Aida leaned out the kitchen window when she heard the squeal of the gate. “Oh, Tommy, you forget again the oil.” The gate squealed again as Tom closed it.
She was exasperated, but shook her head and smiled. “Ohhh, you.”
“I’ll bring home some oil tomorrow, Aida. I promise not to forget.” He sprinted across the courtyard and into the house. He hung his ballcap on the stair post, and bounded up the stairs, his steps echoing in the steep, narrow stairwell. “Hey, Aida. Would you like to go out tonight?”
Aida dashed in from the kitchen. “Oh, Honey ko! Where do we go? To Maricel’s? Yes, I want to go to see my friends. What time we go? Do we eat somewhere too? I’m so hungry. Can we go to Wimpy’s? I know you like a hamburger and French fry. I have to change my clothes. Does my hair look okay, honey ko?”
He kissed her as she hugged him. “Your hair looks beautiful, Aida, and so do you. We can go to Wimpy’s for dinner and then to Maricel’s.”
“Honey ko, you make me so happy. I gonna sing – I so happy, I so happy, I so happy!”
Tom shook his head at her happiness and watched as she skipped along to the bedroom to change. She called from the bedroom and asked if he was going to change.
“No. I changed at the barracks. I’m ready when you are.”
She returned minutes later as bright as a child on Christmas morning.
“Okay, honey ko. I ready.”
Tom’s heart leapt at the sight of her. God, she is beautiful. She dazzled in white slacks and lime-green pullover shirt; colors meant to complement her skin tone. If the perfect female form existed, Aida had it. Her voluptuous beauty exerted a magnetic pull that made her irresistible. This exotic, Asian woman could lie perfectly still, head on his shoulder, seemingly asleep, and emit pulses of sexually-charged energy that radiated inside him. Aida was a woman all right, and she knew how to make him feel it.
“Wow, Aida. I’m going to send a photograph of you to modeling agencies. You look beautiful. Maybe we should stay in tonight. What do you think, hmm?” He winked at her and she looked down, smiling under long eyelashes.
“Oh, Tommy. You are so sweet. You going to make me blush.” She took his arm, stood on her toes, and kissed his cheek. “We play later, okay? I want to go and see my friends.”
“Okay, Aida.” Tom kissed her back and said, “Let’s go, sweetheart. Shall we walk or take a jeepney?”
“We taking a jeepney, okay?”
“All right, Aida. If you’d like, honey, we’ll forget about going to Wimpy’s. I don’t mind ordering a burger and fries from Mariposa’s restaurant.”
“Oh, thank you, honey ko. I would rather see my friends and eat with them.” Aida hadn’t seen her girlfriends in a while and buzzed with impatience to leave. “Come, Tommy. Hurry.”
They left, Aida leading the way and Tom hurrying to keep up with her. She shook her head as Tom opened and closed the gate. She led the way around the block to the corner where Tom hailed a jeepney. Aida bounced in her seat on the ride over, to the amusement of the other passengers.
As they rounded the traffic circle for Magsaysay Drive, the jeepney lurched as an earthquake struck. Tom reached for Aida and held her close, and gripped the rail above him and planted his feet against the floor. Everyone was screaming as the quake rocked the vehicle side to side, tipping it to the point Tom felt sure they were going to roll. Aida sat quiet, her eyes wide and her hands in a death grip on Tom’s arm. Another lurch and she slid off the seat. Tom hauled her back as other passengers picked themselves up off the floor only to find themselves tasting the steel floor again and again.
With every lurch of the jeepney, Tom’s head banged against a support pole holding up the roof. After one such lurch he found himself eye to eye with the woman across from him as she sat still, straining to hold herself in the seat, rocking with the hellish motion of the jeepney, her mouth closed tight, arms around the support pole, fists clenched, her eyes filled with fear. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she stared at Tom wide-eyed. He nodded to her and tried to reassure her with a smile, and she reached up without releasing her hold on the pole and clutched the crucifix flying around her neck. Her lips moved in prayer, her eyes fixed on his.
“Put your arms around me, Aida,” he yelled without taking his eyes off the praying woman’s eyes. “Hold on tight. Don’t let go.”
“Oh, Tommy. Don’t let go. Hold me.”
“I’ve got you, sweetheart.”
“Tommy!” She was crying now, almost hysterical, his own fear held back by sheer will power as he clenched his teeth and constricted his abdomen against the roll of the jeepney, his arm muscles straining and burning and ready to burst. This was a huge earthquake, the strongest one yet. He asked himself the question everyone was asking themselves: Is Pinatubo erupting? The sky was still light but he couldn’t see much. How many people were going to die? Where was the eruption? What about lava? A pyroclastic flow burning and suffocating everyone in its path? What’s going to happen?
