by Kath C. Eustaquio-Derla

After lunch, I change into much more comfortable clothes and walk to the resort’s Meditation Sanctuary. It’s an open-space where masses are held, a space designed to help people find peace and quiet. The quiet part is easy enough to find. In fact, every space in Bellarocca is a quiet refuge. It’s the inner peace I have trouble finding.

I sit cross-legged on the gleaming floors of the Meditation Sanctuary. Just like everywhere else in the resort, I am the only one trying to find peace in this particular place at this time.

In all the years I have known Tristan, he had never kissed me the way he did during lunch. Sure there were quick “beso” and the occasional hugs, but never a deliberate, lingering kiss. Forget that he kissed me on the forehead. The fact is, he had never kissed me once.

I came to Bellarocca so I could find peace. Okay, I came here to escape. To get away from all the drama I in Manila. But in order to find peace, I need to face some issues. I can’t just stay here and pretend I don’t have troubles. And I have a lot.

Since the day Matthew dropped me at my condo following the magazine launch and the tryst in his apartment, I started to feel disgusted with myself. Perhaps it’s the sex part. When Denver told me about Matthew’s failed proposal, old memories started to shoot down from the sky. One particular memory—or fact—is that I have always been Matthew’s second choice. Maybe the failed proposal was the last nail on the coffin that was his relationship with Bridgette. Knowing that should have been enough reason for me to walk away because I have the chance to escape whole this time. But no. It gave me hope that, maybe, this time, he would be mine. Isn’t that what people do? Hope.

But then he had to be a jerk at the “Avenue Q” press screening.

It has been weeks since we talked, really talked, not that charade at the play.

As I sit here, looking at the lush scenery outside of the island, I start to hate myself some more, thinking, why I can’t detach myself from Matthew when there really is nothing binding us together. We have no relationship. If there is, we have never defined it. Maybe I am not in love with Matthew. Maybe I am in love with the memory of him.

I read somewhere that there’s an invisible red thread that binds two people who are destined to meet, regardless of time, situation and place. Since college, I have felt the tug of the string many times, or maybe I caused it when I unconsciously stalked him online. It only occurs to me now that I have spent years spinning that same thread. It probably looks like a ball of yarn now or a croquet piece of shit. I can always cut and stop spinning.

It’s funny how a change of scenery can make you do things you can’t even think of when you’re right in the middle of the drama in Metro Manila. I say a quick prayer and walk back to our villa for a quick siesta. If I wake up with the same resolve and the red string is still cut, I can haul myself out of this mess once and for all.

***

I wake up to a sound of a ringing phone. Half asleep, I reach to the bedside table for my phone but I end up picking the TV’s remote control instead. The phone keeps ringing and I have no choice but to get up and search for the damn phone.

I find it the living room. The screen reads “Tristan calling.”

“Hello?”

“Hey, were you asleep? I tried sending you a text message but you didn’t reply so I called.”

“I had a siesta.” I check my phone. It’s already 4 p.m.

“Cool,” he says. “Anyway, we have this special themed dinner set-up tonight. I’m cooking but I got you a seat. Can you meet me at the open deck area at around 8 o’clock? It’s right beside the hotel restaurant. You won’t miss it.”

“Okay, sure.”

He says something about a Greek-style dinner theme and his culmination as a chef-in-training. “Oh, by the way, wear something fancy, yeah? Something white. Theme and all. It’s a private dinner and I heard a senator and his young mistress will be attending.”

“You want me to dress to impress.”

“Well, you’re always impressive,” he says. “But yeah something like that.” And then he disconnects.

Is it just me, the scenery or is Tristan suddenly flirting with me? I’m sure he has said something similar in Manila but now that I am detached from the Matthew drama, I hone in on comments that I would have normally ignored.

I check my hands. No strings attached.

***

I leave the villa knowing that I could rub elbows with any senator and any mistresses that would be attending the private dinner tonight. I am wearing a flowing, white dress that exposes much of my shoulders and back. No matter how comfortably stylish it looks, the dress is pretty tight on much of the upper body while a high slit provides just the right kind of tease when I walk. The 4-inch-high gold sandals will feel better after a glass of champagne. After trying on a few messy up-dos, I decide to go with soft curls and let nature do its things. The gold bangles on my right wrist feel just right and I have all the essentials I need in my small gold sling pouch.

The hair and makeup took me an hour. Halfway through it, I felt silly. Who am I trying to impress again? Surely not the public senators and their mistresses. Surely not the general manager who will be there. As I swiped on my matte red lipstick and applied perfume at the back of my ears, I knew I wanted to impress Tristan and no one else.

