The trembling voice of the old Filipino squeaked across the courtyard and through the bedroom window.
I yawned and rubbed my face and squinted at the clock through one eye. The numbers swam in the dim light, but the balut man was never wrong; he came every morning at five. Memories of the weekend floated up from the fog of sleep. I couldn’t help smiling as I recalled Aida’s joy when I proposed. I sat up and stretched again, then leaned down and kissed Aida. I whispered and my soft breath spread across her cheek.
“Aida. The balut man says it’s time to get up.”
Aida stirred and turned her head without lifting it from the pillow and looked at the clock from behind the edge of the bedsheet. Turning onto her side, she bunched the bedsheet about her neck and gave an exasperated breath.
“You moving all night keeping me awake, Tommy.”
She scratched the side of her nose and closed her eyes, her upper lip dotted with moonsweat glistening in the light from the window. An old, brown fan hummed behind her head as it blew the humid air around.
I lay on my side and watched the rise and fall of Aida’s chest and listened to her soft breathing. Then I moved closer and put my arm over her shoulder and kissed her neck. She stirred and murmured, then pushed against me and rested her head on my chest. We lay together that way, Aida dozing untroubled and I staring at the ceiling, my eyes still heavy with sleep. Never a sound sleeper, I rarely slept the night through, usually waking after four or so hours before turning my pillow onto the cool side and falling asleep again. That morning however, my head seemed filled with sand that slid from side to side when I moved. Sleeping soundly the night through was an occasion and raised my hopes that I’d sleep the night through again. It was a nice hope.
I didn’t regret proposing to Aida, but I hadn’t intended to—not yet anyway. The words had slipped out in one of those sentimental moments brought on by a disconnect between the heart and the brain, usually occurring during a romantic moment.
Romance had fallen over us like dew as we sat on the seawall and that indefinable air about Aida turned my brain to mush and left me a love-whipped schoolboy. There were moments when she seemed a siren, but her song alone hadn’t lured me into the dangerous waters around her heart. Her eyes, her beauty, her spirit. Her simple, uncomplicated manner. All those qualities made me speak the words she wanted to hear, the thing she wanted most from me. She woke something inside me like a dormant volcano rumbling to explosive life. Aida had it, whatever it was. It smoldered in her eyes, glowed in her smile, burned in her touch. It burned me. Like candlelight to a moth, I couldn’t resist the attraction to Aida, and I couldn’t pull my finger out of the flame.
Until Aida came along, I had tried too hard to rediscover the love my parents had had, the love I found with Susanna. I wanted the magic to strike again and when it didn’t, when I couldn’t find the love I’d had with Susanna, I gave up. Twice I had made the same mistake with women. Each time, I hoped the latest woman would be the one. My heart told me she was the one, but my head told me otherwise. My head told me the woman was no Susanna, that she wasn’t as beautiful as Susanna, that she could never love me the way Susanna had loved me. But I never noticed my mistake. Not even when the woman told me she would not compete with a dead woman. So, the women walked away because no man can love two women the way a man and woman must love each other.
I thought it would be different with Aida. No woman since Susanna pulled at my heart the way Aida did, and she needed me as much as I needed her. But I had proposed on impulse in a tender, romantic moment when I was at my most vulnerable. I had even spoken the words while telling myself I would always love Susanna. I gave Aida the loving cup for second place. Nice, right?
Somewhere in the back of my mind, a voice had told me while I proposed that Aida would laugh my words off as a joke. She had believed me, though, when the words floated from my lips like music taking wing and trilling into her ears. I wouldn’t have said the words if I had thought for a moment of the yearning I knew Aida felt for them, how much faith she placed in them. I couldn’t feel Aida’s heart flutter the way a woman’s heart does when she’s in love and, while it had amused me, I paid little notice to her ecstatic smile. I couldn’t feel the joy spread inside her and didn’t realize she would have believed anything I said if it included the breathlessly beautiful words, I love you, Aida. Will you marry me? Could she have read my mind she would have read “I love you Aida, but I love Susanna more.”
Another voice slipped into my head, a voice that whispered cynically to most Sailors who visited Olongapo and fell for the treasures that populated the bars and clubs that took American dollars. What if going to America were Aida’s own wished-for love? What if Aida were using me for a one-way ticket to the States so she could send for the rest of her family?
I tried to shut out the voice but the effort made sweat pool in the hollow of my chest, run down the small of my back, tickle my thighs, and drip onto the sheets. I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. As I did, the necklace fell to the floor. I picked it up and slipped it into the blue pouch then placed both in the drawer of the nightstand.
