Whatever thoughts lay hidden behind Aida’s wide, brown eyes, my words pushed them away. The long hoped-for proposal had barely left my lips before Aida’s face broke into a smile so bright the moon might have blushed with shame. When she could no longer contain her emotions, when the smile alone could no longer express the rapturous joy overflowing her tender heart, Aida’s eyes filled with tears, reflecting a relief so deep she cried. Choking off the sob rising in her chest, Aida reached for me and wrapped her arms around my shoulders. I pressed her head against my neck as her tears fell warm onto my arm. I held her tight as she cried and cried, her body shaking as the fears and worries fell away, as the tension that had wrapped around her like a cement shroud fell away and left her floating on a cloud.
When she had cried herself out she leaned back and pressed her hands to my cheeks. “Oh, Tommy. Oh, honey ko! Of course, I marry you! What do you think; I will say no? Oh, honey ko.”
Her voice, loud enough to silence the chattering from the jungle, echoed in my head and she hugged me again.
“Oh, honey ko. Say it again. Say it again, please. Ask me again if I want to marry you!”
I smiled and laughed at the simple joy in her request.
“Aida. I love you. Will you marry me?”
“Oh, Tommy. Oh, yes, yes, yes. Oh yes, honey ko. You make me so happy. I love you, Tommy. I love you, I love you, I love you.” She hugged my arm and kissed me. “Soon I will not be Aida Pinoy from Lamao, Philippines anymore, but Mrs. Tom Nelson from Hawaii. Oh, honey ko, I cannot wait.”
Aida’s voice rose and fell like notes dancing atop a sheet of music. Wherever she touched me my body shook and I lost track of how many times she repeated how happy I made her.
“Oh, Tommy, I dreamed of going to America when I’m a little girl. When I move to Olongapo, I hoped to find the man who would take me there. When we met, I knew you would be the one to make my dream come true. Now, you asking me to be your wife. I’m so lucky.” She leaned against me again and I pressed my lips into her black hair. She reached up and pulled my head to her and we kissed until we were out of breath and her breast heaved against me.
Aida clutched my arm as an earthquake rolled the ground beneath us like the swell of an ocean wave lifting a swimmer treading water. We were lucky this time; too often the movement came with the jarring motion of a decrepit bus driving over a pot-holed road.
She relaxed her grip. “That scared me, Tommy. Soon, the volcano will erupt and what will happen to Olongapo, then? Hey? What will happen? What will happen to us? What will happen to my family in Bataan?”
“I don’t know, Aida, but I think we’ll be okay. We’re far enough away to be safe when it erupts, and your family is further away than we are.
“I hope so, Tommy. Now I’m worried more about my family.”
She looked up as the sounds of the jungle returned. “It’s always so quiet after the earthquakes stop, then everything seems to make noise at the same time when they feeling safe again.”
Another couple strolled along the path behind them, apparently unperturbed by the earth’s movement.
Aida nodded her head toward them. “See. They feel safe too.”
The couple’s whispered conversation carried away on the warm breeze. The flowered wrap around the girl’s hips and the poinsettia-like flower in her hair reminded me of Hawaii. The girl’s tinkling laugh faded as the couple passed out of sight beyond the boathouse.
Aida snuggled closer as she picked up the thread of conversation. “Anyway…I forgot what I was saying. Oh, I remember.” She took my hands. “You make my dream come true, Tommy. I think now my future will be so happy. You rescued me.”
“You rescued me, Aida. I was lonely and you made me feel loved again.”
“That’s because you were so sad when we met. My heart almost broke for you and I wanted to take care of you and make you happy. I always trying to make you forget what happened to your girlfriend in Spain.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget Susanna.”
“I know, honey ko.” Aida’s fingers picked at my shirt buttons. “But I only don’t want you to be sad anymore. I want you to be happy that you had each other, but not to grieve that she died.” Concern wrinkled her forehead. “Grief will make you sick, Tommy.”
“I’ve tried to forget, Aida, but it’s so hard to let go of her. I don’t—I’m sorry, Aida. We shouldn’t talk about this, honey. I don’t want to make you unhappy. This should be a special day for you, not a day where we let the past intrude on our happiness.”
“It is special, Tommy. Today is the most special day of my life. I can’t wait until we are married.” She squeezed my hands between hers and leaned towards me, her eyes glistening in the moonlight. “I can’t wait, honey ko.”
“Me either, Aida, but you know we can’t get married right away. You’ll have to apply for a passport and a visa. That will take several months. I’ll be back in Hawaii before you finish all the paperwork.”
