I orchestrated my life to arrive at this confession on the trampled soccer field converted into a cramped maze of tents, swirling ticket-booth lines, and roaming fourteen year-olds with looped belts or twisted rope chasing boys for the marriage booth. Somewhere on the damp lawn muggy with heat and sweat from at least two hundred bodies, Lena, seventeen years old and a senior at the Holy Virgin Mother High School, cocked her head to one side and looked at the claw on her shoulder. I gripped her to steady myself more than to prevent her escape. Her classmates in the booth behind us began to stare, Lena stared back and she did not move from my grasp.
Over the last few months, Lena's voice had developed a fullness perfect for whispering and she employed her considerable skill to make sure I caught her every word without drawing the curiosity of the carousing freshmen. “About what, sir?"
"About the Variety Show program." Waved a printed copy of the email her committee sent a few days ago. Ugly, uneven circles polka-dotted the first three pages. Lena's eyes dimmed and she cast around for other committee members. She had been assigned only to draw up the program, I knew, but she didn't have the authority, according to their awry chain of command, to enforce changes. "Miss Dinsay, let's go." I strode away, leaving her to puff after me. "My office, now."
Late November brought low-hanging clouds spread in sheets above the hills. Moss grew in large, roving patches all over the Field where tents, booths, and rides were set up for the annual school fair. I took my time and avoided patches of mud and silt. Instead of a barong, my white undershirt, and a pair of black shapeless slacks, I opted for a brown shirt and a pair of sturdy, faded bluejeans. The kids steered clear of my path. If Ada, my wife, had been here, she would have insisted I wore something more festive for the occasion but my outfit had been the one thing Ada refused to specify and the only detail in her often-told story that I had been unable to wheedle out. Everything else -- from the Variety Show program, my tone of voice, the shape of the words I used and all their jagged coldness -- she retold so often I could hear her voice in my mind narrating the scene.
"Eh ano nga sinuot ko?"
"Surprise me." Ada smiled. We had this conversation twenty-five years or so Up Stream, in our house behind the High School. She was stubborn, my Ada. And overly fond of tricks and gimmicks. The six years or so I spent Down Time as a Temporal Tourist, I relished only because I knew I was participating in my wife's last and most elaborate scheme: our love story.
"Basta. You'll know when you get there." Ada closed her eyes and slipped a small pipe down her throat. The bluish haze of her ChronoSphere chased me out of our bedroom.
Located in the main administration building sufficiently apart from the noise of the High School's annual school fair, my office retained and dour atmosphere closely associated with morose funerals and the strained, panicked air of college entrance exams. There was barely enough room for my desk, two filing cabinets, and a small sofa but the ceiling extended high above. A small bulb hung over my desk, fixed at the end of a long wire. Windows opposite the door opened to a wall of dirt topped with tall, swaying glass.
Not bothering to close the flimsy door, I sat on the sofa, stapled sheets of paper on my lap, my hands clasped tight until Lena knocked for permission to enter. She hadn't been a student of mine -- my wife didn't mention that particular detail -- but I knew most of the students were intrigued by the little digit printed just above my left wrist. After Lena drew a monobloc chair opposite my seat on the couch, I drew up my sleeve.
Five years ago, the figure had been a small yet discernible "6" coal black against my skin. Now it was a faint, ochre “0”, a yawning mouth. I stared, too, at my wrist and shattered veined hands, large enough to cup her cheeks, to smother her. I handed her the sheets of paper and crossed my legs.
Somewhere overhead, Mrs. Hilda’s high, thin voice trilled over eight loudspeakers like angry flies, asking for the history teacher, Ed Kalampang. The chill of late November burrowed deep in my hands, knees, and in the small catch-all of my groin so that I stood shifting my weight from one foot to the other while Lena scanned my edits, slack-jawed and brow-furrowed. Today she wasn’t dressed in her pleated green skirt, the yellowing blouse with its navy collar, and the solid black shoes that made her infamous among her peers. She would grow up to lament their size. Lena wasn’t a pretty seventeen: on her upper lip bloomed the early fuzz of faint but discernible ladystache. She was old seventeen. She carried herself heavily, as though dealt with some weighty past she will never live through.
"Sir?" She looked up from perusing the paper. Aside from half a dozen minor revisions, I simply asked her to rearrange the schedule for two bands half an hour apart.
"We don't have much time." I had closed the door and turned to her. At this point, my wife would lower her voice an octave, shadow her eyes with a curtain of hair. Something in her eyes would wander and obscure. "Lena, I'm not just your history teacher." This part of the story was my wife's favorite. At seventeen, Lena romanticized her life to an astonishing degree: people were characters with lush back-stories. Her invented life for me involved a wife who left years ago -- something eerily accurate -- and a miserable home life in some infinitesimal apartment where the noise of barking dogs seemed to echo and swill. It wasn't far from the truth. The speech my wife composed -- or I composed, I thought -- flowed out of me with the ease of long practice and painful familiarity. I caught Lena at the beginning of our love story but Lena only enters the picture as a footnote, a necessary evil, at the last leg of my race home. I had waited six years and I was almost home. Almost. The digit on my wrist was fading fast.
"Do you understand, Lena?" My wife said throughout my speech -- the speech she heard, the speech she taught me to declaim -- she felt goosebumps riding up her arm.
"You touched my cheek." Ada said and although in her retelling the blush had long gone from the moment, in my dusty study, my hand grazed Lena's rosy skin and left a blazing sunset in its wake. "And then you took my hand." I took Lena's cold hands, wrapped them in the calloused, rough palms.
"I didn't kiss you, did I?"
"No, you didn't." I always asked her, at that point, to see the thrill of a stolen kiss lift her eyes.
It was five in the afternoon, an hour before a three-hour open-air concert featuring local student bands, when I held onto Lena. My wife told me this story so many times so I know exactly how it ended. Every year, the senior batch spearheaded preparations and decided on the school-wide theme. The year this story happened, my wife said her batch voted for Dekada Singkuwenta to invoke the fifties.
After talking with the rest of her committee, Lena stood on the stage with three male batchmates, arranging the stage for the first band, a trio called Lazy Monkeys. The band members were somewhere in the crowd, mingling with a crowd of high school girls. Lights flashed on the rough grass. I watched Lena teeter on the edge of the stage, one hand flailing in the empty space. The critical moment. My wife said her heart jumped in her throat, that she saw my still, swollen face in the crowd, and she knew she had done the right thing. Girls gasped as Lena fell backward off the stage, floated out of sight. A thud of bone and flesh against muscle. Someone caught her breath. All around me, a surge of students lurched forward to see Lena in the arms of a scrawny eighteen year-old from the neighboring all-boy high school. The digit on my arm had all but faded but I caught my own voice, strange and disparate, not part of my own body echo back to me from somewhere in the crowd. How did I hear it from the crowding bodies?
"I'm Ed. Ikaw?"
"I'm Adalena -- Ada."