By Charita Gil
“Shall we give our new neighbors some adobo?” Tyro’s mother wondered. She was teaching him how to cook adobo at his request.
“Have you seen anyone in that house?” he asked. Tyro and his mother had moved into Cornelia Homes a week ago, and that was the only time they’d seen a man and a woman in the front yard of the next house.
“I may if I knock on their door.” She had already taken a round Tupperware out of the cupboard and was now spooning adobo from the hot pot into the container.
A few minutes later, he was walking toward the next house, the Tupperware in his hand. He looked around as though he was again seeing the neighborhood for the first time.
Cornelia Homes was a small middle-class subdivision in Paso de Blas in the heart of Valenzuela City, an hour’s drive from the city they’d previously lived in. The neighborhood was peaceful and clean, with a tree or two in almost every front yard. The streets and yards were wide, the houses without fences or walls; they had the look of suburban houses in the States.
When he reached the porch, he rang the doorbell, but no one answered. Maybe no one was home. He took two big steps backwards to have a better view of the whole house but stumbled over pieces of kibble scattered on the porch floor.
“You stepped on Rosé’s food!”
Tyro turned to see a scrawny boy wearing a fitted shirt—the brightest yellow Tyro had ever seen—sky blue shorts and red slippers. His eyes focused on the girly headband that matched the slippers. It had a corsage on the side that obviously didn’t belong there originally. The headband failed to complement the boy’s brush-cut hair.
Big eyes gave Tyro a questioning look, so he stepped off the kibble underneath his slippers. “Oh, I’m sorry. But don’t you have a dog bowl for your dog—what’s the name again?”
Tyro’s eyebrows shot up. He didn’t miss the perfect guttural French R and the short buzzing consonant between vowels in Rohzay. Was the boy studying French that early in his life? Whether it was intentional or just the way the boy normally produced the sounds, Tyro was clueless.
“Rosie,” he said, fighting the urge to mimic the boy’s R and Z. “Doesn’t she have a dog bowl? Why are these—this dog food scattered here?”
“Rosé doesn’t like to feed from a dog bowl. She likes to feed from my hand or straight from the floor. It wasn’t scattered. You scattered it.”
Tyro witnessed the most fluid hand gesture ever of pointing at someone, like that of a conductor sans baton in front of a lively orchestra. He fought the urge to giggle. “Oh. I’m sorry again. Do you live here?”
“Where are your par—”
A Golden Retriever came running and barking. It jumped and raised its front paws to the boy, then stopped and stood on all four. It looked at Tyro and then at the boy. It barked again, wagging its tail.
“Rosé,” the boy said through his nose, bending over, hands on the knees, “don’t you like this guy? Shall we make him go away?” He talked as though the dog was a toddler.
This time, Tyro couldn’t suppress a giggle. “She’s not Rosie, though, you doggie thief. Her name’s Maddie, short for Madeira. She’s my dog.”
The dog’s bark in agreement and the boy’s gasp in shock and dismay came out in unison.
After over an hour of driving straight home from work, Tyro arrived in Paso de Blas. He was crawling past Erato High School, the closest private school to Cornelia Homes, when he spotted a bunch of students in uniform in front of the main gate. They were laughing as they talked. But one of them seemed lost in a world of his own, pensive and oblivious to his friends. One of the friends poked him in the arm, but he didn’t pay attention to what she was saying.
It was the scrawny boy who’d called Tyro’s dog Rosé a few days ago. Tyro recalled the balletic way he had bolted toward the backyard after realizing the dog was indeed Tyro’s. He giggled, shaking his head.
He drove past the bunch of students and up to the curb and stopped the car. He got out and walked toward them.
“OMG, what a hot guy!”
The murmur from one of the students was loud enough to reach Tyro’s ears as he stepped in front of them. He ignored it. “Hello! Going home? Looks like one of you here is my neighbor. I’m offering a ride home,” he said casually. He worked as an assistant English professor at a university near the city he and his mother had previously lived in, and that was the tone he used when talking to undergraduates on campus.
“Hey, I’m sure it’s you, Tantan Jonathan!” a female student exclaimed, pointing at Tyro’s young neighbor. “You were talking the other day about your neighbor crush. Is he the one y—” The girl stopped and made a face when the boy smacked her on the arm. The group, mostly female, burst into laughter.
“Shut up! I didn’t tell you anything!” The boy looked as though he wanted to vanish into the ether.
“You’re blushing, Tan!” one of the few male students teased.
