By Monica Felizardo
Another agent disappeared this morning. Or I think it was last night. Either way, it's such a hassle. You know from the disquiet rush reigning on the call centre floor, in the unspoken complaints and heavy fingers banging against keyboards as agents rushed from one call to the next. And of course, there're the cubicles they leave behind. A disappeared agent means another table left vacant, and more calls for the remaining agents to handle. At this point nobody talks about the disappearances anymore. Talking just wastes time.
"Thank you for calling! This is Athena speaking. How may I help you today?"
I handle 15 calls before I log out for my lunch break. When I take off my headphones, I feel as if my ears would pop off with them.
"Want to eat out?" Yuri, one of my seniors at Helix, is already standing over my cubicle when I look up from my computer screen. Yuri works with the other team, may even be up for promotion once the monthly assessments come in. She helped me learn the ropes of call centre work when I first started five years ago. I had just dropped out of college then, not quite by choice, after our family's cafι business went bankrupt and the banks went after what little assets our family owned, my tuition money notwithstanding. I applied for one of the call centres outside the university because my relatives said I'd find little trouble getting in with my unfinished mass communications degree. In fairness to them, they weren't wrong.
"Lunch out? Isn't it petsa de peligro?" I say in mock confusion. Of course I know why Yuri is asking to go out for lunch, why we've been eating budget meals at the Jollibee two blocks away for the last five days. She wants to see the bulletin.
The bulletin board outside the Integrated Bar, right by the Jollibee, was originally put up to hold announcements of bar exam passers. But on the way back from drinks with the team last Friday we notice that it has lately been repurposed for something else.
The bulletin board is about five feet long, two feet high. Buzzed out of our wits, we noticed that somebody had put up a missing persons notice for a girl named Gianina Miguel. The name didn't ring a bell, but the sleepy-eyed face and red hoodie bearing the concentric circles logo of Helix Customer Solutions was far too familiar. She worked with the Customer Retention team Yuri and I were in Sales but we passed by her every night as we worked the same floor. We might have even shared a word or two on the elevators, coming in to work. Monday of that week, she didn't show up for work. We later heard from her family that she hadn't gone home that day either.
When we first saw the bulletin board, it was just Gianina. But as the days progressed, we heard of one, two, three more people who had gone missing, also agents with our company. And each day we returned to the bulletin board outside the Integrated Bar office, we saw their faces come up. The posters, each about half the size of legal typewriting paper, had been tacked next to each other in a line, beginning from the leftmost side of the board, leaving the rest empty as though in anticipation of more posters to come.
Now there are four.
"Where do you think they go?" I say to Yuri, not taking my eyes off the posters on the bulletin board. Every now and again a soft gust of wind would ruffle the loose corners of the posters. Around us, the metro continues its daily bustle. The cars stuck on Julia Vargas honks at each other.
"Who cares?" Yuri snaps back. "They think they can just vanish into thin air and leave us scrambling for the work they leave behind." She shook her head. "Four agents gone in two weeks. I almost couldn't close that last sale because my head was spinning from handling so many calls."
I say nothing in response. I stare at the familiar eyes of the faces on the bulletin board. Probably the only remnants of their existence on Earth. Behind us, a frustrated driver shouts infuriated curses, and the rest of the cars answer him in honks.
Yuri's full name is Saori. Her father was an OFW who worked as a waiter in Nagoya, while her mother is the only child of a well-to-do family in the Sakae district. When Yuri finished middle school, the family made the decision to move back to Manila. Her parents' savings got Yuri as far as college, but on the morning of the very day of her graduation she woke up with an unbearable morning sickness. Her parents worried she might have caught something serious and wouldn't be able to make it to her graduation. Thankfully enough, it was neither terminal nor pathological, though it did end up taking the next nine months of the life she had hardly begun to live: Yuri had gotten pregnant.
All this, and so much more of the rollercoaster that is Yuri's life, I would learn from our conversations at the yosi area: the rooftop balcony that is the designated social hall for all call centre agents. I don't smoke, but friends in the call centre area, apparently, come with the risk of lung cancer, one way or another. Logging out for our 15-minute breaks, Yuri would signal to me from across the floor by raising her left hand to her lips, her index and middle fingers raised to form a V, propping between them an invisible cigarette. On the rooftop, we'd settle into a corner among the huddles of call centre agents huffing and puffing away the time. Yuri would hand me a pack of menthol-flavoured gum for me to chew on while she lit the first link in her daily chain of smokes.
