May 30th, 1968
Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam
They say you don’t hear the bullet that kills you.
How could anyone know that?
Because, they also say, bullets move faster than the speed of sound. By the time you hear the sound of the bullet in your back, you’re dead.
What if you’re only wounded; you’d hear that bullet, wouldn’t you?
Well, you’re not dead, are you?
Sam pushed the thought away as he struggled to his feet with Frank’s heavy, still body draped across his shoulders. He clutched Frank’s wrists and ankles and ran awkwardly for the cover of the aircraft maintenance shack.
Almost there. Almost there. We’re gonna make it, Frank. Hang on. Hang on, buddy.
Steps from safety, an excruciating pain ripped a groan from behind Sam’s clenched teeth. He staggered but kept his feet. Another step and another burst of pain and his knees buckled as blood sprayed from his back. He fell hard. His sunglasses and helmet flew off when his head slammed into the concrete taxiway. Frank rolled from Sam’s shoulders and over his head, mashing his cheek into the hot, jagged surface and scraping flesh from his face.
Sam’s mouth filled with blood and he spit out a tooth. He tried to crawl over Frank to shield him but his legs wouldn’t move. He stretched to pull him closer but screamed in agony at the pain. A moment later the pain subsided and he felt nothing from the waist down.
Strange. You’d think two bullets would have a lasting impact.
Blood pooled beneath him.
They’re right; you don’t hear the bullet that kills you.
The sun was hot on his face. Someone called his name. The voice echoed from some distant point.
No. Not me. Frank. Frank’s hurt. Help Frank.
He closed his eyes against the blazing sun.
Where are my sunglasses? I need my sunglasses.
He coughed to clear the blood from his throat. “Frank. Frank. Wake up, Frank. Please be okay, buddy. Wake up, Frank. Please don’t be dead.”
Otis reached Sam’s side and knelt. He lifted Sam’s head into his lap and brushed away the flecks of dirt and gravel on his face. The pool of blood beneath Sam spread, an ominous, dark red that soaked into the concrete and stained Otis’s dungarees.
Shots rang out from beyond the perimeter as Marines pursued the sniper. Two Hueys flew a tight circle and fired into the brush. The Corpsman, Lopez, checked Frank’s wound. He pursed his lips and shook his head. “It’s bad.”
Anguish contorted Sam’s face as he cried out for Frank. “Where’s Frank? Frank? Frank? Wipe my eyes, Otis. I can’t see.”
Otis wiped his own eyes with his sleeve and then Sam’s. He pressed his lips to Sam’s forehead. “Hang in there, Sam. Don’t you die on me, buddy. Don’t you dare die on me.”
“Okay, Otis. I’ll try.” Sam coughed again. Blood bubbled from his mouth, dribbled down his cheek, onto his neck, and dripped onto Otis’s leg.
“Otis. Take my necklace…and the medallion…give them to Little Lucy…my boy…my boy has one like it…. I haven’t seen my boy…since he was a baby, Otis.
“Take it easy, Sam. Lopez is here; he’ll help you.”
“Not since…. I’m sorry…. I’m sorry…. I couldn’t…take care of him. Susanna died, Otis, and…they said they would adopt him….” His voice drifted off and Sam drifted into delirium.
“I think I fell in love with you this morning, dear lady.”
“You think you did? You are not sure? Perhaps we should try again. Shall we meet for an apple in the morning?”
“I had already planned to meet you for one tomorrow. And the next day, and the next, and the next, and every day until….”
“Every day until what?”
“Every day until you marry me?”
“Funny man. That is a question I am not quite prepared to answer. Let me ask you a question.”
“Okay. Yes. I will marry you.”
“What will you have, silly man?”
“A glass of Rioja, lovely lady.”
“Gran Reserva. I want to celebrate that you didn’t return to wherever you came from.”
“That’s my favorite city!”
“You know Barcelona?”
“No. But I’m going there with you.”
“Oh? When will this, I assume highly anticipated, excursion take place?”
“I thought Spanish women had brown eyes.”
“I am not Spanish.
“You’re not Spanish?”
“I am not Spanish. I am Catalan.”
“That explains the green eyes?”
“Perhaps. Though my sister has blue eyes.”
“Is her hair also black as a starless night?”
“I feel like I’m dreaming. I don’t want to wake up.”
“I have thought about you all day….
“By the way, what is your name?”
“I am Susanna. But you may call me…Susanna.”
“I love the way your eyes crinkle when you are being silly.”
“Will you tell me your name?”
“My name is Sam.”
“Sam. Hmmm; I think I will call you…Samuel. May I?”
“You must always call me Samuel, Susanna.”
“Will I tell you something, Samuel?”
“I knew you when you entered the room. I turned so you would not see me smile.”
“It’s okay, Sam. You did the right thing. Susanna would have wanted it that way. It’s okay.”
