by Catherine Batac Walder
part 1 of 2
The pail of water boils like a volcano about to erupt. I unplug the heater and think of more wasted electricity, knowing the water will just get cold while I wait for a vacant cubicle.
Our schedule suggests it is Marie, that very studious sophomore’s, turn to clean. I watch as she scoops the dirt from the sink with her bare hands, probably thinking nobody can see her.
Marie rarely speaks to anyone. We have lived in the same dormitory for quite some time now and sometimes exchanged a few lines, but I swear I’ve never seen her smile. Also, she has become rather aloof ever since most of the girls started to whisper about how different she is.
I hardly know her but based on what I’ve heard, Marie said she could communicate with cats through mental telepathy. As I am not a cat person, I didn’t question this claim further. If she said she could talk to dogs, I would ask her more, and maybe would even pay her to teach me to perform this uncanny trick if she knew a way.
A freshman I see around comes out from one of the cubicles. A towel is wrapped around her head and she is clad in a yellow bathrobe with the glossiest fabric I’ve ever seen.
“Kay, have you seen the mop?” Marie asks her.
Kay lets out a snort of disgust “Why should I know? I’m not the manang here. Why? Do I look like a manang to you?”
I look at Kay as she leaves.
Marie is quiet. Ignoring Kay’s words, she turns to me, “Don’t worry about it. I know where the mop is. I just wanted to prove how she’d react to me.” She adds, “Starting next week no one may come here or go to the toilets during cleaning time.”
“Did the nuns announce it already?” I ask.
“No. They’re still discussing it. I just happen to know,” Marie says. “There’s a fine for those who disobey. Sr. Agnes thinks it will help enhance our self-control,” she adds as she starts to scrub the wall above the sink.
Forget the toilets for this self-control enhancement that will cost us our kidneys, I want to add. Angela, my batchmate who’s a Mass Communications student, comes in. She makes those sniffing sounds. Her nose is red. I say good morning to her. She doesn’t look and just smiles, as she is busy playing Rubik’s cube.
“Are there any unoccupied cubicles?” Angela asks, still busy with the puzzle.
“None,” I answer.
Marie cleans the other side of the wall. I murmur, “My God, how can there be a pubic hair on the wall?” She just shrugs at my observation.
Around us the sound of water splashing in the cubicles fills the whole shower room. Seven-thirty. Great. I’ll be late for my 8 o’clock class again. Suddenly, I notice that the door of my favorite cubicle is not pushed back to the doorframe, a sign that nobody is inside.
* * *
My mistake is I sometimes forget to knock. But you cannot blame me. I’m used to entering every familiar place, like this favorite cubicle, without knocking. My sister hates that; I’d walk to her room as quietly as a cat, just fling open the door and shock her. Today I’m doing it again. Somebody screams as the door of the cubicle squeaks open. I bang it shut again but two seconds are enough to see the girl’s naked back.
And two more seconds are enough for Angela to divert her attention from her puzzle to me. She gives me a sour look as if I committed the biggest sin of all.
“She didn’t lock it,” I reason. I can almost see myself, my lower lip jutting out whenever I make a mistake.
I go to my room and change from my floral pajamas. Maybe the occupant didn’t see me. As I mentioned, her back was to me but I’m not sure if she saw my clothes from the corner of her eye. Maybe if I don’t wear these pajamas for a while, she will forget. Anyway, I’m not really fond of them because they feel as rough as drapes.
Who is this girl, my latest victim? Why oh why for heaven’s sake can’t I help but see things? This always happens. I come into a room just as someone emits an unstoppable flatulence, moving his buttock to the left, thinking there is no one else there.
* * *
As I get out of the dorm, I see that Marie is, as always, talking with Tekki. I say, as always, because you see, Tekki is a stray black cat and if there is one person who can converse with her, it is Marie. Pets are not allowed at the dorm grounds but since no one is responsible for Tekki, the nuns do not really care about her presence. As we saw more and more of her, someone thought of naming her Tekesta, and later, everyone was calling her Tekki.
The cat is seated on a bench and Marie is knelt down. Her face is almost against Tekki’s to try to make eye contact. I decide this must be how psychics have conversations with, and understand the language of, animals.
Marie looks up as I pass them, without a trace of embarrassment at what she is doing. She tells me, “She’s in a bad mood today. The spirit of a dead cat wouldn’t leave her. Spirits of cats can get trapped too, you know, and animals can sense them. Much in the same way that they sense trapped human souls, too.”
I struggle to smile at her words.
