My father decided I needed something to do. It was the last summer before my freshman year. I was twelve then. We sat down to dinner one hot humid night. He was beaming. "There are a couple of American teachers running a small school across papa's." The Papa he's referring to is my grandfather. He and my grandmother lived in an exclusive village twenty minutes away from the commercial district where I've lived for most of my life. "They're offering summer classes on grammar." My mum furrowed her brow quizzically, "Isn't that the home school program center where all those foreigners' kids went to?"
My heart drummed frantically beneath my worn out cotton shirt.
"Yep, that's the one." I stopped chewing and stared at my dad, my palms suddenly felt moist. "Anyway, I was thinking maybe we could enroll Belle for the summer class."
I turned to look at my mum from across the table. She paused, her eyes flicking to mine. "But she doesn't need grammar classes, she's doing well. She needs math tutorials though."
My voice came out like a shriek. "I'm doing just fine with math. I need those grammar classes." So that I could see George.
George was this filipino-american boy I liked. He was tall, athletic and had the most beautiful thick and curly lashes I had ever seen on a boy. He was from Georgia, his dad was an elderly american. He had round rosy cheeks and glasses perched up his nose. He looked like one of those warm and endearing grandfathers you see in christmas movies and his mum was a lovely dark-skinned filipina. They had moved here a couple of years ago. George attended my school during the fourth grade. I had the biggest crush on him but I was too shy to talk to him and I guess he was too, so we just stared at each other from across the quadrangle, me with my strawberry popsicle. He with his chocolate ice stick. Under the sweltering heat of the sun and amidst the pungent scent of hot concrete, sweat and melted popsicles, I had my first ever puppy love.
I had butterflies fluttering in my tummy whenever I'd see him. I was positive he was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. We passed each other notes through my friend Fatima. They were neighbors. I always signed my name with a heart on top of my letter I's. He once asked me if I was like him, half-filipino half-something because I was so pale. I didn't have the heart to tell him it was because I stayed home all day watching TV instead of playing sports like the other kids did. So instead I told him I was half-chinese when in reality I was barely an eighth of it. I was in love, I scribbled his name on the back of my notebooks as I waited for my classes to end. By the time the bell rang I was at the quadrangle sitting prim and proper by the sidelines as he played basketball. It didn't last very long though. George's family moved to another subdivision and he stopped going to my school. I was devastated.
I was browsing through the channels one night when I came across this local channel advertising an International Home School Program. And there he was, his head bent over a microscope. The butterflies fluttered back to life in my tummy. He looked up and there was that toothy grin again and those long silky lashes. I had found him.
I begged my mum to enroll me in his home school program. She wouldn't budge. Aside from being expensive, the school was also inconveniently twenty minutes away. So I spent the remaining years of my primary education in misery. I felt like Juliet Capulet. Except my balcony overlooked the center of the commercial district and my Romeo wasn't exactly desperate to see me.
"Please ma, I have to try it. You know how much I love reading, I'll be able to read a lot of books this summer. I'm so bored being in the house all day. I HAVE to do something! And it's just six saturdays."
I pleaded with my eyes. I knew this would work. "Fine. But you have to do all your chores in the house and don't use your classes as an excuse." It did.
It's saturday and I'm running late. I had put on my favorite navy blue shirt that showed off my décolletage and a little bit of my belly when I'd raise my arms. I brushed my hair until it shone and sprayed on some cologne my aunt brought me from New York. The butterflies were at it again. My mum drove me to this house where they held all their classes. I was a nervous wreck. The housekeeper opened the door. She smiled politely. "Take off your shoes first."
This is weird. Good thing I was wearing my best socks. My best jeans, my best everything. For George.
As I unlaced my sneakers, my eyes searched the house. It was ordinary. Neutral colors, tidy, paint peeling off the walls kinda house. There were drawings and sketches of microscopes taped to the wall. Some of these had George's name on it. My heart drummed against my navy blue shirt. My hands became moist. He's here! I was certain.
"Are you done?" The housekeeper asked. All I could do was nod and murmur gibberish. I had become a mumbling idiot. She led me to this room. I felt heady. "Oh hello there."
The room was full of kids older than me, high school kids. I was the youngest. The man who spoke to me must be the teacher. He was big, fat and balding. He was also very warm and soft-spoken. "You must be Isabel. Your desk is over there and welcome to class." He smiled.
