I would not have said yes had he not asked.

But I had been eyeing him for months, and took to detail all of him—the blue eyes, blond hair, lightly-tanned skin. And I had cursed myself and reminded myself constantly of all that I was?black eyes, black hair, muddy skin.

And for the first time I found myself strangled with infatuation, and had not cringed when Jolina’s Puppy Love suddenly played in my head.

I won’t forget the first time I saw him.

Nanay had asked me to buy a broom so I rode a pedicab to the town market. The town was in its default Saturday-afternoon mode, except that the men from school who were doing their usual karaoke gig had managed to pull a small crowd around them. I intended not to take a second look at them, until someone started singing “So Sick Of Love Songs…” in the right tune and the right accent. And right there he was: blond hair and tall, in the midst of my short and tan-skinned classmates.

As news spreads like disease here in Carigara, I had already learned his name that night over dinner?Neil. Nanay went ballistic over Neil, calling him a “celebrity.”

“‘Nay, the American is a friend of Ricardo’s. They know each other from a school in Manila,” Tatay patiently explained to Nanay, who enthusiastically threw questions at him.

“Neil looks like Sam Milby, only with blond hair, eh?” Nanay smiled, her dentures showing.

“Yes, ‘Nay. And our Nora here is fortunate to be courted by Neil’s friend Ricardo,” Tatay said in between laughs. “Ricardo is smart, rich, and not bad-looking. His family are good folk.”

“‘Tay, I don’t like Ricardo. He has a flat face and a big nose,” I said. Had not my parents seen that Ricardo was only 5’2”? I’m taller than him.

“Well, he is the best man here in Carigara. He is the successor to the Hacienda Villegas. Don’t forget to serve food to his family tomorrow at the fiesta,” Tatay said, and, turning to Nanay, “‘Nay, buy a nice dress for Nora to wear at the fiesta. She can’t go on wearing her flowery dusters.”

“Glad you realized, ‘Tay. She looks like an old maid,” Nanay quipped.

That day at the fiesta was the first time I talked to Neil.

As only a few tourists ever come to visit Leyte, all the girls had been eyeing him, as were all the mothers. I served lechon to Ricardo’s family where Neil also sat, and Señora Villegas invited me to sit with them. Neil said everything in English, and the Villegas family likewise did. I stayed quiet as I only knew Bisaya and Tagalog.

Later that night, Ricardo gave me a bouquet of red roses, thanking me for sitting with them. I felt he was as nervous as I was, for when my hands brushed his, they were sweaty and cold.

“Well, Nora, uhh,” Ricardo muttered. “You look really beautiful tonight, uh, I did not know you were wearing a blue dress or else I would have bought blue roses instead.”

“I don’t know if there’s such a thing as blue roses, Ricardo,” I said, “But thank you. I liked it.”

Silence dawned over us, and I prayed to God to get me out of there. It had always been like that with Ricardo—boring conversations filled with an air of nervousness. And heaven was not without mercy because suddenly, a tall silhouette emerged from behind the bushes encircling the dirt plaza. It was Neil.

“Ricardo, your mother is asking for you,” he said.

“Oh, okay. Why don’t you stay with Nora here for a while?” Ricardo said, then introduced us to each other. Afterward, Ricardo left Neil and I alone.

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“Hey,” Neil said, “Ricardo always talked about you back in Manila. I did not know you were much prettier than his tales.”

I smiled back at him, unwilling to speak poor English. Clutching my handbag tightly, I rubbed my fingers across the black beads intricately sewn to it.

“Long hair, nice smile. With your height, you can even be a model,” he said, then laughed. I rarely uttered a word that night.

Neil and I started texting from that time on, and I was happy because of his openness about things, and that in texting, I had time to think of good English words to reply with. Sometimes, I would feel guilty at the thought of Ricardo. But I ignored my conscience as I reminded myself that I did not like Ricardo—it was only my family that did. We were never able to communicate in a way that Neil and I did. Neil made me feel what I had never felt about a man before. I was excited to know him and he was friendly. Apart from his looks, I was drawn by his unpretentious character towards me, and I felt like I had known him for a long time already.

