THEY say dreaming is free; all it takes is a wide space for imagination where you can host those visions of glory and happiness. Anything can happen. One can grow roses inside his head if he wants to. Or bridges, connecting islands and casting enormous shadows on large bodies of water, or buildings—any kind of marvel that could be made from concrete and steel.

They are all inside my head, Tonet thought as she idly leafed through the graduation program. But I swear to God, they will become real, they will not only be dreams forever. I will work hard to make them come true.

Glancing around, she saw a lot of happy and sad faces. Farewell, welcome, end, beginning… these words hurled themselves at her ears. She was glad that it was over, and that she would be in college soon. There would be no stopping her dreams. She would do whatever it takes to be a part of the big machinery of life. She will help build this nation—as that old slogan says—with her great structures designed to move these little islands closer together.

As they sang the school hymn during the program, Tonet felt a warm surge of happiness flow out of her lungs. She felt like she could sing at the top of her voice and not give a damn, all the while thinking dreamily: I will reengineer this decaying city with my new bridges, roads, flyovers. The world will stand in awe of the totally new, picture perfect Quezon City that I, Antonette Gumpad, will create.

Back at their modest carinderia, the whole family was in high spirits. Her Nanay, quite pretty in her only Sunday dress, had cooked pancit and bought puto especially for the big occasion. Her Tatay and Kuya Lloyd were also in their best polos and slacks. Tonet felt like a queen, as her Nanay excused her from helping in the eatery. “Why, anak, it’s your graduation!” she had said.

As they ate the special fare, they discussed how the whole family would work together to put Tonet through engineering school. Her kuya would regularly pitch in and her parents would work doubly hard to make the eatery prosper.

“Through God’s help, we can do all of these,” her Nanay affirmed, her wrinkled face bright. She wrung her hands. “We have managed to survive through all these years, after all.”

Tonet smiled to herself. True, it hadn’t been easy for them. Sheer resourcefulness, hard work and diligence had kept them afloat all this time. Both her parents did not reach college but their perseverance made up for their lack of education. Her mother used the cooking skills she had learned from a former mistress and put up a simple turo-turo on the vacant corner of the busy Commonwealth and Tandang Sora avenues. Tonet’s father helped run the place.

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Everything turned out right, although at first, they feared eviction because they were occupying government property. It was a perfect place for business. Soon, profits came in, enough for the family to eat three meals a day.

It was a very hot summer, but for Tonet, the world was perfect. She started each day with renewed vigor, buoyed up by the thought of the bright future awaiting her. Everything that she had worked for in the past promised new fruits. She could now forget how her friends branded her as “walang pakikisama.” To hell with them! She would never exchange her dreams for their pursuit of short-lived joy.

She was used to sacrificing a simple visit to the mall for a movie to help her parents in the carinderia. For as long as she could remember, she had grown up shuttling between the family’s small house in nearby Balara and their eatery on the corner of the two busy roads. All the things that defined this place—the daily barrage of vehicles, the steady trickle of people crossing and dodging the incoming rush of traffic, different carts bearing all kinds of goods, hungry customers gulping down chunks of meat and vegetables—they were all familiar. To the stranger, their place would seem like a squatters’ hovel, a decrepit and shaky structure made of discarded wooden boards, old and battered GI sheets and other second-hand fragments of living. It seemed that all the smoke and dust that came from the busy road nearby could topple their humble eatery down.

But no. For Tonet and her family, this was home. People could throw all kinds of insults and Tonet couldn’t care less. This was her world, and if other people, even her own friends, couldn’t respect that, then Tonet left them at that. Aptly, she remembered a Latin phrase that had struck her so vividly while perusing books in the school library: Damnant quod non intelligunt—they condemn what they do not understand. Sadly, even her friends failed to understand.

She recalled how her best friend Timi would call her Miss Sarap-TV, a reference to a popular cooking show on television. Tonet took all this banter in stride, laughing with her friends and trying to come up with a hilarious retort to make them laugh even more. But in her private moments, she felt a gnawing hurt inside, a keen disappointment at how her closest friends could trivialize what was for her a serious concern—helping with her parents’ modest business.