“Yes. I did the right thing…. Susanna would have wanted it….” He coughed again, a dying rattle in his throat. “I’m thirsty, Otis.”
“Sure, Sam. Hang on.” Otis pulled the canteen from his belt. He loosened the cap and
brought the canteen to Sam’s lips. His lips didn’t move.
Otis pressed his forehead to Sam’s. His tears left dots in the dust on Sam’s cheeks. He
held him tight. “You did the right thing, Sam. You did the right thing. Goodbye, my friend.”
Sam stared past Otis, eyes fixed on the darkening sky, his last words choked by the blood
gurgling in his throat.
“Frank is dead, Otis…. What am I going…to tell Marie?”
Tom and Aida spent the day exploring Grande Island. They threw rocks at coconuts in a mostly futile attempt to knock them loose from tree tops, and climbed around on the now silent, rusting artillery guns that had guarded the entry to Subic Bay in World War II. They walked along the beach collecting seashells in plastic cups and calling out in excitement when they came across blue-green glass balls – floats – that had broken away from fishing nets and drifted ashore.
Aida scrambled among the sea-wrack covered rocks, careful to avoid sea urchins whose long, sharp spines pierced the foot of the careless and left a painful, poisonous sting. She placed the baseball-sized floats in a small bag as she found them.
“Honey ko,” she called out to Tom. “I’m going to hang the glass balls from the ceiling in a net. They will look so nice reflecting sunlight in the window.”
“Here, Aida. I have two more for you. One is huge. Look at it.” He held up an unusually large one for Aida as she walked over.
“Ohhh, it looks like a football. You carry it, Tommy. It’s too big for the bag, and I don’t want to break it.”
For lunch, they grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and skewers of cold chicken breast, too. Later, they ate fried lumpia Aida had prepared the previous day. Toward dusk, pleasantly tired from swimming and sunbathing, they showered at the beach pavilion and changed clothes. Aida shook the sand out of the backpacks and blankets, and helped Tom pack up the remains of the picnic. They left their bags on the ferry pier and strolled along the beach to the seawall overlooking the dark-blue water of the bay. A warm salt-laden breeze rustled through palm trees along the high tide mark. Tom and Aida passed the time sitting on the sea wall holding hands and waiting for the ferry that would return them to Fleet Landing at Subic Bay Naval Station.
They dangled their legs above the waves lapping below their bare feet and watched the sun set, its usual golden rays changing from orange to purple to red through the filter of ash drifting from another eruption of newly active Mount Pinatubo. For miles around the bay, a multitude of colored lights winked on at the clubs and resorts dotting the shoreline. Fighter aircraft from the USS Midway roared through the sky practicing night takeoffs and landings, the jagged orange-blue flame of their afterburners splitting the twilit sky.
Tom slipped his arm around Aida’s slender waist. She leaned against his shoulder and caressed his leg. She tickled him and laughed when his leg jumped. He leaned over and kissed her in mid-laugh, his lips brushing against her teeth. She snuggled closer, her honey-brown skin warm against his.
“Oh, Tommy. You make me so happy. I’m glad you bring me here. This is where you say you love me for true the first time, remember?”
“I could never forget that, sweetheart.”
“I like when you call me sweetheart, honey ko.”
“I like when you call me honey ko, sweetheart.”
“Oh, stop it, Tommy. You are so funny.”
“Oh, we’re both silly, Aida, aren’t we?”
“Oh, you” she said, feigning exasperation.
Tom “ummmed” when Aida rubbed her cheek against his. She loved the scratch of his stubble, the feel, and the sound it made. She had told him one night after they made love and she lay with her head on his chest that she loved the sound of him made intimate by his closeness and the warmth of his body. She liked to press her nose to the hollow behind his earlobe and inhale. She said she loved the smell of him, his unique smell, masculine and gentle. She would breathe in his fragrance through her nostrils, a husky, full fragrance, she said, thick but soft like the smell of fine leather, and into her lungs so that he filled her from within. She pressed her face to his neck and he put his arms around her because she wanted to feel the muscles of his body.
Tom turned and swung his legs up and captured Aida between them and raised her hands and pressed his lips to them. She smiled the way she did when he became passionate. Her full, pink lips parted as she tilted her head to her shoulder. Her eyes grew wide, almost staring and fixed on his as if anticipating his next move. In a burst of emotion, he held her hands in front of his lips and rocking back and forth whispered “I love you, Aida. Will you marry me?”
Aida stared as though she were waiting for Tom to say more. When no more words came, she screamed. “Oh Tommy. Oh honey ko, honey ko, honey ko! Of course I marry you! What do you think; I will say no? Oh, honey ko.”
She leaned into his arms and hugged him. Her scream echoed in his head when she said “Oh, honey ko. Say it again. Say it again, please. Ask to me again if I wanting to marry you!”
