A Space for Women of the World
I’d been working in Singapore for a year when I found Timmy waiting for me outside the flat I shared with a bunch of other people. There were six of us to be exact, two to a room, at least until my roommate left the week before to shack up with her boyfriend, a Dane with a wife and two kids back home. I have enough problems of my own to bother about other people’s living arrangements, except the bitch bailed out without paying her share of the rent, and guess who had to pick up the tab.
The first thing I noticed about Timmy was the slip of paper she was holding, which I instantly recognized as one of the ads I’d taped the day before on the glass-front window of every Filipino shop in Lucky Plaza that would let me. I’d done it up like those want ads I’d seen on bulletin boards at grocery stores and bus depots, with the bottom of the paper cut into strips on which you wrote your number so people could tear one off if they wanted to call you. Only, I guess Timmy didn’t know how it was supposed to work because there she was, holding the entire thing, the strips containing my number fanned out like fingers waving hello.
Timmy’s fingers curled around the ad, and I finally looked up to take in the rest of her.
“I texted you yesterday,” she said, her voice thin and high-pitched. “I’m here about the room.”
“I had a feeling you were,” I said. I eyed the ad, but my sarcasm was lost on her. I had, since coming to this city, developed a knack for examining people from head to foot while feigning eye contact. I’ll spare you the details about Timmy’s bone structure and vital stats, because what struck me was how much fake fur and leather she had on, like maybe she’d forgotten we were in the tropics. But then again I guess not, because she also had a fair amount of skin on show.
But it wasn’t just her fashion sense that bothered me. What troubled me more was this look she had that reminded me of the stray kittens I used to bring home back in Manila to my mother’s consternation, wrapping their scraggly, mangy bodies in my handkerchief. Only this time, I had enough trouble keeping a roof over my own head to channel Mother Teresa. Besides, I could see right away she wasn’t roommate material, desperate as I was. “Someone else came about it last night, sorry,” I lied.
“It’s taken, hon.”
“You told me it was available.”
“It was. Yesterday.”
“You only put this up yesterday. The woman said so,” she said, thrusting the ad at me.
“In the salon? Near iRemit? I asked her how long the ad had been there and she said it’s just been posted.”
The blood rushed to my face. “Are you the only one in need of a room who goes to LP?”
I fished for my keys in my pocket and turned towards the door. But before I could find the keyhole, I heard her break into ragged sobs.
“For crying out loud, don’t try the waterworks on me.”
This only made her sob harder, her tears melting her eyeliner and leaving dark streaks down her cheeks and jaw. “I’m sorry…I’ve been looking and looking…”
“Look, why don’t you give me your number? I’ll give you a call if I hear of anything, huh?”
“You’re not just saying that are you?”
“That’s not my style, dear.”
This seemed to comfort her. Her shoulders stopped shaking and she dabbed her eyes, with my ad, of all things. I checked my pockets for a tissue and found a slightly crumpled but clean McDonald’s paper napkin. She looked mystified when I offered it to her, but she took it anyway. She got a pen from her purse and wrote something on the napkin, holding it against her palm. When she gave it back to me, I saw that she had written her number down, the writing crooked where it had traveled over the lines of her palm. Next to it, in parenthesis like an afterthought, she had jotted two words that took me a moment to realize was her name: Matimtiman Baquiran.
“I suppose you have a nickname,” I said, immediately regretting it when she answered “Timmy. And you are?” I hadn’t meant it as a question—I didn’t want to be drawn in to such niceties.
But my tongue seemed to have a mind of its own. As soon as I said “Sher,” I caught myself thinking I should have simply given her a made-up name. Then it hit me: it was a made-up name.
As I’d feared, Timmy clutched at my introduction and took it as an invitation to unburden her soul. She’d only been in Singapore two weeks, she said, having come as a tourist to try her luck finding a job. Three days earlier, a three-star hotel in Chinatown had agreed to hire her as a wait staff for its restaurant so she was looking for something more permanent than her twenty-dollar a day bunk at the hostel where she’d been staying in Geylang since she arrived. “Geylang?” I said, resisting the impulse to add, “Looking like that?” Maybe, she didn’t know it was the red-light district. I didn’t know a lot things either when I arrived.
