Chapter 1 - Beauty and the beast

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That point in a relationship when you realize that instead of "happily ever after," you're apparently just a few paragraphs below "once upon a time"? It sucks.
   Sorry I couldn't be more eloquent than that, but the big reveal came to me on a rainy Saturday morning. I woke up excited for my planned food trip to Tagaytay with my boyfriend Don, only mildly concerned by the rain pouring in sheets outside my window. Then I got the text, becoming all too familiar already.
   Ellie, rain is bad. Tagaytay next time instead?
   I held my breath and counted to five. One: It's raining. Two: What good would an outdoor restaurant with a view of Taal Lake be if it's raining? Three: Tagaytay is cold enough as it is. Why bother with cold and wet? Four: I need sleep anyway. Five: I have so many DVDs to catch up on.
   Then I texted my boyfriend: Sure, no problem. See you on Monday. Love you.
   So far, my six-month-old relationship with tall, handsome, and all-around good guy Don Padilla was not what the fairy tales led me to believe. I wasn't exactly an all-around good girl, but I thought that a guy like him would be the perfect stabilizing force for someone like me. I was always restless – wanting to travel, wanting excitement, wanting to change my hair.
   Free Ellie, was what my college friends jokingly called me. The only reason why I managed to stick to one course at the time was because Communication Arts allowed me to try so many things. To this day, though, five years in the work force, I still wasn't sure what I was supposed to be doing. My hair now was past my shoulders and slightly wavy, and I worked in Marketing – but all of this could change. I still didn't feel like things were perfectly in place, and I was just waiting for my savings to recover so I could go on a trip again. The last one I went on was Hong Kong with my sister. Maybe Bangkok next? I was already anticipating the next airline ticket sale.
   Don, on the other hand, was the very definition of "steady." He was a slave to his routine, and he had plotted his career in the office from his first day there. I thought we would be perfect together: I'd inspire him to loosen up a bit, and he'd tell me how exactly to be an adult.
   Why wasn't it perfect yet? I was getting impatient.
   Of course, I had never told anyone that. Our common friends assumed that we weren't (couldn't be!) having problems. One of them went as far as to say that she was envious of how we got together, and she only wished the same for herself.
   I sighed before retreating under my blanket. Be careful what you wish for.

Contrary to what some people thought, I wasn't obsessed with being a fairy tale princess. I was a movie buff, firstly, and I had a minor in Film back in college. For one of my classes, though, I did some research on how fairy tale motifs influenced modern movies, and I was really affected by it. During that phase in my life I had short, almost spiky hair like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, but even as my hair changed the fairy tale fascination didn't go away.
   Every story had some sort of fairy tale template. Even mine.
   Don and I worked in the same office, a large financial services firm in Makati, Metro Manila's biggest business district. I started in their Marketing department two years ago, and became fast friends with my teammate Charisse.
   She had been in the company for years and had a barkada there already, about a dozen guys and girls, all from the eighteenth floor too. I was with them when I learned that too much vodka gave me a rash, that I got sleepy after Bailey's, and that after five drinks I remembered most of my childhood Bisaya.
   Don was part of that group. He was a tall, imposing, cocky-looking guy, and sort of stood as the group's kuya. At least, that was the impression I got. He seemed very… I don't know… important.
   At first, I didn't like him. It was hard enough to adjust to being new in the office and in a barkada, and he wasn't making it easier. He didn't make an effort to talk to me, unlike the others. He made sure to stay out of my way, even when I was the closest person to him in the room. 
   "He's kind of aloof that way. If you want to get to know him, approach him first," Charisse explained.
   So I did. But on my own time. It just annoyed me that I was receiving a warm welcome from the others, but not from him. What the hell, right? After a while, I just gave up. I didn't care anymore if he talked to me or not. I pretended that we were already friends, and rode along when people teased him about things.
   Then one time – I probably went too far. I forgot what I said (I had a bad habit of not being able to filter my thoughts), but it was something about his vanity because he liked to go to the gym a lot.
   Whoa, wrong thing to say to someone who barely even acknowledged my existence! He glared at me and avoided me even more, if that was possible. And then, the next day, he walked up to my desk at work.
   "Coffee break?" he offered.
   Throughout our twenty-minute trip to the cafeteria and back, he didn't mention my comment about his gym habit at all. But he did start talking to me. For some reason, the same candor that offended him the night before became funny, because in no time we were laughing about my observations of our other friends, and people in the office.
   Charisse? Was like Regina George from Mean Girls (only because she was quite the Alpha Female, not because she was awful). My boss? Totally reminded me of a young Janice Dickinson from America's Next Top Model. Don's boss? Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. That last one got to him, and he was laughing so hard he coughed out coffee.
   From there it became easier to know him. Apparently the tough, arrogant exterior was just that – a shell. Underneath was a layer of classic Good Guy. And I liked Good Guys. They made sure you got home okay. And they called, and held doors open for you. Parents liked them too.
   Don acted like a kuya because he was a responsible person. Always a good worker, never broke the rules, and expected integrity from the people he worked with. Also very family-oriented, and religious, and sensitive, didn't drink (he had a one-bottle-per-night rule), didn't smoke… it was as if I handed him a checklist of things my mom would want in my future boyfriend.
   Imagine a really long romance novel set in high school, with entire chapters just devoted to talking and getting to know so much about each other. That was us! And I actually enjoyed it. I believed that the best relationships started from friendship. Surely it was better to get to know a guy first, be his friend, and find out all the dirt so I could at least make an informed decision.
   I couldn't tell if he liked me, though, because he was always there for the other girls in the group. I mean, he was there for everyone. But then I got my answer when during an out-of-town trip to Pansol in Laguna, we ended up alone together on the rest house's second floor balcony and managed to admit that we were attracted to each other.
   "I'm not sure if we should act on it," Don said. "Because you're a really good friend. I don't want to lose this."
   This was a friendship that, though only a few months long, was actually something I already thought I couldn't do without. I said things that made him laugh. He made sure I got home all right after our barkada went out. We didn't work together all the time but he'd drop by and ask me to coffee almost every day, like clockwork because he was a creature of habit, and I looked forward to it.
   But I was being typical Ellie Manuel. Restless. Ready for the next step, always.
   "But… why limit ourselves when we could be so much better? I think it's worth risking," I said, playing the part of the romantic.
   Maybe it was the lighting. We were half in shadows on that balcony, half in the bright lights from the pool area. He touched the ends of my hair, already long by then, and gently twirled them around his fingertips.
   "Were you always this beautiful?" he said, and then he kissed me, and the decision was made for both of us.
   So tell me. Aloof and arrogant guy gets over himself and reveals his other side – sensitive, caring and responsible. How is that not Beauty and the Beast?


I knew I shouldn't complain, but I just thought that a relationship with a guy I had such a great time with as friends would be… easier.
   Instead, we spent so much time "working" on it.
   Did I change? Did he? So why did I feel like I had to set an appointment if I wanted more time with him? Why did I feel like he was canceling too many of our dates, with only the slightest provocation?
   Sure, it really was raining like crazy out there. But that didn't explain the time he was "too tired" to go with me to Mall of Asia, or having a "busy week" to have dinner with me on a random Wednesday. Sorry, did I have to book him two weeks in advance or something? I thought I was the girlfriend.
   Little things like this had been happening for the past six months, but it was only on that Saturday, when Tagaytay was canceled, that I finally accepted it. Something was wrong, and I wasn't even close to "happily ever after."


I don't use this many pop culture references in my books anymore. :) Eventually I started thinking about how I want my characters to be that age forever, and pop culture makes them seem older now, four years later, than they should be.

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