Golden Days Under the Old Acacia

miriam_acacia

I have to start from the very start, back to my own days in elementary school, with a boy named Vincent. We were busmates from Grades 3 to 7. He’d always been small for his age, dark-haired and dark-skinned, the hand-me-down Ateneo Grade School uniform two sizes too big on him; but what eyes! Green like the leaves of the acacia tree that still stands today at the corner of the Miriam Grade School parking lot (I hope it’s still there for you to see). He couldn’t tell me if this trick of genetics was because of a father who was British or American or French or whatever because Tita Mercy, his mother, would not tell him.

We would sit together at the back of the bus, ignoring all the pointing and giggling, and he would share bits of dried mango his mother packed in his lunch box for him and tell me stories of kapre 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 when the sun went down, wailing, wailing, wailing; and the diwata living in the trees, ever-flitting, watching all the students play and coming out at night to dance. I believed in all those things too, back then. You can believe anything when you’re nine. The difference between Vince and I was that he said that all these creatures were his friends and they often spoke to him. His idea of a “Hello, how are you?” was an “Ever wonder what the kapre in that tree does all day?” and instead of jokes, he told tidbits of folklore.

For all these reasons, Vince was often the butt of jokes, the target of the crumpled paper balls, the kicks and pushes, the dirt, the mean laughter. Our friendship began with my curiosity and my guilt. It helped that we were both fluent English-speakers and everyone else on the bus preferred to talk to each other in Tagalog; sometimes, I felt as if nothing anyone did to him mattered so long as we understood one another, even if I knew nothing about folklore before I met him.

I never bullied him, but I did not stop anyone from bullying him, either. At first I wanted nothing to do with him, but I was forced to sit next to him at the back of the bus one day, when I got out of school a little later than usual, and I couldn’t stop myself from asking him why he was talking to himself. He obliged me with a story. I can no longer remember what it was about. But then he told me another, and then another, and then another, and before I knew it, we were in front of your grandparents’ house in Sikatuna Village and the all the boys and girls were hooting and calling us a couple and pelting him with Maxx and XO. Days after, Vince would joke that maybe he really didn’t belong there—maybe he was a changeling or a kapre or something, but I never found that funny. I remember having a hard time explaining your to Lola exactly why I came home crying when I had lost none of my things or had any bleeding wounds from falling on the ground either through my own clumsiness or the bullying of a schoolmate. How many little girls know how to explain their first experience of malice, anyway? Did you, Meg? I would have loved to have heard it if you had.

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