“That’s enough,” Tyro said, feeling a bit guilty. “I’m Tyro, by the way. I just want to talk to him. My family and his family haven’t been formally introduced to one another yet.”
The laughter died down. He looked at one after the other with curiosity, but nobody seemed to want to say anything.
In a few minutes, Tyro and his twelve-year-old neighbor were driving home. Gone were the bright colors and the corsage-ornamented headband the boy had been wearing a few days ago. He looked immaculate in his Erato High uniform. But his thin voice and fluid movements were still there.
“So what’s special about Erato High School, Tan … Tan—Jonathan, right?” Tyro asked to start a conversation. The boy still looked serious and unfriendly.
“Right. Tan among my friends. Tantan in the neighborhood. Erato students’ outlook on life and appearance must be as lovely as Erato’s playing of the lyre. I can say many students at school have lovely singing voices.”
“Including m—” Tan closed his mouth. And then, “Well, I’m not sure.”
“Those bully friends say I sound like the squeaky hinges of old doors that need lubrication. I say the hinges of my doors don’t sound like that. How could they even say—” He stopped when Tyro burst out laughing.
“Sorry,” Tyro said when he saw Tan’s unhappy gaze. “I’ll be the judge, then. Let’s see whether it’s hinges or songbird.” He pretended to look at the side mirror on his left to hide his face, suppressing another bark of laughter.
“Fine. By the way, how did you get to know my dog, Maddie? And why were you calling her Rosé? Where did you get that name?”
Tyro glanced at Tan. When he looked forward again, he saw the road sign telling him that they were approaching the main entrance of Cornelia Homes.
“I honestly didn’t know she was the next house’s dog. She just appeared in front of me one day, we became friends, and she became Rosie.”
Tyro glanced at Tan again. Rosie? The guttural French R and the short buzzing consonant between vowels were gone.
“Here you are,” Monica said when she saw Tyro enter the kitchen. He was just back from a weeklong seminar in Makati City. “How was the seminar?”
“Did you have a visitor?” he asked instead of answering her question, his eyes on the used set of dishes and flatware across from his mother’s seat at the dining table. The chair was not even properly tucked in at that side.
“Tan. He just left. I cooked escabeche for four. I saw him playing with Maddie out front; I called him to eat lunch here.”
“Maddie?” He looked around, but the Golden Retriever was nowhere in sight.
“She’s with Tan, I guess. They’re getting closer day by day.”
“Looks like you’ve invited him in many times already.”
“This must be the fourth time,” Monica smiled.
He expected that. He pulled out the chair beside his mother’s and sat down.
“Have you learned anything about his parents?” he asked. “Is he really living alone?” He recalled his encounter with Tan and the bunch of friends in front of the school. They’d become strangely quiet when he’d mentioned meeting Tan’s parents personally.
“I didn’t get that much information from the neighbors. They know Tan’s father, but they don’t see him nowadays. It’s also strange that the front door is always closed—or probably locked. I always see Tan coming out from the back.”
“I noticed that, too. Then who were those two people we saw in the front yard on our first day here?”
“Tan’s father perhaps? The woman—that wasn’t his mother for sure.” Sadness crossed her face. “I heard his mother has long been gone.”
Tyro thought about the kind of father Tan might have. For he had started to care. He knew well that not every person on the planet had understanding parents. He himself was blessed with one.
Tyro was about to go for a morning jog when he noticed Maddie and Tan on the porch of the next house. He walked toward them and saw that Maddie was being fed from a dog bowl. A side of his mouth raised in a crooked smile. Rosé is supposed to feed from the hand or straight from the floor, huh.
“Question number one,” Tyro said as soon as he stood in front of Tan, who was sitting on the edge of the porch floor, “What’s happened that you’re now feeding my dog from a dog bowl? Hmm, looks new. Question number two: Did you seriously buy dog food just for Maddie? Do I owe you a few bucks now?”
Clear, round eyes looked up into Tyro’s own pair of almond ones. “Answer number one: Ros—Maddie’s grandma told me to feed her using a dog bowl. I got this dog bowl from her. Answer number two: I also had a dog. The dog food was for her, but she’s gone now.” Tan lowered his gaze, but Tyro caught the passing sadness on the boy’s face. “And, no, Professor Tyro Trajano, you don’t owe me anything.”
“Assistant professor.” He wondered how much his mother had told the boy about him. “I’m sorry about your dog. What was his—or her—name?”
“Her.” Tan looked up at Tyro again. “Roz—Rosie.”
“Come on, the correct pronunciation. You perfected it. That’s the Americanized version.”
“Rohzay,” came out the guttural French R and Z once again.
