A familiar voice called to Frank as he threaded his way through tables and barmaids to reach the door.
“Frank! Hey, Frank – over here.”
He peered through a cloud of cigarette smoke; Sam waved to him from the bar.
As he stepped toward Sam, the door to the bar opened, forcing Frank to quickstep out of the way. A well-dressed man walked in, glanced at Frank, and stopped a few paces from the jukebox. He scanned the tables and bar area, obviously looking for someone. Amy, passing by with a tray of empties, greeted him. They spoke for a moment, then she left for the back room. The man stretched his neck and adjusted his tie, taking in the crowd again. He nodded in recognition when he saw mama-san at the bar. She gave him a thin, frigid smile with just the right amount of insolence to make the man sneer and look away.
Frank didn’t know what to make of their interaction. The scene passed as he greeted Sam.
“Hey, what are you doing here?”
“Well, I did as you said. I checked into the barracks and stowed my gear. But I don’t recall hearing you say I couldn’t meet up with you.”
Sam’s broad smile lifted the bushy, red whiskers around his mouth. Frank found it difficult to suppress his smile.
Sam cocked his head and smiled back. “What’s so funny?”
Frank drew a finger across his nose until the smile left his face. “Nothing. You remind me of someone.” He reached out and ran his fingers and thumb down Sam’s beard.
“Is that regulation?”
“At the Chicken Ranch? Yeah. Here? Probably not; I’ll trim it up in the morning.”
“I’m only joshing you.” Frank paused when Amy came out of the back room and spoke to the well-dressed man again. “Still, a trim would be a good idea before you report to the squadron in the morning. You don’t want the Skipper telling you to shave.”
The man appeared angry. Frank couldn’t hear the man’s words but his tone carried. Amy looked worried. The tension in the bar rose as people turned to watch the fuss. The man, a hand inside his coat, stared at the mama-san who stared back. She spoke to someone without taking her eyes off the man. Her barback, a burly, menacing looking man, appeared from behind the bar and stood next to her. The man scowled as he withdrew his hand, turned on his heel, and left the bar. He slammed the door behind him. Amy, visibly shaken, walked into the back room.
“I’m sorry, Sam. What were you saying?”
“I agreed with you. And I said I don’t want to scare the nuns at the orphanage, either.” Sam spun around on the barstool and leaned back, elbows on the bar. “So. How did the Chief’s meeting go?”
“Fine. We wrapped it up about two hours ago. I came in at the end, just in time to have a blowhard asshole get in my face.”
“About her.” Frank pointed at Marie as she came out of the backroom with Amy. They walked up to the mama-san and spoke her. Worry lined Marie’s face, but it softened as Mama-san patted her arm and spoke to her. Marie, still holding the blue clutch, smiled, leaned forward to kiss Mama-san’s cheek, and returned to the back room.
“Hey, excuse me a minute, Sam. I’ll be right back.” He left Sam with his beer and crossed the bar, stopping next to Mama-san.
“Pardon me, Mama-san; what’s wrong with Marie and Amy? Is everything all right? Can I do anything?”
“Yes, everything is all right. Thank you for asking. An old friend of Marie asked after her, but he left. She does not wish to see him.”
“Can I see her? May I go into the back room?”
“If you wish. However, you will not find her. She has gone home for the night. She will return tomorrow.”
“Would you like something else? Are you going back to base tonight?”
“What? No. I mean yes; I am returning to the base tonight. Thank you.”
“What was that all about?” Sam said.
“That woman I pointed to left to go home. It seems she didn’t want to speak to the guy who slammed the door. Old friends, apparently.”
“Or old lovers?”
Sam’s answer annoyed Frank, which surprised him; he and Sam had been best friends for years, rarely disagreeing. “I doubt it. The blowhard I mentioned told me she’s the bar’s trophy girl.”
“An attractive woman hired by the bar to draw men in. She doesn’t go home with them; she works them for drinks.”
“Ah. Interesting. Maybe the guy came back for more than a drink. He obviously left disappointed.”
Frank ignored Sam’s inference to Marie and went on talking about the Chief’s meeting. “The blowhard’s a senior chief. A former aircrewman who stopped flying after a crash. He’s a troublemaker; Master Chief is trying to have him transferred.”
“You like her, don’t you?”
“Yeah. I do. She’s something else.”
“What’s her name?”
“She’s good looking. Beautiful. If she’s a trophy girl, and doesn’t go home with men, does that mean she isn’t a barmaid?”
“Yep. You’re quicker than I am; that’s exactly what it means.”
“So, despite her job, is there any hope for you? Are you going to ask her out?”
“Maybe. We spoke for a while after everyone left. I think she’s interested – I know I am. I’m coming back here every chance I get before we return to Vietnam.” Frank turned the beer bottle in his hands as he thought of Marie. “She’s beautiful, Sam. I couldn’t help staring at her as she spoke. She’s cultured too; prim and proper, with a feisty personality. Unfortunately, we disagreed a bit and I left her sitting at the table.”
“I called her a barmaid.”
“Ah. I take it she didn’t like that.”
“Not a bit. Her flash of anger came quick. I swear bolts of lightning darted from her eyes. I don’t dare test her anger any further. Beyond that, we argued over the relationship between barmaids and Sailors.”
