One afternoon, Melissa and I walked home from school together. But all the while, it was really Raymond on my mind.
Melissa and I go way back to elementary. We went to the same school, which stood at a walking distance from our neighborhood. In high school, she caught someone’s attention. I tried to ask her about it on the way home. After all, it wasn’t every day Raymond would ask me for a favor. It was like a celebrity pleading to a fan for the first time.
“Would you go with Raymond Ferrer this Saturday?”
“What? Raymond Ferrer? Why should I when we both agreed we’d go together?”
“Well, what if he’d ask you?” I hoped a rhetorical question would work.
Apparently, the campus crush had eyes for my best friend. I wasn’t surprised. Melissa’s straight black hair waved on her back every time she took a step and her chest arched whenever she stood in class to answer the teacher’s questions. As the light of the setting sun shone in the distance, her cheeks glowed as if cherries were buried in her fair skin.
“Why would he even ask me?”
She punched my shoulder with a clenched fist. I nearly stumbled on the sidewalk. “You have the craziest ideas, Tommy!”
“Ow! What was that for? I was only asking.”
“I won’t go with anyone to the prom unless it’s you. This was our plan since we were in fifth grade. I won’t change my mind now. Besides, prom is just days away.”
“Still can’t get over it, can you?”
She shrugged. “We can’t just give it up, can we?”
The next day, I was sitting in one of the bleachers on the outskirts of the vast green field in our campus. Girls carrying thick bouquets wrapped in thin red papers and tied in shiny ribbons passed by me. Their smiles revealed their excitement for the big day. I was thinking of buying one for Melissa for formality’s sake, but I was distracted from this thought when Raymond sat beside me.
“Hey, bud,” he said with a grin, a deep dimple marring one of his cheeks.
We high-fived a greeting. “Hey, Raymond,” I said, concealing my excitement with a subtle lip-closed smile.
He was wearing a fitted blue jersey with a round stain from his neckline to his chest. His muscles bulged beneath it.
“So, what did she say?” he asked.
“How was soccer practice?” I said.
Our questions came in unison.
“Oh! Sorry!” I chuckled. Wasn’t I just watching his team play earlier on the field? After dismissal in the afternoon, he had caught up with me along the corridors, asking for updates. And while Melissa had sent me a text message that she and Mrs. Paclan, the moderator of the English club, will have a brief meeting, I’d thought waiting for him to finish his practice would not waste my time at all. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen him play exceptionally but this was the first time he sat with me,beside me, in one of the bleachers.
“It’s fine, bud,” he chuckled. He wiped his forehead with his hand. “So, what did she say?”
I gulped and pinched the button beneath the collar of my uniform. “She-… Well, I asked her, but she wasn’t open to the idea.”
“What do you mean?” he said, leaning closer. I could smell his minty perfume.
“Well, I did ask her if she’d go with you to the prom if you’d ask her. But…but she said she doesn’t want to.” Was this a lie? Should I tell him of our plan? Melissa would be perfect for him. She was lucky he considered her. I didn’t mind going alone. I just didn’t want to disappoint Raymond. Getting prom dates was crucial and I was glad he trusted me on this.
His cheeks reddened. “She won’t go with me?”
“I’m sorry, Raymond. That’s what she told me.” I sighed.
Oh, if only you knew. I stared at the field before us. The grasses bent as a wind passed.
“Buddy?” Raymond ended the silence.
“I’m going to try to convince her again,” I said. “You can count on me, Raymond.” I tapped him on the back. His shirt was cold against my palm.
“But if this is difficult for you—”
“—No, it isn’t. Melissa is like my sister. We’re inseparable.”
Raymond sighed. “That’s what I notice. You two always go together.”
“We have been since the third grade.”
Raymond’s brows met as he faced me.
“But we don’t have anything going on between us if that’s what you’re thinking,” I chuckled. I couldn’t imagine it. “And don’t mind about us. You two would look great together,” I assured him despite the subtle churn in my belly.
“Thanks, bud. I hope this isn’t causing too much trouble for you. Melissa is just… different from the others.” I was sure he meant those girls who constantly cheered for him at his games; those that pretended to bump into him to get noticed, or asked for his number, or took a selfie with him. Melissa would never do those things. Refusing to be Raymond’s date was what made her different. “Do you think she’d go with me if I’d ask her?”
“Oh, come on. Who wouldn’t?”
His brown eyes bore over me. I thought he was going to pull me close to him. “I can’t take her without your help.” His cheeks regained their fair hue.
“I won’t let you down,” I said, raising my thumbs.
