. Olongapo, Philippines
Aida, sweet and lovely like the opera, a pretty and petite Filipina in the full bloom of her twenty-one years, searched bare-footed for treasure among debris washed ashore by the late storm. She collected her treasure, a bright and colorful smörgåsbord of seashells, pebbles, smooth-worn glass, and curious shapes of driftwood, in a net bag that let sand fall away rather than follow her home and make a mess of the wood floors in her tidy apartment. The driftwood she would place in the courtyard to dry for later use in her art. She would boil the seashells to remove any creatures that might remain inside before placing the shells in jars on the sill of the kitchen window over the sink. The mix of colors, shapes, and textures would look pretty in the bright sunlight that filled the window in the late afternoon. Holding the bag in both hands behind her back she crept along, carefully scanning the beach for those simple little touches that bring the outdoors indoors and render an apartment a warm and cozy home.
A reflection in the sand drew her attention as she stepped across a rivulet running across the beach from the jungle to the sea. She stooped to turn over a fist-sized rock and screamed when a fiddler crab darted from beneath and sidled away holding its huge pincer claw high in a menacing gesture of fearlessness. She laughed and the wind blew away Aida’s tinkling laughter as she fell back onto her bottom. Tom Nelson, three-years older than Aida, bare-chested and wading in the surf a few yards away, stifled his own laugh as Aida brushed away the sand clinging to her bathing suit.
“Are you okay, Aida?”
“Oh, yes, Tommy. A crab surprise me when I turn over a rock. He looks so funny snapping his claw at me. Maybe he thinks I’m going to eat him.”
“It would take a bucketful of those little guys to make a meal. Maybe we should buy some big crabs on the way home. I love your crab soup.”
“If you like, I will make it tomorrow for your supper, honey ko.”
“Okay. We’ll buy crackers too; you can’t have crab soup without crackers.”
The storm had washed away the brown haze of smog and the ennui of stifling heat and humidity that normally hung over the bay. Left in its wake was a brilliant, deep blue sky that flooded the young lovers hearts with indescribable joy and a mirth that bubbled over with the slightest provocation. Tom put on his shirt and they continued their treasure hunt under the hot sun, stooping now and then to examine a shell or some other potential decorative piece, occasionally keeping one while tossing another. A gust of wind peppered Tom’s cheek with sand and sea spray and he turned his face away just in time to see the wind billow Aida’s loose, black wrap behind her and fold back the brim of her hat. She laughed as she held the hat to keep it from flying away and the graceful curve of her arm and the outline of her happy face reminded Tom of Susanna. Aida’s brown eyes crinkled when she laughed and pierced Tom’s heart the same way Susanna’s green eyes had done. A lump filled his throat and he looked away.
As so often happened when Susanna intruded on his happiness with Aida, his father’s words rang in Tom’s ears. “Never find yourself having to choose between two women, Tom. You’ll hurt one of them, and hurting a woman lowers a man.” But Tom loved Aida. He had loved Susanna, too, but Susanna had died. “What reason do I have to choose?”
Grief, never far away in the short span of time since Susanna’s death, bared Tom’s heart. His eyes welled at the thought of his lost love, his first true love and the love that still gripped him with the pull of ten-thousand plans for the future with a woman whose sudden death had broken his heart and left him dispirited, a hollow shell of a man who, for a while, lost even the will to live. He sniffed and wiped his eyes with a knuckle. Aida looked at him and he pretended not to notice but kicked at a clump of sand and seaweed. The odor of the rotting vegetation mingled with that of sea air and the fragrance of tropical flowers that grew in the sunlight along the fringe of the jungle. He leaned over to examine a seashell knocked loose from the clump and the medallion swung against his chin. Two flaws in the ruby set in the medallion blinked like red eyes in the sunlight. He placed the medallion inside his shirt and picked up the shell and placed it with others in a red plastic cup that still smelled of San Miguel. He nearly stepped on a sand dollar–its edges still in perfect shape–and picked it up.
“Look what I found, Aida.”
“Ooh, that’s a big one, honey ko. Don’t break the edge.” She squatted on her heels, turning the wet sand with her fingers and picking out several tiny shells the size of a thumbnail. “Honey ko, if we find enough of these little shells, I will make a soup for you.”
“How many does it take, Aida?”
“Two cups, Tommy. I told you last time we came here. You are so forgetful.”
He grinned and placed the sand dollar in the cup. He was indeed forgetful, but Aida’s steel-clad memory could recall what he had had for dinner any night of the week months ago while he could barely remember what he had eaten for lunch the previous day. He moved along the shoreline, turning away from breaking waves and sifting the sand with his feet. As the sea receded, he peered into the mix of sand, pebbles, and shells, occasionally adding more shells to the cup.