“But, honey ko. That will take too much money, and I’m not working anymore.”
“You won’t have to work. I’ll send money for the rent and food, and for the paperwork and other things. You can concentrate on joining me in Hawaii.”
Aida grew silent. The faraway look in her eyes reflected concern when they should have glowed with joy. Had she been any other woman, I would have thought she had second thoughts.
“What’s the matter, Aida? Is something worrying you?”
“Honey ko.” She hesitated. Her eyes seemed to search my heart. “You are sure that you want to marry me? You are making a promise to send for me after you return to Hawaii so we can be married, yes? You won’t forget me? You won’t forget me when you meet an American girl?”
“Aida. How could I forget you? I asked you to marry me. You and me, honey.” I pulled her into my shoulder to reassure her. “Oh, Aida; you don’t think I would forget you, do you?”
She drew her legs up and clasped her arms around them. Tears filled her eyes and her voice trembled. “I’m just worried, Tommy. Many of my girlfriends were promised marriage, but their boyfriends forgot them when they left the Philippines.”
“That won’t happen to us, Aida. We’ll be in touch all the time, just as we were when I returned to Hawaii last year.”
“But, Tommy, I afraid about how much you miss your girlfriend.”
“Aida, her name is Susanna. You can say her name; you won’t hurt me.”
“You say her name, Tommy, when you’re sleeping. Sometimes it hurts me, but I don’t say anything because I’m not wanting to hurt you. But I worry you love her still.”
“I told you, sweetheart, you don’t have to worry. She died a long time ago and I’ve put the pain behind me. It’s only natural that I think about her. You never forget the people you loved.”
“Three years isn’t a long time.”
“It is for me, okay?”
“Okay, Tommy. I know you won’t forget me, honey ko. You will write to me too, won’t you? Please write to me, Tommy. Please, honey ko. Write to me like when you go away. I like to read your letters, Tommy.”
“I’ll write to you, Aida. I promise.”
“You watch too many movies, Aida. If I wrote every day my hand would fall off. Then what would I hold you with?”
“Okay. Maybe every week is okay.”
The ferry whistled and I helped Aida from the seawall. We walked to the pier, picked up our bags, and boarded, choosing seats along the stern where the deck canopy wouldn’t obstruct our view of the stars. The day had relaxed me, but the tension returned as we drew closer to shore. Maybe the constant rumbling of earthquakes caused the stress. Or the volcano. Or Susanna. Or something. I leaned back and let the starlit sky draw me away. Aida grew drowsy with the rhythmic motion of the boat and the lapping of waves against the hull. She dozed against my shoulder until waking when the boat bumped against the dock at Officers Landing. I hailed a taxi for the main gate and then flagged down a jeepney for the short ride home.
Back in the apartment, I put away the picnic supplies while Aida unpacked and put away the clothes—a quantity of clothing since she had taken advantage of the laundromat at the cottage rather than wash clothes by hand. After putting everything away we collapsed together on the sofa, pleasantly exhausted from our weekend retreat. Aida nestled against me and watched television while I read. Soon, her eyes closed and her breathing grew soft and she fell asleep with her head in my lap. A comfortable drowsiness filled me and I stretched and yawned, then gently picked up Aida and carried her to bed and undressed her, then undressed myself. I slipped under the bed sheet, my earlier stress now gone and forgotten. I pulled the sheet up to my shoulders and stared at the ceiling, thinking about the proposal. A thought occurred to me and I reached for the nightstand and withdrew a blue silk pouch and a Hav-A-Tampa cigar box from the drawer. The box held letters between my parents and several essays my father had written as he tried to make sense of my mother’s sudden death. I removed an envelope and took out the papers, my favorite essay and my father’s most intimate. The age-yellowed pages crinkled in my hands as I read:
“I trembled as I reached for Susanna, my Spanish Madonna, and touched her hip. I pressed my palm against her smooth, white flesh and her warmth spread through me until my face flushed and the burn of rising excitement engulfed me. I rubbed my hand across her shoulder and trilled my fingertips along her spine raising goosebumps from her skin, and a shiver. I caressed along her side to her hip and pressed my hand to the small of her back bringing her body close, so close her bones ground against mine and her scent mingled with mine. She trembled and breathed out, her warm, fresh breath billowing into my face and nostrils, pulsing through the veins in my head until my temples throbbed. I inhaled her skin’s fragrance of orange blossoms, and the hairs on my neck lifted as a wave of sobbing, intense passion shook my body and overwhelmed me.”
