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Jun and Kiko had quickly declared themselves best friends. They had met in their afterschool game group, which really was one of those loose groups in their class that nobody really thought much about. Agawan base, holen, and shato weren’t really that competitive or particularly athletic. You just needed to run fast for some and do a bit of thinking and aiming for the others, but it didn’t really matter who won. Many of the guys were just in it for fun and distraction; they were good at the real stuff, the stuff that needed real actual skills: basketball, football, sipa.
Basically, all you needed to do to join the club you was stay after school. But Jun and Kiko quickly identified that they were both in the same category, the ones who were always in the library or who always talked about comics or the TV shows their parents watched. Because they lived nearby and it took a fifteen-minute walk back home, their parents had also thought it was a great idea for them to walk home together instead of having to pay for a tricycle. They would end up staying late into the afternoons, talking about Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels after almost everyone had gone home.
Sometimes they would come home to catch dinnertime, either at Jun’s or Kiko’s home. When it was at Kiko’s there would always be two dishes for dinner and a sandwich made by Manang Evelyn if Jun stayed on, which was often. At Jun’s house, farther by three blocks, dinner was usually simple and a little cold. But Jun’s mother was warm and would always sit with them even though she ate early, and she would ask Kiko about what his father did and what his mother liked to do at home.
Kiko had explained maybe more than five times already that his father worked in marketing and his mother worked as an accountant near his father’s office in Makati. That’s nice, Jun’s mother would say. Jun’s father had a nice job, too. He was in sales, which was a nice thing because he liked traveling. Always nice. He had nice shoes, he had nice hair. Kiko knew she really didn’t think about exactly what she was saying, but it wasn’t her insincerity that drew him to her. It was the effort she was making to ask and to say something about whatever she’d been asking about.
Whichever house they were, when the moon was bright enough, Jun and Kiko were out on the street in their slippers with their yoyos or their tops or Kiko’s boomerang, making a game out of throwing it into the dimly lit street and beating each other at catching it.
Kiko didn’t dare bring it to school—he was sure it would be confiscated by a teacher or taken by one of the class bullies. It was something his father had brought him from a recent trip to Sydney.
“Wow, a company trip,” Jun said.
“A business trip,” Kiko corrected him. He taught him the difference, that a company trip was something like a hundred guys flying somewhere for a seminar or a conference, but a business trip was just his father going to the head office in Sydney to discuss something important with the bosses there.
Jun flung the boomerang one of those dark, empty lots on his street, where neighbors had discovered snakes and big lizards. There were a lot of worse things there, he was sure, though they took care not to let the kids know.
When the boomerang leapt back from the dark Jun caught it neatly with a sweep of an arm. Kiko clapped him on the shoulder for it.
“Hayup,” Kiko said.
“Madalas din bumiyahe dad ko,” Jun said.
Jun told Kiko about a box of chocolates he had discovered under his desk at home. He must have bought them in the States or in Europe because he had never seen them in the groceries in Manila. Kiko squinted his eyes while he listened, as though he were trying to catch every detail.
“Lots of hotels make their own chocolates,” Kiko said. “I saw it once at the Peninsula when my mom took me with her on one of her Sunday meriendas with her sisters. They sold Peninsula chocolates.”
Jun told Kiko that he was sure, also, that his father had gone beyond the iron curtain.
“The USSR,” Jun said.
“The USSR. One time I saw a bottle of vodka under his desk. It was the only word I recognized because everything else was in that Russian language.”
“Cyrillic,” Kiko said.
“Cyrillic,” Jun confirmed. “In two days, I saw that the whole bottle was gone.”
“Gone. He drank it all. Ganun si dad. That’s nothing to him.”
“Hayup,” Kiko said. “I’m sure my dad drinks, but my mom doesn’t like it, I think.”
Jun shrugged his shoulders, and a slight smile broke on his sweaty face under the moon. “My mom doesn’t like my dad drinking, either.”
“But my dad smokes,” Kiko said. “And his cigarettes are those black ones with a circle of gold around them. That’s real gold, ha.”
“Hayup,” Jun said. “Real gold?”
Kiko threw the boomerang out, and when it returned Jun leaped into the air and caught it. They knew it was the last one of the night. It had grown too hot out on the street.
“My dad has a secret house,” Jun said.
Kiko had turned to walk toward his house, but he paused. “What do you mean?”
“He has a secret place. He goes there to hang out.”
“You mean like an office?” Kiko asked.
“No,” Jun said, whirling the boomerang from side to side, listening to it whip in the still air. “Like a house with a kitchen and a dining table.”
They were in their last week of school before the summer break. They were done with most of their exams, except Physical Education, and they knew they weren’t going to do much better than get passing grades on them.
Kiko’s house was on a little rise in their village, so they could see the tops of houses in the neighboring barangays, barely now because the moonlight was fading.
