Marc was on the bed lying next to me, still and silent but not asleep. The barricade was now gone, our fingers barely touching between us. I could hear his breathing almost in tune in mine, but there was something amiss at the way he was breathing that bothers me, that nagging feeling just tugging at the corners of my head.
Not Neil, my brain is telling me.
When Marc and I went back to the room a couple of hours ago, he went to his baggage and fished a tattered white envelope. He handed it to me, and when I reached inside, I saw about eight letters. When I inspected them, I saw they were letters, each written on the day of the month when the assault happened, eight letters to signify the eight months we were apart. Though Nate had told him off, Marc still remembered. He never forgot, and never forgave himself.
I kissed him on the cheek as I read each of the letters, Marc intent on watching me as I do.
And now, a couple of hours later, I was staring at the ceiling, my head reeling with Marc’s words in the letters. He cared. In fact, I do think he loved me but he was just too late. The day after he ‘assaulted’ me, he already realized he lost me. He realized what he lost—and that was what he wrote in one of the letters: I knew what I lost the minute I let you walk out that night after I hurt you. I lost the person I hadn’t realized I loved. It was stupid. And unforgivable. And this is my punishment.
But he wanted to give me time and space.
And even though he was seeing Celes, he kept on saying in his letters—I am with Celes, but Celes is not you, L. She can’t measure up to you.
The last letter, written a couple of days before this trip, said: Celes and I are fighting again. I think she found and read my letters to you. There is this part of me that was glad she read them so I wouldn’t have to tell her, but… I love you, L. Please come back to me. I need you back. I’m here now. I’m waiting.
“You know, you write kickass love letters,” I told him, and he let out a hollow laugh. “Too bad I was too late,” he replied with a wry smile. “I feel bad for Celes though,” I quipped, and I felt him shrug. “She and I… we were trying too hard. It never worked out, and I don’t think it ever will. We were just… stupid not to realize that, just like how stupid I was not to realize I actually love you,” he explained, rolling on the bed to face me.
“You showed me that ring earlier. Did he give it to you?” he asked me, and I saw his eyes on the necklace dangling around my neck, the ring glinting in the room’s dim light.
I nodded. I showed him how the ring become rings, and Marc looked amused. “That guy’s creative. Original,” he quipped, and I grinned. “Actually, he is, but I would credit the ring to his family’s tradition,” I replied, and then we fell into this eerie silence again.
And then something hit me. Marc’s last words in his last letter to me: I’m here now. I’m waiting. They made me think about the last words of Neil in his Track #10.
And then… another something hit me. And when you get over the hump, play Track #11.
I am pretty sure I already did that.
I got off the bed, startling Marc, and he watched me in mild awe as I fished the iPod in the bag, its neon pink earbuds dangling and shining under the bright sunlight that was peering through our semi-closed blinds. I went back to the bed next to him, sitting, and I plugged the earbuds in my ears and scrolled for the track.
Four words—come back to me.
Find the song in this iPod that best expresses how you feel now that you got over the Marc hump.
Sing it to me when you come back. Or we can dance it, if you want. Write me a letter, a play, or a story based on that song—just let me hear it. Read it. Show it to me. In whatever way you want to say it to me. Just do it. Express yourself.
When you come back.
There was no plea in Neil’s voice. In fact, he sounded… comfortable. And the way he phrased it—when and not if. He knew I would be back. Probably not the same as I left, but I would be back. He wanted me back even if the odds weren’t in his favor. He knew I would be back—either to break up with him or tell him I actually love him and I was just wasn’t strong enough or sure enough to say the words.
And I know that in either scenario, he would take me all in, just like before. Even if I break his heart or make it fuller and more whole this time around, I know he would take me in. He can never hate me—it’s not Neil if he did.
And I just knew—knew this guy trusted me. With his life. With his heart.
And I knew. I just knew.
I wonder if I’d be given a free pass for kissing back Marc last night. Just kidding.
I quickly scrolled through the eight thousand songs inside our (yes, it’s conjugal now) iPod and tried to find the right song. And then I found it, like it’s highlighted. Like the albums in the rows and rows of records in Sal’s shop. Like I found the section in Sal’s shop where this feeling might be and I found the album that has this song.
“L? You’re grinning. Quite stupidly, if I may say so.”
I looked up at Marc, with that quite stupid grin on my face. He had transformed from love of my life to object of my wrath and heartbreak to a friend I know I can keep for life.
