The best part about being the writing tutor for a boy with a roman numeral at the end of his name (Jose “Waks” Wakatoshi IV) was the free lunch.
The worst part was that said boy was guilelessly nice. Lunches at Gonzaga turned into lunches at JSEC, then Mushroom Burger, then WingStop, then TOSH, until you sat across him in the sushi place at the top of One Katipunan, free to order anything you want from the regular, non-promo menu. It was hard to feel bad for him, though, when he kept paying with crisp 1000 peso bills.
He was a stranger just weeks ago.
He came in late for your morning workshop, his hair still wet from a shower, gym bag slung over his ( broad ) shoulder. One look at him and you thought, God, another one just going through his law units. His brow was furrowed. He pulled the chair beside you without making a sound (a minor feat with the old, heavy clunkers in the FA room), and sunk into it.
His expression was guileless then, too.
Guileless and vacant, he surveyed the room—the students seated around a large glass table, the prof leaned against the standing chalkboard placed right against the east wall, the battered couch pressed against the west wall that was only used during breaks. He looked unsure of what he’d missed. Your prof didn’t acknowledge his entry and continued droning on about Gay Talese and the birth of creative nonfiction.
A sliver of your conscience felt a little bad for him.
A little because you’re also racking up law school requirements. Except that you didn’t have to try very hard to plan your electives because you’re taking up a Creative Writing major instead of Legal Management or CommTech or whatever his course probably was.
Catholic guilt is the fastest-acting drug. Feeling repentant, you grabbed the stray syllabus, the only one left in the middle of the glass table that everyone had ignored, even your prof. You slid it in front of him.
"Thanks," he said. There was a pause, one that almost lapsed into an awkward silence, before he added, “I’m Waks nga pala,” sounding exactly like the south boy that he was.
He nodded after you said your name back, like he was committing it to memory. His still expression moved, a slight upturn of his lips. It was hardly a smile. Still, the microexpression—just a twitch of muscle, really—changed his demeanor. He looked kind.
A heart beats as a result of a contraction of muscles. Just twitches, really, one after the other. If your heart contracted more times in the minute you saw his smile than it had for the rest of the morning, who needed to know?
No one, you thought to yourself, turning your attention back to your laptop screen.
The sem went on.
You stuffed syllabus after syllabus inside your plastic file case, knowing you’d forget about them until midterms came around in a couple of weeks, when it’d finally hit you that perhaps knowing the grading breakdown for each class was important.
You were turned away from Rizal Lib when you tried to pass security wearing flip flops because you really didn’t feel like giving a shit that morning.
You accidentally cut Theo 131 class because you fell asleep in the pub room, the lure of aircon too tempting.
You wrote about your relationship with your mother, then sent the draft in an email to everyone in your creative writing class.
The first essay Waks handed in to workshop was almost good. It was about his family history, his untetheredness from his Japanese heritage. The sentences were terse. It was a nice reprieve from you and everyone else in class trying to reinvent English syntax with more and more and more commas, semicolons, em dashes. His fumblings with figurative language endeared you. In Waks’ writing, a car was just a car. A volleyball just a volleyball. An Ayala Alabang mansion just any Ayala Alabang mansion.
It got a lukewarm reception from the class and a well-aimed, bratty comment from your prof. So, all normal, you thought, All in a day’s workshop.
You were heading out, already with your blockmates and mid-argument about whether there would be tables left for all of you in JSEC, when Waks ran up to catch up with you after class. He tapped your shoulder, heedless of your company.
“Can you help me with my essays?" he asked. "I'll make you libre ng lunch after class, promise."
You liked to think of yourself as someone who is not easily bribed. But there was a wrinkle on the span of skin between his thick eyebrows and his lips were curved down.
It was barely an expression.
But you’d spent precious class hours watching his face from the corner of your eye every week, although you’d deny it under oath. You definitely did not see him with the same frown earlier in class, right when your prof launched his quip.
You still remembered your first workshop. And your worse first delibs.
“Sige,” you said back, heedless of your friends’ knowing looks behind you.
You can’t recall how, but the lunch ( dates?, your id provided, though you waved the thought away) appointments somehow stopped being a once a week after class thing. He sought you out on other days too, texting "Kain tayo?" at the same time before noon. You learned to partake in your own benign walk of shame, slinking away from your blockmates who hollered YIKIEEEEE behind you as you went.
The week after midterms, he caught you as you were picking your laptop and Lock & Lock water bottle off the glass table in the FA room, after class.
"Hey, free ka ba right now?" he asked.
"I'm always free at lunch diba," you replied.
“No, I know you are for like two hours. But you have Philo after, diba? I want to drive lagpas ng Katip today.”
There they went again, those contractions of muscle.
"Sakto actually," you said, willing your smile to be casual and your cheeks to un-color. "Nagpa-free cut philo ko today."
He smiled again. You lost your battle against the heat on your cheeks. If Waks noticed, he had the grace not to comment.
"Great, tara. Naka-park ako sa harap ng Xavier."
He waited while you slipped your flimsy netbook back in its sleeve and your hand through the strap of your water bottle so it dangled safely from your wrist. You were placing your laptop in your backpack when he asked, “Need help?”
“Wag na,” you replied. “It’s okay.”
“Sure ka? Di ba mabigat?”