The very next afternoon, Jun and Kiko skipped the games and made a plan and walked to their homes and took their bicycles and met at the spot they had designated as the midpoint between their houses. It had been a month or two since they had last ridden their bikes, not because they had outgrown them but because they had moved on to other things.
“Late!” Kiko shouted when he saw Jun huddled over his bike as he turned the corner at the end of his street.
Jun had outgrown his bike quickly. His knees went up comically high as he pedaled, and when he stopped, the bike stopped ahead of him, and he had to plant his feet on the ground.
“I had to time it,” he said. He patted the pocket of his khaki pants. It had taken him a while to get a chance to swipe the key from where his father had hidden it, not under the desk this time but in that office box where he kept his work papers.
Riding a bike was a good thing to do in the summer, they agreed. They made their own breeze. At the corner of Duhat St. and Siniguelas St., Jun pushed forward, and Kiko slipped back, the squeal of his brakes cutting into the air. The streets were mostly empty and quiet because everyone was preparing dinner. Jun heard the sounds of plates and conversations inside the houses he passed, block after block until he had to stop to remember his directions.
Jun scanned the dark shapes under the deepening blue sky. There was going to be no moon tonight. His eyes picked at the shapes of the roofs and water tanks and the hollows of unfinished houses. He caught the line of low apartment buildings on the left and let out a grunt as he swung his bike and pushed into the street that led there.
“Ayun!” Jun shouted at an apartment building down the street. Its evenly spaced windows lit randomly in white and yellow.
He stood on the pedals and bent down hard, turning the last length of their ride into a race. Kiko spurted forward with each stroke as he gave chase, shouting, “Daya!”
Jun skidded hard by the flowering tree on the sidewalk a few yards from the building entrance. He lifted his bike with a held breath and stowed it under the lowest branches, where its white flowers swept the pavement. Kiko wordlessly followed, his bike making a hard sound as it crashed into Jun’s.
“Shhht! Gago!” Jun admonished him. They stood up straight and pulled out the pant legs they had stuffed in their socks. They brushed imaginary wrinkles and dirt from their school uniforms.
“Act naturally,” Jun ordered, patting the pocket where the key was. He pulled back the shoulders on his shirt so that the school’s seal on his breast pocket sat high on his chest. Kiko did the same, and they took a moment to look at each other, like they were brothers, twins even, except for the names stitched above their pockets. That was how they’d gotten to become best friends, too. Their names began with the same letter and so they were seatmates, Jun was Class Number 24 and Kiko was 25. The year before, and the year before that, they were 27 and 28.
But they had been friends for so long that neither of them could really tell how it had happened if they’d been asked. There were the games they played after school, the nearness of their houses to each other and to school. Everything had just seemed to come together like that, a happening neither of them questioned.
Jun and Kiko walked into the small lobby like they lived there, as Jun had instructed, like they were bored of the security guard and the neighbors and the building. It was hard to do for Kiko because he could not remember being in an apartment building before, and it was all just houses he knew. The doors in the ground floor hallway were doors to people’s homes. He could not imagine how they could live that close together. He could hear things behind the doors, talking and eating and watching TV.
The light in the hallway was the same kind of light as the school corridors, which they kept on all night, a dead kind of light that buzzed faintly and sometimes flickered.
Jun put his hand in his pocket as he reached the stairs at the end of the corridor and climbed it. Each landing was lit by a yellow bulb this time, warmer and steady. Jun instinctively counted the steps as he climbed, two flights to the second floor, and another two flights to the third.
“Dito,” he said, making a scraping sound with his school shoes as he turned on the pebble wash floor. “Third Floor.”
The hall was colored a pale, ordinary green and each door was painted in the same kind of thick brown as their school doors. Jun counted off the apartments as he walked by them, A on the left, B on the right, stopping at C on the left. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and a keychain was caught between his fingers, a red metal shape dangling from one end of a short chain, and a key on the other.
“What is that?” Kiko asked, grasping the keychain, almost pulling it away from Jun’s grip.
“It’s a telephone booth!” Jun scolded him. He allowed Kiko to turn it this way and that to inspect it.
“It’s a London telephone booth,” Kiko pronounced. “I have a postcard of that from my dad.”
Jun pulled the keychain back and checked the number on the door again. “3C,” it said in clean strokes of grey paint, a little higher than their heads. He stuck the key in the doorknob and turned it until they heard a snap as it unlocked. He pushed the key forward and the door opened.
It was dark in the room, and even with the door partly open it was hard to see inside. But Jun felt on his arm how much cooler the air was inside. He felt for the light switch on the wall and the lights came on in small circles cut out in the ceiling, dim and easy and yellow like the lightbulbs on the landing.