But as I go further down the path, I spot Michelle looking very busy in the garden. Michelle is a senior Biology student. At that moment, she is wearing white gloves and a white surgical mask. She is crouched down dissecting what to me looks like a cat.
* * *
It is almost lunchtime. Kay closes the door of her room. Her roommate Melissa, also a freshman, won’t come back until 4 pm so she has time to fix the crime scene.
Kay thinks that Melissa won’t know any of her plans. She thinks, “Her mind would be on that stupid girl who saw her naked in the shower room today and she would not have time to suspect anything.”
“The lock was defective. I was ashamed so when she closed the door I had to check the lock twenty times and sit down on the toilet bowl to gather myself back again,” Melissa told Kay this morning after someone opened the door of the cubicle the former was in.
“I think she’s even more stupid to leave her money on our desk just like that,” Kay judges further. She goes to the desk and opens Melissa’s purse. She counts two thousand pesos. She pockets the money and wipes the wallet in case there is anyone who will think of getting the fingerprints.
She disarranges everything in the room. She pulls all the bags under the bed and opens them. She also leaves the cabinets open to make it look as if the clothes have also been searched.
Kay goes to the door, unlocks it and peers outside the corridor. No one is around. She takes her knapsack and goes out of the room, leaving the door of their room open.
Kay seals the plan: “And of course, I’ll tell them I lost five hundred pesos myself.”
* * *
“How are you?” Sr. Agnes asks me when I go back to the dorm later that afternoon.
Great. You just dismissed my roommate and you ask me how I am. You just don’t dismiss someone for being a Born Again Christian. This nun wants to sound concerned but to me she is still the old Sr. Agnes who is cross most of the time.
“Not too bad, sister.” I say. I’m ready to go up, not wanting to have another word with her.
“What’s your assignment for tonight?”
“The kitchen. I’m cleaning with Grace.”
“Please concentrate on the walls.”
Yes, my mother sent me here to clean.
“By the way, somebody took Melissa’s allowance from their room.”
“Oh. What time did it happen, sister?”
“No one knows. Although her roommate said she was in the room until lunch.”
“Who’s her roommate by the way?” There are fifty girls here. When I was a freshman I had time to visit every room; now I don’t know who rooms with whom.
“That freshman Kay,” Sr. Agnes says.
Kay. Miss glossy yellow bathrobe.
Sister continues, “Melissa said it’s impossible the culprit wouldn’t see the money on the desk at first glance and took time to open everything up to look for it. Unless she was looking for some other thing.”
I yawn as I climb up. Another theft. This isn’t new. Still, I wonder if Melissa is taking up Soc Sci this sem and if she followed Prof. Ato’s advice. What did that professor say? First you steal your own money so you won’t be accused if, the next time, you steal somebody else’s money. Then you can shout and tell everyone “there’s really a thief here, now we are two victims already!” I could not really remember much of what I learned from my Soc Sci class except for this, and that I developed a huge crush on John B. Watson the behaviorist.
* * *
It’s only when I reach my room, unzip my bag and dinner peers out (a pack of mug noodles), that I remember I forgot to log in. Sister might take that against me; I should remember to do that later. For a graduating student, these small things, such as forgetting to log in, mean so much.
Ever since my roommate was kicked out, I became paranoid. She is a Born Again Christian who took some of her Catholic dorm friends to a Bible Study. I went home to the province that weekend with a roommate to say goodbye. When I came back she was packing her things.
Since then I’ve dreaded going home, unsure of what big surprises await me at the dorm. I’ve also become careful, because I have no time to look for another house at this time of the year when I’m thinking about completing all my requirements. No, I should graduate this year! I really have to. After solving book after book of Math problems, I deserve just that.
The same instant I switch on the radio, there is laughter from the corridor. “What happened to you? I thought you were sent to a mission in space?” Laughter.
“What about the script? Did Cecille agree she’d do it? Tell her if she will, she won’t have to help with the props.” Pause.
“Yeah. I have a cold. Do I sound that bad? Achoooo!” Pause.
“I don’t know! No, not Tekki. Michelle, my dormmate, brought a cat here. I know I’m allergic to cats, yet I just love to caress them! I’ve been blowing my nose since forever.” More laughter.
It’s Angela. We are immune to her monologue every late afternoon. I turn up the volume of the radio to drown her voice. The speakers are malfunctioning. I can hear the singer as if she has a lisp. It is a bit late for a nap, but I can’t start studying till Angela is finished chatting on her cellphone.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Catherine Batac Walder