I found him hunched at the stairs of my front door, outside in the cold night. I shook his shoulder, and he woke up, looking up at me sleepily. “What are you doing here outside?” I asked, and I saw him shiver. I reached for my keys and opened the door, and helped him inside. As soon as I set my bags down, he hugged me tightly.
“Where have you been?”
I paused at Ryan’s question that he posed when he released me from the hug, and wondered what would be the best way to answer it. “I was in a one-week seminar and meeting at Los Angeles,” I replied, finally feeling the fatigue of the long trip.
“I didn’t know about that,” Ryan said, and I smiled at him. I motioned for him to sit down but he wouldn’t, opting to just hold me in his arms. I didn’t know he and I were this close already (again). The upside of this is that it feels good to be held.
“Well, your brother has my number but I don’t have yours. Why? Have you been waiting for me this entire time?” I asked, and he flashed me a sheepish grin. “Actually, I went by here every day. I thought you just didn’t want to see me,” he replied, and I chucked him playfully on the head.
“Seriously?” I said, and I pulled him to the couch. “Thanks for the pasta that you asked your brother to bring. You remembered,” I said, and he gave me a gentle smile.
“It’s like with you, Sam, it’s always so easy,” he replied.
I stopped myself from making him remember four events that happened between him and me that weren’t easy at all: (1) before he left during our 3rd year, (2) our Terrence episode, (3) before he left for real and the struggles after that, and (4) our brief episode when I was a junior in college. By the look on his face, I knew he remembered the same things that I did.
“How are the others?” he asked me, and it took me a few seconds to realize he was asking about our high school classmates. I sighed, pausing to look at one of the pictures I had put up on my wall—our high school graduation picture. Even though I hadn’t treasured my batch that much after the hell they’ve put me through more than once (and it escalated after Ryan and I got “together”), looking at that picture reminded me of some of the good times that were pretty much worth it—Steve, Ryan, Rose… and maybe even Terrence.
“From what I heard, Sir Andy’s in London already,” I began, and he smiled. I had to start with Sir Andy. After all, if he didn’t make me and Ryan seatmates that fateful junior year, Ryan and I won’t be anywhere near each other at that time.
I leaned against his broad shoulders and sighed. We chatted about the rumors and gossips we’ve heard about our other high school classmates, keeping it light and as far away from touchy topics—“Heard Laurice is going out with Peter,” “Sandy still is single, huh?” “When did Sandra actually get married?”
And then he and I lapsed into this spell of silence. He was playing with my fingers unconsciously, and I was fingering with the hem of his shirt.
It was useless trying to stop it.
I didn’t know who did what but we were kissing, groping at each other and clawing at each other like we’re just desperate—desperate to feel, to need. I didn’t know how long we were making out and holding each other before one of us pulled away. One thing I was sure of: Ryan and I didn’t want to go into this deeper before it should.
It’s been eight years, and we’re not in high school anymore, but it doesn’t mean we should rush into a relationship after having missed our chances in the past eight years.
I could feel and hear Ryan trying to catch his breath. And then I looked at him at the same time he looked at me.
A small smile crept on his face. “Hit pause?” he said, and I nodded.
“That would be a good idea,” I whispered, and he opened his arms. I hesitated for a moment but allowed him to just hold me.
“Better?” he said after a long while.
“Best,” I whispered, and I could feel him smiling.
Ryan had already gone. It was the morning after the no-sex first night together, and for a change, the guy left his number.
Finally, I have Ryan’s number.
I smiled. The past three weeks had been momentous for me. There’s Stephen—er, Steve—and our coffee nights and Ryan and our food trips. If anything, I would have made Yuan proud because finally, I am making some headway in the relationship department of my life, which I had neglected because I wanted to concentrate on my job. What would disappoint Yuan, however, is the fact that the two guys who seem to occupy my time here in Atlanta?
In anyone’s book, I bet that doesn’t look good.
I sipped from my hot choco and grinned at Steve. It was our nth coffee night—it appears Ryan does the night shift while Steve takes the mid-shift. Steve gets out at around one in the morning, right about the time when I’m just getting out of work from a very long work day (and I thought I left eighteen-hour workdays in the Philippines already). Ryan gets off work around lunchtime, so I try to see him as much as I could (when it’s not a working lunch, that is).
It took a while to get used to the changes in their shifts. I have yet to figure it out, but I had gotten used to Steve or Ryan texting me a few hours before their shift lets them out.