“Hayup,” Kiko said, as he stepped into the apartment. The room was small, smaller than their living rooms, but to both of them there was something in it that felt familiar. For Kiko it was the brand of television and the refrigerator, which was tucked into one corner beside a sink. Beside it was a small stove on a tiled ledge, and he recognized that brand, too. For Jun, it was the cool air that felt the same as when his father had just turned off the air conditioner in his home office.
“It’s like your house,” Kiko said.
Jun went to the fridge and opened it. It was empty except for row of eggs and a loaf of bread in a plastic bag.
“Look,” Jun said. He opened the freezer compartment and there was a tall frosted bottle wedged diagonally inside it. Jun grasped its neck and pulled it out.
“See? Russia,” Jun said as he underlined a line of Cyrillic letters with a finger. “CCCP.” He gave the bottle a little shake to demonstrate that the liquid was not frozen—it did not freeze like water.
On a drying rack on the kitchen ledge were plates and glasses, spoons and forks. Jun grasped two glasses by their bottoms. He put the freezing bottle on a small round table and flipped the glasses over beside it. They had the same glasses at home, too.
“Imagine? My dad gets to drink vodka whenever he wants to.” Jun twisted the cap off, surprised at how much easier it was than he had thought. He poured small, equal measures into the glasses.
Jun and Kiko clicked their glasses like they had seen on TV and tried to finish off their glasses with one gulp.
“Putcha!” Kiko said.
“Teka,” Jun said. He turned around, opened a drawer from under the kitchen ledge, and took out a box of matches and a pack of cigarettes that said “Virginia Slims.”
Jun pulled the box open and pulled out two cigarettes. They had never seen cigarettes that thin and long before. He handed one of them to Kiko, studied the one he had, rolling it between his fingers, making sure he stuck the right end into his mouth. He struck a match and lit his cigarette, sucking on it and puffing the air out quickly.
“Hithit-buga lang muna,” he instructed Kiko. Kiko coughed in the sudden cloud of smoke. “Huy,” he said.
“Your dad smokes, di ba?” Jun said.
“Yes, but not these ones.”
Kiko pursed his lips around the cigarette and heard the flare of the flame as Jun struck a match. He felt the heat on his face. It was different from any kind of heat he had felt. It was not like the heat of the summer sun, not even like the heat from the stove at home. It was something he had something to do with. He could put it out only by lighting his cigarette.
“Look at this,” Jun said, sifting through the drawer, making a noise that clattered through the half-open door into the hall.
Jun pulled out a sharp metal spiral on a handle, gripping it so that spiral poked out between his fingers.
“That’s for wine,” Kiko said. “My dad’s—”
“Yes, I know what it is. But isn’t it cool?”
“Putcha,” Kiko said. “Your dad can drink here, smoke here. He can watch TV all day. My dad would never let me.”
“I only get one hour a day,” Jun said. He picked up his glass and led the way to the sofa. He put his feet on the coffee table, glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, and pretended to watch TV.
Kiko coughed out a laugh at the sight and held out his cigarette between two rigid fingers, careful not to drop any ash. He saw another door by the TV. He walked to it, opened it, and reached in to switch on the light.
Jun balanced his cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and leaped out of the sofa.
“Shht! Don’t touch anything!” he hissed at Kiko.
The bedroom was filled the same dim yellow light, but the light gathered and glowed on the surface of the large bed.
“I’ll just sit,” Kiko said. He could not resist it. He felt the bedcover with one hand and kept his cigarette in the air with the other. He had never felt anything smoother in his life. It felt warm and cool at the same time. He scooted backward on the bed and listened to the sound the fabric made. He lay back and rested his head on the pillow.
“Huy!” Jun shouted at him. “I said don’t touch anything.”
“I’m not touching anything,” Kiko said. “Man, these are like real hotel pillows.” He smiled deeply as he turned his head from side to side, feeling the fabric against his cheeks and ears.
There was another TV in the bedroom, facing the bed. Hanging over it was a wall clock.
“Uy! Voltes V na!” Kiko said, looking at the time.
“Shht!” Jun said, stamping a foot. He put his hand on the TV. “It’s easy to find out if the TV’s been on. Don’t you know these things? Maybe we should go home soon.”
“It’s only thirty minutes!” Kiko argued. He looked up at the ceiling, stuck his cigarette into his mouth and took a big draw, and held his breath as long as he could.
“Okay,” Jun said. He switched on the TV and sat on the bed.
“Your dad is the best,” Kiko said, finally, as he released the smoke into the air. “I could live here forever.”
Award-winning writer Angelo R. Lacuesta is Editor-at-Large at Esquire Philippines and a member of the Board of the Philippine Centre of PEN International (Poets, Essayists, Novelists). He is the author of Joy, City Stories, and A Waiting Room Companion.
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