Back in Santa Barbara - Two


A loud knock woke me up the next day. I tried ignoring it, but when it did not stop for a few seconds, I annoyingly dragged myself out of bed and opened the door. “Ising, it’s too early." Those words came out like I was twelve.
“It’s midday, Miss.” I opened my left eye and surprised to find a man in the corridor. Hold on, it’s Chris, looking perfectly neat with his glasses on, while there I was looking peculiar with my messy just-woke-up hair. "You slept the whole morning, and now it’s time for lunch. Ising told me not to wake you up, that you are used to sleeping the whole day, but the weather is pleasant, and I want to explore Santa Barbara."
“I thought she's bringing me to church?"
"You missed the mass in the morning, so she said you'd go the next day."
"Now is my turn to be a tour guide, huh?” I sighed and stretched my arms trying to wake myself up.
“Last time I heard, you were the town’s curator. Maybe you can show me the town’s hidden streets? The museum? Where everything is?”
“That’s an idea, but perhaps I can have coffee first?"
“It’s waiting for you downstairs.” He blinked while pulling me away from the door. I didn’t know I have slept that long. With the sun shining through the window, I could feel the place to be comfortable again. No wonder I slept the whole morning. When we reached downstairs, the smell of coffee and fried rice greeted me. Ising was nowhere in sight, but I helped myself to the table and started sipping the hot coffee. “Ising went to the market, just so you know.” Chris sat beside me and started reading the paper. He also got a pen and encircled some text in it.
“Is that the Classified Ads? You’re looking for a job?"
“I like planning ahead."
“That is the local newspaper, a newspaper in Santa Barbara. You mean you plan to work here?"
“I plan to stay.” I went quiet, trying to focus on my black coffee, while he continued reading and encircling the paper.

Santa Barbara is a small sized rural area facing the historical Lingayen Gulf. The city centre is where everything is, the municipal office, church, market and shops, the schools, and the museum. A few kilometres further and the coast where plenty of the fishing boats could be seen. When I was young, my parents were involved in so many things beautifying the town. They were active as officers of the Cultural Committee, busying themselves in publishing books and organizing events to make our town more known and exciting, not just to neighbouring towns, but to the whole Philippines.

And when they died, no one took their responsibility. There were no other members. It was just the museum where I worked part time was taken care of. When I graduated in College, I was contacted by the Mayor who asked me to curate the museum. I obliged to continue my parents’ legacy.

We took the afternoon slowly. Despite the midday sun, the wind was blowing from the sea making it comfortable to walk around. We covered the plaza where the town hall and the church are. It was a quiet afternoon because everyone seemed to be having their siesta. I love the weather in November because it reminded me of Christmas. Like any other places in the Philippines, Christmas has already started last September. The town was decorated with Christmas lights, wreaths, and garlands. At 4 pm, there were children with strings of coins and drums made from recycled canned goods, carolling from one house to another. 

The museum was conveniently located just behind the town hall, besides Susan's sari-sari store. I tried as much to ignore her or not to be seen by her because her sari-sari store was like a showbiz magazine publishing company, only they published audio ones. The gossips. Unfortunately, her gossips were more believed than the facts from the museum. 

Susan’s big eyes greeted me with excitement from the window of her store, and she immediately ran to me with her bouncy curly hair, dropping the dusting stick to the ground. “Felicia, you are alive! Oh, my god, oh my god!” She hugged me and pinched my face to make sure that I am real. “We heard what happened to you in Spring City, the news of your death has circulated in this town. But Ising won’t believe it, and she is right. What happened to you? Did you get pregnant? Where is the baby? You don’t look like you just gave birth, just a little tanned. Hmm, but Spring City should make your skin fairer. I believe it was all buildings and the sun never really come out there.” I didn’t have the chance to answer her as she expressed her thoughts regarding my disappearance. “Here, come, sit down. Let’s have a chat. And who is this guy?” Her eyes studied Chris who was standing beside me quietly, as if afraid to break Susan’s monolog.
“Uhm, Susan, this is my friend, Chris.” I shot a warning look at him. In our small-town news travels fast and each time, it's passed from one person to another, a lot of editions were made.
“Hi, Susan, nice to meet you. I am the father of the child.” I elbowed a smirking Chris, and he immediately took back what he said.
“It’s not true Susan, I just went abroad, changed my name, you know? I wanted to be in solitude to think things through.” She looked at me with sympathy. She knew what happened back then. I didn’t want to lie to her, but who would believe me? Besides I don’t have a story to tell, all I have is a diary.
“Of course, you have every right to be in solitude after everything.” We chatted for a while before we finally bid goodbye. It's 4:30, the museum will close soon, and I wanted to show it to Chris.

