Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
The office reminded Lily of the quirky, industrial interior of co-working spaces back home in Manila: white brick walls, empty beer crates turned into chairs in the lounge, copywriters pinning paper on clotheslines or writing their ideas on the glass partitions with silver markers (IDEA – Execution – Execution – Execution). One of the teams was working on a pitch for a juice company — their “idea clothesline” filled with sketches of oranges — and Evie the art director was holding her head, sighing and saying to anyone within earshot, “This project is giving me a migraine.”
“You’re the new office assistant?” said Andrea, Evie’s partner for the juice company pitch, an Australian accent sailing out of her mouth. Andrea was the only other Southeast Asian-looking person in the office, and dressed exactly like the kind of person who would work in an office like this. White jacket over a black tulle dress, lavender hair pinned back with unicorn hair clips. Peter told Lily in the interview that “every day is casual Friday”, and so she came to work wearing jeans and sneakers and a white blouse. But, next to Andrea, she felt almost formal. Old-fashioned.
“That’s me,” Lily said.
Andrea leaned in, whispered, “Pinoy ka?”
“Yes,” Lily said, startled.
“Me too!” Andrea said.
“Have you lived here long?”
Andrea giggled as though Lily had given her a compliment. “I’ve only been here a year.”
“But your accent—”
“It just makes it easier for people to understand me,” she said. “When I worked at a BPO back home, we had courses to neutralize our accents, get that American twang in there. Same principle.” She rested her hip on the side of the printer, placed an elbow on top of the pile of paper Lily was collating. “And you? Have you been in Sydney long?”
“I’ve been here a couple of months,” Lily said, eyeing the pile Andrea was on the verge of tipping over.
“You should try it,” Andrea said.
“You know. Neutralizing your accent.”
“I like my accent,” Lily said. “I think people understand me just fine.”
“Okay,” Andrea said.
They didn’t have the chance to speak again the rest of that morning, and Lily was grateful for it, happy to be alone in her small cubicle in the corner, doodling notes on discarded paper (IDEA-Execution-Execution), while Andrea and Evie brainstormed in front of the clothesline. Evie was a head taller than Andrea, and seemed to loom over her as she said, repeatedly, “I don’t know, A. It’s just not working.”
“Why don’t we try it this way?” Andrea said, doodling something on a paper pinned on the clothesline. “Revise this part here and see how it flows.”
Evie massaged her temples. “Okay, give me a few,” she said. “I need to take something for this headache.”
Andrea walked to Lily’s table. “You want to head out for lunch somewhere?”
Evie swept past them, stern-faced, in her shiny leather pants and her high-heeled boots, and Lily found herself saying, “Sure.”
Andrea took her to a self-serve hotpot restaurant. Majority of the clientele were East Asian international students and, as they were enveloped in simultaneous conversations carried out in Mandarin and Japanese, Andrea shed her accent and spoke in Filipino, asking Lily about her first day. Lily found it pleasant to talk to her, until Andrea said, “What’s taking you so long? Don’t worry about it, lunch is on me.”
They were standing in front of the lit shelves, and Lily was taking a moment to look at each of the ingredients. Each bowl would be weighed at the end of the line, and Lily realized, with angry dismay, that Andrea thought she was taking a while to choose because she was calculating the price of the meal in her head. Andrea was acting like the worldly older sister taking a poor, provincial lass around the big, bad city and Lily wanted to say, Listen here, I have my own money, I can manage on my own, don’t patronize me, but decided against it. Instead, she took the heaviest ingredients she could find — beef balls, cheese-filled fish cakes, tofu — and stood next to Andrea as the bowls were weighed. Andrea’s bowl was ten dollars.
“Seventeen dollars for this one,” the cashier said.
“Whoa!” Andrea said, taking out her wallet. “Someone’s hungry.” Lily shrugged and flashed the sweetest smile she could muster.
They sat next to the windows. The restaurant was crowded, and Lily could feel every jostle and shudder of the group of young men sitting behind her, laughing over a joke.
“Hey,” Andrea called over to them. “Can you be careful? You’re hitting my friend over here.”
The group apologized and Andrea switched back to Filipino. “The soup’s good, huh?” Andrea said.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“I heard from Peter we’re attending the same uni.”
“Yes, I’m taking a diploma course. English Studies.”
“Ugh. Shakespeare, right?”
“Not just Shakespeare but—” Lily started saying, and just gave up. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Do you have family in Sydney?” Andrea asked.
“No,” Andrea said. Then: “I came here with my girlfriend.”
Andrea didn’t say anything more.
