Marie had no doubt Aida and Tom loved each other. She hoped this break in their relationship would, in the end, bring them closer. She had wanted to tell Tom Aida had come by. She had almost given it away, but he had not noticed the slip. Aida had told Marie of her confrontation with Tom, and asked Marie not to tell Tom she had been there. Her relationship with Tom was at an end, and she needed time to deal with his betrayal. That was how she portrayed it, betrayal.
After Tom left, she helped the girls clean up the damage and put Maricel’s back in order. As she wiped down the bar, Sam’s photo caught her eye. The bushy, red beard and joyful smile brought a twinge to her heart. Sam. Poor, dear Sam. She missed him dearly. She gazed at his image. Something about the photo made her pause. She studied his face, her eyebrows knitted together. Beneath the beard he reminded her of someone. But who? She tried to imagine him without the beard and sunglasses. It was so long ago.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Aida had gone to Cora’s after running away. Tom would look there first, of course, so she stayed long enough for Cora to collect a few things and get out of the apartment. They headed to Maricel’s, navigating the streets as fast as they could. They stayed off Magsaysay Drive and took the alleys until they reached Maricel’s. Aida unburdened herself to Marie and asked if she could have her job back. Marie told her of course she could, but advised her to give it much thought before making a decision.
“Rashness of action only perpetuates heartbreak, Aida. Perhaps you should go home to your village for a few days?”
“Okay, Mama-san; I think maybe you are right. I will go home and see my parents. I want to go home and see that they are okay from the earthquakes.”
Marie promised to tell Tom if he came looking for Aida, but Aida begged her not to tell him anything. They said goodbye and left for Cora’s apartment. Cora had decided to accompany Aida rather than face Tom’s inquiries. Aida waited while Cora packed a small bag. Together they walked the short distance to Aida’s apartment, approaching cautiously in case Tom was there. Slipping upstairs, Aida packed a few days of clothing into a backpack. She looked around the room: so many memories, so much happiness. She shook her head and wiped her eyes. How could he do this to her? She rejoined Cora and they walked the short distance to the bus station. A few minutes later, they boarded a Victory Liner and headed for Lamao.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
His mind was a jumble of distraction and worry. Tom said goodbye to Marie and headed for Cora’s apartment. Aftershocks continued to rattle his nerves. It would be dark soon, and that made him anxious to find Aida; if she had been hurt and incapacitated, he didn’t want her spending the night alone and exposed. He retraced his steps until he came to the market, where he turned toward Cora’s house, uttering a silent prayer that he would find her.
He reached the apartment building and crossed the courtyard. The door was closed. He banged the door knocker several times. No answer. He banged it again, louder. He tried the knob: unlocked. He opened the door and looked up the dark stairwell. No sign of anyone.
“Aida? Cora? Anyone home?”
Silence. Where could she be? He fought a surge of panic. He climbed the stairs and walked through the rooms. Where could she be? Plaster had fallen from the walls, and shattered glass lay strewn about the rooms. Tom picked up a crucifix and placed it on its wall hook. In the kitchen, cupboard doors hung ajar. Cora had been eating when the quakes struck: food was scattered among broken dishes. He walked through the rooms once more and left, disappointed with himself for not remaining with Aida. Back on the street, he considered his next move. She hadn’t gone to Maricel’s, and she wasn’t at Cora’s. She had other girlfriends nearby, but none as close to her as Cora; if she had gone anywhere, it would have been to Cora’s. Where else might she have gone?