“Were you, at any point in the conversation, not arguing with each other?”
“I think we were in violent agreement most of the time, but neither wanted to lose the point.”
“Give the point, Frank. Women always win. If, by some stroke of fortune, you win, you still lose. Our happiness is only possible when women are happy.”
“Says the man whose wife once told me her happiness depended solely on her husband’s happiness.” Frank gripped Sam’s shoulder. “She was a wonderful woman, Sam. I would give anything to find someone like her. I wish she were still alive.”
“Susanna loved you like a brother, Frank.”
“We had a lot of fun together, didn’t we? I remember seeing her waiting for you on the pier when we came back from overseas. I don’t think I ever felt more lonesome for a woman’s touch than when I saw the way she held you.”
“We spoke about you all the time. Susanna wanted to get you married. Remember how she always fixed you up with her girlfriends? And how you always said you couldn’t talk to them?”
“How could I forget? She’d say “Oh, Frank,” and roll her eyes and ask me what I had done wrong when a blind date hadn’t worked out. Anyway, Miss Right will come along someday. When she does, I’ll look up and say thank you to Susanna.”
Frank looked distant as he remembered Susanna’s attempts to fix him up with her girlfriends, and her exasperation when each relationship failed to last. Only one had lasted longer than six months, ending when Frank transferred overseas. “I guess I’m too quiet, I don’t open up as much as they think I should, and don’t reveal much when I do, just enough to keep them from asking more questions, from digging too deep.”
“Maybe they think you’re hiding something.”
“But I’m not hiding anything; I just don’t care to talk about myself.”
“Good question. Maybe it was the constant moving from one navy base to another. I think I was afraid to make lasting friendships because they would only end when we transferred to another duty station. I organized my life and friendships geographically in spans of years: three years at this navy base, three years at that base, three with these friends, and so on. All my friends did the same. We all measured our lives according to where we had lived and for how long. We gave up old friends and made new ones.”
“Didn’t you keep in touch?”
“Yes, but not for long. You know how it is; you write letters for a few months, maybe a year or so, then life gets in the way. You don’t see those friends everyday anymore so you stop thinking about them. Before you know it they’ve become fond memories.”
“I wouldn’t know about that. I lived in the same house until I joined the Navy. I can’t imagine how hard moving like that must be on a kid.”
“Mom always said I learned at a young age to be brave when parting from my best friend. It wasn’t like a wanderer’s life of always moving around, but we didn’t always unpack everything either because we’d only be moving again in three years. Heck, dad began searching for his next duty station almost as soon as we arrived at the new one. It wasn’t a bad life, but I always wanted a hometown I could name like other boy when asked where they were from. I remember being stumped over how to answer a teacher in third grade when she asked me where I was from.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her I wasn’t from anyplace.”
“What’d she say?”
“She asked me where my hometown was.”
“I told her I didn’t have a hometown. ‘But everyone has a hometown,’ she said. ‘Not me.’”
“She wanted to know where I was born, so I told her, ‘Japan.’ All she said was ‘Oh. How interesting.’”
“She must have thought I was on the verge of tears – I was. For some reason I was embarrassed about being born in Japan – because she had me show the other kids where Japan was on the globe, and then show them all the other places I had been. I ended up hero for the day. We were stationed in Florida at the time and none of the other kids had lived outside the state.
“You’re lucky. I would have loved moving around like you.”
“Oh, I loved that part, but it made it hard to develop lasting friendships, especially with women. Even today, they either leave after growing impatient with my reserve – one girlfriend called it my unnerving dispassion – or we just drift apart. Solitude never bothered me though. If women don’t like my company because I don’t talk much, that’s their problem. I’m not going to change for someone else when I’m happy in my own skin.”
Frank grinned and rubbed a hand over his stubble. “But I might change for Marie.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Later that night, Frank lay in bed, hands behind his head, his shadow cast onto the wall next to him by the glow of the bedside lamp. The shadow did not reveal the smile on his face as he lay thinking about his encounter with Marie. Their fingers had touched. They had only touched for a moment, but it sent a thrill through his body. He had almost dropped the bottle of beer at her touch. He thought of the way Marie’s neck curved and how her face glowed when she smiled, the way her eyes flashed when she was angry. Where had she grown up? Where had she gone to school? Her life of privilege showed plain. She had too much of the finishing school in her, along with a touch of debutante arrogance.
Besides, what was she doing in a place like Olongapo? She would have fit much better in Manila or Baguio. She carried none of the roughness of a woman who spent her youth working in bars, none of the provincial naïveté of an ingénue from the small villages that made up most of the Philippines.
Women like Marie had no notion of innocence and desperation; they lived lives of luxury and convenience and expected things delivered in neat bundles with pretty ribbons on them. Women like Marie used men like gym towels: nice soft cloths for wiping away sweat after a rousing bout of shopping for shoes.
None of that mattered, though. Marie was what he needed after three nerve-wracking months in Vietnam. Vietnam. He didn’t want to go back. Not even to collect his belongings. He reached out and switched off the lamp, and settled back into the soft, comfortable bed.