Tom closed the squeaky gate behind him and walked up the street toward the base. He paused as the sun climbed above the Zambales Mountains, its usual golden beams now a dark purple, pink, and red as they pushed through the ash cloud rising from Mount Pinatubo. The volcano had erupted a few days earlier after a series of earthquakes in late March. The earthquakes, mostly small and imperceptible, were almost continuous these days, though most were too small to notice. Armed Forces Television weather guessers reported the likelihood of a major eruption soon. The Philippine government had set up evacuation zones around the volcano so they could move locals quickly, while the U.S. military stood ready to evacuate American personnel to Guam, Japan, and Hawaii. Tom and a few other squadron aircraft mechanics would remain behind and evacuate with the last group of personnel, if necessary. Olongapo was only twenty-three miles from the volcano, but Angeles City, home of Clark Air Base, stood closer, only eight miles away. If the eruption was as severe as expected, there wouldn’t be much left of either city.
The sky darkened with the passage of hundreds of giant fox bats flying into the jungle treetops to sleep away the heat of day. On the city’s sidewalks, people bustled along like ants to market, school, and work – many wearing dust masks against the volcanic ash – before the humid morning air grew heavy with the ubiquitous diesel fumes hanging over the city like a pall.
Tom loved his morning walk for the fresh start and opportunity to clear his mind. He spent the time reflecting on Aida and his dilemma. Breakfast had left a gloom over him, and he walked on, perplexed at finding himself in his present situation. He hadn’t suspected that he would develop such a passion for Aida, one that would lead to marriage. He had assumed they would have fun, enjoy each other’s company and part amicably when his deployment ended. Instead, they had maintained a long distance relationship over the year between deployments. He sent her money for rent, groceries, and other living expenses so she wouldn’t have to go back to work at Maricel’s Bar or return to her village. Once he returned to PI, it hadn’t taken long to find himself falling in love with her. He remembered the moment it happened. They had taken the launch to Grande Island to picnic and swim. While there, Aida drew a large heart in the sand with a piece of driftwood, and wrote inside the heart, “I Love You Tommy.” Her eyes lit at his reaction and a smile had spread across her beautiful, brown face when he took her in his arms and kissed her.
They spent the remainder of the day sitting shoulder to shoulder, heartbeat to heartbeat. As they sat on the seawall watching the sun set across the bay, Tom felt a passion for Aida grip his heart in a slow-burning fire. She cried when he said he loved her. Until the time to catch the last launch arrived, they spoke little, content to enjoy the rush of love’s endorphins wafting them together on a cloud of soft ecstasy and contentment.
He told himself that everything would work out as it always did, but he thought again of what others would think if he married Aida. His mother would certainly be disappointed; she expected him to come home and marry a good, local girl, someone who looked like the people she knew. She would be embarrassed explaining away a barmaid for a daughter-in-law, especially a brown one, and fearful of being shunned by the people in her social circle and the social circle she craved to join. His father didn’t feel that way; he had told him when he joined the Navy to marry the girl that spoke to his heart. Tom wondered what his real parents would think; would they feel the same way as his adoptive parents?
His spirits lifted as he turned onto Rizal Avenue and walked toward the market. Many locals recognized him and smiled as he passed. A jeepney driver seeking a fare slowed and beeped his horn. Tom smiled, his face brightening. He decided to ride to work for a change.
“Hey, Eddie. Thanks for stopping. I’ll ride up front with you.” He tossed his backpack into the canary yellow jeepney and sat next to Eddie. Diesel exhaust overpowered the air freshener hanging from the sunshade. Tacky multicolored pennants strung around the exterior flapped and snapped in the wind like playing cards in the spokes of a bicycle. “Ahh, Eddie; what a beautiful morning.” Eddie smiled behind gleaming white teeth, his black pencil-thin mustache appearing horizontal, and drove on. The mustache gave Eddie a flair. It contrasted with the blue tank top and swim trunks he wore against the heat, and gave him a suave, ladies’ man appearance.
Tom loved sitting up front and talking with the jeepney drivers, most of whom spoke English well, albeit with an accent. Tom plumbed the true nature of Filipinos during these rides: polite, well-meaning, charitable, helpful, quick to laugh. Sailors viewed the Filipino with a different slant. They assumed superiority over the Filipino, who didn’t look like Americans, talk like Americans, or dress like Americans. They were short and thin, had brown skin and black hair; squatted on their heels when eating or chatting with one another, and used their fingers to eat rice. They swarmed Sailors, asked for money, and sold just about anything, including their sisters, for a few dollars. Sailors assumed all Filipinos were on the make, out to steal all they could get.
