(. Re-written in First Person Past POV.)
I lived while I knew Susanna and I died when her soul withdrew with a sigh. She brought meaning to my life, meaning and purpose. And having brought meaning and purpose to my life, she took them with her when she died. They were the only things she ever took from me for I gave her all I had. Had she known what death would take, I think she would have fought against death until death relented and took only her. Susanna was feisty and strong and death would have stood not a chance in the face of Susanna’s determination.
Susanna had also given me the gift of someone to love and I loved her the way a woman yearns to be loved by a man. I loved her deeply, completely, selflessly. I loved her more than I wanted her love in return. I loved her because she gave herself to be loved by me. I loved her for that giving, and I loved her for the gift that was my love to give to her. I loved Susanna because my love was drawn to her by the same force that created the love that binds a man and woman. I loved Susanna with the love that lets one die for another. Only, I didn’t know Susanna would be the one to die.
Three years after the day we met and fell in love, I was alone again. Three years more have passed and I am no longer alone. Returning to life was painful. Returning to life required forgetting but keeping memories alive. Returning to life required compartmentalizing the pain, rationalizing the guilt I carried for causing Susanna’s death, and finding meaning and purpose again. Finding meaning and purpose again required finding Aida.
Aida, sweet and lovely like the opera, was the child watching the unfolding of the petals of a flower. Aida was the innocence of a cool and sunny autumn morning without knowledge of the coming storms of winter. Aida was the soul that gave me the gift of her love. Aida was the woman who yearned for my love without expectation of anything in return. Well, there was one thing Aida wanted in return.
These were my thoughts as I contemplated Aida as she searched for treasure among the debris washed ashore by the latest storm of the monsoon. Her breasts filled her top as she leaned down to examine a bright and colorful smorgasbord of seashells, pebbles, smooth-worn glass, and curious shapes of driftwood. Breath caught in my throat as she turned and I followed the long slender line of her legs as they curved with the round of her bottom and blended into the straight line of her back and under the hair that fell below her shoulders. This beautiful Filipina of twenty-one made her every move a display of feminine eroticism and she was entirely unconscious of the fact. When I told her how beautiful she was and how she attracted me she blushed and said “thank you, honey ko.”
Aida collected her treasure in a net bag that let sand fall away rather than follow her home and make a mess of the wood floors of her neat, tidy apartment in Olongapo, Philippines. She’d add the shells to jars lining the shelf of the window over the kitchen sink. The mix of colors, shapes, and textures would look pretty in the bright afternoon sunlight filling the window of the tiny kitchen. I thought of a similar kitchen I had known several years before and how Susanna had arranged seashells on the shelf of the window overlooking the Gulf of Cadiz. I used to bring Susanna shells from my trips around the Mediterranean when I was stationed with the Navy in Rota, Spain, the small town where we met. She would have loved Aida.
Susanna was as real to me as though she had not been dead for three long years. She often returned to my thoughts when I questioned whether I could love Aida with only half of my heart, for Susanna still held the other. Aida knew of Susanna; I had spoken of her so Aida would not have to ask questions later. I believed she thought I was carrying grief too long and too far. I sometimes found myself speaking aloud to Susanna as though she were with me in person. Susanna was not just an image brought about by a misfiring synapse in my brain. The love between Susanna and me predated all other human love and was always meant to be; we were destined to meet someday and fall in love. Our lives before finding each other were years spent waiting to find each other. We both knew it. When God created love, he created it from an idea, a form; the love between Susanna and me was that form. All other love that ever came to be was a copy of the love we shared. When Susanna died, our love remained, for you can’t kill love; its form is eternal.
Holding the bag in both hands behind her back as she crept along, Aida scanned the beach for those simple little touches that bring the outdoors indoors and render an apartment a warm, cozy, and welcoming home. A glint of reflected sunlight 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, then laughed, and the wind blew away her tinkling laughter as she fell onto her bottom.
“Are you okay, Aida?”
“Yes, Tommy. I’m okay. A crab surprise me when I am turning over a rock. He looks so funny snapping his claw at me. Maybe he thinks I’m going to eat him.”
I stifled a laugh as she stood and brushed away the sand clinging to her bathing suit. The gesture aroused me and I pressed my hand to her bottom and spoke close to her ear. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Oh, Tommy. Not now, honey ko. So many people might see us.” She kissed my cheek and we moved together along the beach.
