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Cross by Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

Cross
by Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

I.
Romeo found happiness at around 11:30 each morning. Besides the
grub and rest this break permitted him and his fellow construction workers,
some extra entertainment strutted through this hour’s sheath of heat and
dust, and Romeo liked to watch.
During this time, a large group of workers sat on the curb by the rising
skeleton of the shopping center extension, talking, smoking cigarettes,
downing milky pink buko salad from the wet market nearby, and waiting.
Instead of huddling with the others, Romeo always stood on the farthest end
of the curb. He knew she could recall him better if he did, so no matter how
fiercely the sun pierced this piece of sidewalk, lending nausea a wave too
potent at each puff of his cigarette, he kept himself stationed there at that
moment each and every day. The heat, besides, drove him to roll his t-shirt
up high enough to cool the small of his back. This slim, smooth swatch of
flesh curved down wryly to his belt, and this bit of gnarled leather, in turn,
held up his coarse jeans with what he hoped was a delicious precariousness.
Romeo waited for only one woman. He first saw her a week before, and
continued to see her most days since. She had caught his attention by the
way she dressed. Strange skirts of varying lengths, shapes, and fabrics—long
drapes of blood red gauze, wisps and flames of black lace, prints of bold,
alien flora—always paired with a tight, black camisole. This set her apart
from the other women headed for the Shaw MRT, her thrust to stick out
amidst the slacks, shirts, and jackets laid as bare as her brown arms and
shoulders.
It was her face, however, that bolstered Romeo’s daily habit. Beyond
her soft, young eyes and puzzled pout was a rounded snout of a nose just
like his, like his mother’s, like countless others’ from his crowded, gritty, tin-
and-plywood neighborhood of Pinagubhatan, Pasig, hindering that haughty
quality other pretty girls and their slimmer, sharper smellers possessed. Her
generous display of flesh beneath such curious trappings came from nerve
only the rich could afford, yet the nose made all the difference. A humble
lump that gave the rest of her visage a kinder brand of beauty.
The plastic wall clock strung from the scaffolding read 11:36. Romeo
squared his shoulders, spotting the small but stark figure walking from the
herd of tricycles at the opposite end of the block. It was a short green skirt
today, black strings swathed over every inch of it, a cobweb melting on silk.
She had yet to wear the same skirt twice. Her walk, though, was a quick,
confident march as always, her eyes fixed straight on the bit of EDSA ahead,
yet her hips swinging just enough to acknowledge those smattered in her
path. Romeo sensed this awareness beneath her stolid stare, felt it fanned to
a brisk blaze by the space shrinking between them.

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Cross by Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

“Here she comes,” Cesar, the front loader operator, alerted, his voice
projected for both the men in his midst and the distinct figure approaching
them. He grinned at Romeo. The others had picked up on his fondness for
her from previous days, and they were all for it, all too amused by this
variation on their cat-calling customs. Romeo gave the men a smug little
wink. He appreciated their support, yet knew they had not grasped his
actions’ true magnitude, nor deserved to. That was between him and her.
She started making her way down the row of men. A wave of large,
shrewd smiles swept down the curb—a mandatory gesture, something that
would have been triggered with or without Romeo’s pointed presence. Her
sleeveless tops and skirts made her fodder by default, the men’s
acknowledgement of her ample attributes general procedure.
Most of the men had come from different provinces. However,
whatever old-world gentility they had been taught to practice with the more
soft-spoken, more clothed women in their rural regions was stripped off upon
their exposure to Manila. After all, none of them had traveled great distances
only to shun the city and all its signs of possibility—the buildings and
billboards, the bustle, the bare flesh. To leer at this particular girl was just
another act of modern man, and they were now modern men.
Romeo, one of the few who had sprouted from the many cracks of the
capital itself, was not surprised to see his probinsiyano workmates adapting
themselves with such eagerness. His father had come from Nueva Ecija and
was himself the metro’s advocate, leaving their rice fields despite his own
father’s ire, certain that his stint as a jeepney driver would lead to much
better things right up to that final, fatal fender-bender with a ten-wheeler
along C-5. Romeo, however, liked to believe that his fondness for the girl was
a different, special case altogether.
She was just a few feet away now. Again, despite the long, bristly chain
of stares she had to brush past, her face showed no signs that she had
noticed them, much less cared about the thoughts that lay beneath their
crawling eyes. That she could keep the purest face amazed Romeo. The
countless other women who walked along that curb, no matter how hard
they tried to keep their own faces straight, could not help but succumb to
their attention. The swiftest side glances, the slightest tautness in their
steps, the tiniest throbs in their throats as they swallowed down their nerves.
But this one girl had no tic to speak of. There was a courage to this that
Romeo found irresistible, a brass he only used to find in leading ladies of
American action films with their flair for fucking and firearms.
Yet, the nose. Although her marching channeled that of such forward-
thinking femmes, her nose was a comforting counterpoint. And her clean,
makeup-free face meant that it brought her no shame. Romeo doubted if the
other men could notice this fascinating duality, much less appreciate it. In
any case, as an admirer, Romeo was inclined to make himself felt.
He stepped off the curb and into her path. She did not slow down a bit,
smoothly tilting her body a few degrees to the right in cool anticipation. Like
a glimpse from an action sequence, a breath from a ballet of dodges and

