Here, finally, is a collection of short stories written in both English and Filipino for Filipino teenagers that discuss their issues and concerns in well-told narratives that are funny, poignant, cautionary, and even a bit risque.Tobias' profile in the book reads
"Nagkakagulan na ang Kuting. Lalong humuhusay ang pagkukuwento ng lahat para sa kabataang mambabasa na nagkakaedad na rin."
"[Tobias] graduated with a degree in English (Creative Writing) from UP Diliman and is currently taking her MA in English Creative Writing. She is the author of the book My Forest Friends, the first in the Happy to be Free series by Haribon. She is also the bureau manager of the Kabataan News Network (KNN) Manila Bureau. She was a fellow in the 1st Barlaya Writing for Children Workshop and the 43rd UP National Writers' Workshop. She received honorable mention in the 2002 PBBY--Alfredo Navarro Salanga Writers Prize for her narrative poem, "Ang Gulong ni Bong." In the 2003 Palanca Awards, she won second prize in the Maikling Kuwentong Pambata category for her story "Bayong ng Kuting". Astrid was president of the Kuwentista ng mga Tsikiting (KUTING) from 2004-2006.
Ann Louise arranged it so conveniently Tita Christy hardly asked any questions.
"You don't have to worry, Mom," she said. "Kuya Martin will pick me up here at six and bring me back home around midnight. You and Dad can enjoy a nice evening out."
"I'm not worried, dear," Tita Christy said. "But isn't it a bit inconvenient for you, Martin?"
I shook my head and smiled. "It's fine."
"You've always been so patient with Ann Louise," Tita Christy said. "Your Tito Bot and I would never know what do without you."
"Kasi, Tita, you should allow Ann Louise to have a boyfriend na, so someone can take care of her," I kidded. Ann Louise quickly turned to me and made a face. Shut up! Shut up! she mouthed.
"Hay naku, Martin! Not until she's thirty! You know I want Ann Louise to be a lawyer. Boyfriends will distract her. E, paano kung mabuntis 'yan?"
"Mom!" Ann Louise interrupted.
"I'm not stupid, Ann Louise. I know what you kids are up to. I went through the same things."
Then Tita Christy continued on and on about her own high school experiences. I kept my smile plastered on my face and nodded occasionally, pretending I was listening intently to her diatribe on today's generation. Ann Louise just shook her head at me. She was telepathically telling me, "I told you to shut up."
I was only one year older than Ann Louise, but when we were a lot younger, we were best friends. Tita Christy called us hooligans, though I had no idea what the word meant at that time. We menaced the neighborhood with our pranks and mischief. Together, we climbed our neighbor's fates to pick gumamela flowers to make bubbles. Pots and pans disappeared from our kitchens and found their way to the clubhouse Ann Louise and I built on the vacant lot at the end of the street. We even bathed naked under the monsson rains of August.
As the years passed, we saw less and less of each other. We would bump into each other at the chapel after attending mass or at the neighborhood sari-sari store. It was only when I entered college that I saw Ann Louise almost regularly again.
Almost every day, I passed the co-ed science high school Ann Louise attended. Sometimes, on my way to the university, I gave Ann Louise a lift. That was when we would catch up on old times.
"I'm on the cheerleading squad," she said.
"No, but it's okay. They only took me in because I was tiny. You know, so they can carry and toss me around. Besides, I'm the lightest so I get to climb the top of the pyramid."
"Is it scary?"
"At first, yeah. I used to get this funny feeling in my stomach when I stood on top of the boys' shoulders, but you get used to it."
"There are boys in the squad?"
"Of course! You know what? You should watch us sometime. I'll give you our schedule." Ann Louise rummaged through her knapsack and tore a page from her notebook. She quickly scribbled down her schedule. "We usually rehearse in your gym."
"Ann Louise! Where are you going? May I give you and your friend a lift?"
Ann Louise seemed startled. She looked at me, then at Baseball Guy, and back at me.
"Are you going home?" she asked.
"Okay," Ann Louise opened the door and got in. She looked back at her companion, but said nothing.
"Ikaw?" I asked him.
"Okay lang po," he said.
As I drove away, Ann Louise kept looking back at the sidewalk. From my rearview mirror, I saw Baseball Guy cross the street and hail a passing jeepney.
"Don't tell Mom, okay?"
