A Budding Tale at Torillo Block
By Charita Gil
Trix stepped out of the second-floor door of her apartment and climbed up the narrow winding stairs leading to the small rooftop that served as laundry areas. The next apartment, whose married tenants had migrated to the States two months ago, shared the rooftop divided by a six-foot-tall balustrade. She’d heard from the landlord of Torillo Block that the tenants were still paying their monthly rent. Torillo Block was a middle-class three-story apartment building along Molave Street in the heart of Mandaluyong City. She’d chosen the place because without heavy traffic, it was only a ten-minute drive to work.
Trix considered her laundry area the best place for taking selfies. Natural bright light. A secluded place. The married couple didn’t go up there unless they needed to do their laundry. But unlike next door's completely roofed laundry area, only a quarter of her laundry area had a roof; the rest of the open space served as the drying area. The dividing balustrade had a gate that a tenant next door could use to get to the other side if that tenant needed the sun’s direct heat to dry clothes.
She didn’t waste any time and posed for a selfie. She needed to change her four-month-old Facebook profile picture. The duck face pose was outdated; the fish gape pose was the new selfie trend. She wasn’t satisfied with the selfie she’d just taken, so she posed for another. She was about to click the capture button when she heard someone chuckle. Her eyes searched the rooftop and finally landed on a tall male figure right behind the balustrade.
“What’s that selfie pose called,” the amused man asked, “goldfish gape pose?”
Her eyes strayed down to the man’s wet naked chest. She realized what she was doing, so she looked back up to his grinning face.
“Oh, sorry.” He covered his chest with his hands. “I was about to take a bath here. I thought no one next door would show up.”
He at least still had his shorts on. She cleared her throat. “Same here. I thought no one was here. And it’s just the fish gape pose. You didn’t have to pick a specific kind of fish.” She couldn’t help picturing herself with a gaping face and a gaping goldfish side by side.
The man laughed. “Funny. By the way, I’m Ian. Ian Conde. I moved here the other day.”
“I’m Beatrix Roncesvalles. You can call me Trix.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of letters.”
“Your name.” He laughed awkwardly. “Sorry, I was just trying to be funny. You seem to be naturally funny.”
She gave him an awkward, lopsided smile. She hadn’t even told him her full name: Anne Beatrix Roncesvalles.
“Do you know the married couple who lived here until two months ago? They’re my uncle and aunt.”
“Yes, but …” She didn’t know how to tell him that in the entire Torillo Block, she was the only tenant who didn’t meet any other tenants personally. She could barely remember the landlord’s name. She’d always been a homebody. She wouldn’t even go down Molave Street on weekends unless there was nothing left to eat.
“Ah, you didn’t meet them? They’re still paying the rent, and since I needed a place to stay, they asked me to live here in the meantime.”
She nodded. “Oh. You’re wet and all. Please continue taking a bath. I’m outta here.”
Ian smiled. “Sorry for interrupting your selfie session. The shower in the bathroom’s not working, so I’m here with a tabò and a pail.”
Trix just gave him another awkward, lopsided smile.
An open plastic container with a handle used for taking water from a pail or basin in the traditional way of taking a bath in the Philippines; roughly comparable to a “dipper”
That night, as Trix browsed through Facebook, she thought of the new guy next door. Although he was towering—the balustrade on the rooftop was six feet tall, and he’d been leaning forward just to see her—he had a handsome yet ordinary face. She saw guys much handsomer than him at the office. But he was lean and very fit, muscles in all the right places.
The next thing she knew, she was searching Facebook for information about him, typing his name in the search bar.
There were a few Ian Condes, but none of them looked like the guy next door. She then tried Google, but she didn’t find him there, either.
She checked herself. Why was she doing this? She’d met the guy only that morning, and they’d talked for only a few minutes.
She rose and walked to the full-length mirror across from her bed. She stared at an ordinary-looking girl who stood five feet and four inches. She was healthy and could look pretty if she wanted to. But going to work every day, she rarely dolled herself up. Wearing glasses was a fashion trend, but she didn’t wear her own pair just to look good. She really had blurry vision in both eyes; the right eye was worse than the left one.
