Anna blinked. She had been sleeping, but now she was awake and looking blearily at something bright. She blinked a couple more times before she remembered that she was still in her dorm. The room was bright, and she could see from the top bunk that was her bed that the fluorescent light at the center of their room was on. She could have sworn she had turned the lights off before she fell asleep — she can distinctly remember that she had been reading in the dark with just her reading lamp on, and she turned it off when she started nodding off. Did she dream about that and forgot that she did not turn the room’s light off?
She reached for her phone under her pillow to check the time. It was fifteen minutes past four in the morning. Too early for her mom to pick her up, and too early also for Nikki to be at the dorm. Perhaps she did forget to turn the lights off. She groaned softly as she sat up, annoyed at herself. It was such a hassle to go down from her bunk to turn the lights off and then go back up in the darkness.
Anna reached for her eyeglass case beside her pillow and put her glasses on, then crawled to the end of her bed to go down. She got down to the floor and had just taken the first step towards the light when the bathroom door opened. She shrieked involuntarily before she recognized who just stepped out.
“Nikki! What are you doing here?” Anna asked, hand over her heart. Realizing her voice was still deep from coming from sleep, she cleared her throat several times.
Nikki, who looked too fresh faced and very awake and dressed up at that time in the morning, smiled brightly at her. “Ate Anna! I was just about to wake you up! Good morning!”
Anna shook her head slightly to wake herself up further and walked to their mini pantry to get some water before she spoke again. After having had her drink, she turned to her roommate and asked, “So why are you here so early? I thought you’d be here in the afternoon for your last exam?”
“Yeah, it is this afternoon. But today’s the first day of SImbang Gabi!” Nikki replied, still bright and cheery. So bright and cheery that Anna was having a hard time catching up with her energy. What time did she fall asleep last night, anyway?
“It is? Wait, it’s just four in the morning. Did you come from SImbang Gabi already?” Anna asked. Wasn’t Simbang Gabi supposed to start past four?
Nikki giggled. “Oh no, Ate Anna! There’s Simbang Gabi in the school today — there’s always a Simbang Gabi here for the students who still have finals. Just the first two nights, though. We all agreed to go hear Simbang Gabi here yesterday. So I thought I’d go here early instead of this afternoon.”
“You? All?” Anna repeated, slightly feeling left out. They planned it and they did not even tell her?
“Well, we did it last year, so I just assumed we would do it again,” Nikki clarified. “I think Ate Eliza and Kuya Gino and Kuya Rich are all still here, anyway. Come join me for mass?” The younger girl turned to her, using the baby sister charm that she used on everyone and anyone who is older than her. It only really works for those who know her well enough, and Anna found that she was already one of them. “It starts at four thirty.”
Anna glanced at the wall clock. Ten minutes before it starts. “But I’m still in my pajamas.”
Nikki smiled and waved her hand dismissively. “You will be surprised at the number of people going to Simbang Gabi in their sleepwear here. Just freshen up and maybe change tops or something and then we can go to school. Come on, Ate Anna! Join us! They serve breakfast right after mass, and the mass will be at the Amphitheater and it is always such a pretty place at this time of the year.” Her roommate stopped to catch her breath, and Anna, amused, laughed.
“Give me five minutes,” Anna promised, turning to go to her closet to get a change of clothes. “I don’t want to look like I literally crawled out of bed to hear mass, you know.”
Nikki cheered. “I’ll wait for you outside, okay, Ate Anna? Our driver is still there and I promised to bring out my things so we won’t have to bring it home later.” She picked up a big black bag on the floor and a guitar case, and headed outside the room. Anna entered the bathroom just as the door to their room clicked shut.
Ten minutes later, Anna found herself with Nikki standing at the topmost level of De La Salle University’s mini amphitheater, located in between the La Salle Building and the Yuchengco Building, singing along with the entrance hymn as the mass started. The amphitheater was surprisingly full of people, mostly students and some professors and staff. Or there might be professors in the student crowd that just look like students, Anna could not tell. The lights from the La Salle Building were lit to illuminate the amphitheater, and there was also some light shining by the “stage”, where the altar was set up. Christmas lights twinkled merrily around the area, not just with the trees around the amphitheater, but also in the Marian Quadrangle and Octopus Garden, near Bro. Connon Hall. A cold breeze blew every now and then, and Anna was glad that she got her jacket from her closet at the last minute because she gets cold easily, and she did not want to get sick from the early Christmas chill.