Breaks on the night shift are either in the dead of midnight or in the early break of dawn. At night, the rooftop would be awash in a sea of black void, broken here and there by the light of some 24-hour convenience store, a Jollibee, or a McDonald's. In the distance, hardly visible against the starless violet blanket of sky, is the shadow of the mountains of what must be Rizal or Tagaytay (the agents could never settle on this matter, and nobody bothered to check a map). The air is also more breathable, even with 10 or 15 agents lighting away. All traces of smoke promptly dissolve into the cool night breeze.
Everything changes in the morning, when the sky shines piercingly bright over the building it's almost impossible to keep your eyes open. The air stands still, and even with just three agents the smoke fills the rooftop, almost settling like a dense, grey cloud around us that breathing becomes Herculean. It's on one of these mornings, when Yuri tells me her boyfriend, the same guy that got her pregnant on the morning of her graduation six years ago (they've since given birth to one more child, and now have a boy and a girl and somehow still no marriage in the works), has started asking for a break.
Yuri takes a long, heavy drag on her cigarette. Only one other agent is with us, and he is standing all the way to the other side of the rooftop, looking over the city whilst he argues with a girlfriend or is it his mother over the phone, perhaps in anticipation of needing to jump in case the conversation doesn't swing his way. "Can you believe that guy? Two kids, and still he thinks he can just ask for a break like that."
I say nothing. Instead, I keep chewing on my gum, which by now has been reduced to a tasteless wad of wet plaster in my mouth. I ball up the gum with my tongue and roll it around in my mouth. Yuri lifts the cigarette to her lips, leaves it there for a minute without sucking on it. It just rests there, burning close to the butt, in between her chapped, grey lips. She's smoked so much that no amount of chapstick could paint over her burned lips.
"Sophia is due to start first grade in a month."
Sophia is their first child. Six years old now. "Perfect timing," I say, shaking my head.
Yuri sighs. "I know, right? I have bills due, and this job doesn't even pay enough without these agents dissolving away like it's business as usual."
When talking about the disappeared agents, Yuri uses the Tagalog word nalusaw. Dissolved. The word brings to mind the image of sugar being stirred into a glass of water. "Nabalitaan mo ba? Nalusaw na daw si Kelvin." Have you heard? Kelvin has dissolved. Every time I try to correct her that the word lusaw is never used on people except maybe in very violent circumstances, one for the movies but she keeps on using it anyway.
Appropriate or not, it honestly makes sense, when I think about the footage that the building security team showed us last week when they realised the disappearances were happening right there in our offices inside the sleeping quarters, to be exact. The agents, on the night that they disappeared, would be logging off from a full night's shift to take a short rest in the sleeping quarters. There they would simply vanish, slowly, like grains of sugar mixing into water. They would dissolve into the air, and in the next moment would be gone.
Whatever happened to them, the fact remained that these people, at once colleagues, friends, lovers, were gone, reduced to faces on the missing notices on the bulletin board. Arranged that way, the faces dissolved quickly into the crowd. Men, women, long hair, short hair, in hoodies, polo shirts, corporate attire, smart-casual, business casual, weekend casual they all looked alike.
"Have you ever thought about disappearing?" Yuri asks me over cigarette breaks at the yosi area.
I shake my head. We're standing at the edge of the rooftop, leaning over the railing, and looking out over the early morning bustle of Pasig City. Our shift had just ended, but instead of heading straight home, Yuri has asked me to come up with her to the yosi area for a quick smoke. Something bad must have happened. But knowing Yuri, she probably just really wants a smoke, and doesn't want to be alone on the rooftop.
"It sure beats being the ones left behind," I say, with a smirk. "There were 5,000 calls on the queue when we logged on last night."
She snorts. "You got that right. Wherever they are right now, sure dropped the ball on us. What I'd give to join them right now."
I laugh, but inside I feel a slight discomfort at a trace of seriousness I'm hearing in Yuri's voice. Did she really mean it, wanting to disappear with the other agents? And what would happen to her children? Poor six-year-old Sophia, who's due to start the first grade come June, and three year old Marcus, who Yuri says has just started becoming talkative after a year of stilted, two-word sentences.
"You know he finally disappeared on me?" Yuri says, out of nowhere.