She made a face at the reflection of the old floral pajamas she was wearing. Other girls would look beautiful and even sexy in those pajamas. No wonder she’d had only one boyfriend in her 28 years of life. She sighed and walked to her bed.
The following Saturday, Trix had to do her laundry herself because the laundry lady who came every other Sunday hadn’t shown up the previous Sunday. Trix didn’t like doing her own laundry because she had very sensitive skin, which would horribly and painfully react to any kind of detergent. But she hadn’t known until that day, when she started to fill her washing machine, that its draining hose had a tiny hole, which slowly leaked water. The laundry lady didn’t use the washing machine; she preferred washing by hand.
“Any problem, Trix?”
From rubbing her head in dismay, Trix turned to see Ian leaning over the balustrade.
“Oh, hi, Ian!” The guy looked so good in a navy blue tank top. “Hmm, the washing machine’s draining hose is damaged. I can’t use it now.”
In the next few minutes, she was in Ian’s laundry area, and the washing machine there was at work, continuously groaning like an old giant in endless pain. He’d offered his aunt’s washing machine. He’d also offered to fix hers after she bought a new draining hose.
“I’m jobless nowadays, but I write short stories as a hobby and sideline,” he said after she’d shared that she worked as an assistant team leader to a group of development communication researchers. He took a small bite of a butter cookie she’d brought over for a snack. Along with a plateful of them, she’d also brought over two cups of instant coffee.
“That’s great!” she exclaimed with admiration. “I love reading short fiction and novels, but I don’t have a talent for writing. Tell me one of your stories. Are they published somewhere? In a literary journal or magazine? Online?”
“I submit my stories to American, British, Canadian, and Australian magazines.”
“Whoa, that’s cool! Now let me hear one of those stories.”
“I can’t think of anything else to talk about,” she said honestly. “And consider yourself lucky. You’re the first person at this apartment building I’ve ever talked to.”
He laughed, but a pensive expression replaced the amusement on his face.
The washing machine stopped spinning; she had to take out the batch of clothes and put in another batch. She went back to her seat afterwards. Unlike her laundry area that had only laundry equipment and a row of planters filled with ornamental plants, Ian’s had a wooden table, three plastic chairs, and even a divan on the far side.
“There’s this successful man who thinks he has everything he needs in his life and more,” Ian started narrating. “A house, a car, money, a high-paying job, a gorgeous and equally successful girlfriend. He even gets to do what he really loves.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s an assistant manager of a four-star hotel. He gets to travel abroad annually. He also races cars. Besides that, he’s a published fiction writer.”
“Wow, he’s that good of a catch? Where can I find this guy? What’s his name, by the way?”
Ian looked at her thoughtfully. And then he burst out laughing. Trix frowned.
That Saturday’s cozy tête-à-tête between Trix and Ian was followed by another on a Sunday, another on a Saturday, and another on a weeknight when Trix got bored reading a novel, went up to the rooftop, and found Ian reading a magazine at the table in his laundry area.
They talked about their interests, hobbies, favorite celebrities, jobs, favorite books, education, favorite movies, and more. But they didn’t talk about the much more personal aspect of their lives or their families. The tale of a successful man who thought he had everything was told to Trix in small sequential parts, like a serial in a literary magazine.
At night in bed, after talking to Ian for a few hours, she recalled the new part of the tale and the other things they’d talked about, and she was overwhelmed by how she was so comfortable talking to him.
They didn’t talk every day because she saw to it that she didn’t go to the rooftop and look for him every day. But that didn’t prevent her from looking forward to their usually fun, sometimes trivial, and sometimes intellectual talk and to hearing a new fascicle of the tale. They never talked in any other place but the rooftop. A few times when Trix had just arrived from work and bumped into Ian down in the alleyway between their apartment building and the next, they just gave each other a simple smile or nod.
