During the watch party of Hello, Ever After episode 8, there was an ongoing chat at one part of the episode that eventually became a fic request. And because I was up for a challenge, and I need some writing exercises to get the creative juices flowing, I wrote it.
The idea for the story came to me easily, but what made this extra challenging was setting it in 2020. We all kind of agreed that all of the stories we’re writing are set pre-pandemic, because how can one write a romance set in this strange year? But I tried, and let me just say that writing this felt like I was inside a box, bumping against the walls as I tried to move. I always liked writing about smiles, but how can I describe that now when they all have to wear a mask? How can we show affection when social distancing means no hugs and kisses?
Of course, I could do away with all those precautions because they’re both negative from the virus anyway. It wouldn’t be an issue if they do the things that couples do…but as Nico said here, “Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.”
On that note, Fr. Kali’s homily at the Manila Cathedral morning mass emphasized this point: everything we do now must be ruled by love. And sometimes, love looks like wearing masks and keeping your distance, for now, to protect the other because you want to see them and their loved ones safe and healthy.
That said, I tried to find accurate information regarding travel protocols here but couldn’t find a comprehensive, detailed one so I took a bit of liberty on it. Any mistakes would be mine, so let’s just take it for the sake of fiction. 😀
Here you go — a sort of long ficlet featuring Faith and Nico, set about four months after this video call. The prompt is tanan (elopement), with mommy’s approval. (haha)
Let’s Run Away
It took Nico seven weeks, three days, fifteen hours and thirty minutes to see me.
The first six months of quarantine didn’t count in this waiting time, obviously. Like the rest of the world, the past months felt like one big blur, maybe even more so for us in this part of the world. The days only stopped bleeding into each other as soon as Nico told me he had arrived in Manila. Since then, I had been counting down to the day to his scheduled house visit, finally having something to look forward to.
And now that he was standing in front of me in the flesh, what did I do to reciprocate his joyful greeting?
“Argh, Nico!” I wailed as the tears spilled out of my eyes, the edges of my face mask catching the waterfall. We had talked twice, thrice a day every day in the past months, and all of it paled in comparison in hearing this silly little pet name in person.
He laughed, and god, that laugh—it felt like a warm embrace. “I missed you, too,” Nico replied, the gruffness of his voice had my vision blurring again.
Half-groaning, half-laughing, I turned around and headed to the counter, peeling off my gardening gloves and washing my hands at the outdoor sink just so I could wipe my tears away. By this time, the whole handwashing sequence is automatic: wet hands, grab the soap, start praying the Memorare in my head as I worked the lather, rinse, dry hands. It took me another minute to wipe my face clean, and when I turned back to my boyfriend, his expression had turned sad.
“Nico? Are you okay?”
He nodded slowly. “I just really want to hug you right now, and it sucks that I can’t.”
Oh. I walked back closer to Nico, stopping to make sure there’s still enough safe distance between us. “Technically, we can, since we’re both clear from the virus,” I said. A few weeks ago, our boss had me go for an RT-PCR test for clearance because we’re about to go back to fieldwork and thankfully, I tested negative. Nico, on the other hand, had two negative test results—the first one before he travelled back to Manila to get a health clearance, and another one when he arrived. The second one wasn’t necessary because as dev workers, we counted as Authorized Persons Outside Residence under General Community Quarantine guidelines, and he hadn’t had any contact with other people, anyway. Still, he paid for a test, to be sure he’s clear since he had spent time with other people in the airport. Plus, I’m sure it probably helped convince my mom to let him visit.
“But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should,” he finished with a resigned sigh. “I know we talked about this, but I didn’t realize just how much I’d want to hold you now that I saw you.”
“Nico.” I was going to cry again if he kept talking this way. We had all given up something during this pandemic, but what the two of us had sacrificed in the past months paled in comparison to what other people—healthcare practitioners, essential workers, jeepney drivers—had given up. We shouldn’t compare, I know, but still, we were both very aware that the only reason this reunion could even happen was because of our privilege and access to resources on our side. It didn’t feel right to throw caution to the wind because we missed each other when others could only dream of doing the same thing. And because we both believed in the redemptive fruit of fasting from good things, we hoped that our choice to sacrifice the things that couples could do would count for something.
“Although…” Nico glanced over his shoulder toward the house and leaned forward, lowering his voice. “I think hugging is against Tita Love’s rules.”
I snorted. “Mommy made you go through the entire thing, didn’t she?”
