I edged the gate open as gently as possible hoping to avoid Aida’s wrath, but the long, drawn out squeal of the rusty hinges gave me away. I swore under my breath as Aida poked her head out the window. The look on her face and the exasperation in her voice matched well. Toby, on the balcony next door, lay perfectly still with his head on his paws, his eyes following the action between Aida and me.
“Oh, Tommy,” she called out. “You forget again the oil.”
I grimaced when the hinges squealed again as I closed the gate. “I’ll bring the oil home tomorrow, Aida. I promise.”
I avoided the clucking chickens as I sprinted across the flower-lined courtyard, ducked under the clothes drying on the clothesline, said hello to Toby who wagged his tail, and ran into the house. I reached for the post-cap but caught myself, skipping on my toes until I regained my balance. My heavy steps echoed in the steep, narrow stairwell.
“Hey, Aida. You want to go out tonight?”
Aida dashed in from the kitchen. “Oh, honey ko! Where are we going? To Rufadora’s? Yes, I want to see my friends. What time do we leave? Are we eating somewhere? I’m so hungry. Can we go to Wimpy’s? I know you would like a hamburger and french fries. I need to change my clothes. Does my hair look okay, honey ko? Oh, I forget the stove is on.”
She raced for the kitchen and turned off the stove, then ran for the bedroom to change but I caught her and drew her into my arms. “Whoa, slow down, Aida, you’re making me tired.” I leaned back to look at her. She radiated a joyful beauty. “Your hair is beautiful, and so are you. Don’t change a thing.”
“Honey ko, you make me so happy. I gonna sing – I so happy, I so happy, I so happy!”
She hummed her happy tune as she changed clothes. Drawers slid open and closed, the closet doors slammed and rattled in their tracks, and her shoes clack-clacked on the floor as she tried on several pair. Then silence as though she were looking herself over in the mirror. A moment later, she called from the room and asked if I needed to change.
“I changed at the barracks. My clothes reeked of fuel.”
“You spilled fuel on your clothes? Oh, Tommy; that will be so hard to wash out.”
“I didn’t spill fuel on them. They absorbed fuel fumes while I fixed a fuel leak in the aircraft wing. The operations officer was so happy we fixed the fuel leak so quickly he bought us two cases of San Miguel.”
“Why was he so happy?”
“He needs the aircraft to go on detachment to Thailand tomorrow.”
“You aren’t going to Thailand, are you?”
“No. Not this time.”
My stomach grumbled and I went to the kitchen to see what I could munch on. I ate a handful of pork and rice then washed my hands. “I’m ready when you are, Aida.”
She walked into the kitchen and spun around on her toes. “I’m ready. Do I look okay?”
My heart leaped. The white slacks and lime-green pullover complemented her skin tone. If the perfect female form existed, Aida had it. She was a woman all right, and she knew how to show it.
“You are so beautiful, Aida.”
She looked down, smiling under long eyelashes. “Oh, Tommy. You are so sweet. You making me to blush.”
“Shall we walk or take a jeepney?”
“Let’s take a jeepney, okay?”
“All right. If you’d like, honey, we’ll skip Wimpy’s. I don’t mind ordering takeout from Mariposa’s.”
“Oh, thank you, Tommy. I would rather share my friends’ food.”
We left, Aida leading the way. I had to hurry to keep up with her. She looked back and frowned at me when the gate squealed but pushed on. I hailed a jeepney at the crosswalk to the city market on Rizal Avenue. Aida couldn’t sit still and danced in her seat, to the amusement of the only other passenger, an older woman sitting across from us.
We had just rounded the traffic circle onto Magsaysay Drive when the earthquake struck. The jeepney lurched as the road lifted. A telephone pole snapped with the crack of a whip. I gripped the handrail and planted my feet as Aida held onto me. The jeepney rocked side to side. The driver mashed the brakes but couldn’t hold them in the lurching motion that nearly tipped the jeepney. Terror filled Aida’s eyes; she held my arm in a death grip. The jeepney lurched again and she slipped from the seat. I leaned down to haul her back and banged my head against a support pole hard enough to see stars through the pain and tears. When my head cleared, I was eye to eye with the older woman. She strained to hold herself in her seat with her arms wrapped around another support pole. Her lips were a thin, tight line. I nodded to reassure her. She reached up without releasing her hold on the pole and crossed herself before clutching her crucifix and praying.
