At nine years old I began to notice the opposite sex. But I was overwhelmed by the physical disproportion. Why were the girls much taller and bigger than us? I was clueless of the biological rationale. I was skinny then, and I was covered with banil as the libag got stuck on my neck. At play I sweated a lot, and the dust and grimes simply found their marks on me. Being near these damsels was a cause of concern since I knew I smelt terrible. I loved school days, I was never without any kalaro. I was a habitué of the Gusaling Gabaldon or Bagong Iskul, the elementary school in town, and the plaza’s kiosko, playing from 7am to 5pm on school days on end.
For me Gabaldon was the biggest edifice I had ever seen and played on. The school structures that were built before and after the Second World War were called Gabaldon-type school buildings or simply Gabaldon. “During the Commonwealth, Sen. Isauro Gabaldon sponsored a bill that called for the appropriation of P1 million to build modern public schools throughout the Philippines. The bill was enacted into the Gabaldon Law.”
True, it is not a multi-storey structure. In fact it’s a mere one storey affair, but I looked at it with awe. It has high ceilings, about 6 meters, allowing in the tropical wind. In my first grade, I thought giants walked the corridors of Gabaldon. It has a long five tread-flight of stairs leading to its elevated pedimented portico which we use as stage on special occasions. Its roof was made of GI sheets. A white columned porch dominates its facade. There are side rooms facing opposite each other. The centre rooms are divided by a collapsible wood partition that could be folded and converted into a pavilion that can hold a thousand. The school teachers association holds annual dance balls in honor of retiring members. The building is actually I-shape, with four other rooms at the rear, facing each other as well. Behind the structure are the walkways, where pupils are protected by steel railings penetrating the columnar pillars. Gabaldon’s windows were huge. Most windows could be opened sideways as they were hinged on the jambs. Some could be opened shutter-type by pulling the upper part or pushing the lower part by positioning a bamboo tukod. The windows are sashed and made of latticed capiz-tagkawayan. Its imposing façade has those Romanesque Doric-like pillars I’d seen only in pictures like the Parthenon. Its rooms are big and wide, with lauan floorings. Its doors are imposing and made from thick and heavy narra. It has a cavernous silong, home of the kabag, ahas tulog, aluhipan, and giant rats. Though it stunk in there, we used it as hiding place whenever we were late in flag rites.
On this building I actually grew up, first in Grade One under Miss Pagsuyuin. We occupied the front westside room. At second grade we moved on at the adjacent room, under Mrs. Paraiso. When third grade came, we moved at the center of the town in Bgy Uno, under Mr. “Banton” Estrada, occupying a rented house of the Ulilas near the house of Jocelyn, my first crush and that I’ll tell you later. We called Mr. Estrada banton because of his habit of pressing his trousers with the insides of his arms and pulling them up unconsciously.
Again, we moved back to Gabaldon in fourth grade under the stunning Miss Anda. When a bachelor dentist from Manila was assigned in Calauag, the two were inseparable. That dentist taught me how to properly brush my teeth. One morning, after the flag ritual, he made me his live model when he brought me in front of the entire pupil populace by telling me to show my jaundiced cutters and by personally holding my toothbrush, he demonstrated to everybody the right moves. To my discomfiture, my plaques were stubborn and my gums bled, and everybody was laughing, thus he used his foot-powered drill in excising them. The plaques I mean. That was the clincher that made me a hit with Miss Anda. She well remembered me even when I went to fifth grade. Running on an errand one afternoon when I was already in fifth grade, Miss Anda’s and my paths were about to cross because we walked on the same side of the street in front of Gabadon. I darted off on the opposite side to evade our encounter, and dispense with the usual greetings from a pupil to a teacher that normally were ignored anyway, me thinking that improbably she would remember me no more. But she stunned me when she said, “malakihin ka na, Frumencio (my stinking real name, courtesy of my Ina).” She remembered me from hundreds of her students before and I was extremely embarrassed. From then on, Miss Anda was a fixture of my memory. We thought Miss Anda and her dentist beau were a pair. But nothing came out of it. Miss Anda retired unmarried. Theirs was a love story that approximated a legend. The dentist, it was rumoured was napikot when he returned to the city. She must have cried on days on end because her eyes were swollen every morning after.