Later that night, I went on Facebook with my laptop in my room. After finishing my draft for my English class essay, I browsed over Raymond’s page. Although Melissa already knew who Raymond was, I was making sure that she’d accept his invitation once he’d ask her. If only that could be done, then I’d get his pat on my back. Convincing her was part of the job, and I knew there was something more about Raymond than his popularity. So I had to find out.
There was an image of him carrying a trophy after our school’s soccer team beat their opponent in an inter-school tournament. Although soccer was not really a popular sport in the Philippines compared to basketball; it was one hell of a triumph. Another one displayed him strumming a guitar onstage. Then there were ones where he surfed over the waves beyond the coastlines of Siargao, caught a flying disk in a Frisbee game on the white shores of Camiguin Island, and drove a massive tractor in a race on a muddy field in Bukidnon Province. All his photos, including the ones where he was wearing a tux in the wedding of his relative, summed up Raymond’s personality. He seemed to excel in everything he did and looked incredible in whatever clothes he wore. He was someone.
I messaged Melissa when I saw her online. Are you up?
Her reply came in less than a minute: Besides watching documentaries about prom on Youtube? I am cutting strips of papers. Do. Not. Disturb.
Looks like someone’s excited.
Of course, Tommy! I just can’t wait for all of them to see us with our crowns. You are the king, I am the queen.
Still can’t get over our imagination?
What do you mean? You and I want it to happen. Remember what you promised me in fifth grade?
Agreeing to be her date in the fifth grade was fine. But keeping the dream we had to become prom king and queen at this age was something else entirely. Two sixteen-year-olds in junior high should be contemplating realistic dreams that involved career plans and what to take for college. But Melissa loved to stick to the original plan, as if her whole life was dedicated to this Saturday night. If she’d held on this dream for years, then convincing her became more of a challenge. Raymond was never a part of it.
What are those papers for? I asked.
I sent her the photo where Raymond was wearing a tux.
What about him? she asked.
Come on, Mel, he’d be perfect for you this Saturday night.
Here we go again. Stop kidding. That’s not possible at all.
Why not? He’s prom king material. I think it would be weird if our batch would see me in his place.
She did not reply. Then she went offline.
I groaned in my seat. There was one way to prove to her that I wasn’t kidding. Everyone probably had their dates by now. I wasn’t going to disappoint him. Why else would he talk to someone like me for the opportunity to be with someone he liked?
So, I sent him a message.
The next day, Melissa and I were in the canteen during recess when a line of guys walked to our table and began offering red roses to her. “What’s this?” she said as she pushed her cup noodles in front of her on the table. At one glance, I noticed the guys were part of the soccer team who played with Raymond the last time I was at the field. Then I knew what they were going to do. Raymond had received my message, and this was his response.
Heads turned to our direction when one of the guys said to Melissa, “If you follow the trail outside, you will know who is waiting for you at its end.” Then he bowed in front of us as if he just recited a poem.
Melissa raised her brow when she looked at me and whispered, “I’m sure they got the wrong girl.”
Gathering the roses from the table, I said, “Why don’t you find out?” I gave her the roses. She cradled them in her arms.
Addressing to the guys standing around us, she pointed to herself. “Me?”
The one who bowed was the one who nodded. “If there’s any other Melissa Valdeza in this place, please raise your hand and be identified.” He addressed the crowd who all bore smiles on their faces.
“This is embarrassing,” I heard her mutter.
“I guess we should do what they said.” I rose up with her and dashed towards the canteen’s exit. We found a trail of rose petals outside – all in red like the aisle of a church on a wedding ceremony. Along with the gasps of everyone behind us, we followed the trail. Melissa was holding my arm as I led her. The trail brought us to the school’s grass field where pink and white balloons were tied on the railings that outlined the bleachers.
On the center of the field was Raymond Ferrer. With his pressed white collared shirt and his sleeves rolled to his elbows, he stood and held a cardboard sign. Written in black cursive letters on a white surface, the name, ‘Melissa’ was clear enough to be read at a wide distance. There were squeals and giggles by, I believed, most girls behind us who reached the place no later than we did. I could also see some of our teachers nodding and smiling. Someone like Raymond could easily gain nods and approval, but this had to be the first time that such spectacle happened on our campus.
Melissa was standing beside me now and when Raymond marched towards us, I felt her nails digging into the skin of my arm. “Ow! Mel!”
She let go. “I’m sorry. Is this real?”