“Put your arms around me, Aida,” I yelled without taking my eyes off the woman. “Hold on tight. Don’t let go.”
“Oh, Tommy. Don’t let go. Hold me.”
“I’ve got you, Aida.”
“Tommy!” Her cry turned my chest cold. Hold on. Don’t let go. She slipped from the seat again, and again I hauled her back. “Plant your feet hard against the floor, Aida.”
“I can’t, Tommy.”
My leg muscles ached. I was losing my grip. Aida was sliding away. I couldn’t hold her. Susanna. Not again. I was helpless, as helpless as I had been when Susanna died. No. No.
The jeepney jumped the sidewalk, slowed, and lurched to a stop.
“Aida. Are you okay?”
“Yes. I think so.”
I helped her out of the jeepney, then gave a hand to the old woman. She patted my shoulder and thanked me, then hurried away. The earthquake lasted barely thirty seconds but left Aida’s nerves strained and she chattered away as we walked the last few blocks to Rufadora’s. Grace and Luz, two of Aida’s former roommates, screamed from the balcony when they saw her and disappeared into the bar. Aida’s pace quickened and I held the door open and walked in after her.
I looked forward to a drink at the bar. The previous mama-san, Helen, the one who hired Aida, had sold the bar to a new woman. The dingy, seedy atmosphere changed under the new owner. Something more hopeful and alive replaced the sad odor of sweaty desperation, something that didn’t smell nasty or leave a sleazy aftertaste on the skin. The low, soft light of the interior nurtured warmth and coziness, and encouraged intimacy rather than raunchiness. Cigarette smoke still clouded the ceiling, but better air circulation made breathing almost pleasant. Mama-san had painted the walls and retiled the floor. She had also added new photos to the ones that had been there since before the war in Vietnam. One of the new photos, a red-bearded Sailor in dungarees, combat helmet, and flak jacket wearing blue-lens sunglasses and a wide grin, hung on the wall behind the bar. It was too far away to see clearly, but the Sailor looked cheerful and I took a liking to him.
Aida was helping the mama-san clean up behind the bar. She waved me over.
“Honey ko. Say hello to Mama-san. I’m going to help Grace and Luz clean up, okay?”
“Sure thing, Aida.”
“Hello, Mama-san. How are you?”
The attractive, well-bred woman didn’t fit the mama-san image. She would not have looked out of place sitting at the head of a corporate boardroom table.
“Hello, Tom. I am fine, considering the earthquake. Thank God no one was hurt. How are things outside?”
“Okay from what I could see. The earthquake tossed our jeepney around, and I have a headache from banging my head.”
“Oh, dear. Let me get you an aspirin.”
Mama-san dug through her purse, pulling things out and setting them on the bar. She pulled out a coin purse and a blue clutch and, with a triumphant smile, a bottle of aspirin.
“Here you are, Tom. Here; take some water too.”
I took two aspirin and squeezed my eyes closed wishing the headache away. “The water was just what I needed. I hadn’t realized I was so thirsty. Thank you.”
“You are welcome. Excitement makes one thirsty, does it not.”
She paused and seemed to consider me for a moment before taking my hands in hers. “How nice it is to see you again. Why do you and Aida not come by more often? It is so nice when you both come.”
Her warm smile drew me in, but her beauty made me feel like a young schoolboy and I blushed. She didn’t give any sign that she noticed.
“My work hours changed, so we don’t get to come as often as we’d like.”
“You are always welcome here, Tom. Aida is so much fun to have around. She is so full of joy and energy. Look at her now with her friends.”
Aida was sitting with Grace and Luz, their knees touching, and chattering away like years had passed since their last visit. All three laughed and smiled, but Aida’s face held a wistful happiness.
“I know. She misses her friends. I think she’d like to come back and work here.”
“We’d love to have her back.”
“I’m not sure how that would work. I don’t think I’d like other guys buying her drinks and pawing at her. I didn’t particularly like doing it myself.”
“Ah. But you were different, Tom. You didn’t paw at Aida but treated her with dignity and respect. That is what drew her to you. That is what made all the girls like you and jealous of Aida.”
Mama-san had stopped cleaning up and stood with her hands folded on top of the bar. “How are you and Aida getting along? Is everything all right?”