I walked tremulously to my desk. Settling my bag to the floor, I searched the room for him. He wasn't there, nowhere among the high school kids, the chinese kids, the half-something kids, he wasn't there. I was heartbroken for the second time.
Severely disappointed, I spent the entire duration of my class in utter misery. I didn't belong here. The rest of the class were friends, classmates, neighbors. All were having fun, except me. I came here for a boy who didn't show up when I expected him to. He was the only person I knew who went to the program. He was supposed to be my clique. We were supposed to read stories together and answer school papers together, hold our hands beneath the wooden desks and pass little notes in the middle of the class. He didn't show up and I was left on my own reading stories I had already read, answering school papers I was already familiar with, holding my own hands under the desk and passing notes to myself. It made me miss him more. I tied the laces of my sneakers back on.
I walked a few doors down to my Grandparents' house. My mum had told me to wait there while she did the groceries. I rang the doorbell, and my grandpa led me in. My grandma stroked my hair and held me close. She smelled sweet and homey. "How's your classes?"
"Good. They let us read stories and answer quizzes and they let me borrow a few books." I smiled back at her. I couldn't tell her I only went to summer school so I could see a boy. "Are you hungry? We've got some cookies and ice cream in the kitchen. Would you like some?"
Sweet. "Yes, I'd like some lola."
She went to the kitchen and brought back a bag of Chips Ahoy and a bowl of rocky road ice cream. This is my grandmother's specialty, making her grandchildren feel good with loads of food. And it always worked. When the cookie crumbles in your mouth, bittersweet chunks of chocolate chips graze your tongue, some get stuck on your teeth and you forget everything, long silky lashes, drawings and sketches of microscopes, disappointment and your teacher's gleaming bald spot. The cookies in your mouth become your world.
I dove right into the bag of cookies. Chocolate chip ones were my favorite. I found out that afternoon how well they went with rocky road ice cream. At home, I'd have to split a bag of cookies with my two siblings but with my lola I was allowed to eat as much as I wanted, so I decided to finish the entire bag and the bowl of ice cream.
My mum arrived just as I was wiping off the ice cream smear on my shirt. I kissed my grandparents good bye and headed for the car. The drive home was nothing but a blur. I felt nauseated and cold. My hair clung around my neck I could feel the rivulets of sweat dampen back. My stomach felt heavy, like It had coiled around itself.
I missed dinner that night. I rolled around my bed and forced my eyes to sleep but I couldn't. Maybe if I sleep, this will go away when I wake up. It felt like the blood in my body was rushing to my brain. My skin was cold and clammy. Great. I've just eaten myself to death. I wanted my intestines to untangle. The room spun around me as I tried to get up from bed. A wave of nausea hit me straight in the face. I'm going to die. I was sure of it. I crawled to the toilet and hung my head on the seat. I threw up everything. Every last bit of cookie and ice cream. My throat was on fire and there was vomit clinging on my hair. But my stomach had emptied itself and my intestines were back to normal. I still remembered those long silky lashes.
Years later I would find out that what I did to myself on that day was called Binge and Purge. And I guess that's what happened with me and Joe.
Joe was this guy I met back in college. Like George, he had long silky eye lashes, a ridiculously gorgeous smile and warm brown eyes. He was tall and tanned, smart and quiet, he was everything I wanted in a boyfriend. Except I already had one. We first met in my school's AVR. The debating team was holding auditions. He sat in the back row. I could tell he wasn't there for the auditions. He looked too old to be a freshman. He joined in the practices and we were introduced by mutual friends. He was a law student and a veteran debater. I was a newbie. We became friends. Unbeknownst to my boyfriend, I had this silly little crush on him. A few months later, we would be a couple.
And two years and seven months later, Joe would be my ex-boyfriend. I can't exactly determine when I started to stop loving him. He was a great boyfriend. He supported me in everything I did, he understood me even when I couldn't understand myself, he made me happy. We were madly in love. We debated together as a team and we did pretty well for ourselves. He was everything I wanted.
We'd lie on his bed, my leg over his tummy, my head on his shoulder. "Stop that." I'd murmur in my sleep. "What?" He'd chuckle.
"Watching me. Stop it. It's creeping me out."
"I like watching you sleep. You're so beautiful. Don't you know that?" I do. Then I'd pretend to be asleep but he somehow would always know it.
In the middle of a writing-studying-project-making frenzy, he'd text me something like, "You have to sleep now. I don't want you to get sick. You're the most important part of my world". I'd melt, of course.