At the fifth grade, we transferred at the rear southside under the widow Mrs. Tiu, and Miss Lim, a voluptuous bachelorette with fantastic gyrating hips and shapely athletic legs. Mrs. Tiu was our best English and Health & Science teacher. Our oldest classmate in grade 5, the 16-year old Romeo Nuez, in sotto voce was telling us that in one late afternoon he returned to our classroom to retrieve his books, and found it locked. He heard some hushed voices from the inside and peeping thru the keyhole he saw Mrs. Tiu on the lap of the Supervisor, Mr. Valena.
Miss Lim was a fantastic dance and music tutor. I learnt all my Christmas carols from her, foremost was “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”, my favourite. Miss Paraiso, another spinster, pinched-hit Miss Lim whenever she was off in our music class and the former taught us to read musical notes.
Came sixth grade and we moved again in front, under Mrs. Villaflor. In short we did a Vasco da Gama, circumnavigating the broadest structure in the world. The legendary bell hung at the centremost from the ceiling of the edifice, with rope tied to its tongue. It was Mr. Tolentino’s department, a very tall and imposing man in crew cut. He won’t brook tardiness and truancy. Every late comer was made to queue in front and he made them to remain standing long after the morning ceremonies were over and were told to individually sing Lupang Hinirang and recite the Panatang Makabayan. Exactly at 7 am, and at 5 pm, without fail, the tall man held the rope like no other and hit the bell with authority, only in his own cadence and fashion. From a distance, one would know that the time keeper was not Mr. Tolentino, by the style of hammering the chime. If it was just for the heck of it, surely it was Mr. Barranta who time kept when the tall man was either sick or absent.
The Monday morning national anthem ceremony was elaborate. I looked forward to it because the tall man rotated his assignment on the lady-conductress who led the patriotic singing, usually young and beautiful, newly designated-teacher or were in practice teaching. Miss Layman was one of them. She was the youngest of the two daughters of another terror of the school, the late Mr. Layman, the owner of the only school supplies store in town where I bought my monthly Cavalcade songhits. Miss Layman was a morena and she smiled a lot exposing a perfect set of teeth. She was a high school classmate in Calauag Central College of my Kuya Celso, the youngest brother of my mother. I saw her in their class reunion party held in our house in Paang Bundok, and I was proud to know her, as my Kuya Celso introduced me to her, as his pamangkin. Proud that I knew her, every time she entered our classroom as teacher-trainee, I made it a point to stand up ahead of the class to greet her, “Good morning, Miss Layman”, and got in turn the surprise of Sammy and Doyee of my uncanny familiarity on the fine-looking lady. I was thrilled no end whenever she looked at my direction, nodded her head in acknowledgment, and flashed that famous but tepid smile. Whenever I watched a movie all the leading ladies amazingly were Miss Layman’s look alike!
I never ran out of playmates, kids my age I mean, from all corners of the poblacion, I had a gang in Bgy. Uno, Sabang Uno, Pinagtalleran, Pinagbayanan, of course from my lair, Paang Bundok, and I had friends from Calleng Supot. Having come from a big clan in Calauag, I never ran out of cousins who invariably became by best friends. We observed mutual filial respect, that even younger cousins were called Kuya or Ate because they were panganay sa dugo. Addressing our elders, we peppered our conversations with po and opo, and their names were prefixed with Nanang, Tatang, Tio, Tia and other terms of respect. In the same manner, I was called Kuya by older relations, the kids of my father’s younger siblings, and I felt proud of it. I was seven and I was being addressed as Kuya by an eight-year old!
Getting tired playing at Gabaldon, I walked the distance to our grandparents’ old house. We call it Isang Bahay, meaning the other house. On my way to Isang Bahay, my favourite stopover was the kiosko, an all concrete circular kiosk in the middle of the plaza across the house of Villafranca, where all its steps and floorings were made of immaculate granite. What attracts it to the young was its fantastic echo. Your voice reverberated in the kiosko and all my little steps created percussion sounds. In 1971, before martial law was declared, the kiosko was the site of our first demonstration asking the local government to install permanent electric power in the town. In the early 80s, the kiosko was mindlessly torn down giving way to another structure that didn’t last to this day.