The mass started, and out of habit, Anna looked around the crowd, trying to pick out familiar faces. She saw Eliza standing near the front, with Hazel beside her who was suppressing her yawns. Gino stood behind them, head down and he looked like he was sleeping while standing up. From how Anna knew him, he might really be sleeping in that position. A few feet away from them was Marco, who stood with some of the other Youth for Christ members, who all looked like they just rolled out of bed with their bed heads. She scanned the crowd, looking for one more face, but failed to see it. After several scans through the crowd as the priest led them through the first parts of the mass, Anna gave up, resigned. If he was there, then Anna would see him later.
The first night of Simbang Gabi was exactly what Anna expected, but in a way it was different because she was in school. She never got to attend that kind of mass in school because in high school, she heard mass with her family. Sometimes, when she managed to wake Jen up, they would hear mass together and then have a quick breakfast at each others’ houses. Or if Jen does not wake up or if she doesn’t, they would bring each other bibingka or puto bumbong for breakfast before heading to school. She had fond memories of Simbang Gabi, and she realized that morning, as the mass went on, that she did not really hurt as much now when she thought of her ex-best friend.
This realization made her smile. Maybe it was just the Christmas spirit. Perhaps it was the mass. Or maybe it was something more. Whatever it was, Anna briefly entertained the idea of maybe, maybe calling Jen during vacation. Just to try to talk.
And if she does not want to talk…then at least, Anna tried.
It is almost Christmas, anyway.
The rest of the mass passed by quickly and peacefully, and after the priest has given the final blessing and left the altar, after Anna had bowed, she and Nikki made a beeline to the priest to get blessed before making their way to the breakfast table by the Marian Quadrangle, where the members of the La Sallian Pastoral Office were distributing food. The table was filled with warm, freshly baked pan de sal with slices of cheese, little paper boxes with fried rice, hotdog and scrambled eggs, and of course, the requisite Simbang Gabi food bibingka and puto bumbong, still warm from wherever they bought it. There was also a table with a tall stack of paper cups and a thermos each for coffee and hot chocolate, as well as dispensers for water and orange juice.
Anna enjoyed the community feeling while she loaded up her plate of free breakfast. Once she and Nikki were done, she followed Nikki back to the amphitheater, towards a group that huddled by the tree at the topmost level of the steps. Anna smiled when she saw all the familiar faces there, and felt her heart give a queer little beat when she saw Rich was one of them. Perhaps he was late for mass, earlier?
“Hi, everyone!” Nikki greeted happily, plopping down the space beside Hazel. Anna scanned the circle for a space, and as luck would have it — fortunately for her — there was a spot beside Rich.
“Hi Nikki, Anna,” everyone greeted back. Anna walked to the empty space beside Rich, put her food down and sat. Rich looked up and smiled at her, and it made her feel warm all over despite the morning chill. It was a good thing it was still dark — she knew she was already blushing then.
“Glad to see you are here, Anna,” Rich said, soft enough so only she can hear. She smiled.
“Nikki woke me up,” Anna explained. “I didn’t know there was Simbang Gabi here!”
“Well, this was actually unplanned,” Rich said. “We just end up seeing each other here year after year. It’s quite fun to see who was still around Taft this late into December.”
“It’s nice,” she replied with another smile. She paused to pray and then started eating. She glanced at Rich, and noticed that his hair was sticking out in all directions, like he was one of the people who Nikki mentioned earlier who rolled out of bed and went to mass. He did not look as preppy as he used to, and Anna could see a faint five o’clock shadow on his face from the little light that they have from the buildings around them and the Christmas lights. The bags around his eyes were a little more evident, but it was not like he was sick or tired, but just up a little too early than usual.
When Rich looked at her, as if sensing that she was observing him, she blushed and scanned the rest of the group. Most of them were the dormers who she often had dinner with before finals started, and they all really had that disheveled, just woke up look. But despite all that, they all looked happy and refreshed, like it was perfectly normal to be in school at five o’clock in the morning, eating free breakfast.
“How were your finals?” He asked as she took a sip of hot chocolate. It was Milo, her favorite, and it warmed her tummy just right.
Anna shrugged. “I think I did pretty well.” She hoped she did. The only thing she felt a bit worried about was her Introduction to Economics class, but she spent long hours in the library just to study for that, and she felt that she did a pretty good job on the final paper she wrote for that. Now it was just time to wait. “How about you? How did that Literature paper go?”