And then I showed him the iPod, where all tracks that I shared with Neil still inside, and then I told him our story.
My and Neil’s love story.
When Marc and I emerged from our room, ready for checkout, I knew Nate and Andy sensed the difference in our chemistry. When Nate gave me the inquiring look, I gave him a thumbs up sign, just as Marc placed his arm over my shoulder and tucked me under his arms.
“Guys…?” Andy said cluelessly, and I winked at her.
“The gang’s back,” I said, and she squealed, and we did a group hug right there and then at the lobby.
The gang is back.
As soon as my cellular phone gained signal, I quickly texted Neil: Don’t pick me up anymore. Marc will take me home.
He replied with a simple “Okay :)” and nothing more. No questions whatsoever. Not even panic that I am heading home with Marc of all people.
I need to pull off a great and grand mission as soon as our plane lands in Manila—with Marc’s help.
One of the things that Marc was good at: playing the guitar. I had to make him learn the song I wanted to perform for Neil, but he was so good he got the song already after listening to it twice. When I broached the topic of him meeting Neil and doing Track #12 with me, Marc immediately agreed to it, without batting an eyelash.
So here we are, at the dance studio, where Neil was teaching another contemporary class in Danny’s place. Danny, who informed me about this, was just stoked that I was back. I waited for him to finish and for the class to file out before I walked towards him, a serene look on my face. His back was facing me as he was wiping the sweat off his face, but I knew he saw me come in because of all the mirrors in the studio.
I took a deep breath. Neil faced me, the look on his face poker. I gazed at him, the face, the body, the hands, the person that I missed, and my heart was just overwhelming me with all sorts of emotions, making me breathless.
His face cracked the tiniest of smiles. “Hey.”
His eyes were gentle on me, but he didn’t make any movement towards me. The air could crackle with the tension between us. It was like we didn’t know how to start over again,, like we both know we’re excited or we’re feeling something unsettling, but we just didn’t know how to kick it off.
Neil spoke first. “How was Batanes?” he said softly.
“It was beautiful. You’d come with me when I go back there, right?” I answered just as quietly. Neil nodded.
I took a step forward and took both his hands. “I… need you to hear something,” I said, and he nodded, ever so patient.
I took a deep breath. As agreed with Marc, I will start off the song a capella. Neil gazed at me encouragingly. He didn’t care what I am about to sing—he just wanted me to express myself, even if the song was meant to hurt him.
But it wasn’t meant to hurt him. I never would.
I like your smile, I like your vibe I like your style But that’s not why I love you And I, I like the way you’re such a star But that’s not why I love you - Hey, do you feel, do you feel me? Do you feel what I feel too? Do you need, do you need me? Do you need me?
And then Marc came out, with his guitar, accompanying my now raspy voice. I wasn’t sure I sounded good, but Neil didn’t care. He didn’t even notice that Marc was there. He just held me with his eyes, never taking them off me.
You’re so beautifulBut that’s not why I love youI’m not sure you knowThat the reason I love you is you being youJust youYeah, the reason I love youIs all that we’ve been throughAnd that’s why I love you
I touched the tip of Neil’s nose when I sang the last I love you, and his eyes glistened, and I was surprised it was with tears. And when I heard my voice waver, I knew I was crying too, but it wasn’t tears of sadness.
It never was around Neil.
I like the way you misbehave when we get wastedBut that’s not why I love youAnd how you keep your cool when I am complicatedBut that’s not why I love you-Hey, do you feel, do you feel me?Do you feel what I feel too?Do you need, do you need me?Do you need me?
Neil placed his hands around my waist, and I placed my hands around his neck, pulling him close. I smiled, sighing contentedly. It was like the dances he and I had before—slow dances to songs that mirror the emotions we’re feeling.
I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to tell him straight up without a song to veil my emotions how I’m feeling towards him. I wanted the song to be over.
You’re so beautifulBut that’s not why I love youI’m not sure you knowThat the reason I love you is you being youJust youYeah, the reason I love youIs all that we’ve been throughAnd that’s why I love you-Even though we didn’t make it throughI am always here for you
My voice already faltered as I sang the last chorus. Marc’s guitar accompaniment faded in the background, making me whisper the words to Neil’s ears as I pulled him even closer to me.
