Nena arrived rather late at the graduation ball. She could hear the school orchestra a block away. She glanced nervously at her brother beside her as a cab turned into the campus. The high school building was all lighted up and she could see the dancing couples through the wide open windows.
The cab stopped in front of the school building and Nena got out timidly. She stood in the shadow of the cab, trying to make herself inconspicuous, while her brother fussed with his wallet. Her white dress seemed to Nena to be glowing in the dark, and the colored lights around the building were hundreds of eyes staring at her. Alex was taking an incredibly long time paying the driver. Nena noticed that several people were looking out the window and it seemed that they were all gazing at her. She tried to make herself smaller and almost went back into the cab. It seemed an eternity before her brother could pay the driver. Nena opened her purse and dipped her hand inside, not knowing what she wanted. At last the cab drove away and Alex started walking towards the brightly lighted doorway. Nena almost collapsed at the sight of her brother walking away. She opened her mouth to call out to him but closed again before she could utter a word.
Near the doorway, Alex looked back and, seeing that she was not following, waved her impatiently. With heavy feet Nena dragged herself toward her brother. He was frowning and looking at her reproachfully when he held her elbow and guided her towards the doorway.
The blaring music and the bright lights (too bright, Nena thought) greeted them as they entered the hall. She blinked her eyes and froze at the sight of the strange faces before her. There they are, all in white, all laughing, and they seemed to be staring at her. She knew they were all her classmates she could not find a familiar face. They all looked alike, with big staring eyes and wicked grinning mouths. She felt naked under the gazing eyes even as she fingered her thick white flowing dress to be sure that it was there. The layers of petticoat around her legs were suddenly very heavy and her new shoes were blocks of lead weighing her down.
“Well, come on.” Nena could hear her brother talking to her as in a dream. He was tugging at her elbow. Vaguely, she felt herself being dragged across the ballroom. Her heart was a lump in her throat when she sat on a chair beside the other girls. She barely heard the greetings of welcome or the music that had started to play.
The next moment, somebody was tugging at her hand. She looked up and it was Alex. He was frowning as if he was about to do something unpleasant. She stood up and placed a hand limply on his shoulder.
“Jesus, your hands are cold!” her brother exclaimed. “What’s the matter with you? You feel like a block of ice.”
The orchestra played on and on, as if it would never stop, and Nena felt very tired when the piece was over. As Alex guided her back to her chair, he whispered, “Don’t wrestle with me. Dance.” His voice was harsh, and she knew he was dancing with her only out of a sense of duty.
When the orchestra started playing the next piece, a dreamy little song about love in April, Alex was nowhere in sight. Nena sat still, deathly afraid that someone might ask her to dance. Now that almost everybody was dancing, Nena felt safe in her corner. She was calm now, and her eyes wandered all over the ballroom that was once her classrooms. The partitions had been torn down and the school building was now one big hall. The chairs were lined up against the walls and the orchestra was at the farthest end. As she watched the couples moving dreamily on the dance floor, Nena wished that she were back home. She didn’t want to come here, but her mother had insisted on her going.
“This is your graduation ball, remember?” her mother had said. “You’re a young woman now. You’re no longer a child. You should go out and meet people.”
“But I don’t like people,” she had protested. “Not even my classmates. The girls are always giggling, and the boys wouldn’t even talk to me. Besides, I barely know how to dance, and nobody has invited me to the ball.” But her mother had told her elder brother to escort her to the ball, and there she was, all alone in her corner and her brother out there on the dance floor dancing with somebody else.
On the verge of tears, Nena stood up and went to the powder room. She would have gone home where she not afraid to go alone. She dawdled in the powder room as long as she could, but she had to go out sometimes, so she went back to her chair. No sooner had sat down when she felt rather than saw, that someone was standing before her.
“May I have this dance?” the boy was saying.
Nena stood up and apologized, “I don’t dance very well.”
“Same here,” the boy said, smiling. He was right. In no time at all, they were stepping on each other’s toes. Finally, she said:
“Look, let’s just sit down and talk, huh.”
“Suits me fine,” he said. “I’ll grab us some sandwiches and soft drinks and we’ll go to the garden and talk.”
An hour later, Nena and the boy were still out in the garden. The sandwiches and soft drinks had been consumed, and the boy had removed his coat and draped it over Nena’s shoulder.
Nena was saying: “You never talked to me in class, Larry. Why?”
“Well, you were rather aloof, and I thought you were snotty or something.”
“Now I know you’re not.” There was a brief silence, then he turned to her. “Do you have any plans for the vacation?” he asked.
“Nothing. Why did you asked?”
“Well…” he hesitated, “I thought, maybe, I could invite you to some place during summer. You know, parties or outings. Or a game of bowling perhaps.”
Nena suddenly felt like singing. All her fears were gone. She knew now that she was wanted; that not all people were hostile to her.
“Would you like to go with me, huh? Would you?” Larry was asking.
Nena closed her eyes. She felt a new life open for her, and it was a different woman who answered. “Yes, of course,” she answered. “Yes.”
Originally printed in the book Philippine Prose & Poetry