Angelica & Nina
I invited Nina over to practice our routine. Mr. Baluyot paired us for an eskrima demonstration for the Filipino American History Month assembly at the end of October because we were the only two girls who wanted to wield weapons rather than dance tinikling. I didn’t know what Nina’s reasons for this were, but I knew that I would’ve been too embarrassed by my boobs bobbing up and down as I hopped right-right-left right-right-left right-left-right-left-right left-left-right between the two bamboo poles.
The routine was good, and we were good enough, but something about the way we held the arnis sticks seemed unnatural, so I asked if she would be willing to come over after school to practice. It wasn’t the only reason I wanted her to come over. I just wanted my parents to stop worrying about me. I wanted to show them proof I had made a friend.
Nina was the one who sat next to me on the first day of Filipino Club to compliment my hair. I always wore it in one long fishtail braid back then. Nina asked why I never wore it down, and I told her it was too thick and that it would radiate out like a lion’s mane if I did. Nina had long hair too, but clearly God loved her more because she was blessed with Asian hair, long and silky with a permanent sheen.
My mom would be rushing to get ready for work and still she would insist that I sit in the tiny plastic chair we’ve had since I was a toddler so she wouldn’t hurt her back as she sat at the edge of the bed to braid my hair. She would coo that I would always be her baby girl, but really I knew that she wanted to do as much as possible to keep me that way. She accused me of padding my bra with tissue paper to get attention from boys and was heartbroken when she patted down my chest only to discover these were my real breasts. Dalaga ka na, she said. She said the same thing when I first got my period. Both times, I could hear the disappointment in her voice, foreseeing the long road ahead of me.
Anyway, Nina was the one who approached me, on that first day of Filipino Club, with the compliment about my hair. Even when I told her about my lion’s mane, she was adamant about sticking to her compliment. You’re fierce, like a lioness. I had never thought of myself that way.
I asked Nina over on a Wednesday because it was a minimum day, so we would have more time to practice in the daylight. My dad was the one who picked me up after school because my mom worked twelve-hour shifts at the NUMMI plant. I led Nina to the white pick-up truck parallel-parked on the Whipple side of campus. The school was so large, it had two exits, one on Whipple and the other on Tamarack, and in my first few weeks as a Barnard-White student I was often lost. My dad’s truck didn’t have a backseat, so I slid into the middle of the bench so Nina could have the window. I sat with my arms and legs pulled close to my body’s center, squeezing until I was small enough.
Hello, Nina, my dad said.
Hello, po, she answered.
She pronounced po like the writer Poe, the o sound not clipped enough.
You are Filipino? he asked.
Haha, yes, po, she said.
Ah, okay, he said. I thought you’re Chinese.
Only a little bit, Nina said. On my mom’s side.
I can tell, my dad said. You have very beautiful skin.
Nina forced a laugh, the kind that’s almost entirely an exhalation of air that produced only a faint sound. I wanted to disappear into my body, embarrassed by my dad acting like the creepy tito at a family party. I turned my head and mouthed the word sorry but Nina just shrugged it off.
You speak Tagalog? he asked.
Hindi, po, Nina said, punctuating every sentence with the marker for politeness. Kaunti lang, po.
My dad parked the truck in our assigned space. I told him me and Nina would be outside so we could practice eskrima, but he said two girls stick-fighting in the street would look suspicious. Better to come inside, he said. This wasn’t part of my plan, but my dad insisted it would be safer. What about the furniture? I asked. I didn’t want to knock anything over. He made a vague, noncommittal noise. I’ll fix it for you. I didn’t want to push him. Nina shrugged, so I conceded.
My dad led the way up the stairs and into the apartment. Come inside, he said, to Nina. Excuse the mess, ha. Our place is small. And it was small, which is why I’d wanted us to stay outside. But Nina was graceful about it. It’s fine, she said, setting her backpack down at the side of the sofa as she looked around. Her butt was at the edge of the cushion, and she sat straight up, refusing to relax into the couch. You’re hungry? he asked, opening the cupboard and pulling out a rolled-up bag of shrimp chips and a half-empty plastic container of individually wrapped madeleines. Here, take this one, he said, setting down a third option, chocolate-coated biscotti. Don’t be shy.
Make yourself at home, he said to Nina. You guys can go there, he said, pointing to the living room. Just move that one, he said, meaning the clear glass coffee table from Ikea. I’m just in my room.