You’re so beautiful But that’s not why I love you I’m not sure you know That the reason I love you is you being you Just you Yeah, the reason I love you Is all that we’ve been through And that’s why I love you
“I love you. So much. That’s what I’m feeling for you. And I hope you feel the same way,” I whispered, releasing him from my grip so I could look into his eyes as I say the three words. Neil was already crying, his tears streaming down his cheeks. I wiped gently with my fingers, holding his face in my hands.
“I got all I need right here. And there’s no place I’d rather be, you hear me? Because you and I? We’re special. And we’re great together. And you make me a better me. You came along and made sure I was whole before you asked me to be with you. You made sure I wasn’t a half you had to complete, that I wasn’t empty before you loved me. You made sure we were two whole and complete persons coming together. You made sure I wasn’t hurting, that I wasn’t feeling the pain anymore. That I love myself again,” I said, the words streaming out of my mouth before I could stop them. I had composed a letter that I can read while I was telling him how I feel, but that was useless.
I didn’t need a script to tell Neil how I feel.
“I love you, Neil Haston,” I whispered, my voice wavering from all the emotions I was feeling, and I divested myself from his arms, taking a step back. I remembered back in the Singapore Flyer when he told me I knew already what to do when it was time.
Now is the time.
I removed the ring from my necklace. My hands were shaking as I divided the ring into three. I handed one of the rings to Neil—the left one, since he was the one who is left-handed—and I took his right hand.
I heard Neil let out a shaky breath. “Leia…” His voice faltered. He couldn’t speak.
I slipped the ring into his ring finger, and I handed him the other ring, the one with the right hand. I smiled through my tears, and he nodded. “I love you, Leia,” he said, and he took my hand, slipped the ring in my right ring finger. He took remaining ring from me—the ring with the heart—and slid it in the chain, and wore the necklace on me.
“You’re the keeper of my heart, Leia,” Neil whispered, and I patted the ring around my neck.
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep it safe,” I teased, and he laughed. He twirled me in his arms and kissed me deeply, all the feeling of love, longing and passion in the kiss that I almost wished Marc wasn’t there to witness this pure moment. I wanted to hold Neil close and make him be with me, but I have to keep myself PG right now because of Marc.
When Neil released me, I had to giggle. I was just so happy. I gave him one more peck before I said, “You have to meet someone.”
I pulled him over to Marc, who now has his guitar slung over his shoulders and he had this smartass grin on his face.
I should have known he would make an equally smartass comment.
“You know, we kissed that way a couple of nights ago,” Marc greeted, and I gasped in amusement at his candidness. “And then she realized she loves you instead of me,” he added, and I had to do it.
I had to.
I punched him on his now-washboard abs, and he groaned, “Aw, L,” while clutching to the spot I hit. The pained look on his face told me I hit him the way I had intended to—not-so-playfully.
When Marc got over the fact that I hit him (and hit him hard at that), he was grinning. When I turned to Neil, he was shaking his head, but there was this wide smile on his face that told me he liked this smartass of a jerk that is Marc.
“Well, I liked it that she decided in my favor,” Neil said, extending his hand towards Marc for a shake. “Neil,” he said, and Marc winked at me before accepting Neil’s hand. “Marc,” he said, as they shook hands.
They didn’t look like they are about to fight. In fact, they looked like they’ve been friends since time immemorial but they just haven’t seen each other in a long while.
“Guys,” I muttered under my breath as Neil draped his arms over my shoulders, hugging me from behind.
“You take care of her, man. You got a real precious treasure in your arms right now,” Marc said sincerely.
“Thank you,” I mouthed, and he winked at me. He turned and left me with Neil, and I still wondered if he was mad at me for the kiss.
“So you’re good that I kissed Marc?” I said after a while. Neil managed to give me a kiss behind my ear and I had to nudge him playfully in the ribs to stop him from doing it again. That tickles a lot, and I don’t think he can ever fathom that that spot behind my ear was just so sensitive.
“Not the most comforting thought, but there was this part of me that knew you had to do that at one point,” he answered quietly, twisting me to face him.
“God, I love you so much,” I whispered, burying my face in his chest. I felt him press his lips on my head, and a laugh rumbled through his chest. “Babe, just don’t do it again,” he warned, and I grinned.
“Yours are the last pair of lips I’ll ever kiss, Neil,” I said, and I showed him just that.
NOTE: The song in this chapter is entitled I Love You, performed by Avril Lavigne and is in her 2011 album Goodbye Lullaby.