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kicks. He glued his eyes to hers. As usual, she still kept them fixed to
whatever lay past him, but he did not mind. He would even be disappointed
in her if it took a mere week for her to cave. But she was going to cave soon
enough. Romeo was certain that he knew her better than anyone else in all
of EDSA Central, and once she was sure of this too, they would connect. She
would give in.
He swooped his face right up to hers, swerving it along as she passed
him, grinning with intense sincerity. And then, with a most tender lilt, his
profession of truth.
“Hi, Miss Beautiful.”
She was pure, polished stone. Their shared space elapsed, she tilted
her body back to the original angle, her brisk steps unchanged. Romeo
stared at her long, black hair as the other men exploded in an obligatory
round of whistles and yowls. Although he could not see it, he knew that the
expression on her face was exactly as before: stiff, unimpressed, radiant. He
was sure that her nose had not wrinkled in revulsion.
Such a fierce girl. Such a fierce, fearless, pretty girl, yet with a nose
that signaled a shameless simplicity, a soft, round bud breaking through the
richest patch of earth. A pity the other men preferred the usual fare, women
who would wear the same tight, black camisole but press their hands
protectively, penitently, over their chests as they stooped in and out of
jeepneys, who would shroud their own noses with makeup and large
sunglasses and an air of apology. But it was just as well. She was solely his.
He kept smiling at the beautiful creature’s back. As the hooting around
him waned, he hoped she would remember him, his words, his own attempts
at fearlessness, and return at the same time the next day.

II.
Some days, I want to walk up to her, grab her arm, and drag her across
the street. Tell her to go through the market instead, where it’s harder for
him to get to her, or where it’s harder for her to see and hear him, at least.
Tell her she shouldn’t keep doing something that makes her so unhappy. Or
so scared, at least.
But other days, I like to watch.
There’s nothing else to look forward to, doing the work I do, where no
one looks forward to me. When people see me from far away, they change
the way they walk. They still come near me, but that’s because they have no
choice; Ma’am Angelu put me here because this is where all the lines for the
jeepneys are, and it’s right in front of our headquarters in case they want to
stop by. You are the Daniella Direct Sales Prime Location Agent, she said.
Your job is very important, she said. They can’t get to the next ride for
Angono or Strata or Quiapo or Pasig Palengke or Tanay without coming near
me. But they do change their walk. I know I don’t just imagine that. They
walk at angles. If it’s too crowded for that and they have to pass next to me,
they walk faster. They put their heads down. Or they look to the side, stare at