Tyro grinned with fascination. “So it really is a French word.”
“Yes, it is.” Tan’s face lit up. “R-O-S and E with the acute accent above it. Rosé—meaning pinkish.” He flashed a smile, fleetingly showing a deep dimple in his right cheek.
It was the first time, however quick, that Tyro had seen the boy smile.
“How did you come up with that name?”
“My father did. Rosé was a gift for me from his French Canadian friend.”
That solved one mystery.
“And where’s your father?” Tyro carefully probed.
“He’ll be here later.” Tan looked away. He raised his hand to touch Maddie’s forehead but realized that the dog was still eating. He dropped his hand to his side.
Tyro felt there would be no answer. It also felt like he was not allowed to pose a follow-up question. “Pancakes, do you want some? Mom told me to bring you along.”
“I’m sure Mom always invites you to our house, but you haven’t visited this past week. Is it because I’m here?” He meant to tease the boy as gently as he could, but he still couldn’t suppress the bark of laughter when Tan’s face turned beet red.
“Hinges or songbird, come on, Tan, let me be the judge,” he teased Tan the following day.
“What are you talking about?” Monica asked.
“Tan must be good at singing, but his friends tease him saying he sounds like the squeaky hinges of old doors.”
“That need lubrication,” Tan added.
“Yeah, that need lubrication,” Tyro echoed, grinning and shaking his head.
“That’s nasty.” Monica’s brow furrowed.
“That’s called friendship nowadays,” Tyro said.
From out front, they heard Maddie barking.
“I’ll check,” he said. He rose and walked to the door.
“Yes, hello?” he said when he opened the door and saw a tall man in his mid-forties. He felt Maddie’s moist mouth brushing against his shin.
“I’m Jonathan’s father.”
Tyro’s almond eyes, fixed on the older man’s chiseled face, grew a little bigger with surprise.
“I’m Dalvin Abestros. I suppose Tan’s here since I can’t see him around.”
“Oh, hi, Mr. Abestros! Yes, he’s here. We invited him in for pizza. Come in and meet my mother.”
“Please some other time, uh …”
“Tyro. Tyro Trajano. We moved into this neighborhood just a few weeks ago.” Tyro noticed how the older man eyed his athletic build and tall stature. Something flickered in those round eyes that resembled Tan’s.
In a few minutes, Tan was leaving with Mr. Abestros, whose face turned stony at the sight of his son. Tan looked back to give Tyro a brief, dimpled smile before following his father.
“How does he look?” Monica asked with interest when Tyro returned to the dining room. “Does he look like a leave-me-alone-I’m-drinking kind of father?”
“Can’t say yet just by his looks, although he does look great for the father of a twelve-year-old.”
Monica eyed him, frowning. Then she shook her head. “We need to know what kind of father he is. It’s suspicious enough that Tan is left alone in a house whose front door is always locked.”
“Let’s not think of the worst of Mr. Abestros this quickly, Mother. We’ll know pretty soon.”
“Is that Tan’s headband? He was wearing that just now.” Monica was looking behind the door.
“He must have dropped it.” Or he took it off and shoved it behind the door before his father could see him wearing it.
Early Saturday morning, Tyro walked toward the Abestros home, a rectangular Tupperware in his hand and Maddie tagging along excitedly. He rang the doorbell only once; the door opened to a sweaty Mr. Abestros in a brown tank top and gray jogging shorts.
“Tyro, right? Oh, sorry, I’m working out.” Mr. Abestros tried to wipe off the excessive sweat on his shoulder and thick upper arm.
“That’s okay,” Tyro said, trying to keep his eyes on the man’s stubbled face. “My mom wanted to share this adobo with you and Tan.”
Tyro glanced down. “And Maddie is looking for her best friend. She wonders where Tan is right now.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you for the adobo.” Mr. Abestros took the Tupperware from Tyro. “I’ll go give my thanks to your mother later.”
“She’s out to meet with her friends. She’ll come back tomorrow. Probably.”
“Some other day then. Tan’s not home right now. Out with his classmates to work on some project. I’m sorry for you, you there, little girl.”
Maddie yelped, disappointed to hear her best friend was not home to play with her.
“Would you like to come in to see how immaculate the whole house is?” Mr. Abestros joked.
“Our house is probably as immaculate.”
“There’s the lady of the house, of course. Our house, I like it a little dirty, you know. Just a little dust here and there. There’s no lady here anymore.”
Tyro didn’t have to see the scornful look on Mr. Abestros’s face because the edge to his voice gave it away.