“It would take a bucketful of those little guys to make a meal. Why don’t we buy big crabs at the market on the way home?”
“If you like, I will buy the crabs tomorrow and make the soup for dinner, honey ko.”
“Okay. Buy crackers too—oyster crackers; you can’t have crab soup without oyster crackers.”
“Oh, they don’t sell those at the market.”
“I’ll stop at the commissary after work and buy them. Do you need me to pick up anything else?”
“There’s a whole case of napkins and paper towels in the hall closet, Aida.”
“Not that kind of napkin, Tommy.”
“Ohhh. Okay. Too bad you can’t come with me; I feel odd buying those things.”
“You’re so shy, Tommy. Nobody noticing when men buying napkins for their wives. If they do, they thinking like the man is helping his wife and how sweet of him. But it’s okay; I can buy them at the market. But they are more expensive and not good like on the base.”
“No, no. I’ll get them for you, Aida. I’m only kidding. I’ll just pile a bunch of other stuff around them so none of my buddies sees them.”
“You’re too funny, Tommy.”
The storm had washed away the brown haze of smog and the ennui of stifling heat and humidity that made Subic Bay almost unbearable and left behind a brilliant, deep blue sky. The sun was past high noon so I put my shirt on against its increasing intensity and we continued our treasure hunt. A gust of wind peppered my cheek with sand and sea spray and I turned away as the wind folded back the brim of Aida’s 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 me of Susanna. Aida’s brown eyes crinkled when she laughed and pierced my heart the same way Susanna’s green eyes had done. My throat tightened and I looked away.
As so often occurred when Susanna appeared, my father’s words rang in my 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 I loved Aida. I loved Susanna, too, but Susanna died. What reason had I to choose? I wanted to let go of Susanna. I wanted to love Aida with a clear conscience, one free of ties to another woman. But I couldn’t forget that Susanna died alone, without me by her side. I couldn’t forget I had caused her death. Grief, never far away, squeezed my heart. My eyes filled with tears at the thought of the love that still gripped me with the memory of the future I had planned with a woman whose sudden death had broken my heart.
I pushed away the pain and wiped my eyes with a knuckle. I took a deep breath. Aida looked at me but I pretended not to notice and kicked at a clump of seaweed. The kick loosened an odor that mingled with the fragrance of tropical flowers growing in the sunlight along the fringe of the jungle. As I leaned over to examine a seashell knocked loose from the clump, the medallion swung against my chin. Two flaws in the ruby set in the medallion blinked like red eyes in the sunlight. I replaced it inside my shirt and picked up the shell and dropped it in the red plastic cup that smelled of San Miguel. Moving along the beach I nearly stepped on a sand dollar—its edges unbroken—and picked it up.
“Here you go, Aida; look what I found.”
“Ooh, that’s a big one, honey ko. Don’t break the edge.” She squatted on her heels and leaned over her knees, 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 instead of crab soup.”
“How many does it take, Aida?”
“Two cups, Tommy. I tell you last time we come here. You are so forgetful.”
I grinned and placed the sand dollar in the cup. I was forgetful, but Aida’s iron-clad memory could recall what I had had for dinner any night of the week months ago. I moved along the shoreline, turning away from breaking waves and sifting the sand with my toes.
Near the narrow causeway to Banana Island, accessible at low tide, several palm trees heavy with coconuts leaned over the water. I tried to dislodge the coconuts by throwing rocks at them.
“Climb up the trunk, Tommy. That’s what my brothers do. Walk up the tree bent over like you are going to touch your toes. See? Watch me.”
Aida bent over and stretched her arms toward her toes and took a few awkward steps.
“See? It’s easy. Go ahead, Tommy. I catch you if you fall.”
She looked like a monkey walking on all fours and I had to try hard not to smack her butt.
“If it’s so easy, you climb up and I’ll catch you if you fall.”
“Oh, Tommy. You can do it.”
“No way, Aida; I’m not your brothers. If you want a coconut that bad, sweetheart, we’ll stop by the commissary and buy some on the way home.”
Leaving the coconuts free to taunt others, we returned to the hunt. Aida called out in excitement when she spotted rare, blue-green glass balls that had broken away from fishing nets and drifted ashore. She picked her way among the seaweed covered rocks, carefully avoiding sea urchins, and placed the baseball-sized floats in a small bag.
