27 May 2009

No Need for Normalcy! - Chapter Twenty-One

Okay, so I've hauled my plump self over to the keyboard again for yet another madcap chapter of No Need for Normalcy!

This is for everyone who felt more than a little disoriented from reading Chapter Twenty. (Gib and Luce are officially a couple now? How'd that happen?)

Chapter Twenty-one: The [Young] Man in Luce's Life

The message got YM'd in at around three in the afternoon:

Heya! U busy? :)

Luce smiled and keyed in her reply:

Not much. (:| So bored! What can I do for you?

There was a slight pause. Then:

Did u commute 2 work 2day? Coz I can pick u up @ the office if u want.

What's up?

Nothing much. Just wanted 2 c u. :D

Luce looked thoughtful at that, then checked her watch and her planner.

I don't have anything planned for tonight, she replied. I can just take the MRT over to Makati if you want to meet up.

Presently, her phone rang.

"IntelliSystems," she greeted the caller; she already had an inkling as to who it was. "Tell me you're not going to pester me about the archival software we bought from you guys."

"I won't," Gilbert laughed in reply. "I wouldn't pester you, Lu."

"Oh, really?" Luce raised an eyebrow at that. "Then what do you call what you did when we were thinking of getting that project management suite?"

Gilbert laughed loudly at that point. "That was silly of me, wasn't it?" he chuckled.

"Very; I'm glad you outgrew being pesky, babe. So, what's up?"

"Kitty's gone home to Tagaytay, hasn't she?"

"Yes, actually." Luce thought of her younger sister. The kid was just so relieved that finals were over and she could head home to the orchard to recuperate. "She won't be in town for a while."

"Since you don't have any plans and will be coming home to an empty house, why don't you join me for dinner?"

"What? With you and Guama?"

"Um, no." Gilbert seemed to hesitate. "Just us."


Luce's heart fluttered a little at that. She and Gilbert often went out to lunch on weekends and usually spent the afternoons hanging out together. Sometimes, she would come along and make up a fourth for a game of mahjongg with his friends; other times, the two of them would join her friends for poker games where the stakes were scads and scads of fun-sized candy bars. Sunday nights, Luce (sometimes with Kitty and Fr. Nate in tow) would join the Huangs for dinner and had even hosted the evening meal once or twice over the past couple of months.

But dinner with just her and Gib?

It was something they'd never done before.

It was not, of course, something that she didn't look forward to. Far from it, as a matter of fact! But now...

"Why not?" she found herself saying. "Where would you like to meet up?"

"Um..." She heard the sound of riffling paper. "I'm pretty sure you've been to C'est Parisienne?"

"Mouse Lee's bistro?" Even at the mere mention of the restaurant, Luce could feel her mouth watering. "Oh, yes!" she breathed fervently. "His steaks are just too good for words!"

"Ah, a girl after my own heart," Gilbert declared merrily.

Ooh, le pavé de bœuf et foie gras! Luce thought with yearning. One of her favorite meals, most definitely. Coupled with a Merlot the color of Burmese rubies and enjoyed with the person she loved spending the most time with? Oh, the thought alone exuded a heavenliness Luce never experienced before.

"What's the special occasion?" she asked him.

"Nothing," he replied simply. "I just want to see you is all."

Luce blushed at that. Lord only knew how much she wanted to see him.

"I'll call the bistro and - can you make it at seven or would seven-thirty be better?" Gilbert asked.

Grimacing, Luce mentally computed the travel time via train from Quezon City to Makati. Barely twenty minutes in all; about thirty if she included the walk from the station to Greenbelt.

"Seven's okay," she replied.

"Great! I'll call Ahiya Mouse and grab us a table, then. I'll see you at seven, yes?"

"Yes, of course."

"Okay." Luce could sense Gilbert didn't want to put down the phone; she pretty much felt the same way. "Oh, and Lu?"


She heard Gilbert take a deep breath. Then, "Um, is it too cheesy if I tell you I love you?"

Startled, Luce herself gasped. But, she was actually glad he said it.

"No, babe," she replied warmly. "It's not cheesy at all."


Mouse Lee, co-owner and head chef of C'est Parisienne (and rhythm guitarist for the popular band Scarlet Faction), was used to getting reservation requests from his friends and, quite a few times already, from their older or younger siblings.

That said, Mouse knew he shouldn't have been surprised when Gilbert Huang called to reserve a table for the coming evening. However, having known young Gilbert since childhood and seeing him every Sunday in church, it came as a surprise to Mouse that the boy was seeing someone.

It was an even bigger shock when Gilbert told him who it was.

"Call for the chef on line one!" the receptionist advised via intercom.

"Put it through, Jane," Mouse replied, motioning for an assistant to take his place at the saute station. "Mouse Lee here."

"Ahiya Mouse, hi!" a perky young voice replied. "It's Gib Huang."