They had spent the weekend on Grande Island, a comfortable retreat in the middle of Subic Bay. They had weathered the storm on Saturday from the safety of the beach house where they played pool, ate grilled cheese sandwiches and french fries covered in banana ketchup, and watched bad kung fu movies in the theater. On Sunday, after the weather cleared, they explored the jungle and then the shoreline where they threw rocks at palm trees to dislodge coconuts. When that failed, Aida encouraged Tom to climb the tall, slender trees and cut the coconuts loose with a pocketknife.
“Climb the trunk, Tommy. That’s what my brothers do.”
“No way, Aida; I’m not your brothers. If you want a coconut that bad we’ll stop by the commissary and buy some on the way home.”
Tom didn’t like heights nor did he like coconuts enough to risk his life clinging to a swaying tree. Instead, they clambered around the watchtowers and rusting artillery guns that had guarded the entrance to Subic Bay in World War II. When they’d had enough of that they began collecting seashells. On the beach, Aida called out in excitement when she spotted several blue-green glass balls that had broken loose from fishing nets and drifted ashore. She picked her way among the slippery, seaweed covered rocks, careful to avoid sea urchins, and placed the baseball-sized floats in a small bag as she found them.
“Honey ko, I will hang them from the ceiling in a net. They will look so nice reflecting sunlight in the window.”
“Here, Aida. I have another one for you. The net is still wrapped around it.”
“Ohhh, it looks like a football. You carry it, Tommy. It’s too big for the bag; I don’t want to break it.”
For lunch, they picnicked on hot dogs and hamburgers and fried lumpia Aida had made at home using a recipe handed down by generations of Pinoy women. Near dusk, they showered at the beach pavilion and changed into street clothes. Aida shook the sand out of the backpacks and blankets. The shells and sand dollars she wrapped in tissue and placed with care in a plastic bag, then helped Tom pack the remains of the picnic. They left their bags on the ferry pier and strolled together along the beach to the seawall overlooking the dark-blue water of the bay. A warm, salt-laden breeze rustled through palm trees above the high-tide mark. Tom helped Aida onto the seawall where they sat to await the ferry that would carry them to Fleet Landing.
They kicked off their flip-flops and dangled their legs above the lapping waves below them. The golden rays of the setting sun changed from orange to purple to red through the filter of ash drifting from another eruption of Mount Pinatubo. For miles around the bay, strings of colored lights winked on at clubs and resorts dotting the shoreline. Aircraft from the USS Midway roared overhead, the orange-blue flame of their afterburners splitting the twilit sky. The warm night air wrapped around them like a soft, cozy blanket, and the tranquility of the evening pushed the noise of the aircraft into the background. Tom slipped his arm around Aida’s slender waist. She leaned her head against his shoulder and tickled him.
His leg jumped. “Ow! Aida, stop. It tickles. No, no. Stop! Stop Aida.” He laughed the staccato laugh inherited from his father and moved out of Aida’s reach.
She screeched and laughed. “Oh, Tommy, you are so ticklish.” She moved closer. “I’m going to tickle you again, honey ko.” She reached for him but stopped and laugh until tears rolled from her eyes.
Tom leaned over and kissed her in mid-laugh, his lips rubbing against her teeth. She snuggled closer, her honey-brown skin warm against his. Aida, sweet and lovely like the opera, his favorite, breathed softly against his cheek.
“Oh, Tommy. You make me so happy. I’m glad you bring me here. This is where you say you love me for true the first time, remember?”
“I could never forget that, honey.”
“I like when you call me honey, honey ko.”
“I like when you call me honey ko, honey.”
“Stop it, Tommy. You are so funny.”
“Oh, Aida, we’re both funny, aren’t we?”
“Oh, you.” She rubbed her cheek against the stubble of his five o’clock shadow. “I love the scratch of your beard, and the sound it makes against my cheek.”
“I remember one night, Aida, after we made love and you lay with your head on my chest. You said you loved the sound of me made intimate by my closeness and the warmth of my body.”
“I remember that, too.” She pressed her nose to the hollow behind his earlobe. “I love also the smell of you. It is masculine and gentle. I like to breathe in your scent. When it fills my lungs, it’s like you are filling me from inside.” She moved against him. “Hug me, Tommy, so I feel you.”
She kissed his neck and he put his arms around her because she wanted to feel the muscles of his body. They sat close, so close that their hearts beat as one, and after a while, her body ceased to be separate from his and he moved away and back again so he could feel her, so she wasn’t only with him, but touching him, so she was more than a memory, not a lover he saw only through closed eyes. Soon, Aida’s body seemed to vibrate, or maybe it was he who began to vibrate, and he grew warm and nuzzled her neck, and then he needed to touch her bare skin and he slipped his hands under her shirt and held her as the hairs on the back of his neck rose and he shuddered, not a shudder of cold or fear, but of love and despair.