From that town landmark, I would proceed and play all afternoon in front of the house of Sing San, closely adjacent to Isang Bahay. Sing San was a Chinese trader probably 80 years old at that time, whose emaciated body guarded his sari-sari store lying prostrate in his folding bed. Asleep, flies swarmed and feasted on Sing San’s face. His spittles were all over the place. My mother dreaded it when she learnt that I spent one afternoon near Sing San’s. She told me that TB was a contagious illness. I was nearly hit by a copra truck of Ah Mah when I crossed the street from the house of Ina to the billiard hall of Ka Liloy, unmindful of the passing behemoth. I saw the terror on the face of the truck driver when he floored its brakes spilling most of his cargoes on the street in the process. Sing San was upset, because the near accident interrupted his siesta.
I recall having lived in Isang Bahay when I was three or four and I remember my mother being bullied about by her sisters-in-law. There was an acrimonious confrontation in the kitchen, and my mother with a sense of independence and having a mind of her own, haled the calesa of Ka Liloy and without much fanfare bundled all of us, including my dithering father, to the far end of town. We eventually transferred to the house of Nanang Ligo, near the old cemetery in Pinagkamaligan. I pleaded with my mother to look for another house. Every time I went out to leak I got the creeps as I wetted an unknown tomb. Later, we moved to Tatang Amado in Bgy. Uno. Thus, I practically circled the town even before I was five! In the process I gained a lot of friends. Then I was uprooted from Calauag and transferred to Quezon when my sisters were born. My grandmother told my mother that with her growing brood, I had to stay with my Nanay in Quezon, Quezon. We were so poor that my newly minted parents could not afford to hire a katulong so my grandmothers lent their hands. I learnt later that my brother Gil was brought By Ina Favia to San Roque with his Nanay Nene who reared him till he turned six. The arrangement was temporary as my mother then had to juggle her time as a school teacher and mother to her swelling family where birth control then was unmentionable.
So gradually my attention was caught by the sweet little things giggling at the front rows of our class. I was first fascinated by the legs of Elsinore, long, slender and smooth especially when she tiptoed. She’s the mestiza type and my distant cousin Upet usually made pasiklab to get Elsinore’s attention. Upet who was heavy set was a natural bully, and he played basketball well. When he was in foul mood, he had a mean rebound that sent us all scampering for safety or he’d dislocate your shoulder. While he was my cousin, he’d browbeat me no end. Since I could not equal the antics of Upet, and Elsinore’s attention was all to himself, I settled fantasizing on Jocelyn, the class valedictorian. She was the youngest in their family and looked really like she knew more than we did; naturally because her elder brothers were already college bound and their conversations packed with the latest information that must have really seeped in her. While poor me relied merely on the exchange of banter from the dregs of Paang Bundok with the likes of Aling Talina, Karias Putol, and Tiago and boned on my current events from the margins of Hiwaga, Wakasan and a host of comics in disposable newsprint.
Of course, Jocelyn had a slew of admirers. There was Sammy our Salutatorian, the son of the town doctor and Doyee, the prim and proper son of a customs collector and the class third honourable mention. While they were my friends I often told my mother how I envied them because they always had the latest in clothes, shoes, and watches. They were already wearing long pants when we were in the fourth grade and were sporting Seiko watches for boys. Naturally, Jocelyn never ever threw a glance at me! I was then still wearing garterized old short pants that saw better times with matching slippers but, thanks to my mother, I also was sporting a Wiseman men’s watch, bigger than my wrist. My mother gave me the de palito hand clock when its stevedore-owner from the Istasyon or MRR train station failed to redeem it from her. My worn out slippers were soon replaced by Converse rubber shoes. Notwithstanding my new pair of shoes, the green monster again nearly killed me when I saw the duo one Sunday clad in Spanish boots, the fad at that time, while assisting the parish priest as acolytes. I told my mother that I looked awkward in rubber shoes during Sunday masses, and she has to get me a new pair of leather shoes, specifically, Spanish boots! My mother saved some pesetas from her GSIS check and off we went to Asuncion’s where she bought me a pair of the much sought after shoes. That night I slept soundly with the boots on top of my pillow llulabied by the smell of hide.