My ride, a mini golf cart, arrives and whisks me away to the hotel. It’s already 10 minutes past 8 p.m. and the other attendees of the white party are going outside to the open deck area just beside the main hotel restaurant. There are several hotel guests milling near the venue entrance and I can see what the fuss is all about. True enough, a senator, who is often mocked for his squirrel-like looks, and his bombshell mistress are in attendance. I can see two IT girls and their significant others sipping champagne near the balcony, enjoying the nighttime view. And then I see Tristan’s auntie, his cousin Jason’s mother, walking towards me as soon she spots me entering the doors.

Hija…you made it,” Tristan’s auntie, whose name is Janet Atienza, welcomes me with a socialite hug and beso, despite how it sounded, seems genuinely sincere. She then proceeds to introduce me to nearly everyone in the room, IT girls included, except for the athlete congressman and his wife who arrived when everyone else had taken their seats.

I sit next to Janet and the program starts with a quick welcome from the resort’s half-French general manager. He introduces the executive chef and the three sous chefs who will be cooking tonight, one of whom is Tristan.

My friend is wearing a standard chef’s uniform, a double-breasted white jacket that suits his frame beautifully. Instead of the usual messy bun, his hair is tied neatly at the base of his neck to give way to the toque that adorns his head. He sees me from the crowd. I smile and give subtle thumbs up and he smiles back. Even then, Tristan has always looked put together, often bordering from sexy to hot, but this is the first time I’ve seen him in action in the kitchen. As I watch him cook one course after the other, I realize again what I’ve always known: a guy like Tristan doesn’t come very often and I am insanely lucky to have known him almost all my life.

The food tastes divine. And it’s not just because my friend cooked it or because I am far away from dirty Metro Manila or I am dining with popular people. The seven-course dinner finishes with the best-tasting espresso I have ever sipped in years. One by one, the guests start to leave but Janet insists that I stay behind and wait for Tristan. It’s not like I have a cab to catch so I wait for him and watch the servers clear up the rest of the tables.

“How was it? Was it good? What do you think?” Tristan asks as he walks to the table, carrying a plate of what looks like French fries with a dipping sauce.

“The food was delicious.”

“And by the way,” he stands back a bit to check out my outfit for the night. “Wow!”

I laugh. “Just like prom?”

“Better than prom,” he says. “You didn’t look like this in high school.”

“I evolved.”

“You’re really so beautiful,” he says, his voice fading a bit with the wind.

“French fries?” I ask, looking at the big plate he’s carrying.

“Oh, yeah. Auntie Janet gave me this imported truffle oil from her trip to Paris so I figured I’d make us truffled fries for a night cap.”

“Get out!” Tristan knows how crazy I am about truffles, based on past experience. I often raid his cabinet for any truffle oil I can find.

“Yep, let’s eat it at the villa, yeah?” He extends his hand dramatically towards the door. I join in his exuberance and we walk back to the villa, arms linked, faces thrown into the wind, laughing at some of the guests during the event earlier.

I kick off my heels and change into something much more comfortable. My face feels heavy from all the makeup so I take a quick shower before joining Tristan outside. He has also stripped off his chef’s outfit and is wearing a pair of beach shorts and dark colored shirt. His hair is again pulled into a messy bun. He’s fixing the temperature at the small outdoor Jacuzzi.

“It’s been a long day and I haven’t really tried this since I got here,” he says.”Fancy a night swim?”

“Wait.” I go back and put on a pair of light-colored bikini. He’s pouring us a glass of chilled champagne, a gift from his Auntie Janet. The truffled fries lay next to the Jacuzzi. I go for it first.

“Ah, this is really so good.” I am already full from the dinner earlier but I can’t stop munching on the perfectly cooked fries drizzled with truffle oil.

“Hey, about that high school comment earlier,” Tristan says, “About you not looking this way back then, I meant it in a good way, yeah?”

“No offense taken. I meant what I said. I evolved. And so did you.”

“Haha, we all changed. Speaking of high school, remember senior prom when we went up the hotel rooftop? And then your dress got stuck in the door? I never really told you how scared I was that we got caught.”

Oh, I remember. The program just ended and we were bored. So we decided to check out the rooftop. The hem of my lilac gown got stuck and we spent minutes prying it loose without ruining the poor thing. And when we stepped into the elevator, two guards were waiting for us in the lobby. They escorted us to an office and subjected us into a mild interrogation, asking what we were doing at the rooftop.