“Is she also in advertising?” Lily asked.
“No.” Andrea ran her chopsticks through the soup, searching for the remaining noodles and fish cakes. “Are you keeping up with the news back home?” She mentioned the police announcing that 4,500 people had been shot dead in the government’s anti-drug operations — “And that’s just the official number” — mentioned the Australian missionary who had been working in the Philippines for three decades and who was suddenly deported after she criticised the President.
Andrea sighed. “It feels as if things are just getting worse, aren’t they? Last year, Paula and I finally decided we should do what we’ve long planned to do, work and study abroad. She enrolled in Science and I got into Marketing. I got a job here after three weeks.”
“That was quick.”
Andrea nodded. “I was lucky. Paula had a harder time. She taught in UP for years. Suddenly she couldn’t even get an interview. Day after day, she would talk about how hard it was to keep hoping, how demoralized she felt.” She paused, staring out the window. “I think she started to resent me as well, towards the end.”
“Oh,” Lily said. “You broke up?”
Andrea turned her focus back to Lily. “One time, Paula told me, ‘Do you know that the observable universe is 93 billion light-years in diameter? Which means it would take 93 billion years for the light of a star to travel from one end of the universe to the other. My life feels like such a small, ridiculous thing to worry about, when you think about that.’ Do you know what I said? I said, ‘Finding a job here may be such an infinitesimal achievement when compared to the vastness of the universe, but it would certainly help stop you from whining.’”
From the counter, the Chinese cashier called the orders for pick-up, every number sounding like a hopeful question. Sixty-four? Thirty-eight?
“I’m so sorry,” Lily said.
Andrea pushed her bowl away. “So tell me,” she said, “where do you live? Do you live in a flat-share?”
Lily gave her address. “I live downstairs from my landlady, but I have my own entrance through the basement.”
Andrea frowned. “Is your landlady named Marie?”
“You know Marie?” Lily said. “She messaged me about the flat on Flatmates. I didn’t even want to go at first because it was so cheap.”
“You were thinking there has got to be a catch.”
“I mean, wouldn’t you? Of course, if you convert the rent amount to pesos, the amount’s still staggering, but it’s really cheap for the area.”
“Did Marie tell you anything else about the flat?” Andrea asked. “About the former tenant?”
“No,” Lily said. “Don’t tell me someone died in there.”
Andrea didn’t speak for a moment.
“What?” Lily said.
“What?” Andrea said, and smiled. But the smile did not reach her eyes.
IDEA: Where you are now is better than where you were before.
A woman in her late 20s moves into her new flat in Sydney. To get to it, she has to go through two doors in the basement: the main basement door, and the garage door to the unit. The garage door rattles as it moves up, the slow, raucous ascent revealing her landlady’s gray sedan.
The flat has a cast iron doorstopper in the shape of a reclining dog. She nudges the dog into place and takes off her shoes, stows them away in the rack outside, locks the door behind her.
The flat is small and has no demarcations — two steps from the bed and she is at the dining table; six steps and she is in the kitchen; eight steps and she is in the shower. The blue carpet has a lighter patch next to the glass door going out into the courtyard, the fiber fading under the sunlight. She slides the door open, feeling the bite of the wind on her bare legs. The wind also brings with it a sharp, musky scent, and she notices the potted tree roses, yellow and dying. Beyond the flowers — a sliver of sky, the disembodied heads and voices of people walking up there on the sidewalk.
All mine, she thinks, and she smiles, happy for the first time in a long time.
The woman can speak and write English well, but often feels as if she has to scale an invisible barrier whenever she interacts with people.
1: At her first job interview in Sydney for a copywriting job, the hiring manager asks, I don’t mean to offend, but where did you learn to speak English so well? even as her resume sits between them, beaming with promise. Work Experience: Senior Copywriter (6 years). She does not get the job, the company explaining that they need an Australian citizen or permanent resident to fill the role. As she accumulates rejections, she wonders if she has made a grave mistake coming here, if she should perhaps tame her ambitions.
2: Where are you from? her classmates ask.
And they nod and say, Okay, and she wonders what they are picturing in their heads. White sand beaches? Policemen pulling a teenage boy down an alley and leaving him dead near a pigsty?
3: The woman at the counter at Coles is Filipino, and she says, You should try to stay here after your course. Everything’s expensive in Sydney, but you’ll earn good money. Better than back home, anyway. Money always comes up, whenever she speaks to Filipino workers here. I’m doing this for personal growth, she wants to say, but — is that it? The words feel inadequate and insincere. I’m here because, with the state of politics back home, I was starting to feel like a monster, treating kindness as if it were a finite thread that I have to hold onto to keep from unravelling. But I still can’t loosen my grasp. The woman at the counter says, “That will be forty dollars,” and she extracts the still-unfamiliar bills, shoves the words back down her throat.