Ever since I picked her up that day, I made it a point to pass by her school every afternoon. Often, I saw her on their campus, hanging out with Baseball Guy. If I didn't pass them standing on the sidewalk, waiting for a rise home, I slowed down hoping to find them somewhere around the campus. I spotted them sitting on the stone benches or walking on the grass. Baseball Guy carried Ann Louise' knapsack on his shoulder while Ann Louise held her books tightly to her chest. Their elbows barely brushed against each other. I hardly noticed any animated conversation between them. Sometimes, they just looked at opposite directions, seemingly conscious they were being watched.
There were afternoons when the campus yielded no sign of them. I would imagine them roaming the hallways of their building. I often wondered what they did or what they talked about when they were away from prying eyes.
Each time I gave Ann Louise a lift to or from school, she told me bits and pieces about her Baseball Guy.
"His name's Greg. He's a pitcher in the baseball team," she said. "We've always been classmates, but I never noticed him until we became lab partners last year in Chemistry. DUring one experiment, he wondered out loud if drinking silver nitrate would give him mutant powers. I told him that, to be a mutant, he has to have been born with his own powers. That got us talking about the X-men movie, and I told him how I liked the old comics better. Come to think of it, Greg sometimes reminds me of you. I still have your old comics, you know that? I borrowed them way, way back, but I never got around to returning them. But don't worry, I'll return them."
I had forgotten all about those comics. I didn't care about them anymore.
"It's okay, you can have them," I said.
"Really? Thanks! Anyway, don't tell Mom, okay? But this weekend, after practice, we're going to catch the X-men movie again. Wanna come? Bring a date?"
I accepted Ann Louise' invitation. That Saturday, I showed up at the gym to pick her up. Baseball Guy was supposed to meet us at the mall, since he lived only one jeepney ride away. WHen I arrived, they were finishing up the pyramid routine. I sat on the bleachers to watch them. Ann Louise waved at me just before she clambered up the shoulders of the male cheerleaders. THe rest of the team clapped to the beat being banged on a gigantic bass drum. When Ann Louise finally reached the top, she flashed a civtorious smile at me and raised her arms up high to form the letter V. Then, she jumped. As she fell, I almost stood up form my seat. Something in me wanted to run to the floor to try to catch her. My heart beat louder and faster than the bass drum. But that was only for a moment. Her small frame quickly distappeared in a bed of arms laid out by her compnions. She bounced back on her feet. Everyone in the gym cheered and applauded. I felt my hands turn clammy, and I wiped the beads of sweat which formed on my forehead.
When we arrived at the cinema, there was a long line at the ticket booth. Baseball Guy arrived early and already bought two tickets for balcony seats. Ann Louise seemed ot have forgotten to mention to Baseball Guy that I was tagging along. I took my place at the end of the line while Ann Louise introduced us to each other. "Greg, Kuya Martin. Kuya Martin, Greg." I extended my hand to give him a handshake, but Baseball Guy only nodded.
"Why don't you guys go ahead and save me a seat?" I suggested. "I won't take long."
Getting my ticket, a quick trip to the men's room, and lining up for popcorn and soda took longer than I expected. By the time I entered the cinema, the lights had been dimmed. I waited at the top of the stairs for my eyesight to adjust to the dark. The balcony seats were barely occupied. A group of high school students took the center seats. A middle-aged woman sat by herself. Through the light of the flickering screen, I thought I saw them. They chose the farthest corner of the farthest row. Their arms locked in an embrace. Their faces pressed against each other. I could almost hear a low moan coming from their direction. The usher shone his flashlights at the seats to show me the way. The couple disengaged. At the other end of the row, I saw Ann Louise waving frantically at me. I scurried in the dark and cut across the seats. The movie was about to start.
I took the seat nearest to the aisle. Ann Louise was sandwiched between Baseball Guy and me. Ann Louise held the popcorn, Baseball Guy drank the soda. I pretended to watch the movie. From the corner of my eye, I watched Baseball Guy and his hands. I might have missed a couple of action scenes where the X-men were in battle, but I made sure Baseball Guy's fingers didn't go crawling beyond the boundaries of the armrest.
I didn't know how Ann Louise managed to convince me to play along, but I did. Together, we arranged conspiracies to hide her relationship with Baseball Guy from her mother. Every time they arranged to go out, I would be her cover. "Mom, Kuya Martin is going with us to the movies." Tita Christy always agreed.
