The girl stood in the middle of the sala. Everyone hushed and took their seats on the chairs that had been spread around the room, lining against the wall. The girl started to call in a low voice filled with sorrow. She raised her hands, her fingers trying to grasp the air. Her call rose, louder, sharper. Her dance became anguished and distraught, her toes tipping, her soles skipping a few inches as she tried to find someone she could no longer hold. Her face crumpled into despair when reality washed over her, and she made a gurgled cry as she vomited the pain that welled from her heart, twirling and twirling in the cacophony of emotion.
Maria tried to watch the girl, but she could only see the man across the room, who held a tray in his hand and offered refreshments to the guests. The man who chattered beside her in a hushed tone, who she vaguely remembered as a bachelor her mother had introduced to her earlier, faded from her senses. She was consumed by the man who was now slowly approaching where she sat, the voice of the girl a distant shrill against the loud drum of her heart.
Maria followed Manuel across the room, every stop, every pause, every murmur, every smile he gave that the guests didn’t return. They didn’t care.
But she did.
She never took her eyes off him, afraid that he would vanish from her sight.
He was only three chairs before her. Two.
“No, thank you,” the man beside her waved away the tray.
Manuel offered his tray to her, “Señorita?”
Maria started from the sudden applause around her, pulling her out from her reverie. She blinked and looked up. “Thank you,” Maria picked up a glass filled to the brim.
Manuel smiled at her and bid her a pleasant evening. She returned the greeting in a shy whisper. If he had heard it or not, he didn’t show it and proceeded to the next chair. Maria sipped on her glass, the periphery of her vision trailing on the man.
The girl who had been performing in front disappeared into the shadows and was replaced by a sweet run of the harp.
“May I have this dance?” The man beside her had stood up, along with everyone else in the room. His bronze hand hung in the air, open for her to take.
Maria saw her mother watching them across the room, a big smile on her face. She forced herself to smile as she took his hand, her empty glass falling into another servant’s tray. He led her to the middle of the room just as the piano joined the sweet beckon of the harp. Maria and the man bowed at each other. He pulled her in a respectful distance as he brought their clasped hands in the air. His other hand rested on her waist, and Maria laid her hand on the gentleman’s shoulder and their dance began.
The man stared at her eyes, but she couldn’t meet his and stared at his hair, at his ear, at the blur of the audience behind him. She had learned dancing at a young age and had been told she was quite proficient, yet she felt herself stumbling along with him. She didn’t hold herself with grace and elegance like she had been taught. Her mind became occupied with the glimpses of her parents standing on the side—beaming and smiling at them, sighing in relief at someone else’s comment—as they traveled across the floor in this battle called courtship.
But it was only his battle. Everyone had approved of this man, whose name she could not remember. He was a son of a close friend of her father, perhaps a general, with a good family history befitting of her status as the eldest daughter of the town’s Gobernadorcillo.
But he was not what her heart desired.
She still could not meet his eyes as they made a slow turn. “You seem too silent tonight, Señorita.”
“The night is too beautiful, Señor. I’m afraid my words would make it less.” The excuse spilled before she could even think.
They stopped turning and she Manuel over the gentleman’s shoulder. He stood nearly in the shadows, watching them.
Their eyes met.
Maria wanted to pry herself away from her dance partner and flung herself to the man that watched them from afar. She wanted to be in his arms and wander in his eyes until she got lost.
The piano made a few steps and the dance ended. She bowed to her partner; her attention still pinned to Manuel who stood far away from them.
But Manuel turned away and melted into the shadows.
“I must go somewhere, excuse me.” The words spilled in a rush, and she could barely get them out as she ran across the room, murmuring her excuses to the other guests, her other hand lifting her saya to keep herself from tumbling down.
She spilled onto the silence of the asotea, the candles on the pillars flickering idly. She ran across the pale tiled floor. She saw a shadow move on the wall, “Wait!”
The other parts of the house were barely lighted, but her footsteps were quick and sure, falling into the steps she had known by heart. She skipped down the stairs that led her to the zaguan where they stocked the harvests and carriages. The moon that spilled from the grilled windows guided her to the heavy double doors. She pushed them open and was welcomed by the cold night air of the garden.
She heaved his name. Manuel stood a few feet ahead of her. “Señorita, why are you here?”
“Why didn’t you wait?” She said in between gasps.
“You must go back inside, your saya will get dirty.” She wanted to laugh; it was too late to worry about her skirt. “Your parents will be worried as well. It is inappropriate to be alone with a man without a chaperone.”
“You know my name.”