Home? Would she have gone back to her village? Maybe. He wondered if the Victory Liners were operating. Lamao was further from the volcano, so they may have gone home thinking they would be safer there. Or, they had gone home to check on their families. Damn. He had to be at work early the next morning. That gave him a little more than twelve hours. Could he get there and back in time? There would be hell to pay if not. He cursed again. No; he couldn’t, wouldn’t risk it. His career meant everything. But couldn’t she have gone someplace besides Cora’s? He racked his brain. Think, think. Where is she? No; there was only one thing to do: go to Bataan.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The red bus, Victory Liner emblazoned in a broad white stripe along each side, rumbled along the highway, dodging farm carts, passing jeepneys, slowing for cattle crossing the road. Cora leaned on Aida and dozed in the warm sunlight filtering through the open window. Aida, her head resting against the window frame despite the occasional jolt from a pothole, gazed into the countryside. She had taken this trip a hundred times, but the routine of the ride didn’t bore her. She didn’t understand why he would cheat on her, why he didn’t know she was the only woman he needed. How many women had he slept with since they met? She didn’t count the women in Hawaii; she wouldn’t hold that against him since they had not made any commitments before he returned to Hawaii last year. But this year was different. They had become closer, more intimate in ways beyond making love, almost like husband and wife. Was that it? Maybe Tom didn’t like the feeling, the closeness. Maybe he wasn’t ready to settle down and marry. Could it be that he saw the Philippines and Thailand as his last chance to have so many women? Had he really been faithful to her since his return to the Philippines? Had the woman in Thailand lied about sleeping with him? If she was angry at Tom spurning her then she might have sent the letter as revenge. Olongapo was a small city; if Tom had cheated on her someone would have known and told her. There hadn’t even been any rumors, though. Maybe he was telling the truth.
Aida lost her train of thought when Cora, roused from a deep sleep as the bus bumped hard on the rough, rutted road, stretched and yawned. She smiled at Aida behind sleep-filled eyes, looked around to see where they were, and closed her eyes again, asleep in seconds. Aida’s stomach grumbled. Her mouth was dry. An hour to go before they changed buses. She would wait and have a sandwich at the bus station. Her stomach grumbled again. She looked around for the conductor and signaled him for a bottle of soda. The soda frothed over after her first sip. She frowned, and snapped at the conductor for a napkin. He pressed a wad of thin tissue into her hand; the look on his face seemed to indicate he knew she wouldn’t be pleased. She rolled her eyes at him, then asked for a bag of peanuts. The conductor told her he was sorry about the soda and wouldn’t charge her. She glared at him as she took the peanuts.
Aida drank the soda and ate the peanuts, tossing the shells through the window and watching the scenery flash by. Here and there, earthquake damage showed on buildings, and men worked in the hot afternoon sun patching roofs and plastering walls. Why do they fix the buildings if more earthquakes will just break them again? Why don’t they wait until no more earthquakes come? What will happen when Pinatubo erupts? Her eyes closed and she nodded off. When she opened them again, Cora was screaming at her about another earthquake. The bus careered back and forth across the highway. Screaming passengers made an awful, terrible noise, made worse by the rumbling of the earthquake. The bus driver tried to bring the bus under control, but the moving and shaking of the earth made it impossible. As Cora cried and clutched her crucifix, Aida patted her arm and tried to calm her. Her own heart pounded and her eyes grew wide with fear, but all she could do was hang on to the armrest and try to keep her head from banging against the window. Her final thought as the bus left the road and rolled over in a swirl of dust and shattering glass was that she would never see Tom again.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Tom’s nervous energy manifested itself in rapid foot-tapping and leg shaking. The passenger next to him, agitated by the earthquakes, asked him to stop shaking his leg. Couldn’t he see it bothered others, the constant knocking? Tom apologized, but he couldn’t help himself. He continued to tap and shake, catching himself and stopping, and starting up again. Aida, Aida, Aida. Where are you sweetheart? Please be in Lamao. Please.
Another earthquake struck as the bus left town and turned onto the highway. Fortunately, the bus had stopped for cross-traffic or the driver might have lost control. A cry rose among the passengers, but most had come to expect quakes and rode it out in silence, their eyes holding the only signs of fear. A man held his two young children tight as the bus shook, at one point pressing his forehead to theirs. Poor guy; I wonder where their mother is? Tom rose and made his unsteady way to the man’s seat, sitting so the children, a boy and a girl, were between them. The father nodded his head in appreciation and thanked him. “Salamat.”
The quake subsided, and several men jumped from their seats and left the bus. Tom asked the father what was happening. He smiled and pointed. Tom looked out the window: the men were relieving themselves a few yards from the bus, a common practice between stops. Women had to wait for proper facilities.
The man raised his eyebrows in question.
“No. I went before we left.”
Once the men re-boarded, they were on their way. Tom would change buses in Balanga. He settled back, resting his head against the window. He loved the long bus rides. Yes, it was hot, but he usually fell in and out of a light sleep while Aida dozed against his shoulder.
