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A Red, Red Rose by Rica Bolipata-Santos

In grade school, this large brown van would park by the school’s
driveway. It was hard to miss because it was huge, bigger than a
regular hi-ace. The door would open and in it was a bunch of Ateneo
grade school and high school boys.

One of the boys was named Paco. Everyone knew Paco. He was in 1st
year high school so he was considered a god. He was famous because
in grade school he was part of the children’s theater and got all the
lead parts. We were required to watch these plays every year and so I
saw him grow in his loveliness.

He was just way too cool. He would keep the door open as the car
moved, as a kind of dare to the driver. The wind would pass through his
hair and I saw no fear in him as he kept his hand on the car door
handle, while the other hand stayed steady to balance him. As the car
parked, he would high-five the driver and settle comfortably on the
chair closest to the door allowing me to catch more than just a glimpse
of him. He picked up his cousins and I guess part of me was looking at
these cousins too. Their names were Alice and Margaret and to my
young mind, these names conjured visions of pink, soft gowns, ball
dances and large, fluffy beds in palatial rooms.

They were the most beautiful in my school. They were ballerinas, which
added even more resonance to their beauty. When they would pass by
the school corridors, it looked as if the crowds would part and we, their
loyal subjects would bow as a sign of acknowledgement that they
deserved to be looked at. As they would pass me, on their way to the
van I noticed a kind of wispiness surrounded them in spite of the fact
that it was already the end of the day and most of us had been
downtrodden already by the demands of young life. Two cousins, white
as snow, lips as red as a red, red rose…

I must have been around 12 or 13, right about the time children are
supposed to turn into adolescents. I remember the awkwardness of this
phase. I was ugly, to say the least. I had lice in my hair. My teeth were
all crooked that I could barely close my mouth. My skin was sallow. I
was fat. Discomfit is a perfect word to describe the feeling of my first
bra. I knew I wasn’t beautiful the way I knew many things about
myself: strangeness, inability to enter conversations; the need for
aloneness and yet acceptance; the hours of staring out into space; the
feeling that all things are passing and all I needed to do was survive.
There was something better and bigger to come for me. I could tell.

Very few beautiful things happened to me during this time. Every

single moment was a declaration of my ugliness and mediocrity. I had
no friends among my classmates as most people found me strange. I
never got invited to parties or asked to hang out after class. I’d look in
the mirror and know that there wasn’t anything there. Everyday the
waiting for the van, looking, Paco, cousins, wispiness was my daily
dose of beauty. The rhythm this moment came to have was all I would
look forward to at the end of the day. Watching Paco and his cousins
and their natural beauty made me want a bit of their perfection as
well. Perhaps if Paco were to kiss me, my true self would come out.

I was self-taught in the ways of love and courtship. What I knew to be

true about true love and its pursuit came from fairy tales where I had
learned to retreat. In these tales, men and women would simply stare
and somehow they would both know they were meant to be together.
No amount of obstacles, stepmothers, stepsisters, a castle protected
by a fierce dragon, would ever get in the way. And so, I figured, the
best way to get noticed was to stand near the van and simply stare.
And so I did. Afternoon after every afternoon, I would lean by a column
and simply stare at him. In my mind, if I stared long enough, he would
eventually speak with me. But all he did was look away. That awaited
moment of recognition I thought I could will into being never came to
pass. When I look back now at this moment, I remember two stares he
did eventually learn to give me: one of disgust, and the other in
laughter. Eventually, I became the laughing stock of my school. I was
called cheap, desperate, kulang sa pansin and stupid. I didn’t know
why though. I hadn’t learned yet that more than anything; love is a
game of pretense (in grade school anyway).