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the street, peek in their bags like they’re checking their cellphones for
messages. Any change just so I don’t give them our flyer.
I look at my reflection all the time in the glass wall of Daniella, try to
see how different I look from the large crowd of women inside, if I seem like
someone to avoid, but I think I look alright. Ma’am Angelu makes me wear
very nice clothes from the big plastic bags in our stockroom. Our flyers say
we have a wide selection of blouses, slacks, footwear, and other fashionable
apparel imported from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and we do. Bras and panties,
too. And lotions. Like today, I’m wearing our Naughty Gurl: Just Add Alcohol
baby tee (# 1672A3), super-low, acid-wash bootleg jeans (# 3348X1), pink
kitten heels with crystal straps (# 5276R4), the Lady’s Bliss bra and panty
set in Cream (# 7783P6), and the Dainty Berry Rejuvenating Body Lotion (#
6978Y2). I am a successful modern woman, just like what our flyers say. And
I’m much better-looking than the women on the other side of the glass,
mostly mothers with their big tees and their leggings with stirrups and their
flat leather sandals, sitting impatiently in our Agent’s Waiting Area for their
share of premium Daniella products to sell this month. So I am attractive. But
our flyers aren’t. I don’t understand it.
That girl who never crosses the street has no problem attracting
people, no matter what she wears. I can tell she doesn’t like that, and I feel
sorry for her, whether or not I feel like helping her. She used to wear strange
clothes. I don’t know where she got her skirts; they’re nothing like the ones I
see in stores. They had feathers sometimes. And sometimes one side was
longer than the other. And her tops were so sexy; they were so tight and so
low and showed a lot of her boobs. I have a nice body, too, but I wouldn’t
wear any of those. They look too weird. And I used to think she was very
brave for looking so weird on purpose, but then, little by little, she stopped
dressing that way. She only wore long skirts last week. Then she started
wearing jeans a few days ago—a straight cut, which is boring and out of
style. And then today, a jacket! She looks plainer and plainer each time I see
her. She still walks the same way, fast and with her chin up, and her face still
has that blankness, like a model’s face, the one that says she doesn’t care
what everyone thinks, but it’s so obvious that she’s getting worried.
This is Romeo’s fault. He has to be disgusting with her. All the boys are,
but he has to go one step further, saying things to her when she’s right next
to him. I can’t hear what he says from across the street, but I’m sure it’s
disgusting. He does have a crush on her, I don’t think he’d keep at it if he
didn’t, but he still shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. Her clothes,
whether strange or plain, look expensive enough. And she carries big books
sometimes, so she probably goes to a nice university. And sometimes in the
evenings, I see her entering the Starbucks nearby and reading her books
there before going home. She orders the big coffees. He’s stupid to think he
could have someone like her. Even if he is very handsome.
Mama wants me to find a smart boy, maybe an engineer, someone
who will make enough money and treat me well. She didn’t like it when she
noticed that I always take the same jeep with Romeo home. She doesn’t

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believe that it’s just because the both of us live on the same street and end
work at the same time. It’s not like we talk to each other. He has never
looked me in the eye. He doesn’t know I’m there. Or if he does, he pretends
he doesn’t. Even when I make sure he enters the jeep first so he can see my
cleavage when I get in. He looks sometimes but his face says nothing. And
the Ladies Bliss Collection has underwire for extra fullness. But I’m not going
to give up. I’m not. Because I am in control, like the Forever Fresh Feminine
Napkins commercial says. I want him and I will get him. Even if Ate Alice,
who does my nails, keeps telling me that I’m being stupid and that he’s no
good for me and that I should stop asking for blue-green polish because
that’s the color of his bag. I will keep on sitting in front of him and holding
the handrail so he can see my manicure because I am in charge here.
I know I can take care of him. I know I can make him a better person.
Our slogan at Daniella is Look your best and be your best! and I believe in
this with all my heart. I will put him in a blue- and green-striped polo shirt
with the collar up, and I will gel his hair and make it spiky like a rock star’s.
But I won’t change his jeans. He lets them hang very low and it looks sexy
already. And then I will change his personality. I will teach him to be focused
and disciplined in his work, to stop distracting himself by being so rude. I will
teach him to be respectful to everyone, especially women. He will stop
bothering that girl. The only important women in his life will be his mother
and me. And maybe my mother, but I will have to give him time for that, and
that will be alright with me, because I am patient.
Maybe he doesn’t pay attention to me because he’s heard about me.
But all of that isn’t true; our neighbors only make it up because they don’t
understand. I like to sit with all the boys in front of Manang Etang’s sari-sari
store every night because they are my friends. And I don’t like the girls on
my street very much; they’re all fake. They wear the same things I wear, but
they don’t mean it. They’re so shy or nervous or scared when boys talk to
them. They think I’m easy just because I talk back. They think I’m not a
virgin anymore, but I am, and they’re just jealous. Just because I let the boys
talk about my boobs and my legs and how pretty my face is in front of me
doesn’t mean I’m going to sleep with them. I’m nineteen and I’m not married
and I’m not like that. It’s fun to have the boys like me so much when I don’t.
It feels good. But Romeo shouldn’t believe what everyone says. People used
to talk all the time about how his father slept with a lot of women before he
died, so he should understand.
But he’s still obsessed with that girl. He’s wasting his time. Besides
the fact that they have nothing in common, she’s doesn’t look that
interesting anymore. It’s getting harder and harder for her to be different
from everyone else. Actually, I don’t think she is that different from everyone
else. She seems like the girls on my street if Romeo can bother her so much
that way. One of these days, she’ll probably lose that blank face like she lost
those strange clothes. She’ll put her head down. She’ll look to the side, stare
at the street, peek in her bag like she’s checking her cellphone for messages.
She might even cry someday. And I hope she does, because Romeo has to

