I pumped my fist. The stars had aligned in my favor. The Gods had smiled on me. Clean living; that’s what did it. I could have kissed Steve.
“What happened? How did he break his leg?”
“He fell off a jeepney.”
“How do you fall off a jeepney?”
“Yeah, that’s what I asked. He was drunk and coming back from Subic City with some other guys and decided it would be fun to hang off the back of the jeepney. When the earthquake hit, the jeepney veered into a pothole, bounced around and threw Jeff off. He landed with his leg under him. Rodgers and Kevin said they heard the bone snap. It was sticking out of his leg and everything.”
“God, that sounds painful. Where is he?”
“In the hospital. He’s okay, but he was so drunk he won’t remember anything.”
“Well, I guess that’s a good thing. He’ll remember me taking his place in Thailand, though. Did Kenny say how long we’d be there?”
“Two weeks, maybe longer.”
Two weeks in Thailand. Long days keeping the aircraft flying, but long nights barhopping, Thai food, sightseeing. I loved the airfield at U-Tapao, the hotel in Pattaya Beach, the excitement and thrill of the buzzing nightlife, the beautiful women, sidewalk vendors, even the street urchins following us around and begging for handouts. I’d have to find Lek too.
“I’ve only been talking to you for five minutes.”
“Sorry. I was thinking.”
“About Thailand, no doubt.”
“Yeah. Wondering what to do about Lek, too.”
“You’d better be careful, bro. You’ll be in a world of trouble if you do anything more than say goodbye to her. Aida’s such a nice girl, Tom, and she treats you like a king. It’s obvious she adores you. Even the mama-san sees it.”
“The mama-san? How do you know?”
“She remarked one night how much she missed having Aida around. She said she could see the attachment between the two of you. That’s why she didn’t give you the observation period, as she called it.”
That’s why she had questioned me. Mama-san saw everything from her perch at the end of the bar. She knew which Sailors were trouble and which ones were okay. She kept a short list of the ones she could trust, and a longer list of those who mistreated the girls. Mama-san would naturally be aware of a growing relationship between patron and hostess.
My headache returned. Maybe the bang on the head during the earthquake had given me a concussion. I rubbed my temples. “You know what, Steve? We’ve been through all this, and it just doesn’t matter. I love Aida, and I’m going to marry her. That’s all that counts. So, I’d better go and tell her I’m leaving for Thailand in the morning; she’ll want to help me pack.”
“All right, Tom. But I hope you don’t hurt her.”
“I won’t. That’s a promise.”
I looked at my uneaten hamburger, growing colder by the second. “Are you coming to Rufadora with me? Aida’s there. I’m going to eat and then go home and pack my flight bag.”
“I’ll have a beer while you eat, then I’m heading back to base; it’s been a long day, and I still smell like fuel. I haven’t had a chance to shower.”
“Yeah, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings by saying you stink. Why’d you work so late?”
“No reason, really. Lucy had to break our date to go to Manila on business. I didn’t feel like going out without her, and the barracks is too boring, so I thought I’d help the night shift.
“What’d Dixon say? Did he thank you?”
“He told me to sweep the hangar deck.”
We walked together to the bar where Steve ordered a beer and sat with Mama-san while I joined Aida. Something in my look made Grace and Luz leave us alone.
“Aida. I’m leaving for Thailand tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, honey ko. Now you don’t go home to Lamao with me.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t supposed to go, but the other guy broke his leg and can’t go.”
“Who the other guy?”
“Oh. He always so drunk when he come to Rufadora before now. He’s drunk when he break his leg?”
“Yes. He’ll be laid up for a while.”
“Good. Now he can’t drink. Anyway, he always is a happy drunk and don’t cause trouble, and the other girls they like him. I like him too if he’s not drunk, but don’t let him take me out.”
“He wanted to take you out?” Aida had never told me about Jeff. The guy was a dirtbag and alcoholic, always looking for ways to avoid work. I couldn’t stand him.
“Yes. Last year before we met. He came to Rufadora and watched me dance, then bought me a drink. He had too much to drink though, and could hardly walk. I left him and played pool with Grace and Luz until he went back to the base. Next time he came to Rufadora with his friends he don’t remember me.”
“Has he bothered you since?”
