The Victory Liner sped through the countryside, bouncing side-to-side on the rough road, belching black clouds of diesel smoke every time the driver shifted gears. At frequent intervals along National Highway, children in blue and white school clothes waited for jeepneys to carry them to school. Between those intervals, carabao seeking relief from the blazing heat wallowed in mud-holes lining the edge of the Bataan jungle, a jungle just forty-six years removed from the horror and bloodshed of World War II.
Tom watched unseeing as the Kodak moments whizzed by. His thoughts lay elsewhere, and his camera lay unused in its case. The bus lurched as it hit a pothole. He rubbed his eyes and looked around the bus. A woman across from him crossed herself as they passed a church. He leaned back. He had asked Aida once why people, almost always women, crossed themselves so much during Victory Liner trips. Aida had explained they were Catholics and always crossed themselves when they saw churches, funerals, even roadside markers for victims of vehicle accidents. She had asked Tom if Americans crossed themselves.
“Not that I know of.”
Aida had remarked, “Oh, maybe Americans always in a hurry and don’t see out the window even when they looking.”
Aida dozed against his shoulder, her breathing a soft purr in his ear. The even rise and fall of her chest might have indicated a dreamless sleep, or a pleasant dream. She wrinkled her nose at a fly buzzing around her head. She stirred but didn’t wake when Tom waved the fly away. She looked so innocent and vulnerable in her sleep. So beautiful. His heart leapt as he realized how much he loved her. The visit to her village, seeing her family and friends, the drowsy bus ride all combined to relax her. Happiness had smoothed the worry from her face and replaced it with contentment.
Is she dreaming? If so, they must be happy dreams to bring such a sweet smile to her lips.
He had always loved her, but fear of commitment blinded him to the depth of his love for her. He had also come to terms with the fear of ridicule he had imagined he would receive for marrying a barmaid, a prostitute in some people’s mind. Judgmental people like Kenny and others who poured scorn and opprobrium on those who saw through external appearances to the soul inside the person. A person often beat down by poverty and want or some other unfulfilled need but urged on by a spirit that refused to give up. When refusing to give up meant performing work that the condescending elitists of the cocktail class found abhorrent and beneath contempt.
Aida had refused to give up. She had never given herself lightly to another man, but had first sought the signs that showed a man’s worth, his nature. She had plumbed the depths of Tom’s heart before he knew he wanted her. She knew Tom after their first night together better than he knew himself. He was the one she had searched for, yearned for, waited for. She knew his heart was good, his character pure, his intentions honorable. He had weaknesses and faults and she had discerned them the way a mother knows her child to the soul. After nearly six months of living together, she knew Tom as thoroughly as though she had given birth to him. She knew the questions that roiled his mind, and his fear of the ridicule that threatened their future. She could make Tom want to do her bidding, but she could not make him marry her. She was powerless to scale the wall of Tom’s fear.
“Honey ko. What are you thinking about? I’m watching you think while you are staring outside the window.” Aida had awakened while Tom was deep in thought. Had she sensed his thoughts?
“Oh, nothing much. I’m just thinking about life and the universe. That’s all.”
“Okay. Think about me too, a little bit, okay?” She nestled her face into his neck, her lips pressed against him.
He smiled at her words. If she only knew. He rubbed her shoulder and hugged her. Maybe she does know.
She had told Tom the things she observed in him and he sensed she kept others to herself. He had told Steve and George and Alex and his other close friends that Aida had him wrapped around her little finger and they had laughed and called him pussy-whipped and he had laughed with them because it was true. But he could not shake the fear.
He could not shake the fear that had weighed on his mind for months. The fear of ridicule from others and the fear of committing himself. Aida believed it was only others who made Tom indecisive. But Tom had worried over the strength of his commitment to Aida. He had always believed marriage the natural course when two people loved each other. He had hesitated at the thought of binding himself to one woman for the rest of his life. He believed marriage was forever, that marriage vows were not to be taken lightly. But what if Aida were not the right woman. What if they married and he realized he did not love her after all? What would he do then? What about other women? What if he wasn’t ready to give them up? He was young, he might regret marrying too soon. He didn’t want to grow old wondering what he had missed. He wanted to know marrying was the right decision. If Aida was the one, he wanted to feel it in his heart. He wanted to know without reservation that she was the one. He wanted Aida to be his Susanna, his meant-to-be-from-birth love.
She was the one. He knew that now. The scales of uncertainty had fallen from his eyes after the trip to Thailand. The reality and the emptiness of sleeping around, and the realization of the depth of his love and desire for Aida had stopped him dead in his tracks. It was as though he had known it all along.
The conductor rose from his seat to change the movie showing on the television mounted behind the driver’s seat: Missing in Action. Filipinos loved to watch Chuck Norris beat up communists. A pretty Vietnamese actress reminded him of Lek and he turned away from the television. He didn’t want to think about Thailand and Lek. That period of his life had passed, and he had no desire to revisit the pain and sorrow. It was behind him now and seemed almost surreal, distant and remote. At times he found it hard to believe it had happened.
He drifted off until they slowed for the exit to the bus station in Balanga. Tom nudged Aida awake as they pulled into the parking area. He retrieved their bags from the rack above the seat as the bus rolled to a stop.