I rubbed the part where she clawed me. Before I could respond, Raymond was already standing before us. He took off his shades and hung the handle over his collar. His eyes were on hers, unblinking and bright as the late morning sunlight. Melissa returned his gaze, her lips pursed and her arms shivering as she held the roses.
I took a step back so I wouldn’t interrupt them.
“Hey, Melissa,” Raymond said.
Melissa continued to stare at him. Her lips parted.
“I was just wondering if maybe you could…” The corners of Raymond’s lips rose when he flipped the cardboard and revealed what was written behind it, also in black cursive letters: Be my date for the prom?
The giggles and squeals escalated around us. I could hear almost everyone scream.
I tried to smile, but my vision blurred. When I’d smile, my eyes would squeeze them off in drops. I wanted to be happy for her. I wanted to be happy for them.
But as I tried to pick my handkerchief from the pocket of my slacks, I heard Melissa say, much clearer than all the murmurs around us, “I can’t… I’m sorry.”
She dropped the roses onto the ground where sparse grasses grew. A thin cloud of dust plummeted as their stems and petals hit the surface. “I already have a date,” Melissa said. Then she faced me and pointed. “I am going with Tommy.”
All squeals, giggles, and murmurs went silent the instant Melissa turned and said to me, “Let’s go.” Then she walked away with her hand on her forehead to partially cover her face. She breached through the crowd and was gone before the dust settled back onto the ground.
There were gasps around us. When I turned towards Raymond, I saw his eyes were already on me – narrow and sharp. His cheeks flared red and his jaws clenched.
“Raymond…” I said before he tore the cardboard in one stroke and darted towards me. He fists crumpled my collar and he held me so tight I could barely breathe.
“You lied to me!” He yelled through gritted teeth.
“Raymond, please. I wanted her to be with you instead.”
“Shut up! Why didn’t you tell me she was going with you?! I trusted you!”
“I tried to convince her, Raymond.”
“Now, try to convince me why I shouldn’t beat the crap out of you!” He pushed me so hard I fell onto the ground. Dust flew and stuck on my uniform and my face. Just when he was about pin me down, someone from the crowd bellowed.
“Mr. Ferrer! Don’t you dare raise your fist against Mr. de los Reyes or I’ll have you in the principal’s office this instant!”
I saw Mrs. Paclan, in her blazer and skirt, emerge from the crowd. She had her gray hair tied in a bun. She pointed at Raymond. Beyond the lenses of her dark-rimmed spectacles, her eyes were on us, just like everybody’s.
Raymond knelt and slammed his fist onto the ground instead. The impact made him crease his forehead and shut his eyes tight. He stood and darted off. The same guys who gave Melissa the roses earlier in the canteen followed him. When one of them tried to pat his back, Raymond pushed him away. I had never seen him so angry and hurt before.
Mrs. Paclan demanded the area to be cleared immediately. The crowd dispersed. Most of them returned to the canteen. She tried to approach me, but I told her that I needed a moment alone. “You need to go to the clinic, Mr. de los Reyes,” she said.
“I can still manage, Ma’am.” I lied.
Mrs. Paclan walked away after I told her that I’ll have myself checked after dismissal.
When I was left all by myself on the ground with the torn cardboard and the roses scattered by the occasional wind, I thought about where I went wrong and what led me to this mess. Melissa wanted me to be her date. Raymond wanted her to be his date. But what about me? What did I want?
After knowing what Raymond was capable of, I began to doubt about what I wanted. Did I let all this happen because I got the chance to talk to him? Was Raymond the only guy in the world I’d do favors for? Was it right to do him favors? What could I gain? All these questions kept me awake that night after the incident at the field.
Mom had my suit altered so it could fit me. She said I was much thinner than Dad when he wore this during his college graduation ball years ago. Hand-me-downs are part of tradition. And although the style didn’t matter, she always told me that a guy’s forbearance in a social event was more important than his garb. Despite the controversy, I vowed to be regal in a white suit and white slacks with polished black shoes that tapped the floor every time I took a step. In front of the mirror, I adjusted the bow tie beneath my inner collar and pushed back a stray strand of my hair from my forehead, settling it over the waxed combed do.
When I was ready, I went to Melissa’s house standing beside ours in our subdivision. I was seated in the sofa in their living room with my parents accompanying me when I saw her descend the stairs. Mr. Valdeza, in one of the cushioned chairs, brought his newspaper down. His wife, who had helped Melissa prepare, trailed her on the steps.
She looked much fairer than she had always been. Her hair was fixed in shiny firm curls on the back of her head with pearls adorning it. Her gown had no sleeves, but beneath the thin band of gold on her neck, the cloth that covered her chest and waist glittered. As she descended,the wide skirt of her gown rippled in waves of green and maroon.