“Could you please make today’s episode a bit longer?” Trix asked.
It was a Saturday afternoon. She’d just been back from the grocery store, and she’d found him doing his laundry. Unlike her, he always did his own laundry.
Ian laughed. He was taking a batch of clothes out of the washing machine. He glanced at Trix, who was sitting at the table; her facial expression was serious. So typical of her.
“Enough with how they love each other. I’m sure there’s a tragic turn of events waiting to unfold.”
After Ian had set the washing machine to a wash cycle for the batch of clothes he’d just put in, he went to his usual seat at the table. “You’re right,” he said in a serious tone.
Her mouth formed a silent oh. “What kind of tragedy?”
“With a vase twice the size of his head, he kills one of his friends on an outing. The friend dies of a severe head injury. That’s how his and his lover’s unfortunate lives unfold.”
The anger in his tone and facial expression made her gape.
Suddenly he stood and took off his white shirt.
She was astounded. “W-what are you doing?” she croaked, instantly blushing.
“Trying to confirm if I’ve already had this much effect on you,” he said, shocking her even more.
She stood hastily. “I’m not doing this. I’m outta here.”
“I was just joking,” he said when she reached the balustrade gate. “I feel hot!”
“I’ll come back later.” Her face felt as though it was on fire.
Ian put his clasped hands on his head as he watched Trix disappear down the stairs.
That night, someone knocked at Trix’s second-floor door. When she opened it, a grinning Ian holding a bottle of May Sparkling White Grape Juice greeted her.
“Peace offering … I guess?” he said.
“Did you mistake that for a bottle of wine?” she asked, on the verge of laughing.
“Of course not. This is my aunt’s. Found it somewhere. At least it looks like a bottle of wine.”
In a short while, they were in Trix’s living room, sipping from their wineglasses from time to time. Trix looked like she would burst out laughing any moment because she felt like they were both pretending to be drinking wine with a couple of ice cubes. But when Ian started narrating the new part of the tale, her face became serious and pensive.
“It was an accident, wasn’t it?” Trix guessed. “He couldn’t have killed his own friend.”
Ian didn’t answer immediately, his eyes fixed on the rim of his wineglass as he slowly turned it back and forth. “No one knows. One moment he thinks he’s the luckiest man in the world, another moment he’s a fugitive.”
“Fugi—” She closed her mouth. Her mind went wild picturing a man on the run. “What happens to the girlfriend?”
“Devastated,” he said. “She thought he’d be proposing soon. But he doesn’t even get to say goodbye to her. How unfortunate.”
“How does he become a fugitive? Where does he go?”
“To a place where no one knows him, of course. You know, you can be anyone, anything in a place where no one cares.”
“But a few people might start to care after a while,” she said, looking into his eyes. “Do you think no one will ever take notice of him?”
Sadness crossed his face for a moment, but he looked away. “You’re right. I’m even right here in your house talking to you. But do you think you’d talk to me if I were a different kind of person?”
She frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He waved his hand. “Never mind.”
She looked at him for a few seconds and then stated, “So this isn’t really a tale of a successful man.”
“No. It’s a tale of a man on the run from the police, from the wonderful world he’s been living in, from all the glamor, his glory, from his lover …”
“But he could be innocent. Maybe he could still go back to his wonderful world. Just tell me he’s innocent.”
“Do you think he can trust the justice system?” he asked. He looked intently into her eyes, searching for an answer.
“Depends on whether he’s innocent. Even true criminals will sometimes trust the justice system. The innocent who don’t want to live their entire lives running away from the authorities don’t have a choice but to trust it. They should put up a good fight.”
“This won’t do,” he said, rising from the sofa.
“We have to get drunk tonight.”
That Sunday, a week after Ian had visited Trix and made her drink a few cans of beer he’d brought over together with a box of fried chicken, she was alone on the rooftop. She’d also been there the previous day, but Ian hadn’t shown up then, either. The night when they’d shared drinks—Ian had been a bit disappointed upon learning she didn’t really like to drink—he hadn’t gone home until he’d been tipsy. He hadn’t continued the tale of a man at large; he’d talked about his travels abroad instead. They’d had fun talking like they always did.