“Aida. My hands are full. Let’s go back to the cottage. It’s past lunchtime and I’m starving.”
“You always starving, honey ko. Why you aren’t fat?”
“It must be all the sex you force on me. It’s great exercise.” I winked and gave her a lecherous grin. “We could eat in the room, you know. What do you think? Hmmm?”
“Okay, Tommy. We’ll go back now.”
Aida put her arm through mine and pulled me along the trail. We left the bags of treasure at the cottage and carried lunch to the pavilion. I poured lighter fluid on the charcoal and lit it. When a fine layer of ash developed I grilled hot dogs and hamburgers and reheated the fried lumpia Aida had prepared at home. We sat close together and made small talk. Sometimes we didn’t talk at all. We were closest in the quiet moments and could almost read each other’s thoughts. Often, I would find her hand clasped in mine and not remember reaching for her.
The breeze was cooler under the pavilion and Aida rested her head on my shoulder as we gazed across the water at the warships and freighters sailing past. She stirred and yawned, then hugged her knees while her gaze carried her the thirty miles to Lamao in Bataan Province and to her home on the shores of Manila Bay where her father and brothers fished for the family’s livelihood. Her wistful voice carried a yearning that differed from the other yearning, the one that filled her heart with both hope and trepidation for marriage. I know she worried I would never propose; I wondered when I would.
“I miss my family, Tommy.”
“I know, sweetheart; I miss mine too. Why don’t you go home this week?”
“Maybe. I thinking tomorrow I will ask Cora to go home with me. She’s not visiting her family there for longer time than me. I know she miss her family too.”
Near dusk, we packed the remains of the picnic, showered at the beach house, and changed into street clothes. We left our bags on the ferry pier and strolled along the trail to the seawall overlooking the dark-blue water of the bay. A warm, salt-laden breeze carrying the scent of seaweed rustled through palm trees above the high-tide mark. I helped Aida onto the seawall and sat next to her to await the ferry to Fleet Landing.
We kicked off our flip-flops and dangled our legs above the waves lapping below. The setting sun’s golden rays changed from orange to purple to red through the filter of ash drifting from Mount Pinatubo. For miles around the bay, strings of colored lights winked on at the clubs and resorts dotting the shoreline. F-14 Tomcats from the USS Midway roared overhead, the orange-blue flame of their afterburners splitting the twilit sky. The warm night air wrapped around us like a soft, cozy blanket, and the tranquility of the evening pushed the noise of the aircraft into the background. I slipped my arm around Aida’s slender waist and she leaned her head against my shoulder.
“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 so funny, aren’t we?”
“Oh, you,” she said with feigned exasperation.
She rubbed her cheek against the stubble of my 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.”
She pressed her nose to the hollow behind my earlobe. “I love also the smell of you, masculine and gentle. I like to breathe in your scent. When it fills my lungs, it’s like you are filling me inside.” She moved against me. “Hug me, Tommy, so I feel you.”
I put my arms around her because she wanted to feel the muscles of my body, and we sat close, so close that our hearts beat as one. After a while, her body ceased to be separate from mine and I moved away and back so I could feel her again. Her sexual magnetism tugged at me and I let my hand rest against her breast.
Aida 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 inviting. Her accent wasn’t awkward but endearing. 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 to Subic City snapped me from my reverie. The rising moon with the mountains in silhouette, the soft lapping of the waves, the warm night, all induced a languidness I didn’t want to disturb. Satisfaction with the moment, the weekend, the treasure hunt with Aida all combined to lift my spirit and for a moment my constant companion, the pain of loss that never left my side for long, fell away.
Aida caressed my cheek. “Are you sleepy, honey ko? The ferry will be here soon. You can sleep on the ride back.”
“Um hmm. I love to sleep on the boat, but I’m not sleepy, just relaxed. It’s been a wonderful day; I wish it didn’t have to end.”
“We should come here more often.”
“Yes, we should, but 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’ll see if you enjoy Manila without a viewfinder as your guide. I will be your guide, honey ko.”
“There’s so much to see in Manila, though, especially Rizal Park and the zoo, and the national palace. And my favorite place in the whole world to watch the sunset is from the seawall along Manila Bay. The colors are so vivid and run through almost the whole rainbow of colors.”