"He left you? Where would he go?"
"No, nalusaw. He disappeared on me. He didn't come home the other night, but I thought it was just another team-building he didn't want to miss. I thought, screw it, let him have his fun, I'm sick of him being all stinking drunk around our kid anyway. But then he didn't come home the following night or last night. Until I get a call from his team leader earlier over lunch."
"Through the sleeping quarters?"
She nods. "Like all the rest of them."
We say nothing for a moment. Instead, I watch Yuri take a long drag from her by now used-up cigarette. The morning breeze wafts her curly hair in a mess across her haggard face. When we first met, Yuri was chubby: she had bouncy cheeks like little siopao, and puffy, almost anime-like eyes. But now the long nights, the endless rest-day overtimes (RD OTs, as we call them in the biz) have worked her flesh to the bone. When she sucks on her cigarettes, her cheekbones protrude sharply. And her eyes have sunk into her skull into a permanent scowl. Sometimes, in the dark, she looks like a ghost taken straight out of a horror movie.
At this point, all our conversations about the disappeared agents have taken on a note of annoyance, if not outright anger. Sure, we worry about what might have happened to them, but there was no denying they had left the rest of us in a pickle. Call centre agents are disappearing off the face of the earth, seemingly dissolving as Yuri would put it into the air.
Before, we simply had to take in new faces: college dropouts, graduates of English and Communication degrees for which they suddenly had no better use, single mothers of starving daughters, what have you. The pool of talent was large and desperate. But as the disappearances continue, suddenly there are not enough people to replace the large number of vacant phones. But the calls keep coming in. In fact, I feel as if the calls multiply. And by now almost nobody is left to answer them. Agents left behind have had to work double time, overtime, just to keep the queue going.
But all this time, the people disappearing are merely acquaintances. People we knew, sure, but at the same time people we don't really know. We eat with them at the 7-Eleven across the street from our building on crunch lunch breaks, drink with them at the bars scattered around Ortigas Centre at the end of a long, hard week of work. But they are really no more than faces, background actors, that fill the everyday hustle and bustle of the call centre life. Now, though, someone close to us or to Yuri at least has disappeared. And somehow the situation regains some gravity.
I'm too deep in thought that I don't notice Yuri has broken into tears.
"We've had our disagreements, but I love that asshole, you know?" She is bawling, but not really to me, but to the apathetic city 20 floors below her. "He didn't have to leave me and his kids like this."
I say no more. I take two steps towards her. She looks to the side, letting her hair fall over to one side so that her face is completely hidden from my view. I put a hand on her back and start kneading lightly over her shirt. I don't have the slightest clue how to comfort someone, and this is the way I always see it being done in the movies. I doubt it is doing much to lighten Yuri's pain, but I keep going anyway.
"I'm so sorry to hear that."
She shakes her head.
"Hey, I'm really sorry to be putting you on the spot like this, but I'm going to need a bit of help and I don't really have anyone else to turn to. You know, on account of them being gone, and all that."
"Of course, Yuri," I say, still massaging her back.
"Do you think you could lend me 20,000? I'll pay you back as soon as we get our pay. It's just, I need money for Sophia's school things, and I just got word from our landlord that Eric" that was Yuri's boyfriend's name "didn't pay him last month's rent."
"Of course," I say, trying my best not to betray a hint of worry in my voice. I don't really have that much money lying around to just lend to Yuri, but I figure I'd worry about that later.
"I'll pay you, I promise. You can ask Richie, or Gig, or Alyssa. I've always paid back."
"No no, I'm not worried about that at all," I tell her. "I'll have the money transferred to your account ASAP. Just pay me back when you can."
We stay like that for an hour or two, though to my sleep-deprived time melts into some vague, amorphous substance drifting languorously across space. One moment, I'm standing behind Yuri, kneading her back as she cries into the morning breeze. Another, I'm in the window seat of a bus slowly making its way across EDSA. When time returns to its solid, consistent form, I'm in bed in my boyfriend's apartment in Quezon City, made pitch dark by the thick curtains and cardboard that Scott puts over his windows to simulate nighttime whenever I come over after work. In the distance, I can see the light from his Kindle across the apartment, where he's lying down on the sofa bed.
On what was supposed to be the end of our last day before going into our rest days, our team leader huddles us up by our stations and tells us we're going to have to work two extra days. The three agents left in our team break into frustrated sighs.