Trix thought that Ian could be an excellent fiction writer but a mediocre storyteller. He wouldn’t go into detail, he hadn’t told her even the names of the characters in his tale, and the sequence of events was a bit messy.
With a subdued face, she went back inside her apartment. She didn’t want to admit it, but she missed him. It was the first weekend they hadn’t seen each other.
The following Saturday, Trix still didn’t find Ian on the rooftop. She opened the gate and let herself in. It was great that the gate was never locked because she never once considered knocking at his front door downstairs. Like her front door, his was always closed.
She softly knocked at the rooftop door a few times.
No one answered.
When she tried to turn the doorknob, she was surprised to find it wasn’t locked. Without a second thought, she stepped in.
In a minute, Trix was slowly climbing down the stairs into Ian’s clean home. The layout of his apartment was identical to that of hers, so it was easy for her to find her way around. She was almost at the foot of the stairs when she saw Ian standing in the middle of the living room, his back toward her. She was about to call him when she noticed he was talking to someone.
A uniformed policeman.
“We apologize. We just got the call from headquarters. We were on our way when you called—there was a tip on your whereabouts. Please … if you still have something to do”—the policeman glanced at Trix—“take your time. We’re just outside.”
The policeman turned to leave, but before he passed through the doorway and disappeared from sight, Trix caught sight of the handcuffs in his hand.
When she turned to Ian, he was already looking at her. She gaped at the sight of him. His face was as white as though it was devoid of blood. His beard looked like it had been growing for a week straight, his lips were the color of a withering carnation, dry and wrinkled. But when those lips moved to form a crooked smile, she was stunned.
“I’m not a selfie phone,” he said, “but you’re doing your signature goldfish gape pose.” The smile turned to a chuckle, a sound that had become so familiar to her ear.
She tilted her head, she opened her mouth, she tilted her head to the other side, but no words came out.
“You told me to put up a good fight, and so this is the start.”
He turned away and took a step forward.
Only to take it back and turn to her again.
Trix was stunned when his surprisingly moist, soft lips landed in the hollow of her face, touching the corner of her mouth. She couldn’t tell if she’d closed her eyes, but the next thing she knew, Ian’s back was to her, and he was walking to the door.
“I hope the man’s girlfriend doesn’t abandon him,” she said.
He faltered. Without turning to her, he answered, “She already did.”
Trix nodded. “What’s his real name?”
“Adrian Conde—” he finally turned to her “—a good catch from Laguna. He was an assistant manager of a four-star hotel. Car racer, fiction writer, traveler. He had everything he needed and wanted—a house, a car, money …”
“Indeed,” she said. “I have a longer name than what you already know. It’s A—”
“I know, Anne Beatrix Roncesvalles. I already stalked you on Facebook.” He grinned like a confident schoolboy talking to the girl he liked. “I leave the house to you, then.”
As soon as he left, she slowly walked to the sofa and sat down. She noticed a sheet of white paper lying on the center table. She picked up the paper to see three short lines of words printed in large, spidery strokes.
She took a deep breath as she read:
A Tale of a Man at Large
A Tale of a Man in Prison
A Tale of Two Lovers at Castillo Block.
Charita Gil edits web articles during the day and writes fiction (and sometimes poetry) at night—if she’s not just being an introvert and watching historical and Korean TV series. She is a journalism graduate from the Samar island in the Philippines, and she loves languages, bread, music, books, dogs, and cats. She is a serious French and Spanish bathroom singer, thanks to the influence of her idols, Céline Dion and Thalia. This is her second story published in The /tƐmz/ Review. Her other work of varying genres has appeared in 101 Words, ARTPOST magazine, The Brown Orient, Flash Fiction Magazine, Exoplanet Magazine, and Marias at Sampaguitas. Visit her at her website: charitagil.com. You can also find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.