Manuel proceeded as though she had not spoken, “You must get back, Señor Hernandez will find you soon.”
“He was the esteemed Señor you were dancing with.”
Maria’s lips lifted into a shocked O. “I saw you watching us.”
“Yes, I apologize for abandoning my duties. It was a mi—”
“No,” Maria stepped forward. To her relief, Manuel did not move away. “No.” She didn’t know how to say that she wanted to dance with him instead of that Señor Hernandez. She didn’t know how to say she would rather have him instead of all the land, jewels, and status she would have if she married one of the principalia.
She realized the silence had stretched between them as they gazed and drank each other in. Maria tried to form the words again, but she couldn’t. She didn’t know how, and she feared she might push him away further.
“Maria, you must go back inside.”
She saw the pain in his eyes. She saw the hesitation as he dropped the last word. She noticed little things she had never noticed from anyone before.
“Say my name again.” She had always loved the sound of her name in between his lips.
“Maria.” How sweet it was, like the ripened mangoes she had always loved. Like the coconut juice they drank fresh from the coconut husk during the summer.
“Tell me to go away again.”
He looked pained, and she basked on it. She stepped forward but he didn’t move. He didn’t utter the words.
“I will go if you say it again, Manuel.”
He didn’t move. He stayed still, but his eyes were screaming. Panic? Horror?
Whatever she was doing made her feel in control, made her feel like she owned herself. She no longer followed any rules or anyone’s words. She no longer had the urge to satisfy anyone. She knew what she was doing was outrageous, she knew she was going against the etiquettes that had been ingrained in her since she was a child. But it was bliss, an explosion of freedom she had never felt before, to finally do what she wanted to do.
“Say my name, Manuel.” She stood a few inches away from him.
“Maria,” his voice came out a ragged gasp and she felt stars burst inside her.
“Do you want me to go?”
“No.” He didn’t even hesitate.
And her heart leaped. She wanted to do many things, things she had never experienced, things that would bring shame to her family and destroy her virtue, things that were against the image of piety and purity that girls her age and status must exude.
Instead, she offered her hand. “Dance with me.”
“I don’t know how.”
Maria inched closer and laced her fingers around his. She pulled his other hand to rest on her waist before she laid hers on his shoulder. “Follow my voice.” She taught him how their feet should move, “Hold on tight to me.” Back, forward, back, forward, until they fell into a synchronous rhythm, sweeping across the garden. The buzz of the cicadas became their music, the full moon their light, the stars their audience. “You’re getting it.” She grinned at him, but it fell away when she met his eyes. It was darker than before, but it seemed to twinkle like the stars around them.
“You’re very beautiful tonight, Maria.”
“Thank you,” she replied with a chuckle. “And you’re dashing tonight, Señor.” She pretended they were in the sala again, dancing for everyone to see, in a world where he was not a servant and she was not an heiress, a world where she did not have to sneak glances to catch a glimpse of him every time he passed by, a world where they did not have to talk in secret. A world where she and Manuel belonged to a society that would accept them and the love they shared.
But the stars accepted them, and they danced and danced, lost in each other’s eyes. Lost in each other’s breath, in each other’s scent that mingled with the soil and the city’s humid air. And Maria realized that was enough, as long as they were together. As long they were we and not you and I.
“Don’t,” Maria begged, desperate not to break the enchantment they have put upon themselves.
“Please,” Maria leaned closer. His face was almost a shadow in the moonlight. Her sight was consumed by his eyes. The sparkle in them had flickered out sometime, and it had become sad, hopeless. His lips quivered, ajar, and she realized how close they were. She had never been this close to any man before.
Maria laid her forehead on his shoulder, burying herself in darkness as they slowed into a sway that could lull her to a fever dream filled with him. “I want to stay like this forever,” she murmured against him. “I want to stay with you forever, under the stars. I don’t want anyone else.”—but you. I love you.
Maria bit back a sob. She couldn’t say the words because she was afraid. A part of her still sought her parents’ approval. She will always be torn between her parents’ happiness and her own happiness. If the words would be uttered, it would give her reason to hope, to believe that it would come to fruition, when she knew—they knew—that it was not possible.
They stilled as the spell broke. Maria felt empty. She felt as though she was a spectator watching herself alone in the garden. She fell onto the grass, gazing into the darkness, alone with the stars that were her sole witness to the dream that she fulfilled but filled her with so much pain.
Andrea Balingit is a Filipino student and writer from the Philippines. She’s currently trying her hand in reaching both local and international audiences through her written works. Follow her on Instagram at @cheeseislyf and on Twitter at @IamBUTTiful.