“That’s because the air is dirty with smog.”
“Aida. Where’s your sense of the romantic?”
“There’s nothing romantic about inhaling Manila air. All that smog makes it hard to breathe and I cough too much.”
“Well, maybe I’ll bring you a gas mask from the base.”
“Honey ko. I gonna tickle you if you keep joking to me.”
“All right. I’ll be a good boy.”
“I don’t believe you.”
I laughed. “Okay, Aida. I promise.”
As I leaned my head against hers, I found myself fingering the medallion through my shirt the way people drum their fingertips together or sit with their hands behind their head. I’d heard the medallion held a curse but never paid it much attention. Family stories were full of oral history much of which may have held a kernel of truth. My thoughts turned to Aida and my breathing softened as the sounds of the evening faded. I reflected on our relationship and the false starts and near-proposals. Something always held me back from voicing the words Aida wanted to hear—I could see it in her eyes when the air grew heavy with silence and our hearts beat fast with anticipation. My heart said one thing, my head another. I wanted to commit, wanted to marry her, but feared another loss, and betrayal too. I loved Aida, but what would Susanna think? How could I betray Susanna’s memory by marrying another as if she were a stand-in, a substitute for the woman I had loved at first sight?
Sam and Susanna McBride, my birth parents, 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 later that day. Sam proposed to Susanna on the third day of their acquaintance and they married three months later. They remained inseparable until Susanna died giving birth to me in the third year of their short life together.
By coincidence, or fate, I had loved my own Susanna while stationed with the Navy in Spain, just as Sam had. My Susanna was also a bartender and we too, fell in love after a brief romance, but my Susanna died before we could marry. I’d had to cancel our wedding; the chapel, the priest, the flowers, the dinner with friends and her family, the honeymoon in Barcelona. Our future. Except the ring. The wedding ring that had not touched her finger.
I 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 me to help, but I wouldn’t be denied. Birds chirped in the landscaped shrubs, taunting me with their joyful songs as I stared misty-eyed under a heavy brow as the mason cemented each brick into place to close the opening. I closed my eyes and whispered a prayer as the mason sealed the vault, the tap-tap-tap of his hammer forever echoing in my mind as he set the final brick. After the mourners left, after the mason packed up his tools and left, I opened my fist and placed Susanna’s wedding ring on the necklace. Next to my mother’s medallion. It had felt right.
It had felt right, but it was so wrong, and seemed so unfair. Maybe it had to be though, since not only had magic struck twice in bringing both Susannas to us, but it also struck them down too soon, too young, too unfairly. Why did God choose Sam and Susanna, and Susanna and me to suffer his whims? I never had the chance to know my parents, and I never had the chance to know—to grow—with my Susanna. I don’t hate God, I just don’t understand Him.
I knew my birth parents only through what my adoptive parents told me, and through letters between Sam and Susanna, and essays Sam had written after Susanna’s death. The letters and essays told me theirs was a fairy tale romance, the kind of romance others only dream of, of which writers write books, young girls sigh over, and parents hope for their children. The kind that comes once in a thousand years.
Twice in three decades. Susanna and I had had that kind of love. Did it run in the family? Would my son find that kind of love? No; that kind of magic was rare if it existed at all. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in one place, does it? But magic wasn’t lightning, and magic had struck twice in the same place for my father and me. I thought that if I ever found Sam, if I ever found my father, I would ask him if he believed in magic and if he believed in God.
I swung my leg over the seawall and faced Aida. The moon shone bright over her shoulder and I wondered if she could see it reflected in my eyes. Magic didn’t strike a second time for me though. I pressed my lips to her hands. It wasn’t love at first sight with Aida. Our love took time to develop. Two years had passed since we met, and we spent one of those years apart carrying on our relationship through phone calls and letters without committing to one another. My return to the Philippines saw our passion grow. I haven’t gotten over Susanna—I never will—but I no longer mourn for her. Or do I? I held Aida’s hands in front of my lips. Her eyes widened in expectation of more than finger kisses. 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, I whispered, “I love you, Aida. Will you marry me?”
Sometimes though, the weight of two Susannas was too much.
Image froom Google Images: On Grief | A Cup of Jo