I'd stroke his jaw, he has this perpetual five o'clock shadow that made him incredibly sexy. He'd catch my hand and press kisses on my palm sending delicious shivers up my spine. "Stop that, I'm grading papers and I have a deadline".
"But I'm an ant and I'm crawling on your skin." He'd grin and continue scribbling red marks on his test papers as my fingers tangled in the thick hair curling behind his ears. He was a law student by night and a high school teacher by day. "Will you be an ant too? Just like me?"
He would look me straight in the eye and his gaze would sweep every inch of my face. "If you're an ant, then I'm an ant. I'll be whatever you want me to be."
It was like winning the lottery. He was my prize. He was a guy that I could wrap around my finger. He worshipped the ground I walked on. I was the dented watch he kept in his pocket. I was the center of his universe. It was like eating a whole bag of chocolate chip cookies all by myself.
This was how I came to fully understand the binge and purge cycle. I would throw a tantrum for some petty little thing and threaten to walk out on him. He'd wrap his arms tightly around me and sob in my ear, "It's my fault, it's all my fault. You were right. Please don't leave me, you're all I have. I love you more than anything else in the world." There's that lottery feeling again. I loved him and he loved me too. Sometimes a little too much. He built his whole life around me. He began making plans for the future, for a family, for marriage, for children. A family I did not want, a marriage I wasn't prepared for and children I didn't even think of. It was a life I did not ask for.
He transferred to a public school three hours from the city. We had made arrangements to see each other at least once every month. Our whole relationship depended on our mobile phones. At first, I missed him. There was that feeling that something was missing whenever I'd lie on my bed waiting for sleep every night. I'd think about my day and knew for certain that something was lost. Like a tooth had been extracted, I didn't notice it when it was there just assisting my molars and my incisors, but when it got pulled out, my mouth didn't quite function the same way again. Chewing was becoming quite difficult, smiling brought a strange new sensation. I felt bare and changed.
I adapted quite well on my own, I discovered newfound joy in shopping alone without being mindful of the time and my companion, eating in restaurants by myself and taking the time to savour every bite, hanging out with my friends and not having to worry about my unshaven legs. It was a new life. I discovered how much I enjoyed my solitude. He was a wreck. And our relationship became a wreck. He became incredibly clingy and helpless. Our relationship hung on the single thread of communication.
He wasn't the Joe I met and fell in love with. Our communication would consist of a tedious and consistent pattern of needing, wanting and longing. It's nice and flattering when you hear your boyfriend call you to tell you how much me misses you and thinks only of you. But when you hear it twenty two times a day for every single day that you are not together it becomes mind blowingly annoying. He'd visit and we'd watch a movie together, a movie that I think is funny, I look at him at my side, he's looking straight ahead, "So, what do you want to do next?"
It was like we were together not because we wanted to be but because we were obligated to. We didn't enjoy each other's company, it felt like we were stuck waiting for something better to come along. It felt like a tiresome fifteen year marriage, like the one those couples have on TV where they are both middle aged and cannot stand each other. Except he wanted that life. He chose it for himself. I didn't. It was all too much, his love and his devotion became unbearably stifling. I felt like a glutton, like one of those people who are so filthy rich their toilets were solid gold.
He wasn't my silly little crush anymore, my dirty little secret, my prize from winning the lottery. He was the big bag of chocolate chip cookies that was making me sick. I had to throw up.
I guess the reason that it didn't take me by surprise that we would eventually end up this way is because I somehow knew it when we first met. I was stuck and he was floundering. I was trapped in an abusive relationship and he was looking for someone to fill in the gaps. We came to each other's rescue. He gave me the freedom I was so hesitant to take for myself and I gave him the comfort he desperately longed for. We were just looking for distractions, an easy way out, a clean slate. I don't doubt for a minute that he loved me. I felt it on my fingertips, I saw it in his eyes, it was the real thing. And I loved him. Truly, madly and deeply, a no questions asked kinda love. We were there for the wrong reasons and we stayed there for the wrong reasons. His love was filling me up, stuffing me, moulding me to the kind of life he had always wanted. My life was slipping before my eyes. I had to get it back. I have to mend and repair on my own.
I still love chocolate chip cookies. But this time around, I will take my time. Enjoy every bite, savour every bit of chocolate chunk and every morsel of cookie for they will always be there, waiting for my hand to sneak in the jar.