“Yes! I thought you guys were just exaggerating. I’m so clean now that I’m kind of afraid to move!”
One hour of the wait to see Nico was from my mom’s thorough disinfection procedure that anyone who had ever spent more than hour exposed to other people had to go through before even making it past our living room. And I’m not kidding about it being very thorough. It starts with leaving your footwear outside the house, then depositing all keys, bags wallets and accessories in the box by the door for UV disinfection. Then it was time to go straight to the shower, where outside clothes dumped into the bucket with soapy water outside the bathroom which will be washed separately within the day. Then a shower, toothbrush and gargle with an antiseptic mouth wash. The last step to gain clearance for the rest of the house is to take a 500mg Vitamin C supplement, recently upgraded to the gummy form, in an attempt to make it seem like a reward.
“The ginger tea at the end was a nice touch,” Nico added.
“What ginger tea? She never gave us tea.” I squinted at him suspiciously. “Mommy’s playing favorites again, I see.”
There was a smirk in his voice. “What can I say, Tita Love missed me too.”
I knew she did, but I was also sure that Mommy would never admit that to me. Glad that our moods had lightened, I said, “Anyway, can you go get a pair of gloves there and help me with Fidel?”
“Who’s Fidel?” Nico glanced around the empty garden, confused.
“Fidel, the fiddle leaf fig.” I pointed to the plant beside me, a medium-sized fiddle leaf fig tree that I ordered last week. “I need to transfer it to a new pot.”
Nico’s eyebrows rose in amusement before he left to get the gloves I asked. We spent the next few minutes transferring Fidel from the plastic container it came from to a bigger clay pot, then moved to work on the other plants. I had already given Nico a virtual tour of the garden during one of our video calls, but he still listened patiently, as if it was the first time that he heard all of it. This attentiveness was one of the most endearing things about him, even more so in the past months when we realized that this quarantine was going to last longer than we all expected.
“So, is this helping?” Nico asked later as he sprayed some water on the plants in front of him.
“Well, it’s always easier to take care of something when they have names.”
“No, I mean, taking care of these plants. Being a plantita,” he said with a chuckle. “Is this helping you feel better?”
I pursed my lips thoughtfully as I snipped a branch off Sammy the santan shrub. “Yeah, I guess it does,” I said. “You know I’ve always had plants even before this pandemic, but this is the first time I took it more seriously. It’s nice to have something to do with the extra time I have, rather than doom scrolling or getting angry at the news.”
“You don’t get angry anymore?”
“Of course not. Not with all the incompetence everywhere.” I rolled my eyes. “But every day, for a couple of hours or so, I have peace here. And seeing new leaves grow from plants, especially from those that I have to trim—” I waved the santan trimmings still in my hand, “—it gives me hope. Like if these plants could manage to grow from being cut like that, then maybe we could do the same, too.”
“The flowers that do not labor and spin and the grass that’s here today and gone tomorrow,” Nico said softly, quoting the Bible verse that talked about not worrying—something I had read repeatedly in the past months. He nudged my foot with his. “Thanks for the reminder, French Fries.”
“We all need that reminder,” I said softly, nudging him back. “And it’s always nice to be surrounded by greenery and fresh air.”
“You know where there’s a lot of greenery and fresh air?” A mischievous glint appeared in his eyes. “New Zealand.”
“Ha!” Ever since we talked about moving to New Zealand in one of our video calls, we always found a way to bring it back into our conversations as a joke. “They have to have that, what with sheep outnumbering the people who lived there.”
“I read that it’s gone down recently, though. Like there’s only five sheep per person now, as opposed to twenty sheep.”
“Because people are eating them!” I said with a huff. “Poor sheep. See, being a vegetarian has its perks. At least I know I wouldn’t contribute to their falling population.”
“Uh-uh, that’s what you think. You’re competing with them with their food.”
We burst out laughing, the sound loud and happy in the quiet garden and for a moment, it felt like things were okay. I could pretend that we weren’t wearing masks, that we didn’t have to keep checking the distance between us, that we weren’t angry or afraid of what’s happening, that the world wasn’t burning outside this safe space.
“We could just do it, you know,” Nico said after our laughter had died down. He squeezed the trigger on the spray bottle, sending a mist in the air as if for emphasis. “Just go.”
“To New Zealand.”
“Ah, if only it was that easy,” I said with a chuckle, turning back to the plants we were tending to cut off a dry leaf. “But we have so much work to do, Nico. You’ve got the start of school coming up, I’ve got new livelihood programs to work on.”
