Tucked away in a small corner of Parañaque City, amidst the encroaching grayness of the rapidly industrializing city, a small subdivision provides an oasis of green. Its modest streets are lined with carefully manicured lawns attached to modest homes filled with modest people. Here and there are trees, chosen for their ability to survive the intense muggy heat which is the hallmark of Philippine summers.
Underneath one of the trees, a mango tree with dense, dark branches and small yellow fruit hanging like lanterns off some house at Christmas time, sits a boy of ten. His face is covered with the sticky juice of the mango he was happily devouring, his white shirt stained yellow from the sap dribbling off his chin. His name is Jomar Mendoza, his first name a contraction of his father and mother’s names, Joseph and Marie. The heat bothers Jomar a lot, especially considering the rotundness his frame had grown into, his plumpness a hallmark of being a well-fed member of a somewhat upper class family. In front of him are three things: a stuffed bear, its brown fur matted with dirt; a small package covered three times over in bright silvery electric tape; and a small green net holding fourteen black marbles. Sweat beads on his forehead and his back has begun to dampen, the idle tapping of his foot the only thing betraying his impatience. He sits there under the mango tree because he is waiting for his best friend.
Minutes later, as if his idle mind had summoned her, he sees the familiar flash of silver at the far end of the street. There she was on her stainless steel scooter, bare legs in pink shorts pushing her down the street. It takes a few seconds for her to reach the mango tree, then like a daredevil bike rider, she swerves abruptly to the curb and flips up her scooter and lands perfectly on her feet, her yellow bedazzled Hello Kitty shirt glittering in the hot sun. Teri Ang always knew how to make an entrance.
“Hey pigface!” she hollers, greeting Jomar in the way only bestfriends can – with insults.
Jomar tosses aside the mango pit he had been holding, and hollers back, “Hey snotnose.”
Teri wipes her nose with the back of her hand and grins, her smile a revealing a perfect set of white teeth. She adjusts her tortoise shell framed glasses, almond eyes sparkling beneath them. Jomar lurches to his feet and rushes her, and wraps her in a big embrace. Today might be the last day he would see her.
They had met when they were babies. Born one month apart, Jomar born in May and Teri born in June, their mothers made it a point that the two should be friends. There were only five houses in the subdivision back then and only two had kids of the same age, so that made the decision easier for the two erstwhile matchmaking mothers. Their first meeting was one for the books. Jomar tried to steal her talking Hello Kitty lamp and Teri responded by stomping his left hand with her foot. Not exactly the most auspicious start but Teri’s mom was adamant. The two were to be friends, it was written in their Chinese horoscopes. This started a Cold War, where the two children would pointedly not interact with each other at all. Teri would play with her dolls in one corner while Jomar would be on the other side with his stuffed bear, watching Sesame Street on the television. However, in the case of Jomar and Teri, things followed their natural course and contempt bred familiarity and soon familiarity became friendship. By the time they were seven years old, they were inseparable. Together, they complimented each other so well that they seemed like two halves of the same whole.
It helped that both had something to offer each other. Jomar had a tremendous intellect, excelling in Mathematics and Science but as a portly young boy who often crawled away to be alone somewhere, he was often bullied by the other children. Teri on the other hand was merely a good student, never entering into the realm of the truly gifted. As a counter balance, she had a spitfire personality and she ruled the playground with an iron fist. She was also the resident scooter expert, a whirling dervish on her X4 stainless steel Razor scooter and she gained a certain heroine status from their peers. He helped her with Math, she protected him from the bullies.
They were bound also by other things. First, they were champions at marbles. Jomar had the uncanny ability to make the best setups to get a win and Teri had pinpoint accuracy. The two dominated the playing field, their teamwork allowing them to fleece their unsuspecting victims of their black marbles, the most valued and therefore the de facto currency of the marble enthusiast’s world. Together they amassed a veritable fortune in black marbles, jealously guarding their hoard.
They also shared a unique past time for children their age – books. When Jomar turned eight, he found himself retreating to the worlds inside the pages, black and white letters yielding impossible vistas. Middle-Earth, Narnia and Earthsea felt more like home than the confines of his own subdivision. He drew Teri into this part of his life and she too became enamored by the hidden worlds inside the pages, the smell of ink and paper becoming a soothing balm. Ironically, she was the first to develop poor eyesight which was probably a result of reading too much in the dark. Nobody teased her about it. She was after all the tyrant of the playground and princess of the schoolyard and she threatened to beat up anyone who gave her any flak about her glasses. Even with her failing eyesight, she continued to read and reveled in finding new writers and new authors together with Jomar. Their writer du jour was this new author, J. K. Rowling and her story about a boy who lived in a cupboard and who also happens to be wizard. They fell in love with the wonderful world of Hogwarts, both silently wishing that they too were wizards and witches.
Like any dynamic duo, the two children had their own base of operations. The mango tree midway between their houses became their meeting place, their very own fortress of solitude. There they read their books and planned their adventures. They loved climbing up its thick, gnarled trunk to pluck at the yellow or green mango fruit that hung from its branches. The ripe yellow fruit they would devour freely while the green unripe ones were perfect with salt or shrimp paste.
Now under that same mango tree they were meeting for the last time. About two months ago Teri’s father had been hired as a lead programmer for a large multinational firm, but was to be transferred to Seattle. The Angs had to be transplanted to Washington state. Jomar predictably wept at this news, while Teri glumly accepted it is a fact of life.
Now here they were at their fortress of solitude, the possibility of not seeing each other again very real in their minds. As Jomar rushed up to Teri, he started crying again as he hugged his bestfriend.