When Sammy and Doyee had their birthdays, their parties were a hit where all of us got invited. Jocelyn had the best seat while being attended by the mothers of the two. I got my natal celebrations though with only Sammy, Doyee and occasionally Caloy or the skinny Jimmy as my only guests. We ate the best steaming siopao and Goto at the store of Kid Tan, the bayaw of Siote Lim. Though Sammy and Doyee were financially better off than us, we were the best of friends. At first we called our group the Three Kings. We thought that we were the crème de la crème, with Sammy the best in math, Doyee, tops in science, and myself, being peerless in…well, acting!
We dreamt that we would amount to something in the future and save Calauag from perdition. Great! While the three of us looked like an ideal group, we sometimes broke the rules. When we cut class, we hied off to Paraiso Theatre and enjoyed the black and white blockbusters of Joseph Estrada, Jess Lapid, and FPJ. From the movie house we imagined that we were some kind of tough guys and walked the bully strut. We tried to pick up fights from boys our age who were the siga of Calleng Supot. But the group of Alex Baliw, when we chanced upon them in the alley of Calleng Supot, was a bunch of better street fighters. They were amused at us by the way we brawled, mimicking the fighting stances of Erap and FPJ. We, the vidas, went home bruised and blued courtesy of the real life Max Alvarados.
Both Sammy and Doyee were great admirers of Jocelyn, the apple of our eyes. They didn’t know that I too was enamoured by that little wisp of a girl. At Christmas, they had big boxes for her. I settled buying her one handkerchief every year without fail wrapped in an anonymous box with my mother’s Avon pabango. She became my dance partner though when we were in the first grade until sixth grade and I have the pictures taken annually to prove that. I got the chance to hold her hands and her dainty waist in all the folk dances we had. When we got to grade five, we had that annual field demonstration, and being my dance partner I had a great ball since I got to hold her came rehearsals, practices, and the final performance. Sammy got the fatso Teresa and Doyee, the skeletal Josephina. I figured I got them both ended. I was good at sway balance and learned at ease folk dance steps. The late Miss Billy Paraiso told my mother that the dance steps were a breeze to me and I had the naturals. Whenever we had rehearsals, I made sure I took a good bath, and all my banils scrubbed off my ears! Speaking of banil, I thought I had one under my right ear. It nearly bled when my mother vigorously rubbed it with coconut oil. It was a birthmark, after all. Maybe I got burned out in dancing that when I reached high school, I never joined in any events that practically rendered me to date a dance ignoramus.
To get Jocelyn’s attention I read whatever I held on to. I read the old editions of the Manila Times and painstakingly combed the Free Press. Came recitations in Current Events, I was the best informed pupil and got the best grades in Social Studies. In the morning I listened to the radio news broadcast of Johnny de Leon and Joe Taruc. On weekends I tried to catch the bromides of Damian Sotto and Rafael Yabut on Avegon radio. When I was in the fourth grade, there was this performance test conducted by the education department to gauge the proficiency of the students in the English language. I came out the top pupil with the most number of English words in my vocabulary. Why? Because I memorized the songs of Matt Monroe, the Cascades, the Beatles, and the Everly Brothers and wrote every single words of the lyrics of their hits on the questionnaire. Every month I bought from Mr. Layman the Cavalcade Songhits without fail. That was the first time I saw Jocelyn stealing a furtive glance in my direction. I was sleepless that night.
But soon, her eyes again were trained on the duo, Sammy and Doyee. Sammy because he was tops in Arithmetic and New Math. Doyee, because no one beats him in memory department. He memorized all the American states and their capitals. I reached my comfort zone whenever I got familiar by about more than half of the lessons before any grading periods or examinations and went on to have a good night sleep. Never did I ever top any test. Sammy and Doyee occasionally were number one, whereas Jocelyn was consistently on top. At that time, we went to class at 7 am and went home at 5 pm, after the mandatory room cleaning or the sprucing up of the school grounds. Miss Anda assigned each of us a part of the school perimeters to be well-manicured. There were six gruelling grading periods each year and we reviewed like mad prior to any test. I belonged to the pilot class, but I was nowhere in the top ten. Nonetheless, I bettered them all in the theatre department. I was the best actor of our class. My counterpart was the best actress cum champion declaimer Eulema, the Bicolana lass.