Kuya Martin was there. No need to worry. So they managed to hide their relationship for months.
And then the prom came. The plan was quite simple, and I was in on it. The deal was like this: I pick her up, tell Tita Christy I was her date and drive her to school where Baseball Guy would be waiting. I was the chauffer who took the Princess to her Prince.
"It's a dumb idea," I told her. "Sooner or later, you will have to tell your parents about Greg. I can't keep your secret for long."
"I will," she promised. "But you know how they are. THey would never let me go to the prom if they knew. They'd rather let me die an old maid!"
I ironed my best shirt extra carefully. It was the same shirt I wore to my own prom. I also gave my shoes an extra layer of wax. As I rummaged through my father's drawer for a suitable tie, he walked in.
"Hot date, I see," he said. "Here, let me help you with that tie."
"It's not what you think," I mumbled. "I'm going to the prom."
"Really? I thought you graduated from high school last year?"
"It's Ann Louise's."
"That's sweet, son. Taking your childhood sweetheart to the prom. Have fun."
Ann Louise was still getting ready when I arrived at their residence. Tito Bot was there to welcome me while Tita Christy assisted her in the room.
"Nervous?" Ann Louise' dad asked. He handed me a glass of soda to drink.
"Not really. I've done this before. I mean, going to the prom and all."
"I guess you couldn't get enough of it, huh?" he chuckled and jabbed me on my rib.
When Ann Louise emerged from her room, I stood up and handed her a corsage for props. She allowed me to attach the flower to her dress. I fumbled while I tried to pin the corsage where the spaghetti strap met the rest of her gown.
This was the closest I had ever been to Ann Louise. THere was electricity when I touched her skin. I felt intoxicated by her fragrance. It reminded me of flowers and how it used to be when we were kids. During the month of May, Ann Louise and I joined all the kids in the neighborhood to offer flowers to the Virgin Mary. We roamed the streets in search of flowers to pick. We clambered the walls stealing santan and sampaguita from the bushes which grew on the other side. THe thorns of the bougainvillea pricked our fingers. Then, there were afternoons when Tita Christy wouldn't let Ann Louise out, until she took her nap. I was left alone to search for the flowers. When it was time to go to the chapel, I fetched Ann Louise in her house, clutching my loot close to my chest. I gave Ann Louise all the flowers I found. My hands, caked in dried blood and mud, had the sweet scent of the ilang-ilang I had picked.
The parking lot was swarming with Ann Louise's classmates, all dressed and made up. Girls in their pink and baby blue gowns flowed out of the parked vans. They giggled and praised one another's gowns. They kept looking at their compact mirrors. More girls flocked near the restrooms, chattering loudly. A group of boys, newly bathed and well-combed, assembled together around the stone benches. They clutched long-stemmed roses for their dates. Some tapped their feet nervously as they took quick puffs on a lighted cigarette they tried to conceal behind their backs. As soon as she got out of the car, Ann Louise craned her neck in search of her escort.
"I guess he hasn't arrived, yet," she whispered to herself.
"I'll take you to your friends, okay?"
Ann Louise and I followed the string of yellow, red, and green blinking lights that lit the school corridors and led us to the gymnasium. Once we entered, Ann Louise squealed with childish delight and shook my arm vigorously.
"There he is!" she pointed. I looked around and spotted Baseball Guy huddling together with his friends beside the buffet table. Ann Louise waved. He waved back, but made no indication of coming to meet us. She has to pull me towards him.
"Greg!" she called out. He smiled and pulled out a long-stemmed rose from behind him. He bent over to whisper something in Ann Louise' ear. She smiled demurely and pressed her nose closely to the flower.
"I'll be okay, Kuya Mart," she reassured me. "I'll see you at twelve, okay?"
I didn't know what overcame me. The next thing I knew, I held on to Ann Louise's hand and leaned over to kiss her cheek.
"Kuya Martin, what are you doing?" Ann Louise pulled back. Her face was as red as the rose Baseball Guy just handed to her. Baseball Guy stiffened but didn't make any move. I turned to make a quick exit, but not quick enough to overhear Baseball Guy's snickering friends. I could feel Ann Louise's embarrasment. I suddenly felt sorry for what I did.
