Stories · The Extremely Odious

Sleep (a short story about a Filipino call center agent)

Kate pressed the buttons on the elevator to G and sighed. Another day has ended in her call center life and another day to look forward to tomorrow. Or is that later tonight? She does not know how to categorize days anymore when her “days” begin at night and end during the beginning of the day for most people. From her office building in Eastwood, she took the jeepney to Cubao, then took the LRT to J. Ruiz where she will only have to walk for a few minutes to arrive at her family’s home in Sta. Mesa. If she leaves at6am, give or take a few minutes to linger for a little chit chat with co-workers, she will arrive at home around7am-ish and be greeted by the smells of yesterday’s leftover rice being fried with garlic. There will be some fried eggs on the table and some kind of breakfast meat, and she will see her father, older brother and younger sister all sitting down sipping their coffee and waiting for their mother to put down the steaming bowl of garlic fried rice.

“Kate!” her father would say in a commanding tone upon seeing her arrive. “Sit down and eat breakfast.”

Kate frowned. She did not understand why her father, long retired as a factory foreman, had a habit of stating the obvious. Nevertheless she sat down because she was hungry.

Their mother emerged from the kitchen with the bowl of fried rice, and said to everyone after a quick glance at her daughter Kate, “Here, eat up.” With the clang of forks and spoons, everybody heaped their plates with rice, took one fried egg and a slice of random fried breakfast meat – that day it was tocino – and then wolfed the whole plate down. Weekday mornings needed to be rushed because they were all commuters andManila public transportation was very unpredictable.

Kate’s older brother Ryan worked in a bank earning around P7,000 a month. Her younger sister Lea was a high school student, but it was the summer and she was free to do as she pleased with her free time. During breakfast, Kate was always reminded of the abnormalcy of her situation. She had just come home from work while everyone else was only beginning their day. Later she will try to sleep battling the heat and get the kind of sleep which feels like a long afternoon nap. After six years of doing this for five days a week, she now felt perpetually tired only to get a buzz with a bit of coffee before she goes to work and another in the middle of her shift. Early in her career she once had the ability to go on without sleeping, but now at 28 she was starting the feel the effects of the nightshift way of life. But there was nothing she can do about things. For 18 thousand a month, more than double what her older brother earns, she persuaded herself that she was happy and so she forgot any such qualms about sleep.

At around 8am Kate changed clothes, washed her face and brushed her teeth. Settling down on the bed shared with her sister Lea with the electric fan on top speed directly blowing wind at her, she took an old edition of Vogue magazine bought from Book Sale and looked at the fashion pictures.

She read the cover to herself. “Carey Mulligan. The rise of a dazzling new star.” Skimming though the pages, she found a sample for Kate Spade Twirl perfume and eagerly opened the flap only to see that it has already been opened. “Damn!” she said to herself, but dragged her fingers over the fragrant area nevertheless. Bringing her fingers to her nose, the smell was generic, like an expensive department store where the fragrances of rich customers have mingled to form something that is musky and sweet. “Can I afford to buy new perfume this month after sweldo?” she asked herself, but quickly dropped the idea from her mind as she looked at the various fashion spreads. Slowly, she felt her eyelids become heavy. Taking an airline sleep mask given to her by a well-to-do aunt who travels to theUS, she put the magazine aside and lay down to sleep.

Three hours later, in the heat of 12 noon, Kate woke up drenched in sweat. Lately, the summer months were hotter compared to a few years before and one electric fan, even at top speed and blowing directly at her, was not enough to cool her down for a comfortable sleep. She told this to her parents but they thought an airconditioner might increase their electricity bill too much and persuaded Kate that perhaps she should get used to sleeping in the heat. It will only be one more month before the rains come and she will be more comfortable. It would not make sense to use the airconditioner for only two months in a year for the summer. A bit annoyed, Kate reminded herself again – which she seemed to be doing almost everyday this summer – that indeed when the rainy months come she will experience comfortable sleep and she can pay off her sleep debt then.

She refrained from pulling off her sleep mask because the sunlight will wake her up some more. Kate bought thick curtains from SM, spending over 500 pesos, but they were still not enough to completely black out the sunlight from the windows. She just tried to lie still hoping that sleep will return, when she heard someone’s footsteps come inside the room.

It was her mother’s voice whispering. “It is here somewhere. I cannot remember where, but it is here.”