“That was when you said, ‘You probably saw us on video, so you knew what we did,'” Tristan laughs and takes a sip of the champagne. “You were nuts.”

They let us go eventually. The guards were probably bored too and wanted to scare a couple of high school students sneaking into the off-limits rooftop. We did nothing. We just talked about what we planned to do after graduation.

“And what about those plans. What happened to us?”

“We stuck to it,” I reply. “We both went to UST. You took architecture. I took journalism. And then you left me.”

I’ve always wondered what my life would be if Tristan’s family hadn’t migrated when we were in college. Maybe, in an alternate universe, the friendship turned into something else. But even so, even in this reality, that friendship did turn into something else. I’ve known since high school that I love Tristan to a certain degree. It may not be the kind I associate with lovers in the past, but it is love, nonetheless. And it broke my heart when he left.

“But I’m here now,” he says, looking at me in a way that I know he’s saying an honest truth.

“Back at that rooftop, when you told me about your family’s plan of moving to the states, you said you wouldn’t leave.”

“We were kids then, Kit,” he faces me, as though he is presenting an argument he feels that I should understand. “Even if I didn’t want to leave, we were young. My entire family was leaving and I needed to go.”

And when I fail to respond immediately, he adds, “We’re all grown up now. We can finally decide where we want to be.”

I have a feeling that this is leading to something. And yet I need to ask, “And is this where you want to be?”

“I know now that I want to be with you.”

And with that he leans even closer and kisses me. On the mouth this time. It was a soft kiss, the kind that is laced with both fear and anticipation. The kind that you know is just about testing the waters, trying to see if you can move forward and take the plunge.

I’ll be honest. When Tristan invited me to go with him to Bellarocca for a few days, I wondered if the trip would lead to something. I knew, even then, that he loves me. Maybe it’s the same kind of love I feel for him, maybe even more, but I always feared what would happen if we took the chance and end up ruining everything. And this fear had always kept us on the brink of getting and losing everything we had built. With his life in California and with my issues in Manila, it’s easy to put a lid on things.

But he is here now. And this life, and this clear indication that I am who he wants, I can have all these now. For the first time, I will be the first choice. For the first time, I will be sure.

“Tristan,” I say softly.

His eyes twitch and I know he’s trying to read my reaction. To him, I probably look shell-shocked that he retracts his arm from my shoulders and moves a short distance away.

“Wait, I don’t mean it that way.” I reach out for him and he faces me again, eyes intent, watching my every reaction.

“It hurt when you came home with that girl from California,” I tell him. “You broke my heart. I didn’t tell you because even if I knew how you felt, the timing was never right for us, you know? In college, I was so sure we’d be together but then you left and the Matthew thing happened.”

“I should have come home sooner but I had things I needed to do in the States.” He reaches for my hands and places them on the back of his head. “I am here now.”

“But I am broken,” I tell him. “I’m no longer that idealistic, brave, smart girl you found in high school. I feel ruined, you know?”

And with that something snaps and the next thing I know, I am being carried out of the waters and placed into one of the cushioned sun chairs that line the small pool area.

“Listen to me,” he says, kneeling down in front of me and dripping wet from the Jacuzzi. “You are not broken. You are not ruined. You… you’re just being pulled like a puppet on a string by some asshole you met in college.”

String. I look at my hands. No more red strings.

“What are you looking at?” Tristan asks, clearly confused.

“I am no longer attached to him.”

A silent moment passes. Tristan clasps my hands together and looks into my eyes once more. “You’re still the Kit Castille I know. Maybe even better. I know that you know that I’ve always loved you and that didn’t change just because you feel you’re broken. I am here now and I’m not going anywhere.”

“Tristan.”

And with that, he kisses me again, a little more forceful this time. I return the kiss. I return the tongue. I’ve always imagined how his kisses would feel and now I know. Tristan’s kisses are like him—intense, passionate and real.

He lifts me up once more. He does not end the kiss until we reach the bedroom.

To be continued…

***

Edits: Jacquie Bamba S. Zamora
What Am I To You is the prequel to Before I Do by Kath C. Eustaquio-Derla. Before I Do is available at National Bookstore, Powerbooks and Uniqube.
What Am I To You
Philippine Copyright © 2016 by Katherine C. Eustaquio-Derla
Disclaimer: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any written, electronic, recording, or photocopying without written permission of the publisher or author. The exception would be in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles or reviews and pages where permission is specifically granted by the publisher or author.
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