I’M pretty sure there are only two rats. I’ve seen both so often that I can tell them apart now, and ever since I gave them names, I’ve started feeling something almost like affection for them. I mean, I don’t feed them or anything — they manage to steal quite enough of my food, thank you — but at least I don’t freak out any more when they pop up, and I don’t reach for the nearest blunt object. I saw Ludlum (he’s the smaller, darker one) this morning, just behind the dishrack, and Le Carré paid me a visit as I was eating lunch. I guess that’s how I think of them now: they’re visitors, and God knows I don’t get many of those here in Krus na Ligas.
Well, there’s Eric, of course. It’s kind of funny; we’ve known each other for years — went to the same high school and all — and we’ve never really been more than buddies, but nowadays, I think he’s gotten kind of sweet on me. Why else would he squeeze his Civic into the narrow streets of KnL? Why else would he hang out in this lousy place? I mean, to call my room makeshift would be an act of kindness; it doesn’t seem constructed so much as slapped together. That it’s an architectural afterthought is proven by a window set in its back wall: a grimy screen covers said window, and its wooden jalousies have now been nailed shut, but anyone can see that it once served as the house’s front window. I guess the owners needed some extra money, looked at the square meter or so of extra space in front of their house, and decided to cobble together a “room” for some gullible student, i.e. me, to rent.
The right wall was made out of hollow blocks, up to a point, that is. From around waist height upwards, it’s just chicken wire, supported by a wooden framework. This fact is just barely disguised by the heavy yellow curtains that hang down from the roof. The left wall is made of wood; but it’s also unfortunately a shared wall. Half of it belongs to the people next door, I can hear them arguing from here.
I don’t really mind all that, though. I’ve rented worse places. I spend most of my time asleep anyway, so I don’t give a damn about the interior design, or lack thereof. The noise I can tune out, after a while; it just becomes like a background hiss, like the white noise an off-duty TV makes when it’s way past midnight and you’re nodding off on the couch. The thing that bugs me, though, is when I have to go into the main house to use the bathroom. Of course I know enough never to step out of the bathroom wearing just a towel or even a bathrobe; but for my landlord’s useless son it’s apparently a turn-on just to see me in shorts and slippers. I have to pass through the kitchen to get to the CR, and if he happens to be there, I’ll feel his gaze on me, travelling the length of my body up and down. I don’t even have to glance at him to know this; he’s not exactly subtle about it. Get a job, I want to tell him; get a goddamned life.
A knock sounds on my door. My door is made of cheap lawanit half-heartedly reinforced by some galvanized iron. Somehow any sounds produced by striking it don’t sound quite real, and so I wait until I hear the knock a second, a third time, before I get up to answer.
“Who is it?” I call.
“Just me,” a familiar voice replies.
I push my monobloc chair aside to clear the way to my so-called closet. The chair makes an irritating scraping sound. “Hold on,” I say, as I open the closet door, and tug at one of the drawers. “Just give me a minute or two to make myself decent.”
“Okay,” he says, as I rummage for a bra — my white T-shirt is pretty flimsy, and there are limits to my bohemianism. I find one, snap it on, then get up and open the door.
“Hi, Kara,” he says, with a big grin and a small hand-wave, as though I were several meters away. The goof.
“Hey, Eric,” I smile, ” — come in.” I point at the chair. “Sit down, feel at home.” He sits, quite happily obedient, and I can’t help trusty-canine comparisons from springing to my mind. I know, I know, I can be so mean. And to think Eric’s one of those rare persons I actually like.
I sit down on my bed; it’s an old army-issue steel number whose aged springs creak whenever I shift my weight.
“So. How are your classes?” Eric asks, plunging straight away into the small talk. A new semester has just begun, our second here in this university, and for the first time in a long while I don’t feel the usual surge of enthusiasm for a new grading period, that wave of self-delusion that has me telling myself, this time I’m going to work my butt off, this time I’m getting high grades in everything. I just feel kind of blah about it all.
“My classes? They’d be okay if they didn’t interfere with my sleep so much.”
Eric laughs, and then his face turns serious and he says, “Kara? Can I talk to you about something that’s been bothering me a little?” I say sure, go ahead.
Eric starts talking about this quartet of sweaty sando-clad men who don’t seem to do anything except hang out at the sari-sari store down the street. He says that, just now, when he got out of his car and glanced at them, he noticed that they were drunk. He goes on about how they could be dangerous, about how one of these nights when I’m going home, you know, something could happen, that I should let him fetch me from my last class every day, it’s no big deal…
I feel like telling him that I’m pretty sure they’re all right, that they seem nice enough, that all they ever do when they’re drunk is sing — badly — but I know he’ll just say I’m being uncharacteristically naive. I also feel like asking, hey, wait, what are we anyway? What’s this fetch-me-every-day business? Did I miss something? Aren’t we getting a little bit ahead of ourselves? But sometimes it’s just easier to let awkward questions simmer, in the false hope that they’ll evaporate completely. So instead, I stare absent-mindedly at my lumpy mattress. It’s covered with a shabby white bedsheet decorated with little orange flowers.