He tightened his grip on Aida. The driver struggled to keep the jeepney under control but they wound up on the sidewalk, then back on the road, then on the sidewalk again where they banged into the wall of the cavernous Sierra Club. People were pouring out of buildings up and down the street. The shrieking of women and children, barking dog, the harsh metallic sound of hard rock music from jukeboxes not yet disabled, vehicle brakes screeching, trucks slamming to a stop, the roar and rumble of the quake all sounded to Tom like the end of the world. Was hell like this?
Two jeepneys collided ahead of them, while a Victory Liner veered up and down Rizal Avenue before smashing through a brick wall, bricks and dust scattering in slow motion as Tom watched the surreal scene unfold. Nothing seemed real now as it floated through his tunnel vision. Time seemed to have disappeared as the world took on a fluid movement as though it would pucker around his finger if he poked it. He felt nothing but for Aida’s hair tickling his nose, the only substantial part of the event he would later recall. Years later they would laugh about it.
The quake died away and calm returned. The driver helped the passengers out and offered his first aid kit, but thankfully no one had suffered more than bumps and scrapes. The woman with the crucifix touched Tom’s shoulder and smiled as she turned back up the street the way they had come. Aida was her usual self, chattering away calmly and helping others collect their scattered belongings. A child screamed for its toy. A young girl, probably a barmaid, reached for the pink, stuffed bunny underneath the jeepney and gave it to the child who clutched it and sucked his thumb.
People streamed into the buildings they had fled moments before and began picking up the pieces, righting tables and chairs, rearranging cupboards as they rearranged their lives and returned to the new normal, that normal which existed between disasters that left their lives on edge as they awaited the “big one,” the one they would tell their grandchildren about. It was coming; they knew it was coming.
The earthquake had lasted scant seconds and caused remarkably little damage. Tom and Aida gave what help they could, then walked the few blocks to Maricel’s Bar wondering what they would find. They had decided not to change plans and go home. They had come this far and might as well continue. They would clean up the house later.
They turned down the alley to Maricel’s. Tom said hello to some friends at Mariposa’s as they helped clean up, then caught up with Aida. He looked up at the balcony when Grace and Luz, two of Aida’s former roommates, screamed Aida’s name and disappeared into the bar. Aida’s pace quickened. Tom opened the door and walked in after Aida.
They had not been to Maricel’s lately and Tom looked forward to the visit. He liked the lively atmosphere, the back room with its pool tables, and sitting at the long bar that ran the length of the room. The previous mama-san, Helen, the one who had hired Aida, had sold the bar to a new woman. Not much had changed under the new owner other than the bar looked and felt cleaner, a big difference from Tom’s last deployment. The dingy, seedy atmosphere, the nauseating smells of stale beer and cheap perfume, and the sad odor of sweaty desperation were gone, replaced by something more hopeful and alive, something that didn’t feel creepy and nasty or leave an aftertaste on the skin like most bars near Navy bases.
The low, soft light of the interior nurtured a feeling of warmth and coziness and encouraged intimacy rather than raunchiness. Cigarette smoke still clouded the ceiling, but better air circulation made breathing almost pleasant. Mama-san had painted the walls and retiled the floor, and re-hung all the photos, even adding a few new ones. One in particular, on the wall behind the bar, always caught Tom’s eye. A Sailor in dungarees and flak jacket, wearing sunglasses and a wide grin. A shelf beneath the photo held fresh flowers and candles. He couldn’t read the name or details, but Tom guessed it was a shrine. The man looked familiar, but the photo was too far away to see it well.
He looked around for Aida. She and the mama-san, busy cleaning up behind the bar, spoke together. Aida caught his eye and waved him over.
“Honey ko. Say hello to Mama-san. I gonna go and talk to Grace and Luz and help them clean, okay?”
“Sure thing, Aida.
“Hello, Mama-san. How are you?”
The mama-san, a deeply attractive, well-bred woman in her forties, took his hand and smiled. “Hello, Tom. I am fine considering the earthquake. Thank God it was not worse. Nobody was hurt, and we suffered little damage but for a few broken bottles and glasses. I have rehung the photos that fell and now everything seems normal again. How are things outside?”
“Okay from what I can see. Our jeepney was tossed around but nobody was hurt except for a few bruises. I have a headache from banging my head, though. Do you have any aspirin?”
“Of course. I always carry aspirin in my purse. Let me see.”
Mama-san dug through her purse, pulling things out and setting them on the bar. Tom smiled at the memory of his mom doing the same thing. She pulled out a coin purse and a blue clutch, a makeup up mirror, lip gloss, and a small pack of tissues.
