To Megan, with Half My Heart

by Vida Cruz

This work first appeared in The Silliman Journal, vol. 54 no. 2 (2012)

To my dearest little girl—

Know that this is painful for me to write. You may not be so little by the time you read this and I’m sure a lot of people will have told you a lot of nasty things about me between now and then. But you need to know—from me, no less—why you have grown up without a mother.

Bear with me, because this explanation begins and ends with Vince. We met on the school bus when we were in Grade 3 and he was my first love. I wanted nothing to do with him at first because he was the kind of kid other kids pelted paper balls and candies at: small and dark-skinned and his St. Joseph’s uniform was always two sizes too big—I never bullied him, but I never stopped anyone from bullying him, either. (The first time I witnessed this, I alighted from my bus and cried into your Lola’s skirt—but how can any little girl articulate their first experience of malice?) I think Vince would have been popular if he didn’t let on that he believed all those amazing stories he told about the tikbalang, duwende, and diwata living on the lush, fairy tale forest grounds shared by St. Joseph’s Catholic School and St. Maria Goretti Academy for Girls (where I went and where I hope you’ll go too, Meg).

But he had such eyes—brown as the bottom of a pond on most days, golden when the light hit them just right. They were also flecked with the green of the leaves of the acacia tree that still stands today at the corner of the Academy’s parking lot (and I hope it’s still there when it’s your turn). We always suspected his father was a foreigner, but his mother, Tita Mercy, refused to talk about him.

These were the reasons we became friends:

1. We were the lone English-speakers on a bus where everyone spoke in Tagalog. Tita Mercy and your grandparents both thought teaching us English very early would give us both an edge in the competitive job market.

2. I couldn’t resist asking him why he was talking to himself.

3. He answered me with stories about his friends: tikbalang falling in love with the high school girls, duwende tricking the loose change from little boys’ pockets, the lady in white who roamed the campus and wailed at sunset, and the diwata living in the trees who watched all the students’ antics and came out at night to dance. According to Vince, the nuns and priests had to make a pact with those creatures before the schools were built, something about neither side ever crossing over demarcated territory. Before I knew it, the bus had stopped before my old house in Sikatuna Village and the stories weren’t finished.

4. I was nine years old and you can believe anything when you’re nine. I knew nothing of folklore before I met him.

5. He shared his baon of dried mangoes no matter what kind of day he was having.

6. I wrote down his stories as best as I could with one of those foot-long pencils covered in smiley faces and a cheap orange notebook with blue ribbon binding. (I still have the notebook. If you ever want to see it, it’s sealed in the taped black shoebox at the very back of the top shelf of my closet.)

7. He appreciated it all the same and encouraged me to write my own.

8. Whereas I came home crying when the other kids started calling us a couple, he laughed them all off.

9. He was better at articulating how he felt he didn’t belong. But he did it by joking that maybe he was a changeling or a kapre or something—I never found those jokes funny, though.

There is one other thing you should know: only Vince ever called me Leni, which I secretly thought was the cutest nickname ever. I was Elena to most people and El or Len to everyone else when I got to college—even Papa. I meant to keep it that way. I didn’t want to be reminded of Vince with so little a thing as a name.

Meg, when I think about it now, there was no denying that Vince liked me almost as much as he liked folklore. I guess it might have been because I was the first girl, maybe even the first person his age to be nice to him, to somehow keep listening even if I didn’t understand him. But he didn’t do anything about his feelings until we were in high school. The Academy was holding the annual school fair, just before the sembreak, when it happened.

I remember not knowing why I got so nervous when he told me he was thinking of stepping inside our campus for the very first time. But I can say it now: he had become a tall and sinewy member of St. Joseph’s arnis varsity team, someone his classmates had stopped messing with, and popular with the girls. He’d grown into his school uniform, his arnis vest and slashed pants—he even looked good in a barong, which I’d only ever seen him wear during Buwan ng Wika celebrations every August. He still loved folklore, but he was also all those things. Quirks didn’t matter in high school as long as you hid them or let your classmates know they’d be sorry for bringing them up.