The Museum of Santa Barbara is one of the must-visits in town. It is 3-storey white building high filled with work of arts of local artists, as well as artefacts regarding the town’s history. The museums in Spring City were grand, but I am proud of this building as it is a living memory of my parents. They have spent their lives in this big project that will remind the town’s people of one thing that matters in life, which is often neglected.

Chris was impressed with what he had seen too. As we walked inside, he slipped his fingers in between mine and surprisingly to myself, and it felt natural that I allowed him to. I introduced him to Martin who spared me with all the hassles. Perhaps, the news that I travelled overseas already reached his ears. “The museum will close in thirty minutes, so I better let you spend the time to explore it.” I thanked him and promised that we would chat more soon. We marvelled in rooms covering only the highlights. I don’t want Martin to be staying overtime. He would ask me questions, and I happily contributed once again, getting into this role of explaining why there were such. He was most impressed with the Amorsolo, and the Luna paintings which were the most priced in this museum. 

At 5 pm as promised, we went out of the museum. “We will be back here, right? Thirty minutes is not enough time to see everything."
“You can always go back here. Besides, it’s just a twenty-minute walk from the house."
“Where do we go next?” my excited tourist asked.
“Let us continue walking south to the last stop.” I winked at him.
“Okay, señorita,” he replied as we glided along.

I brought him to the coast where the sun, like yesterday was beautiful, while the waves were playing tug of war with the shore. The breeze blew cooler by the second. Chris went quiet for a while, and I let him be. His eyes were filled with excitement like he hasn’t seen such scenery before. I stretched my arms up trying to absorb the beauty of everything that surrounded me. A few moments later, I looked at Chris who was still quiet. “Hey, what is it?"
He shook his head and looked at me. “Nothing." I didn't push further. 

That evening, he dropped me at the Bunny’s Cafe where I am supposed to meet Lucy for dinner. We did not have much time to talk, and I needed to know what has been going on in her life as well. “What time should I pick you up tonight?” Chris asked.
“You don’t have to. I can walk back on my own."
“I insist. There is a lack of streetlights-"
“Do you see the Christmas lights? There are plenty! Don’t worry. I will be all right."
“I wished we brought the car. Anyway, give me a call if anything. I will be at home waiting for you.” We waved goodbye as I entered the cafe where I found Lucy sitting. 
“Hey, bru! Come and sit down, I already ordered sisig for you. Is that good?"
“Yeah, of course! It feels like a long time since I last tasted it.” I sat down opposite to her by the window. Bunny’s Cafe is filled with only a few customers. Usually, it gets busy during breakfast and lunch, but people here tend to eat dinner at home, so dinner is a down time in this cafe. Nevertheless, they still serve authentic Filipino dishes. The music was soft enough that we don’t feel distracted by it but loud enough so that the others won’t hear our conversation.