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give up on her. I can’t bear to see him hoping for someone like that. He has
to stop thinking that there’s something about her, because there isn’t. She
isn’t even very beautiful. It’s her nose, I think. It’s not a very pretty nose. It’s
too round and a bit big and it turns up too much, like Ma’am Angelu’s and
Ate Alice’s and Manang Etang’s and a lot of other people’s, actually.
I see hundreds and hundreds of people everyday. She’s just one of
them. They’re all the same.

III.
You step out of the tricycle. It starts stammering back to the village,
and you eye its beaten steel sheets that have shielded you from the driver’s
gaze, and miss it already. You tug at the front of your large hooded jacket,
which you had zipped up to the throat earlier in front of the mirror, and make
sure that its bulk puffs away from your frame. You jiggle your legs a bit to
loosen your men’s style jogging pants. This entire nylon cocoon rustles its
reassurance as you take the first few steps down the sidewalk. The sound
signifies squat.
You reach the intersection, the wet market and jeepney park across the
street to your right, the half-built shopping center straight ahead. You can
cross to the other side. Look to your left, move a few feet forward, look to
your right, and then move forward again. The stalls at the market are
stocked with such fluorescent fruit. The jeepney park swarms with people
queuing for rides, buying cheap, sugary bread, hauling striped plastic bags
bulging with clothes. Across the street, it is bright and busy.
At the construction site straight ahead, you know all too well that not
only is the commotion concentrated in just one slice of sidewalk, but it is also
dependent on you. Normally, the area is calmer than the rest of EDSA
Central at this time, the rumbling and pounding of the worker’s machinery
muted by the need for nourishment. Since that first moment with that
construction worker, however, the place has started generating a far more
distressing din: first, a few of his words, followed by a surge of smarm from
his brethren. Yet you stick to your route, regardless (you hard-headed
whore).
You keep walking forward. Most of the workers are already sitting on
the curb, their necks craned in your direction. You have become a fixed
pastime. They spot you and start glancing at the lone bastard standing next
to them. They are pleased that you are on schedule. You notice how the main
man straightens his back a bit. There is that palpable, vicious energy
radiating from him, as always. The prick. And what makes him so much more
unnerving is that you are not really sure of the reasons behind his villainy.
Why does he bother? What is it about you? What is he thinking? What does
he want from you? This haze has been driving you crazy.
Still, he does not deserve to win this. You have kept this up for the last
three months because you have far more dignity than he thinks. He is not
going to break you. It is true that he has done some damage; the beloved
skirts stowed away in the back of your closet are testament to this. The slow

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descent of your wardrobe—and of the image you have so deftly developed


