“She hates me”.
These are the first words he mumbled to himself as he lay on his bed early the next morning. The curtains were still drawn and the red digits of his bedside clock told him it was just past 6, but he felt as if he hadn’t had a single second of sleep since he left Julie’s apartment last night. What had gone wrong? Their first words were ‘Hello’. Awkward, tension-filled, but otherwise simple and civil enough. But just a few minutes after that, they seemed to have said their goodbyes, just like that.
Was it really a goodbye? He hated to think so, but it felt like it. She looked hurt. She looked angry. He didn’t understand why. Or maybe he just refused to understand, because understanding is the first step of acceptance, and if he accepted why she was hurt and angry, he’d have to accept that maybe that really was a goodbye last night.
“I hate me”, he said grudgingly as he turned on his side and kicked on the pillow resting on his foot. He heard the flop as the pillow fell to the floor but he made no move to try to pick it up. He felt tired. He didn’t want to get up. What would be the point of getting up? He had nowhere to go. And if he went out, he’d run the risk of bumping into Julie and also run the risk of seeing that once-friendly face turn sour at the sight of him.
He pulled on a pillow, buried his face in it and screamed with all his might. He felt the pillow’s dampness on his face and knew the tears he’d been keeping at bay since he woke up this morning had finally spilled. He hoped that with Julie so close to him, they’d patch things up immediately. Then again, it was a naïve and, frankly, insensitive thought. He hadn’t talked to her for a while and now he expected them to pick up where they left off? If he could say so himself, it was plain stupid to think that.
“Julie!”, he screamed into the pillow, letting the tears dampen the pillow even more.
“Julie, okay ka lang diba? Bagong umaga na, wag nang isipin ang kagabi”, she said to her reflection on the mirror hanging on the wall beside her apartment door. She was on her way out for breakfast with her neighbor. No, not Elmo—-her other neighbor, the one living immediately beside her unit.
“Ngiti. Marami pang darating na araw. Alam mong makakasalubong mo siya dito, diba? Alam mong dito siya nakatira pero pinili mo parin dito, kaya panindigan mo”, she added as she straightened her hair and smoothed out the creases on her skirt.
There was a knock on the door and for a split second she was anxious and hesitant to answer it, memories of last night’s visitor still lingering.
“Julie? Are you ready?”
She sighed with relief as she recognized her neighbor Mrs. Aquino’s voice.
“Kalma lang, Julie”, she whispered to herself. She took a deep breath and grabbed her purse from the table beside the door.
“Hi, Mrs. Aquino! Good morning po!”, she greeted the elderly lady as she opened the door and exited her apartment.
The older woman smiled at her and hooked her arm through Julie’s. “Naku, anak, Mommy Jean nalang itawag mo sa akin. That’s what the other youngsters call me here in our building”, she said.
Julie nodded and gently guided Jean to the elevator. As they waited for the elevator car to arrive, her heart started beating slightly faster, feeling anxious about the possibility of Elmo stepping out of the elevator as they enter. She mentally shook away the anxiety. She couldn’t live like this, always dreading the possibilities of encountering him.
“By the way, do you already know the young gentleman living across from you?”, Jean asked as the elevator doors opened to reveal an empty car.
Sighing with relief, Julie let the elderly woman enter first before she got in and pressed the button for ground floor. Not having heard the question properly, she said, “Huh? Sino po?”.
“Oh, here he is”, Jean suddenly exclaimed, pressing the button to keep the elevator doors from closing.
Julie looked towards the hallway and saw Elmo standing there, apparently surprised to see her, as well.
After a beat of silence, Jean spoke. “Well, don’t just stand there, young man. Pumasok ka na at sabay-sabay na tayo bumaba”, she invited.
Julie saw the hesitation in Elmo’s eyes. She knew him well enough to read into what he was thinking through his eyes.
“Ah sige, una na po kayo…”
“Nonsense, the car can hold the three of us, come on!”, Jean insisted.
Without any excuse for delay in mind, Elmo got in and the elevator doors closed behind him.
Julie looked up and saw the red numbers counting down the floors. 25…24…
“Elmo, have you met Julie Anne? She’s a new neighbor”, Jean said, turning to Elmo but pointing to Julie.
Elmo smiled and nodded. “I met her last night, Mommy”, he answered briefly, pocketing his hands and not looking at Julie.
“Good. It’s always nice to know who your neighbors are”, Jean said. Suddenly, the elderly woman snapped her fingers and both Elmo and Julie looked at her in surprise. “Are you going somewhere in particular, Moe?”, she asked.
Elmo frowned but shook his head. “I was just gonna walk around the mall”, he said uncertainly.
Jean smiled and patted Julie’s arm, still looking at Elmo. “Join us for breakfast!”, she exclaimed.
Julie couldn’t speak. Breakfast? With Elmo? Her eyes widened as she watched the same surprise and anxiety cross Elmo’s face.
When he didn’t answer immediately, Jean spoke again, convincing him. “Come on, dear. Let’s get to know Julie Anne more. She’s our neighbor, after all. Let’s make her feel welcome into our floor”.
Elmo was never really able to say no to Jean. She was a kindly elderly lady who took care of him like a mother, when he needed anything. He chanced a brief glance at Julie and saw that she was watching him, her eyes wide. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to compose himself. This answer would probably make her feel like he’s trying to make amends or else just trying to mess with her. Either way, this answer could make or break his chance to be in good graces with Julie. He opened his eyes and gave Jean a small smile.