“Get your elbows, off the table, Sara!” mother snapped. She pointed her silver spoon at my resting elbows as I lifted them quickly and straightened my back. Mother was always like that. Manners above all else. For as far back as I can remember it had been drilled into my head. Every man was Sir. Every woman was Ma’am. I learned how to set a fancy formal dinner setting and how to fold a cloth napkin several different ways. Which is why I was more than stunned as I followed Jun through his home into the back patio. A makeshift eating area had been set up with various tables and chairs. Nearly twenty people were milling about, chatting and laughing with one another. Babies were resting on their mothers’ hips. Men drank beer, laughing with a cigarette in their free hand. And the older women laid out the feast: a mixture of meat, rice, and vegetables in a long line across a layer of banana leaves. The leaves served as a makeshift tablecloth and place mat while the food was placed in mounds like a long buffet line.
“Ma! This is Sara” Jun called to his mother who was handing a man another cold beer. With a polite smile and raised eyebrows she nodded once, acknowledging out presence among the chaos yet harmony of the room. Filipinos were a lively bunch and Jun’s family was no exception. As we squeezed into a set of plastic chairs, every dinner party rule I had ever learned quickly flew from my mind. “Where are…. The utensils?” I whispered to Jun. “There aren’t any!” he laughed, as if thinking my request was some sort of joke. I blinked and watched everyone begin to sit down and partake in the feast. Their first three fingers became the primary utensil of choice as they nibbled and spoke between mouthfuls. It was an eating experience for all of the senses. You felt the food. The smells of roasted lechon and fried rice filled the air. You felt the warmth of the food between your fingers, before finally bringing it to your lips for a bite.
I wasn’t used to such meals. The idea of getting my hands dirty felt foreign and strange. Yet I didn’t want to offend my new friend, so silently I shoved the first fingerful of food into my mouth. It was absolutely sublime. “I know!” Jun said, watching my reaction as he chowed down next to me, “Ma cooks all morning for stuff like this”. I glanced around and wondered how long it took for a feast like to this be prepared. As if reading my mind, Jun leaned a bit closer. He gestured, pointing out each tita and tito (aunt and uncle) at the table and what each person contributed to the meal. Family fiestas like this were a regular occasion, and an excuse to get everyone together. “Family is everything” he concluded, which left me nodding but my mind fell deep in thought. <Why is it that some people are born to families who care and hold feasts? While other people are born to parents who could care less!> I wondered, eating my food slowly and soaking in the scene. These people really seemed to enjoy each other’s company.
“Tito Willie!” Jun called, and an older man with dark cocoa skin and salt and pepper hair raised his eyebrows, smiling at the two of us. Jun explained to the man my desire to help the barrio, yet I was unsure of where to start. Tito Willie scooted his plastic chair over close to mine and smiled leaning in. “Willie Bernardo” he said, extending his hand. “Sara Lane” I whispered in reply and looked into his dark, warm eyes. “You’re a student at U.P?” he asked as we ate our food chatting, and I nodded. It was then that the proverbial door opened as Willie began to explain to me of a non-profit organization (or N.G.O.) that he helped run in the barangay. “We call it… Books for the Barrio” he grinned, “we help people learn to read”. My eyes lit up and I felt my heart pound. Books?! Reading?! This was perfect!! “Yes!! Opo!!” I blurted out, almost unable to catch my breath from such excitement.
“Perfect” Willie said, “come around here tomorrow, and I’ll take you to the book mobile”. My mind spun with excitement. I looked over at Jun, meeting his eyes as he smiled warmly at me and I blushed. <His family is so…. Nice> I thought in amazement. As the sun began to set, people began to rub their bellies turning in for a quick siesta. The very definition of a “food coma” could be seen in the content grins around the room. “Busog ako,(I’m full) Ma” Jun said, pecking his mother on the cheek and giving her a quick hug, “I’m going to walk Sara home”. I blinked at Jun in surprise. We hadn’t agreed upon it nor had I asked him to escort me. But now, suddenly I felt like a princess in waiting. I felt humbled, and cared for. A soft glow brightened in the pit of my stomach. “It was nice to meet you, Sara” Jun’s mother said, clasping my hands gently. I gave her my thanks and we headed out into the night.
The Manila air was humid and sticky, even in the dark of night against the orange streetlamps. We chatted about classes, as he helped me navigate with ease which jeepney to take that would drive us back to the campus. Though we sat side by side, packed into the metal bus with a bunch of other people, I found myself too nervous to touch him. The tiniest hairs on my leg scarcely touched him, as I inched away, fearful of making the wrong move. We laughed and bantered, and in the moving shadows of the streetlights I caught glimpses of how his face lit up when he grinned. How he threw his head back when he laughed, and how his bright teeth stood out in the darkness of the jeepney. Finally, the bus rolled to a stop by the campus, and he suddenly grabbed my hand to help me off. “Come on” he said, his strong hand taking mine without hesitation. I was thankful for the night sky to shroud my rosy cheeks. <Oh!> I thought. I would have never been bold enough to make such a move.
Our chatter died down, as we walked hand in hand towards the dormitory building. Both of us acutely aware of holding the other persons hand. Palm to palm we walked in stride, adjusting to the new sensation of each other’s skin. His rough and mine smooth. His, a soft, delicate cocoa brown, and mine a soft, shade of white with pink hues. I always hate the part when it’s time to say goodnight. How does one say goodnight properly, especially when you’re crushing on someone? Do you face your date and smile politely, nod your head, and then say goodnight whilst backing into your house? Should you give a quick “bro hug” and—
“Here you are” Jun said, cutting off my internal monologue as he turned to face me. “Here… I am” I smiled, echoing his words because I was unsure of what to say. That, and my heart was beating a million miles a minute. <I want to kiss him…. Just kiss me you idiot!> my brain screamed. “So…” he said, looking down at me slowly. I watched him shift his weight back and forth, as I shifted mine. “Well… goodnight?” I squeaked, trying to draw out the moment and squeeze one more second with him. Finally, releasing his hand I began to turn away when he suddenly grasped my arm, stopping me, and he stepped close. In one fluid movement his hand lifted to cup my chin. Our lips brushed lightly, as if giving me an invitation to kiss back. For a half of a second I froze. But as his lips brushed over mine, my heart exploded with joy and I began to kiss him back. Time stood still. Everything became calm. And we kissed, soaking in the moment together. At last he broke apart our lips, his forehead resting against mine, and smiled. Looking like a very giddy tomato, I grinned up at him. “See you tomorrow?” he whispered. “Absolutely” I chirped and giggled, slipping from his arms to float all the way back to my dorm room.