through the years—has been painful. But that will be as far as you will let
him go. That, and nothing more.
There is a parked van with thickly tinted windows before you hit the
curb. You take a quick glimpse at your reflection in one opaque black sheet.
Your face is the only exposed region in your entire body. Sunglasses had
been quite the tempting option as you were dressing up that morning, but
they make your nose stick out too much. You look away.
Your nose. You have despised it for as long as you can remember. A
big, fat, mutant mushroom plaguing an otherwise pleasant façade, a
recessive family trait that had been held dormant for decades. Just bad, sad
luck. There did come a point, though—before that construction worker had
himself become a parasite—when you had probably distracted people from
it.
You were known for being comfortably off-kilter not too long ago.
Spending over a decade at the exclusive Blessed Virgin Academy of
Mandaluyong, amongst girls whose lifeless loveliness (or is it lovely
lifelessness?) compete with that of the plaster saints sentinel at every
corridor, you had always felt discrete. It is the same sense of distance you’ve
always felt towards your mother, the sweet, serene face of Forever Fresh
Feminine Napkins back in the sixties (when its slogan was still All-day Dainty!
All-day Fresh!), who preserved her poise and pallor as a statement against
your two-timing father. Oversaturated with all this disparity, you decided to
become someone others, instead, would find hard to penetrate. Thus
emerged the girl with the strange skirts, consciously amassing strange
friends and even stranger men on her way to a Creative Writing degree. You
were a weird slut with a useless college course and boy was your mother
mad. But that was three months ago, before you ditched the family driver
and started commuting to irk everyone just a little bit more.
He is just a few feet away now. You hug your books against your chest
and make sure to keep your pace neither fast nor slow. You do not look at
him, but you know he has that faint, faint smile on his face, that blaring
indication of the vileness to come. He tried to touch your arm last Monday, or
at least dodged towards you as if to touch you. The fact that men could be
rude, randy assholes is clear to you—you have surpassed your quota of one
night stands to know this—yet you did not expect total strangers in broad
daylight to be this way. You underestimated things. You are naïve. The
number of possibilities bracing themselves is frightening.
Now a few steps away, you are certain that he will try to touch you
again. Where, however, remains a menacing mystery. But you will not let him
get to you. You are better than this. You look at his browned, knobby hands.
They hover inches away from his hips. He is ready. You will be ready for him,
too. You have to be. You will be. You must stay sharp now. You must be quick.
You—
—Grab your nose and shriek. Your books fall to the ground, their
cardboard covers splaying out against the asphalt. You could have sworn his

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hand had twitched towards your face. He was aiming for your nose. He had
to be aiming for it. At least you think he did. But now his hands lie slack to
his sides, fingers wriggling a bit in bewilderment. You hear the other men
explode in mocking, melodramatic words of caution. O, Miss Beautiful, easy
lang! Hinay-hinay lang! As their warnings crumble to laughter, you squat
down and gather your things hurriedly, before they can get to them. You see
the main bastard’s legs squatting down. His hands reach for a mass of
folded, stapled papers that had been flung out of one book. You jerk them
away in the nick of time, grasping them tightly in your fists.
Your stories. Or at least snippets of two stories. Writing exercises. You
wrote them because your professor said that writing provides catharsis, can
help you come to terms with whatever has been dogging you. You had tried
different approaches. In the first one, you had put yourself in the
construction worker’s shoes, had tried to conjure up a satisfying, pacifying
reason for his depravity. It did not work. In the second one, you had tried an
outsider’s perspective, choosing that of that girl who hands out flyers in front
of the direct-selling place you see across the street. A different girl’s point of
view. It did not work. You had tried to give enough details. You had attempted
authenticity, accuracy. The way they may think, they way they may speak,
the way they may live. You had done so poorly. But, in the end, you never felt
like you needed to say too much about them anyway. This is not about them.
It will never be about them. It should always be about you.
Your jacket had bunched up above your waist. You can feel your ass
sticking against the seat of your jogging pants as you reach for the rest of
your things. The other men rejoice. Their laughter and applause are familiar
sounds, as embedded into your days as car vrooms and door creaks and
electric fan whirrs, but at that moment, they pierce with a vexing newness.
And as any terribly typical girl is wont to do when assaulted with strange and
terrifying sounds, you run for your life.
You lurch across the street, dodging cars and tricycles, your weak,
weak heart racing. You reach the jeepney park’s walkway. Fresh tears further
blur the smear of people stirring around before you. You keep stumbling
forward. Countless bodies knock against your own. Arm against arm, thigh
against thigh. Hands, backs, shoulders. Push, pull, bang, slam. Your body is
nothing.
There is a crack of free space straight ahead. You slow down a bit upon
reaching it, dizzy, unnerved. But you keep moving. Snatches of people drift
around you on all sides. You make out hands holding bags, envelopes, other
hands. One hand thrusts out in front of you, holding a yellow flyer. The hand
would like you to have it. The hand is in the way. Please, please, pleads the
hand. The flyer sticks out in the air like a stiff, stupid little flag.
You take it. ●

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