And what was I? An awkward, frizzy-haired, mosquito-bitten, English-speaking Catholic school girl. Everything I wore made me look like a broomstick, especially the stiff baro and itchy saya your Lola lent me during Buwan ng Wika. I didn’t attend soirees that weren’t preceded by letters with reply slips and I knew the words to every prayer the Religion teacher named. For the sheer fun of it, I sang in the Campus Ministry Choir for all four years of high school, too (they’re more fun than they sound; we could dance to the more upbeat hymns every First Friday Mass). I had friends, but they had no more bragging rights in the matter of boys and parties than I did. Vince had asked me to show him around, but I was so sure he’d forget all about me once my more dolled-up classmates saw him.

But like I said, he courted me at that school fair I mentioned.

I wonder what won’t change about the Academy I know if and when it becomes the Academy you know. Will the Mini Forest have been flattened for new buildings? Will the fields have been turned into parking lots and swimming pools? Will the old balete under whose vines my friends and I used to hang out still be there?

And I wonder about you, too, Meg—will you also feel left out because of the language you speak or the way you look? Will Papa let you go to soirees? Will you also know all your prayers? I’d find it amusing if you turned out completely different from the way I used to be.

Anyway, at the fair, we drank mango smoothies on a bench directly across the flagpole, just beyond the balete tree bounded by a half-ring of stone benches where my friends and I usually stayed at lunch time. Only the wire fence the administration had put up for the duration of the fair separated us from the balete ring and the Mini Forest.

Vince had been making parallels between himself buying me a mango smoothie and kapre giving the girls they courted gifts of fruit. I was unsure of what he meant but thrilled with the attention. What girl wouldn’t be? (By the way, I don’t care how much times have changed from my day to yours, Meg. You are to make whichever boy who falls in love with you wait, even if you love him back. It’s your first indication of both his strength of character and feelings. And in case you were wondering, Vince was still waiting for an answer at the end of three months.)

A strong wind hit as we talked, making swirling ipo-ipo out of fallen leaves and calachuchi flowers and blowing down the signs of a few booths. A few girls screamed and pushed down their skirts. Vince’s eyes glazed over and he stood up and gripped the fence behind us, looking straight at the balete. It was as if he were searching for someone who’d called out his name. But when I shook his shoulder and asked him if he was all right, the wind died and he turned to me and smiled as if nothing happened. Then he poked my nose and teased me about being worried about him.

Strangeness crept into my life after that incident (and familial stress; your grandparents highly disapproved my having a boyfriend “so young,” as they said, even if they’d known Vince for years). After we came back from sembreak, Vince began cutting classes and absenting himself for days on end. He was in danger of getting kicked out of the arnis team because of his slipping grades. The security guards could not seem to stop him from walking in the corridors despite their strict protocols for guests after school hours. He always managed to slip in, and he always wanted to meet me at the half-ring of benches around the same balete tree. He always had dried mango pieces ready for me—baon Tita Mercy never forgot to pack despite his fighting her more frequently.

Whenever I’d come out of my classroom, I’d find him looking up into the tangle of balete vines. When he wasn’t daydreaming through our conversations, he was paranoid and always looking over his shoulder. I pretended it was just him being a little more himself than usual, that it was all right that Vince hadn’t left his strange behavior in grade school like the rest of us. If I kept telling myself that, I could overlook just about any of the changes, big and small, that came over him.

I could also ignore the fact that, shortly after we became a couple, sometimes in class I could see someone standing by the windows on the other side of the room, the ones facing the narrow strip of lawn walled off from the road—that figure would be gone once I got a better look. The girl sitting behind me eventually requested a seat transfer because I often asked her if she was blowing down my neck. I thought telling Vince about this confirmed that we were both crazy. I understood him, but that didn’t mean I had to be just like him.