But she seemed to read my thoughts. “I’m not that sort of girl,” she said, holding my gaze. Girl, she said, not woman, and I realized what else I’d found odd about her: she looked too young to be working abroad—to be working, period. Put her in a uniform and she’d fit right in a high school classroom. Alarm bells went off in my head. She’s a minor, I thought. She must have been trafficked by a syndicate to work in a pub. I had to help her.
“Look, why don’t you come in for a bit? I suppose you haven’t had dinner?” I gestured towards the flat with my keys. Once I got her inside, I could ask one of my flatmates to call the police or the embassy. Someone.
But she wasn’t buying it. “I’m not that sort of girl,” she said again, her eyes flashing.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” I said, running out of patience. I couldn’t do anything if she didn’t want help. “I’ll call you if I hear of something.”
I let myself into the flat and watched her as I closed the door. She hadn’t moved, and looked as though she might stay there the whole night.
When one of my flatmates came in an hour later, I asked him if there was a girl sitting outside. He said no, why, did I think the landlord sent someone to snoop around? I figured it was better to ignore his question, to let him have doubts. Instead, I went to have a look myself, opening the door a crack and peering outside. Sure enough, she was gone. I turned around, my shoulders sagging in relief, and saw my flatmate standing there, staring at me.
When I stepped out to go to work the next morning, I found my ad on the floor, all balled up, revealing a scrap of my number and streaks of mascara. I snatched it up off the floor and tossed it in a joss stick burner downstairs, realizing too late it wasn’t a trash bin. I suddenly felt paranoid about having my number plastered all over LP. I told myself I’d go back to LP first chance I got to take down those ads. It was a week before I could go though, and when I did, everything was gone anyway, every single ad I’d posted.
These cheats, I thought, glaring at the shopkeepers who’d told me I was welcome to post on their windows. Probably took them down soon as I turned my back. To think a couple of them had even wheedled me into buying stuff from them before they’d let me put up my ad. The Datu Puti vinegar went into that big batch of adobo I made for a week’s worth of frozen dinners, but I was still stuck with that humongous bottle of Mang Tomas—I never did like liver sauce.
It put me in a bad mood, thinking of that liver sauce. The end of the month was hurtling closer, the second time I’d have to pay for the room without anyone to split the rent with. Outside, it was hot and humid, threatening rain. I scrabbled in my purse for something to blot my sweat with and my eyes fell on Timmy’s number on the napkin. I actually groaned. Was I that desperate? Why hadn’t I thrown it away in the first place?
I told myself I’d hang up after the tenth ring, but she answered on the ninth. I could hardly hear her over the din and I told myself maybe it was true she worked for a restaurant, it sounded like she was in a kitchen all right. “Hello?” she yelled, and I had to yell back so she could hear me. I waited for her to find a quiet spot and told her I still needed a roommate after all, the other woman had backed out. She didn’t answer for a few seconds and I was sure she’d say sorry, she’d found another place, good luck. But when she spoke again it was to say yes, thanks, she’d come that very night with her things after her shift.
I guess you could say we were two souls brought together by despair. In the moment she’d taken to answer me, I sensed her clench and goad herself open again. Probably, in that moment, she’d told herself what choice did she have, pride wouldn’t put a roof over her head. It made me ashamed, taking advantage of her neediness, but she wasn’t the only one with her back against the wall.
It was a recipe for disaster, you could say. Still, slowly, we became friends. Maybe it helped that we were starting from such a low base—rock-bottom, you might say. It’s like when you expect all sorts of bad things to happen and when they don’t, you feel charmed even though, in fact, you’d simply been spared. And did I mention she was the first friend I made in Singapore? Make that only friend. I know it sounds pathetic but I came here to make a living.
When we’d been roommates for three months, I was looking for a bracelet I’d misplaced when I found the want ads I’d posted in LP scrunched up inside a canvas tote in Timmy’s drawer. We were close enough by then that the discovery didn’t make me go ballistic. I could only mutter at her carelessness in leaving them there instead of throwing them away.