“You know them?” I asked Steve, and he nodded. We landed on the topic of bands we liked to listen to, and there it was, the mention of Stars. I wasn’t aware that they were that popular—well, if you call knowing three other people who are also familiar of the band as “popular”—as they are a Canadian indie band.
“Shoot me your favorite Stars song,” he dared.
I stopped to think. “My goodness, that’s hard,” I said. He winked at me while I mentally ran through the Stars playlist in my iPod. “Maybe I’ve got three?” I bargained. “Personal, My Favorite Book, and In Our Bedroom After the War. You?”
“I liked Personal too,” he concurred. “If you’re gunning for top three faves, I’ll do that too. Going, going, gone, Dead Hearts, Sleep Tonight.”
“The Script,” I fired off.
Steve flashed me a knowing grin. “Nothing, Science and Faith, and of course, The Man Who Can’t Be Moved.” He placed his café mocha on the table next to the turkey sandwich he had just devoured. “A Fine Frenzy.”
I gaped. I seriously did. “You listen to her?” I asked, not bothering to hide my surprise. He laughed. “Hey, I find her songs… appealing.”
“Almost Lover, Ashes and Wine, and Near to You,” I answered, still amused that Steve listens to a jazzy chick like A Fine Frenzy. “Linkin Park,” I said, and he leaned over, as if accepting this challenge that I posed. “What, you want me to name all their songs? Because I liked them all.”
“Come on, Steve—you must have some favorites,” I urged. “I, for one, like Easier to Run and Papercut.”
“Alright, alright,” he allowed, an easy smile brightening up his face. “I do like Points of Authority.” I held out my hands in front of him, as if to say I have proven my point. “See,” I said, winking at him.
“30 Seconds to Mars,” Steve said.
“Belle of the Boulevard and The Kill. But I like the acoustic versions, not the rock ones.” I paused. “Avril Lavigne.”
“She was good before, back when we were in high school,” he quipped. “My Happy Ending and Complicated.”
“Wires and Tourist.”
“Ah, that’s easy,” he said. “I Was Wrong.” He winked at me, a sly smile on his face. “I watch The Vampire Diaries too, you know. It comes with the territory of having a teen sister.”
I grinned. “Paramore.”
Steve reached out and held my hand. “Is that a trick question?” he said almost adorably.
He lost me when he held my hand, those tiny sparks of electricity flowing again through my body from his. I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Yes,” I said, and Steve grinned. “I like their demo songs and B-sides cuts. Just Like Me and Adore.”
“I liked Adore,” I said, slightly amazed.
“There is also The Only Exception.”
“Where were you during my high school years? I could use someone who I jive with musically,” I teased, and the smile on his face faded. I knew at that moment I asked the wrong question. He turned serious. I tried to take back my question but I couldn’t. How do you un-say the things you already said?
“I was watching you fall in love with my brother and struggle with it.”
Steve gazed at me, his eyes black swirls of filled with emotions. I held my breath, swallowed the now present lump in my throat. Wrong move, Montez.
I tried to go over the awkward hump by drinking the last of my hot choco. I pretended to glance at my wristwatch and saw that Steve and I have been talking for the past three hours and it’s actually four in the morning.
“Um, I think we should go,” I said hesitantly. “It’s late.”
Steve gave me a forced smile. “Actually, it’s early.”
“Depends how you look at it.”
I took my bag and he pulled out the chair for me. We were about to go separate ways—I was to the west and he’s headed to the east side. I heard him take a deep breath. He stepped towards me and invaded my personal space. He took both my hands.
I saw it coming. I shook my head. “Steve, don’t.”
“I saw you, Sam, that first time in high school. You entered our classroom to talk to Sir Renteria. Did you know my world stopped at that moment? You and your long, wavy hair, round eyes, and that dimple on your left cheek that shows even when you’re not smiling. And your laugh, Sam. That short, carefree laugh when Sir Renteria said something to you. Your smile was equally magical. I just knew, Sam.”
I didn’t speak. My heart was pounding in my chest and I just gazed at Steve. He needs to get this out. I owe this to him.
“All these years, Sam. I tried avoiding you, which was easy given that I wasn’t seeing you every day. But that prom night when you were with Ryan really just did me in. You looked so beautiful. I just had to make a move. But you when got out, you were crying. And I hated Ryan for it. And I just had to make you smile. And I wish I did, Sam.”
