Aida smiled at the sight of Tom fiddling with the gate. She shook her head at his endless promises to bring home oil for the hinges and then forgetting about it until confronted by the gate again. His absentmindedness was endearing and often led to his attention drifting while she spoke to him. The familiar, dreamy look in his green eyes would take him far away. After a moment, he would look at her and say, “Aida, you know what I was thinking?” She smiled again as she filled the sink with water to do the dishes.
She loved Tom. At times, she wanted to reach out and pinch his cheek. On the other hand, he had traits she could not stand. For one, he found it hard to make decisions. He approached them by asking her what she wanted to do. For another, he lacked confidence in himself. The two traits went together. However, he made her feel comforting and motherly, and she loved the thought of taking care of him; he needed her. He seemed so unsure of himself, so helpless at times. He needed a wife.
It had finally happened last night. His proposal had surprised her. She had hoped for it for so long, but hadn’t expected it to come out of nowhere, like a passing thought. She had thrown her arms around his neck and kissed him, almost screaming her answer. Yes, of course she would marry him. Hadn’t he known she would say yes? She half thought he had been joking when he asked her to marry him, but pushed the thought away. She would make him stick to his promise to marry her.
A tap on the front door and Cora walked in, her singsong voice calling up the stairwell. “Hello, Aida. Can I come in? Where are you?”
“I’m here, Cora. In the kitchen.” Aida puffed at a soap bubble that popped near her eye and squinted as the soap stung.
“Cora. Give me a dry towel. Hurry.” She washed her eye and dried her face. “Oh, my eye sting so bad. Hello, Cora. Good morning to you.”
“Oh, Aida. Your eye is so red. Are you okay?”
She looked at Cora with one eye closed. “Yes. But it stings.”
“Ohh, poor thing. But tell me. What did Tommy say? Do you go home with him to Bataan to visit your family? Yes?”
Aida tried to hide her smile, but couldn’t help herself. She handed a plate to Cora to dry. “He say yes, he will go. But at first he say he wants to go to Manila and take his camera and see the sunset. But I get mad and tell him he is a liar, because he always say he will go but then change his mind.”
“Oh, good. I know he like your family; he told me.” Cora set the plate on the table and reached for another. “Why he wants to go to Manila to see the sunset? Take him to Grande Island; maybe you can spend the weekend there. It is crazy to take the bus all the way to Manila. Unless maybe he takes you to a dance club.”
“No, Tommy does not like to dance. Only sometimes when he sees that I want to dance, then he will ask me.”
“Oh.” Cora turned serious and put her hand on Aida’s arm. “What about the other thing. Did you ask him? Will he ask you to come to Hawaii and get married?”
Aida had been waiting for Cora to ask her question; she knew she would. Cora asked her every time they got together.
“Oh, Cora.” Aida bubbled with excitement now. “Tommy ask me last night.”
Cora’s eyes went wide and her mouth hung open. “What did you say? What did you say?”
“Oh, I say no. I don’t want to get married,” she said with an air of nonchalance.
“Aida! Why you said no? Why now you don’t want to get married. What’s the matter with you?”
“Cora – I’m just kidding. Of course I said yes I would marry him!”
“Oh, you. Aida, you make me scared.” She screamed and hugged Aida. “I’m so happy for you, Aida. Finally, he ask you.”
“I know. I almost gave up hope. We have talked about marriage but not about with each other, only about our friends. We talk around it. I always think Tommy is afraid to commit himself. And I stay quiet to avoid scaring him away by looking desperate. When Tommy paid my steady bar-fine, I hoped it would lead to something permanent. Not permanent that we would marry immediately, but that it might become permanent, that he might marry me. And now.” Aida clasped her hands together and brought them to her lips, her eyes glittering like precious jewels.
Paying a steady bar-fine in Olongapo carried nearly the same meaning to a barmaid as exchanging rings with a girl in America: commitment to one person. It carried that meaning to the girl, anyway. some Sailors used it as a means of having a place to live off base, or to ensure the faithfulness of the girl. She had felt so used by another Sailor who approached it that way, and felt such depression when she realized her hopes were going to be disappointed. Tom was different. He spent his time off with her, took her places, and brought her presents. He was faithful and always came home after work. He often stopped for a beer on the way home, but he never stayed out late and never came home drunk; in fact, Aida had never seen Tom drunk. Yes, he always came home, and he loved her cooking, too. He was always hungry.
Aida laughed aloud, and Cora smiled. Aida could not understand how someone so skinny could eat so much and never gain so much as an ounce. She fed Tom enough to sustain an entire village, yet he was always hungry; his appetite seemed insatiable. She turned from the window. So many memories here. She would do anything to make more memories with Tom, to fill her heart with more love for him.
“Cora, I have to find a way to make sure Tom really will marry me. I love him, and I know he love me, but I think he is afraid of what his family will say if he marries a bargirl. In America, they think all bargirls are streetwalkers. They aren’t. They are only poor Filipinas from the province who work to support their family. So, we let Sailors buy us drinks. Sometimes we go home with them. But only if we like them; not to make money. Anyway, how come only the bargirl is a streetwalker? Hey? Hey?”