Besides, I had no business snooping around among her things. Checking her drawer I could justify since anything could have fallen inside it from the dresser top, but did I really imagine that a bracelet could burrow its way through the tight folds and wrinkles of a canvas bag? It was a shock to realize I hadn’t completely shaken off my distrust of Timmy even though we’d become friends. I don’t know which would have been worse, that or if I’d actually found the bracelet among her things. I did find it a week later, in my other purse. I was glad I hadn’t confronted her about it, or about the ads. I simply crammed my guilt inside a drawer in my head, the way I’d crammed the bundle of ads back in the canvas bag in the drawer.
You’ll find this strange but I felt a bit of relief at my discovery. It confirmed what I’d always imagined: everyone has something to hide. Bizarre as it sounds, I felt a deeper sense of connection with Timmy after that. Don’t ask me why, but it made me feel understood and absolved.
In retrospect, my friendship with Timmy must have been terribly shallow that I needed shadows to give it depth. As I’ve already mentioned, we didn’t exactly hit it off right away. Our friendship was forged gradually by picking up and sorting through the debris of our first meeting. You would think that a friendship formed in such a fashion would necessarily be deep, but looking back, my need for closeness was probably outweighed by my need to keep my ties superficial.
Timmy and I spent almost all our free time together, cruising the malls on Orchard Road, eating at McDonald’s or Food Paradise, watching the occasional movie, and in my naiveté, I’d mistaken this for camaraderie when, in truth, we were simply trying to avoid a deeper intimacy. We sought safety amid the glare of fluorescent lights, the din of piped in music, the throng of people and the assault of assorted merchandise. We chose this over the whispered confidences and drunken revelations that would have come easily over home-delivered pizza and store-bought beer in the forced proximity of our room.
But then again, I’m probably making the same mistake, assuming that Timmy and I were operating on the same wavelength. For all I know, she was never after anything except to avoid having to eat or shop by herself.
I remember during the first months we’d go out together, she would drag me to Mango or Zara where she’d try on a week’s worth of clothes until the attendants drove us away with dagger looks. She couldn’t afford the things she tried on, but she never walked out empty-handed. Even if it was only a ten-dollar pair of socks or a clip, she’d scour the shelves and racks for something she could bring home with her. I thought maybe it embarrassed her to leave without a purchase, but I found it even more embarrassing, her having to queue for ten minutes for some knick-knack she could have bought for two dollars at Daiso. While she paid, I’d usually wait for her outside. And since it exhausted me to watch the tide of people with their shopping bags, I would stare at the window displays as though they might yield the answers to life’s biggest questions.
Sometimes, I’d pretend to talk to the mannequins. I was careful not to open my mouth, of course, just sort of string together imaginary conversations in my head. I concocted histories for them, depending on their pose, their clothes and bling, their surroundings. I’d have liked it better if they had faces—a single sexy pout or canted eyebrow would be a goldmine of stories, but as it was, I had to rely on my imagination most of the time since most of the mannequins were faceless, if not completely decapitated. Maybe that was why the characters I created from these mannequins were inevitably cold-hearted bitches and callous bastards, until such time I got sick of playing the game and decided it was actually less tricky watching real people.
Sometimes, on pay days, Timmy would treat herself to something nicer than a pair of socks and I wouldn’t mind lining up with her at the counter: a scarf with geometric print, for instance, or a faux leather belt like an obi. As the months passed, the paper bags she brought home from these excursions grew bigger and bigger: from scarf to belt to blouse to dress. I remember wondering how she could possibly afford buying so much stuff since she often spoke about how poor her family was back home. But the one time I tried to bring it up, she looked away and said, “You don’t know what it’s like wearing discards everyday of your life, do you?” I remembered the fur-trimmed jacket and tight leather mini-skirt she had on the first time I saw her, and I shut up. Anyway, I thought, it was just a harmless fetish. As long as she paid her share of the rent on time, I had no reason to complain.