By now there are only 20 agents left on our entire floor. Calls on queues have reached record highs in the tens of thousands for a single account. I remember a few years ago, we thought we were being worked to insanity as the whole country went on lockdown in response to a global pandemic, and agents were dropping left and right. Now, the string of disappearances proves to be much more efficient than any virus out there.
On my way towards the elevator, I take a detour towards Yuri's station. Her teammates have long dispersed, and there are only two left huddled up around a table with their TL, probably for some after shift coaching. Everyone is getting mandatory extra days because of the imploding queue, so it shouldn't be too long since Yuri's shift ended. Normally she would be waiting for me, either to take a quick yosi break, or at least walk together towards the bus terminal at Megamall. I feel a sudden pang of worry at the sight of her empty station.
I hasten towards the elevator, intent on checking the yosi area on the rooftop. She has probably gone up there alone, maybe she has gotten impatient with our team huddle after our shift and thought we'd take a while. I check my phone to see if she has left any messages. None. Inside the elevator, I press again and again at the door close button, as if I can make this thousand kilogramme machine move by sheer willpower.
"Athena! Finally, you're done!" she waves over to me by the metal railings.
"You got me worried for a second there."
"I thought I'd leave a message, but I figured you'd know where to go."
I fish for my pack of mints from the pocket of my jeans.
"Can you believe these guys?" she says, blowing the smoke out downwind, away from my face. "With these two mandatory extra days, we'll have basically worked a full week."
"I know right," I say, in between chewing my mint. "Isn't that illegal or something?"
"I actually brought that up to our TL."
"What did he say?"
"He said, technically no, because and this is a direct quote the week starts on Sunday."
"Oh they're full of it."
There is a light drizzle that morning, something that never really stops agents from coming on the rooftop for a smoke. Our view from the rooftop overlooked EDSA, or mostly the section of the MRT's elevated tracks connecting Ortigas to Shaw Boulevard. Yuri says once that rain in this part of the city always seems to bring the end of the world from the way it silences everything. On regular days, we'd be bombarded by the agonising grinding of the ageing MRT coaches as they shuttle across those rust-riddled tracks. The screeching tires and blaring horns along EDSA make for constant background noise. But a blanket of rain muffles all sounds. The train, the traffic everything becomes white noise.
I chew my mint in silence, watching the scene unfolding beneath me. Ortigas seems to grow more desolate with the passing of time. Or is it just an illusion borne of my knowledge of the missing people? The trains seem to ferry across the tracks at longer intervals. Fewer people pass through the city's veins. Rain falls over everything, reaching as far as the horizon, gentle like snow.
Speaking of a desolate world, I wonder when the disappearances would end. Suddenly, I'm overwhelmed by the vision of an emptied-out Ortigas. Upturned patio tables of abandoned cafes, on the steps leading up to the locked doors of emptied offices and fast-food chains, at the empty guard posts of the parking lots littered along Emerald Avenue and elsewhere around Ortigas. The welcome screens on ATMs flickering, with nobody to serve. Roads on which nothing moves except a few scrap papers being carried hither and thither by the wind. I shudder.
"Hey," Yuri says, breaking the silence, "if you want to go home now, that's okay. I'm thinking of napping real quick in the sleeping quarters. I barely got any sleep yesterday."
"No it's fine," I shook my head. "I'll come with you."
I can't tell her, but worry looms over me that she would disappear from me if I let her out of my sight. Of course I can't watch over her the whole day. We both have families to come home to. But I figure this last stretch of time, before we have to leave the office, I ought to look after her. Just to make sure.
"Long day yesterday?"
"Oh God, I don't even know where to begin. Remember Sophia and I went to buy her school supplies, right? We stopped by the seamstress near the wet market to pick up her uniform, and guess who we ran into? Eric's mother!"
She tells me about the whole encounter as we made our way to the elevator, back to our floor, and into the sleeping quarters. There is one other agent sleeping there. We lie down on the bottom of bunk beds lined up in single file against the wall, my head near hers, so I can hear her better. When I reply, usually just to chuckle or say, "Oh no!" or "Oh really?" I have to look up to see her.
"You know, if this had been any other time, with Eric still around, I would have at least tried to be polite. But I couldn't. Finally, I couldn't even care about this old, spiteful woman. You know what I said to her? I said, if she really loved her son, then she ought to disappear as well and follow him! But boy, that only worked her up even worse!"