He laughed at the simple pleasure of her request and said “Aida. I love you. Will you marry me?” The look on her face as she listened was one of immense joy and anticipation, like a small child waiting for cotton candy at a carnival.
“Oh, Tommy. Oh, honey ko. Yes, yes, yes. Oh yes, honey ko. Oh, you make me so happy. I love you, Tommy. I love you, I love you, I love you.” She hugged his arm between hers and covered his face with kisses. “Soon I will not be Aida Pinoy anymore, but Mrs. Tom Nelson. Ohh, honey ko, I cannot wait.”
Tom held her close as she closed her eyes and smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. She looked up at him from time to time with a smile that seemed to grow wider and wider. Once, her eyes crinkled and tears fell onto his chest. He pressed his lips into her black hair and kissed her.
“I so happy, I so happy, I so happy. I gonna sing, honey ko.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and then said “Honey ko. All the time when I am living in my village in Bataan I’m thinking of America, and I want to go there someday. When I move to Olongapo, I hoping to meet the man who will take me there. And now, I meet you there in Maricel’s Bar and you pay my steady barfine, and now you asking me to be your wife.”
Relaxed and content, away from the base, the city, the noise, Tom listened with eyes half-closed, a smile on his lips as Aida’s voice rose and fell like notes on a page of sheet music.
A sudden rumbling filled the air and the earth trembled around them. Aida clutched Tom’s arm until the tremor passed. There would be more until the volcano erupted. When, no one knew. It was coming, though. She relaxed her grip on his arm. She worried about the volcano, especially when she could see the ash plume rising miles into the sky.
“That scare me, Tommy. Soon the volcano going to erupt and then what happen to Olongapo? Hey? What going to happen? Maybe the house going to fall on us?”
She shook her head and relaxed, then went on. “I forget what I was saying. Oh, I remember now. Honey ko, my heart always wants to live in America, and now,” she sat up and held Tom’s hands, “you taking me there. You make my dream come true, Tommy. I think my future now will be so happy. You rescue me.”
However, Aida wasn’t so simple that she would take a man making promises at his word, even the word of the man she was going to marry. She knew the bitterness of a hollow promise from the lips of men who had broken her friends’ hearts. She had comforted girls whose dreams had been dashed against the cold, steel, gray hulls of warships sailing away with their once bright futures.
They were sex-trade slaves like her, from villages like hers. From poor families willing to sell their daughters for the hope of a future slightly less-hopeless. Sex-trade slaves in a city supported by temporary lovers who left behind a legacy of alcohol infused vomit, soiled and sweat-stained bedding, and fatherless blue-eyed babies burdened for life with the half-breed taunt. Aida knew the fear of turning into a bitter old maid supporting a fatherless nursery of hungry babies and was determined it wouldn’t happen to her.
“Honey ko. You making a promise to send for me after you return to Hawaii so we can be married, yes? You won’t forget me? You won’t forget me when you meet an American girl?”
“Aida.” He reproached her. “Of course not. How could I forget you for another woman? I asked you to marry me. You and me, honey. Of course I will send for you. How could you think I wouldn’t? Really, Aida; you don’t think I would forget about you, do you?”
“I just worried, Tommy. Some of my girlfriends, their boyfriends asking them to marry them but then forget about them when they leave the Philippines. They don’t write anymore after two months or three months, or maybe four months and don’t send money anymore. My girlfriends hearts are broken and they crying all the time.”
“That won’t happen to us, Aida. I wouldn’t forget you. There will be a lot of paperwork. You’ll have to apply for a visa in Manila, and there are so many other things to do before you can fly to Hawaii. We’ll be in touch all the time.”
“But, honey ko. That will take a lot of money, and I not working anymore in Maricel’s.”
“I’ll send money for the rent and food, and for the paperwork and other things. Don’t worry, you won’t have to work.”
“Okay, honey ko. I just worried. I know you won’t forget me. You will write to me too, honey ko, won’t you? Please write to me, Tommy. Please, honey ko. Write to me like you do when you going to Thailand and Japan for work. I like to read your letters, Tommy.”
Aida’s pleading rang in his ears. Her worry was palpable and heart wrenching, and understandable. Tom felt guilty and didn’t know why; he hadn’t done anything. Or, he hadn’t not done anything. Yet. He intended to marry her; so, why did he feel guilty?
The ferry boat whistle tweeted twice, and Tom and Aida walked to the pier, picked up their bags, and boarded the boat for the short ride back to the noise and crowds of the city. The day had been wonderfully relaxing, but the closer the boat came to shore the more stress Tom felt. Maybe it was the volcano. He pushed the worry aside as Aida dozed with her head on his shoulder. The rhythmic motion of the boat and the lapping of waves against the hull, the night air, and a pleasant tiredness effected a lethargy among the passengers that bordered on sleep.