Again, I devised ways on how I could get Jocelyn’s attention, even a fleeting of it. I wrote her funny unsigned letters. But being quick, her suspicion soon pointed at me because of my handwriting. I had some peculiar p’s and t’s and she came to discover the letters’ authorship because our Pilipino teacher assigned her as our quiz checker. As her inkling solidified, I became reckless. I handed the last letter flagrante to Eulema and told her to pass it on to the recipient. And Eulema being the class gossip, divulged the author of the note. But it didn’t end there. The note was far from a love letter. It was a sleazy note like a science illustration chart with all the names of all body parts depicting a girl named Jocelyn in her birthday suit. I saw her face morphed from excitement to embarrassment with all the color of her face gone and she began to wail. I was beside myself in panic because her parents were both teachers and her father was a notorious terror in our school. Everybody’s eyes were on me. “Hala ka, pina-iyak mo!” Upon dismissal, I appeared nonchalant as if nothing happened. I was ahead of the pack queuing towards the steel gate towards the direction of Taho’s cart, when I saw Jocelyn rushing forward and calling my name. My knees buckled because here was the object of my affection and she was sweetly calling my name. But it was a ruse, because when I stopped and she was about a foot from me, her umbrella came crushing right smack across my ear. It was one of those embarrassing moments you never forget for the rest of your life.
But the story never ended there. The following day, a group of teachers including Jocelyn’s mother visited my mother at our house. I was mortified. True enough, while the visit looked antiseptic, Jocelyn’s mother had an agenda. There I was hiding behind the staircase and I was horrified when she remained and described in vivid detail the chart I had made for her lovely daughter. My mother was profuse in her apologies, and her parting words were, “bayaan mo Tia Azon, pagsasabihan ko yang pilyong yan.“
So I gave up on Jocelyn. That was when Jinggoy, our teen-ager neighbour, told me, “kapag niligawan mo yan, basted ka!” I didn’t want to get broken hearted, so I trained my sight on Carmencita “Being” Lee.
Being is a popular Chinese name. Calauag has a good number of Chinese most of them in the trading business. They are widely called by their Chinese names. We had Ah Ma, Jacinto Lim, Siote Lim, Chiquito, Dua Lim, Chi Poi, Bua Lim, Ong Bon Jieng, Lim Y Chuan, Santiago Lim, Sing San, the Sias, the Liaos, or some were identified by their trade names like Tagalog Bakery, Paraiso, Jennifer, Taho, and Bitara’s. Tagalog Bakery sold the premium pandesal in the world. I had never known the name of the proprietor of the Tagalog Bakery, who just stayed behind the counter, but she had two lovely daughters who after marriage never set foot in Calauag again. The bakery was closed upon the demise of the recluse owner. My father placed me in charge of the pandesal every morning, and I made sure there was enough for recess time. I usually brought home my band of friends and raided on what remained of the pandesal. Soon my sisters learned my trick of saving my baon, and in no time they too brought their entire gang at home. Years later, I met my sister Melet’s best friend in their elementary grades, Maryanne, and the best she remembered about our house was the big brown bag of pandesal. Pandesal with Tom Piper luncheon meat bought from Namarco was the best breakfast we always had came payday of my father.