The movie I decided to watch ended earlier than expected. So I found myself in the school parking lot an hour before midnight. The prom was not yet over. Dance music was stillblaring from the direction of the gymnasium. I maneuvered my car around the lot in search of a spot. The lot was already full. It seemed some parents didn't leave after dropping off their children. I finally found a suitable place on the unlit open field adjacent to the parking lot. In the morning, I would see students playing soccer there. But tonight, there were only shadows. The car wheels embedded tread marks on the mud; the grass was flattened under their weight. Under the light of a makeshift lamp, drivers of the other vehicles huddled for a game of tong-its.
I retraced my way to the gymnasium. I followed the mismatched Christmas lights I saw earlier and the staggering flow of couples coming out of the gym. The long corridor to the gym branched out into the dark classroom pavillions. I found myself exploring them, instead of going straight to the gym. Anyway, I was early, I thought.
My long figure cast a long shadow on the corridors. My footsteps exhoed as I turned to the pavillions. They all looked identical. Each had a series of doors, bulletin boards, and a long hallway which seemed to vanish into nowhere. I only ventured into the parts where there was still a shimmer of light. Occasionally, I paused to read the notices posted on the boards. There was something in the darkness that made me uncomfortable. Something made me feel I wasn't alone in the pavillions. Maybe it was the display cases of the students' projects in the science pavilion. They had a collection of freaky objects. In what seemed to be the Biology wing, stuffed parrots and cats stared at me with amber eyes. Butterflies, pinned by their wings, laid flat on a bed of cotton. Aborted fetuses of various animals floated lifelessly in bottles filled with formalin. I recognized a human fetus inside one of them. A chill ran up my spine. I moved quickly to the next display case, where molecule models were on display.
Music from the gym could be heard in the pavilions. It had changed from dance to slow. The lights must have been turned dimmer. The students must have broken up into pairs. I could imagine Ann Louise and Baseball Guy doing a slow dance. Her cheek resting on his chest. His arms wrapped around her tiny waist. Her waist--I could probably measure it by the size of my two hands.
I shook my head violently, trying to erase the image from my mind.
After looking at the molecule display, I turned to return to the main corridor. As I passed the Biology display, something made me stop. U heard hushed voices. I looked hard into the darkness, but I couldn't see any movement. I edged nearer the display until the voices became more audible. They came from inside the lab. I extended my hand to turn the doorknob only to grip thin air. Instead, I found a round gaping hole, letting me see through. I peeked. Light from an open window illuminated portions of the classroom. It looked like an ordinary science laboratory. The voices quieted down, probably because they heard my footsteps approaching. I held my breath and waited.
"We have to go," a voice whispered. Then a grunt. I took off my shoes and tiptoed as fast as I could to the main corridor. The prom was already winding down. I could hear the voice of an emcee thanking the students for coming. I hurred to go back to the parking lot, but not before taking a last glimpse at the science pavilion. Two figured were emerging from the dark.
It took me a while before I could find Ann Louise and Baseball Guy from the wave of students coming out of the gym. I waved as soon as I saw her. Ann Louis wore Baseball Guy's coat over her gown. She said she was cold, but beads of sweat had formed around her forehead. Baseball Guy escorted us both back to the car, where Ann Louise gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
"Had fun?" I asked.
"Super!" she replied, then she continued to smooth her rumpled gown and comb her hair with her fingers.
At the stroke of midnight, I was parked right in front of Ann Louise's doorstep. She was about to open her door when I stopped her.
"You should use my coat instead," I said. I switched on the light in my car so I could grab my coat in the back seat. Ann Louise removed Baseball Guy's coat and revealed her bare shoulders. Just beneath her throat, I spotted a slight red mark.
"Is that what I think it is?" I said.
Ann Louise blushed. She whispered, "Don't tell Mom, okay?"
Before she could pull away, I grabbed Ann Louise by her arm. I must have held her too tightly, because she winced. I loosened my grip. Welts seemed to appear where my fingers held her.
"Did he hurt you? Did he make you do anything you didn't want?" I asked.
"What are you talking about, Kuya Martin? I had fun!" Ann Louise put on my coat, pulling it tightly around her throat and then bounced out the car.
I waited until Ann Louise disappeared behind her door. She left Baseball Guy's coat with me. Crushed beneath it was my corsage. The orchid hung limply by its pin.