Back home in the apartment, Aida cuddled with Tom on the sofa while he read. Soon, her eyes closed and her breathing grew soft. He carried her to bed and undressed her, undressed himself, and climbed under the bed sheet, the earlier stress gone and forgotten. He laughed to himself when he thought of Aida’s reaction to his marriage proposal. What a treasure she is.
He loved her smile and the way her full lips spread so broad. Her brown eyes seemed to glow when she laughed. He stretched and yawned, and reached over and turned off the alarm on the clock. He lay back and pulled the sheet up to his shoulders and closed his eyes. He was off the next day and could sleep in as long as Aida let him.
On impulse, he rose and withdrew from the drawer of the nightstand a blue silk pouch and a cigar box containing letters between his birth parents, and several essays his dad had written about Tom’s mother as he tried to make sense of her sudden death. She had died hours after giving birth to Tom. He removed his dad’s most intimate essay, Can I have a Little More? from an envelope:
“I trembled as I reached for Susanna, my Spanish Madonna, and touched her hip. I pressed my palm against her smooth, white flesh and her warmth spread through me until my face flushed and the burn of rising excitement engulfed me. I rubbed my hand across her shoulder and trilled my fingertips along her spine raising goosebumps from her skin, and a shiver. I caressed along her side to her hip, and pressed my hand to the small of her back bringing her body close, so close her bones ground against mine and my scent mingled with hers. She trembled and breathed out, her warm, fresh breath billowing into my face and nostrils, pulsing through the veins in my head until my temples throbbed. I inhaled her skin’s fragrance of orange blossoms, and the hairs on my neck lifted as a wave of sobbing, intense passion shook my body and overwhelmed me.
I shivered as I brushed my fingers across her lips and she kissed them as they wiped away tiny beads of glistening sweat. My angel’s emerald eyes, framed by her perfect oval porcelain-white face and raven-black hair that reflected a billion midnight stars, held mine, unwavering, unblinking, penetrating. I pressed my lips to her silk-black eyebrows. Her fingers brushed along my chest and tickled my belly, then moved down and held me close. The smooth roundness of her body filled my hands as her breasts pressed into my flesh, and I pressed my fingers between her buttocks, a cloud of intense, animal desire washing over me for this fragile, elfin-like sprite of a woman.
I shuddered and she shuddered and our lips met in a passionate expression of yearning, pressing hard together as we gave in to the desire to possess each other, to become each other, to be inside one another, to become one person. A trembling Susanna surrounded me as I became entwined within her, and our souls met as our hearts had met, and two spirits of pure love enmeshed one in the other as physical love bound us together and a simultaneous coming together transformed us forever. I gave her all of me, and she gave me all of her.
Later, as we lay side by side in a nest of warmth between Heaven and Earth, Susanna turned onto her side, then she moved on top of me. She brushed her fingers across my cheeks. Her eyes stared into mine and then they softened and a smile worked at the corners of her mouth and I knew she was going to be silly. She sang lines from a Beatles song she loved. She kissed me – “One, two, three, four, can I have a little more?” She kissed me – “Five, six, seven-eight-nine-ten, I love you.””
Growing up, Tom had listened to stories of his parent’s fabled romance, that it seemed as if they had been born in love with one another. People who knew them described their love as extraordinary, a fairy tale unlike the ordinary love between a man and a woman. A wished-for love. Tom sighed. Would it ever happen to him?
He replaced the letter in the box and opened the silk pouch and brought out a necklace holding a silver medallion with a ruby at the center. The medallion and necklace and the box of letters were among the few belongings of his parents that Tom possessed. His adoptive parents gave them to him when he left to join the Navy. Tom held the medallion to the light. As he did so, two flaws in the jewel flashed red as they caught the light from the lamp. He stared at the jewel for a moment, his mind suddenly hazy like a blanket thrown across a lamp, before lying back, the medallion gripped tight in his hand. Would he ever have a love like theirs?
He couldn’t sleep. He stared at the ceiling for what seemed like hours, his mind a jumble of thoughts. He closed his eyes again, but the flood of images jumping around his mind wouldn’t stop. He pressed the heel of his hands against his eyes. His frustration mounted.
I asked Aida to marry me a few hours ago, and now I’m asking myself if I will ever find a love like that my parents had? Brilliant, Tom. Shouldn’t you know if you’re in love before you ask a woman to marry you?
Why did I propose to her if I’m not sure of my love for her? Why did I tell her I would send for her after I returned to Hawaii? What was I thinking? Why can’t I find the magic in love the way my parents did?
The ticking of the alarm clock broke into his thoughts. Five minutes to five. What’s the use?