He missed that. The expression seemed such a small thing, but held such significance. By leaning on him, Aida showed she trusted him, depended on him, wanted to touch and feel him. He felt protective of her when she dozed against him, his arm around her. The gesture was part instinct, sure, but more than that, it showed a tenderness on his part. Some might say it demonstrated ownership, possession, domination, but those people were probably lonely and angry, and didn’t understand the giving and receiving nature of relationships. When Tom enclosed Aida in his arms, she snuggled against him, trying to move deeper into his arms, trying to cover more of her body with his. She wanted to feel more of him, she wanted to feel she was a part of him, and he wanted to hold as much of her as he could.
Their lovemaking was the same way. He wanted to press as much of himself against her as he could, he wanted to feel as much of her as possible, he wanted to touch all of her at one time, as she wanted to touch all of him. As their relationship developed and deepened, sexual desire transformed from a frenzied, lust-filled sport, to one of passionate, romantic, emotional embrace. Making love had become more than having sex, more than a goal; it had become the ultimate demonstration of love: to melt into one another as a single being, to possess one another not from ownership or domination, but to feel two hearts beating together, to mingle body to body, soul to soul.
Why had he not understood that? Why had he needed so many women, yet felt so unfulfilled after each? Why had he not realized that Aida was the one woman who made him feel a part of her? The way his parents felt about each other.
That was it. He understood now. He knew why he always came home to Aida. If only he could find her and tell her.
The driver’s radio crackled to life in a burst of static and broken words. He listened for a moment before picking up the microphone and speaking. Tom didn’t understand Tagalog, but the man with the kids frowned as the speaking continued. He looked worried and crossed himself as the driver hung up the mike and spoke to the passengers. The man with the kids translated for Tom. “Radio man say bus accident nearby, and tell driver he must go and help take passengers to the bus station in Balanga.”
“What bus is it? Is it a Victory Liner?”
The man questioned the driver, both speaking back and forth while Tom’s foot tapped an impatient drumroll against the floor. ‘What are they talking about?’
“Okay. Driver says a bus leaving Olongapo before this bus. He says there are many injuries. Police and ambulance go there to help. We will take okay passengers to Balanga. You know someone in Balanga?”
Tom’s nerves, already frazzled from the earthquake and the fight with Aida, nearly snapped when he heard the bus came from Olongapo. Aida would likely be on it if she had decided to go home. He hoped not, but he hoped she was too; he couldn’t stand the uncertainty of not knowing where she was. He trembled as he answered the man. “No. Yes…I mean, no, not in Balanga, in Bataan, a village in Bataan, Lamao.”
“You okay? Your face is white like paper.”
“I don’t know. I think my girlfriend may be on that bus.”
“Ohh, I so sorry. I hope she is not there. Your girlfriend is Filipina?”
“She work in Olongapo?”
“Ohh. You American Sailor?”
“Ohh. Station dito?”
“No. Stationed in Hawaii, but deployed here with VP squadron.”
“Ohh. You BP Sailor.”
Tom couldn’t help grinning; Aida pronounced it the same way.
“Yes. I return to Hawaii next month. My girlfriend – her name is Aida, like the –…well, we had a fight today, and I think she went to see her parents in Lamao.”
“Ohh. She be okay. You will see. I am Bernard Pancho. My son is named Ray, and my daughter is Mila. What is your name?”
“Tom. I’m happy to meet you, Bernard.” Tom smiled as they shook hands. Bernard’s friendly manner put him at ease. He liked the man, whose open face carried a broad smile reflected in his children’s faces.
“Tom.” Bernard held a paper sack out to Tom. “You hungry? You eat balut? We got plenty.” Bernard looked earnestly at Tom, but the kids appeared to be wondering if the American would be mean enough to eat their snack.
Tom’s stomach heaved at the mention of balut, and he politely declined. He pushed the sack away, telling Bernard, “No, thank you. I ate before we left the station.”
“Okay. Hey. We arrive at bus crash. Look there.”
The bus was coming out of a curve and slowing down, coming to a stop at the direction of a policeman. He motioned the driver to pull onto the shoulder. Police cars lined both sides of the road, with ambulances jammed in among them. People wandered everywhere trying to get a glimpse of the overturned bus at the bottom of the ravine. They reminded Tom of moths circling a light. He couldn’t see the bus, but the crowd stood at the edge of the road peering down. Tom had to get off the bus and see for himself.