“I won’t know until the course cards come come,” Rich said with a sigh. Anna was alarmed at how sad he sounded, but then he grinned at her. “But I got my paper for the book report last week.”
“Oh, the one for Smaller and Smaller Circles? How was it?”
His grin widened. “I got three point five.”
“Oh my gosh, Rich! That’s so awesome!” Anna exclaimed. A few people from the group glanced at her after she said it and she realized that maybe she said it a bit too loud, so she smiled sheepishly at them. They just smiled back and went back to their conversations. She focused her attention back at Rich. “For real?”
Rich nodded happily. “I did. I was so surprised! Thank you so much for all your help, Anna.”
“I’m so happy for you,” Anna said, feeling elated. “Really, really happy.”
“I would not have been able to do it without all your help, you know,” Rich replied. “So the victory is also yours, in a way.” He raised his paper cup to her, smiled again and said, “So, cheers?”
“Cheers,” Anna raised her paper up to his and toasted his cup lightly, so as not to spill any of the hot liquid. They smiled at each other for a while, until Anna felt just a wee bit uncomfortable with all the eye contact and the smiling, so she looked down at her food and basked in the success of their tutoring session.
“When are you going home?” Rich’s voice broke into her thoughts.
“Later this afternoon,” Anna replied. “It’s a good thing I stayed over. I was supposed to go home yesterday but my parents had a party so they could not pick me up.”
“Oh, so you won’t be here tomorrow anymore,” Rich said, chewing thoughtfully.
“Is there another mass?”
He nodded. “The school usually holds the first two nights of Simbang Gabi. But not everyone stays for that anymore. By tomorrow most of the people will be home and the only ones who attend the morning masses are those who were unfortunate enough to have exams all the way to the last day of finals.”
“Will you be here tomorrow?” Anna’s question seemed to surprise Rich, and it surprised her too. It was the first time she asked something like that of him. It came out before she could stop herself.
Rich shook his head. “I’m also going home later. My sister’s picking me up. Dad is flying home tomorrow and we have to prepare the house.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Anna said, genuinely happy for him. “Christmas should be more fun, then, now that your dad is here.”
He nodded this time. “Yes. My little sister is quite excited,” he added with a fond chuckle. He paused, and his forehead wrinkled, like he was not sure if he wanted to say the next thing. Anna continued to eat, looking a him from the corner of her eye, waiting for him to speak.
Finally, he did. “What time are you leaving today?”
“After lunch, I guess?” Anna said. “My mom’s picking me up.”
“Okay. Can I meet you at the hang out before you leave?”
Anna raised an eyebrow at the request. “I guess. Why?”
Rich grinned, and for a moment, he looked like a shy boy. Anna could have sworn that he was blushing. “I have something to give you. A Christmas gift. My Christmas gift.”
“I won’t be around during course card day next week because my family and I will be off to the province until January, so I thought I would give it to you now instead of next year,” Rich explained, obviously avoiding eye contact with Anna. This time, she was sure he was blushing.
“Oh,” Anna repeated, but this time, in a pleased tone. She was surprised, and pleased…and also quite excited. She was not expecting this at all. “Okay.”
Anna chuckled. “Okay, let’s meet before lunch at the hang out,” she said. She looked at her food, a smile playing on her lips. She could feel Rich looking at her, and for a moment, there was some kind of charge in the air between them. Anna could feel it as the hairs on her arms stood up, in a very, very nice way. She wondered how the other people cannot feel that when it felt like it was wrapping her up in a warm and happy glow, almost like Christmas morning came early just for her. More importantly, she wondered if Rich could feel it, too.
“Thank you, Rich,” Anna added shyly. “Merry Christmas.”
Around them, laughter filled the air as the different members of the La Sallian community enjoyed each other’s company on the first morning of Simbang Gabi. Anna was surrounded by the people she had learned to care about in the past months, who had accepted her and called her a friend and sister, despite all her running away from them. Maybe it was the Christmas spirit, or maybe it was because of something else — like genuine love from community — that made Anna feel what she felt right at that moment. Whatever it was, Anna felt that she finally belonged somewhere, like she was going home running away for a long, long, long time. As the sky lightened and the sun rose, Anna felt her heart lightening and expanding, just like how the sun’s rays were reaching and casting away the darkness. She sat there, accepting the love that everyone was pouring onto her at that moment, and in all the other moments she had spent with her new family in school.
At that exact moment, Anna was completely satisfied. And happy. Definitely happy.