He kicked his legs out in a pang of burning impatience. Aida, sweet and lovely like the opera – his favorite way of describing her to others – breathed softly next to him. Beads of perspiration dotted her upper lip and reflected the moonlight filling the window. Tom envied her sleeping form. As he watched the rise and fall of her chest, a pang of anxiety stabbed his heart. He sat up and drew his legs to him, and clasped his arms around his knees. He bowed his head and stared into darkness. It wasn’t anxiety over the constant low rumbling of the volcano or the nearly continuous earthquakes. They had faded into the background along with the sounds of the jungle. No, this anxiety was personal, caused by his own weakness of flesh; his habit of making promises from the heart rather than the head. He lay back and closed his eyes.
The voice of the old Filipino squeaked through the window.
The old man shuffled along, urging his mule with ineffectual swats from a stick. True to the minute, he woke the couple every morning at five o’clock.
Tom turned as Aida rustled next to him.
“Honey ko. Balut man say it time to get up,” she murmured.
She peered at the clock from behind the edge of the bedsheet. Half asleep, she rose and reached across the bed to turn off the alarm before the harsh clanging could jangle her nerves. She mumbled, “Why the alarm not set?” She turned onto her side, pulled the bedsheet up, and bunched it about her neck. With a loud exhale, she said “You moving all night and keeping me awake, Tommy.”
She scratched the side of her nose, and fell asleep again. An old, brown fan, sitting on a rickety chair, hummed behind her head.
Tom gagged and thrust his head under the pillow. “Balut. Yuck. How can anyone eat baby ducks in the shell?” He scraped his tongue across his teeth as if to rid his mouth of an unpleasant taste.
Balut, fermented duck embryo, seventeen days ripe and sold in the shell, was a delicacy in the Philippines. Hungry Filipinos leapt out of bed when the balut man woke them, threw on wrap and flip-flops, and dashed into the street, eyes crusty with sleep. They picked out a likely-looking balut or two, tossed a few sentimos to the old man, and dashed back into the house, eager to suck the egg’s soupy contents through a small hole in the shell before eating the wings, bones, beak, and everything else. Sailors from the nearby U.S. Navy base ate them when dared or offered free beer; or when too drunk to care.
What had made him propose? What was it about her that turned his brain to mush and left him a pussy-whipped idiot? She was a siren, but her song alone hadn’t lured him into the dangerous waters around her heart. Her eyes. Her beauty. Her spirit. Her simple, uncomplicated manner. All of these things had made him speak the words she wanted to hear.
On the other hand, pure, carnal desire had played a part in his proposal. He had been thinking with the wrong head again, but it was her fault, she aroused him. She woke something inside him like a dormant volcano rumbling to explosive life. Aida had it, whatever it was. It smoldered in her eyes, glowed in her smile, burned in her touch. It burned him. Like candlelight to a moth, the attraction to Aida was irresistible, magnetic, and he was unable to pull his finger out of the flame.
He hadn’t spoken completely without thinking, though. He had imagined marriage to Aida since their first night together. It happened to him in every relationship: infatuation with the first woman to make goo-goo eyes at him, followed by thoughts of marriage. Suddenly, his future seemed bright with – insert the latest name here – at his side. He would imagine an entire lifetime with the woman: marriage, babies, birthdays, graduations, grandchildren, deaths, funerals, sorrow. Each time, he set his heart on making the relationship the one of his dreams. Every damn time. Without fail. In the end, every relationship failed. He tried too hard. He wanted the same kind of love his parents had had, but he tried to force the love to happen and when it didn’t, he stopped trying and lost the woman he had hoped would be the one.
Things were different with Aida, though. She could be the one. No woman had tugged his heartstrings the way Aida tugged them, but how would he know if she was the right one? What would he feel? Wouldn’t he know instantly? Hadn’t his parents known? Maybe he would never know for sure. If not, why bother? Why marry a woman thinking she’s the one but not feeling it in the heart? Better not to get married.
Still, a guy has to get married someday, doesn’t he? He has to settle down and raise a family; be responsible and respected; plan for the future; save money; wear slacks and ties.
He rolled over and flipped the pillow around in a futile attempt to find the cool spot. Frustrated, he tossed and turned as he thought of his proposal. What would Aida do if he changed his mind about marrying her? What would he tell her? I’m sorry, Aida, but you’re not my type after all? You’ll have to go back to Maricel’s and wait for the next guy to come along and use you?
Jesus. What am I going to do? I don’t want to hurt Aida, but I can’t just unsay what I said. I can’t say I was only joking. She’d grab a butterfly knife and cut off my happiness.
They had been together almost two years over his two deployments to the Philippines. He’d return to Hawaii with his aircraft squadron in eight weeks, and Aida expected him to send for her after his return. Now, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. He wasn’t sure he felt the right kind of love for Aida. His parents’ kind of love.
At least she isn’t pregnant; that would make it harder to leave her.