Then, just as Eric finishes up his speech, there’s a tap on the roof. And then another. And another. We look up. It’s beginning to rain.
We sit there for a while, listening to the taps coming faster and stronger, listening to the rain gathering strength. Soon it sounds like the entire Filipiniana Dance Group, on steroids, is performing on the roof.
“Ha! Never fails… Just had the car washed.” Eric shakes his head, and then a slow grin spreads across his face. “You remember Jo-ann’s birthday, in senior year?”
How could I forget? Jo-ann was one of only a handful of people in our batch who had a car, and she was the only one who had a new car, a brand-spanking-new Galant, as opposed to the secondhand slabs of rust that normally sputtered around the parking lot. And so, on her birthday, the barkada decided to slather gunk all over her car, as a surprise. The plan was that we would bring cans of shaving cream, spray their contents all over the car’s surface, put some cherries on the hood, and then hide. When Jo-ann returned to the parking lot, we would savor our view of her stunned expression, and then suddenly leap out of the hedges, scream ‘surprise!’ and then cheerfully wipe off all the gunk. The problem was, we didn’t know that the shaving cream would eat right through the car’s paint job. We spent the next few months pooling our allowances to pay for the repair work.
Eric and I are laughing, as we tell each other the story again. “And then,” I say, gasping, “and then there was that time when we were sophomores, and it was raining like a bastard, raining so hard they cancelled classes, and then Rachel announced that she wanted to watch a movie…?” Eric is nodding his head vigorously. He finishes the story for me — “Yeah, and we told her she was nuts, but somehow she commandeered the Assistant Director’s official transport, and we got a free ride to the mall!”
Story follows familiar story. Do you remember that time in the biology lab, when…? And how about that day at the fair… We’ve forgotten the room, the ratty yellow curtains, the question of us. For the moment, we’re somewhere else, safe from decisions and possibilities and consequences. We’re in a shared area of memory, a kind of amusement park of the heart, where nothing goes awry unless it’s for our enjoyment, where days past can be repainted in colors bright as happiness.
Sometimes I think that that’s what I really like about Eric — that we can talk about all that, all the stuff that happened to us in high school.
“Well,” Eric concludes, “those were the days.”
I make a derisive sound, something that’s between a laugh and a snort. I don’t know why. Is it because of the cliché? The fact that those words sound kind of stupid coming from someone who’s not even twenty? Or maybe it’s because his careless, tossed-off statement has scared me a little. What if those really were ‘the days’?
Eric senses my unease, and steers the conversation back into safe waters. “So what are you taking this sem?” he asks.
I start rattling off my subjects. Communication II, Social Science, etcetera, etcetera, and Math 17.
“Hey,” he says, frowning. “Didn’t you take that last sem?”
“Yes,” I say.
“So what’s the deal?” He has a genuinely puzzled expression on his face.
I wonder how I’m going to answer him. Eric knows me well enough to realize that there’s no way in hell I could have failed Math 17.
“I failed it.”
“It’s true.” I point at the containers arrayed by the kitchen sink. “Hey. You want something to drink? Iced tea? Coffee…? Some Dom Perignon, perhaps?”
“No, no… I’m okay.” He brushes off my attempt to change the topic, with the determination of someone whose mind tends to run on a single track. “How could you fail Math? I mean, you were the best in high school. Everyone copied assignments off you. Heck, you probably solve calculus problems in your sleep!”
I shrug, and look away from him. I suddenly realize that I’m going to give him an explanation, and I don’t want to be looking at him when I do. I pick up my newsprint edition of the Math 17 textbook, and flip it open to a random page: a mass of graphs, symbols and equations unfurls. I recognize this chapter, and some of the problems listed.
“Well…” I start, “Well, you know how, in Math, attendance doesn’t mean anything?” He frowns. “I mean, that’s what all the other Math majors told me. All the teachers care about is if you’re good. Some of them don’t even bother to check who’s absent or present. All that matters is that you pass the exams.”
Eric’s still frowning. I begin to worry that he might crease his forehead permanently.
“So, my Math 17 class was at seven in the morning. Too early for me. I cut class, a lot. By the end of the sem, I was just showing up for the exams. And let me tell you, I aced those exams.” I’m still looking at the open page. With my index finger, I trace an arc of plotted points on one of the graphs. “And then, just after the finals, my teacher asks me to see him in his office.” I pause. I take a slow, deep breath.
“I go there, he’s all smiles, come in, come in, he says. He sits down, points to a chair just opposite him, tells me to sit down. I do. He starts by saying that I didn’t show up for classes enough, that I’m in trouble because I went over the maximum number of absences. I’m listening, and I don’t know what to say in my defense. Suddenly his hand’s resting on my thigh, and he’s telling me that actually, the attendance really won’t be a problem, as long as I’m not averse to the idea of having a little ‘fun’.”