They simply couldn’t understand. And how could they, with their comfortable and flashy homes, with their parents who had regular nine-to-five jobs in modestly furnished offices? How could they worry about their future, when they didn’t have eat boiled ampalaya leaves and bagoong for supper, just to have money for books and school supplies, like what Tonet and her family did? But that was how people acted; maybe it was simply human nature, and she had to accept that. She could not expect everyone to agree with her.

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But oh, how she felt excited and nervous at the same time when she thought of what would happen in June—setting foot on an entirely new world, surrounded by the huge buildings of the state university, thirsting for more knowledge that could propel the world forward. New friends, new teachers, new places to remember and love. Tomorrow was just too lovely. All the sacrifices in the past seemed to pay off now.

Everything was just too lovely. Even her surroundings took on softer and prettier forms. Tonet felt that absolutely nothing, not even the daily amounts of pollution she had to battle, could suffocate her. Nothing, nothing! Why worry? Life is too beautiful for me—why, even marketing, one of the tasks that I used to hate has become more enjoyable. Picking out the choicest bangus and tilapia amid flies and discarded innards has become an art for me. Only the best for our customers, I say to myself cheerily, they surely deserve the best from us. And those rowdy vendors, ah, they are only doing their job. I must be patient with them.

It was with this benevolent mood that Tonet came striding into their carinderia one hot afternoon. She had just gone through the hard enrolment procedures of the university. Nevertheless, she felt bouncy and ready for anything; she had met some of her classmates-to-be, and had a nice chat with them. Now, she felt more impatient waiting for opening day. How slow time moved!

“Nay!” she called out as she mounted the small steps leading to the carinderia. She laid down a frayed envelope on a table and approached her mother, who was staring blankly at the tabloid spread out before her.

“Mano po, Nay.” Tonet lifted the proferred hand to her warm forehead. “How’s your day? Did we have many customers?”

Eda looked up very slowly at her child and gave a tired but almost saintly smile. “Good enough for now,” she sighed, then added as an afterthought, “But soon we’ll be losing them.”

Tonet, who was halfway to getting a golden-brown roll of turon from the glass counter, knitted her eyebrows. “Lose them?” She gave a light laugh. “Nay, that’s impossible. You’re the best cook around here. How could we lose customers?”

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The old woman shook her head heavily. “Tonet, we are going to lose them, and there is nothing we can do about it,” she muttered.

“I don’t understand.”

Eda gestured towards the road. “An official from the City Hall came this morning and said that the government will start the widening of Commonwealth Avenue next month. We have to transfer to another place immediately,” she said and held out a piece of paper to Tonet. “He gave me that eviction order.” Then Eda fell silent and stared at the procession of vehicles outside as her daughter read the document.

Out on the street, noise erupted from all corners and Biboy, the guy who alternately sniffed rugby and fetched water for them, was busy shouting, “Fairview, Dahlia! Maluwag pa sa kanan, sakay na!”

But inside the cramped eatery, a death-like calm had descended. Mother and child, both motionless, stared at each other hard, as if one could will the other to levitate to another place where eviction orders did not exist.

The gay music that played inside Tonet’s head abruptly faded away. She stared at the grey flyover and noted its ugliness under the glaring sunlight. Conversely, under the day’s transparent dome, it changed into a giant snake lying and waiting quietly to devour the oncoming slaught of cars. It became the eyesore that it was meant to be. How lovely Quezon City could be, Tonet thought, lovely, lovely! Old campaign posters on the pillars with unfulfilled promises; a crude red spray-paint of Ibagsak: Gloria Labandera! greeting suffocated pedestrians; poor, misplaced shoots of greenery that weren’t green anymore; the usual taong-grasa dozing under the descending curve of the flyover—is this the city Tonet would love to change, a place brimming with optical illusions, a place where yesterday’s improvements became today’s refuse?

For now, Tonet and her family had to give in; who are they to stop this so-called progress? She stared long at the flyover and the busy avenue stretched out so luxuriously before her. As her glance fell on a big poster announcing the project, her irritation increased. The paragraph ended pompously with the sentence, “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

For her, no apology or explanation can solve their problem right now. All she knew now was that she had to pack up and transfer. Hopefully, they could still find a decent place where they can sell their adobo and sinigang. For the moment, Tonet had to comfort herself that maybe all the picture-perfect visions and dreams she had in mind today would materialize someday in this not-so-perfect city.

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