In Santiago Lim’s Jennifer, during the pre-martial law years, we watched Uhaw and the inseparable Scarlet Revilla and Ricky Rogers. Chiquito brewed the superlative lambanog soaked with Chinese herbs, prunes, and raisins or pasas. Her youngest daughter was the pretty Lorna who entered in a prearranged marriage with a fellow Chinese from the neighboring town, Lopez. Bitara churned the best Miki-Bijong Maysabaw complete with authentic squid, meat, and fish Cantonese balls. Taho was actually Mr. Seng, the late father of Ely Seng who dished out the finest Macau cuisine in town. Taho taught us that lutong MacaoTaho was far from pejorative. Adolescent boys after a game of basketball gravitated to Taho‘s puesto, across the house of Saavedra and the Bagong Iskul, just to have the to-die-for frosty water: a certified thirst quencher, scooped by a giant stainless steel sandok from a GI sheet receptacle chilled by huge chunks of ice floating like icebergs, a fridge forerunner, encased in his ubiquitous cart. His pancit bijon sans recado with just a sprig of hibe or dried shrimp was everything but excellent. His icy gulaman palamig was to-die-for and much sought after by the hundreds of school children coming out from Gabaldon, CCC, SLHS, and SPS on recess and right after their PE classes. One got a glassful of free iced water provided he bought a single order of bijon at 10 centavos, and a second half glass serving. Freeloaders requesting water (Taho, pa-inom nga) were ignored by Taho. Unless you were a suki, and you happened to be broke you got a quarter-glassful, but be sure to place your order the next time or he’d crack your unsuspecting knuckles. When he died, his widow failed to replicate his fantastic vermicelli. (Ely recounted years later after his Dad’s death that he remembered his father ritually boiled a couple of native inahing manok on a Monday morning. The sabaw with the usual chinese herbs of course was used in the preparation of the pansit. Came Saturday they have either the tenderest tinola or the tastiest fried chicken ever as hapunan or tanghalian). The crowd soon disappeared in that familiar corner of the Bagong Iskul. From my book, Taho was an outstanding dad since all his kids became professionals and great parents as well. I was ninong to Ely’s youngest when he was baptized and when he got hitched.
I mentioned Being, didn’t I? Remember my morning ritual of buying pandesal? Tagalog while attending to the early morning buyers was assisted by her two beautiful daughters whose face and skin rivalled those one sees now in Chinese information cable TV. When they smiled you could see their unbelievable sets of pearly white teeth. Tanggal ang antok ko. And they were too solicitous. When complimented about their beauty even in early dawn, you could see their silky cheeks blushed. I tarried in their bakery just to get a good look at them. In the afternoon, I tried to get a sneak at the two, but being Chinese, their stall was closed for their siesta, I was told. High School boys curiously were very obedient buying their breakfast fare from Tagalog and being just a kid, I get elbowed most often and remained at the tail end. Only when the crowd of adolescents vanished when I got my turn.
From across our house on the side of Paang Bundok lived the family of Og. His eldest was Wilson who never called his father Tatay or Papa. Wilson simply called him Lito, the way his mother called her husband. When he breached Lito’s rules, naturally Wilson got some beatings. We were all amused because Wilson pleaded with his father differently as if negotiating with a peer. “Tama na Lito, ‘di na ko uulit, Lito!” Og or Lito was the brother of the wife of Chong Lee, the tailor who lived in the poblacion. Og’s niece visited them on weekends as it looked like Wilson, with his long curly hair and big doe eyes, was her favourite cousin. One early morning, upon returning home and embracing the bag of hot pandesal, the faces of Tagalog’s daughters still lingered on me. I imagined myself as a grown up binatang taring ready to squire the two. When I was alone in the house, I rehearsed no end with my monologue with the imagined presence of the two damsels in front of my parents Narrang aparador. Sensing the futility of the courtship of a wooden box, I went out for some fresh air. It was 9 am, when from across the ferrocaril and the house of Og, descended a heavenly being. She had short wavy hair. She was Intsik all right, but her eyes both soulful were not singkit. She was wearing a white dress. Was that a Sunday, I could not recall, but I heard her call the name of her cousin, Wilson. Her voice was a bit hoarse, but enthralling. But it was her skin, creamy and milky, her complexion that arrested me. It was the beginning of my partiality to girls from the yellow race.
Wilson saw me throwing furtive looks at Being, his cousin, with my jaws nearly touching my chest. Soon Wilson was teasing me. “Uy, may gusto kay Ate Being!” I encouraged him, though. From then on I was figuring out on how to introduce myself to that little wisp of a girl. She always preoccupied me, in thoughts, I mean. Nobody had yet introduced us to each other as she was in another school. Wilson could not be depended to do that as he was only four years old. I tried not to look at her whenever we crossed our paths in Paang Bundok and in the market near Moylsa Theatre. It validated Edo Boy’s observation that it could cause fainting spells if you’re in love just what happened to his brother Apiong whom he baptized Liliyo, because Apiong was naliliyo whenever he saw Lily, his crush. True, the sight of Being made me delirious, my blood scampering away from my head leaving me dizzy. Before going home, I would pass Licas Tailoring and turned left near Caloy’s house and went straight to her school until I reached the railways then turned left again towards home. By taking that route my chances are greater since her house was across the house of Tiama and about 50 meters only away from her school. I was right, four out of five I saw the love of my life in person. There she was striking in her CCC blue uniform.