Eric is staring at me, like he can’t understand, much less believe what I’m saying, like all he’s doing is watching my lips move.
“I left, of course. And when I got my class card, there was a big fat failing grade on it.”
Eric blurts out, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And then, as if fearing the honest answer to that question, he quickly asks another. “Did you confront him?”
“Sure I did. I asked Rach to come with me, we went to his room, and I told him that I thought the whole thing was stupid. I told him that our last encounter in his office constituted harassment. I also pointed out that there were other people in the section who cut class just as much as I did, and he didn’t fail them. He denied that he ever came on to me, and, regarding the grade, he said that he was just executing University attendance policy. He also implied that I would be in big trouble if I spread my story around.”
Eric is pissed off. He actually looks more pissed off than I ever was.
“Eric, calm down,” I say, but looking at him, I know I’m wasting my words.
“Ba’t ang yabang niya? Does he have a frat? Is he the brother of a senator or something?”
“What does it matter?”
“You’re right, it doesn’t matter. I mean, he’s not gonna know who or what hit him anyway.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Look, it’s in the Bible! If you have a grievance against somebody, the first thing you do is talk to him. Then, if he doesn’t listen, you bring a friend and you try to talk to him again. And then, after all else has failed, you have to go ahead and smite him. You know, beat the shit out of him.”
“I know what smite means, thank you. And just where in the Bible did you read that?”
“I think it’s in Matthew. I’m pretty sure that’s what it says.”
“I find that really hard to believe, Eric.”
“Look,” he says, and for the first time he frightens me. I’m looking into his eyes, and I realize that Eric, sort-of-goofy Eric, my old high school friend, is perfectly capable of premeditated violence. “Look, we have to do something. He can’t get away with this.”
“Eric, I swear to God, if I pick up the Collegian next week and find out he’s the lead story, I’ll never talk to you again.”
He has nothing to say in response. He just sits there, his fists clenched, in silence. Finally, he mutters, “He just shouldn’t get away with it.”
I suddenly feel very tired.
Eric stands up. “I guess I should…” He makes some vague hand-motion in the general direction of the door, but otherwise he doesn’t move. I look at his eyes; they’re glistening. He puts his hand over them, as if to stop them from leaking.
I get up, walk over to him, and put my arms around him in a reassuring hug. The last time I hugged Eric was our graduation day, right after the last ceremony, when everyone was laughing and cheering, and throwing their programs in the air because we didn’t have those silly four-cornered caps. That was a good day. Here, now, his arms wrap around me, and they start to squeeze just a little too tightly. He opens his wet eyes, looks at me, and his head ducks down and his mouth meets mine and I can feel his tongue work its way between my lips.
I push him away, with all the strength that suddenly surges into me. He staggers, and for a second he looks like he’s going to fall, but he manages to plant his hand on the table for support.
“I’m sorry,” he says, straightening up abruptly. He just stands there, looking utterly lost, frozen for a moment, and then he almost trips over his own feet as he turns around, and lunges for the door. He swings it open, and just like that, before I can say anything, before I can yell at him or offer him an umbrella to borrow, he’s outside, running towards his car, getting drenched. I watch as he fumbles with his keys. Finally he manages to get in, and start the engine. His headlights blink on and he honks the car horn a couple of times. I make a small waving gesture, but I’m not sure if he can see me through this downpour.
I close the door, and sit down at my kitchen table. I pick up a screw-top plastic container, it’s full of this iced tea powdered mix. I shovel a couple of tablespoons of the stuff into a glass, pour water into it and stir the whole thing vigorously, until I can no longer see the individual grains swirling around, until all that’s left is a homogenous dark brown liquid. I take a swig. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Ludlum as he zips across the kitchen sink’s edge.
There are times when I wish rats could talk. Hell, there are times when I wish dogs could talk, and cats, and all sorts of animals, and inanimate objects too — I could have conversations with my books, and ask my clothes which of them wants to go out today. I could go to our old school, run my hand across the pebbly surface of the Humanities building’s walls, and thank my favorite narra tree — the one near the Girls’ Dorm — for pleasant oblivious afternoons spent in its shade. I gulp down the last of my instant, too-sweet tea, and smack my lips. There’s an unpleasant puckery aftertaste. I set the glass down on my table and shuffle over to my bed. The springs creak as I lie down. I take a deep breath, close my eyes. I can hear another argument starting next door. I can hear the scratching and scrabbling of my two rodent roommates as they cavort inside the hollow wooden wall to my left. And outside, there’s the constant roar of the rain, as if the sky itself is laughing at some great joke that I just don’t get.
©1999 by Luis Joaquin M. Katigbak
This story has previously appeared in print.