“Is that Kate?” asked someone else, also whispering, whom Kate recognized as one of her aunts who also lived in Sta. Mesa.

Kate lay very still, pretending to be asleep. She knew that if she rose her mother will feel guilty for waking her up and somehow that made her feel embarrassed again at the abnormalcy of her life.

“It’s not here. Let’s go,” whispered her mother. “We might wake Kate up.”

Their footsteps were heard and the door gently shut. As Kate lay there, half asleep and half awake, she began to wonder if this will be her life until she retires. She tried to imagine herself as a 65 year old call center agent. Since she started working at age 22 that would mean working 43 years in the night shift. She imagined herself being promoted, given salary raises, but still in the night shift. Would she survive? At 28 she already felt the effects of the nightshift: half-moon under-eye circles, wrinkles forming around her eyes, sluggishness. Occasionally she would have attacks of intense headaches which she would try to solve with some free Advil from the clinic. During the weekends, she slept almost the whole day unlike when she was young and could go without sleep from Friday shift until late Saturday night. These gradual changes made Kate think whether the extra pay from the night premium was worth it, whether it was better to switch to a different job. But at 28, her six years experience of working all spent in a call center, would she be able to get another job which paid as much as her current? Perhaps she should try to go abroad. Someday Kate would like to answer these questions, but for now slowly these thoughts were replaced with sleepiness and Kate forgot about her worries, rejoicing only for she would be able to get some much needed rest.

Four hours later, Kate felt the normal world disrupt her sleep again. Voices were heard outside, neighbors quarrelling about something or the other. She does not really care. A few minutes pass and the streets were silent again. By keeping the sleep mask on, Kate ensures that sunlight – which has the effect of shrugging off sleepiness – will never wake her and even if noise does she can easily drift back to sleep.

Back in her early days, when she first started out in the nightshift, she tried to be the sort who was able to do everything expected of her. She did not complain about sleepiness, but joked about it like everyone else saying, “I haven’t slept but I can do the work! Kayang-kaya!” It was a matter of pride that they could survive on little sleep and still deliver. It was a matter of pride that they could even go out for beers the morning after shift. That was who they were: people fresh from college, people with Bachelor’s degrees in English and Social Science and Education and Agriculture and Business Administration, people who studied  and graduated but never really achieved much else, people who graduated but didn’t pass the board exam, people who didn’t know what they wanted to do in life, people who had to get a job after graduation fast, people who earned a lot compared to others with their own abilities and most importantly, what tied together Kate’s group of friends, they were people who worked hard and partied harder, ignoring the signs that they had to slow down. And while everyone secretly envied the normalcy of the dayshift folks who serviced Australia and New Zealand, they considered themselves more fortunate because they earned more money which was something many of them needed. A few who serviced the Asian countries earned more than them because of the extra pay for language skills and even had the normalcy of working during the day, but Kate and her friends had no such skills. They had to take what was available and make the best of it.

Around 6pm, Kate rose so she can have dinner with her family while watching the evening news. While they used to have dinner at 7, the family switched to 6 when Kate started the nightshift because she had to leave at exactly8pmto make it to her workstation by9pm. Her older brother and younger sister were there back from work or school or play, and they discussed whatever current news there was about family relatives or neighbors or acquaintances – the usual small talk to fill the hours. At 7pm Kate got ready for work, exactly one hour after she kissed her parents and siblings goodbye and walked to the LRT station.

“Ah Kate! Going to work?” one of the tambay neighbors asked.

“Yes,” she replied with a smile. There were several call center agents in their neighborhood and the people were used to them, even the elders who grew up believing that well-behaved young people went home early and never stayed out the whole night. In the beginning they were all amazed by the idea of their children working at night and were very appalled by the fashion of call center agents being called callboys and callgirls. Yet gradually it become the norm, like OFWs flying off to foreign countries living away to provide the family’s needs. “Ganun talaga,” they said to themselves, “wherever and however we can earn money.” Then they shook their heads and forgot about it.