Aida’s voice rose as she questioned society’s prejudices. “How come the Sailor and Marine can go home all the time with other girls? Hey? Why they not called pigs? That not right. Why Sailors can butterfly to other women and it okay, but when a Filipina butterfly she is a whore. I am not a whore. I am not a prostitute.”
Cora took Aida’s hands in hers and leaned forward. “Of course, we are not prostitutes, Aida. We work hard. We leave our families and our villages and come here to work and send money home to help our parents. But Americans don’t see that. They think only that we want Sailors’ money. They see only the bad Filipina, not the good. It isn’t fair, is it?”
They both had tears in their eyes now, but the tears were always there, on the brink of an emotional dam, ready to spill over if they let themselves think too much about the bias they would encounter in the States, if they ever made it there. Both had been promised marriage; Aida once before Tom, but Cora several times.
Several times her hopes had been dashed against a wall of false promises and lies from men who wanted as much from her as they could get in ten minutes or thirty or all night. She had stopped believing, stopped hoping, stopped praying. She no longer kissed her crucifix and crossed herself and prayed to her saints when a man asked her out. She was under no more illusions about marriage. Her heart was as cold as stone while she drank her watered-down drink at the bar and listened to the lies as they tumbled from the mouths of every Sailor and Marine who paid her barfine for the night. She went through the motions, pretended behind her smile, scratched his back and blew his mind, and made breakfast for him in the morning. Then waited for the next one to pony up the few pesos for a short time or a few more pesos for a long time. She had stopped hoping and caring a long time ago.
Aida knew all this from her best friend and confidante. Cora had cried on Aida’s shoulder after each disappointment, each letdown, each heartbreak. Aida studied Cora’s face and saw the hurt behind the happiness for Aida.
Cora reached out and brushed Aida’s hair back, her eyes showing surprise at Aida’s anger. It was no secret how much Aida had wanted to marry Tom, but Cora understood the depth of her worry at losing him when he left the Philippines, even after his proposal.
They finished tidying the kitchen and walked outside. Cora helped Aida wash clothes in the pink plastic tub she had brought from her village. The spigot over the tile washbasin near the gate ran only cold water, but felt good in the early morning heat. They squatted on their heels and chatted while washing clothes. They beat them against the tiles to loosen dirt and stains, then rinsed them and, each taking an end, wrung the water out before hanging them to dry on a line strung between the house and a gate pillar. They reminisced about Bataan. Both shared similar stories of growing up hearing of the big American navy base in Olongapo. Both left their homes and moved to the city, Cora leaving first, and later helping Aida when she came to town.
Aida left her village to find work in Olongapo just days after she turned twenty. She sought a job that would pay her enough to live on and help support her family back home. Cora, married to a Marine, found Aida the job at Maricel’s the day she came to town. Aida had not wanted to work in a bar. She moved to Olongapo to work as a salesgirl, but Cora convinced her barmaids made more money, and had more opportunities to meet Sailors, one of whom might marry her. There were girls from Aida’s province who had married and moved to the states. The stories they told when visiting home delighted the young girls of the villages. Stories that made girls dream of escape, romance, and wealth; made them impatient to grow up, impatient with their lives of poverty. American television, American movies, American music, American values made them dissatisfied with what they had and what they didn’t have, beguiled them with thoughts of how much happiness they would find with so much money to spend.
Aida took the job at Maricel’s with reluctance, recalling stories of the kind of girls said to work in Olongapo’s nightclub district. Many of the storytellers had worked as barmaids themselves and resented their failure to land American husbands. Aida and her girlfriends told each other they would never do that kind of work. They would rather wash clothes or work as maids for a few pesos a day than work Sailors for drinks.
That kind of talk was bravado, an indignation meant to mask the fear that, if they hoped to someday escape the meager existence in which they lived, they would have to suffer the indignities of working as barmaids and let men pay to enjoy their company. It didn’t make them prostitutes or label them loose girls as it might have done in other societies. It was a matter of escaping poverty. The desperation of the desperately poor who see an easy way out of poverty gave Aida, as it had hundreds of other Filipinas, a glimmer of hope that they could exchange their dismal future for one of love and happiness.
Aida began to take an optimistic view of the opportunities awaiting her in Olongapo, and saw hope for a better future there. She dreamt of the handsome American Sailor who would marry her and take her back to America. She dreamt of bringing her sisters to America after she settled there and finding husbands for them.
Aida trod the same path as other Filipinas before her, some of whom found happy endings, some who did not. Her search for a happy ending became an all-consuming passion: marry a Sailor and live in America where everyone was rich and wanted for nothing. Aida pinned her hopes on Tom Nelson as the means by which she would realize her dream. He loved her. He would follow through on his proposal of marriage. She was sure of it.