Back in Santa Barbara - Three


The Viano wouldn't start, and I couldn't blame it. I had it for six years now. It was a present from the parents from my last birthday we spent together. Despite its lack of maintenance and family size seating, I considered it to be very valuable to me. If I were this villain in this favourite book series, I would have put one of my Horcruxes in this car. I told Dad I would like a car, but I have not told him the model I wanted. He knew what to get me - a mini-van because I am a type of person who has a lot of baggage everywhere I go. Literally. 

That Monday afternoon because I was left with no choice, I walked to the plaza. We had a sumptuous lunch cooked by Ising, and I could not control having a second round. A walk would be a good way to burn the calories anyway. Wearing a white casual mini dress paired with comfortable white sneakers brought me the confidence I needed. It was a perfect day for strolling despite the heat of the sun. 

The town hall has always been one of my favourite building in the vicinity. Its beautiful architecture, though it is one-storey short that of the museum, was outstanding. Its walls were made of majestic old, large, grey stones, topped by a red-tiled roof as if it's prepared to swallow you back to the past. Built during the Spanish period, it has withstood countless earthquakes and typhoons, proving its stability through the test of time. 

I rang the doorbell placed beside the humongous wooden door, five meters in height. A security guard, a face I had not seen before, opened the door. I introduced myself and told him that the Mayor was expecting me for a meeting. “I know the way to the meeting room. I can go there myself,” I added. Lito, as his I.D. spelled, allowed me to navigate on my own. It was on the second floor, three doors to the left. The mid-day sun shone through the windows of the empty halls with its polished marble floors. I was glad I was wearing these sneakers. Once I was wearing a pair of sandals and its heels pounded on the floor, echoing in the whole building. It was embarrassing that I swore I wouldn't wear anything with heels again in this building. The sweet scent of the place remained the same, the smell of pine trees that was probably the cleaning soap scent used on the floors. The familiarity of this place was too much that the surge of memories was unbelievable. 

I gathered my senses before knocking. No one replied from the inside. I reckoned I was probably the earliest one to arrive. It was already 3 pm, and the meeting was supposed to start. I turned the knob to get inside. But then I saw a familiar face looking at the window. It couldn’t be! I thought he moved to Manila? What was he doing here? I could still turn my back from this meeting, but that would not sound very mature. My decision to turn around was too late, as he already saw me. He even smiled and said, “It's been a long time, Felicia. I thought I’d never see you again." For a while, time stood still. I didn’t expect to see him here. It has been two years when I last heard from him - a telephone call to tell me he could not marry me anymore. There were apologies, and I remembered begging him to stay. It felt like a long time ago, and even if I have not told him yet, I did move on and had forgiven him. 

I wanted to ask what he was doing here in Santa Barbara, but I never got the chance as several people came in the door. I was still struck by the moment, but I managed to exchange greetings with the newcomers, and apologies for being late to the meeting. Most of them I didn’t know, which meant I only needed to introduce myself. Mr. Herera was the last to arrive, and we all sat down surrounding the rectangular mahogany table. 

“I believe you all have introduced yourselves to each other. I would like to welcome you all to the first meeting of Santa Barbara's upcoming events.” Ninong cleared his throat as he read the agenda for the day. There will be two special events in Santa Barbara on December: the feast of Santa Barbara and Christmas. “As always like the past years, we don’t need to organize something big, as Santa Barbara is a small town. What we need is something unique and memorable. Last year was a disaster and we don’t want that to happen again." 
“What happened last year?” I asked. 
“Nothing happened last year. Nothing was organized, which was a complete disaster. In this community, we wanted to promote the spirit of Christmas, a one-for-all and all-for-one kind of community, a convivial atmosphere. We need to be effective citizens in this society by interacting with each other, and by being good neighbours.” I always admired Ninong on his advocacy in making Santa Barbara a friendly place. It is a small town, and I completely understand the importance of unity. “Now we have organized a team to make sure everything goes to plan. Also, I wanted to reflect a good image to local tourists, so that for years to come, we can take advantage of these events to boost our economy.” It turned out that Ninong’s son, a.k.a. my ex-fiancé, Richard was responsible for the tourism committee of the town. He was the brain behind the town’s local website and social networking sites. I remembered him to be the techy kind of guy who used to play computer games the rest of high school. It was good to know that he was putting his skills to good use in helping his father. He has always been this happy-go-lucky guy, and I remember how Ninong would express his disappointments in him. 
“How about putting a big Christmas tree in the Plaza, in front of Santa Barbara Church? The plaza has a vast space beside the fountain, and we can also organize the Christmas party here?” I suggested. 
“That is a good idea. I agree on that. Any other suggestions?” Ninong jotted on his notepad. 
“We can organize an art bazaar featuring local artists in the Fiesta. We've got a lot! We can offer them the space to put their works, but then a percentage will fund the Christmas party.” I came up with suggestion after suggestion. My ideas came pouring down, and I found everyone nodding and agreeing with what I said. Within one hour, the meeting finished, and Ninong has left to proceed to his next meetings. Tasks were distributed to each of the members, however, even after the meeting, each of the participants got to ask details on what I think would work. I was the newcomer, but I got their confidence to me right away. Doreen, the event’s organizer, came with a big list and all I needed to answer was yes or no. Everyone voted what food would be available. Louisa and Jake who own a catering business suggested a possible budget and the quantity of food that can be included. It was a productive meeting, and I was useful. 