“There will always be a lot of work.” He said this casually, but his glance was loaded even if our eyes only met for a split-second. “And the world will always need some saving. Our time, however, is limited. Maybe there are some things that we should do instead of waiting for the perfect timing, which may not even come at the rate we’re going.”
All the New Zealand talk had always been jokes to us—half-jokes at times when we’d both research on our own, or that time we both joined that virtual tour we saw on Facebook. But all of it ended up at that—because we both knew that we were only thinking about this because we were so frustrated with everything here. But there was something about the way he spoke now that made me stop.
I waved my pruning shears at him to get his attention back to me. “Nico…what are you saying?”
He put the spray bottle down on the window ledge beside us and caught my hand, prying the shears away so he could slip his fingers in mine. I’m pretty sure he was breaking one of Mommy’s rules with the hand holding even if we were both wearing gloves, but I was too shocked and distracted to tell him.
“I’m saying,” Nico said slowly, his low voice sending a shiver up my spine. He was never one to shy away from eye contact, and the intensity in his gaze was doing so many things to me that once again I hated that we were both wearing masks so I couldn’t see his whole face. “Let’s run away, Faith.”
Oh. My. God.
“Nicolas Tamayo, are you asking me to elope with you to New Zealand?” I meant to say it to him quietly, but it came out as a near shriek that I’m pretty sure the whole house heard it.
“Okay, it doesn’t have to be New Zealand,” he said with a shrug. “Realistically speaking, it’s probably not going to be easy to go there at this time. We can go anywhere—stay here, back to my hometown, another province. I’m fine anywhere as long as I’m with you.”
Oh my god, he wasn’t kidding. “Nico!” I exclaimed, tugging at his hand. “In case you forgot, we’re in the middle of a pandemic!”
“That hasn’t stopped anyone from getting married this year,” he argued good-naturedly. “Think about it. All weddings this year are pared down to the essentials: just the people closest to the couple, no pressure to have a big reception because no one can gather, anyway. No frills, no extreme planning, just the most important parts. Or, if you want, we don’t even have to tell anyone. Except maybe our parents and one ninong and ninang because I think we need to have them with us at the ceremony. A civil wedding would even be easier, but I know we both want to get married in a church.”
This was…a lot. It wasn’t that we never talked about this before. Helping out in Mark and Rain’s wedding two years ago and then being each other’s dates to other weddings had us talking about it, but never in such a definite way like this.
And it wasn’t that I didn’t want it. I loved Nico with all of my heart, and I knew early in our relationship that he was someone for keeps. He was kind and funny, he listens attentively to everything I say, has unlimited compassion for others that he’d put someone else’s needs before his in a heartbeat. Sure, his choice of junk food was questionable, and I could never get him to binge-watch a TV series with me without him falling asleep into the first episode, but I could live with that.
But oh my god.
Suddenly he shook his head, his eyes turning apologetic. “I’m sorry, French Fries—it’s too much. Only if you want to, and only if you’ll have me.”
“Oh my god, I can’t believe you’d even think that I don’t want you. Of course, I do!” I said, laughing as I squeezed his hand. “It is a little too much. It’s just that I was only expecting to hang out with my boyfriend today, not receive a…proposal.”
“No, that’s not the proposal I planned for you. I’m just so happy to see you that my emotions just spilled out.” Nico touched his chest with a free hand, then looked at me, his eyes sparkling. “But I also want you to know that these options are also on the table, in case you want them.”
“God, Nico,” I said, letting out a big breath. “I really want to kiss you right now and I hate that I can’t.”
“I hate it, too.” He squeezed my hand. “This will have to do for now.”
The screen door behind him swung open, and my mom emerged. We quickly let go of each other’s hands and stepped back to put more distance between us, looking like guilty teenagers caught making out or something.
“I’ll be bringing out merienda in a while, so make sure you wash up,” she said. “Nico, as much as I would love to have you over for dinner, we can’t have guests now but we’re cooking extras that you can bring home.”
“It’s okay, Tita. And thank you in advance for the take-home dinner.”
Mommy turned to me. “Faith?”
“Yep, all good!” I exclaimed, wincing at how high-pitched my voice had become. “Thanks, Mommy.”
“Okay, you can go back to holding hands now.” Mommy waved a hand and turned back to the door. Then she paused, looked back at us, her eyes narrowing a little. “And New Zealand is a great idea, but no one is going there unless you bring me with you.”
More thoughts on my Hello, Ever After episode here!