Megan, you may be wondering why, when I had seen the trouble from the very beginning, I agreed to be Vince’s girlfriend anyway. It happens when you think someone is the only person in the world whom you know deeply and who also knows you very well. For example, I learned 15 different meanings of Vince’s ‘I love yous’ by paying attention to the way he said it. He knew what all the doodled symbols in my notebooks meant. I thought my understanding would always pull through, especially when he started asking me questions I couldn’t answer:

1. Do you think dreams mean anything when you’re awake?

2. Why do you think only I can hear these voices?

3. Who do you think my father is?

4. What if I really am a changeling or a kapre or a duwende? What if it’s really true?

But when the person you’re trying to understand can’t or won’t understand themselves, there’s only so much the concept can do. Understanding can’t stretch infinitely in all directions like a plane, nor can it travel in only one direction like a ray. And no matter what you do, you can’t hope to understand someone completely, just as I know that if I had been there as you were growing up, I would have understood you the most and the least at the same time. And at the same time, that kind of setup is okay; I think that if we completely concentrated all of our understanding toward one person, we’d have nothing left for understanding ourselves.

No one should ever make you feel that you have to hold onto them tight, Meg. I broke up with him under the acacia tree in the Academy parking lot, just before Christmas break of the next year. He protested, he said he’d been looking forward to us going to each other’s proms, but ended up agreeing with me when I pointed out I once said I’d go to prom in a baro’t saya just to see if he was listening (he wasn’t). I felt we needed time away from each other, anyway—we were to review for the college entrance tests the next summer.

I told him we could still be friends, but we didn’t speak for months. I don’t know whether we were too caught up in our own issues or if I used busyness as an excuse. I stopped seeing things soon after the breakup, though. I also avoided coming near the balete ring, partly because just looking at it brought back too many memories.

Let’s be clear. I was afraid things would end there, but I was even more afraid of picking up the phone and hearing his voice—and worse, the strangeness beginning again.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry.

In late June of my senior year, the choir held its annual school sleepover. It’s meant to initiate and orient new members. We take showers in the creepy bathroom behind the chapel or in the even creepier bathroom attached to the allegedly haunted Speech Room above it. At night, we walk around the Mini Forest in pairs and armed with flashlights, then go to bed in one of the freshman classrooms—usually the one with easy access to the field, directly across the flagpole and the balete trees. Lights out at midnight, but of course some of us stay up and chat with each other, eating junk food ‘til 5 a.m. I felt as if I hadn’t seen my friends in a long time, having spent so many months with Vince, so I attended.

I hope you never know the feeling of being woken up because of the intensity of someone’s gaze on you, sweetheart. And if everything goes according to plan, you never will.

I woke suddenly at 3 a.m., according to the wall clock. It felt as if I had been given an electric shock. I checked each and every sleeping bag to find who might have been the prankster—and that was the strange part, for surprisingly, everyone was asleep. I dragged a chair around, beat the blackboard with a textbook, shook some girls, even sat on our moderator’s belly to see if that would waken anyone. Nothing happened.

The light in the hallway was flickering, as if the bulb needed changing. I was scared, I didn’t want to get up, but I had to make sure it wasn’t just someone playing tricks on me. I was stepping over aisle after aisle of girls in sleeping bags, checking on them and nudging a few just to test my theory when I spied lights flitting in the far end of the field, bright and yellow. I thought they were fireflies, but they couldn’t have been. There was a strong breeze that should have blown them all away, but they remained concentrated around the balete ring.

I peeked out of the slats of the classroom windows on the corridor side to get a better view. That’s when I saw someone standing by the flagpole.

It plays out in my head like a horror movie now, the kind where the girl is being chased by the killer and you scream at her, “Don’t go that way!” Meg, that night, I was that girl. There is nothing I can say in my defense.

Once I saw that figure, the voices, whispers, words began, shifting in volume, mixed and embedded in the wind. I would have dived back into my sleeping bag, but the shadows—the very darkness beyond the classroom windows on the other side of the room, now that I think about it—began to move, to take faceless shapes against the flickering outdoor light, banging against the glass, and all the while, my clubmates and moderator slept on.

The voices were reaching a high pitch within the room. I was too scared to scream—who would have heard me?—but not too scared to run. So I did, down the steps outside the classroom, down what we called the Catwalk, which cut across the field. My limbs were freezing and my lungs were burning. I would’ve run straight into the flagpole if Vince hadn’t stopped me. He held me and smoothed my hair and told me to dry my tears. I hadn’t even known I was crying.