My dad grabbed a plastic water bottle and brought it into his bedroom. Even from behind the closed door, I could hear the creak of the bedsprings as he sank into the twenty-year-old mattress.
Sorry for my dad being weird, I said. I figured he was excited that I’d made a friend, but I didn’t want to tell Nina that. It would’ve sounded sad and self-pitying. Maybe I was being a downer, but it was hard not to be invested. Starting at a new school was hard. I’d spent most of the semester eating lunch in Mr. Baluyot’s room, which was always full of visitors, except no one noticed I was there. But now, through Filipino Club, I’d found Nina. Now we were each other’s lunch dates.
It’s cool, she said, taking a proper look around for the first time. What’s with all the Jesus stuff? she asked, staring at the statuettes of the Santo Niño and Mama Mary on either side of the cross that was the centerpiece of our family’s altar, set-up on a low television stand along the adjacent wall.
Sorry, I said. My family is religious. I mentally apologized to Jesus for denying him in front of my friend.
Nina helped me lift the coffee table to the corner of the room so we would have space to practice our routine.
When we first started to learn eskrima, Mr. Baluyot instructed us to practice wielding the sticks while we twisted our wrists back and forth, up high and down low, so we could develop a good grip. A guy in our group, Jericho, yelled out, Yeah, ladies, grip it real hard, and all Mr. Baluyot said was, Not cool, Jericho, and that was it. Everyone knew Jericho was Mr. Baluyot’s favorite, so he wouldn’t be punished beyond the verbal reprimand. The boys continued to make suggestive comments while Mr. Baluyot was too busy teaching the dancers how not to crush their ankles between the bamboo poles. Nina was the one who told them to fuck off whereas I stayed quiet, too ashamed of my own girlness to fight back.
Once, I asked Nina why she didn’t join the tinikling group. She was light and agile and could’ve avoided the boys’ crude comments completely. I wanted to learn how to protect myself, she said. Plus, it’s badass.
We ran through the routine, a choreographed sparring match meant to showcase our moves, x-strikes and abanicos. The whole thing was set to a prerecorded rondalla soundtrack, which I’d heard so often that I sometimes caught myself humming the tune while half-asleep.
My mom chastised me when she first discovered I was practicing eskrima; she thought the repetitive movements would make my upper arms too muscular and not-at-all ladylike.
Nina and I only lasted about an hour before we took a break. The two of us sat in silence on the couch while Nina texted someone. I didn’t have a cell phone. My parents didn’t want me to talk to boys or worse, some child predator from an anonymous chatroom. I didn’t understand why my parents assumed the worst. They raised me well. I was a good girl. A child of God.
Who are you texting? I asked.
My friend from Tennessee, she said.
Tennessee? I asked.
Yeah, she said, like it was normal.
How did you meet? I asked.
His wife and I are in the same MapleStory guild, she said. Do you play Maple?
I shook my head, thinking again of my parents’ warnings about talking to strangers. I’d always thought they were overreacting, that most people knew better than to give out personal information online, but here Nina was, texting someone old enough to be married, which meant she’d given this person — this man — her phone number.
Do you have a computer? she asked. I could show you how to play.
My family technically did have a computer in my parents’ room, but I wasn’t allowed to use it until after dinner, and only under my parents’ supervision. I tried to make a MySpace to keep up with what my friends from my old school were doing, but they had autoplay on their profiles and my mom would be like Bakit yan ang tugtog niya? Bastos naman! which made me give up on the whole enterprise of social media, which meant to the internet I was still a chubby-cheeked sixth grader who came as close to secular music as Skillet and Flyleaf — not that my mom was a fan of those bands either. She believed even Christian rock was of the devil.
I’m not allowed, is all I said.
Oh, okay, Nina said. She sounded disappointed.
Despite her being my only friend at this school, I didn’t know much about her. I guess she didn’t know much about me either.
Do you have other friends from — what was it called? Maple?
Yeah, she said. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it. It’s popular, especially right now. A lot of people from Pan-Asian Alliance hopped on the bandwagon, but I’ve been playing since before the Big Bang.
Where are your other friends from?
Well, there’s Munch and Rainbow from Tennessee, she said. Those are my married friends. And then there’s Chewy from San Antonio, and Zap from Ottawa. Those are the main people I talk to these days.
Nina seemed to know so many people from all over, meanwhile my own circle was so small. I had been friends with the same group of girls since kindergarten, and now they were all making memories without me. I envied Nina’s worldliness and worried I wasn’t interesting enough to hold her attention.
