When Jeremy’s godmother and god brother arrived at the Rosaleses’ house on an unbearable summer afternoon in April, it was not only to say hi.
It was summer break, and Jeremy was up on a high branch of the mango tree in their backyard. He liked climbing there because of the cooler, fresher air. When the tricycle stopped in front of his house, he watched as a middle-aged woman stepped out of the sidecar, followed by a tall young man. He heard the guy’s voice first before seeing his face, which was partially hidden by a cap. “It’s hot here, Ma,” he complained, then unfastened the top two buttons of his polo. His mother nodded in agreement and asked him to take the valise down from the tricycle’s burning roof.
Jeremy started to climb down the tree as the pair walked towards the house. He didn’t know that visitors were coming. The woman knocked on the open door, which Jeremy’s mother kept ajar for ventilation.
“Clarisse!” Fatima, Jeremy’s mother, exclaimed when she saw the woman. The two women embraced each other, like friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time. “I told you to call me when you arrive. How did you find this address so quickly?”
“The tricycle driver knows you,” Clarisse laughed.
Jeremy jumped down from the lowest branch, four feet above the ground. He hit the earth with a thud loud enough to bring attention to himself. He still felt the slight shock of the drop to his feet when three heads turned to look at him, the young man included.
“Is that Jeremiah?”
“Jeremy, I told you not to climb that tree! Come here,” Fatima motioned for him to get closer. When he was already at arm’s length, she pulled him and made him face the visitors. “This is Clarisse, my friend from high school. She’s your baptismal godmother back in Vizcaya.”
Jeremy took Clarisse’s hand and touched the its back to his forehead. He was only meeting his godmother now because they haven’t been to Vizcaya since he was five.
“God bless you,” Clarisse smiled, and then turned to her companion. “And this my son, Sirach.” Sirach smiled.
Jeremy muttered a small, “Hello.”
After inviting the visitors inside, Fatima ordered Jeremy to take the spare electric fans inside their house’s empty room, plug it in the sala, and turn its head towards the visitors. Then she told Jeremy to ride his bike to the bakery, buy either Spanish bread, ensaymada, or those cream buns that were basically bread infused with condensed milk. Before he left, Jeremy noted that Sirach looked around the room, taking in his surroundings, his bangs being blown upwards by the level-three winds of the electric fan.
When he returned, Sirach sat on the lowest branch of the mango tree, the branch that Jeremy jumped off of earlier, with his eyes downcast and fingers intertwined. He parked his bike and went inside where he found his mother and Ninang Clarisse talking in low voices. Knowing he had walked in on a conversation between adults, he approached carefully to give his mother the paper bag filled with condensed milk buns.
Fatima pointed at the table. Jeremy placed the bag there and was about to walk away when his mother called him. “Sit here and talk to your ninang,” Fatima said, then went to the kitchen.
Clarisse turned to him. “How old are you now, Jeremy?”
“Your mother didn’t tell you we would be coming, did she?” Clarisse asked again, now with a smile. Jeremy smiled back. “Well, your mother always liked surprises,” she chuckled. “You saw Sirach outside?”
“I asked Fatima to watch him during this vacation. I’ll be leaving him here with you for a while.”
“I have to go to Manila. I’m going to be learning Chinese because I’m going to work in Hong Kong. Like your Papa in Saudi. Your mother told me you’re a good boy and I hope you can be good to Sirach, too.”
Jeremy nodded. The image of his father, dead four years due to a workplace accident, flashed in his head.
Clarisse smiled. “He’s going to be like an older brother to you.”
Since he was born, Jeremy had only lived with his parents, then only with his mother because his father was in Saudi. He was their only child, and never thought that he wanted a sibling. Besides, his friends always complained about their older siblings making them wash the plates whenever they wanted, especially when their parents were not around. The image of a bossy older brother making him wash the plates kept playing in his head. He hated washing plates.
Fatima returned with a pitcher of powdered juice dissolved in cold water. “Merienda,” she said.