He left his seat and walked forward. The driver, talking to a policeman through his window, opened the bus doors. Tom, along with most of the others left the bus and joined the crowd. He pushed his way to the front, dreading what he might see. He brushed his hand through his hair and down the back of his neck. He began to tremble again and clenched his teeth. He stepped from the crowd. His heart fell. The bus lay on its roof in a stream at the bottom of the ravine, leaning against a huge boulder that must have stopped its roll. Bodies had been flung everywhere, some moving, some still. Passengers, bloodied and in shock, sat on the ground as rescuers attended them. Others were brought up on stretchers. A line of stretchers covered with sheets lay ready to receive wounded and dead.
Tom’s heart beat loud in his ears. He didn’t see Aida. Where was she? He wiped his eyes. A hand touched his shoulder and he spun around. ‘Aida!’ No. Bernard.
“Come, Tom. I take you. We go down and look for Aida.” Bernard took Tom by the hand and led him down the hill. “We will find her. She will be okay. You will see.”
At the bottom of the ravine, a few yards from the bus, Tom stopped. He clenched his fists and breathed deep. He blinked through tears. Bernard squeezed his shoulder. Tom knelt next to Aida, her battered body lying on a pink blanket. Blood covered her face and shards of glass glittered in her hair. Her bloodied clothes were ripped and she had lost a shoe. He reached out a trembling hand and caressed her gray face. Her lips moved in a faint whisper.
“I’m here, sweetheart.”
“Tommy?” Her eyes opened long enough to see that it was Tom, and closed again. “Tommy.” Her face twisted and she began to cry. She tried to rise but the effort spent her and she fell back. “Oh, Tommy…I so sorry I get mad to you, honey ko. I so sorry. Oh, please forgive me, Tommy. Don’t leave me, honey ko. Don’t leave me.”
“Oh, Aida. No, no, sweetheart, no, no. Oh, no Aida. I’m sorry. I’m the one who is sorry, Aida. Not you. Oh, my dear, I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m sorry for accusing you. I’m sorry for not trusting you, Aida. Oh, sweetheart, I’ve treated you so poorly. I need you to forgive me, sweetheart. You’ve done nothing wrong. Oh, honey. I am so sorry.” Aida struggled to rise again, and Tom leaned over to help her. He put his arms around her and pulled her to his chest, rocking back and forth while she cried in his arms.
Bernard’s children came down from the bus carrying water and towels from their luggage. Bernard took a towel and dipped it in water. He dabbed at Aida’s face. She had several scratches, and a large bruise on her right cheek. Bernard stopped when Cora appeared, bloodied and bruised, but walking and apparently not hurt, and took the towel from him. She tended to Aida.
“Oh, Aida. I am so glad you are not hurt. I try to wake you after bus crash but you are knocked out. Is your head hurting now?”
“Thank you, Cora. Yes. I have a headache. I thirsty, though. Please, can I have a drink of water?”
“Of, course. Here. Drink slow. No, no, not too fast. Aiii! Drink slow or you get sick. There. That’s good.”
“Ohh, that’s better now. I feel okay. When we go? Do they take me to the hospital? I want to go home, back to Olongapo. I see my family later. Are you okay, Cora?”
Yes. The bus crash was scary and I am awake the whole time. We tumble down and roll over, then the earthquake stopped, and only the bus then stopping against the boulder. I think you are dead, Aida, and I am scared.”
Tom looked around. “Let me see if the police will let you go.” He returned moments later with a medical technician. “The police said you can leave if the emergency medical technician okays it. He wants to look you over.”
The medical technician listened to Aida’s heart, shined a light in her eyes, and asked her to follow his finger. He felt her ribs and looked her scratches over, dabbed on some ointment, and asked her questions intended to check for a concussion. He was satisfied and said she could go. He gave her instructions to cope with head and body aches and told her to drink lots of water. After leaving her name and address with the police, she and Cora collected what was left of their belongings and, together with Tom and Bernard and his kids, took seats on the bus, waiting for the drive to Balanga, where they would board a bus for Olongapo and return home.
