Frank lingered after George left, nursing his beer and talking with the other Chiefs. Barmaids wandered in and out bringing drinks and taking turns at the pool table, their happy, piercing squeals a welcome change from the shoptalk of the Chiefs. The girls lapsed into Tagalog when excited. The lilting, rolling syllables of the language had a pleasing quality.
When the last of the Chiefs left for the base, Frank finished his beer and walked into the main bar where he ordered another. The barmaid set it in front of him and waited, but Frank’s attention lay elsewhere and she left. He picked up the beer. Warm. He thought about asking for a glass and some ice, but it was too laborious picking out the bits of rust and occasional embedded fly. Frank sighed and sipped the beer. Marie sat with a Marine at a table in the dark corner. The Marine belched, then laughed and swigged his beer. Marie looked disgusted. Frank caught her eye but she turned away. He tried not to be obvious, but he couldn’t help looking at her.
She stifled a yawn as he watched, then pushed her glass away with her fingertips and spoke to the Marine before getting up and walking to the far end of the bar. The Marine didn’t seem to care. He took another swig from his bottle, stood, and picked up and finished Marie’s drink. He made a face and set the glass down. He wavered but steadied himself and joined a group of Marines at another table. They looked at Marie and laughed as he spoke. They may have dealt with Marie themselves but aimed their laughter at the young Marine.
She stood at the other end of the bar with her back to him, apparently unaware of his presence. Disappointed, he decided to leave for the base. He had a long day ahead and looked forward to a quiet night’s sleep in his own bed, in his own room on this first night back from Vietnam. He finished his beer and stood to leave. He thought about saying goodbye to her, but rejection didn’t sound appealing. He shrugged and walked to the door, weaving around tables and couples. He reached out to push the door open when a voice stopped him.
“Leaving so soon?”
He turned. Marie stood a few steps away, a blue clutch in her hand. She must have hurried to catch him. The thought pleased him.
She raised her voice. “I asked if you were leaving so soon.”
Frank picked up a slight accent. “Yes. Tomorrow is a busy day. I need to get some sleep. I’m going back to Vietnam Thursday and don’t have much time.” He motioned at Marie’s clutch. “Are you leaving?”
“I had considered it. Did you not ask me earlier if I wanted to have a beer with you?”
“Yes, but you didn’t seem interested. You looked like you didn’t want to be bothered.”
“That was then.”
“Oh? What changed your mind?”
“You. You interest me. You are not like other Sailors. Are you a loner?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I’m not afraid to be alone. Solitude gives me time to think.”
“What do you think about in your solitude?”
“Let’s get that drink.” Frank called for their drinks and paid for them.
“Shall we sit at the bar, or would you prefer a table?” Frank handed Marie her drink, a Jack and Coke. “I thought barmaids’ drinks were mostly water.”
Marie’s eyes blazed. “I am not a barmaid.”
“I spoke without thinking. I’m sorry.”
“I thought you were a smart boy.”
“I said more careful than smart. I was neither this time.”
“You’re forgiven.” She turned toward the back room. “Come, it’s quieter in the back; all the Chiefs have gone.”
They sat at a table circled by the yellow light of a bare bulb dangling over the pool table. Two barmaids entered, laughing and giggling. They stopped short when they saw Marie, one bumping into the other, and then backed quietly out of the room.
“So, if you’re not a barmaid, what is it you do here? I only learned tonight about trophy girls.”
“Trophy girls? Is that what Chiefs discuss at their meetings? Are there not more important topics to discuss? War, peace, wives?”
“The meetings are usually about work. However, I came out tonight to see George, an old friend. Everything came to a halt, though, when you brought my beer. One of the Chiefs pointed out that you never serve anyone. Am I that special?” A smile played on Frank’s lips.
“Special? Hmm.” She tilted her head as she considered his question. Her chin rested on her hand, fingers folded against her palm. Her hair fell away to bare the breathtakingly perfect curve of her neck and shoulder, the delicate filigree of her ear. Frank yearned to press his lips to the hollow behind her ear and trace with his fingertips the smooth, pure line of her neck. Such flawless skin.
“No,” she said, “Just different.”
“Is that good?”
“Am I?” She smiled, revealing perfect, white teeth.
“Yes. And intriguing.”
“Really? In what way?”
“You don’t fit the pattern of the rest of the women in a Navy town like Olongapo. You don’t appear to be after a husband, or a Sailor’s money.”
“Do you know how insulting that is?”
“I don’t mean it to be. Looks like I’ve stepped in it again.”
“What do you mean, “stepped in it.”
“That’s just an expression. It means I put my foot in my mouth.”
“Ah. That I understand. Yes, you did. But not all barmaids are gold diggers, Frank. Most of the girls here send money home to help support their families.” Marie leaned forward, her eyes intent. “You seem to think the only thing barmaids want is money.”