“Eat this. It will make you feel better.” He held out half a mango to me. I took it and let him lead me to a bench under one of the calachuchi trees. We sat down and he chatted with me as if we’d never broken up, never been a couple, as if his being on campus at an ungodly hour of the morning were a typical occurrence. Before us, the balete behind the benches glowed abnormally bright with huge lights-that-were-not-fireflies.

I was shaking, still too stunned to speak. Vince pressed me to take a bite of the mango, so I did. That mango was probably the best I’d ever had in my life; just the right amount of ripeness, incredibly sweet, and it warmed my whole body as it slid down my throat. It also gave me my voice back. I asked Vince what he was doing there, although those words couldn’t even begin to express what I wanted to ask him.

I had to ask the question again before he answered, “I felt you were in trouble. I came as soon as I could.”

He was wearing his school uniform, soiled in many places. I asked him if he’d gone home, how he’d known I’d be here, what he meant by feeling I was in distress, if he’d had another fight with his mother. But he wouldn’t answer any of those; he said, “Even she doesn’t know where I am. She doesn’t know anything—not even who my father was.”

I wanted to tell him, not this again. Stay on topic! But before I could, he said, “Tatay is angry with you. He says you kept me away.”

At the same time, the fireflies—which weren’t actually fireflies but floating orbs of varying sizes—circled the tree faster.

Meg, you probably won’t believe what came next. You may not even have gotten this far in this letter, which is longer than it’s supposed to be. But I’m going to write it down anyway. It’s time I told somebody what happened that night.

The tree trunks untangled themselves from each other, slow and creaky like an old door, older than the buildings themselves, older than anything except perhaps the acacias. From the gaps between the trunks I saw what I thought was another trunk, gnarlier and spindlier than the rest. The lights from the orbs revealed it to be brownish-gray, just like the other trunks of the balete ring, splotched with moss. Only when I saw its eyes, Vince-green eyes furiously narrowed in my direction, did I realize what I was looking at was neither tree nor human.

When he spoke, the orbs slowed. The wind died. My blood froze. The surrounding air went cold, the shadows deepened, and I clutched Vince’s hand out of fear—but he was colder than the air. His skin had gone bark-rough and knotty. Shades of brown, gray, and green, like army camouflage, warred just beneath the surface. His hair floated as if he were underwater. His eyes, though they looked on me with kindness, were greener than was humanly possible.

It was worse when he spoke. It was the same language the thing in the balete ring spoke, the language of all living things. I think we all might have known this language once, Meg, just as we once knew our places among the plants and the animals. It sounded familiar enough to my ears, as if someone were speaking Taglish, too far off for me to hear. It echoed over the trees and in my bones.

When I heard Vince speak to the thing in the tree, I knew two things:

1. I still loved him, and

2. I’d lost him for good.

Isn’t it strange how just a few words create barriers between people whose hands might otherwise fit together like puzzle pieces?

Vince said his father was angry with me because he stopped coming to campus once we stopped seeing each other. He had been waiting to exact revenge, but the pact held him from crossing over the walkway bisecting his territory and that of the buildings—and I’d so often avoided the balete ring since. He would have cursed me on the spot if Vince had not woken up in the middle of the night and broken into the Academy grounds to stop him. Vince said he wanted him to come home—there was a kingdom to rule and he’d run out of heirs.

I asked him if he was going to.

What he answered was, “Leni, I love you. I think I always will. But you know I don’t belong here.”

And I did know it. But his way out was by moving to another space. Mine was time. It’s by far the more difficult of the two ways, but I guess everything is difficult when you’re the one who has to be the human, the one who has no choice in growing old.

Then Vince asked, “Why don’t you come with me?”

I felt all the trees, the wind, the orbs, even his father await my answer. We argued back and forth about why I should and shouldn’t, until I managed a “Maybe someday. If I ever get tired of living where I do and the way I do. But not now, Vince.”