It was she who vibrated and he who responded. Aida’s sexual magnetism tugged at him. She wasn’t voluptuous but possessed a perfect figure. She wasn’t a striking beauty but was beautiful. Her voice wasn’t high-pitched or low-pitched, but husky, or smoky, inviting. Her accent wasn’t heavy, but endearing. She was a natural beauty. Some women made themselves alluring or attractive. They puffed up their breasts, preened their feathers, and strutted their stuff. Not Aida. She had no need to present herself. She attracted men naturally like hummingbirds to nectar. Men hovered about, hoping for a lick of Aida.
The flicker of lights along the shoreline snapped Tom’s reverie. The rising moon with the mountains in silhouette and the soft lapping of the waves made him drowsy. He rubbed his heavy eyes and yawned.
She touched his cheek. “Are you sleepy, honey ko? The ferry will be here soon. You can sleep on the ride back.”
“Umhmm. I love to sleep on the boat, but I’m not sleepy, just relaxed. It’s been a wonderful weekend; I wish it didn’t have to end.”
“We should come here more often.”
“You always want to visit Manila. I like Manila too, but we run around taking so many photos we don’t have a chance to relax. Someday, we will see if you enjoy Manila without a viewfinder as your guide.” She smiled and hugged his arm. “I will be your guide, honey ko.”
Tom leaned his head against hers and fingered the medallion through his shirt the way some people drum their fingertips together or sit with their hands behind their head. The sounds of the evening faded away and his breathing grew soft as he reflected on their relationship and the false starts and near-proposals. Something always held him back. His heart said one thing, his head another. He wanted to commit, wanted to marry Aida, but feared another loss. He feared betrayal too. He loved her. He knew he did. He felt it as he had with Susanna, but what would Susanna think? How could he betray Susanna’s memory by marrying another, even a woman he loved as much as he loved Aida? He had not had the chance to marry Susanna, so how could he marry another as if she were a stand-in for the woman he had loved at first sight?
His birth parents, Sam and Susanna McBride, had fallen in love at first sight. The intimate connection they made at their first, brief encounter—over an apple, of all things—blossomed into love during their second encounter the following day. Sam proposed to Susanna on the third day of their acquaintance and they married two months later. They remained inseparable until Susanna died giving birth to Tom in the third year of their short life together.
By coincidence, or fate, Tom had loved his own Susanna while stationed with the Navy in Spain, just as Sam had. Tom’s Susanna was also a bartender. They too, fell in love after a brief romance, but Tom’s Susanna died before they could marry. He had had to cancel their wedding; the chapel, the priest, the flowers, the dinner with friends and her family, the honeymoon in Barcelona. Their future. Except the ring. The wedding ring that had not touched her finger.
He had walked beside her casket from the chapel to the cemetery under a clear, bright, blue sky, then helped lift her into the vault, three rows up and two rows from the end. They hadn’t wanted him to help, but he wouldn’t be moved. Birds chirping in the landscaped shrubs taunted him with their joyful songs as he stared misty-eyed under a heavy brow as the mason cemented each brick into place to close the opening. Tom had closed his eyes and whispered a prayer as the mason sealed the vault, the tap-tap-tap of the hammer forever echoing in his head as it set the final brick. After the mourners left, after the mason packed up his tools and left, Tom opened his fist and placed Susanna’s wedding ring on the necklace. Next to his mother’s medallion. It had felt right.
He knew his birth parents only through what his adoptive parents told him, and through letters between Sam and Susanna, and essays Sam had written after Susanna’s death. The letters and essays told him that theirs was a fairy tale romance, the kind of romance others only dreamed of experiencing, of which writers wrote books, young girls sighed for, and parents hoped for their children. The kind of romance that came once in a thousand years.
Twice in two decades. He and his Susanna had had that kind of love. Did it run in the family? Would his son find that kind of love? No; that kind of magic was rare if it existed at all. Besides, lightning didn’t strike twice in one place. But lightning wasn’t magic, and lightning had struck twice in the same place for his father and him.
He swung his leg up to straddle the seawall and faced Aida. “Magic didn’t strike a second time for me though.” He pressed his lips to her hands. “It wasn’t love at first sight with Aida. Our love took time to develop.” Aida smiled the way she did when he became passionate. “Two years have passed since we met, and we spent one of those years apart.” Her lips parted, and she tilted her head. “We carried on our relationship through phone calls and letters without committing to one another.” Her eyes grew wide and fixed on his as if anticipating him. “My return to the Philippines has seen our passion grow. I haven’t gotten over Susanna—I never will—but I no longer mourn for her. Or do I?” He held Aida’s hands in front of his lips. “Susanna will always be a part of me, and I will always wear her ring next to my mother’s medallion. It feels right.” In a burst of emotion, he whispered, “I love you, Aida. Will you marry me?”
Sometimes, though, the weight of two Susanna’s was too much.