Lying down on the bed may have been a mistake. As soon as my head hits the pillow, which I've wrapped up in my hoody, I can feel sleep start to creep in. Yuri goes on about her mother-in-law berating her. She says a few things about Yuri being a bad influence, about not having any idea of the culture of the country she's intruded upon, about how Eric would not have run away out of stress if Yuri hadn't heaped all her problems children and all at her young son. And he is so young, so young. I strain to listen more, but slowly, I can feel myself drifting off to sleep. (Like dissolving into the inner niches of my sleep-deprived brain.) I close my eyes.
I'm about to fall asleep, but then I realise Yuri has stopped talking in the middle of her story. She must have winked out as well, I think. Out of nowhere, the air conditioning unit seems to have loudened its mechanical hum, like it's screaming at me from where it hung at the ceiling. My heartbeat quickens.
"Hey, at least all these extra days means we've got our RD on Monday, right? You can take Sophia on her first day of school."
But there is no response. I try to search for Yuri's laboured breaths beneath the din of the air conditioner but can hear nothing but cold air. I don't have to look up to check. I know it as I become aware of the silence that suddenly pervades the room, redolent of sampaguitas in its last day of bloom. I sigh.
The following day, I eat out for my lunch break and make sure to stop by the Integrated Bar on my way back to the office. Sure enough, there she is, in the middle of what is now a collage of posters. The faces pasted on the bulletin board had now gotten so many that they have to start pasting new ones on top of others, blocking out those nobody believes would ever appear again. Eric's face has long been pasted over with somebody else's face, and soon enough they would do the same with Yuri.
Yuri. I feel a pang of annoyance seeing her face on the bulletin board, mostly because she has now become memorialised with her haggard face and sunken eyes, instead of the puffy cheeks and wide-eyed beauty that has been my constant friend and source of wisdom through my introduction to the call centre world. I try my best to bring back to mind the sound of Yuri's voice, thinking about how she may have reported to me her own disappearance. Uy, nalusaw na rin ako!
And what about her children? What has happened to them since she's disappeared? I would check, except I don't really know where to begin. Would they be with her family now? I never once met any person in her family. Who's feeding them? I think about poor Sophia, starting out school with her mother and father both nowhere to be found. And what about the 20,000 she owes?
I sigh, turn my back at the quiet faces that now only exist on the bulletin board and make my way back to the office. When I get off the elevator to our floor, I'm greeted, this time, by silence. There are only about 11 people in our floor now, separated by rows of empty chairs. When I was starting out, and I first came into this floor, the room was booming with the sound of fingers pounding against keyboards, team leaders shouting at errant agents, and agents cursing at difficult callers through muted microphones. Now even the voices of those left behind can hardly compete with the din of the air conditioning unit.
50,000 calls on queue! Keep them going. Short and sweet. Hey, Athena, you better log back in now, we've got five-oh-thousand calls on queue! Go! Go! Go!
I make my way to my desk, log my credentials into the computer, and almost immediately the red-light flickers into view.
The sleeping quarters welcome me in its cold embrace. Before, the room used to get stuffy from the many agents trying to get a spot on the beds, sometimes even spilling on the floor, for a quick nap in between breaks. Now, I'm all alone in the room. I crash into the nearest bed, nuzzling my face against one of the pillows to block out the noontime light leaking through the windows. I would have been averse to using the pillows back then, knowing how many people have sweated and drooled and spilled whatever other body fluids on them, but now with almost nobody using them, they smell freshly laundered.
If Yuri was around, I'd invite her to hang out at the yosi area, her smoking her usual chain, and me chewing on some mints, whilst I ranted about the many angry calls I took today, and we could both blow off some steam. But now Yuri is gone, disappeared to some unknown place, and never to return. I think of Scott, probably out somewhere having lunch with his friends at the office. I think of my mum and dad.
And again I think of Yuri, back on the rooftop, asking me if I ever thought about disappearing. And yes, yes I have thought of it, only I have so much to leave behind, that it feels like a betrayal to just get up and go. To dissolve. Like grains of sugar or salt mixing into water, becoming nothing. I can't just leave it all behind. I must get off the couch and work. But the void is just so cold, and the darkness so inviting. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I just let go.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 2 Apr 2023