I know, Megan, I know. But even then, I was afraid of disappointing him, and this was my first mistake. You shouldn’t say things like that if you have no intention of making a boy hope. Vince had to go, but he said we’d see each other again, that his father wouldn’t try to harm me anymore, not if he could help it. Wouldn’t I have one last mango with him?

This was my second mistake. I ate that impossibly sweet mango until I felt contractions in my chest and an unstoppable urge to vomit. I spat out my own dusky yellow orb, smaller than the others. It looked like a half moon or a lopsided grin. Vince caught it, threaded a vine through it, and clasped it around his neck. He said it was my heart—well, half of it.

The beat of half a heart is as loud as a church bell booming across an empty courtyard, quick as a knock on a door. My chest did indeed feel—not lighter, but more hollow. I wanted to scream at Vince and make him give it back to me—I had many plans for that half heart—but the queasiness had spread to my knees and my mind was clouding. I needed to sit.

“Sorry Leni,” Vince said. “I need to make sure you’ll make good on your promise.”

Then he kissed me.

When I woke up, my frightened clubmates were crowded over me, saying I must have sleepwalked and spent the night on the bench.

I caught a bad cold from being out in the damp. It stayed with me throughout June and most of July. I was diagnosed with pneumonia and hospitalized for another month, but nothing any of the doctors did cured me. Only when one of my titas stopped by with a fruit basket and forced me to eat a mango did I start getting better.

Tita Mercy sent Vince’s picture and her contact details to newspapers radio and TV stations, notified the police, and kept the neighborhood watch on the lookout for him. She visited me in the hospital, always talking about Vince: him as a baby or little boy, their last argument before his disappearance, his favorite food or TV show, how she couldn’t understand what had come over him the past year. She often asked me where she had gone wrong, but the pneumonia had weakened even my ability to speak. I had no answers for her, at least none I could believe myself. On the last of these awkward visits, she said she was moving to Canada to live with her sister. All I could do was squeeze her hand.

I shocked myself and my whole family when I wrote down Health Science instead of English Literature on my college application forms—probably a direct result of watching the doctors and nurses work on me and the other patients in the ward. At college, in whose library Papa and I met, I got the silly thought of becoming a heart surgeon. But I think the missing part of me contained most of my tenacity; I got too tired to specialize and settled for working in the clinic Papa had opened, the sort of clinic whose patients paid me in live chickens and fish. Though rent was often a problem, at least we were never hungry.

There’s a saying that goes “love won’t put bread on the table.” It certainly wasn’t love that kept me with Papa. That must have hurt to read, Meg, but since I am telling you many truths, I might as well keep going.

Let it not be said that I didn’t try loving Papa—my trying at all was why I stayed with him for so long. He was different from all my other boyfriends: persistent, but quiet, safe. He asked too many questions, but he never forced me into anything. I don’t know what he saw in me, if he had seen at all what I lacked. I wasn’t friendly to begin with, we argue a lot, and he knows nothing of my notebooks or my old wish to take up English Lit or the things darting around the edge of my vision like feral monkeys in a cage. I’d locked all that up away with the knowledge that diwata and duwende—and most especially kapre—existed.

But he stayed anyway. I thought that if I stayed long enough, love might grow in me like you did. It didn’t; I don’t know why, but I would have gone on pretending that it had for as long as he kept giving me that goofy look I’ve been catching behind his books since we were in college. I even agreed to buy a beat up old car with him, even helped choose the small apartment in Intramuros with the one mango tree shadowing the building.

And then you were born and you brought hope with you like a twin—practically flooded that claustrophobic little chamber left to me. It was the hope that maybe the remaining part of my heart would finally learn to beat as if it were whole. I didn’t think I could love anything or anyone again, but there I was and there you were. I was really looking forward to figuring out the many meanings of your cries, your different laughs, your funny expressions. Maybe you would have topped Vince and come up with 16 different meanings of “I love you.” I haven’t wanted to know someone so much since half my heart got taken away. I wouldn’t have minded if the half that got left to me would’ve had to work overtime, overmuch.

