The tremulous voice of the old Filipino broke in upon Tom’s thoughts; he hadn’t slept much. The excitement of travel he had felt as a kid had never left him. He still found it impossible to sleep through the night before leaving on a journey. What a journey he was about to embark upon.
He looked out the window as the balut man passed by. A fine, thin film of white-grey ash, a remnant of Pinatubo’s great eruption, coated the window sill. A strong odor of sulphur drifted on the night air.
“Baluuut. Baluuut.” The old man shuffled along, his flip-flops slapping the street, his indifferent mule walking slowly beside him as they navigated debris from the eruption of the volcano.
Tom shook Aida’s shoulder.
“Aida. Sweetheart. It’s time to get up.”
She stirred, then threw off the bedsheet and sat up. She stretched and yawned, then swung her legs over the side of the bed.
“Oh, honey ko. You leaving today.” She leaned on Tom’s shoulder for a while, then helped him finish packing. After they showered and dressed, she packed the lunch she had made for him the night before – his favorite: sweet and sour fish with celery, carrot, red bell pepper, and snow peas, all in red sauce. And some rice too. He would warm it in the aircraft galley.
They walked to the base through a city turned white-gray with ash. Destruction lay everywhere, coated with a thick blanket of human misery. Ash fell for three days after the eruption, laying heavy after the rain Diding had dumped on the region. The muddy mixture collapsed roofs and clogged drains. Maricel’s survived with minor damage, but many of Olongapo’s businesses were ruined. All over the city, bulldozers coughed and sputtered as they began the clearing and razing that would take place over the next few months. Families despaired of making a living now that their bars and restaurants were destroyed, and barmaids returned home to their villages, wondering when they would work again. The question of whether the Navy base would close permanently as U.S. and Filipino officials negotiated a new lease only increased the despair that hung over the city like a shroud.
Tom and Aida navigated filthy, clogged Magsaysay Drive as they walked away from Maricel’s. They had stopped in to say goodbye. It had been an emotional few days and Tom was deeply affected. Affected by all that had happened over the past six months, especially over the last few days when he had found his father and mother and the people who could tell him about them. He marveled at the circumstances that had brought them all together; the lucky stroke, the fortunes of war, fate, chance, God. How five people he had never met turned up in the present and changed his life. Two of them were memories from the past, remembered by three who had loved them.
He thought of his relationship with Aida and the upheaval caused by his inability to understand the nature of a loving relationship. He had spent most of his time with her bouncing from bed to bed looking for love when all the time she waited patiently for him at home. It had taken an embarrassing confrontation in Thailand and Aida’s near-death for Tom to understand that Aida loved him the way he longed to be loved. He had come to realize he loved her the way he had always longed to love a woman. A love of the heart, and not of the head. His heart had nearly broken when he thought he had lost her; he had cried when he saw her broken body among the wreckage of the bus. His heart had leaped when he found her, and a joy he had never experienced rushed through every fiber in his body so that he had to concentrate on not shedding more tears, but being brave for her.
He saw a companion when he looked at Aida now, a best friend, the half of his heart that gave him life. He touched her often as though to make sure she was still there, make sure she was real, make sure she wouldn’t leave. A lump filled his throat. He didn’t want to leave her, not even for the short time before they met again in Hawaii.
Aida gripped his hand so hard he almost told her it hurt, but he held his tongue. Her tension was palpable. Not only that, she was uncharacteristically silent. He remained silent too, from fear of spoiling their last moments together by saying something forgettable. They would say goodbye at the hangar gate, the eight-foot tall chain-link fence the last thing to come between them. Where had six months gone? When they spoke, their conversation was mostly small talk.
“I’ll send for you, Aida, once I do the paperwork and get the approvals. I’ll fly you to Hawaii, and we’ll be married in the base chapel, okay?”
“Okay, Tommy. You will write to me, Tommy, won’t you? Please write to me. I am afraid that when you leave and go back to America you will forget about me. You won’t love me anymore. Please write to me, Tommy.”
Tom understood her fear. She wouldn’t be the first Filipina left waiting at the gate. The first woman jilted by another Sailor after months of hollow promises never meant to be kept. After months of words spoken by a man whose only real purpose for being with her was to have a warm body next to his every night. A warm body he didn’t have to shell out five or ten bucks for whenever he wanted female company.
“I will, Aida. I will. I’ll write every week until you leave PI. I’ll send you enough money to pay your rent and other bills. I’ll send you spending money too. Remember to send me your paperwork as soon as you can. I can’t send for you until I have all of your documents.”
“Okay. I will go to my parents and stay for a while. Cora will tell me when you send a letter for me. She will receive my mail when I am in my village.”