“Yes. We’re doing fine. We’re visiting her family in Bataan this weekend.”
“Oh, good. You have visited her village, Tom? Did her parents treat you well?”
“Yes. But, I was a little uncomfortable. They don’t speak English, and I felt silly smiling like an idiot all the time. Pointing at things instead of being able to ask for them by name didn’t help either. Thank goodness Aida likes to talk; she kept the conversation moving.”
I was rambling but couldn’t help it. I was nervous around Mama-san and usually tongue-tied too. That night though, for some reason, probably all the excitement, I wanted to talk.
“Not only that, her mom wouldn’t let me do anything. I thought I was taking advantage of her kindness, but every time I tried to help or do something for myself, she bustled over to do it for me.”
Mama-san listened while cleaning the polished wood of the bar with a bar towel.
“I would make a good barmaid would I not?” Mama-san laughed as she arranged glasses on the shelf behind the bar.
“I think you’d succeed at everything you worked at.” I signaled for a beer; a bikini-clad barmaid brought me a San Miguel and I paid and tipped her.
“Same thing with Aida’s father. We took their banca boat to picnic on Corregidor and stopped along the way to spearfish. I wanted to help, but her father wouldn’t let me. I had to stay in the boat while he caught the fish. Spear fishing would have been so much fun.”
“That was Filipino hospitality, Tom. Enjoy it. It is impolite to allow guests to labor in one’s home. It is not so much that way anymore in the bigger cities like Manila and Baguio, but culture takes a great while to change in the provinces. That is not entirely a bad thing.”
The jukebox began playing and she stopped and clucked her tongue.
“Oh dear. Someone is playing that horrid machine. I detest that jarring noise. If it would not prove bad for business I would change that music for opera. Do you like opera, Tom?”
“I love opera. My favorite is Aida,” I said with a grin.
“Oh, Tom. I would groan if you were a comedian.” She shook her head and laughed, her white teeth flashing in her beautiful face.
“Mama-san, you speak precise English with barely an accent; did you ever live in the States?”
“Yes. I lived in Hawaii and Maryland. But I also have an ear for languages; I speak English, Spanish, French, and Vietnamese equally well. My native tongue is Ilocano—I am from Baguio—but Tagalog is the Filipino national language.”
She paused to sign a vendor’s receipt. I admired the curve of her jaw and the delicate twist of her ear. I looked away before she noticed.
“And you, Tom. Do you speak a language other than English?”
“Oh sure. Any number of languages. I can order a beer in just about any country.” I sat up with my hands on my hips and spoke in a gruff, old Sailor’s voice. “Hey, gimme a Budweiser.”
Mama-san’s full, rich laughter filled my ears. “Tom, you make me laugh. You are a rare commodity and one to treasure. I shall have you cheer me up when I do not feel like laughing.”
“It’s a deal, Mama-san.”
“By the way, Tom. Aida tells me you and she are marrying after you return to Hawaii and she joins you. Is this true? If so, let me wish you congratulations.”
Something in the atmosphere had changed, became serious. Mama-san was still smiling, but I sensed skepticism, something that sounded like a veiled threat. She could be haughty, and was protective of the girls; it was hard to know what she was thinking.
“Thank you, Mama-san. I proposed to Aida yesterday.”
“That is good, Tom. I am so happy to hear to hear you say that. Aida is such a sweetheart, so loving and kind. I would not like to see her heart set on marrying you, only to be disappointed. But, Tom, are you sure that is what you want? Are you sure you want to take Aida as your wife? Have you spoken of this with your parents? What do they say?”
Her words stabbed like darts. I glared and tensed and brushed my hand through my hair and down the back of my neck. Mama-san was used to dealing with provincials, girls from the further provinces who had come to Olongapo with little appreciation for what awaited them in the big city. She guarded their virtues like a prison matron.
“I don’t need my parents’ permission to marry, Mama-san, or the Navy’s; I’m old enough to make my own decisions.” I didn’t like the way her eyebrows arched when she responded.
“Of course, Tom. You are your own man. But do not make a promise you may not want or be able to keep. It is wiser to keep your own counsel until you are sure of your mind, is it not? I say this as a friend to both you and Aida. I do not want to see her heart broken, and I do not want to see you unhappy. I have seen it happen so many times in Olongapo; two hearts break because of a hasty decision. If you are not sure of your love for Aida, perhaps the time is not right for marriage.”