The balut man’s dwindling voice called from the next street. I hurried to put on pants and shirt, dashed to the bathroom and splashed my face with cold water, then stepped into flip-flops at the door and raced out to buy balut for Aida. I returned a few minutes later with two balut wrapped in newspaper. I thought it nauseating but Aida loved balut, fermented duck embryo, seventeen days ripe and sold in the shell, a delicacy in the Philippines. Hungry Filipinos leapt out of bed when the balut man woke them. Heedless of the weather, they threw on a wrap, stepped into flip-flops, and hurried into the street, eyes crusty with sleep. Picking out a likely-looking balut or two, they tossed a few coins to the old man and wobbled back into the house, eager to suck the egg’s soupy contents through a small hole in the shell before eating the wings, bones, beak, and everything else. Sailors from nearby Subic Bay Naval Base ate them when dared or offered free beer, or when too drunk to care. I placed them on the kitchen table and went to the bedroom.
I leaned over the bed and whispered “Aida.”
Her long black hair splayed across the pillow as she rustled beneath the bedcovers. Her brown eyes had followed me from the door to the bed. Worry wrinkled her forehead as she reached over and touched my cheek.
“Honey ko. Do you sleep okay last night? Your eyes look tired.”
“Good morning, Aida. I slept like a rock. My eyes enjoyed the deep sleep and want more.” I kissed her, turned off the fan, and walked into the bathroom. I opened the window so the mirror wouldn’t fog up and turned the shower on. While the water warmed, I leaned against the sink and stared at my reflection in the mirror.
Women considered me good looking. I had light skin, a great smile, and thick, blonde hair in a Navy haircut. My green eyes looked hazel in light just so, and my chin jutted out rather than protruded. A puppy’s nip when I was four years old left a scar on my right eyelid. My easy, contagious laugh and comic timing were known to ease tense situations. Lack of sleep, or crappy sleep, often left bags under my eyes.
I ran my fingers through my hair, then smoothed it down with my hand. Pursing my lips at my unruly hair, I entered the shower. Cold. The landlord hadn’t yet replaced the gas tank. I shivered. The water seemed so much colder in the oppressive heat and gave me goose bumps and made everything shrivel. Oh well, I could take a hot shower at the barracks, but I’d only break into a sweat when I stepped outside again. But, that was PI, where the weather was always hot and damp, except during the monsoon when it was hot and wet. Aida peeked around the shower curtain just then and smiled, then pushed it aside and joined me.
“Honey ko,” she purred and pressed her body against mine.
Her body elicited the natural response and I put my arms around her waist and leaned down and kissed her. The flowing water glistened as it ran along her skin. I knelt and brushed my lips along the small of her back, then caressed her calves and thighs and the curve of her hips. I stood and my hands held her as she moved against me. She reached down and pressed my hand. The feel of her wet hair between my fingers aroused me.
She whispered, “Oh, honey ko. You make me so happy.”
We held each other. When her legs stopped trembling I kissed her and stepped from the shower to shave. When she finished showering, I watched through the mirror as she dried her hair.
“Let me, Aida.”
She had picked up her hairbrush. I stood behind her and ran my fingers through her black hair then took the brush. Aida’s fine, silky tresses slipped over my skin like a whisper of breath. My fingertips traced along her scalp, behind her ears, down her neck, skimmed her spine and stopped on the small of her back. She shivered under my touch and goose bumps rose on her skin. She pressed against me.
The intimacy brought us closer, unspeaking, the hum of the vent fan the only sound. My heart pounded as I brushed Aida’s hair and my face flushed. The soft bunches of hair slid between my fingers. When I finished brushing, I leaned my forehead against her shoulder. She reached behind and caressed me. When I placed the brush on the table she turned and kissed me.
“Honey ko. Why your face is so red?” She clasped her fingers in mine. “I’ll dress and then make breakfast.”
I held her hand as she walked away, her fingers slipping from mine. She tied the towel around her hips and paused, half-turned in the doorway. My throat tightened at the silhouette of her pointed breasts against the kitchen light.
Dressed in jeans and a brown t-shirt I wore tucked in, I followed the aroma of Aida’s cooking into the kitchen. I put my arms around her and peered over her shoulder.
“Ummm, smells so good. What is it?”
She stirred the dish and lowered the heat. “Your favorite: sweet and sour fish with celery, carrot, red bell pepper, and snow peas, all in red sauce.”
“And rice too?”
“Oh, honey ko,” she said smiling. “You are so funny. Of course, we have rice. This is Pilipino breakfast.”
She pecked my cheek and said, “Oh, thank you for the balut, Tommy. You are so sweet. I like the guy who always doing little things to make me happy.”
“I like to do the little things, Aida, because you make me so happy.”
“My food makes you happy too. Hand me your plate, honey ko, and sit.”