"Hey, kid! Nice job on last Sunday's Bible reflection; quite thought-provoking bit on Job there. So: what can I do for you?"

"Could I please grab a table for tonight?"

"Hang on a sec." Mouse clicked the intercom and checked with the receptionist. "Jane, how's tonight looking up? Any vacancies?"

"We still have three four-tops and five deuces good to go, chef."

"Sweet." Mouse clicked off the intercom and got back to Gilbert. "How many people are you bringing along, Gib?"

"There's just two of us, Ahiya," came the reply.

Oho! Mouse thought mischievously. Baby-boy Huang's got a date! I wondered when he'd get over that Pang girl.

"I see," he said calmly. "So, what time will you be coming in?"

"Seven, Ahiya."

"Any preferences?" He'd known Aggie Pang; Lord, but that girl was fussier than a cat with a nasty case of indigestion! He hoped that Gib's new girl was a good eater; the boy had a healthy appetite and Mouse remembered hearing Bettina say that he deserved a girl who enjoyed her food.

"Just the best of what you have," Gilbert replied confidently. "She's quite the foodie."

Now we're talking! Mouse thought delightedly.

"Make me a happy man, Gib," Mouse said excitedly. "Tell me she's not a vegan."

"She's not. When I told her I was going to take her to your bistro, she said your steaks were too good for words."

That last statement seemed to freeze Mouse's brain for a moment. One of his friends described his steaks that way once.

"You've met her, actually," Gilbert continued. "She's Achi's best friend."

Mouse's jaw dropped at that.

"You're dating Luce Saavedra?" he shrilled in horrified disbelief.

Bettina! Tell me it isn't true!

Bettina Tanner frowned when Mouse Lee went online and popped the message.

isn't true? she asked back.

I just got off the phone with your kid brother. He's taking Luce here for dinner tonight.

Oh, that. Bettina chuckled to herself.

Yes, exactly THAT. What's going on here, Bets?

They've been seeing each other for a couple months now. It was all Bettina opted to volunteer at that particular point in time. They like each other.

Doesn't it bother you?

Bettina frowned at that. Why should it bother me?

Bets, Gib's just a kid.

Mouse, FYI: my brother will be twenty-SIX in a few months. He's a grown man. He knows what he's doing.

There was a slight pause. Bettina sighed. Really: their friends were going haywire over this for all the wrong reasons!

Well, Mouse replied. At least, he's dating someone who ACTUALLY eats.

Bettina had to laugh at that.


"Sir, could you please sign this before you go?"

Gilbert glared at the bungling flunky who dared approach him at this late hour. It was a quarter to six and he wanted to get to C'est Parisienne to make sure everything was perfect for his evening with Luce.

"You should have taken this to me earlier," he said coldly. Nevertheless, he took out his pen and signed off the flunky's leave form. He scowled at the reason as he handed it back.

"Good Lord, Alexander!" he exasperated. "How many grandmothers do you have? This is the same reason you gave me last month - and the month before that!" He made a mental note to check with the HR people; as far as he could tell, most people only had two grandmothers apiece.

The flunky tried to stammer an explanation, but Gilbert waved him out. It was that or throttle the truth out of him, alas.

With the flunky gone, Gilbert surveyed the box of chocolates on his desk. He went through all the trouble to find the brand of chocolates Luce liked the most. It was Japanese and was only sold in a small shop in Quezon City. It was a good thing Fr. Nate and Kitty told him she was a fan of champagne truffle squares and he was just lucky that the shop still had a box - the last one in the shop! - available. He slid the gold-colored box back into its insulating sleeve and got ready to go.

As he cleaned up his desk for the weekend, he thought about the past couple of months. He and Luce had great times when they were together. They would look for books, go for walks, head to the museum, or watch movies. Sometimes, they would hang out at each other's houses, help each other cook, or just curl up on the couch and talk.

Of course, it wasn't all fun. His mind reeled back from the time he said something about the religious icons Luce had at home. God, but the debate had been dreadful! Then there was the time Luce snickered over a work-related email he sent her; she told him his grammar was atrocious. Boy, had he taken offense at that! The online (and offline) squabble was so bad that his Guama worried that they would never reconcile. Thankfully, Gilbert admitted that the remarks about religious images had been uncalled for and, yes: his grammar was enough to give English teachers nightmares. Luce, on the other hand, admitted that she did have a tendency to go off the deep end but had also graciously volunteered to help him with his linguistic issues.

So different from Aggie, he admitted to himself as he made his way out of the office. Aggie always insisted that she was right and he was wrong; she was a girl who never admitted her mistakes. Luce, on the other hand...

Gilbert smiled as he stepped into the elevator.

Well, Luce was Luce. He wouldn't have her any other way.