4: Did you also work as an office assistant back home? someone asks at the temp agency, and she considers this question that is only a question, that should not sting. And yet it stings.
No, she replies, barbed wire in her voice, and an awful silence sets in, and that is the end of the conversation.
Her mother calls her. She accepts the call but does not turn on the video, making an excuse that her Wi-Fi isn’t stable.
You’re in Australia and you’re Wi-Fi isn’t stable?
Before she can think of another excuse, her mother makes a comment again about how beautiful it must be in Sydney. Did you get a job in an ad agency, like your old job here? They’re paying you well, I hope?
Then it is something about needing money to fix the roof. A portion of the roof in the kitchen got blown off during the storm, did your brother tell you.
The woman cuts her mother off, explaining to her again that she’s not earning that much. She is here to study. Haven’t I told you this several times before?
A pregnant pause from four thousand miles away, and the woman takes a deep breath, bracing herself.
We’re proud of you, of course, her mother says, but don’t let this get to your head. Remember your family. You can’t be selfish. Your father and I don’t even understand why you took English in UP and English again in Sydney. You should have just applied for a hotel job in Dubai like what your Uncle Ricky told you last year.
She takes note of the things the former tenant has left behind, or has abandoned: rice vinegar, oyster sauce, a chipped mug, a scorched pan. Mounted on the wall next to the door is a whiteboard with half-erased marks and an encircled list (rent, Optus Recharge, Opal, groceries) of budget items. She means to erase it but the circle makes her hesitate, as if the list were a memorial.
Sometimes, at night, she feels an oppressive weight on her chest and wonders if this is also something that belongs to the former tenant, this feeling of I wish I didn’t have to leave home, left here with the 5-cup rice cooker, with the seven-dollar toaster from K-Mart. Or is this one of the few things in this flat that belongs to her?
After they got back from lunch, Andrea walked the length of the office calling for Evie. She was not in her cubicle or in any of the breakout rooms. “Have you seen Evie?” Andrea said, stopping by Lily’s table a few minutes later. Andrea looked frazzled, angry. “We have to present to Peter in thirty minutes and she hasn’t done the revisions I asked for.”
Lily had not seen Evie. She went to the pantry to wash her coffee mug, and saw a pair of high-heeled boots sticking out from behind the refrigerator. “Hello?” she said, and jumped when Andrea burst into the room.
“I swear, Evie doesn’t respect me,” Andrea said. “The one time I wanted to take charge of a pitch idea and she— What are you doing?”
Lily was approaching the boots. They belonged to Evie, sitting slumped on the floor, forehead resting against the side of the refrigerator. Lily knelt in front of her, touched her knee, shook her. Evie didn’t move.
“Shit,” Andrea said, and ran out of the pantry shouting for help.
Peter told Lily she could leave work early, and so she did, not stopping to talk to anyone. When she got home, there was a woman in a beige coat waiting in front of the garage door. “Hello,” Lily said, uncertain.
“Hi,” the woman said. The woman had brown skin, her jet-black hair tied in a loose bun. “I’m just waiting for someone.”
Lily thought she could detect a soft Filipino accent, but she wasn’t sure, so she just spoke to her in English. “Do you want to wait inside?” She wasn’t thinking straight. She could still feel Evie’s leather pants beneath her fingers, hear the sound they made against the sheet when the EMTs lifted her to the gurney.
The woman followed her through the garage door, past Marie’s car, and as Lily turned her key in the lock, she felt her Manila sensibilities return. She nudged the dog doorstopper into place with her right foot, ready to pick it up and use it as a weapon in case this stranger tried something.
“So, uh,” Lily said, “you’ll just wait for Marie out here?” Did the woman even mention Marie by name?
The woman glanced past her, and Lily followed her gaze. The woman was looking at the whiteboard.
“You haven’t erased the list.” The woman smiled, her hands deep in the pockets of her coat. “Just write over the words again with a whiteboard marker. That will make them easier to erase.”
“Right,” Lily said.
“Right,” the woman said. She turned away, and Lily closed the door.
Lily lay in bed and stayed in the same position for hours.
She must have fallen asleep at some point. She woke up suddenly and found the woman in the beige coat sitting at the foot of her bed.
“Do you know that the observable universe is 93 billion light-years in diameter?” the woman said.