That evening, Tom helped Aida clean up. She was stiff and sore from the accident, so Tom helped her out of her clothes. “Lie back, Aida, and I’ll pull your jeans off. Hold still. Aida, why are you laughing?”
“Because you tickling me, honey ko. Hahaha. Ohhh, stop, Tommy, stop. You tickling me. Hahaha” She giggled and tried to avoid his fingers as they ran along her legs pulling her jeans down.
“Oww. Ohh, it hurt when I laugh. Oh, stop it, stop it. Hahahaha! Tommy!”
“I love you.”
“Ohh, I know you do. I love you too, honey ko.”
“I’m sorry for what I did. I want you to know that. I love you so much, Aida. I always have, since I first saw you in Maricel’s last year. You were so beautiful in your green and white uniform, even though it looked like a tablecloth.”
“Oh, honey ko, that so mean to say. Haha, it did look like a tablecloth. I put it on for you if you like me to.”
“Maybe later. Come. I’ll help you in the shower.”
They looked up as another earthquake shook the room.
Tom took Aida’s hands and helped her up. “I wonder how long this will go on.”
“I don’t know, but I think Mount Pinatubo angry.”
“I hope nobody gets hurt when it erupts. Come, Aida.”
Neither could see the magma eruptions occurring on Pinatubo. No one in Olongapo could see through the jungle and across the mountains to the great volcano to the northeast. Pinatubo was biding her time. She grumbled now and then, sending earthquakes in every direction, seemingly warning Filipinos she was awake and ready to burst and they should flee to safety. Phreatic eruptions had begun as rising magma caused water to evaporate into steam, the resulting effect an explosion of steam, ash, rock, and volcanic bombs. Pinatubo inflated as magma rose toward the surface, building a dome within her crater. When she could wait no longer, when the bowels of Earth miles below her surface had fed all the magma her bloated belly could hold, Pinatubo would erupt in a tremendous fury of molten lava and a deadly wall of hot, suffocating gas and ash.
They showered together. Tom washed Aida’s bruised body, glad when her back was to him so she couldn’t see him weeping at her bruises and scratches. He regretted being the cause of so much pain, both mental and physical, and putting her through so much anguish. She chattered away like a little girl while he soaped and washed her. He washed her hair, careful of the bits of glass that she had not been able to brush out earlier. The water ran red with blood before finally clearing. Tom applied shampoo and worked it in with his fingers, careful not to hurt her.
“Tommy, you can wash harder. You won’t hurt me. I can barely feel your fingers.”
“Okay. I’m just being careful.”
“I know. I like you washing my hair. It feels like a massage to my head.” Aida closed her eyes and let her head fall forward, the hot water falling on her neck. “Ohhh, this feels so good, Tommy. I will sleep so good tonight.”
“I didn’t realize how much you meant to me until I lost you in the earthquake. And then, when I knew you were on the bus that crashed, I thought I would die if you weren’t okay. I thought about all the times I held you in my arms, and we made love, and you kissed me and told me you loved me, and I realized you do love me, not because I can take you to America, but because I am me, that you love me for who I am. I knew then that I didn’t care what anybody else thinks, that it only matters what I think and what you think, what we think about each other.”
“Tommy. I always wanting to go to America ever since I’m a little girl, but that’s not why I love you. I don’t care if I don’t go to America, only if you love me too and marry me. That’s all I want, Tommy. I only always want you ever since we meet in Maricel’s. Right when I see you the first time. You only matter to me for loving me, Tommy.”
“We only matter to each other, Aida, nobody else. I’m proud of you, proud of who you are. I care only for you, about you. If other people don’t like that we love each other, then that is a fault of theirs. I want to be with you forever, Aida. I want to hold you in my arms forever.”
“Ohh, honey ko. Forever is a long time. Will you love me that long?”
“I’ll love you as long as I live, Aida.”
The warm water and tight surroundings of the shower, their nakedness, and the beating together of two hearts indistinguishable one from the other as Aida and Tom embraced, might at any other time have seemed an unusually odd place for a proposal. But Aida didn’t care. Her heart fluttered, and joy spread like an orgasm inside her at Tommy’s breathlessly beautiful words, “I love you, Aida. Will you marry me?”