He regretted the thought as soon as it formed. He turned onto his back and stared into the darkness. Sweat stung his eyes and he blinked it away.
He had spoken the words she longed to hear, spoken them impulsively, only half-serious. Somewhere in the back of his mind a voice had told him she wouldn’t believe him and would laugh it off thinking he was joking. She had believed him though, when the words floated from his lips like music taking wing and trilling into her ears. He wouldn’t have said the words if he had known the yearning Aida felt for them, how much faith she placed in them. He couldn’t feel Aida’s heart flutter, and paid little notice to the smile that spread across her lips. He didn’t feel the joy spread like an orgasm inside her, and didn’t realize she would have believed anything he said if it included the breathlessly beautiful words, I love you, Aida. Will you marry me?
He felt a real affection for her, a deep affection, and whispered to her during tender moments that he loved her. But did he? He wasn’t with her merely to have someone to go home to after work. He had paid her steady barfine – paid the mama-san at Maricel’s Bar to release her temporarily from employment – because he liked her and enjoyed her company. Unless he married her, she would return to Maricel’s and resume her job hustling Sailors for watered-down drinks.
That was no reason to marry her, though. A guy couldn’t go around proposing to barmaids in order to free them from a socially despised occupation. Yes, back home they’d say she was a prostitute, working in the sex slave trade. People like his adoptive mother, striving to fit in with her wealthy friends, imitating their habits, their prejudices, their elitism and condescension. His mother never missed an opportunity to show off for her wealthier friends by ridiculing the less fortunate, deriding low-class occupations, or showing contempt for people who didn’t look and talk like her. Tom’s family wasn’t poor, but they weren’t rich, a fact that led to endless confrontations between Tom’s parents, his mother always demanding to know why her husband couldn’t break into the top rank of management. Her mind seethed with anger at the lack of upward mobility. Tom was surprised his parents’ marriage had lasted as long as it had; he wasn’t sure how much longer it would last.
Aida rolled over and stuck her leg out from under the bedsheet. He had done the same thing as a kid. His mom used to pull the covers over his bare leg when she looked in on him before going to bed, but he always stuck his leg out again.
What if Aida were using him for a one-way ticket to America? What if all she wanted was to marry him and bring the rest of her family to the States?
No. She wouldn’t do that. She’s too nice, too honest. Even if she did, it would be an innocent gesture, not dishonest. She doesn’t have an ulterior motive for marrying me. Does she?
What would people think if he married a barmaid? What about others? His friends back home? Most people assumed barmaids were disease-riddled sluts who ripped off drunken sailors. His mom thought so. He knew what she would think, but the question was, what would she say when they met? “Hi, honey, we’re so happy to see you again! Oh, is this your whore? Hello, sweetheart, it’s so nice to meet you.” His real mom wouldn’t think that way.
Crap. What am I going to do? He tried to put it out of his mind, but the effort made sweat pool in the hollow of his chest, run down the small of his back, tickle his thighs, and drip onto the sheets. What a miserable night.
He sighed and sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. As he did, the medallion fell to the floor; he had forgotten to put it away. He leaned over and picked it up. It looks so dull without light shining on it. He slipped it into the blue pouch and placed the pouch in the drawer of the nightstand.
The balut man called out from the next street over. Tom dressed in shorts and a shirt, dashed to the bathroom and rinsed his face in cold water. He stepped into flip-flops at the door, and ran out to buy balut for Aida. He returned a few minutes later with two balut wrapped in newspaper. Tom found the smell – and the thought of eating balut – nauseating, but Aida would be happy. Balut was her favorite breakfast.
He looked in on her and whispered her name. “Aida.”
Her long black hair splayed across the pillow as she rustled beneath the bedcovers. Her brown eyes had followed him from the door to the bed. Worry wrinkled her forehead as she reached over and touched his cheek.
“Honey ko. Do you sleep okay last night? Your eyes look tired.”
“Good morning, Aida. I slept fine.” No mention of his keeping her awake with his moving around. No wonder: she slept like a rock and probably didn’t remember waking earlier. He forced a smile and leaned over, resting his forehead against hers. He closed his burning, sleep-deprived eyes for a moment.
God, I just want to sleep.
He kissed her forehead and slipped his tall, slender form off of the bed, turned off the fan and went into the dingy, yellow bathroom. He turned the shower on, then leaned against the sink and stared at his reflection in the mirror.
He was twenty-five years old, considered good looking, had a great smile, or so people told him, and thick, dry, blond hair that he parted in the middle. His green eyes looked hazel in light just so, and his chin sort of jutted out rather than protruded. A dog bite when he was four years old left a scar on his right eyelid that was visible when he closed his eyes. He had an easy, contagious laugh, and comic timing that was known to ease tense situations. Lack of sleep had left bags under his red eyes.