Luce was surprised to see that Gilbert was already at the bistro when she arrived. She found him chatting with Mouse at one of the more secluded booths in the restaurant. She heard them talking about local produce - a topic she knew both men were quite passionate about.

"Seriously," she heard Mouse tell Gilbert. "I don't understand why we have to import duck or goose livers from Europe. There are several farms up in Baguio and in Tagaytay who are already raising top-caliber ducks and geese."

"Achi says local farmers are still pretty clueless about the whole force-feeding process."

"That's not true! Why, just recently..."

"Gentlemen," Luce declared by way of greeting. "Good evening."

"Lu, hi!" At once, Gilbert was on his feet. He squeezed her hands in his and tenderly kissed her cheek as he ushered her into a seat. "No trouble coming here?"

She smiled and shook her head. "The foot traffic was pretty light for a payday Friday," she informed him. "You're here early."

"Your young friend was obsessing over the details, Luce," Mouse declared, rolling his eyes.

"Heya, Mouse!" Affectionately, Luce kissed both her friend's cheeks and asked after his wife and son. "Heard through the grapevine you're due for fatherhood - again."

Mouse threw his head back and laughed. "You heard that right," he declared proudly. "Piao was bugging Mei and me for a baby brother. Seems like he heard Bettina and Jake's Ginger bragging about his little sister at Sunday school."

"Well, it's about time!" Luce exclaimed. "I mean, Piao's almost four."

"True, true," Mouse nodded. "So, I daresay you two will put yourselves in my capable hands this evening? Or shall I send someone over with le menu?"

"Show us what you got, Ahiya," Gilbert replied with a smile. "You're the boss."

Mouse laughed and heartily gave Gilbert a slap on his shoulder. "That's what I like!" he declared. "A customer who places himself in my care." He winked playfully at Luce. "Just don't have this one for dessert, Luce."

Luce blinked innocently at him. "Now, why would you think that?"

"Be careful about this one, Gib," Mouse playfully cautioned the young man. "She turns into a gorgon when riled."

"You don't have to tell me that, Ahiya," Gilbert remarked with a rueful grin. "She's blown up at me several times already."

Mouse stared at him, then whistled admiringly. "And you're still alive?" he exclaimed, impressed. "Whoa!"

"Don't tease him, Mouse," Luce chided him.

"I wasn't teasing him, Luce!" Mouse protested.

"I wouldn't go against her if I were you," Gilbert advised him.

Mouse just laughed and waved to a passing waiter. "Get young Mr. Huang here and his young lady a Coke Zero and a ginger ale," he commanded the waiter. He then inclined his head politely to the couple and went back to the kitchen.

"I take it you gave poor Mouse quite a shock when you made the reservation?" Luce asked, grinning at Gilbert.

Gilbert laughed. "Sort of," he replied. He screwed his face up, looking puzzled as he did. "I don't understand why everyone flies off the handle when I tell them I'm dating you."

Luce regarded him soberly. "I'm older than you, remember," she said.

"Yes, but should it matter?" He eyed her intently.

"Well, it matters to other people, but..."

"Does it matter to you?"

Luce's eyes locked with Gilbert's. This was a side of him she hadn't seen before. While his intensity was a little nerve-racking, she couldn't help but find it disturbingly appealing.

"It did, at first," she admitted quietly. She lowered her head, effectively avoiding that intense gaze. "I didn't want people to laugh at you; I didn't want them to spread catty barbs and things. In fact, I didn't quite know how to tell Bettina at first."

"About what?"

Luce sighed. "After that meeting you had with me and Archie, I couldn't get you out of my head," she admitted. "It was so weird: whenever I tried to forget you, something that reminded me of you would pop up. I thought I was going crazy!" She looked up and saw that his gaze had softened a little. "I couldn't sleep; I couldn't eat! I don't know how it happened, but my every waking thought involved you in one way or another."

"That's not weird," Gilbert told her quietly.

"How can you say that?"

"Because that's how I've felt about you since the day we first met."

Luce stared at him, her brain confused and her heart pounding.

"Gib..." she stammered.

Gently, Gilbert pressed a finger to her lips. "So now you know," he said with a smile. "And now, I know, too."

"This..." Luce gulped. "This is so awkward."

"Remember when I kissed you in your kitchen?" He cocked his head to one side, his grin playful. "The night we had dinner with YuYa and everyone?"

Luce blushed. Oh, she remembered that only too well.

"I couldn't say it outright, so I just did something that would get the point across."

Luce could only nod. He definitely made a point that evening!

He was about to say something else when a waiter arrived to set bowls of what appeared to be a fragrant seafood bisque before each of them.

"The chef would like to know how you would like your beef done," the waiter advised them.

"I'll have mine medium-rare," Gilbert told him. "Lu?"

Luce thought about that, then slid a sly glance at Gilbert. She motioned the waiter to come closer and murmured her request.