“Mama-san. I’m not one of your girls just in from the provinces who needs protection from the big, bad American Sailor, and Aida doesn’t need protection from me. We met long before you arrived and we’ll be together long after we leave the Philippines. I’m as sure of my love for Aida as I am of the air I breathe. I have every intention of marrying her. She means too much to me; what makes you think I would I let her down?”
“Because, Tom, even in the short time I have owned Rufadora Bar, I have seen girls’ hopes lifted by words such as yours only to be dashed to pieces when they wake up and find themselves alone. But, of course, you would not let her down, you are not that kind of man. I know you will send for Aida and marry her.”
It was no use arguing or saying something I might regret later; Mama-san had Aida’s best interests at heart, and she had shown many times how fond she was of me. My temper cooled and I relaxed, which was just as well since I thought the world of Mama-san and hated the thought of disagreeing with her to the point that we might have a falling out.
“I will, and we’ll send you photos of the ceremony.”
“Oh—Please do. I will frame them and place them on the wall.”
“That reminds me, who is that Sailor in the photo behind the bar?”
Mama-san looked at the photo for a long moment then looked down at the bar. I would have sworn she had tears in her eyes.
“A dear, dear friend from a long time ago.” She looked past me, then said “Aida is beckoning for you.”
“Thanks, Mama-san.” I joined Aida, greeting Grace and Luz as I took a seat.
“Hey, ladies, how are you?”
“Fine, Tom,” said Grace.
“Hello, Tommy.” Luz smiled at me like a coy sweetheart.
I smiled back as my cheeks warmed. I had spent my first night in Olongapo with Luz who had also introduced Aida and me. I hadn’t known they were roommates until Luz took me to the apartment and Aida walked in soon after. The following night, Luz went out with another Sailor leaving Aida to spend her free time with me instead of mingling with the free-spending Sailors who had just sailed into port.
That was typical of Olongapo: if things didn’t work out with one Sailor, or the girl wasn’t interested, well, butterflies were free, and any girl could butterfly from Sailor to Sailor until she found the right one, the one with the desire, or the one with the need. It was risky, though, for a guy to do that; a one-night stand with one barmaid, and the following night spent with another from the same bar wasn’t always a good idea. It didn’t do any good to let a girl think she had been dumped. “You butterfly me, I cut off your happiness,” was a phrase heard often in Olongapo, nearly always spoken with a twinkle in the eye. However, it was best not to take a chance; a man’s happiness was good only so long as it remained attached to his person.
Aida was having a great time with her friends, but I was becoming bored. And hungry too. I asked Aida if she wanted anything from Mariposa’s. She said no, she would share Grace and Luz’s dinner. Mama-san smiled at me as I made my way outside.
The night had cooled, but few people strolled the sidewalks. The few Sailors in town were those stationed at the base, “station dito” in Tagalog. It seemed impossible it could be so quiet, but, the USS Midway having sailed that morning, there were no aircraft carriers in port with their five-thousand Sailors and Marines crowding the bars.
I walked the few steps to Mariposa’s and sat at a sidewalk table. A nice, plain looking girl, Maricel, took my order and brought me a warm San Miguel. I asked for a glass, then picked out the flecks of rust embedded in the ice. I drank the beer and reflected on Mama-san. Her questions shouldn’t have surprised me. She differed from the previous mama-san in the way she protected the barmaids and cared for their welfare, not because they brought business to the bar, but more like a parent. She eased new girls into their jobs and wouldn’t let them go out with Sailors right away. She had to approve the “right” Sailor first, and didn’t tolerate girls going behind her back; if they did, she grounded them—forbade them from going out for a while.
The waitress brought my burger and fries. I was paying the check when Steve shouted my name. He ran up to the table, out of breath and panting hard. He leaned over with his hands on his knees while catching his breath.
“Tom! Man, am I glad I found you. You’ll never guess what happened.”
“Dixon made Chief?”
“Hah. No way.”
“Jeff broke his leg and can’t go to Thailand. Kenny called the barracks and told me to find you; you’re taking his place. You leave tomorrow morning on the C-130 carrying the equipment. Pre-flight starts at 0400. George and the other crew should be taking off about now.”