“I actually do know that,” Lily said. “Somebody told me.”
“Do you know what’s important in life?”
“Money,” Lily said without hesitation.
“Really?” the woman said, looking intrigued.
“You know,” Lily said, “after I graduated from college, I didn’t even think about leaving the Philippines. Everyone said I should, that I would earn more abroad. I thought—” She laughed, embarrassed. “I thought it meant something, deciding to stay. I thought I could give back. And now people are getting shot on the street, and I have no savings left, and I can’t even afford to help my mother.” Lily laughed again, harder this time. “I don’t know what to do anymore.”
The woman glanced at the list on the whiteboard. “Money’s not what’s important in life,” she said.
“It’s not?” Lily realized there were tears in her eyes. When did that happen?
“It’s not,” the woman said. She seemed so sure of it.
A knock on the door. Lily opened her eyes and glanced at her phone. It was seven p.m. She stood up with a groan, and opened the door to find Andrea standing outside with a large thermos.
“Did Marie let you in?” Lily asked.
Andrea lifted the thermos. “Do you want some goon?”
“Do I want some what?”
“Goon,” Andrea said. “That’s what Australians call boxed wine. It’s vile, but it’s cheap.”
“Why is it called ‘goon’?”
“Who the hell knows?” Andrea said. “I wanted to check up on you. You suddenly disappeared from the office.” She sighed and sat on the floor, her back to the door. “Evie’s in the ICU. Blood clot in her brain.”
“Jesus.” Lily closed the door and sat down next to her. The garage smelled faintly of petrol.
“And to think, just a few hours before, that we were having a fight about orange juice,” Andrea said. “Orange juice! Arguing about it like it’s the most important thing in life. Really puts things into perspective.” She sighed. “I thought I already learned this lesson. But I guess I didn’t. Or I did and I forgot.”
“What do you mean?”
“Marie didn’t let me in,” Andrea said, and showed her a garage door key. “I let myself in. Marie must have forgotten that Paula and I have a copy each. I really ought to return it, but I keep—”
“You used to live here?”
“Paula died here six months ago,” Andrea said.
It took a while for things to click into place. Did Marie tell you anything else about the flat?
“Oh, God,” Lily said.
“Heart attack,” Andrea said. “’Undiagnosed heart condition’. That’s what the doctor said.” She looked sheepish. “Are you thinking of moving out now? Sorry, Marie really should have told you. But don’t move out! It’s a good flat. Paula loved the roses in the courtyard.”
Andrea took another swig from the thermos. “Can I tell you something really crazy? Sometimes I get so drunk I forget that she’s died, and I would go down here and just stand around, waiting for her. Then after about an hour it would hit me, and—” She laughed, but the laughter soon turned into a deep sigh, a shaky breath.
“Sorry,” Lily said, not knowing what else to say.
Andrea chugged down her drink and wiped her lips. “This will sound weird, and you can say no, but can I look inside?”
Inside the flat, Andrea walked unsteadily on the carpet. “Everything looks the same,” she marvelled in a soft voice, glancing out at the courtyard. “Oh, but the roses are dying.”
“I don’t know anything about flowers,” Lily said.
They ended up looking at the whiteboard with the encircled list. Lily imagined spending her last moments staring at a list of things that seemed so significant they crowded out everything else, but in the grand scheme of things did not even matter at all.
But then she thought of her mother, the comfortable future her family was hoping she could provide, their country crashing down around their ears. She understood that light from one end of the universe would take 93 billion years to travel to the opposite end, and that by then the planet would be dust, with no nations, no wars, no people shot on the street. She understood this, and yet her daily worries felt heavy, as though they would be there until the end of time.
Andrea said, “You haven’t erased the list.”
The remark had a ring of familiarity to it.
Andrea stared at the whiteboard, looking helpless, hopeless.
Do you know what’s important in life?
Back home, Lily could feel herself becoming monstrous, treating kindness as if it were a finite thread that she had to hold onto to keep from unravelling.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Lily asked, loosening her grasp. “Head out, grab something to eat?”
Andrea turned to her. “Really?” she said. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Lily said.
“The team might visit Evie this weekend. Do you want to join? We’re carpooling.”
Andrea pointed at the board. “May I?”
Lily grabbed a table napkin and the whiteboard marker and handed them to Andrea. Andrea wrote carefully over the list, tracing the words that had hardened on the whiteboard so they could be easily erased. In their place, she wrote, Visit Evie w/ team - Sat, and, after a brief pause, Google how to take care of roses.
Lily laughed and followed Andrea out of the flat, closing the door behind her.