I tried not to smile as I remembered that night. Steve did make me smile that night. But he also did confuse me, probably just like what he’s doing now.
“And then Atlanta. You’re here again. Where Ryan and I are. And I just… Sam,” he exhaled, his breath warm on my face. I could sense his frustration. I tried to read his face, and I could almost see pain.
“My brother never stopped loving you, you know that?”
He touched my face, his thumb grazing my cheek, approximately where I think my dimple is.
“Eight years. Five years since that prom night when I gave you that kiss on the forehead,” Steve whispered. “And I still can’t have you.”
There was a bittersweet smile on his face. “There was… this moment, when we first saw each other again after so many years. You were surprised that I have the same specialization as my brother. And you said—”
“That you guys are into the same thing,” I cut in, and he nodded. He lifted my chin and kissed me on my cheek, right on my dimple.
“We are also into the same woman,” he whispered. “Don’t stop smiling, Samantha.” I felt myself gape. I felt him kiss me on the forehead. There was this part of me that wanted him to kiss me on the lips, just so we can try. Just so I can feel Steve because Steve feels so nice and so right.
“I’m still going to see you, right? Why does it feel like you’re saying goodbye, Stephen?” I said, confused, and then he gave me a sad smile.
“You are, and I am.”
He kissed me on the forehead once more, and then he released me. I watched him go as I tried to dissect his answer.
“Is it me or are your nights a bit… less packed?”
Ryan was bringing four-cheese pizza and pasta and I am just plainly happy. He also took pains to buy me the hot chocolate from the coffee shop that Steve and I frequent. “Ah, sweet. You even brought me Café Rustica,” I said, and he grinned. He dropped the food on my center table and I cleared it of my laptop. He headed to my kitchen and grabbed forks.
I opened the pizza box and started to eat. “Slow nights at the office,” I told him instead. I couldn’t tell him the real reason: Steve just went caput out of my life. I saw him a couple of times at Café Rustica, but right after I would rush after him, he would be just… gone. I don’t know what I did wrong. Call me thick, sure—he told me he and Ryan are into me, but… why does he have to avoid me? Because he thought it’s Ryan all this time too?
Why didn’t he even try?
I felt Ryan touch my cheek and when I looked up, there was this smile on his face. “I was asking you if you want to do dinner with me tomorrow night. Where were you?” he said, chuckling a bit.
“I was in a planet called… Ryan,” I said, putting down my fork. Ryan leaned over and kissed me lightly on the lips. I smiled a bit, and then he leaned closer, placed his hand still greasy from the pizza on my nape, and deepened the kiss. I sighed in the middle of the kiss.
Ryan is good. Ryan feels good. He doesn’t feel right, but he feels good.
“Can we try again, Sammie?” he whispered, his lips still on mine. I drew back, letting out a shaky breath.
“I see it again,” Ryan said, and I frowned. “That hesitation on your face. Why are you always unsure about us, Sam? We’re halfway around the world. We’re not in high school anymore. There are no more Shanes, no more Kais. No more people to tell us that you and I are wrong for each other in every possible way. We can try, Sam. Try this with me,” he pleaded, a sense of urgency in his voice.
“Ryan…” I breathed.
“You’re about to say ‘no.’” There was a sense of defeat in his voice. I held his face in my hands and kissed him on the forehead.
“I am about to say I will think about it. I am not so sure if this is what I wanted at this point in my life, Ryan. I am not quite ready to take this plunge.”
“Not with me,” he concluded. “You’re not ready to take this plunge with me.”
“What—no, Ryan.” I shook my head. “We’ve waited for so long, Ryan. I just want it to be for the right reasons. I don’t want to rush into this. Yes, we’re both free of all the other hang-ups. But you don’t want us to just dive into this because of that, right, Ry? We’re better than that,” I explained, and he just stared at me like all his belief in me flew out of the window.
“Ry, like you, I’ve waited so long for this. Let’s do it right. Let’s do it… the proper way.”
“You’re scared, Sam. And you’re holding back on me. That’s the problem here,” he argued. “You’ve been here with me for what? Three months? And yet you can’t just… be with me fully. We’re so close, Sammie. Why does it feel like for you, there is never a right time for us?”
A pained look crossed Ryan’s face. Before I could even say anything, he stood up, grabbed his things and was out of my door.
Good job, Montez. Now that’s another Santillan I managed to get to stay away from me.