Even Manang Josan, the Valdeza’s house help for as long as I could remember, was wiping her tears with the hem of her apron in one corner when she saw her. After a brief exchange of words about enjoying the night but not to the extent that we’d get wasted, Melissa’s dad brought us to the venue. He was also going to pick us up after Mel informs him that it was over.
Our prom was held at a mountainside resort that overlooked the city. While the occasion took place within the grand ballroom, we were given freedom to go outside and take a look at the city lights below the wide terrace. As we waited for more students to arrive, Mel and I decided to talk on the terrace. This was the first time we talked after the field’s incident.
“Tommy,” she began, not minding the many faces that turned towards us, “I’m happy to be with you tonight of all nights. We’ve been friends for so long that I don’t want anything or anyone to separate us – at least not yet when we are still seeing each other.” She sighed. “High school won’t last, and prom only happens once. I just thought…” she held my hand. Her fingers were cold. “I could spend it with someone special tonight.”
She looked at the lights below and her eyes gleamed like the stars. “I’ve never planned on telling you this but I just want you to understand that there’s no one else like you. With you, I am comfortable and I feel okay.” She tightened her grip.
She continued,“Years ago, I promised to go with someone on this night.” She placed a hand on my cheek. “And I don’t intend to break that promise.”
“I didn’t know someone like Raymond would even notice someone like me in school,” she said. “People like me don’t easily get noticed by people like Raymond and-“
“Mel, don’t say that—” I tried cutting her off, but she pressed on.
“It was because of you that I knew of it. He’s charming, yes. He’s handsome, for sure. Do I want to be with him?” She brought her gaze back at me. “I barely even know him.”
“It’s always been you, Tommy,” she said and reached for my face to give me a peck on the cheek. I let her. All the while, I felt what she meant. The soft pressure of her lips on my skin calmed the rage of confusion in my mind during the past few days. In this moment, I understood why it had been difficult to connect her with Raymond.
As she drew herself away from me, the music from within the ballroom began playing. Still holding my hand, she started to guide me back.
But I stood my ground.
“Mel, there’s something I need to tell you.”
So I told her. She had to know.
Later, our prom began with formalities, but ended with our batch getting loose. The ballroom was lit by a massive golden chandelier on the high ceiling’s center. Displayed on the corners and on the walls were wreaths, ribbons, and flowers of various kinds and colors. Boys wore tuxes and suits, while girls wore gowns and dresses.
The traditional cotillion marked the beginning of the programs. Later on, students recited poems. This segment, as Mel shared to me over dinner, was the idea she suggested to Mrs. Paclan and the organizers during their meeting days ago.
They showed a montage on an LED screen wherein our photos taken during the school year were presented. There were class pictures, outings, and one revealed the picture of Raymond who carried a trophy on the soccer field. There was a wild applause as his face was shown. It was the same photo I had viewed on his Facebook profile.
I tried looking for Raymond from my seat amidst the cheers. I found him at a table seated with his teammates. While his friends were seated with girls wearing luxurious gowns beside them, the chair to his side was empty. With a brown suit and a black necktie and hair neatly combed back, he smiled at the screen. Yet his smile this time was different from his smile in the photo. It lacked the same wide grin. It lacked the cheer in his eyes.
I brought my gaze back to the screen.
There was a dance party right after and I found myself with Melissa on the dance floor, swaying to the music of a local band, courtesy of the DJ at his booth. The ballroom darkened and beams of iridescent lights began flashing and blinking around us. Later, I danced with my other classmates when Melissa went to the restroom. I looked for Raymond again and saw him alone at his table, with his mobile phone in front of him.
Should I go and talk to him? I asked myself. But when I stepped off the dance floor, the music ended. Just as Mrs. Paclan, in her long blue gown and silk white shawl, went to the stage, Melissa came back and sat beside me.
In Mrs. Paclan’s hand was an envelope. She stood in front of a standing microphone. Behind her were two high chairs laden with red cushions. Beside each of them were teachers who held crowns and sashes on silver trays.
“This is it!” Melissa whispered beside me.
My heart beat faster and my hands were wet when I clutched them together.
“The student body has voted,” Mrs. Paclan announced. “Your prom king and queen are Thomas de los Reyes and Melissa Valdeza!”