He ran his fingers through his hair. It was so thick it stayed in whatever shape the wind blew it. He smoothed it down with his hand, pursed his lips and entered the shower. Ice cold. The lazy landlord hadn’t replaced the gas tank yet.
Tom shivered as he soaped up. Cold water seemed so much colder in the oppressive heat. It gave him goose bumps and made everything shrivel. He would take a hot shower when he reached the barracks on base to change into his uniform. The effort wouldn’t make much sense, though: he would only break into sweat when he stepped outside. The weather in the PI was always hot and damp, except during the monsoon when it was hot and wet; the monsoon season would begin in early May and the days were already getting more humid, if that were possible. The bathroom door creaked. Aida peeked around the shower curtain, then pushed it aside and stepped in.
“Honey ko,” she purred, and pressed her body against his. They held each other for a long while and then he kissed her and stepped from the shower to shave. He watched through the mirror as she finished showering, dried her hair, and began brushing it.
“Let me, Aida.” He moved behind her and ran his fingers through her black hair. The fine, silky strands slipped over his skin like a whisper of breath. His fingertips traced along her scalp, behind her ears, down her neck, skimmed her spine and stopped on the small of her back where her hair ended. She shivered under his touch and goose bumps raised on her skin. She pressed against him.
The intimacy brought them closer, unspeaking, the hum of the vent fan the only sound as a charge of sexual energy passed between them. Tom’s heart pounded as he brushed. The soft bunches slid between his fingers. He finished brushing and leaned his forehead against her shoulder. She reached behind and caressed his head. He placed the brush on the table as Aida turned and kissed him.
“Honey ko. Why your face is so red?” She clasped her fingers in his. “I’ll dress and then make breakfast for you.”
He held her hand as she walked away, her fingers slipping from his. He smiled and watched her as she tied the towel around her hips. She paused, half-turned in the doorway. His throat tightened at the silhouette of her breasts against the kitchen light.
God, she is so lovely.
Shaved and dressed, he followed the aroma of Aida’s cooking into the kitchen. He put his arms around her and peered over her shoulder.
“Ummm, smells so good. What is it?”
She stirred the dish and turned the heat down. “Your favorite: sweet and sour fish with celery, carrot, red bell pepper, and snow peas, all in red sauce.”
“And rice too?”
“Oh, honey ko,” she said smiling. “You are so funny. Of course, we have rice. This is Pilipino breakfast.” She pecked his cheek and said “Oh, thank you for the balut, Tommy. You are so sweet. I like the guy that always doing little things to make me happy.”
“And I like doing little things to make you happy, because you make me so happy.”
“Hand me a plate, honey ko, and sit down. I will bring your food.”
His mouth watered as Aida brought his breakfast to the kitchen table and sat next to him. He stirred the dish to release the aroma and breathed in the savory smell. Fish and rice as a breakfast meal – vastly different from the cereal and oatmeal he had grown up with – had taken getting used to, but he found he liked it. Rice was a staple in the Philippines of course, and accompanied nearly every meal, but fish wasn’t only for supper on Fridays anymore.
Every work day, Aida packed him a lunch of rice and meat, usually fish or pork. Occasionally, she sent him to work with pancit canton, a noodle dish similar to chow mein, or chicken adobo, a marinade of soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic. His favorite Filipino food though was fried lumpia, a type of egg roll filled with bean sprouts, string beans, carrots, and chicken or pork. Preparing it was labor intensive, and Aida would grumble if he asked for it too often. One time, thinking he was doing something sweet for her, he had bought fried lumpia from a street vendor and presented it to her with a smile. Unfortunately, no Filipino woman would ever admit that her lumpia was not the best in the Philippines. He never brought lumpia home again.
Aida watched him eat for a few minutes. She was too quiet. Tom suspected she had something on her mind. He was about to ask her if she needed money when she spoke up.
“Honey ko, are you coming home after your work, or will you stay in the barracks this week?”
“I’ll be home tonight. Why do you ask; do you need something from the commissary?”
“No. I want to visit my family in Lamao. I want to go today since sometimes you stay on base during the week if your work is late.”
“Oh, I don’t expect anything different at work this week. How long will your visit be? I was hoping we could spend next weekend in Manila.”
“I will return on Friday.”
“Would you like to go to Manila on Saturday? We’ll go to Rizal Park and watch the sunset and then go barhopping. Maybe we can spend the night with your Cousin Marcie.”
Marcie’s family lived in Makati, where her father was a stockbroker. The contrast in family living standards was stark, but Aida didn’t seem jealous. Instead, she looked forward to the comfort and ease of a weekend with nothing to do but forget about her cares. The cousins were close, and Aida and Tom often spent the weekend there.
“Oh, honey ko, I will wait until Saturday to visit Lamao if you will come with me so you can see my family! Okay?”