I had my first inkling that her mania for clothes might not be as harmless as I thought when fashion glossies started appearing in our room. This was around five months since she moved in with me. First it was a copy of Vogue on top of the dresser, then another of Bazaar on her pillow. Soon the magazines made an ankle-high stack beneath her bed. I couldn’t believe it when I picked one up and checked the cover—that small pile could have paid for our share of the utilities for a month. Timmy saw me staring at the magazine. “Those are from work,” she said, although I hadn’t asked her anything. These aren’t back issues, I wanted to say, but I figured that even if she’d wasted her hard-earned money on them or lifted them off her workplace, it was none of my business. In hindsight though, I should have made it mine.
The following month, I found a thick HSBC envelope addressed to Timmy in our mailbox. Two weeks later, there was another from Standard Chartered. This time, I examined the envelope while I was in the lift and felt something hard inside that refused to bend when I tried to flex it. A sinkhole opened up in my belly. I told myself it was probably an ATM card, or maybe, one of those credit cards they send you even if you don’t apply. But with the salary of a wait staff?
When she came home that night, I pointed to the letter on the dresser and asked her how she managed to get a credit card. I tried to sound conspiratorial, like I was trying to get pointers so I could get one myself, though the truth was, I’d given up after having my application rejected by five credit card companies. Timmy snatched the letter and tore it open. I suppose she found what she was hoping for because she pumped her fist in the air and gave a hiss that sounded like a “Yes!” It was all I could do to keep from reaching over and thwacking her across the face.
Our outings grew rare. I would pluck excuses from the air whenever she asked me if I felt like going out, and she seemed content, relieved even, at my evasion. I realize now that I’d done nothing less then than to abdicate our friendship. We kept up appearances, asking each other about our day, bringing the occasional tidbit home for the other, helping each other do our back zippers, but our conversations grew terse, and sometimes, when she was due home, I’d turn off the light and feign sleep.
I was faking slumber one night when I heard her open the door and hesitate at the threshold. With my eyes half-closed, I saw her enter quietly with a large paper bag which she crammed inside her closet.
The next morning, I found her dressed to go to work in a navy blue cocktail dress with a glittering bib of beads and crystals. I didn’t have to be a fashionista to know it was expensive. After she left, I flung her closet open and found a folded Kate Spade paper bag crammed in the back. Weak-kneed, I sat on the bed and banged the closet shut. That dress must have cost more than her share of our rent. I thought I’d probably find more stuff hidden inside, but I couldn’t afford to mess things up or she would know I was snooping. Besides, I was already running late for work. When she got home that night, I made up a story about the landlord wanting our rent early that month. She didn’t say anything, just flicked on the switch and opened her purse, a little thing covered with pink pailettes that I’d never seen before. She offered me a wad of bills between her index and middle fingers, before switching the light off again without so much as looking at my face. And maybe it was just as well, because I must have looked aghast.
We drifted even farther apart after that, as far apart as our living arrangements would let us, sharing the same small room, breathing the same stale air, sleeping in our twin IKEA beds separated by a space only wide enough for us to plant our feet down between them.
I didn’t have to feign sleep any longer since we’d stopped trying to fill in the silences, nor did she even try any more to conceal the shopping bags she brought home from Marc Jacobs, Prada, Ferragamo and their ilk.
But one night, I woke up with her hand gripping my arm from across the gap between our beds. “What am I gonna do, Sher?” she said softly. Then she confided that she’d borrowed eight thousand dollars from a loan shark.
“Heavens, Timmy, a loan shark.” We sat in silence in the darkness, her hand on my arm still, which might be why I couldn’t bring myself to rail at her. I should have said I told you so, or serves you right, but instead I just said, “Maybe you could sell off your designer stuff to help pay it off?”
“Yeah, that would get me a thousand, two at most, then what?” she said, then added, as if reading my thoughts “I’ve maxed out my credit cards too.” She sounded strangely calm, like she’d thought it over a hundred times and realized there was nothing more to be done. At last she pulled her hand away. “It’s all right, sorry I woke you up. I thought I’d let you know just in case…”
I didn’t hear the rest of her words, and maybe there was none. Her breathing grew slow and even, and I wondered if she was using my own trick on me. I wanted to reach across the crevice between our beds, to shake her awake from her fake sleep and tell her to change out of her work clothes and brush her teeth. It bothered me, even more than her unfinished sentence, that she should go to bed without these rituals .
