This story is by A.K. Tolentino and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Embracing the Fall
Claire has walked around Hong Kong before, but never with so much excitement as when its streets have been draped with lights and colorful lanterns for the Mid-Autumn Festival. She loves the sight of elliptical, spherical, cylindrical, and lotus flower lanterns that hang on nearly every street and shop; especially the effect the colors create when the lanterns are alight and glowing at night.
Claire walks in the packed dim sum restaurant, but spots an empty chair next to the window. She advances toward it but stops when the person sitting opposite gapes at her.
Gabriel Trent. Oh God… Why now?
He rises and gestures to the chair. Claire claims her seat and gives the waiter her order. Breathe in, breathe out. Just fix your gaze to the window.
“The glass might crack if you stare at it too much.”
She braces herself before facing him. He chuckles.
Ugh, that smile.
“How long has it been? Twelve years?”
“You look well, Claire.”
“Oh, come on.”
As the waiter brings Claire’s meal, he continues with small talk.
“Enough, okay? I propose we eat without a word. Let’s not spoil our appetites.”
Both proceed to eat, their past and awkward silence between them.
“I took care of the bill,” he says.
“Thank you.” Claire gets up and heads to the door.
She keeps walking. She hails a taxi and starts to get in when an arm grabs her by the waist and pulls her back to the sidewalk. Gabriel shouts something in Cantonese and the taxi takes off.
“That was my taxi!”
“Why the heck did you leave like that?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I actually thought that was out of generosity.” She takes out a couple of dollars and hands them to him, “Here.”
“That’s not what I meant. I know you’re angry with me, but will you at least let me explain?”
“Please, Claire? We were friends once. Will you at least allow me to apologize?”
“Oh, boo! We weren’t friends. A friend would have told me the friendship was over.”
“Fine, fine. But don’t you dare lie.”
“When I met your parents, I thought we were on the same page. The long distance thing was difficult on me. Of course I wanted to be near you, but my position in the company prevented that, that’s why I asked if you wanted to move closer to me. You said we were moving too fast.
“I realized if I wanted to be with you, I would have to wait.” He sighs, “There was this girl in my department. She made it obvious that she liked me. It was hard not to be…ensnared.”
“Oh, poor you,” she says.
He holds up a hand. “I was in a difficult situation, you were a thousand miles away and I didn’t know if you’d ever be ready for a relationship.”
“You mean intimacy.”
“I mean relationship. You seemed content with the level of friendship we had. I didn’t want to push you. I wasn’t even sure you wanted more than friendship. Then there was that girl. I didn’t want to make things awkward—“
“For both of us, that’s why I chose to just fade away.”
“I saw pictures of a gala in some business journal. The way you two were… Well, it spelled more than friends. You could’ve asked me if there was more between us. I introduced you to my parents. What did you think that was?
“One hurdle and you ran to the nearest pair of boobs. So where’s the girl?”
“She leaped into a billionaire’s lap.”
Gabriel shakes his head, “Lucky escape. To her, I was a stepping stone. To me, she was an immediate solution to my loneliness, but not the right one. Definitely not the right one.”
Claire notices the street is nearly deserted; the glow of numerous pink and plum-colored lanterns above them is making her eyes water. “Thanks for the closure. I have to go.”
“Let me take you home.”
“I have a rented car, it’s just around the corner.” He makes a phone call and in a flash they’re being whisked away from the restaurant.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow,” he says nonchalantly.
“It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival tomorrow. You’re going to love the boulder-sized lanterns they have in Victoria Park.”
“Now you’re pushing me?” She lets out an unladylike snort. “Right. What’s your endgame here, Gabriel?”
“There’s no game and I’m certainly not planning on ending anything.”
Claire releases a giggle of sarcasm, “I’m sorry, but I’m not the same girl you left a decade ago. Scrap whatever romantic notions you have brewing in your head. I’m far too cynical for that now.”
She doesn’t answer.
“Disillusionment happened. When you just disappeared, I was devastated. Then I mistook a colleague’s advances for humor. He got handsy, I blackened his eyes and filed a complaint. But he’d been gossiping about me. To counter my complaint, he said he broke up with me because I was getting too rough with him and it was just revenge. Everybody took his word without question and I had to look for another employment.
“A different and worse version of the story followed me to my new job. Imagine strangers judging you for a pack of lies.”
“What happened to the guy?”
“He eventually got what he deserved.”
“Are you alright now?”
Claire nods. They drive in silence until they get to Claire’s stop.
“It’s a laundry shop,” says Gabriel.
“Yes, it is,” she says as she gets out of the car. “This is as far as you go. Goodnight.”
“I’ll walk you to the door.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Alright, I want to.”
He laughs, “You used to smile when I tease you. I think I’d rather see you join a convent than become a mean old spinster.”
Claire sends him a murderous look.
“Ok, I’m sorry.” He backs away and returns to the car, “Goodnight, Claire. Pick you up tomorrow?”
Claire walks past the laundry shop, turns a corner and waves to the cctv camera atop a huge gate. A figure in white comes to meet her as the gate slides open.
“Sister Paula,” Claire walks right into the elder woman’s outstretched arms.
“I would have thought a day outside would brighten you up,” she says wiping an escaped tear on Claire’s cheek.
“Sister Paula,” shouts the guard on duty. “Should I let him in?”
Both women turn toward the gate.
“Gabriel. What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here? You said you were staying with friends.”
“Let him in,” nods the elder woman.
“You don’t have to. He’s leaving.”
“No, I’m not.”
The gate opens and in comes Gabriel Trent. The older woman quietly disappears.
“I thought I’d make a convincing case for our trip to the park tomorrow. Is this an orphanage?”
“It’s a home for the poor and sick elderly.”
“Why weren’t you straight with me?”
“Does it matter?”
“Are you…are you Sister Claire already?”
“You weren’t gonna tell me?”
“Why should I have to tell you? Why in the world do you expect that from me?”
Gabriel is stunned.
“This isn’t helping either of us. You’d better leave.”
Claire has always loved the colors of autumn, but now it’s making her stomach churn. She faces her visitor standing over a stone bench, clearing away the sad orange leaves with a paper in his hand.
“How did you come into this place?”
“I left my job when the gossip became too much. Brooding didn’t work for me so I volunteered in a home just like this around our area.”
“That’s why you’re here?”
“I work here, but I’ve been contemplating on joining them.”
Gabriel hands her the paper. She takes a quick look and gives it back bewildered. “I don’t understand.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d want to talk to me, so I googled your parents’ infos instead of yours. I planned to visit them, beg for your whereabouts, and cajole a recommendation from them. If we hadn’t met last night I would’ve been on the first flight out to get to you.”
She looks into his clear blue eyes as hesitation overshadows hers, “Why?”
“I wanted to say I’m sorry…for hurting you. And to…ask for another chance. I’ve had a few relationships before, but—”
“How few?” she asks with both eyebrows raised making him smirk.
“But none came close to what we had.” He takes a deep breath and moves a step closer to her. “Marry me, Claire? Be with me?”
Bridging the small space between them, she leans onto him. He lightly locks his arms around her and rests a cheek on her crown.
“I love autumn.”
Gabriel pulls her closer to him, “Me too.”
Raising her face to his, Claire whispers ‘yes’ and seals it with a kiss.