Clarisse asked Jeremy to call Sirach inside.
The tall guy was still sitting on the lowest branch, leaning against the thick trunk.
Jeremy called, “Kuya!”
Sirach turned to him with his eyebrows raised, and Jeremy replied with a small, tentative smile. “Ninang says you should come inside. Merienda,” he said.
Clarisse stayed with them for two days before riding the bus to Pasay. Before she left with her valise, she hugged Sirach and whispered something in his ear. Jeremy watched from the front door as Clarisse boarded the tricycle and Sirach was left beside the road, watching the vehicle disappear around the bend. He stayed there for a few minutes before walking back towards the house.
“Do you know how to play chess?” he asked Jeremy, who had gone back inside and turned on the television.
“Do you want me to teach you? It’s easy to learn the moves and rules,” Sirach said.
Jeremy understood that Sirach was trying to befriend him. He nodded.
Sirach went to his room. He brought out a chess board box from his traveling bag. He opened it and picked out all the pieces. “Here, listen carefully. Follow me.” Sirach began placing the white pieces on the board, and asked Jeremy to mirror it with the black pieces on the opposite side. Rook at the far end, then the knights, then the bishops, then the king and queen in opposing positions, and the pawns in front of them. Jeremy learned about the specific moves for specific pieces, eating or capturing an opponent’s piece, and the game’s goal which was to corner the king. Checkmate. It seemed complicated, but Jeremy felt excited to play the game and agreed to try a chess match.
He lost after a few moves. Sirach moved his knight and called checkmate. Not understanding what was happening, Jeremy had to ask. He raised his eyes and saw his godbrother smiling. Sirach explained that he was cornered and told him it was alright for a beginner to lose their first match, but still teased him a little. “Maybe you’ll beat me next time, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
Jeremy swore to himself that he would win next time, and become a better player.
From then on, Sirach was a temporary addition to the household for the duration of the summer vacation. He slept in the spare bedroom facing the backyard. Fatima worked as a stenographer in the district court from eight to five. If Sirach wasn’t there, Fatima might have asked a neighbor to check on Jeremy from time to time. With Sirach in the house with him, Jeremy got used to his presence.
They played a lot of chess that day. Sirach beat him again and again every time, smiling whenever he called checkmate, and his teasing intensified. Once, Jeremy could only stare at his king cornered by two rooks at the left corner of his side of the board, wondering how the attack came. When he raised his eyes, Sirach was smirking, “Maybe you can’t ever beat me. I’m a champion chess player.”
Jeremy just rolled his eyes and asked to play again the next day.
There were no other children around Jeremy’s age; the neighbors’ kids were toddlers, in high school, or already in college. That’s why he preferred staying inside the house, watching television for the duration of the summer break.
Sirach, however, found friends in the neighborhood. He quickly befriended the other boys his age, all of them high school students. There were five of them: Jason, Paolo, Aldrin, Louie and Sirach himself. After they finished playing chess, Sirach would play basketball with these boys. They used a makeshift backboard nailed to an electric post beside the road, with a rusting metal hoop and a battered ball with bald patches.
Jeremy watched him play by the door. He cheered by himself whenever Sirach earned a point, and his godbrother earned a lot during their games.
Sirach always played with a sleeveless black jersey, with the number 15 and his surname, Marquez. Jeremy observed how Sirach’s exposed arms stretched and flexed when he folded them to shoot the ball. On hotter days, he removed his jersey when playing, baring his flat belly. Sirach’s body was also different from Jeremy’s, who was a bit chubbier in all parts of the body, and his godbrother sometimes pinched his cheeks and called him a hamster.
After playing and taunting his playmates for another game the next day, Sirach would go inside the house and lie on the sofa with the two electric fans directed towards him; the sala smelled of sweat. Jeremy would admonish his godbrother, saying that if he sweats too much, he should wipe his body and then take a bath. But Sirach remained lying on the sofa, his hands behind his head.