I knew a guy from Sweden once, she added as an afterthought. We don’t talk anymore though.
Just then, she got this faraway look in her eyes and I realized I didn’t know her at all.
I had worked up a sweat from the exercise. I excused myself to the restroom, where I undid my braid, gently coaxing the two plaits apart and running a brush through the thick mass, dense with sweat. I wiped my kili-kili with a towel before reapplying deodorant, silently praying that I wouldn’t smell like perspiration masked with baby powder. I was embarrassed by my body and its smells. It seemed to me then that my body only did two things — produce strange odors and take up space. My mom might have added that it also tempted others to sin, though I didn’t think anyone would risk permanent separation from God on someone whose body looked like mine.
When I returned, Nina squealed at the sight of my lion hair. She asked if she could touch it. I told her no, it was gross. She pouted, but I ignored her silent protest.
Nina was still on her phone, though I couldn’t tell if she was still talking to the married friend — Munch? — or someone else.
Did you say you used to be in Pan-Asian Alliance? I asked, trying to sound natural.
Someone’s chatty today, Nina said. I got self-conscious. I was trying harder than usual, but I didn’t think it’d be so obvious. I guess there was no way it wouldn’t be, going from saying hardly anything at all to laboring to extend a conversation. Even inviting Nina to come over felt like its own transgression, assuming we were close enough to spend time together outside of school.
Don’t get all upset, she said. I’m just messing with you.
I was upset though. I wanted this day to be perfect. Something to cement our friendship as one of more than mere convenience.
No, I wasn’t in Pan-Asian Alliance, she said. My friend Divya is. Ex-friend.
Ex-friend? I repeated.
We used to be hella close, but she dropped me when she got in with Lisette Trinh, that girl with the squished-up mouse-face.
I’d never heard Nina talk about anyone with so much bite. I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely angry or just joking, but either way it made me uncomfortable. Jesus taught us to speak kindly of others, even in their absence.
What about you? she asked.
What about me?
Who did you used to hang out with last year?
I just transferred to Barnard, I said, so I don’t know anyone at this school except you and the guys from Filipino Club.
Where did you transfer from?
Saint Clement, I said. It’s a private school in Hayward. I mean, Catholic school. It’s K through 8, and I’ve been there since kindergarten.
No way, she said. That’s cool. Did you, like, have a uniform?
Yeah? I said, unsure what she was getting at.
Oh my God, yes, she said, excited now. I’d reeled her back in, but I didn’t know how. Do you still have it?
Yeah? I said.
You know there are guys that are into that sorta thing, she said. Schoolgirls and uniforms.
I didn’t know how to react. Honestly, I found the suggestion repulsive. There was nothing sexy about our uniforms, not miniskirts like the ones in anime I’d seen before my parents prohibited it. Most of the time I wore polo shirts, which were the least sexy clothing item in existence.
Can I try it on? she asked.
It’ll be too big on you, I said. The skirt would slide right off.
That was the thing. Unlike me, Nina was tiny. Tiny and pretty. Like a doll.
Pleeeeeeease, she said. Do you have an old one maybe? From when you were younger.
I was still big when I was younger. My mom prayed for the baby fat to melt off, but it stayed a soft cushion over my belly all throughout my preteens. My dad said I was “big-boned.”
Maybe, was all I said.
Nina wouldn’t let up on the uniform, so I took her into my room. She sat on my twin bed while I pulled out one of the drawers built-in beneath the mattress, where I kept my old uniforms. I pulled out a skirt from fifth grade, a size fourteen in girls’. I faced the wall while she unbuttoned her jeans. When she told me it was okay to look, I saw that I was right about it being too big. It looked low-waisted, her hips exposed. I noticed that she’d shaved her legs — even above the knee.
Nina offered to tweeze my eyebrows, so I let her. I grabbed a pair of tweezers from the bathroom and handed them over. Nina crawled onto the bed, still wearing my skirt, and ordered me to lay down. I did as she said and closed my eyes, letting her do her thing. She pulled the skin taut and I winced when she plucked the first tiny wisp of hair.
Nina made conversation while she worked, which I hadn’t expected. Even when we sat together in Mr. Baluyot’s classroom at lunch, we didn’t talk about ourselves. Mostly we gossiped about the other people in our classes. I liked Nina — she was my friend — so I went along with it, even though it was a sin. I told her a rumor I’d heard in my CCD class, that one of the youth leaders was dating a freshman at Logan even though he was in college. Nina ate it up, as though she lived for the drama.