“No, Aida, I’d rather go to Manila.”
“Oh, Tommy, please say yes. Please say you will come with me this time. So many times I ask you come to see my parents. They ask me whenever I go home why you don’t come home with me again. They think you do not like them. They have never meet – never met an American before you, and they like talking with you. Besides, they will be so happy to know we will be married.”
“Aida, it isn’t that I don’t want to see them; I want to spend all my time with you.”
Tom stirred his food. Ordinarily, he loved traveling around Bataan Province and visiting Lamao, Aida’s village, but he didn’t feel like dealing with her family. He already felt like her dad had a dim view of American Sailors and their intentions. However, Tom couldn’t fathom why her dad would feel that way; he had to know the kind of work Aida did in Olongapo and would have given his permission before she left home. Maybe Tom only imagined her dad’s feelings. Probably.
He leaned forward, his elbows on the table and his shoulders drawn in. “We only have two months before I leave, Aida. I’d rather spend them doing things with you, not with other people, not even your parents. Besides, I get all nervous talking to them; I never know what to say.”
“Oh, Tommy, they like you. They like you even if you don’t talk too much already. And also, they worried about the earthquakes and maybe the volcano causing damage here and I might get hurt.”
“I don’t know, Aida, maybe in a few weeks.”
“You always say that. You always promise you visit my family but you change your mind. You break your promise. I make a promise and I do it. You don’t.”
Aida’s brow furrowed and her face darkened. She transposed her Ps and Fs when her speech fell into broken English.
“How I know you go next time, even if fromising? How I know, hey? Hey? Tell me. How I know? I think you don’t love me.”
“Don’t say that, Aida. You know it isn’t true.”
Aida stood, sending her chair skidding across the floor. She stomped to the sink and started washing dishes, banging them around and muttering under her breath in Tagalog.
“You always fromise. You a liar! I think you don’t love me and you don’t like my pamily.”
“No! You don’t talk me. I mad. I gonna throw a prying pan.”
Crap and a half. I struck a nerve this time. How was I supposed to know it meant so much to her?
“All right, all right, Aida. If that’s what you want, I’ll go home with you this weekend.
I’ll bet she wants to surprise her parents with the news that we’re getting married.
She turned and smiled at him, her soapy hands still holding the frying pan. “Oh honey ko, you make me so happy. I’m sorry I getting mad to you, okay?”
Tom put his arms around her waist and nuzzled her neck. “You knew I would give in. At least you didn’t threaten to cut off my happiness.”
Aida turned and wiped her hands on towel, then pulled Tom to her and rubbed against him. “Oh, your happiness my happiness, honey ko,” she said, giving him the come hither look that had captivated him the first time he saw her.
“Okay, sweetheart, I have to go. I’ll see you tonight.” He kissed her goodbye and walked to the stairwell, stopping on the top step to glance around the apartment. He remembered the first time they made love in the apartment; they had heard Aida’s roommates giggling as they peeked between the sheets draped across the doorway. He walked downstairs, shaking his head at the embarrassment he had felt, and closed the door behind him. He started across the courtyard, scattering chickens that wandered in from next door, when Aida called from the kitchen window.
“You forgetting your cap.’
Tom dashed into the house and swung around the end post of the stairwell. The newel cap wobbled but stayed put. Upstairs, he ran to the bedroom and grabbed the ballcap hanging from the bed post. He started to leave, but stopped and took the medallion out of the drawer. He rarely wore the necklace and medallion; he didn’t like things hanging around his neck. The dogtags he had had to wear through eight weeks of boot camp drove him nuts as they constantly pulled the hairs on the back of his neck. He held the medallion up to the light. The imperfections in the ruby flashed like two evil red eyes.
He shrugged off the feeling of gloom that fell over him when he handled the ruby, attributing it to its connection to his mother, and slipped the necklace around his neck. The medallion brought him closer to his parents despite the gloomy feeling. He knew so little about them other than what the letters and essays and his adoptive family had told him.
“Crap. I’ll be late if I don’t hurry.” He ran out of the room and down the stairs – avoiding the newel cap – calling goodbye to Aida as the door closed behind him.
“Don’t close the door all the way so the earthquakes don’t making it stuck closed, okay?”
“Okay. I won’t.”
He propped the door ajar between two bricks to keep it open. The neighbor’s dog – Tom called him Benji – watched from the balcony, his tail wagging in expectation of a treat.
“Sorry, Benji. I’ll have something for you next time.” Benji barked and laid down with his muzzle on his paws, his tail still wagging. He’d be there when Tom returned from work.
Tom reached the gate leading to the street and pushed it open; it screeched on dry hinges. He grimaced as it swung closed. He made a mental note to bring home a can of oil. He looked away over the jungle at the tall, white column of ash rising from Mount Pinatubo. He worried about leaving Aida home alone all day.