A week before Neil left for Manila again, he asked me to meet him somewhere at the outskirts of town. There I was, a provinciana who knew only how to cook, sew, and help around the house. And there I was with Neil, who was undoubtedly smart, rich, and good-looking. I, on the other hand, told him of how simple life was in Carigara. Men went to karaoke, and got drunk. Mothers urged their children to go to church on Sundays, and my Nanay was one of them.

“Are you Catholic?” Neil asked. “I don’t know, the church is Baptist. An American pastor runs it. But I always feel sleepy because I don’t understand English very much.”

I gazed up at the sky and tried to count the stars. I fixed my duster as warm winds swept by. Neil suddenly cupped my face in his hands and kissed me. I pushed him away, and was surprised with my own strength. “Is it okay, Nora?” I quivered and did not answer. “Hey, look, I’m sorry.” And to this day I curse myself for my actions then. I remember thinking that I was privileged to have someone like Neil be attracted to me. “It’s okay, Neil,” I had answered after a while.

I left him at about three in the morning and hurried back home for fear of getting caught.

Everything was perfect, until he left for Manila. I never heard from him again. I texted him and tried to call. But it was to no avail.

Months after, while in bed and feeling sick, I learned that I was with child. My friend Jas visited me, and asked me about Neil when she suddenly screamed.

“Diyos ko, Nora! My ate was also like this when she was in her early months of—” I put my hand on Jas’ mouth. She begged to see my stomach, and how her eyes ballooned then.

“Good thing we always wear dusters here. Now, always wear a duster. And walk with your feet close to each other, because pregnant women will tend to walk with feet apart and people will notice.” Jas whispered to me.

I was too scared to tell my parents and become a disgrace to my family, so Jas suggested that I go to Manila.

“Our graduation is next week, and you could go to Manila. Tell them you want to visit Ricardo and perhaps find work. You know, they always get maids from Leyte. Well, of course, do not ever show your face to Ricardo! Think of how hurt he will be.” Jas said. “Well, does Neil even know about the baby?”

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“We haven’t talked ever since they went back to Manila,” I said. “Maybe he’s busy.”

“You know about one-night stands?”

I felt myself shiver. “It’s not that, Jas. Neil and I, we are friends, too.”

“Nora, that’s how the rest of the world is today. I’m surprised you did not know. The Western culture is like that. They call it hook-up’s, and almost everybody does it there.”

“You’re exagerrating, Jas. Neil is different.”
“No, Nora. I watch it every time on cable. I’m surprised you don’t know.”

That was three weeks ago, when we had that conversation. I tried to call Neil again before riding the ferry, but it was to no avail. I’m now wearing a duster with pants underneath, vomiting all the while by the rails of the ferry. An old lady hands me some tissue and points me the trash can.

“Hija, where’s your husband? Let me call him for you,” she offers.

“Ah, Lola, I’m off to visit him in Manila.” I feel my face turn red. Being raised by very devoted Catholic parents, I had not lied as much as I was doing lately.

“Where in Manila? Maybe I can accompany you. You look flushed.”

I feel my heart flutter as I try to think of some place in Manila. Neil had mentioned Ricardo and him stayed in a flat somewhere in Santa Cruz, or was it Santa Elena? I choose the former.

“Uhh, Santa Cruz, Lola,” I answer.

“Ah, easy. Just ride a jeepney to Quiapo.”

“Ah, yes, thank you very much, Lola.”

The old lady helps me put my bags in the jeepney, instructing the driver to drop me off at Quiapo.

“It would be just a five-minute walk from there,” She says, as I offer her my many thanks.

