Unlike my college buddy Hazel who spent the following year after college traveling and meeting boys, I joined the workforce two months after graduation. I had so much pent-up energy that I needed to throw myself into work.
I was single for a long time. I was bored. And I was fed up with Hazel’s nonstop bullying that I finally agreed to meet one of her single guy friends for a blind date. His name was Tom and he was an architect.
Tom wasn’t bad-looking. To be fair, he was quite an attractive guy with an impressive resume and an even more impressive first job at the top architectural firm in the Philippines. He came from a good family who lives in one of those exclusive addresses in Makati.
He drove a swanky bachelor’s car. He dressed neatly and treated women politely. Tom was a catch. But for me, he was, well, plain vanilla. After all, I already have that hot architect friend.
Tristan is my closest guy friend from high school whose friendship came at a time when I didn’t really want it. Unlike me, who spent most of her early school years stuck in a bubble of what I’d like to call a community (where everyone knows everyone else’s parents and business) Christian school, Tristan was actually a transferee from one of the biggest and probably most exclusive school for boys in the city.
In freshman year, I’ve already developed this weird academic-slash-social whatever cloak that made all the other kids spare from their nasty, childish pranks. The cloak was a result of whatever influence I managed to develop when I graduated salutatorian in grade school. On top of that, my mother was also the president of the parents-teachers association and my parents had the school principal on their speed dial.
All the teachers knew me. All the new ones got into the program shortly after joining. I was driven to school every day in a private car. My yaya delivered my lunch meals every day because my parents didn’t want me buying from the school cafeteria. All these persisted all the way till senior year.
So, yes, I didn’t get to experience all those pranks many American high school movies portrayed. Nope. I was a straight-A student. I was a nerd. And I looked like one, too. I had braces, glasses, big hair and dark skin at a time when all of these features could have robbed a young first year who needed self-esteem. And yes, these affected me. The cloak didn’t come with self-esteem boosters that I spent the first two years of high school being ridiculed for how I looked. Just like Tristan.
When Tristan first came to school, he was so tall and so thin that some of the school jerks started giving him a hard time. He also had kinky, short locks that made him look like a cartoon character. At that time, his hobbies were also different from what was popular in our own little ‘community’ high school. While everyone else rushed to the computer shops to play Counter Strike, he took to the streets and rode his skateboard.
The first time I actually talked to him was two years later, in junior high school. At that time, I already lost the braces. I got contact lenses and finally discovered the transformational powers of hair rebonding. I want to say that I finally became a swan after years of being an ugly duckling but that wasn’t really the case. I never felt beautiful—special, maybe—because god, I sure enjoyed a lot of special treatment from school because of my parents’ influence. But that kind of influence doesn’t guarantee that the boy you like will ask you to the prom.
I didn’t go to mine. Well, technically, I did go because as president of my junior class, I had to give a speech. I wore this stupid, strapless, shapeless, lilac gown that made me look more like a stage mom than a junior high school student. And to make things worse, the boy I actually liked in high school ended up winning prom king and I had to award the stupid sash and the plastic crown and watch him dance with one of the girls who got their pair of boobs earlier than the rest of us.
So, yeah, I first talked to Tristan in junior high school but not in campus. I saw him skating at the parking lot of this huge supermarket chain my parents always go to. I refused to go grocery shopping with them because I didn’t want to see all the Cheetos while I was trying to lose weight. I was manning the car when Tristan zipped past me on his skateboard.
“Hey!” It was the probably the first thing I said to him. He turned around and saw me got me out of the car.
“Hey,” he replied.
Senior high school came and both Tristan and I outgrew the weird and awkward physical features. Skating actually made him statuesque and lean. He wasn’t handsome yet, but he definitely looked better than anyone else in our class, except maybe for my female best friend that he actually liked since freshman year but ignored him for years until he finally transformed into a decent-looking fellow. I remember telling him to give it a go—to finally ask her out to the prom, the last chance he’ll ever get before we all part ways. But he didn’t. He asked me instead.
“Seriously?” I asked him during the party. “You could have been dancing with her now.”
He smiled, just like that afternoon we spent talking at the parking lot of this huge supermarket. We had been inseparable since then and I think, everyone just assumed we were an item. We never were. We just hung out. But at this point in time, all the physical awkwardness that came with puberty was gone. He towered over me with a back as straight as an arrow. His hair grew out and the once embarrassing curls turned out to be his greatest assets. His eyes were just as intense and his facial features turned out chiseled when the fats melted away.
“This world is so small, Kit,” he said and slowed our phase. “They’re all small people, small minds, small dreams. I don’t think you’re one of them.”
It was one of those moments that shaped my resolve. As young as I was, I too felt our high school stifling, backward and limiting. It was probably why only Tristan and I spent ended up attending the same, top university in the Manila, while everyone else either got married, got pregnant, got rejected by several colleges and settled for a high school diploma in the end.
When my high school best friend decided she doesn’t want me to be her buddy anymore after we all graduated, Tristan actually made the years that followed bearable. In the greater scheme of things and in the next few years, the sting would be irrelevant, he said.
Tristan and I met almost every day after class and just talked about everyone we left behind. He walked with me to this hotdog stand behind my college building and treated me to a snack before driving home. And he was probably the reason why I ended up not needing a big group in college. He was everyone rolled into one person. He was kind. He was smart. He was a catch. But he too also left.