“Some other time, Mr. Abestros. I also have to go out today.”
“Dalvin. That would make me feel a decade younger.”
Tyro nodded with a quick smile.
Late that evening, Tyro opened the front door to take the garbage out and was surprised to find Dalvin standing on their doorstep.
“Mrs. Trajano isn’t home yet, is she? Would you like to drink with me tonight?” Dalvin held up a Jack Daniel’s and smiled. “It’s Sunday tomorrow. I don’t suppose you have to go to work. I’m a banker, and I don’t. Tan said you’re an English professor.”
“Yeah, Tan told me.” He held up the bottle of whiskey again.
“I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t.”
They ended up at the concrete table under the towering Carabao mango tree in Dalvin’s moonlit front yard. They could see each other clearly; a fluorescent light on a low, thick branch of the tree shone on them. Dalvin brought out a pair of rocks glasses and a bucket of ice cubes.
“I don’t like ice in my whiskey,” Dalvin said. “Would you like some?”
Dalvin scooped two cubes of ice from the bucket and dropped them into Tyro’s glass.
Tyro picked it up. “Tan?” he asked casually.
“Probably cried himself to sleep.”
Tyro’s glass froze on its way to his mouth. He looked at the older man; Dalvin was gazing down into the liquid, translucent gold in his glass.
“I didn’t know until recently when I got him at school that he’s enrolled in a home economics elective.”
Tyro put his glass down. “What’s wrong with that?”
Dalvin shot him an incredulous look. “You don’t ask a father what’s wrong with his son enrolling in a home economics class. I caught them in the classroom practicing how to put on makeup. That’s the ‘project’ he was talking about.”
“It probably was what it was—a project. And if it really was a project, then you found them doing their project.” It was unfair to say you were caught doing something you liked doing.
“That must be the reason he always turns the whole house upside down cleaning every nook and cranny. The adobo you gave me, although it was really delicious, Jonathan could cook the same dish much better than that. And I thought he inherited all those skills from Leyna, his deceased mother, who excelled at housekeeping, especially cooking.”
To turn the whole house upside down cleaning every nook and cranny was the best paradox Tyro had heard so far that year. Tan being a good cook surprised him. His mother would be glad to hear that, even though Dalvin just said Tan could cook adobo much better than her.
Tyro’s eyes strayed to the well-lit house. He lifted his glass, brought it to his mouth, and drank. He downed half the contents in one gulp, trying hard not to show on his face how bitter the whiskey tasted.
As he put his glass down, he said, “Maybe Tan really liked that class. It’s good that he cleans the house well and cooks well.”
“Jonathan is a boy,” Dalvin said, “don’t you think so, Tyro?” He looked into Tyro’s eyes.
Tyro tilted his head. “Nobody’s saying he isn’t. What I mean is—”
“I think I know what you mean. I believe you know what I’m really saying here. I don’t want Jonathan to be anything but what he should be—a boy.”
Tyro took a deep breath. Suddenly he felt suffocated.
What he’d been worried about these past few days finally had a clear answer. Tan’s identity was an open book. The people around him perhaps understood; it was no longer shocking to find a queer child in a random household. But to have someone at home disapprove was an entirely different matter.
“Did you have a fight because of the elective?” Did you hit him? But Tyro wanted that question to stop echoing in his head. Maybe it was just paranoia striking deep within.
“A fight is not the appropriate term, Assistant English Professor Trajano,” Dalvin said with a grin. “He’s just twelve years old. I scolded him hard. He ran to his room crying. Or are you getting any other ideas?”
“Of course not,” Tyro retorted, surprised by the question, wondering if his facial expression gave him away.
“You seem to be fond of my son.”
“He’s a lovely boy. Maddie, my dog, is his best friend.” Tyro wondered if lovely was the appropriate term to use for Tan. He shouldn’t have echoed his mother’s words.
“Indeed,” Dalvin said. “Looks unfriendly at times. But he’s a talker. Ah, your Golden Retriever. She looks a lot like Rosie, Tan’s deceased dog.”
“We wondered where you were these past few days; Tan seemed to have been left alone for a long time,” Tyro tried.
“Job. I’m both a banker and an event specialist on the side. Requires me to be away from home often, sometimes for days or weeks. I have a housekeeper take care of Jonathan when I’m away.”
“A housekeeper?” Tyro frowned.
“An introverted one. Although I just asked her not to entertain anyone while I’m away, I think she keeps the front door locked. She comes over every day, except weekends.”
What a strange woman, Tyro thought. Who would have thought Tan hadn’t been alone at all? Well, he still was during the night.