Everything that Neil, Ricardo and the townsfolk had said of Manila were true. I had never inhaled pure smoke in my life as I did today. The traffic is overwhelming, and I tried my best not to vomit in the jeepney-coaster ride. It went left-right-left-right like an endless zigzag ride.

Upon reaching Quiapo, I feel myself breaking down in tears. My body feels like collapsing, I’m tired and have no place to stay. I check my phone, and finds 3 missed calls. All from Ricardo. But shame forbids me to ask him for help. I watch dusk envelope the sky, and Jas’ words start to haunt me again.

How could I be so naïve? I read Mercury Drug flashing in red lights, attached to a white building. Just like how Neil described it. Maybe drugs can take my baby away.

I start heading to Hidalgo St, looking for a place to stay. Vegetable vendors position themselves in the middle of the street, and the whole street gradually fills with camera stores. I see a “Lady Bed Spacer” sign just before SM, and head up the dark concrete staircase leading up to God knows where. At the end of the steps I find an old hag sitting guard in front of a steel door. Fag in hand, she says in her raspy voice, “What do you want?”

I pause and say to her, “I’m inquiring about the, uh, bed spacer thing.”

“It’s 2,500 a month,” her eyes red-drunk, “you want it?”

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Slowly, my hand reaches into my pocket, scrounging for whatever I still had. Trying to recall everything I had spent from my boat ride to the jeepney fare and the other little stuff I bought along the way. Four thousand pesos. That’s probably all of it. I quickly give the landlady a nod.

“You can give me the deposit tomorrow, and the rest, at the end of the month,” she says, standing up and stretching her arms, “It’s this way, come with me.”

She opens a wooden door, revealing a little room. There are monoblock chairs, a small television and a dining table. A refrigerator and other kitchen appliances sat on the room’s far right corner. Everything seems old and tattered, even the wall paint is chipping off. She shows me the common shower rooms and another door which everyone stays in. Sleep is made on double-deck beds. I’m to share the room with seven other women, eyeing me carefully as I make my way to the bed that the landlady points me to.

“Every meal is 20 pesos. You should inform me an hour in advance if you want it,” the landlady tells me, shutting the door.

I sit on my bed and, exhausted. I unpack a blanket and lie down. I fall asleep instantly.

Three weeks pass and I rise to a Sunday morning sun. I get myself ready for mass, praying in my mind for God to guard my baby and to help me find a job quick. My money won’t last long, and the women here have been tirelessly helping me with my pregnancy difficulties. They must be tired of me.

I head for Quiapo Church, all the while texting Nanay that I’m doing okay—as I have been accustomed in doing so ever since I got here in Manila. Weeks ago, I had lied to Nanay that I was a saleslady here.

By next week, I would completely run out of money. I have to find a job soon. Sometimes I wonder how things would have been had I admitted the truth to my family, not leaving Carigara. I also blame myself for not bringing more money with me when I went here to Manila. Still, out of shame, I would not let myself call Ricardo for help. He might see the baby bump in my stomach, which I still conceal with my duster. And he is probably with Neil most of the time, whom I also cannot bear to see. Both of them must think me very stupid.

People suddenly come toward my direction—hundreds of them. In Carigara, only a few people can flock together. All are coming out of the church, and I push my way inside. Another mass is just about to begin. I sit on a pew at the back. The priest starts reciting verses from the Bible.

A man who just came in sat beside me—the smell of his sweat tearing at my nose. A group of teenagers flock in, indifferent to the silent worshippers, chatting in loud voices. The church quietly crowds minute by boring minute, and soon, the place becomes jam-packed, like fishes in my Itay’s fishing net after a good day’s catch.

I go out to take a breather. But instead, vendors have started picking their spots in the middle of busy Manileños walking and bumping each other while engrossed with their cellphones. I try holding my breath as I look for my handkerchief inside my bag, but the smoke still finds its way into me. I cough, and spit on the pavement.

Nobody wears dusters here except for vendors.

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