“Kuya, take a bath. You smell so bad,” Jeremy said when he couldn’t take the smell anymore. He just finished his own bath when he found Sirach in his usual lying position in the sala.
Sirach smiled, his eyes closed. “Maybe you should take a bath. You’re smellier than me.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “I just did.” He switched the television on when his godbrother suddenly stood up and wrapped his arms around him. Surprised, he flapped his arms around like a chicken caught in the iron grip of its executioner. Sirach held him tightly. Jeremy struggled against the older boy. They crashed to the linoleumed floor. The smell of sweat grew stronger when Sirach pulled Jeremy’s head under his arms. “It’s not smelly at all,” the older boy grumbled, then laughed.
“Kuya!” Jeremy could only shout, then he reached for Sirach’s stomach and hit it with his palm, followed by his fist. Sirach just grunted and laughed, his grip loosening. He released Jeremy and went to the bathroom.
Jeremy was left breathless on the floor. Maybe this was why his classmates complained about their older siblings. They were bullies.
He went to the bathroom and stood in front of the door, waiting for Sirach to come out. Jeremy could hear the sound of running water hitting the bottom of a plastic pail, as well as the sound of water poured on the head and hitting the bathroom floor. He waited until Sirach finished his bath and opened the door.
Water dripped down Sirach’s hair, his neck, and his chest. There were short strands of hair growing on his chest, almost invisible, and faint lines on his previously flat-looking stomach. A towel was wrapped around his waist. “Now what?”
His mocking expression reminded Jeremy to punch him in the stomach for revenge, but Sirach just grunted. Jeremy hit him again. Before Sirach could reach for him again, he ran out of the house, knowing that Sirach would have caught up with him if he wanted to. He climbed the mango tree and stayed there until his mother returned home from work.
Sirach challenged Jeremy to a chess game again and again, and every time Jeremy expected to lose. He didn’t know why he never improved in the game, but he did notice that Sirach always cornered him at the edges of the board with two rooks ahead of him. He tried playing differently, but he was always making a wrong move. Today, he brought out his queen without noticing the bishop waiting to take it. He couldn’t remedy; he wanted to corner Sirach’s queen so badly that he didn’t notice the knights and bishop moving on his king, allowing Sirach to call checkmate. “I knew I wouldn’t lose,” the older boy said, proud.
Jeremy was full of it already. He rolled his eyes and removed the remaining pieces on the board, then flipped it over to pack it up.
“You don’t want to play again?” Sirach watched him as he folded the wooden board and hooked it close.
“No. I’ll just lose again, anyway.” Jeremy stood and flicked the television on, then sat on the sofa. He switched the channel to the afternoon anime dubbed in Filipino.
“Are you hungry?” Sirach asked.
“Well, I’m going to the bakery. Do you want anything?”
“You like the cream buns, right?”
He nodded. “You can borrow my bike.”
“Okay.” Sirach left him.
After watching an episode, Jeremy realized that his godbrother still wasn’t back. He looked out the door, wondering what could be taking so long. The bakery wasn’t that far away. As if on cue, Sirach appeared, pedaling Jeremy’s bike at a leisurely pace, smiling to himself.
“Do you know the name of the girl at the bakery? The pretty one,” Sirach asked him as soon as he entered the house.
“That’s Ate Eunice.”
Sirach nodded. He smiled to himself again, then went to the kitchen. He was humming.
From then on, Sirach would ask him if he wanted any kind of bread from the bakery. Jeremy just asked for the cream buns, but sometimes Sirach brought home Spanish bread, pan de coco, cheese bread, pianono, and whatever he fancied.
His godbrother always went and returned smiling.
The mango tree had started flowering. Fatima always said that the tree was strange because it flowered just a little later than the others. Most of the neighborhood agreed about this oddity of a tree, which is the reason Jeremy’s mother always told him not to climb the mango tree, but he didn’t really care. He liked how the tree flowered differently, off season.