What should I do with my predicament, I often asked my playmates. I was losing sleep and Junior Bingi the son of Aling Talina, got wind of my problem from Rading and Uti. He called me one time and told me to sit still and listen well. “Turuan kitang manligaw, Bata ko!”. He began lecturing me courtship basics. First it was amusing and later on it progressed to tales of the ribald as he was then graphically telling us on how it was between a man and an old woman. Rading who was older than me by about three years exclaimed, “yano yaan, kuentong pampam na yan, ay!” because Junior Bingi was already 16 at that time. Rading at the age of 13 was a prude, unlike Uti, obviously enjoying it, prodded Junior Bingi to just go on with our seminar. Disappointed I went thru with my routine. On weekends I saw Being without fail. She would visit Wilson, while I loitered in front of Aling Sining’s tindahan, reading for the nth time an old issue of Wakasan Komiks. Karias Putol in the mean time was counting his day’s jueteng collection mostly in paper money. He would segregate torn and decrepit denominations and those emitting foul smell. And there Being was all right, playing with her favourite cousin, Wilson.
Feeling that she had grown familiar with me, I gathered some strength to approach her under the pretext of talking to Wilson, or Mang Og, or Aling Saling, Wilson’s mother. But she wouldn’t even look at me and while I had Wilson’s attention, she ignored me. Once I tried to strike a conversation by asking her some of her classmates that I knew, like Ely Seng who became my friend in kindergarten. She was stingy with her attention. She would just nod or say “ah oo or hindi naman”. But just the same the exchange was enough to send me to Nirvana. I look forward to seeing her every weekend as it looked like she was getting used to my presence.
Every first of May, Paang Bundok is all agog because of the barangay fiesta. Not only that, on that date the place celebrated without fail the birthday of Kagawad Peping Kornitin Agaua. We routinely cleaned a little square in front of Aling Sining and fenced it with wooden props and decorated it with halved coconut leaves. The enclosure was necessary to keep the crowd outside. An emcee took care of the rotation: the hermanitos and hermanitas, the birthday celebrator, the barrio town officials, the casados, the dayo or from outlying barangay, and of course the binata’t dalaga of the place. The daughters of Aling Sining were the bestsellers especially Glecy. You could see the crowd of young boys elbowing each other going towards the direction of the Aling Sining’s girls. Mang Edro’s sound system unfailingly provided the sounds. As the night went deeper the binatillos formed a human fence or binakuran in front of the bestsellers!
From where the trumpetas were placed, on elevated platform, I saw Being watching the ball from the sideline across the railroad. There she was like a princess waiting her cue for a dance. I thought I was the prince that she was looking for. Wilson was with her. It was the moment that I was waiting for. I would ask her to dance, first the fast, and then the slow. I knew the pace of Mang Edro. He had the selection of the Rolling Stones and Gary Lewis. Then, he would switch to the old songs of Nat King Cole. Rose Tatoo was the favourite of the sound man, and so I would have three sweet dances with the love of my life. She was in that corner, near the ferrocaril, and I was across perched on the high dais. The crowd was thick, the music blared, and the dance floor was full of boogie pairs. Slowly I went down as my vision was transfixed at her. Reaching the ground, I crossed the dance floor where the throng blocked the view of my Cinderella. I inched towards her. I was pushed and held. The emcee called my name and told me to leave pronto because I was not on a playground. Finally, I reached the other side, I saw Being all right, but Boy Go, an older boy in first year high, was beside her. Wilson was nowhere in sight. I felt the heavens, the meteors and the comets, all falling down on me. What have I done to deserve such fate? It dawned on me that Being went to Paang Bundok to see his Romeo, and Wilson was a cool subterfuge.
Rading and Uti were there watching me. They too had a ruse, they met me across the ferrocaril, placed their hands across my shoulders and said within her earshot, “andito na kami.”
It was a big relief seeing my true best friends in Paang Bundok. Their arms were not heavy.