“That isn’t what I think.”
Marie went on without waiting for Frank to say more.
“Do you believe every Filipino thinks all Americans are rich? That the way Sailors throw their money around getting drunk and paying for women to sleep with them proves that they are smarter than everyone else? That they have so much money to spend, all they have to do when they empty their wallets is go to the bank and get more money?”
“No, of course not. Don’t put words in my mouth, Marie.”
“Filipinos are not naïve, Frank, and most Filipino women are smart enough to look with disdain on Sailors who care so little for their hard-earned pay.”
“Marie, I’m not questioning the virtue of the girls who come to Olongapo seeking work. What concerns me is the disillusion that awaits them when they don’t find the life of luxury they expect to find in the States. I see it all the time. Sometimes I think they would be happier staying here and marrying a boy from their village.”
Marie sat up straight. “How do you know what will make a Filipina happy? Why do you assume that a barmaid does not truly love the Sailor she marries? For that matter, why do you assume the Sailor does not love her?”
“I never said that, Marie.”
“Tell me, how many Filipino-American marriages end in divorce? How many Filipinos return to the Philippines when they become disillusioned?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“I haven’t met a barmaid yet, Frank, who returned from America because she didn’t like it. However, I have met barmaids who returned to PI when their husbands transferred here for duty. They always come to Maricel’s and talk to their friends. They show off their babies and talk of how wonderful it is living in America. Moreover, not one of them has expressed a desire to remain in the Philippines. Indeed, Frank, they…”
“Geez, let me talk, Marie.”
“Don’t interrupt. They all – all – want to bring other family members back to America.” Marie spoke in earnest. The haughtiness had disappeared. “I think you possess an altruistic nature, Frank, but it is misplaced in this case. I don’t think you’ve thought through your feelings on what makes a happy marriage between barmaids and Sailors.”
“Maybe not, Marie, but I truly hope all of the marriages are happy.” He drew a finger through a water stain on the table. Cigarette burns rimmed the edges of the table and it wobbled a bit on uneven legs. He sipped his beer and looked at Marie.
“Who are you, Marie? You’re not a barmaid, yet you work in a bar. Wait, let me rephrase that,” he added hastily. “You’re not a barmaid, yet I met you in a bar where you seem to be on close terms with the mama-san, and you served me a beer. And, I might add, somehow the bartender knew enough to use top-shelf liquor for your drink. You’re a contradiction. Not to disparage the girls who work here, but you don’t fit with them. You speak and act different, and your bearing suggests a life lived in the city, not a village. I would guess you’re from a wealthy family, well educated, and bored. Am I right?”
“I didn’t serve you; I brought you a drink out of courtesy.”
“That was nice of you, thank you.”
“We’ve already been through this part.”
“You’re being evasive.”
“You’re being impertinent and interrogative,” Marie snapped.
“Another ninety-degree turn.”
“Yes. Just as our conversation starts to warm one of us says something that causes tension and the thread of our conversation turns cold.”
“Maybe we’re not trying hard enough to make general conversation. Shall we talk about the weather? I think it will be hot tonight.”
Frank smiled. “It’s always hot here. General conversation is great in a waiting room or on a bus.”
“Yes. But people are only passing the time in a waiting room, not trying hard to know one another.
“Is that what we are doing?”
“Of course. You and I seem to be aiming for some objective other than small talk. I feel an intense urge to engage with you and find out more about you. I think you want to do the same.”
“I do, Frank. I don’t know what made me bring you your beer like a common barmaid. But I wanted to be near you again.”
“I don’t care what you do for a living, Marie, I feel drawn to you. I like talking with you. I can hang out with my buddies and talk all night, but they can’t offer a female point of view or companionship. They can’t flash brilliant white teeth at me from behind beautiful lips, or look at me with bright, green eyes that make my throat tighten and my heart skip two beats with every blink. You have a firmness of character belied by a delicate beauty, and eyes expressive of two sentiments: come hither, and go away, go far away; I don’t know how to interpret either one. Two days ago, I launched aircraft during a battle in Vietnam; tonight, I’m battling wits with a beautiful but perplexing woman.”
Marie sat quiet, her back straight, eyes wide. She appeared anxious to Frank, like he had gone too far, or she wanted him to continue. He wasn’t sure which.
Frank paused, out of breath, his heart beating fast. “I’m sorry, Marie. I’ve said too much tonight, more than I should have. I usually don’t speak this frankly – or this much – until I’ve known a woman for, oh, eight or nine years.”
He paused again and fixed his eyes on Marie’s. “I’d better get going, I have a big day tomorrow. Goodnight, Marie. I’ve enjoyed meeting you. I hope we meet again.”