When I woke up the next morning, I was relieved to find her getting ready for work like nothing had happened the night before. I’d slept badly, eyeing her from my side of the trench, afraid that she’d sneak out and slash her wrists in the bathroom. Watching her put on her make up, I didn’t know whether to be relieved or angry with myself for letting my imagination run wild. The whole business felt like a prank. I didn’t doubt for a second that she’d shaken me awake last night to tell me about the loan shark, nor that what she’d told me was true, but the blusher on her cheeks and the sunlight streaming in through the windows seemed to take the edge off everything, including her problem. It was easy in that light to be optimistic.
Only, Timmy didn’t come home that night. I woke up and saw in the dim light filtering in from outside that her bed was empty and undisturbed. I groped under my pillow and checked the time on my mobile: 4:12 a.m. I dialed her number, still lying down, but all I got was a recorded message that said the subscriber could not be reached. I sat up and propped myself against the wall. She’d never stayed out a single night since she moved in with me, and now, of all times… I tried her number again, and when I got the same answer, I dialed the restaurant’s number even though I knew it closed at ten o’ clock and wouldn’t open again until noon. I let the phone ring eleven, twelve times, imagining it echoing shrilly in the murky silence of the empty restaurant. I was about to hang up when somebody picked up and a guy yelled at me for disturbing his sleep. I checked if I’d dialed the wrong number, but it was the restaurant’s all right. Maybe it was the night guard slacking off, or a hotel staff on night duty who’d sneaked into the empty restaurant to get a shuteye. I thought of calling the police, but I didn’t want to seem paranoid. Technically, Timmy had only been missing a few hours.
Since I was already up, I decided to get ready for work. It was just getting light outside when I left the flat and the street was still deserted. Back in Manila, tricycles and jeepneys would have reclaimed the roads, undoing with their fumes the night’s cleansing. I got a copy of Today from 7-Eleven and ordered a hash brown and black coffee at McDonald’s across the street from my workplace. I flipped through the tabloid, forgetting my breakfast until the hash brown went soggy and the coffee lukewarm. I scoured each page for anything remotely interesting that might yield clues to what happened to Timmy—a road accident, a fire, a stabbing somewhere. Nothing. Someone got killed when a tree fell on him as he drove by his a convertible, but that wasn’t what I was after.
A few minutes before eight, I scarfed everything down and scampered across the street to help my colleague open the cafe. When the first wave of customers was settled to their eggs ben and bacon, brioches and flat whites, I dialed Timmy’s phone again and got the same recorded message. Before lunchtime, when I supposed the guy who’d shouted at me would no longer be there, I tried the restaurant once more. “She’s absent again,” the woman who picked up said when I asked for Timmy. My blood went cold and I couldn’t speak. The woman must have sensed something was wrong because when she spoke again, her tone had changed. “Who’s this again?” she asked, although she didn’t ask me in the first place. I said something garbled about being a friend of Timmy’s visiting from Manila before hanging up.
Again I thought of calling the police, afraid that if I didn’t and it turned out that something bad had indeed happened to Timmy, they would find the fact that I hadn’t alerted anyone that she was missing suspicious. Still, I tarried, imagining the questions they would ask me, and I kept making mistakes with the customers’ orders. By three in the afternoon I gave up trying and told my supervisor I had a stomach bug. I don’t think she believed me but she just flicked the air between us like she was shooing a fly, and told me to be back the next morning with an MC.
I rang the bell when I reached home even though none of my flatmates would be home at the time. Perhaps I imagined that by doing so, I could summon Timmy back and have her open the door, greeting me with a convoluted story about where she’d been and what she’d bought. I let myself in with my key when the door didn’t open. I was still half-hoping that I would find her fast asleep on her bed, or even mine, nursing a hangover, but there was nobody there and everything was just as I had left it.