For this reason, Jeremy climbed the mango tree. He wanted to look at the flowers closer, climbing until he reached his favorite branch. Wedging himself between the thinner branches protruding from the trunk right above it, a branch serving as his sleeping place and hiding spot whenever his mother was angry and looking for him, he stared at the sky through the canopy for a long time—a clear sky, the clouds dispersed and the sunlight streaming in between the branches, flowers and leaves—before he fell asleep.
He woke up to the familiar jeers and banter of the boys playing basketball. Sirach was wearing his black jersey, again, as he dribbled the ball while running, making turns and passing. Jeremy watched his godbrother, and found himself smiling alone.
Then he noticed there were some girls watching the boys. They were sitting on a makeshift bench nailed to a pair of trees along the road, their hair tied up into ponytails and buns. It was almost three in the afternoon.
He stayed up on the branch and watched the boys play, and could hear them teasing each other. The girls giggled whenever one of the boys looked in their direction. Once, Sirach winked, and the girls laughed. Suddenly annoyed, Jeremy wedged himself again between the branches, looking up at the sky.
He stayed there for a little while longer, trying to block out the noise of boys and girls flirting, until he noticed a small mango hanging from a higher branch. He narrowed his eyes, thinking it was a pupa, but it didn’t look like it. He climbed two more branches to reach for the fruit. When he touched it, it felt so soft that Jeremy thought if he tightened his grip the mango would burst. He broke it from its branch. The mango tree only started flowering, but the tree already has a fruit. He let it drop to the ground, following the fruit fall with his eyes, past the branches and leaves.
At the same time, there were people walking below, a boy and a girl. The mango dropped on the girl’s head. She cried out.
Jeremy heard the boy ask what was wrong, and realized that it was Sirach. The girl, whose voice he recognized, said something had dropped on her. She was touching the top of her head with her left hand; her right hand was holding a paper bag.
Sirach looked up the tree, meeting Jeremy’s eyes immediately. Jeremy wanted the tree to swallow him whole.
“Hey, what are you doing there?” Sirach asked.
“I’m sorry,” Jeremy shouted down, a little too loud. “I dropped it.”
“I think it’s Eunice you should apologize to,” Sirach answered. Eunice was now looking up, but she didn’t look angry.
“I’m sorry, Ate.”
The girl smiled. “It’s okay, Jeremy. What was it that you dropped, anyway?” The smile was genuine, and the apology’s dismissal sounded just as truthful.
Jeremy felt guilty. “A mango.”
“A mango? But the tree just started flowering,” Sirach asked.
“Well, where is it?” His godbrother looked at the ground and searched for the small mango.
“I don’t know.”
Sirach looked up at him again. “Come down now, Jeremiah. Tita Fatima will get angry again if she knew you were up there.”
“I have merienda,” Eunice said with a smile.
Jeremy forced a smile. He was always up there. “Okay.”
Sirach and Eunice went inside the house. Jeremy climbed down the tree and followed them. They were setting up the chess board in the sala. “Jeremy, watch us play. Maybe you can learn,” Sirach said.
Sitting down between them, Jeremy did as he was asked. He watched them play chess.
Sirach stopped asking Jeremy to play chess with him. He was always playing with Eunice. The thing was, Sirach always let Eunice win. The few times he watched them play, Jeremy noticed that whenever Eunice was about to be cornered, like Sirach did to him, his godbrother would move a different piece, in order to drag the game longer and give Eunice the win. He would let Eunice take all his pieces, and whenever she called a checkmate, Jeremy bristled inwardly.
His godbrother was always out of the house, always at the bakery talking to Eunice. Jeremy was left alone in the house by himself, and he thought he didn’t mind.
But sometimes, Sirach and Eunice were in the former’s room, and Jeremy heard them talking in low voices, sometimes laughing, but he could never make out the words. He knew they weren’t playing chess because the board was out in the sala. Jeremy didn’t mind, or so he thought; he just turned up the volume of the television or climbed the mango tree, gritting his teeth as he grabbed at branches and found his footing. He sometimes glared at Sirach without reason, snapping when his godbrother teased him too much, and hitting him with full force if he was getting even a little bit annoyed.