I didn’t know what to do with you at all, but Papa was a natural. That was when I knew we were going to be all right.

Then the other day, I woke up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m. I put on a bathrobe before going to your crib, but someone was standing next to it. He was facing away from the outdoor light beyond the window, but I knew who he was. I also knew that even the end of the world wouldn’t wake up Papa.

Vince was taller, broader, long-haired, no longer keeping up the pretense of wearing clothes, and beneath his foot were the guttering embers of a smelly cigar. Still small for a kapre, but a kapre unmistakably. He said of you, Meg, “She looks like you.”

I asked him how running a kingdom was working out for him. He told me instead that I’d changed, that I didn’t laugh or dream as much as I used to. He asked me if I still wrote. I said I no longer had the time for all those things.

He sounded embarrassed when he said, “I hate doing this to you. I’d have thought that by now, you would have decided to come to me. I’d have thought that you’d have gotten tired of this life.”

“I am,” I said. “But it’s not like I can just give it up.”

“Yes you can,” he said. “I can reverse all that. I’ll give you the other half of your heart back and you can be yourself again. You’ll never have to return to this gray place, ever. Just come with me.”

“What if I want to come back here?”

“You won’t.”

I told him he’d be surprised at how much the other half of my heart has learned to put up with. He reached into your crib. I screamed at him. I hated how close he was to you.

Then his eyes were on me, angry, completely drained of what was left of the Vince I once knew. Those darkened eyes, now fully an impossible green, had acquired a slant to the edges, an alien look. No more pond-brown, no more sunlit-gold, as if he lived some place where neither existed. He said to me, “You sound like those kids who used to pick on me. Come with me, Leni. I’ll fix you.”

I tried to explain that it wasn’t that easy. I had a life now: a demanding job, Papa, you. I told him it was never going to be as easy for me as it had been for him.

“Him?” Vince gestured with his chin over to your Papa, snoring peacefully on our bed. “You don’t love him, Leni. Not as much as he loves you, and not as much as you love me.”

I correct him with “loved,” to which he answered, “Halved hearts will never be able to love completely. But you’ll love me again when you get the other half back. So, come with me. Now.”

How dare he presume he still knew anything about me after all this time? But then, if I got the other half back, wouldn’t I be able to love you more? Wouldn’t I be able to love Papa, finally? I owed Papa the other half of my heart, just as I owed it to you. It was stupid of me, but I had to try. I love you and I want to love Papa so much, it hurts.

Vince talked about knowing things I could not possibly dream of. He thought I wanted to know what he knew, like when we were children, and promised to show me his kingdom. I tried to stall; I asked him for time to warn Papa, and to prepare. He gave me three days; he was annoyed that I’d suddenly and unexpectedly grown hard to persuade. Vince said I’d know where to find him. I asked him what he’d do if I didn’t go, and this is what he said:

“Then my precautionary measures stop becoming precautionary. Anywhere there is a tree or even the slightest hint of moss, I will find you. Or would you like me to move on? I’ve never been good at moving on, but I can try if you insist.” Then he looked down at you, Meg, and for a moment, his old tenderness was there. Ice filled the half heart left to me. He would have taken you back with him, and there would’ve been nothing I could’ve done.

So anyway, here I am in the car, writing you a letter longer and probably less coherent than it should be. There is no privacy in our apartment and this was the only place where I could write this down for you. I’ve told Papa I’m just going for a drive when I should’ve told him these things—but he’d never believe me. I wish I could do more for him, but I can’t. Not without half a heart. Whether I get it back or not, it’s worth all the risk. If Papa follows even just one of the wishes I had for you, I hope it was sending you to the Academy. It would make watching over you so much easier from there.

And one last thing: I’m sorry. I’m sorry if you are angry with me, if you do not care or have been made not to care about me. If I still believed in prayer, I would pray for your life to unfold in the farthest possible direction from the one mine went. You are my miracle, Megan. and even though I can’t feel the missing part of my heart, I love you with all of both halves. If anybody could have saved me, it would’ve been you.

Be good. I’ll know if you aren’t.

Mama

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