At last, with a triumphant smile, she brought out the aspirin. “Here you are, Tom. Here is a bottle of water.”
Tom took two aspirin and gave the bottle back to Mama-san. He swallowed the aspirin and the bottle of water. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “The water was just what I needed. I didn’t realize I was so thirsty. Thank you, Mama-san.”
“You are welcome. Excitement makes you thirsty, does it not? Help yourself to more water if you need it.”
She paused and considered Tom for a moment before speaking again. When she did, she took his hands in hers. “How nice it is to see you again. Why do you and Aida not come by more often? It is so nice when you both come.”
Mama-san’s hands remained clasped around his. Her smile drew him in. ‘She isn’t just attractive, she’s beautiful.’ “My work hours changed, so we don’t get the chance to come as often as we’d like.”
“You are always welcome, you know that. Aida is so much fun to have around, and always so full of joy and energy. Look at her now with her friends.”
Aida sat close with Grace and Luz, their knees touching, chattering away like years had passed since their last visit. All three laughed and smiled, but Aida’s face held a wistful happiness.
“I know. She misses her friends. I think she’d like to come back and work here.”
Mama-san peered closely at Tom for a moment before speaking. “How are you and Aida getting along? Is everything all right?”
“Yes. We’re doing fine. We’re going to see her family in Bataan this weekend. I’ve met them once, right after, right after…” he stammered and scratched his temple, turning red with embarrassment. “You know, when I paid her steady barfine.”
“Yes, I remember. You made her so happy, but you made us sad to lose her. Did you enjoy your last visit to her village, Tom? Were her parents friendly to you?”
“Yes. But to tell you the truth, I felt uncomfortable not knowing what to say. Thank goodness Aida kept the conversation moving like she always does; I hardly had to speak at all. Then, her mom wouldn’t let me do anything. I felt like I was taking advantage of her kindness, but every time I tried to help or do something for myself, she bustled over to do it for me.”
Mama-san listened while cleaning the polished wood of the bar with a bar towel. Tom thought she belonged behind a desk as an executive in a big corporation, not cleaning a bar top.
“I would make a good barmaid would I not?” Mama-san laughed as she arranged glasses on the shelf behind the bar.
“I can’t imagine you doing anything but managing a business, Mama-san.” Tom signaled for a beer and a bikini-clad barmaid brought it over and set it in front of him. He paid and tipped her, and continued speaking to the mama-san as she cleaned up.
“Same thing with her father. We took their banca boat to picnic on Corregidor and stopped along the way to spearfish. I wanted to help, but her father wouldn’t let me. I had to stay in the boat while he speared the fish. Spear fishing would have been so much fun,” he said wistfully.
“That was Filipino hospitality, Tom. Enjoy it. It is impolite to allow guests to labor in one’s home. It is not so much that way anymore in the bigger cities like Manila and Baguio, but culture takes a great while to change in the provinces. That is not entirely a bad thing.” She stopped when the juke box started playing.
“Oh dear. Someone is playing that horrid machine. I detest that jarring noise. If it would not prove bad for business I would change that music for opera. Do you like opera, Tom?”
“I love opera. My favorite is Aida.” He smiled expectantly.
“Oh, Tom. I would groan at that if you were a comedian.” She shook her head and laughed, her white teeth flashing in her beautiful face.
“By the way, Tom. Aida tells me you and she are going to be married after you return to Hawaii and she joins you. Is this true? If so, let me wish you congratulations.” Mama-san smiled at Tom and gave him her hand, but he sensed skepticism, something that sounded like a veiled threat. She could be haughty, and was protective of the girls; it was hard to know what she was thinking.
“Well, I guess so. Yes. We are going to marry.”
“That is good, Tom. I am so happy to hear you say that. Aida is such a sweetheart, so loving and kind. I would not like to see her heart set on marrying you, only to be disappointed. But, Tom, are you sure that is what you want? Are you sure you want to take Aida as your wife? Have you spoken of this with your parents? What do they say?”
Her words stabbed at him like darts, and for a moment he glared at her. “I don’t need to get my parents’ permission to marry, Mama-san; I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
He didn’t like the way her eyebrows arched when she responded.
“Of course, Tom. You are your own man. But do not make a promise you may not want or be able to keep. It is wiser to keep your own counsel until you are sure of your mind, is it not? I say this as a friend to both you and Aida. I do not want to see her heart broken, and I do not want to see you unhappy. So many times I have seen two hearts break because of a hasty decision. If you are not sure of your love for Aida, perhaps the time is not right for marriage.”
“I’m sure of my love for Aida, Mama-san. I do love her. Once I get back to Hawaii and make the arrangements I’ll send for her. I wouldn’t let her down; she means too much to me.”
