I used to live on a dark street, in a girl’s boarding house with a shared bathroom. It was a small room with thin walls and one closet. I’d fall asleep on weekends listening to the girl on the other side of wall eat her way through what must have been dozens of bags of potato chips. I suspect she was the source of the small rat population that later invaded my room.
It was the tail end of summer and beginning of rainy season. The heat would curl up in bed with me, sneaking into the coolest spots in my sheets.
I spent the first few weeks walking around in a bra until I realized the people in the small building across the street could see me. My first purchase for that place was half a set of curtains, and I had to borrow money from a good friend to even buy that.
Every morning, I’d fall asleep to the shouts of the clanking of the coconut cart, the long wail of “Ta-hoooooooo!” that followed the slap of the vendor’s slippers on pavement. A karaoke bar on the side street never seemed to close, so a tiny trickle of MIDI-background music haunted my dreams.
Every night I’d walk to work, scooting past the row of tricycle drivers who drank dark local beer out of liter bottles and catcalled anything on two legs. I was alone, I was young and I was scared of them. I was scared of a lot of things during that time, but I pretended not to be. One day I ended up taking the wrong jeepney and ended up on the dusty tracks of the old Santa Ana Race Track. I was just in time for the race, so I ended up staying.
I spent nights taking calls, my ears ringing from the screams of angry customers. Some days, the dread hit me so hard I’d shake as I put my headphones on and pressed the button that melded me into the system. One day a customer screamed at me for so long I ended up crying, not because he was screaming, but because he’d been so nice and I had no idea what I did wrong. After he screamed at me, he slammed the phone down. My supervisor kindly took the headphones from me, sat down and told me to go downstairs for a smoke.
One day, after a particularly hard day, I bought a cigarette for the trike driver standing next to me at the neighborhood corner store. It brought about the usual barrage of questions. He thought I was a student, still. I’ll call him Ray, but not because I knew his name. I just called him Kuya, which is an endearment better suited for older brothers and college classmates you don’t want to date. Ray had two kids, the biceps of a former body builder and a gut that preceded him by five minutes. Our small friendship mostly consisted of two to three sentence conversations over cigarettes.
“Init ah.” It’s hot.
“Oo nga, po.” Agreement.
“Ingat ka, ah. Daming tarantado diyan.” Take care, there are a lot of assholes around. Then he’d point at random spaces, like the sky or the other side of the street. Gesturing to the world in general.
Eventually, I learned that he had a daughter my age who worked somewhere in the Middle East. He’d seen me walking alone at night and like all men with young daughters, worried.
When I finally got paid, I bought Ray and his friends a couple of bottles of the strong local beer as a small thanks. It made the other drivers remember me. One memorable day, a huge storm flooded the streets of the city and when one of them saw me walking in thigh-high floodwater, he offered to give me a ride to the nearest dry street. But that’s another story, for another day.
Eventually, I left the job, and the street. But I still dream of it sometimes: the heat, the cacaphony, how it never seemed to sleep. I often dream of the small window I spent hours gazing out of. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed.