Intoy moved the wet mop back and forth across the marble floor with utmost concentration. He was careful not to miss the stubborn scuff marks and streaks of mud that had stuck so hard they could not be cleaned with one swipe; he had to squish the cloth with the heel of a shoe to remove the spots or use the scraper that he kept tucked in his back pocket. He did not notice the woman approach.
“Hi, I’ve got some chocolates. Would you like to have them?”
Intoy looked at the speaker with surprise. It had been two weeks since the agency assigned him as cleaner in the bank, and since then, not one of the employees had ever talked to him. He exchanged a few words with the security guard upon sign-in, and the man handed him the access keys to all the offices. He also greeted the two female cleaners he worked with, but Intoy didn’t have any clue about who they were except for their names and nationalities. They were too busy and had no time to chit-chat about their personal lives. They started working right after signing in, usually in different rooms or floors of the building so they wouldn’t be in each other’s way, and finished four hours later. Every night, Intoy had to sweep and mop the ground floor, and vacuum the wall-to-wall carpeting on the second and third floors. He also had to mop the tiled washrooms and pantries located on every floor. In his first few days, he could barely complete his checklist of tasks. To save time, he would skip rooms that looked tidy or had been unused the whole day, and leave the corners of large offices unvacuumed. But by his second week, having grown accustomed to the routine, he could finish them all with a half hour to spare before the end of his shift.
Intoy learned to be invisible at work. Or perhaps it was the nature of his work that taught him to be such. None of the bank employees would give him so much as a quick glance when they passed by him or when he passed by them working overtime at their desks or offices. If they did happen to look up, it was with the same expressionless look one would give a piece of furniture that happened to fall into one’s line of sight.
This woman who had taken exceptional notice of the cleaner was now holding out two chocolate bars. Intoy recognized her. The bank closed at half past four in the afternoon and by the time Intoy arrived to start working at five, the offices and tellers’ desks would be empty except for three or four employees who would always stay behind, going home at six or thereabouts. She was one of the three or four regulars who worked after office hours.
Intoy smiled and accepted the chocolate bars, but was tongue-tied with astonishment and could only murmur a hurried thanks. The demand of speaking in English overwhelmed him. His brain was still not quick enough to form the necessary reply, to translate whatever he needed to say from his native Waray, even if what the situation required was a simple sentence or a few words. He was confident with his English back home in the Philippines, but he realized upon coming to Canada that it was different when you had to come up with a rejoinder at the spur of the moment. Feeling embarrassed and quietly chiding himself for not saying more to the kind woman, Intoy hurriedly placed the packets inside the breast pocket of his uniform and resumed mopping.
“It’s from my client,” the woman continued addressing him even while she slowly retreated to her office. “She gives me those all the time but I don’t personally like to eat sweet things, so…”
“Thank you,” Intoy found himself saying again and bowing slightly, too, as the woman closed her office door behind her.
While Intoy scrubbed, squeezed, and cleaned, he couldn’t help but steal a glance every now and then at the nice woman through the glass wall of her office. He squinted to read her name on the plaque nailed to the door. Every door of the cubicle-sized rooms that lined one side of the ground floor—opposite the long counter where the bank tellers sat and transacted with clients—had a red metal plaque with the name of the employee embossed in white. Intoy went inside all these offices every night to clean, but he neither paid attention nor remembered the names of the people who worked in them. To him, these rooms were just spaces to clean and the people using them were just as anonymous to him as he knew he was to them. Except for this moment when someone actually acknowledged his existence.
Kimberly Wang. That was the nice woman’s name. Kimberly Wang was slim and short, dressed in a black blazer over a grey shirt, mini-skirt, and black leggings. She wore a golden necklace with a golden cross pendant and tiny pearl earrings. She was almost childlike in stature, but wore high heels so that she reached Intoy’s height of five feet and three inches.
The next night, Intoy became more conscious of Miss Wang’s presence. More than simply taking in the sight of her, however, he was waiting for the opportunity to talk to the woman. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to do it. Perhaps he wanted to redeem himself in her eyes, prove to her that he was not dull-witted and didn’t know how to speak English beyond “thank you.” After all, he finished in the top ten of his graduating class in Jose Burgos High School back home in the town of Dolores, Eastern Samar, where Intoy was born and raised.
Or maybe he just wanted a new friend. He had not found one yet since arriving to Canada three weeks ago. His mother promised to introduce him to her Filipino friends who had sons and daughters his age, but she would have to call them first and plan the visits. Her mom said that unlike in the Philippines, here in Canada you couldn’t just barge into friends’ homes unannounced. Everyone led busy lives and aimed to earn as much as they could because life was not cheap even in a first-world country like Canada. Miss Wang, therefore, was the first person to have noticed him and done something nice for him. Intoy wanted Miss Wang to notice him some more.
Intoy had begun sweeping one of the empty offices when he saw Miss Wang stand up and take her coat hanging behind her office door. He hurried and positioned himself by the main entrance of the bank to make sure that he did not miss her leaving the building. He was already rehearsing what he would say, although his mind couldn’t yet make up whether he would simply bid her goodnight or thank her again for the chocolates from the other day. He had also prepared a witty comment on the weather—about how it was still snowing when it was supposed to be the middle of spring already. In the conversations he’d eavesdropped among passengers on the bus he took going to and from work, he had noticed how Canadians liked talking about the weather so he was certain that Miss Wang would totally get his joke.
Intoy covertly looked at Miss Wang coming nearer while he pretended to be concentrating on a spot on the floor. He felt his heart thumping loudly as he waited for the exact moment with which to raise his head and look up as if in surprise. Would he be able to muster enough courage to even utter a word? Intoy saw her approach like he was watching a scene in a movie shot in slow motion. To his infatuated eyes, Miss Wang did not seem to walk. She bounced—or floated—her short hair bobbing with every step. When Miss Wang smiled upon seeing him, Intoy was dazed and confused. His mouth dried and no sound came out.
“Have a great weekend!” Miss Wang waved a hand at him.
At the last minute, Intoy was able to take out from his pocket the other chocolate bar which he had planned to eat during his break. Miss Wang’s eyes lit up. She giggled.
“Oh, did you like them?”
“Yes! Yes!” Intoy replied, injecting more excitement in his voice than he intended. “They are delicious.”
She laughed in reply before pushing the glass door open. The cold wind from outdoors left a faint whiff of flowers in Miss Wang’s wake. Intoy closed his eyes to savor the scent that lingered briefly. It reminded him of champaca, the nocturnal flowers that bloomed in profusion in his Lola Nena’s garden behind their house in Dolores, and whose scent filled the night, especially during the summertime, with its overwhelming fragrance. However, Intoy doubted Canadians were familiar with champaca. It must be some other flower, he thought. Surely someone as pretty as Miss Wang would only buy expensive perfume.
Intoy tried to find out more about Miss Wang. The next time he went to clean her office, he spent some extra time there. But to his disappointment, her office was almost bare and did not tell him much. He thought that she was neat because pens, pads, and sheaves of papers were arranged neatly on the table. She tidied her desk before leaving. Intoy threw a look at a small garbage bin in the corner. He deduced that she liked to have sandwich for lunch because there was one Subway sandwich wrapper in the trash. He then went through the three pairs of high-heeled shoes on a rack beside the door. He thought Miss Wang must like the fit of Steve Madden shoes on her size six feet because all pairs were of the same brand.