“Of course you would not let her down, you are not that kind of man. I know you will send for Aida and marry her.”
Tom, still unsure of Mama-san’s intent, smiled. “I will, and we’ll send you photos of the ceremony.”
“Good. I will frame one and put it on the wall here.”
“Hey. That reminds me, who is that in the photo behind you, with the flowers and candles?”
Mama-san looked back at the photo for a long moment. “An old dear, dear friend from a long time ago.” Mama-san looked past Tom, then said, “Tom. Aida is beckoning for you.”
“Thanks, Mama-san.” Tom walked across the bar and joined Aida, greeting Grace and Luz as he took a seat. “Hey, ladies, how are you?”
“Fine, Tom,” Grace said.
“Hello, Tommy,” Luz replied with a coy smile. Tom blushed and smiled back. He had spent his first night in Olongapo with Luz. He had not yet met Aida when visiting Maricel’s for the first time. Luz had come to Tom’s table while he sat with Steve and some other friends. One of them, Phil, a ladies’ man, had reached out to put his arm around Luz’s waist, but she slipped from his grasp and sat in Tom’s lap. She put her arms around his neck and smiled at Phil. “No, no, so sorry for you. I like him better.” She sat with him the rest of the night, either in Tom’s lap or in the seat next to him. She took care of him while he bought her drinks.
Tom spent that night with Luz; Aida knew about it, but hadn’t given it a second thought. Not that he knew of, anyway. That’s the way it worked in Olongapo: if things didn’t work out with one Sailor, well, butterflies were free, and any girl could butterfly from Sailor to Sailor until she found the right one, the one with the desire, or the one with the need. A one-night stand with one barmaid and the following night spent with another wasn’t always a good idea, though. Letting a few days pass before paying another girl’s barfine avoided hurt feelings. It didn’t do any good to let a girl feel like you had dumped her. “You butterfly me, I cut off your happiness,” was a phrase heard often in Olongapo, nearly always spoken with a twinkle in the eye. Those sayings usually had some basis in truth. It was best not to take a chance; a man’s happiness was good only as long as it remained attached.
Aida was having a great time with her friends, but Tom felt left out and a little bored as the girls chatted away in Tagalog. Every now and then Aida paused to ask Tom if he was okay. When his stomach began to grumble, he decided to walk around to Mariposa’s for a burger. He asked Aida if she wanted anything but she said no, she would share Grace and Luz’s dinner. He stood to leave and noticed the mama-san watching him. She smiled at him as he made his way to the door and walked out.
The night had cooled but few people strolled the sidewalks. It seemed impossible it could be so quiet, but no aircraft carriers were in port with their five-thousand additional Sailors jostling around bars and barmaids. The few Sailors in town were those stationed at the base – “station dito” – in Tagalog. The town grew by a good five- to eight-thousand people when an entire battle group came into port. Eight-thousand Sailors with pockets full of hard-earned cash, as well as the local sharps, pickpockets, street urchins and street girls who appeared from nowhere to fleece naïve, young shipboard Sailors overseas for the first time.
He walked the few paces to Mariposa’s and sat at a sidewalk table. The waitress took his order and brought him a San Miguel. Ugh. Warm. He asked for a glass and then picked out the flecks of rust embedded in the ice. As he drank the beer, he reflected on his conversation with Mama-san. He shouldn’t have been surprised by her questions. She differed from the previous mama-san, indeed from all the mama-sans he had known, in the way she protected the girls who worked at the bar. She cared for their welfare, not because they brought business to the bar, but more like a parent. She eased new girls into their roles as hostesses and wouldn’t let them go out with Sailors right away. She had to approve of the “right Sailor” before allowing him to pay her first barfine. She also didn’t tolerate girls going behind her back to meet Sailors. For one thing, no barmaid would risk arrest for prostitution by being caught on the street without a bar chit and health certificate. If a girl did manage to avoid detection by police but Mama-san found out, the girl would be barred from going out for a while, grounded so to speak. Mama-san made sure the girls received regular health check-ups too. She didn’t want Maricel’s Bar off-limits to military personnel for health concerns.
As Tom mused on Mama-san, he saw Steve coming down the street. He had planned to take his food back to Maricel’s, but Steve shouted his name. The waitress brought his food. He paid and left a tip before walking out to meet Steve.
“Tom! Man, am I glad I found you. You’ll never guess what happened.”
“What’s up, Steve? What happened? Where’s Lucy”
“I haven’t had a chance to see her yet; I had to find you. Jeff broke his leg and can’t go to Thailand. Kenny told me to find you; you’re taking his place. You leave tomorrow morning on the C-130 carrying the equipment. Pre-flight starts at four a.m.”