I squinted as one of the spotlights shone over us. I was deafened by the loud applause from the teachers and the students. Melissa and I stood and, with hands held tightly, we ascended the steps to the stage. The teachers encouraged us to sit on the high chairs, which I was pretty sure resembled our thrones. They laid the sashes on our shoulders and then the crowns over our heads. I had a gold one with pinnacles shining on top. It was made of plastic. Melissa’s was beaded with glittering gems. One of the teachers gave her a bouquet of red roses.
I looked at her and I had never seen her look so happy. I smiled back.
“You made this happen, didn’t you?” I whispered to her amidst the claps and cheers.
“Remember when I was cutting strips of paper late one night?” Melissa said. “Not many of the students cared about the titles as the teachers were distributing the boxes to collect votes earlier. With our names in the strips, I went to put them all in before heading to the restroom as the crowd went wild with dancing. Now my purse is empty.” She giggled.
As the applause grew louder and our batch mates and the seniors gathered on the sides of the dance floor, I couldn’t explain the feeling of being, this time, one of those who mattered. This was surreal. And it was real. It had finally come true. This was probably what Raymond felt like all the time.
She held my hand once again after she nestled the bouquet over the chair’s arm. Mrs. Paclan announced that it was part of tradition for the king and queen to dance alone on the dance floor with a song. Mel and I descended over the steps of the stage and glided to the dance floor.
In the center, she brought her hand on my shoulder. But before I could put mine over her waist, I searched the crowd that surrounded us. And as the music began, I saw Raymond Ferrer, standing amidst the crowd, watching us with a smile on his face.
I took a step back and eyed Melissa. For a moment, she looked confused. But as I made my way towards the crowd, the applause faded, but the music still played. I could listen to the lyrics clearly when I reached Raymond.
I held his hand and led him to the dance floor. His smile faded and his brows rose. I tapped my palm over his arm to reassure him that it’s going to be fine. He followed me.
I reached for Melissa’s hand on the dance floor and made them hold each other. Melissa looked at me, her lips parted. Raymond bore his eyes over Melissa and then over me. Gently, I caressed my palm over their held hands. And once they looked at each other, I slowly retreated from the dance floor and immersed with the crowd to watch them together.
The corners of Raymond’s lips rose when Melissa laid her hand over his shoulder. Melissa’s eyes dazzled like the beads on her crown when Raymond settled his hand over her waist.
The song went on. The music played. I watched. They danced.
I had known it couldn’t last the whole evening. I went back to the terrace and gazed at the city lights below. I leaned over the balustrade, and was startled when I felt my crown detach from my head.
When I turned, I saw Raymond behind me.
“Oh, it’s you,” I said. “Where’s Mel?” I asked.
“She told me to look for you, so I did.” He said.
“She had to tell you, didn’t she?”
He placed the crown over the balustrade and stood beside me. I turned and looked back to the city lights below. It was getting cold, but my suit was enough to warm me tonight.
“I wanted to tell you how much I’m sorry for what I did. I’m an asshole, really.” He scoffed.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” I said. “Everybody makes mistakes. I should have told you the truth before you wasted your effort.”
“Hey, it wasn’t your fault I got humiliated.” He sighed. “After the dance, I had to tell Mel that I used you to get to her. It was really dumb of me to do that. I should have just went to her straight away and accepted her rejection. I guess I was a coward for asking you to do it for me.”
“What you did on the dance floor was not really necessary.” He said.
“So you didn’t like it?” I snapped.
“No…well…uhm…I—I…What I mean is… that was supposed to be your moment.”
I stayed silent.
To my surprise, he laid his hand over mine. “Why did you do that?”
I let his hand stay on mine. “Wasn’t that what you wanted?”
On this same spot before prom began, I had told Mel the truth, and I was wondering if I should tell it to him.
“You know,” he said after a long pause, “I don’t think it’s fair for you. That dance was yours. You deserve it and-…” he trailed off. “I should not have stepped between you two.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Mel and I go way back.”
“What keeps you two together?” he asked.
“As friends? We accept each other. For who we are.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Raymond nod. I faced him and let his hand go.
“I wish I had a friend like you then,” he said. “So I won’t always have to pretend to be someone I’m not.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Beside me, he stepped closer. “Tommy, shall we start over?”
The first time that Raymond Ferrer talked to me was in the school corridor days ago. Tonight, of all nights, I got to know him with no favors required.
Angelo Lorenzo is a writer based in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. Currently, he is taking his Master’s Degree in Literature at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan. His articles have been published in local newspapers and online news organizations such as Rappler. He loves writing to empower and inspire. Website/Portfolio: https://thehavenofadreamer.tumblr.com/