One day, early in the morning, before the beginning of the day’s
classes, I opened my locker and in it was a red, red rose with a note. It
read, “See me by the creek at 4 today.” It was signed, Paco. I couldn’t
believe my luck. The picture of Sleeping Beauty with her eyes closed,
with a rose in her hand came to me. Finally, he had decided that he
was in love with me too! Finally, he had seen the light and wanted to
tell me he liked me too. In an instant I felt special and beautiful. Never
mind the lice in the hair, or the pimples on my face. Paco’s love would
transform me! Sleeping Beauty’s eyes would open and all would be as
it should be.

All day, I couldn’t wait for 4 o’clock to come along. Classes blurred into
each other as I moved into reverie after reverie of imagining living
happily ever after. Every chance I could get, I would tell the story to
any classmate willing to listen – the first moment I laid eyes on him,
the first moment he put his eyes on me; his attempt to look like he
didn’t notice me in spite our secret glances in the afternoon; the red,
red rose; the look of his handwriting on the note; the certainty of love
promised that afternoon.

At three thirty, I decided to go to the comfort room to prepare myself

to meet him. I proceeded to wash my face and after I had splashed
water and opened my eyes, there stood Laura, the class bully.

Laura was part of this van too. I knew she wasn’t a cousin, but rather a
neighbor. She normally sat at the back of Paco. She was big for her
age. She had short hair parted in the middle. In our grade school
uniform, she looked more like a man than a young lady. She walked
towards me, folded her arms, rested her hips on the sink and said,

“It’s all a joke. I put the rose in your locker to teach you a lesson. Paco
can’t stand your staring.”

Then she walked away.

I felt like such a fool. How could I have believed in the sincerity of that
red, red rose? At no other moment did I ever feel more ugly. I walked
out of the comfort room minutes later. I bumped into several
classmates and I saw how they would laugh after passing me. I figured
Laura had told everyone the story by now proving everyone right that I
was cheap, desperate, kulang sa pansin and stupid. Now the feeling of
shame overwhelmed me. The words I had used to describe my feeling
of joy and excitement just a few hours earlier, they used against me.
By the time I got to my locker to get my things, a group of students
had milled around me, continuing the laughter. At the center of it all
were the 2 beautiful cousins. They were laughing the hardest. I must
have cried, but I don’t remember.

This story begs for a post-script. That afternoon in the car park, I willed
myself to wait for my car by the driveway. Not in front of Paco, but near
enough for the world to see me. Even then I knew I could not be
beaten. Standing there, erect, my eyes remained forward until my car
arrived. I could hear the snickers behind my back, but I was resolute in
not buckling down. The next day was just as worse in school when the
story reached the upperclassmen. People were happy at my downfall.
How great it felt to everyone that I was simply a fool. For a week, in the
car park, eyes forward, back erect, I stayed this way.

I eventually stopped doing this when some other outcast’s foray into
hopefulness took the place of my story. I learned to keep to myself in
the library. For a moment I harbored the thought that my not being
there in the usual spot, might have worried him. I watched him once, in
secret. He no longer dared the driver and after awhile the door would
no longer remain open. I would bump into him later on in college and
wonder what it was that possessed me so. Life has a way of turning
funny. Although I would never be a beauty in the way those cousins
were, Paco turned into, an ordinary man. When our paths crossed
along the campus corridor, I realized that the story of the Ugly
Duckling is far more satisfying.

I saw one of the beautiful cousins recently. We bumped into each other
in the comfort room. We were both washing our hands and both turned
to look at the mirror at our reflections. I was surprised that I had finally
learned how to enjoy looking at myself. It was a great surprise to see
that it was she beside me, looking at me. She said, “Hi, do you
remember me?” I turned to her and realized that everyone eventually
becomes old. “Of course,” I said. “You’re Alice.” “Wow, I can’t believe
you remember, ” she replied. As if I could ever forget.

Laura was there in college too. Maybe we were all there so that we
could figure this all out. One of her closest friends in college became a
good friend. Once, she said, “you know, I just have to tell you. Laura
kept telling me to stay away from you. I don’t know why though. She
super hates you. I think it’s because she thinks you’re so beautiful.
She’s like that you know. She hates beautiful people.”

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