Towards the end of summer vacation, Jeremy knew that Clarisse was going to come fetch her son soon. He waited everyday, but his godmother wasn’t arriving.
Meanwhile, Eunice went out of town. Bored, Sirach told Jeremy one afternoon, “Let’s play.” He was already placing pieces on the checkerboard.
Jeremy thought that Sirach wasn’t asking him, but already expecting him to play. He pursed his lips, his forehead creasing. “No.” He walked to his bedroom, but Sirach was quick and blocked him. Their eyes didn’t meet because his godbrother was taller. He stood there facing Sirach’s chin, where he noticed a single strand of hair sprouting.
“You’re mad at me?”
Jeremy looked further down. “No.”
Sirach bent his knees to look at Jeremy. “Your face says otherwise.”
“No. I’m sleepy.”
“You can sleep after we finish a game.”
“Kuya, I don’t want to.”
“Just one game?”
“I said no!”
Jeremy sidestepped Sirach and entered the bedroom. He was about to slam the door, but Sirach pushed it. Jeremy struggled to push the door close as his godbrother pushed back. Sirach wedged his left foot to keep the door open. He was barefooted. But Jeremy didn’t care, and he pushed.
“Ow! Jeremy! It hurts!” Sirach shouted.
“I don’t want to talk to you!” Jeremy retorted. His eyes had started to tear up with the struggle. He stepped hard on Sirach’s foot, but the older boy didn’t pull it back.
Sirach managed to insert his arm as well and grabbed Jeremy’ shoulders to push him away from the door. “Jeremy! It hurts!”
Jeremy felt Sirach’s force lessened so he pushed, but the foot and arm kept the door open.
“Ahk!” Sirach cried in pain, sounding very painful that Jeremy stopped pushing. It was another wrong move; the door hit him on the forehead when Sirach pushed it. A bit disgruntled, he found himself on the floor, looking up at Sirach who looked, for the first time since he arrived there, furious. He stood by the door frame with his fists closed and sharp eyes that Jeremy felt were piercing him.
“What’s your problem?!”
Jeremy wanted to get up and push Sirach out of the room, but he just raised his arms to protect his face and his chest, expecting a punch or a kick. The older boy knelt and grabbed his arms to push them away. Jeremy’s knees moved on their own and hit Sirach’s stomach, but the older boy didn’t budge. He wanted to get away.
When Jeremy looked at Sirach, his godbrother’s brown irises were angry. He stopped struggling. Sirach looked so angry that Jeremy suddenly felt afraid of what might happen to him if he kept pushing him away.
Then he realized that he was pinned under Sirach, the older boy holding his wrists on both sides of his head. He stared.
Sirach glared, his black hair pointing in a million directions, his lips opened a bit, his breath hitting Jeremy’s chin. He held Jeremy’s wrists tightly. Jeremy could almost feel Sirach’s heartbeat even with the remaining space between them.
The question came when their breaths evened a bit. “Why are you so angry with me?”
Jeremy couldn’t answer the question.
In a few days, Clarisse would return to fetch Sirach, thank Jeremy for being a good younger brother, and kiss him and his mother goodbye. Before that, Jeremy wouldn’t talk to Sirach, his wrists still hurting from the tightness of his grip, but his godbrother would leave his checkerboard in Jeremy’s room. Sirach’s last words to him would be, “Practice,” and he would smile. Fatima would never hear of the incident. Eunice and Sirach would continue to talk through text and chat. Jeremy would have a transferee classmate, Cristina, who will give him the same and different feelings that Sirach was giving him.
Jeremy wanted Sirach to leave, but he also wanted him to stay. He couldn’t admit this to Sirach, the subject of the complicated feelings he was having.
So he did what he felt was the only thing he could do. He cried.
This literary piece is part of Katitikan Issue 4: Queer Writing.