The LRT was not jam-packed by 8pmbecause most people have gone home by then. Kate relaxed and dreamed about owning a townhouse in Gilmore. She can see the row of townhouses whenever the train passed by the area and every time Kate fixed her eyes on them. If only the greatness of desire could grant wishes, Kate would have had such a house that instant. But while she looked to the future, she never considered her present as connected to it for her savings were always spent on one thing or the other – on beach trips with her call center friends, on Saturday morning beers and pulutan, on the occasional Starbucks. All those small hundreds and thousands piled up in the month and her P18000 salary would be gone, with P8000 given to her parents to help out in the household expenses and about P500 to her younger sister Lea for her random purchases. Six years ago, 22 year old Kate was not worried, saying to herself that eventually she will get promoted and earn more, that she will be able to save enough, that her well-to-do aunt who travels to the US will favor her and give her money, that townhouse prices will somehow go drastically down. The future seemed so far away and at 22, fresh from college, Kate wanted to enjoy her life. Now at 28, Kate still dreamed not of goals but of miracles believing that her parent’s house in Sta. Mesa was enough for her but also wishing that maybe someday she would be able to have a better house and a better life.

About 15 minutes later, Kate arrived in Cubao and passed by Gateway toGeneral Romulo street where she took a jeep to Eastwood. Sometimes Kate would leave early if she had extra money and wanted to buy something in Gateway. Her favorite place to stop by was Watsons where she looked at the new products, cheap lotions and facial washes in sachets selling for around P20. She seldom bought any toiletries that were not in sachets. Yet when it came to her clothes, she prided in being able to buy the expensive things, even P2000 for a pair of Levi’s jeans which she showed off at the office. It was a different story at home for when her mother learned how much she spent for a pair of jeans, she said, “You can buy the same for less than P500 in Divisoria. Kate, don’t waste your money.”

“This is Levi’s,” replied Kate with a laugh. She did not explain further for she knew her parents would not understand. It was a good thing then that they did not bother her with her own expenses provided that she gave P8000 for the household every month. Kate never asked where her parents spent the money and her parents never asked where she spent the rest of her salary. It was a good enough arrangement unlike some work mates she knew who spent the whole of their salary to support their parents in the province and two or three jobless siblings living with them in the city, some even with their jobless spouses. Then there were those who were at the other extreme end who worked to pay off their credit card debts which never really got paid off completely because they would keep on buying new things to show off at the office – Zara, Mango, Aldo, Esprit, Giordano, Guess – all properly tagged in their Facebook photos like fashion magazine pages.

This time, however, Kate did not have any extra cash to spend on luxury items. She had one week to wait for the next month’s salary and she was a bit low on cash. Breezing through Gateway, she walked and got in one of the Rosario jeepneys that will take her to Eastwood. She was used to the commute by now and so were her parents who once had apprehensions about her going to Eastwood at night. The rainy seasons were the most difficult times to commute for her because she will have to struggle with her bag and umbrella and try to not get too wet. Of her shoes she does not worry because she usually wears only slippers when she goes to work and changes into her work shoes when she arrives at the office. Now her commute was pleasant despite the humidity which made her underarms sweat. “This I better than commuting under the hot sun,” said Kate to herself once when she first started work, excited about her possibilities. “At least I do not experience the heat and the traffic of the dayshift.”

Now, giving a yawn as she passed by people buying bread in Bread Talk, by the KFC in which some people were still eating, by the shops along General Roxas street which were now closed, Kate wondered how it would be like to be on her way home at 8:30 pm. During the weekends it was easy for her to go back to the normal rhythm, to fall asleep by midnight which typically was the time when she needed a caffeine boost. At8:15 pm, she was sleepy but she can fight it. One amazing thing she realized after six years in the nightshift was that she could easily fight off sleepiness compared before when she would be too sluggish to do anything once sleepiness sets in.

The jeepney ride from Cubao to Eastwood took around 15-20 minutes, assuming there was no traffic, and Kate had 15 minutes to walk from Mercury Drug Store to her office, drop by the bathroom for a quick change of footwear and perhaps a quick swipe of lip gloss and exchange greetings with her friends. Her team arrived one by one and they said hi to each other, a few jokes were made, someone bragged about the latest expensive trip or purchase. Then at exactly9:00 pmthey were at their seats ready to take calls.

She used to think that she wanted to be promoted, but now she just wanted to work and have fun. “Being promoted means extra work for me,” she said to her parents once when they asked what her plans in life were three years into her job. “I’m ok with P18000 a month,” she said. This is better than what most people have, some who have worked even longer than me.” She had not meant to do it, but she was referring to her older brother Ryan who started working in one of the city’s banks one and a half years before Kate started, and seemed to be happy with his P7000 a month. “I’m ok with my life,” he said to his defense. “I’m not aiming to be rich.”