Almost all of the employees had photos of either their spouse, kids, friends or pets. However, no pictures could be seen on Miss Wang’s desk or wall. Only a framed certificate indicating that Miss Wang is a Certified Financial Planner and could officially practice her profession anywhere in the province of Ontario. This only stirred Intoy’s curiosity further. Was she married? How old was she? She looked to be in her late twenties. Intoy wanted her desperately to be single so that maybe, just maybe—but how he kept his fingers tightly crossed each time he prayed for it every night in the last few days—something could spark between them. Just like in the movies or romance novels. After all, theirs was the classic tropes in many love stories: the lady and the tramp, the heiress and the farmhand, the CEO and the office clerk, the successful banker and the janitor. Why not? Also, it wasn’t as if he planned to clean floors his whole life. He was going to start college next September.
When Intoy arrived in Canada after her mom petitioned him to emigrate so they could be together, they agreed that he would wait a year before he went back to school. He needed time to adjust to the different climate and culture of the new country. Intoy wasn’t also sure yet what he was going to do with his life once he came to Canada. He had just finished high school and all he knew was that whatever course he took in college it should have something to do with Math because it was his favorite subject.
After three weeks in Toronto, he was still getting used to the cold climate. It was snowing heavily when he arrived in February. It was his first time to see real snow and he immediately realized that it only looked magical in the movies or when you were looking at snow through a picture window while you were seated comfortably inside a heated room. Once you were forced to trudge through ice-covered ground, shivering even while you were covered in thick, cumbersome clothing, you started loathing snow.
But more than the weather, Intoy had a harder time adjusting to being forced to speak in English all the time. At least, upon arriving in the country, his mother had already secured for him his current job. Her friend, a fellow Filipina and caregiver, was married to a Canadian with a cleaning agency that had contracts with several office buildings around the city. Just a couple of days after Intoy arrived, he was asked to replace the cleaner of the bank who just quit the position. On his first day at work, his supervisor came to spend one hour training Intoy the tasks he had to do such as mixing the right type of cleaning agent to use for the different surfaces, operating the vacuum cleaner, and using the other cleaning tools and implements. He also left Intoy two sets of uniform and took his bank account number so that the young man’s pay could be deposited directly into his account. After the training, the supervisor left, and Intoy had never seen him since.
Intoy didn’t like the job. He thought it was tedious and hopeless since he was cleaning floors that would only be dirtied again the next day. But he didn’t want to disappoint his mother. He knew how hard she had worked to make his life comfortable after his dad died when Intoy was still a baby. Intoy was seven years old when his Mom left him under the care of his grandmother in Samar so that she could work in Canada. After ten years, Intoy was finally able to follow her. His Mom told him to accept this job in the meantime, just until he got used to going around the city and learning to interact with the people.
However, for the first time in the two weeks that he had been working as cleaner for the bank, Intoy had begun to look forward to going to work, thanks to Miss Kimberly Wang. He wouldn’t get another opportunity to talk to her, though. He could not gather enough courage nor could he think of anything to say which would not surprise her or which he thought would interest her enough. But Miss Wang was there, working overtime on most nights. Seeing her, getting a glimpse of her while he walked back and forth, sweeping and mopping, was enough for Intoy. The mop felt lighter, the spacious marble floor seemed less daunting, and time flew. There would be one or two nights during the week when he would be disappointed after coming to work and noticing the door to Miss Wang’s office open, which meant that she had already left. The mop felt heavier, the floor so large and empty, and the minutes dragged. However, after he had finished for the night, what kept his spirits up was the thought that perhaps tomorrow Miss Wang would be there. And usually, she would be.
Two weeks later, Intoy was on the landing of the stairs leading up to the second floor, mop in hand, when he heard someone come up the steps. It was Miss Wang, and Intoy almost dropped the mop when he felt her tap him gently on the shoulder.
“Hi!” Miss Wang giggled. This time she was holding a small bag of round foil-covered pralines. “I’ve got more chocolates. My client came back today and brought these.”