For a moment, she just stared at me weirdly. I asked what was going on and she told me she still doesn't believe my story, even with the diary present. “Honestly speaking, I wanted to be mad at you, but one percent of my brain cells tells me to believe you."
“I don’t believe myself either. You’re my best friend Lucy, you know I wouldn’t lie to you. We have known each other for so long."
“It sounds ridiculous until Chris showed up yesterday. Is he the botanist next door who is also the engkanto written in your diary? I’m sorry to ask you this, but is having a check-up to a mental institution makes sense to this situation?"
“Shut up, please. I swear I am not going mental. If you want, I can tell you the other story which I told everyone else in this town. I told them that I went overseas for solitude, that I travelled and changed my name. If that is another reason you want to believe, that is your freedom to do so."
“Ugh, I hate you!”
“Enough about me, tell me what you have been up to while I was gone."
“A lot had happened, Felicia.” She seemed hesitant to speak, and I knew something was wrong with my best friend, but then she said, “In between the chaos of not being able to find you, I started dating.”
“That’s great! Who is the lucky guy?”
“I dated Jonathan Roxas.” I scanned my mind trying to remember the face behind the name. “He was our schoolmate back in College, remember? The shy boy who was taking Accounting course. It has been nice for quite some time as it took my mind off things for a while."
“I remember Jonathan, he was shy while we were in high school, but then became active in school when we entered College.” I remember him joining ROTC and the drama club. Such a transition.
“Yes, that Jonathan. Unfortunately, we did not work out and,” she hesitated to continue again. I didn’t say anything. Richard’s breaking up with me after years of dating broke me. It must be hard for her too. “And I am pregnant."
Before I could react, the sisig arrived. I was shocked because I did not expect that. Lucy was not the type. But this is the time she needed me more than ever. “Hey, you know you always got me, right? Don't worry. I will be happy to be the godmother!”
“I am so glad you are back. I wouldn’t know how to do this." 
“Me neither, but Ising will help us. Anyway, have you told Auntie Jane? It’s not safe to live on your own.” In Lucy’s clan, she was only left here in the Philippines. All her relatives have been living in other parts of the world.
“I will tell her soon. I just don’t have the courage yet."
“Oh, Lucy. You don’t want them to worry."
“Come on, Felicia. It’s not that. I am just afraid of disappointing them again.” I stood up and sat on the seat beside her. I looked at her frightened eyes.
“I am sorry for disappearing for a year. I wish I could have been there with you.” I let her lay her head on my shoulder as she started sobbing. With tissue in hand, I wiped her tears away.
“It’s not your fault. And besides, I am excited because I am in this new stage in my life right now. Imagine, Lucy having a baby! That itself is a miracle," she added in between sobs. 

I excitedly greeted Chris at the door when I went home that evening, and immediately told him the good news. He also got excited that he got a pen and paper and we started jotting down the list of things the baby needs. We fell asleep on the sofa that evening. 

We woke up when Ising began to do his chores in the kitchen. Chris invited me to jog, and I agreed. However, as we were getting ready, Ising knocked in my room and told me that Mr. Herera was downstairs. I was bewildered on what the Mayor would require this early in the morning. It’s only 7 am (coffee time has not even started yet!).

I went down and found the mayor sitting on the sofa. “Ninong, good morning to you!"
“Felicia, hija, welcome back to Santa Barbara.” We exchanged our beso beso, while Ising served us coffee (thank god!). “I am sorry to come early. I heard the news that you are back."
“Yes, indeed. Just two days ago. I am sorry for not being able to stop by the hall yet,” I replied hoping that he was one of the people to spare me of the nitty gritty questions of where I have been. Explaining yourself to one to three persons is okay, but not to anyone you meet and knew. Mr. Herera is a good man, he was my godfather and has been great friends with my parents. He is in his sixties, but he looks cool with his white polo shirt and black slacks, and an attaché case in tow.
“No worries, hija. I know you have been tired with these travels you made. I won’t stay long, as it is getting busy in the office, especially with Christmas just around the corner. I just wanted to tell you that the position as a town curator is still open. Now that you are back, do you plan to stay here for a long time? I want to offer you that position."
“Really, Ninong? I would be happy to take that position."
“Are you sure you don’t want to think about it for a while? You just got here, and maybe you’re still tired."
“I believe I have enough rest. Besides, there’s nothing for me to do here."
“That’s great to hear then. Maybe you can start next week? There is a town meeting this coming Monday to organize the December feasts. I need you to be there."
“Sure, Ninong. I will be there.”

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