Yet Lea seemed to want to earn a lot for she said, “I want to be like ate Kate when I graduate,” she said with a smile. “I want to be a call center agent.”

During those times Kate grinned and encouraged her younger sister to improve her English to be a better agent, but now after so many difficulties she wanted to say to Lea, “Do something else.”

Indeed, when Kate had to take an extended leave due to health problems, the doctor advised her that the nightshift should only be attempted for three years, and after that all kinds of health problems would arise – migraine, hypertension, sleep disorders. At that time she was at her fourth year of work and for a while she was tempted to quit but she changed her mind after recovering. “Kayang kaya!” she said to her parents. “I only needed to rest, but I’m still healthy.” They nodded their apprehensions away and let their daughter be.

Twelve midnight. Kate rushed through her call so she can have her lunch break. While the rest of the team continued to take calls, she and two of her friends went the pantry to eat. They will not be able to afford to eat out this week and they settled for one of the cheap choices available from the food sellers in the pantry.

“I am so tired!” said Anna loudly, sitting on the chair with a heavy thump. “My boyfriend and I had a huge fight this morning and I couldn’t get back to sleep.”

“What did you fight about?” asked Lisa, stirring a packet of Nescafe 3-in-1 into her cup. This and two packets of Sky Flakes will be her lunch today as she is trying to lose a few pounds in time for her beach trip six weeks from now.

“About him flirting with someone else!” Anna rolled her eyes. “I saw them! They were like nagliligawan!”

“Who are we talking about?” asked Kate, also stirring her instant coffee. They will not be able to afford Starbucks until next week, and even then it must be considered as a major expense for the day, as expensive as one meal.

Lisa replied bringing Kate’s thoughts back to the conversation, “Anna’s boyfriend is flirting with someone else.”

Kate sipped her hot instant coffee, trying to shake off the sleepiness. As she opened her baon of leftovers from home, she then thought about her love life, about their love lives. Anna was lucky for she was from Mindanao and lived away from her parent’s house with her boyfriend whom she met in her previous company. Meanwhile, most everyone who were lucky to have relationships had them with fellow call center agents in their office. Kate remembered her own boyfriend, the one she had in college. They broke up because he found it difficult to find the time to be with her being that she did not follow the same schedule as he. “We can see each other during the weekends!” exclaimed Kate, but he had already fallen in love with someone else, someone from his office, someone he saw all the time.

“You don’t have proof. Don’t be quick to judge,” said Lisa, crumpling one Sky Flakes wrapper. “Meanwhile, my boyfriend is the cheater.” She said this with a laugh.

Kate considered if she could have what Lisa had, a relationship with a married man. It seemed convenient enough given their lack of time for any normal kind of dating. Lisa saw her “boyfriend” at her studio apartment after her shift and before he went to work. He had the convenient excuse of just telling his wife that he had to work early if ever he wanted to meet Lisa. Yet, nobody like that seemed to be coming to Kate’s life and at 28, Kate had resigned herself that she will be single forever. Her brother was still single. Perhaps only Lea will ever get married among the three of them – Lea who was their youngest, Lea who could have a better life compared to her siblings.

As Anna and Lisa continued to discuss love matters and its difficulties due to being in the nightshift, Kate could not help herself and recalled her parents’ apprehensions when she first started working in a call center. They did not understand many things including the night shift life when she first started work. Her father said in an authoritative tone, “It’s dangerous! You can choose to get a lesser paying job anyway.”

“I want to earn P18000! I can help out here at home. This is the highest paying job that is available to me,” replied Kate. “Kuya Ryan only earns P8000, Tatay earns even less and Nanay is unemployed. I can really help out. If there is a job in the day time out there that gives as much, I will take it. But there is none.”

She understood the apprehension of her parents. After all, she was a woman and there were a million bad things that could happen to a woman in this city. Still, Kate knew from the way her parent’s eyes looked at her that they were tempted by the P18000 a month, net amount after taking away all the taxes. They were tempted by the possibility of their daughter getting promoted and receiving even more money. They were tempted by the possibility of what those P18000 could buy. Now Kate’s parents say nothing. Her father used to be able to have his way as self-proclaimed head of the family, and if he indeed could have his way, he would not allow one of his daughters to be out and about the city in the middle of the night. But the decision was not as simple as allowing a daughter to work at night. It was also about the money.