“Do we need something to munch on?” Dalvin asked.
“No, no, don’t bother. Just whiskey is fine.” Tyro held up his glass.
Tyro was driving past Erato High School when he spotted the same group of students he’d talked to before, but this time he couldn’t see Tan among them. He stopped the car and lowered the tinted window. Several heads leaned over and peeked through it.
It was the same girl who’d been the first to tease Tan. He gave her an exasperated look. “Yes, except I’m just an assistant professor. Why is Tan not with you?”
“He hasn’t been at school for a few days,” another girl answered. “And we don’t know why. He doesn’t like being absent.”
He thanked them, said goodbye, and drove off.
In a few minutes, Tyro was in front of the Abestros home. When he got out of the car, he saw for the first time a woman coming out the front door.
“Hello, are you the housekeeper?” he asked.
The woman, whose back was to him, jumped at his voice.
“Did I startle you? I’m sorry.”
“No, that’s okay. You are?”
“I’m Tyro. I live next door. Are you the housekeeper?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Is Tan all right? I just saw his classmates; they said he has been absent from school.”
The housekeeper eyed him so incredulously that he almost felt embarrassed. She must have been wondering how an outsider could even ask those questions.
“He’s with Mr. Abestros visiting a relative. They’ll be back later.”
He said an awkward goodbye and left.
The following week, Tyro went looking for Maddie and noticed his neighbors’ front door open. The Abestros family must be back. He went to the door and heard Maddie bark from upstairs, so he walked in and started climbing up.
“Maddie!” he called as he passed by a slightly open bedroom door. She peeked through the gap at him. “What are you doing here?”
She barked and disappeared from sight.
“Maddie! Come out now. This could be Dalvin’s room and—what’s that?” She peeked through the gap again, pulling a piece of pink cloth with her mouth. “Drop it! Drop it, Maddie!” As he approached the door, it slowly swung wide open, revealing a huge room of pink splendor.
Tyro stepped in and looked in utter shock at the huge framed photograph on the wall just above the headboard. He picked up the pink halter dress that Maddie had dropped on the floor and traced his middle finger over the French words embroidered on the lower right of the bust:
Je m’appelle Dalvinne Rosé.
“Do you think I sleep in that dress every night?”
Tyro jumped; Dalvin was suddenly behind him.
“If it still fit, I would,” Dalvin said. “But it doesn’t anymore. That picture was taken a few years ago. I was lean then.”
“I’m sorry for invading your privacy,” Tyro responded. “I was looking for Maddie, and she was inside.”
Dalvin looked around the room. “I don’t see Maddie.”
Tyro also looked around, but Maddie had disappeared.
“I believe you, though,” Dalvin sighed. “She was climbing down the stairs on my way up.”
He walked toward Tyro and took the dress from him. “Guess I left the door open again. For someone who’s keeping this great secret …” He sat down on the side of the bed. “I heard Tan called Maddie Rosé when he first met her. The only living thing allowed to come in here was the original Rosie the dog. Tan wasn’t allowed because opening the door meant discovering my secret. But he’s been in this room and even worn this dress.”
Rosé … Tyro nodded slowly. He looked at the picture again.
“No, he’s never been in this room,” Dalvin said, following Tyro’s eyes and gesturing toward the man standing next to him in the enormous picture. “In fact, he’s never been in this house. Tan met him as a friend outside. We broke up almost three years ago, but I still haven’t gotten over him. He gave me the name Rosé.”
“What’s his name?”
“I’m glad it’s not as complicated as Rosé,” Tyro chuckled.
He started leaving through the doorway when Dalvin called him back.
“I thank you and Mrs. Trajano for being fond of my son … your genuine concern. I know what you think. I should tell you my story to explain why I can’t let Tan be like that. But I love my son, and I would never hit him.”
Tyro nodded and left.
On the doorstep of the Trajano home, someone was waiting for Tyro. The man reached for him and kissed him on the lips. They broke apart, looking around and giggling nervously, as though they were suddenly worried about who might be passing by.
Charita Gil is a writer from the Philippines. Writing is her passion and editing her professional job. She studied journalism, but she is writing fiction and poetry instead. Céline Dion and Thalia are her idols, and she is serious about being a French and Spanish bathroom singer. She is really an introvert, but many probably don't believe that. She is currently studying Spanish at Instituto Cervantes de Manila. Her first-ever work of romantic fiction was published by My Special Valentine in 2011. Her latest work has been published by 101 Words. Visit charitagil.com to check out what she is up to.