“Hey,” Teri says. “You promised! You said you won’t cry.”
“And here you are crying. Stop it already,” Teri says as tears also come unbidden to her eyes. “Now you’re making me cry.”
“I’m sorry. I won’t cry anymore,” as Jomar lets go to rub his eyes and stanch the flow of tears on his eyes. “I know I promised. Sorry.”
“Alright…alright.” she replies, removing her glasses to wipe her tears away.
They both looked at each other and after a few seconds, descended into a paroxsym of giggles. Soon they were laughing on the ground, the reason for their mirth unknown yet fitting somehow. They both sat up and let the world return to sanity, ending with a long sigh from each other.
Teri broke the silence. “So whatcha got for me?”
They had promised to give each other parting gifts and this was the reason for their meeting.
Jomar grabs the bear first. “Okay. I got you three things. First, I’m giving you Bearto.”
“You’re giving me Bearto? But he’s been with you like forever.” Bearto was his first ever toy, the stuffed bear he had jealously guarded from her on their first meeting.
“I know that,” he replies. “But I want you to have him. He’s been with me for so long that I thought maybe it’s time to let go. I hear it’s cold in Seattle and I just thought that you might want something warm with you.”
“Awww shucks you shouldn’t have.” Teri hugs Bearto and gives Jomar a pouty frown.
“What the hell is that though?” she points at the electric tape wrapped package next to Jomar.
“Guess,” he teases. Teri grabs the package and shakes it.
“Hmmm, it’s not too heavy and it’s nothing mechanical. So it must be a book then.” Realization dawns on her face. “No way! Jeebus, you shouldn’t have. PRISONER OF AZKABAN?!?” she squeals in delight.
He nods in assent.
“You got me freaking Prisoner of Azkaban. Wow! This is only available in hardcover edition. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Jomar chuckles. “I knew you’d like it. Sorry I didn’t know how to cover it with anything so I just wrapped it in electric tape. Don’t worry, I put in a box first so I won’t ruin the dust jacket.”
Teri waves off the apology, saying that the book was too much already.
Finally, Jomar grabs the green net filled with black marbles and tosses it to her. “Well, this isn’t actually a gift. It’s your half of our takings. I figured that half of it is yours anyway and you need your own stash when you get to Seattle.”
Teri takes the net and gingerly places them beside Bearto.
She stands and adopts an officious pose. “Now for my gift. Do you solemnly swear to protect it with your life? Do you swear by all that is good and right in this world?”
Jomar stands up and takes a mock bow, right fist over left breast and then kneels on his right knee.
“I do solemnly swear!”
Teri looks at him imperiously. Then says in mock authority, “By the powers vested in me as princess of the schoolyard and tyrant of the playground, I dub thee Sir Jomar and I bequeath to thee, my token of esteem, the Razor!”
Jomar could not believe his ears. Not just any gift, he was getting the Razor, the scooter coveted by all the kids in the subdivision. With the Razor, his stock amongst the boys and girls would rise. He would finally become that which every outcast dreams of at night. He would become accepted, his place in the hierarchy of the playground secure.
“You sure about this?” he asks Teri.
“Yeah. My dad says we can’t take it to Seattle. Something about it not meeting safety standards. And I just couldn’t give it to anybody. I have to give it to the person I trust.”
Jomar nods and again makes a mock bow. “I shall cherish this forever, Princess Teri.”
After the exchange of gifts, they climb up the mango tree and dangle their legs from one of its sturdier branches. They grab a half dozen mangoes and skins them using their fingers, then eats them as only young children can, messily and in full abandon. As they ate, they watched the slow circuit of the sun descending to its western resting place. When the day finally gave way to dusk, Teri drops down to the ground below and wipes the dust off her knees.
“Well, I think I should be getting home,” she declares. “They’ll be looking for me soon We’re leaving early tomorrow morning and I haven’t packed yet.”
She makes a grab at her scooter, then pulls her hand away as she remembers that she had just given it away. She looks up at Jomar and smiles.
Jomar drops down and nearly loses his balance.
“I love you, you know?”
Teri approaches him and wraps her arms around him in a fierce embrace. “I know,” she whispers in his ear as one final tear treks down her left cheek.
Then she lets go and gathers up Jomar’s gifts. Then she starts walking away. She turns around and shouts one final goodbye.
“Don’t you forget about me, pigface!”
“I won’t, snotnose!”
Then she turns around and walks back to her house. Jomar watches her go, and then puts his foot on Razor and rides in the other direction.
Years later, a lanky young man walks home near the heart of Makati City. It is well past midnight on a cold February evening and it is the middle of tax season. Tax season is such an apropos name for it, for it is the most taxing time for any accountant. It is now his third year as a junior associate of a large accountancy firm and though the work is hard, he finds a strange sense of satisfaction from being able to organize all those numbers in his head
He drops by the local 24 hour Korean grocery and walks to his small studio apartment. When he enters, he plops down on the small sofa that he had bought from his first paycheck. He fiddles idly with his phone, cursorily checking the hundreds of emails he receives. Then he lets out a sigh of relief as the day has ended.
He then grabs the brown paper bag of the Korean grocery and draws out his prize from within. Mangoes. Perfectly ripe, yellow mangoes. He pinches the top of one and strips the skin, slowly peeling it off just as he did back when he was a young boy in Parañaque. He takes a bite and he remembers. He never forgot. He still holds on to the promises he made that day. First love never dies. He takes another bite and the sweet nectar brings him back home, to that distant, hot summer day spent under the shade of the mango tree.