Remember how I mentioned the guy from Sweden I used to talk to? she asked.
I’d forgotten, actually, since I’d been overloaded with new information, but I said that I did.
Nina hesitated, maybe for the first time in our entire friendship.
We used to date, she said. He’s my ex.
Oh, I said, unsure how to respond. Sorry?
It’s okay, she said.
Something clicked. I felt warm and sweet, like candy being pulled and stretched, sticky and saturated with artificial colors. Nina had chosen me to trust me with her secret. I didn’t even know if it was a real secret, or if there was any real reason for her to hide this information — but I felt special.
Do you like anyone? she asked.
No, I said.
Not even Jericho? she asked.
What do you mean, ‘Not even’ Jericho? I asked.
It’s kinda obvious he’s into you, she said.
I didn’t know better, but Nina seemed to me a voice of experience. She already had a boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend.
But I get it, she said. Guys our age are immature.
She tapped my arm to let me know it was okay to open my eyes again. My fingers went instinctively to my brows, feeling for their shape, though I couldn’t discern much difference without looking in a mirror. The skin itself felt itchy, raw, and naked, which only made me feel more self-conscious.
Nina’s phone vibrated. She laughed as she read the message, then started tapping the keypad with her thumbs. I waited for her to tell me what was funny or who she was texting, but she seemed to forget I was even there.
I checked my eyebrows in the mirror, though all I saw were the undelicate parts of myself I longed to fix. I wished I could liposuction my cheeks and the doughy excess flesh around my armpits, or flatten my chest so that my boobs wouldn’t bounce when we ran the mile in PE. My mom didn’t have much to worry about. Compared to Nina, I could hardly be considered a girl.
What do you want to do now? I asked. Nina was still texting whoever it was, the married guy or the Swedish ex-boyfriend.
Are you sure we can’t use the computer? she asked. I want to show you how to play MapleStory.
I knew without asking that my parents wouldn’t approve of us using the computer unsupervised, but I didn’t want Nina to be bored. My parents always emphasized the importance of hospitality, though, and I could hear my dad in the kitchen, singing his favorite Cyndi Lauper song as he cooked, the exhaust fan over the stove an enduring drone.
We snuck out of my bedroom and slinked down the hall to my parents’ bedroom. I turned the knob slowly at first, testing it out, and opened the door just a crack to make sure my dad wasn’t inside. The first thing Nina noticed was the huge cross overlooking my parents’ mattress. Isn’t it kinda creepy? she asked. It’s, like, Jesus watches them when they do it. I blushed at the improbable thought of my parents “doing it.” The computer was set up on a desk in the corner, with a built-in CD shelf filled with Lionel Richie and Sade and Gary V. There was only one chair, so I tiptoed back to my room to retrieve the tiny toddler chair and sat it next to the computer chair, which was big and bulky and had a tear in the faux leather so the white cushion inside was visible. I felt silly sitting in the monstrosity of it, especially with Nina sitting in the smaller seat beside me, but she insisted that I should be the one to click around.
Nina reached over me to type in the necessary site address and downloaded MapleStory. The downloader estimated fifty-eight minutes, not including the time it’d take to install the game. I lost confidence in our secret mission. Nina suggested we hop on a chatroom instead. She asked if I had AIM, but I didn’t. She showed me a third-party website where we could login to any instant messenger — AIM or Yahoo, mainly — to chat with anyone from the browser. She helped me choose my username, Jellykinz510, and added herself, kitty95, as my first friend.
Nina helped me join my first chatroom, whispered the words to type which made talking to strangers so much easier. She taught me what asl stood for and to lie about my age even though it’d be another sin I’d have to confess later. I couldn’t keep track of how many sins I’d committed that afternoon, but I suppressed the voice in my head telling me not to stray too far from the path. I finally understood those stories about temptation. I liked Nina and I wanted her to like me, and that made it much harder than I would have thought to resist.
What are you doing on Thursday? I asked.
Nothing, just gaming, she said.
I was wondering, I said. No pressure, but would you be down to go to my CCD class with me?
Nina had introduced me to her online world, and I wanted to be able to share something I enjoyed with her too. I knew it was a risk, since not everyone our age is into church, but it was important to me.
Oh, she said. I mean, I haven’t been to CCD since third grade. Am I allowed to be there?
The teachers are all really chill and welcoming, I said. Mr. Baluyot will be there too.
From Filipino Club?
Yeah, he’s one of the teachers, I explained. And our basketball coach.
Nina still looked skeptical.
