The Big Room in the Old House


In the big room in the old house, the ceiling, the walls, and the wardrobe built into the wall are painted white. Slats of dark mahogany form the floor. The windows are wide and the ceiling is high. These are the reasons why I took the room.

The first room I rented was the attic of a big house in Sampaloc, Manila, near the train tracks. The attic had a low, slanted ceiling and one small window that looked out to apartments and high-rises crowding under a smog-colored sky. Down below was an alley where men with potbellies and sagging skin played cards and drank gin until 2 AM. Children ran half-naked in the streets with stray cats and mangy dogs. Sometimes, a fight would break out and somebody would get stabbed. Other times I would hear banging, the neighbors shouting, a woman crying. Whenever a fire broke out in some part of the city, trucks would flash and wail their sirens through the night.

Even so, I felt apart from those things, because I lived high up in an attic with only one small window, and I could always shut the door. My landlady, who lived two floors down, often said that she felt like she had no tenant at all. I had a habit, I told her, of disappearing from the world.

The big room in the old house reminds me of my attic, but here I do not have to worry about hitting my head against the ceiling. It is roomy enough for dancing, though I don’t dance. One window looks out to the yard with mango trees and wild shrubbery. Two windows look out to houses along adjacent streets. These windows I cover with dark blue drapery. The other window I keep open and frame with diaphanous curtains drawn back with silk scarves.

For furniture I have a black plastic chair by a wooden desk painted a fading shade of teal. My books stand on shelves hanging from the wall, or in piles on the floor. A gilded wine rack holds my shoes. There used to be a bed by the window, but I had it taken out. Every night I unroll a narrow mat, cover it with a blanket, take out a pillow from the closet, and sleep. In the morning I rise from my heap on the floor, shake the pillow and fold the blanket and put them back in the closet, roll the mat and stow it in a corner of the room. This ritual lends a sense of order to the flurry of my days.

My room is on the second floor, between two doors that open to boxes and piles of things no longer working but still wanted. Across my room is a locked door. At the end of the corridor is a disused bathroom. My landlady’s quarters span most of the ground floor, while two students occupy the chamber beside the bath downstairs. Even so, I like to think that I live alone in the big old house, and often feel like it.

Once I heard the landlady walk up the stairs (they creak) and enter the locked room at five in the morning. I imagined her standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by old furniture, dusty paintings, broken toys, and cloudy mirrors, talking with ghosts.


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