“How does it feel?” Riann asked before she could even register it, the words leaving her mouth in a slurred rush. “I mean. To not have to try to please anyone anymore?”
To feel free, Riann wanted to add, but she bit her lip and awaited Maris’s response instead, her gaze directed up towards the stars. She couldn’t look her in the eyes. Not right now, anyway.
“I still have to do something with my life, y’know. My parents are counting on me for that,” Maris said, her voice soft. “But yeah. For now, it’s nice to not people-please on the daily.”
Silence overtook them again, and Riann squirmed uncomfortably against the tall grass. The blades were digging into her skin, now, and she hated how vulnerable she felt. Up until now, Maris never touched her before, or at least no time that Riann remembered. But her fingers glided over top Riann’s hand, sliding beneath until their palms touched and Maris fit between the gaps of her own fingers.
It was then that she understood it. Riann felt the fire spreading throughout her whole body; the heat had risen to color her cheeks. She turned and saw the flames manifested in Maris’s eyes. She’d been marked, and she was sharing it with her. But Maris kept pressing on, undeterred, holding her gaze. Riann wasn’t sure if the tingling she felt in her hand was because of her nerves, or if it was just Maris in general.
She might just melt.
Without being prompted, Maris continued talking, “I haven’t told my parents yet. I don’t know if I will.”
Riann frowned. “They’d support you—”
There was a tug on her hand, then nothing. No more warmth. Maris’s hand returned to her sides, rubbing at her arms, and for a moment, Riann felt disappointed.
“Yeah, but this was their dream, I guess. They spent all their lives wanting me to become something – something that wasn’t them – and… I blew it last year. I ran out of time. But so what? Why do we have to be so apologetic about the system?” Maris kept picking at something, and Riann’s gaze followed her twitchy fingers until she realized that Maris was tracing the mark on her palm, the dark burn mark almost camouflaged against brown skin. For something so destructive, so degrading, she made it look beautiful.
“I’ve been marked, but that doesn’t mean I’m nothing. Fuck that. I’m not going to let myself be nothing.”
Maris looked far away from her, and Riann wondered if she’d ever be able to keep her on the ground by her side. She was too much in the distance, too far for Riann to ever reach.
Riann willed her heart to calm down, tried to calm her quickening breath, counting backward in her head – threetwoone. After a while, she spoke up again, a little hesitant. “That’s not how the world works though, huh?”
“Yeah…” Maris sighed, turning over onto her side to face Riann, “at the end of the day, we’re never really free from the people-pleasing, are we?”
“It’s a damn cruel world for twenty-somethings.” Especially when you’re Filipino.
“I could drink to that.”
she/her/hers - author's note/summary: The candles represent a pivotal point in your life: if you haven’t proven your self-purpose and motivation by the time your candles all burn out, you’re marked by a burn on your hand. This could negatively affect your performance in the future, outcasted as someone who couldn’t live up to their worth. Riann Ocampo deals with the biggest challenge of her life yet, navigating both issues in the Pilipinx-American narrative of “utang na loob” and the fear of approaching the end of university and beyond.