finger inside my underwear.
As soon as he started stroking my spot, I was paralyzed, my sanity trying to fight. It took me a few seconds to finally reached for his pants and removed it along with his underwear. My left leg could feel the hardness and anger of his soul, trying to find its place. I held it dearly with my right hand and motioned up and down.
He went on top of me and thrust his hardness in between my groins. “Ahh, Martin,” I moaned completely losing my head.
9 August 1998 – Book Lovers Day
My best friend and I were strolling from the school to our home when we stumbled into a bookstore in the southern part of Santa Barbara. We decided to take a different, much longer route home since the class finished early.
“Look, they got a new Geronimo book!” Jess in her long pigtails pointed out.
“Woah!” Martin swooned, pushing his gigantic glasses towards his nose. “Wait, let me check if I have enough cash.” He placed his bag on his knee as support. He unzipped and took his wallet out.
“You can ask your dad to buy it for you though.”
“No. That’s a new edition. I want to read it tonight and dad won’t be back until next week.” He ransacked his bag for the money. “Oh no, I only got two hundred in my emergency fund!” he pouted pressing his nose into the glass, completely forgetting the chocolate ice cream melting in his hand.
I handed him fifty pesos. “Here. Go ahead and buy it now,” I smiled.
He lightened up and instantly hugged me, kissing my cheek. “You’re the best best friend ever!”
“Ew! You shouldn’t kiss me!” I wiped his saliva with my red necktie.
“Oops, sorry.” He scratched his head. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
“Wait, let’s finish our ice cream first!” I swallowed the remains of my cone and with my sticky hands, pushed the handled openly.
Martin did the same and followed inside. We held hands as they asked the counter for a new copy. The staff was not in the mood and told us to come back later because she was in a break.
He was disappointed. “We can’t wait anymore because our parents will be worried if we don’t go home on time. How about if we leave the cash here, you give us the book, and you can punch it to your system after your break?”
“Fine.” The staff rolled her eyes as she handed us one with a worn-out cover.
“We need the new one, miss,” I called out.
The staff tsk-tsked and shoved them another copy. “Now go, and don’t ever come back.”
We marched out of the bookstore with the book and continued our walk home. He merrily read the blurb at the back, while I mocked at the staff. “When you grow up, you should own a bookstore, so you do not need to face that witch again.”
His eyes widened. “You know what? That’s not a bad idea at all. I can read the books first hand and you can be my assistant!”
“I don’t want to be an assistant. How about a partner, huh?”
My mind stared into an open space, and I knew that he was doing the same. We used to do this all the time. The only different thing this time was that we’re naked in his coach under a blanket. We have been silent for several minutes now, unsure of what the next steps are. After all the excitement and a million other emotions were sobering up, realizing what happened was a mistake.
I sat up and picked my clothes on the floor. There’s always a chance that Tracy would knock on the door. I was not afraid of being caught, but I realized what a bitch I have become, and I felt ashamed.
“Where are you going?” He sat up following my gaze. “You don’t have to worry about Tracy.”
I turned to him confused, “What do you mean?”
“That trip to New Zealand, I actually went alone. Remember when I dropped you at the hotel after the engagement party? I stayed over the whole night because I was afraid to leave you. You kept throwing up and in one instance, you had a fever.” He cleared his throat. “Long story short, she was furious because I did not come back.”
I held his hand. “I am sincerely sorry. I really am. I’ve always liked you, but I do not want to get in between.” I snapped my head. “Oh, fuck. I already did. But we can pretend like nothing happened, right?”
He grinned. “It’s okay. I think I am good here with you,” he pulled me towards him and caught my lips with a deep kiss sending electric shocks throughout my entirety. His warm heavy hands wrapped around me. He then went on top of me and started kissing my neck.
“Are you sure?” I pulled him back to the bed and rode on top of him. “If you are, then I’ll stay here this time if you don’t mind.”