It’s not like regular CCD, I reassured her. I had been enrolled in CCD classes ever since second grade, in preparation to receive the Sacrament of First Communion the following year. Most kids stop attending right after they get their First Communion, but my parents kept me in the program. I could understand Nina’s apprehension if that was her only experience with the catechism, since elementary school CCD is a lot of memorizing prayers and learning to pray the rosary. Or at least, that’s how it was at Saint Clement. But it was different at the new church I’d been going to since I switched schools. We didn’t sit in desks or in a classroom — we sat on the waxy floor of the parish hall. We played games like Steal the Bacon and sang songs like “Sacred Silence” and connected the Scripture to our experiences. It’s way more fun.
Oh, um. That’s cool, was all she said.
Will you come? I asked.
I’ll ask my mom, she said. Can I use your bathroom?
I pointed Nina to the bathroom and checked on my dad in the kitchen. He’d moved on from Cyndi Lauper and had started on Journey. I could see the sweat stains on his shirt around his kili-kili as he transferred pancit from the wok into a serving bowl.
Set the table and call your friend, he said. Your mom will be back any minute. Kain na tayo.
I set the table before calling Nina to the meal. I knocked before re-entering my room, a courtesy my parents had never given me. Whenever I tried to tell them about privacy, they claimed it was an American concept, or in my mom’s case, she was “just being a mom.”
When I opened the door, Nina was wearing her jeans again. She laid the uniform skirt flat on the bed, smoothing it out with her hands. I hadn’t looked closely before, but now I noticed the uneven, jagged edges of her nails, as though she’d ripped the overhang off with her teeth.
So, my dad called, she said, eyes zeroed in on her fingertips in the obvious way of someone deliberately avoiding eye contact. He’s coming to pick me up.
He’ll be here soon, she said.
I didn’t understand why she was suddenly leaving. I thought I had done something wrong, but I didn’t know what it was or how to reverse it, how to go back to lying beside each other on my twin bed, making chika about our classmates or crushes or secret ex-boyfriends. I wasn’t ready for this to end.
While we waited for her father to call to let her know he was outside, Nina asked to look through my old yearbooks, which were in a neat line on my shelf next to copies of Stargirl and Flipped and popsicle stick cross atop a Styrofoam dome painted spring green with pastel flowers, an art project from third-grade CCD. I didn’t have yearbooks from every year I attended Saint Clement, just fifth grade and seventh grade, the former because many of my friends were leaving to enroll in public middle schools, and the latter because my parents couldn’t afford to pay the increased tuition. Nina turned each page after a measured interval, her eyes glazing over the glossy paper.
Her phone buzzed, the vibrations absorbed by the soft bedspread, but she jumped up immediately. That’s my dad, she said, as if there was any question about it. I’d better go.
I escorted her from my room to the front door, not that she needed guidance, with the entirety of the apartment visible from any viewing point.
Where are you going? my dad asked when he saw us cross the living room.
Nina’s dad’s here to pick her up, I said.
Leaving already? he asked.
Yeah, she said, not looking up to meet his eyes as she shoved her feet into her shoes. She didn’t even put them on all the way, only half-wearing them.
Why don’t you eat first? he asked, coming out from behind the kitchen counter. Come, kain na tayo.
Her dad’s already here, I said.
Nina didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. She was already unlocking the door, already halfway outside as she said Thank you for having me without looking back.
Nina didn’t come to the classroom during lunch the next day. Mr. Baluyot asked me Where’s Nina? I said maybe she was late. I waited the whole period for her there, not touching my leftover noodles from the night before because we always ate together, but Nina never came.
In Ms. Abernathy’s class, Nina seemed normal, except for the fact that she never looked my way. Our teacher sat us in alphabetical order by last name, and León and Tan weren’t close to each other, which meant we had to learn to communicate in stolen glances. Usually we’d look at each other from across the room whenever our teacher fawned over Jeff Bennett, who had an inflated sense of ego since his dad helped him get gigs at comedy clubs even though he was only thirteen. When Nina didn’t look my way when Ms. Abernathy called Jeff the next Jim Carrey, I knew she was ignoring me.
Nina didn’t come to Filipino Club after school on Friday either, which meant I didn’t have a partner for eskrima. The assembly was in two weeks and we needed to practice our routine. Mr. Baluyot again asked me where she was, but I didn’t know what to tell him. He said if she missed another practice, she wouldn’t be able to perform. Without a partner, I wouldn’t be able to participate either.
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