“You will see Frank and Marie often, won’t you, and Lucy too? I can’t wait to come back next year. We’ll have so much fun with them. I can hardly believe what has happened in the last week. I found my father and mother.”
He pulled Aida close. “Little Lucy nearly became my stepsister! I’m so happy we met all of them. Isn’t it strange, though, Aida, how everything worked out, how small the world is? To think that here, in the Philippines, nine thousand miles from home, I have found my parents. It’s amazing.”
“Oh, honey ko. I am so happy for you. I happiest, though, that you found me. I happiest that we are together, and happiest that soon we will be a husband and wife. You make me so happy, Tommy. I love you, honey ko.”
“I love you, Aida. I love you with all my heart. It won’t be easy while you are away from me. I’ll miss you so much. I’ll think of you all the time.”
They kissed. A long, tender kiss. The kind of kiss that pulses with the single heartbeat of two hearts pressed together. For a moment they stood alone. The world disappeared and left them to each other. They heard no one else; the sounds of aircraft and trucks, the insects buzzing in the jungle across the road, all fell silent.
For a moment, the world consisted solely of Tom and Aida. Tom’s arms wrapped around Aida with a tightness that let him feel her heartbeat. He pressed his hand against the back of her head and his lips against hers. Her black hair brushed his cheek and tickled his forehead. He ran his hands along her sides and over her hips. He opened his eyes and found her eyes on him. He laughed and said, “I wanted to be sure it was you.”
Aida laughed and said, “I wanted to look at you before I cannot.”
Cheek to cheek, they embraced, neither wanting to let go. But the time had come to say goodbye.
Steve Minnifield ran over from the aircraft to say goodbye to Aida.
“So long, Aida. I’ll see you next year. Say goodbye to Lucy for me, will you? Tell her I’ll write often. Tell her I can’t wait until next year. Bye, Aida. Come on, Tom. We have to go. Give me your bag.” Steve waved as he raced back to the aircraft carrying Tom’s bag and disappeared inside.”
“Goodbye, Aida. Take care of yourself. Let me know if you need anything. If you have any problems at all, go see Frank and Marie. They will help you.”
Aida was crying now. “I will, Tommy. I will.” Her lips trembled as Tom caressed her cheek.
“I love you, Aida. I love you, honey ko.”
As they parted, he found himself thinking of Lek and Amporn, and the other women he had known overseas. He remembered his Spanish girlfriend, the woman whose death had broken his heart just as he came to understand the love a woman can bring out of a man. He remembered the happy times with each of them, the lovemaking and the strolls, the laughs and the tears, the love. The passion for each had been real at the time and would remain a vivid memory for the rest of his life, a recollection of happy times that would move him when he let himself be sentimental. Someday, he would look back with fondness on those times and wish that he could relive them. Tom had made many happy memories in the Philippines and Thailand, Spain, and many other places, and he would find there was always room for regret among the many years of happiness he would find with Aida.
He paused at the top of the aircraft ladder to wave to Aida when an odd pressure seized his chest. His heart swelled with the realization that he and Aida would not see each other for several months. The thought threatened his composure. He searched over the heads of the crowd for Aida. When he found her, tucked among the many other women just like her, his smile spread wide as he read the words on her lips. ‘Honey ko, I love you. I love you, Tommy. Please write to me. Please write to me, honey ko.’
He called out to her. “I love you too, Aida. I will write. I will write to you, Aida.” He ducked his head as he entered the aircraft and settled into his ditching station. He waved to her through the window of the overwing escape hatch, savoring one last look.
He searched for Aida as the aircraft rolled down the runway and then lifted into the sky, but it was too late; the crowd had shrunk into a tiny mass of humanity, most holding onto the desperate hope that they too would soon soar into the sky toward the fulfillment of a dream.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
When the aircraft had leveled off, Tom retrieved his backpack from the pile of luggage strapped into the cargo area. He sat at the galley table and removed a worn, crinkled envelope from the pocket of his backpack. He carefully lifted the flap and pinched several sheets of old yellowing writing paper between his fingertips and slid them out. He unfolded the pages on the table and smoothed the creases with his finger and began reading:
Susanna’s love caressed me with the softness of a mother’s lips. Passion gripped me for this beautiful Spanish woman whose green eyes pierced and tugged at my soul with the gravity of a thousand suns. My heart wrenched when we parted and exploded when we came together.
My mind emptied when her arms enfolded me. Enveloped by her breath, her fragrance, her warmth, my face pressed hard to the translucent white of her neck as I pushed and clutched and struggled to become her. Her searing flame boiled my blood and swelled my desire as we thrust together into regions of unexplored emotion. Peak upon peak we ascended ‘til at last we reached the climax of energy, breath catching in our throats, lips pressed together in a passionate release of giving each to the other.