“We have an hour to kill before our next bus, Aida. Let’s get something to drink. There’s a refreshment stand in the terminal.”
“Okay, Tommy. Anyway, I’m thirsty. I want iced tea.”
They left the bus, Tom carrying the bags, and walked into the terminal.
“Hey. What are you two doing here?” Steve and Lucy were gazing at the departure schedule above the ticket counter.
“Hey, guys,” Steve said. “We’re heading back to Olongapo. I thought you were going back tomorrow.”
“We decided to head back today instead of rushing around at the last minute. I hate coming back from a trip and going to work the next day. Our bus leaves in an hour. Looks like we’ll ride back together. Do you and Lucy want to join us for a drink?”
“Sure. Why not.”
They took seats at a table on the sidewalk, beneath a red and white umbrella that deflected the scorching rays of the midday sun, and ordered drinks. The waiter brought them four iced teas. Tom paid and tipped the waiter who bowed and said, “Salamat.” They sipped their drinks with gasping relief while making small talk and passing the time before they would board the bus for the ride to Olongapo.
Tom slurped the last of his tea through the straw and signaled for the waiter to bring another round. The waiter set the drinks down, then scurried off to wait on another table. The sun was sinking below the brim of the umbrella and Aida was squinting.
“Tommy. Move the umbrella, honey ko. The sun making me to squint my eyes.”
“Sure, Aida. Hang on.” He turned and lowered the umbrella to block the sun. “How’s that, Aida?”
“Thank you, honey ko. That’s good.”
“God, it’s hot,” he said. “It wasn’t bad on the bus with the wind coming through the windows.
Steve nodded his agreement. “Yeah. It was hot at the resort too. We practically lived in the hotel pool. Have you been there?”
“No. The resort.”
“Oh. Which one?”
“Mariveles? No. We’ve been meaning to go, but we usually go to Baguio or Manila. I like the quiet of Baguio, and the excitement of Manila. Besides, Grande Island is as good as a resort for me.”
“You and Aida ought to come with us, next time. Maybe she’d like something different from Grande Island.”
“How about it, Aida? Would you like to spend a weekend at the Mariveles Resort? ”
“Okay, yes. I go there many times, but I will go with you. Let me know and I will tell my family to expect us so we can have a picnic together with them.”
“Hey, that’s a great idea. Aida’s dad has a couple banca boats – he’s a fisherman. Maybe he’ll take us out and we can spearfish for the picnic.”
“Sounds good to me. Lucy? What do you think?”
“I would love to. I’d like to meet Aida’s family.”
“There. Done deal.” Steve finished his tea and signaled the waiter for another round. “Who else needs another tea? Tom?” The waiter brought two more and a dish of peanuts for them to snack on. “How was the visit? Were Aida’s parents happy to see you?
“Hey, where are you guys going?” Lucy and Aida were walking away.
“To the sari-sari store. We’ll be right back.”
“Okay. We have…” Steve looked at the bus timetable. “twenty-five minutes,” he called after them.”
“Yep. They fawned over her, of course, and made me feel welcome. All four of her brothers were there and her two sisters still live at home. The house is so small I don’t know how they all fit under one roof. But it was fun, and we ate all day long. Neighbors kept calling and bringing more food, people stayed on playing mahjong all night, and the beer never stopped flowing. If you think keg parties at the Bowdoinham Ranch are something, you’ve never experienced a weekend-long party in a Filipino village. If we hadn’t slept at Aida’s grandmother’s, we wouldn’t have slept at all. People kept wanting to drink with me.”
“Did her folks ask if you were going to marry Aida?”
Tom paused while the waiter cleared away empty glasses.
“Indirectly. I had the feeling the weekend was a bridal shower without anyone explicitly saying so. Half the village wanted their photos taken with me and the other half wanted photos of Aida and me with their kids. I never held so many little kids in my lap my entire life. I’m probably godfather to a hundred kids now. I don’t have to buy them Christmas presents, do I?”
“You’d better hope not.”
“The subject of marriage never came up, though, and that made me happy. I think they believe we will marry.”
“Will you, Tom?”
“Yes, Steve. What happened in Thailand made me think long and hard about Aida and our future together. I learned a lot about myself, things that made me feel bad about the way I treated her.”
“Like I can’t let what Kenny and others think affect my life and decisions. I can’t put personal pleasure above my love for Aida. I can’t play around and expect Aida to wait at home for me. Cheating on someone you’re in a relationship with but not married to is the same as cheating on a spouse. There is no difference. One gets hurt, and one is diminished in the eyes of the other. I don’t want Aida to think less of me. I want her respect and admiration, and her love. There can be no love in a relationship that lacks respect.”
The last few words he spoke in a raised voice as two buses pulled in and bled off their air brakes. The sound of nearly a hundred people filing off the buses and gathering their belongings filled the terminal while the sound of a hundred more lining up to board echoed around the two Sailors. Filipinos young and old looked at the two of them as they shuffled by to board their buses. A teeming mass of humanity, most brown, a few white, shoulders bowed under the pressures of life and love. Two languages expressing the same thoughts. Lucy and Aida bounded up to the table chattering away in Tagalog. Steve and Tom stood to meet them.
Steve looked over Aida’s head to Tom and said, “What did you say?”
“I said there can be no love in a relationship that lacks respect.”