A cultural superiority blinded outsiders from seeing Filipinos as a proud, unpretentious people, and marked them as inferiors. Westerners seemed to think of the Filipino, “You don’t look and act like me so that makes me better than you.” Some called it arrogance, but ignorance described it better. Sailors stationed in the Philippines were simply strangers in a foreign land, lacking in knowledge and understanding of a culture not their own. They carried no malicious intent to ridicule or deride the people with whom they came into contact. Sailors didn’t realize they were acting offensively; they acted out of naiveté. They didn’t see the hurt it inflicted on Filipino pride, or the anger Filipinos felt knowing that they were looked down upon by visitors occupying their country.
Tom’s attention wandered; a honk from a passing bus brought him back to the present. Eddie offered Tom a warm soda and asked after Aida. “Are you going with Aida to see her family this weekend, Tom?”
Eddie surprised him. Does the whole city know about Aida and me? Is there anyone who doesn’t know? Gossip spread fast among the regulars of their acquaintance. Little could stay private for long among neighbors who lived on top of one another. “How did you know about our visit? I didn’t know about it until she tricked me into going.”
“Cora. She tell me yesterday when I drive her and Aida to Apo theater. She say you don’t want to go. Aida was very sad; I think she probably get mad at you?”
“Yep. She said she was going to throw a frying pan at me. She would have too, I think, if I hadn’t said I would go.”
“Lucky she didn’t cut off your happiness.” Eddie glanced at Tom with a wince like he was in pain.
“Yeah. No kidding. I’d go nuts if she cut me off. We talked about the visit this morning, and I told her I wanted to go. We’ll take the Victory Liner after I get off work on Friday. It’s only a two-hour bus ride.”
Eddie appeared to smirk as though he knew what had passed between Tom and Aida that morning. They drove on in silence, Eddie keeping an eye out for riders. Tom spotted two of his buddies walking near the Fleet Reserve club and asked Eddie to drop him off. He paid Eddie and tipped him, grabbed his backpack and jumped from the jeepney. His buddies worked the night shift and had stopped at the Fleet Reserve for a beer on their way home. Tom chatted with them, heard the latest squadron gossip, and then left for the base a few blocks away.
His quick pace took him to the traffic circle on Rizal Avenue. A large bust of the city’s namesake occupied the center of the grassy plaza; outward facing concrete benches surrounded all. On one of these benches slept Tom’s co-worker, Rob, and Rob’s girlfriend, Clara. Tom shook his head. No doubt they had passed out after a long night of drinking. He continued without waking them. The police would rouse them soon, and they would stumble to Clara’s house to spend the day sleeping it off.
The bust in the plaza and the city’s history fascinated Tom, but he had trouble pronouncing Olongapo in Tagalog as Olo ng Apo. Despite his best efforts it always came out as ‘nong’, although he tried hard to choke between the “n” and the “g” to best imitate the sound Aida demanded when she clasped her hands around his throat and said, “Ok, you say now.” His heart leapt as he remembered the first time she had put her hands around his throat and told him to pronounce Olo ng Ao. It startled him; he hadn’t known what she was doing until she looked at him with intent and spoke the word in a slow, patronizing voice, telling him to repeat it as she pushed her thumb against his Adam’s apple. Of all the women I’ve known, Aida is the only one who makes me feel I’m her sole concern, the only reason she exists, my happiness her reason for being. There were no ulterior motives behind her behavior, no thoughts hidden behind her smile, no manipulation of his emotions or feelings, just a sincere desire to make him happy. He shook his head. Who cares what other people think. Marrying Aida is my business, not theirs.
People’s attitudes toward barmaids differed. Maybe he cared too much what others thought. His mother would eventually come to like Aida, wouldn’t she? He passed the sprawling market, already teeming with housewives looking for bargains, crossed to the street and continued toward Magsaysay Drive. More people crowded the street, and more than once squadron buddies just off the night shift hailed him as they headed for their girlfriends’ homes.
The crowded, dusty enclave of Olongapo’s bar and nightclub district greeted Tom as he rounded the corner and turned south on Magsaysay Drive. The street was quiet at this early morning hour but for workers sweeping the sidewalks and jeepneys delivering ice and beer. In a few hours, it would transform into a crowded half-mile of screeching music, screeching girls, drunk Sailors and Marines, and couples walking hand in hand, in love for the moment, free to butterfly to someone else the next.