Together we sought to live and smile and laugh and love for the few short months ahead, for I would leave Spain soon and a year would pass before our lips could touch again. The thought saddened us and we pushed it away, yet it lingered, a dark foreboding on the horizon, an unwelcome intruder bringing an edge of sadness to our joy.
Summer passed and with it warm days spent walking on Mediterranean beaches and nights cooled by breezes from the sea as we explored the narrow cobblestoned streets of Barcelona. We danced in discotheques and sipped sangria in bodegas; we shared cones of fried rice and shrimp bought from street vendors; we sat in chapels and listened to the chanting of monks for we both loved beautiful music. My hand always pressed to the small of Susanna’s back; a mere wisp of a woman, I feared she would fly away on the tail of a wind. Our hands rarely unclasped and her head rested in my shoulder always. I had never known such joy.
Autumn arrived and cooler nights. Childbirth brought a danger I had not known existed. Oh, how I miss you, Susanna.
I stood over the coffin and gazed at my lifeless love. A body unable to cope had given way to release from pain-wracked life. Her white skin whiter, parchment-like, black hair a starless, moonless night. Her green eyes held shut by death’s tight grip, I could only hold them in my memory. Her tiny body lay in the small coffin, her long thin fingers interlaced across her breast. The lips so warm and soft and passionate in life pressed thin and cold and tight in death. I touched her cheeks. I kissed her forehead. I begged her to wake.
Tom sat back, his eyes red and his throat tight. He clutched the pages in his hand. The hum and vibration of the aircraft, and the familiar comfort of the cabin combined to lull him into a thoughtful, drowsy reverie. He reflected on his parents’ relationship, their fairy tale romance, the deep love between them that touched others with such impact on their own lives. He thought of his relationship with Aida, and his relationships with the other women in his life. He understood that he had not known what love was and therefore had no foundation upon which to build a deep and meaningful relationship with a woman. Love had been a selfish pursuit of sexual gratification mistaken for love rather than a selfless pursuit of intimacy, sharing, and companionship. It was a futile pursuit with no end, a striving for fulfillment that brought only emptiness. Tom at last understood that love is the gift of giving one’s self unreservedly to another, that the giving of love is also the receiving of love, and that the spiritual renewal from the physical act is possible only after the giving up of self to one another.
Tom replaced the letter in the envelope and placed both into the pocket of his backpack. He settled into his seat and closed his eyes. Aida’s last words echoed in his thoughts as he drifted into sleep:
Honey ko, I love you. I love you, Tommy. Please write to me. Please write to me, honey ko. Honey ko.
“Why do you love me, Samuel?”
“Because you’re beautiful, Susanna.”
“Is that the only reason?”
“Because you’re a perfect fit in my arms.”
“Because I can carry you when I run.”
“You weigh less than a feather, Susanna.”
“Because you’re a wonderful cook.”
“Because you gave yourself to me completely.
“Because you put me first in all things.
“Because you know what my favorite things are.
“Because you love the Beatles too.
“Because you bring me iced tea when I mow the yard.
“Because you give me only one gift at Christmas.
“Because you kiss me every morning.
“Because you make my lunch every day.
“Because you’re in my thoughts during meetings.
“Because you meet me at the door when I come home from work.
“Because you sing when you cook.
“Because you sing when you shower.”
“So do you.”
“Shhh. This is about you.”
“Because you make my heart sing.
“Because my heart aches when you leave the room.
“Because your touch is warm on my skin.
“Because I can’t go to sleep until I know you’re beside me.
“Because I miss your voice while you sleep.
“Because I feel you even when I can’t see you.
“Because you know what I need before I know.
“Because you know me better than I know myself.
“Because you took my heart when we met.
“Because you make me whole.
“Because you are my soul.
“Because I never knew love until I knew you.
“Because you give me confidence.
“Because you make me feel like a man.
“Because you’re beautiful.”
“You said that already.”
“Well, saying it twice means it’s doubly true.”
“Can a person be doubly beautiful, Samuel?”
“Only you, Susanna.”
“Can a truth be doubly true, Samuel?”
“Only true love, Susanna.”
“Two people must be truly in love.”
“How do they know they are truly in love?”
“Because they have given themselves completely to one another.”
“How do they do that, Samuel?”
“Because they were in love with one another from the day they were born, Susanna.”
“How is that possible?”
“Because they understand that love is the gift of giving one’s self unreservedly to another; that the giving of love is also the receiving of love, and that the spiritual renewal from the physical act is possible only after the giving up of self to one another.”
“I love you, Samuel.”
“I love you, Susanna.”