Aida murmured in her sleep and I rested my hand on her hip. She murmured again but slept on, a sweet smile turning up the corners of her lips.
“I shivered as I brushed my fingers across her lips and she kissed them as they wiped away tiny beads of glistening moonsweat. My angel’s emerald eyes, framed by her perfect oval porcelain-white face and raven-black hair that reflected a billion midnight stars, held mine, unwavering, unblinking, penetrating. I pressed my lips to her silk-black eyebrows. Her fingers brushed along my chest and tickled my belly and she held me. The smooth roundness of her body filled my hands as her breasts pressed into my flesh. I pressed my fingers between her buttocks and pulled her to me, and a cloud of intense, animal desire washed over me for this fragile, elfin-like sprite of a woman.
I shuddered and she shuddered and our lips met in a passionate expression of yearning, pressing hard together as we gave in to the desire to possess each other, to become each other, to be inside one another, to become one person. A trembling Susanna surrounded me as I became entwined within her, and our souls met as our hearts had met, and two spirits of pure love enmeshed one in the other as physical love bound us together and a simultaneous coming together transformed us forever. I gave her all of me, and she gave me all of her.
Later, as we lay side by side in a nest of warmth between Heaven and Earth, Susanna turned onto her side, then she moved on top of me. She brushed her fingers across my cheeks. Her eyes burned into mine and then they softened and a smile worked at the corners of her mouth and I knew she was going to be silly. She sang lines from a song she loved. She kissed me – “One, two, three, four, can I have a little more?” She kissed me – “Five, six, seven-eight-nine-ten, I love you.””
I remember blushing at the intimacy the first time I read the essay. I hadn’t wanted to continue but read on out of thirst for knowledge. The essay, as well as stories I had heard growing up, convinced me that my parents were born in love, indeed, fated to love one another. Theirs was an extraordinary love, a wished-for love. Oh, how I longed for a love like that, had found it with Susanna, then lost her.
Comparing Aida with Susanna was unfair, though, particularly while I proposed. No two people were exactly alike. No matter how much I wanted with Aida what Susanna and I had shared, no two loves could possibly be the same. Maybe love depends on state of mind. If I weren’t grieving for Susanna would I still love Aida? Did love come to me to fill the void left by Susanna’s death? Had loneliness made me weak and susceptible, open to advances from the first woman to make googly eyes at me? I hadn’t been lonely when I met Susanna. I hadn’t been grieving for a lost lover. But my heart still bled for Susanna when Aida picked me up and set me on my feet.
It was true what she said. I had been desperately sad and lonely when we met. At the time, only a year had passed since Susanna’s death. Only a year since I begged orders transferring me away from Spain. Away from the pain and the constant reminders. The Navy transferred me to Hawaii where I found myself in a paradise limned in sorrow. Three years later the grief was no less real, but not as constant.
I put the envelope back in the box and took off the necklace. The necklace and letters were among the few belongings of my mother and father I possessed. My adoptive parents gave them to me when I enlisted in the Navy. They told me my mother believed the medallion was cursed and the bearer would suffer her greatest fear. Her greatest fear had been that she would die young.
I sat on the edge of the bed and held the necklace up. The medallion and Susanna’s wedding ring dangled side by side. The ring gave off a soft, golden glow in the light of the lamp. I stared at the medallion’s jewel for a moment and an uneasy feeling fell over me. Could the curse be real?
What was my greatest fear? Snakes. I was afraid of snakes. That wouldn’t be the point of the curse, though. The medallion’s curse was for things that turned your heart inside out and strangled it. Things that made you weep and cry out during nightmares. Curses were spat from the black mouths of evil, soulless hags hunchbacked under the weight of the hate they stoked with the memories of spurned love, a bitten hand, a perceived slight from a well-meaning person. Curses were evil promised on a pure soul to the tenth generation of the tenth generation. Curses were jealousy, envy, lust, greed, all bound into one oath and hurled at the helpless victim by a she-devil whose face twisted with hate. Those who feared you hurled curses to hurt you. Who had feared my mother, and why? Or my how-many-times-removed grandmother?
What was my greatest fear? That I would never again find Susanna’s love? Yes. That I would never again find a love like Susanna’s, one that bound a man and woman together in a holy bond of spiritual unity. If that were so, I always had the memory of her love to sustain me, to carry me through life. I had Aida’s love, too, but it didn’t feel the same. I fell asleep with the medallion gripped in my hand.