In my second year in college, just before Matthew came into my life, Tristan and his family migrated to California. I would like to say that the distance and the time difference didn’t affect what we had but that’s not what happened. The regular calls soon became chat messages. The chats became emails and eventually, that too became a rarity.
Even the best of friendships suffer the strains of separation. When he came back a few years after college, it felt like we were two very different persons that it took us a while to get to know each other again. It was only then when I told him everything about Matthew. Sometimes, I wonder what could have happened if he had never left. If we stayed at the same university all throughout college. Sometimes, I wonder if, in an alternate universe, we could have ended up together. My life could have had a different tune, a different shade, a different light.
I spent years pinning away for someone who only saw me as a second choice, when I could have been the one for someone else who never gauged where I stood.
Because really, if Matthew didn’t stain me, I could have loved Tristan for more than what we were before and what we are now.
“I was gone like, what, a few months, and you’re back to your old ways?”
I am at Tristan’s old apartment in Katipunan to help him unpack. He arrived the other day from California and pretty much nursed a bad jetlag on top of an old comforter the previous boarder left. I arrive at his apartment with a grocery bag full of stuff you’ll never find in my own apartment—spinach, nutmeg, Parmesan, ricotta cheese, olive oil, mushrooms and some other stuff he asked me to buy on my way to his place.
In a twist of fate, Tristan ended up designing new dishes rather than designing buildings. After they migrated, he took up an architecture course at the University of California, Berkeley as an undergrad but soon shifted to culinary arts at The Art Institute of California. Unlike me, Tristan actually ended up making something of himself. After graduating, he and some Filipino friends put up a food truck in CA and sold—of all things—sinigang burger.
When he first told me about it, I thought it was a joke that I laughed. But when he made it for me the first time he flew back, I quickly became a devotee. Every bite of that sour and tangy pork slice was heaven. And that taro spread? I just can’t believe how it’s possible to turn good old sinigang into a burger.
And that’s what brought him back home: to open a small restaurant with some cousins on his mother side. Tristan’s family is like old Italy—small, close-knit, passionate and sometimes, they all talk like they’re in a drunken fight. But not Tristan. Since I’ve known him, he has always been soft spoken, slightly edgy—especially now that he’s sporting a sexy ‘man bun.’ The hairstyle isn’t really the result of vanity, he just doesn’t have the time to get a haircut, never really bothered with it anyway, that he ended up with long locks that he sometimes trims himself using his kitchen scissors. Gross, yes.
“To be fair, you were gone almost half a year,” I reply, chopping up some mushrooms on his small kitchen island. I also bought coffee. I hand him a cup and we take sips in between chats. “I thought you’d stick around last time?”
The coffee is so bad he threw it down the drain. It tastes fine to me. “I had some personal matters to finish back in Cali.” He opens one of the boxes and finds his coffee maker. He opens another box for the coffee beans and starts brewing a decent cup for both of us. He sees my face light up.
“Oh, my God, you have a girl!” I squeal in delight, swaying the knife in the air while jumping up and down. He grabs the knife before I nick something.
“Yeah, I got some chick pregnant and left her to open a business here.”
“Of course not,” he makes a face. “What the fuck, Kit. What do you think of me?”
“Well, your last relationship was pretty bad so I thought…”
“Nah, that’s done.”
He takes over the chopping and soon starts making my favorite mushroom spinach omelet. I didn’t get the chance to grab breakfast on the way so I told him to feed me when I get here. And for a while, it felt like nothing has changed. I’m back at his apartment again, sitting on the island stool, sipping good coffee while waiting for my food to arrive. It had been this way when he first came back from the US and way before his psycho Fil-Am, CA-born and bred ex-girlfriend decided to visit the Philippines for the first time in her entire life and threw a major tantrum at Starbucks when someone cut her in line.
Pretty much the same thing happened when I took them to Intramuros where she broke one of her shoe heels and complained of the heat and the little kids who followed us around most of the time. She stormed out of the Filipino-themed restaurant when she found out her water came from the tap but had to wait for us to finish eating because she didn’t know the way back to the hotel.
When she found out Tristan plans to go back to the Philippines to open a small restaurant, she stop returning his calls. Yep, that one was actually pretty hilarious if not of the racist comments she threw behind my back. So when Tristan spent almost six months in CA, I assumed they got back together.
He hands me the omelette and looks for a pair of forks we can use. Just like always, the food is amazing. I actually tried recreating this meal in my own place but ended up with a sad pile of overly seasoned mush. Cooking isn’t really my greatest strength. This is, honestly, one of greatest home-cooked, weekend brunches I’ve eaten in a long while.
“Hey, Jason has a show opening tonight. You should come.”
“Jason? Your photographer cousin?”
“Seriously?” I panic. I have nothing to wear that smells and sounds hipster.
“That was a joke,” he makes a face. “Cocktail, I think.”
“Dressy cocktail? Just don’t wear boots, please.”
“For your information, I have more variety in my wardrobe this time.”
“Sure, sure, says the girl who wore leather jacket and suede boots to Intramuros.”
“Shut up.” And we both laugh.
To be continued…