“Wow!” Intoy exclaimed. He wanted to tell her more. He wanted to tell her about how he appreciated her taking a special regard for him. He wanted to tell her about how she was the first person to have shown him an ounce of kindness in spite of his being only a cleaner with a heavy English accent. He also wanted to tell her about how pretty he thought she was. He wanted to tell her how he could not help beginning to like her. But in his usual harried state and the lack of self-confidence to converse in English, Intoy could only squeak his thanks. He pocketed the pack of chocolates and stared at Miss Wang’s retreating back, his mind wandering with suppositions and wishful thinking. Why did she give me chocolates? Why did she think of me? She could give them to any of the other employees. She could even give them to the female Sudanese cleaner. Perhaps, she liked me? Intoy thought.
However, it was to be the last night that Intoy was going to see Miss Wang for quite some time again. Intoy started wondering, after a week had gone by, why she had stopped working after hours. Each afternoon, as he logged in with the security guard by the entrance, it had become his habit to look for Miss Wang first, to see if the door to her office was closed, which would mean that she was still inside. But each time, it was ajar. With every day that left him disappointed, it had become harder for Intoy to appease himself with the hope that she would eventually be there the next day.
Three weeks had passed and Miss Wang had not stayed behind even for a single day during those weeks. Intoy knew she hadn’t been missing work because he noticed how the things on her desk had been moved and there was the usual discarded wrapper of Subway sandwich in her waste basket every afternoon.
He finally decided to catch her before the bank closed. He arrived to work early on Friday, but he didn’t proceed to the bank. Instead, he went up to the food court on the second floor of the office building across the street. The entire wall of the building was made of glass which allowed for an unimpeded view of the street below.
The tables in the food court were mostly empty as it was closing time for the offices that rented the spaces in the building. Even the food stalls were closed, with only a sandwich store and a fruit juice concession left open. Intoy sat on a corner table where he could see the bank entrance and catch the people going in and out.
At exactly four-thirty, he saw Miss Wang leaving the bank. She was not alone. She was chatting with a man. As they exited, the man held the door open for her. She was laughing as if from a joke he had just finished telling. Intoy wondered who he was. He seemed years older than her. The man had a full head of silver hair, looking like those senior news reporters one saw on late night news programs on TV. Maybe his father, Intoy thought, for he did look old enough to be her father. He was tall, Miss Wang only reached below his shoulder. But he was obviously not Asian like Miss Wang. The two walked together to the corner of the street until they were out of Intoy’s sight. Intoy hurried down the escalator, hoping to catch where the two were headed. When he finally got out into the sidewalk, he scanned the crowd but couldn’t find where Miss Wang and her companion had gone.
The next Monday, Intoy was surprised to see the door to Miss Wang’s office closed. Through the glass walls, he saw her seated behind her desk. His joy at seeing her again was cut off, however, when he saw the same man she walked out with the other week. He sat opposite her. They seemed to be talking about some serious matter, he motioned with his hands while he spoke. Miss Wang barely opened her mouth, as if whispering her replies; but she paid him utmost attention, her eyes always focused on his his face.
Intoy proceeded to the janitor’s closet beside the washrooms where he changed into his uniform, filled a bucket with water and cleaning agent, dropped the mop inside the bucket, and pushed the bucket towards the main hall. He was wringing the mop when Miss Wang emerged from her office and approached him.
“There you are, Mister Cleaner. I thought I wasn’t going to catch you today. Lucky I did. I have more chocolates for you.”
“Wow! Thank you,” Intoy replied. He was glad but this time the gladness was tinged with a little disappointment. At this point, too, the grey-haired man stepped out of Miss Wang’s office. Miss Wang, upon seeing him, left Intoy’s side and accompanied the man towards the direction of the entrance doorway. Then, just before he pushed the door open, he kissed Miss Wang on the lips.
“Bye, hon. See you later at home.”
Miss Wang giggled in response.
The door was a few meters away but Intoy clearly heard what he said. The young cleaner felt his heart drop along with the mop handle which fell to the marble floor with a thud that echoed in the empty hall. Intoy decided he was going to talk to his mother when he got home later. She might need to find him another job. Or another place to clean.