As I grabbed my bag preparing to go, Richard came to me. “Felicia, I want to ask you some more details if possible. Maybe we can stop by Bunny’s?" 
“Sure, but we better make it quick." I looked at my watch. It is already 5:30 and I needed to be home for dinner. I did not know why but my heart pounded so loud and fast. Thankfully Bunny’s Cafe was only a few blocks away from the town hall. When I sat down, I successfully calmed myself. I hope he didn’t notice that he was making me nervous. It seemed that I needed to get used to his presence again. The waiter took our orders, and we were left on our own. He was looking at me, but I continued watching the window. It was funny because I had always imagined how I would speak to him when I see him again. The words I would say, keeping it cool, however, this time around the words were stuck in my tongue. 
“So, how are you?" 
“Same old." A lie, as I was not the same old Felicia anymore. I have changed. A lot. 
“I don’t think so, and there’s something different about you. You look happy." 
“I am.” I thought of Chris and how safe he made me feel. Even the thought of him made me feel better. “How about you? I thought you moved out of Santa Barbara?” The last news I heard of him was him getting married. 
“The wedding is off." 
I smirked. “Old habits die hard, huh? Why do you always need to cancel weddings?" I found myself laughing. 
“She is the one who called it off.” 
“We broke up." 
“Why? Well, I’m so sorry to hear that. You should have taken some time off before getting back to work so soon." 
“I'll be alright. I wanted to be occupied with things, Felicia. I heard you are in town so I decided to spend the holidays here.” He reached out to hold my hand. “I really need a friend right now." 

When I reached home, I found Chris asleep in the porch. It is past dinner time. I completely forgot the time. I got so occupied with Richard being back in town. I nudged to wake him up. Like a child, he scratched his eyes while sitting down. “What time is it?” he asked. 
“It’s 9 pm, I’m sorry I’m late." 
“Where have you been? I have been calling you.” I heard his stomach rumbled. 
“You haven’t eaten yet?” We entered the house and walked to the darkness of the living room to the bright dining room. 
“Why, have you?" 
“The meeting took some time, and Richard came to me, and we had this long conversation.” He looked at me as he sat down. I got his full attention. “Shall we eat first? I am starving.” We ate in silence for a while. He grew quiet staring only to the stillness of the water pitcher in front of him. After I had chewed a quarter of what’s on my plate, I began telling him about Richard. He seemed annoyed. “Tomorrow, he is asking me if we can meet with the Christmas, tree supplier." 
“I’ll go with you.” 
“Are you sure?" 
“Absolutely. I have fixed the car so it should be running tomorrow." 
“That’s great, oh thank you! But you know what, Richard and I have agreed to use his car instead." 
“Alright, no problem. We’ll use his car." 

When I went downstairs, the next day I found Chris already prepared for the day. He was looking cheerful as well, handed me a cup of coffee and the newspaper. He also made a picnic basket as he heard Alaminos is a beautiful place for a getaway. “It is a gateway to the Hundred Islands, and I am wondering if we can stay there for the night. We can do some snorkelling or boating. It will be fun.” I haven’t been there even if it is close to Santa Barbara so I agreed that it was a good idea. 
“That’s settled then. Then tomorrow, we can take the bus back here." 
“That can work. There should be a lot of inns in the area.” I looked at the clock and told Chris that I better start packing. 