Hoy!” exclaimed Lisa.

Kate looked up at her two best friends at work – or perhaps her only two best friends now that she was usually cut off from her other friends’ social lives at night. She no longer felt sleepy. Now she just felt tired.

“Time to get back,” said Lisa and they gathered their things and went back to their work stations. Five hours to go before they can all go home.

At five minutes to six o’clock, Kate finished her last call as she looked outside to peek at the rising sun. The morning sunlight burst through the row of buildings and Kate knew that her mother will now be crumbling the leftover rice to be fried in garlic. She will thaw some breakfast meat – perhaps today it will be longganisa – and fry some eggs. Or else she would heat up yesterday’s leftovers She has done this every morning since her three children have started going to school, since they all started going out of the house. She always used to say, “Breakfast is the most important meal. If you don’t eat breakfast, you will have a headache bynoon.” Now she never says it, for what was this meal to Kate? Was it still breakfast, or was it supposed to be dinner?

Gathering her things, Kate said goodbye to her friends and other team mates. Some were staying to grab something to eat at the pantry, some were yawning and barely able to keep their eyes open, some were fumbling in their bags for their packet of cigarettes. As Kate entered the elevator and pressed G, she gave a deep sigh for another work day being over, yet still another to look forward to later that night.

As she walked towards the overpass where jeepneys to Cubao were waiting, she sniffed the air and detected the fresh odors of soap and shampoo. Some people with still damp hair were walking to their offices. The dayshift folks. Checking her watch she saw it was6:10 am. She knew her brother Ryan was now stretching his limbs trying to shake off sleep while Lea who was still in her summer break from school was probably still drooling on her pillow. By6:30Kate stood on the LRT platform waiting for the train to arrive where other dayshift folks were sitting smelling fresh and sweet with their just splashed on colognes. By6:45 amher brother Ryan would be all dressed and ready to go to work, except he has not brushed his teeth yet. He will do this after eating. By6:50their mother shook Lea awake so she can join the whole family at breakfast. Around this time Kate entered their house and greeted her father who was watching the GMA morning show. The odor of garlic fried rice and eggs and coffee tempted Kate who gladly sat down on the dining table because she was hungry. She had instant decaf coffee which was carefully labeled in a separate container lest she accidentally drop a spoonful of caffeinated coffee in her cup and not be able to sleep. By8:00 am they were all done eating and Ryan left for work. Kate went to her room to change clothes.

On this particular morning she felt uneasy, but she could not point out why. It was true that she had feelings of doubts and angst about her continuing the night shift, but she already considered them to be normal. Everybody had those which they sighed away with all the possible rationalizations that could be given. They all knew their needs and what had to be done, and they all accepted their situation despite the abnormalcy, despite the compromises and the sacrifices. Kate did it for the future, for her parents and for Lea. She had always meant to have a talk with Lea to change her view on the desirability of a call center career. She would want Lea to do something else, something that would not result to her making so many compromises and sacrifices in exchange for money. But Kate was always too tired during the weekdays, and she was always too sleepy during the weekends. She was not yet too worried though for Lea was only in high school and there was still time.

Kate shrugged off her unease and picked up the copy of Vogue. As she skimmed through the fashion spreads she felt sleep come and she reached for the airline sleep mask from her well-to-do aunt to shut out the light of the sun. She stretched out her limbs and yawned, succumbing herself to much needed sleep. She could already feel the heat of the sun which will later gradually increase and reach its peak at noon. Kate thought to herself before she lost her consciousness to sleep, “It’s time to buy an airconditioner. Even if I will have to pay extra for the electricity, it’s probably worth it just to be able to sleep. How much is an airconditioner? P2000? P3000? P5000? I will have to convince Nanay. I will have to cut back on any purchases this month. I will have to cut back on Starbucks. I will probably have to bring baon most days … P18000 is not really a very large amount of money. It’s easy to spend it all in one month if you are careless …”

But sleepiness had overcome her thoughts, and so she adjusted her body on a cooler side of the bed and drifted slowly to sleep.

Copyright, Katrina Rhoda Diaz

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