I went straight to the dresser and pulled the top drawer open, rummaging beneath the tangle of headphones, filthy hairbrushes, crumpled bills and warped candy bars until I found the plastic envelope. I snapped it open and lifted out its contents. I began with my birth certificate, tearing it first in half, then quarters, and ever smaller shreds that I caught in the cradle of my shirt. I moved on to my high school diploma, which I’d since removed from its cheap frame of faux wood and acetate that my mom insisted I bring with me to Singapore. Finally, I picked up the card with the snowman in front, the only piece of mail I’d ever gotten from Manila last Christmas, from my son.
Maybe it was overkill, my tearing that too, but the card said Tita Myla, Mery Crismass, Love Mico. I had to be clean in case Timmy’s workplace alerted the police about her absence and they come snooping around and asking questions. I could be sentimental or I could avoid running into trouble with the law and losing my job which kept my boy fed, clothed and schooled. Perhaps I was being paranoid, imagining that they’d bother to look at those papers and check if they tallied with my records, but better paranoia than regret.
I should have left those papers behind in the first place, like the agent told me when he offered me the manila envelope containing a passport, birth certificate, college diploma and transcript of records, all bearing my alias. I went white and had palpitations when I first saw that strange name next to my photo on the passport. The agent shook her head and blew smoke into my face. “Girl, try to be a little less transparent?”
I was glad then that I’d held on to my BC. I clung to the vague hope that once I got settled in Singapore, I could take that piece of paper to the embassy and trade in my bogus passport. It didn’t take me long to realize how naive that hope was. Within a month, I got my work permit emblazoned with my new identity. And now that I’d flushed the last relics of my true self down the drain, who’s to say that I’m not really Sheryl Rose Ramos? I haven’t heard from the agent since I’d finished paying off my agency fees, and my family, whenever they called or texted me, omitted my name and avoided my alias, not wanting to be implicated. Even my son now called me ‘Tita’ and I’m afraid he believes it.
Several days passed and the police didn’t materialize. I tried to live as normally as possible given the circumstances, but sleep was difficult—my mind kept slipping its leash and running up dead-end alleys. One alley it kept visiting was this: that maybe, Timmy had simply pulled a runner on me like my roommate before. That maybe that thing she’d told me about the loan shark was pure fiction, something to make me feel sorry for her or else plant doubts in my mind about her disappearance. This thought allowed me to sleep a little better.
True, it nagged me that she should have left behind all those expensive stuff when she absconded. But then, I thought, she might have skipped the country altogether and was afraid to run into trouble with Customs. It suddenly seemed plausible that those designer shoes, bags and dresses spilling out of her closet were hot goods.
One weekend, when Timmy had been gone two weeks and my flatmates were out, I gathered all her stuff, bundled them up in grocery bags and sent them down the garbage chute.
Afterwards, I was puttering around in the kitchen making instant noodles for dinner when Chito came in to put some groceries in the ref. He lived in the master room with his girlfriend, and sublet the other rooms to us behind the landlord’s back. It was a brilliant crime, where we were both accomplice and victim.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the rent,” I said, filling my cup noodles to the brim with scalding water and putting the lid back on. “Timmy bailed out on me.”
He closed the ref and stared at me.
I managed not to blink first. “I know. Either I’m a bitch magnet or this place has bad Feng Shui for me.”
He leaned against the doorway and crossed his arms. “Come on, everyone’s got a bad run now and then. You’re luck’s gonna turn,” he said. But I could see it bothered him, and deep inside he was thinking, look, I know you’ve had rotten luck and you’re fed up, but if you’re thinking of doing something funny, you better think again or you’ll fuck us all up.
“I know it will,” I said, turning back to my dinner. I peeled the lid off and swished the now soft noodles around in the broth, catching some strands in my fork. As I raised it to my lips, I heard Chito call out behind me, “Careful, hey, you might burn yourself.” And I knew he wasn’t talking about the noodles.
The next morning, I called in sick at work. When I was sure everyone had left, I pulled my packed suitcase out from under my bed and slipped out of the flat, leaving the door unlocked and no forwarding address.