Your netbook was only a bit larger than a basic Cattleya spiral notebook. It was a slow, utilitarian machine that could process little more than Word documents and PowerPoints, which was fine because writing and browsing the internet during Histo 165 was all you used it for. You knew that he knew this. You always had it out during class.
Your eyes met. His were devoid of any cockiness, of any hint that he was making a move. He looked earnest and blank, like he always did.
It was disarming.
“Di naman masyadong mabigat,” you said as you zipped your bag close. But you handed it to him anyway. “Ang sakit lang kasi ng ulo ko today, nagpuyat ako for a Theo paper.”
He was smiling when he slung one strap of your backpack over his right shoulder, his gym bag still hanging on his left. Everyone on campus would see him with two bags and you with only a water bottle walking beside him and surmise that this was a Thing.
You wondered if he knew that they’d know.
You didn’t ask.
The route to the open parking lot was simple: Down a flight of stairs, then straight, following a roofed pathway that connected three buildings right past the admin building, then across the pedestrian lane of the main university road.
It was a five minute walk.
That day, Waks was in an uncharacteristic chatty mood. You still hadn’t reached the stairs when he asked, “Explain mo ulit yung sensory images, please? Di talaga ko sure if I get it.”
“Sige, practice tayo,” you replied. “You just have to use your five senses and describe those feelings para your reader feels it too.”
“Okay? So what if right now, I wanna convey the feeling of walking to my car.”
You pressed your lips together to stop yourself from laughing. Waks’ fondness for the literal was familiar to you now, after weeks of writing together.
“Okay,” you replied. “We’re taking the stairs down Gonzaga. What do you see?”
His brow furrowed in concentration. “The stairs are gray.”
“What else do you see about the stairs? Try mo to be more specific.”
“The stairs are gray kasi it’s just unpainted concrete, pero smooth naman. I guess they’re shiny kasi parang varnished siya?”
“Okay, what else do you see?”
“Well, you,” he said, turning his head to you as if asking that you note your existence. “Because we’re talking right now.”
You could have asked, What else do you see about me? Be more specific.
Maybe he would have said, Namumula ka. Do you know your ears get red too when you blush?
But you didn’t.
Instead you asked, “What do you smell?”
He took a big inhale. “Fried chicken pops sa Chubby Chicken. My deodorant from after practice kanina pa. Your shampoo.”
Waks’ earnestness was Schrodinger’s flirting. He stuck himself firmly in maybes. You tried to laugh it off. “I mean, those are specific. They capture the moment naman. What do you feel?”
“Mainit,” he replied, fanning himself with both hands for maximum effect.
“Talaga? Parang lumalamig na ng konti,” you replied.
An October noon could still be sweltering in Manila on bad days. But there was a light breeze that day. You still remember the pinned org event and theater show posters flapping against the bulletin boards along the covered pathway as the wind blew past.
“Yeah, napapasma ko,” he said, “Kasi I’m talking to someone I like.”
For once, he was looking away. You blush beside him, unsure of what to say.
It was a five minute walk. Before you knew it, you were crossing the pedestrian lane to the parking, the silence between you ever blooming. Still, he placed himself between you and the stalled traffic.
You looked up at him as you crossed, your shoulder against his arm. Nothing in his perfect posture, his calm face, or his studied stride, shorter than his usual to match yours, expressed any maybes.
The open parking for students was unpaved and dotted with trees. You breathed deeply, taking in the blooming silence between you, the breeze, the falling leaves.
“I think that’s okay,” you said. “I don’t mind holding hands with someone na pasmado.”
His car was a black Montero. He opened a backseat door first to place your bags inside. When he opened the front door for you, he leaned inside to push the front seat forward. You climbed up and slid on the seat. He’d set it at the perfect distance from the dashboard.
You had maybe four seconds to will your heart to calm its contracting as he walked to the driver's side after he shut your door. Only four seconds.
But you remember it so plainly even years later: You kept your hands at your sides, tightly clutching the black leather upholstery of the seat. It felt firm under your fingers. Your feet were firmly planted right under the dashboard, the bottom of your Keds pressed against the floor of his car. It was hot in the car. Somehow, it felt hotter inside your body.
You wondered then if you could ever write that moment, if you could make your amorphous reader, whoever they would be, feel nineteen, fighting the early pinpricks of a migraine, sitting in the front seat of a big car, basking in the attention of a kind boy with broad shoulders, warm palms, and an iron competitive streak.
Maybe you would someday. But not right then. Not any time soon. Waks’ arm against your shoulder, his unguarded laugh felt invaluable. You wanted to hoard them close to your heart.
The precious seconds had passed. He opened his door and sat in the driver's seat.
"Okay ka lang? You look a little red. Wait, on ko na aircon." He turned the dial on. Cool air started blowing in the vent in front of you.
"Uy, seatbelt," he said. Before you could will your hands to move, he’d reached over and pulled the seatbelt tongue across your torso until it clicked inside the buckle.
"Careful,” he said, in his usual monotone, “You still haven’t held my pasmado hand.” His mouth had twitched to a slight uptick of a smile.
You took a deep breath, or maybe thirteen in succession. He started the car. As he pulled out of the parking spot, the sun hit him just right, light flooding into his window. He looked incandescent.
He let go of the gear lever and held his palm open.
You placed your hand in his, and threaded your fingers together.
His hand was warm as sunlight.