My taste buds watered and my stomach grumbled as she brought breakfast to the table under the window overlooking the jungle. I could tune out the various screams, chatters, and chirps that sounded from the dark vegetation, but now and then they came through full force, usually just as the sun began its climb into the sky. Maybe jungle denizens made noise for their breakfast too. I stirred the dish to release the aroma and breathed in the savory smell. Aida watched in silence as I ate. I suspected she had something on her mind. I was about to ask her if she needed money when she spoke.
“Honey ko, are you coming home after your work, or will you stay in the barracks this week?”
“I’ll be home tonight. Why do you ask; do you need something from the commissary?”
“No. I decided to go home to visit my family. I may leave today since sometimes you stay on base during the week if you work late.”
“I don’t expect anything different at work this week. How long will you stay with your parents? I hoped we could spend the weekend in Manila.”
“I will return on Friday.”
“We can go to Manila on Saturday, then. We’ll go to Rizal Park and watch the sunset and then go barhopping. Maybe we can spend the night with your Cousin Marcie. I promise not to spend all my time taking photos.”
“Oh, honey ko, I will wait until Saturday to visit Lamao if you will come with me. Okay?”
“No, Aida, I’d rather go to Manila.”
“Oh, Tommy, please say yes. Please say you will come with me this time. My parents always ask why you don’t come home with me. They think you don’t like them. You are the only American they meet—met, and they like talking with you. Besides, the news I am getting married will make them happy.”
“Aida, I return to Hawaii soon. I want to spend all my time with you. Besides, they make me nervous. I never know what to say to them.”
“Oh, Tommy, they like you. They don’t mind if you are the quiet one.”
“I don’t know, Aida, maybe another weekend.”
“You always make excuses. You promising to come with me, but you change your mind. I never complain about following you around Manila all day while you take photos. I am silent while you talk about all the places you want to visit. You never ask where I want to go, or what I want to do.”
“I’m sorry, Aida. I may never come back to the Philippines, and I want to see as much as I can.”
“Ask me sometimes what I would like to do, where I would like to go.”
“All right. I will.”
“Will you come home with me this weekend?”
“Why not? Why won’t you come home with me? Is it because you don’t like my family? Is it because they are poor?
“No, Aida. Of course, not. I just don’t want to go.”
“Why not? There have to be a reason.”
“Because I don’t think your dad likes me. I think he thinks I’m using you. If he was American, he’d greet me with a shotgun.”
“A shotgun? What does that mean?”
“Nothing. It’s a figure of speech.”
“Tommy. You asked me to marry you, and I want to tell my parents. But you have to be with me or they will wonder why you aren’t.”
“Tell them I had to work.”
“I don’t lie to my parents.”
I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go with her and plenty of ways she would make me sorry if I refused. Besides, I liked her family and enjoyed the bus ride through Bataan. Her dad was a fisherman and always took us out in one of his banca boats to picnic at a nearby island. I had had my heart set on the excitement of Manila’s nightlife, but Aida was right: we had to tell her parents of her engagement.
“All right, all right. Have it your way. I’ll go home with you this weekend.”
Her face lit with a broad smile, a victory smile, no doubt. “Oh, honey ko, you make me so happy. I’m sorry I got so mad to you, okay?”
“You knew I would give in, didn’t you? At least you didn’t threaten to cut off my happiness.”
“Oh, your happiness is my happiness, honey ko.”
We kissed, and I said, “I have to leave for work now, sweetheart. I’ll see you tonight.” I kissed her again and walked downstairs and closed the door behind me. Chickens wandering from next door scattered before me as I walked across the courtyard to the gate.
Aida called from the bedroom window. “Tommy.”
“You forgetting your lunch.”
I dashed into the house and swung around the end post of the stairwell. The post cap wobbled but stayed put. Aida met me at the top of the stairs with my lunch sack. I kissed her again.
“You’ll be late, Tommy, if you don’t hurry.”
“I know. I’m hurrying.” I ran down the stairs, avoided tumbling the post cap, and called goodbye to Aida as the door closed behind me.
“Don’t close the door all the way so it won’t jam shut during an earthquake, okay?”
“Okay. I won’t.”
I ran back and propped the door ajar between two bricks to keep it open. The neighbor’s dog, a black and white mutt – I called him Toby – watched from the balcony, his tail wagging.
“Sorry, Toby. I don’t have anything for you. I’ll bring you a treat next time.”
Toby barked and laid down with his muzzle on his paws, his tail still wagging. He’d be there when I returned.
I reached the gate and pushed it open; it screeched on dry hinges. I grimaced and made a mental note to bring home a can of oil. A distant rumble from Mount Pinatubo reached my ears. I worried about leaving Aida alone all day.