"Garcon, je voudrais le filet mignon. Je le voudrais rare cuit et est-ce que je pourrais également avoir quelques foie gras avec lui s'il vous plait?" The waiter grinned and nodded. Luce smiled. "Merci."

"What was that all about?" Gilbert asked, his curiosity piqued.

"You'll see."

The soup was delicious: a robust lobster bisque that was smooth and velvety on the tongue. As they ate, they steered their minds clear of what had just been said and simply focused on the food.

Well, at least, till the main courses came.

Gilbert's plate held a tender beef fillet with a red wine reduction with julienned vegetables as well as a slice of creme dory on garlic noodles. Luce's plate, on the other hand, bore a beautiful filet mignon that was seared properly on both sides with pinkish jus spilling onto squares of herb-flecked polenta and mushrooms in a balsamic vinaigrette. On top of the filet was what appeared to be a generous knob of butter melting into the meat.

Gilbert stared at the fragrant, melting glob and stated aloud, "I didn't know you could get butter for your steak."

"It's not butter," Luce corrected him, slicing a bite-sized morsel off and spreading a bit of the mysterious substance onto it. She speared it onto her fork and offered it to Gilbert with a sly smile. "Here, have some."

Gilbert looked at it nervously, but ate the morsel anyway. To Luce's delight, his eyes widened in shock and he stared in awe at the dish before her.

"Was that what I think it was?" he gasped.

"What did you think it was?"

"I could have sworn that was foie gras!"

"It is," Luce chuckled, cutting the filet in half. She pushed her plate towards him. "Go on and have some more of it, dear."

Sheepishly, Gilbert pushed his plate towards her. "Only if you have some of mine," he offered shyly.

They ate in silence for a few moments, cheerfully eating off each other's plates and savoring the experience.

"We could do this at home one of these days," Gilbert remarked dreamily after Luce fed him the last bit of foie gras-drenched beef. "But it's kind of hard to find good liver here."

"Well, we could go to Tagaytay tomorrow if you're free," Luce suggested after Gilbert gave her another bite of fish. "Dad could pick out a good goose for Sunday's dinner."

"Your dad raises geese?"

"And ducks," Luce replied with a nod. "Along with mangoes and dragonfruit and tamarinds." She beamed at Gilbert. "He and Mom would love to meet you."

Gilbert looked flushed at that. "What have you told them about me?" he asked her. "Do they know..." His voice trailed off worriedly.

Luce nodded calmly. "Plus that you're not Catholic," she said quietly. "But Dad said it was okay so long as you're Christian and you go to church regularly." She smiled. "He puts great stock in such things."

"Well, I hope I don't disappoint him and your mother," Gilbert murmured cautiously. He eyed her lovingly. "Or you," he said as he reached across to touch her cheek.

Luce held his hand and pressed it closer to her face. She closed her eyes and sighed.

"You're serious about this, aren't you?" she said without opening her eyes.

"I've been serious about it since that meeting last January," Gilbert told her gently.

When Luce opened her eyes, she saw the tenderness, the love he had for her written quite plainly on his face.


They walked hand in hand to where Gilbert parked his car and, for the most part, they were both silent on the drive home.

Still, it was not an uncomfortable silence. If one asked Gilbert about it, he would describe it as the sort of silence sometimes observed by his parents when they were alive: a companionable silence, the sort of silence one shares with someone he or she really cares about.

From time to time, Luce would pop a truffle square into his mouth or offer him a sip of water from the cold bottle they bought at a gas station. Whenever the traffic came to a halt, he would tenderly rest his head on her shoulder till the light changed.

"So..." Gilbert broke the silence as they descended the Skyway. "Who gets to tell who?"

Luce shrugged. "I'll tell my camp if you tell yours," she said. "Of course, the twins think it's pretty much a foregone conclusion and so does Nate."

"Did you know that Guama and Ahiya have a standing bet on when you're going to be my girlfriend?"

Luce stared at him, obviously amused. "You're kidding!" she exclaimed.

"I'm not!" Gilbert laughed. "They actually put serious money on it."



And as they laughed, the closing lines of their favorite song drifted through the airwaves.

"I wish things would stay the same" -
It's all I can dream of now.
And this love I feel for you
Is the one thing I'll never forget.


I have to thank Nix for giving me the idea about Gilbert and the foie gras; it was supposed to appear in one of the earliest chapters, but I didn't quite know where to place it.

Incidentally, Mouse Lee is a character in one of my previous online novels Bitter/Sweet.

Oh, and if you got hungry whilst reading this chapter? It ain't my fault; sorry.

As with all my other writing projects, you probably know the drill already. Did you like this chapter? If you did, please feel free to write your comments at the end of this post.

Plus, if you want to get more updates regarding
No Need for Normalcy or any of my other writing projects, drop me a line at midge.manlapig@gmail.com.

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