Upstairs, Ising came in the room and insisted that she help me packing. “This yellow dress suits you well, and maybe you can wear it today?" 
“I like that dress too. Richard gave me that-" 
“Hmm.” Ising’s brows furrowed and I knew why. She was not the greatest fan of Richard even when we were dating. 
“He is just a friend, Ising. Nothing more.” She probably heard that I was out with him last night. 
“That guy is no good for you. You better be careful,“ she warned as she folded a pair of swimsuit and put it in my backpack. 
“Chris will be with me today, so you don’t have to worry." 
She started nodding. “Oh, thank God! Wait, have I told you that he helped me with gardening yesterday? He knew a lot about plants. He helped me with the fertilizer and watered them too." 
“He is a botanist, and he even wrote a book about it,” I proudly said. “When we were still in Spring City, we went hiking, and he introduced me to all types of flora and fauna we found along the way. In fact, we can hike when we’re back. What do you think?" 
“I like him for you, Felicia. For once in my life, I am feeling good about this one. Please, don’t break his heart.” I took a deep breath. Unfortunately, this one is going to be beyond my control. 

I was hoping for that too. 

When Richard arrived, he was surprised to found Chris standing with me in the driveway. “Hi Richard, I am sorry. I totally forgot to tell you that Chris is joining us today.” 
“Hi man, I am Chris." 
“Hey, it’s Richard. You’re a relative?” Uh oh, I never expected that. I looked at Chris and thought today is not the time to ask our status. Yes, we are living in the same house, separate rooms, but what were we again? 
“I'm ugh…" 
“He is a friend, and he is going to be my assistant today." 
“Well, what are we waiting for? Hop in, you two." 

I sat in the passenger’s seat, and Chris sat at the back. The picnic basket occupied the seat beside him. Richard noticed the basket and asked what it is for. “It is for lunch. I supposed your meetings with suppliers would be finished by then?” Chris said. “We were hoping that you drop us in the city afterward." 
“We will see about that. I called two suppliers and the meeting with the second vendor is at 11 am." 
“Richard, do you know that Chris is a botanist? He will be a big help to us.” 
“I hope I can be of help. Pine trees in the Philippines is rare. There’s the Benguet Pine Tree and the Baguio Pine Tree. However, I don’t think those two trees will be suitable for what you are planning to do in the plaza." 
“See, I told you.” I winked at Chris who started explaining more. 

The drive to Alaminos took 2 hours because of traffic. Fortunately, we made it to the meeting time with the first supplier who showed us artificial trees. I told Mrs. Aquino that as much as possible, we prefer real trees. “That will be very expensive. It can cost up to a hundred thousand pesos. An artificial tree that is your preferred size will be half the price." 
“Isn’t that a lot of money?” I whispered to Chris. 
“Do you have real ones here in your shop?” Richard asked. “We can pay for the real ones.” Letting out a fake cough was unavoidable. I shook my head to Richard, hoping that he will get what I meant. We do not have that kind of budget. We spent a few more minutes at the shop before we decided to try the second supplier. 

The first question we asked the assistant with a thick moustache was if they have real trees. He scratched his head and rubbed his facial hair. “That is our best seller, and it got sold out four months ago.” I can’t believe people bought their trees six months before Christmas. “Let me check at the back. I believe we still have the last one. I’ll ask the owner if they still want to sell it.” We almost couldn’t breathe while he was calling his boss. I silently prayed that they would agree. That was half the problem. The other half was the cost of this tree. The call lasted for a while as we held our breaths. He was scratching his head again while walking back to us. It was not a good sign. “Okay folks, I’ve got good news and bad news for you." 
“What is it?" 
“What do you want to hear first, the good or the bad?" 
“Let's have the good one,” Chris replied. That was a weird choice. Usually, people wants to hear the bad news first. 
“Okay, the good news is we are willing to negotiate the price with you." 
“That’s excellent! That means he agreed to sell it to us. Now, what’s the bad news?" 
“There is a defect on the tree.” He looked at us problematically. “Come here, follow me.” We followed him towards the back of the room where there is a pine tree standing up high. 
“It looks beautiful to me,” Richard commented. 
“There is some carving on the trunk of this tree,” Chris noticed as he touched the trunk. We all drew nearer to see what he was talking about. We found a heart carving and in it, there were the words, “Nilo and Shie Forever.” It was slightly disappointing but still acceptable. 
“That’s right. That’s the defect of that tree.” 
“I don’t think this is acceptable, how much is the owner charging for this tree?" 
“Because of this defect, we can only sell it at twenty thousand pesos."

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