“No. Like I say, he don’t remember me ‘cause he’s drunk. I don’t like the guy who always drinking and have a hangover.”
“He comes to work often enough with hangovers, if not drunk. They keep sending him to counseling, and he’s okay for a week or so, then he starts drinking again.”
“Oh, he’s an okay guy, but not like you, honey ko. You are the only guy who makes me happy when you come to Rufadora. When I first see you from the balcony, I know I’m gonna make you marry me.”
I caught Aida’s smile as she spoke, her eyes downcast and looking at the table. My first thought was the cynical one that questioned her motives for wanting to marry me. But the smile was all wrong, too real, too innocent, too warm. After a moment she looked up at me and I knew I couldn’t question her motives. She laughed and pressed her head against my chest and tickled my ribs.
I finished my burger while Aida said goodbye to Grace and Luz. Steve was still sitting at the bar, nursing his beer and talking to the bartender, a big, stocky, Filipino with arms like Popeye who served as the bouncer when things got out of hand and Shore Patrol couldn’t be found.
“Look after Aida while I’m away.”
Steve gave me a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”
“Check on her, especially if the earthquakes get worse. The volcano too. They keep saying it could blow any time. I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to Aida while I’m away.”
“Don’t worry. Lucy and I will keep tabs on her. I’ll get word to you if anything happens. I won’t leave her without knowing she’s safe.”
Aida hugged Grace and Luz and made them promise to visit her. Steve remained behind talking to the two barmaids while Aida and I said goodbye to Mama-San.
“So, you are off to Thailand? Well, I hope you enjoy yourself, but not too much. I have visited Pattaya several times and find it an alluring resort. Will you stay in a hotel in Pattaya or is there a barracks at the airfield?”
“We’ll stay in a hotel – we have a van to carry us back and forth. The work days are usually long,” I added in a feeble attempt to head off the mama-san’s line of thought.
“I see. What do Sailors do in Pattaya when they are not working? Will you window shop?”
How did she know these things? Some hotels displayed hostesses behind observation windows. Guests selected the girl they wanted and paid the hotel for her services. I had never used the service, but plenty of Sailors and tourists took advantage of the easy pick up.
“I manage to find good deals on jewelry and souvenirs, don’t I Aida?”
“Oh Mama-san. Tommy always bringing me nice presents when he comes back from his trips.”
“Yes,” I said. “And there’s plenty of time to walk around town, find great restaurants, and hit the beach. We also have tours arranged for our days off.”
My tap-dancing must have entertained Mama-san. She listened, the slightest smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
“It will be a hard detachment, but we’ll have a little free time. We’ll be back here before you know it.” I nudged Aida toward the door.
As she walked out she called back. “Bye-bye Mama-san. I will come and see you after I return from Lamao.”
“Good-bye, Aida. Good-bye, Tom. Hurry back.”
Rubble littered the streets and jeepneys navigated the debris with care. We walked home, picking our way among people cleaning up, animals on the loose, and kids enjoying the commotion. The apartment door had opened in the earthquake. Inside, a thin layer of dust covered everything, and Aida’s cherished framed photos of Abraham Lincoln and the Statue of Liberty had fallen off their pegs. In the kitchen, some plates had fallen off the counter but, all in all, there wasn’t any real damage. Aida was relieved; she had precious few belongings.
I started packing my flight bag, but Aida took over, grumbling over the way I folded my shirts.
“Tommy. Go. I pack for you. Your shirts will wrinkle the way you pack. Look, honey ko; fold like so.”
She unfolded and refolded the shirts. She folded my work trousers next, and arranged everything else, socks, belts, underwear, and shoes for maximum efficiency and neatness. I had decided to stay in the barracks that night and was impatient to leave. I couldn’t risk arriving late for preflight, especially if there were more earthquakes.
I took a bite of rice and pork, brushed my teeth, and grabbed my flight bag. I removed the blue pouch from the nightstand and placed it in the backpack. I started to leave but stopped and pulled the medallion out of my shirt and held it up to the lamplight. The imperfections flashed in the light and left me with an uneasy feeling. I shrugged it off, kissed Aida goodbye, promised to write to her, and ran downstairs. Outside, Toby barked from the balcony next door. I tossed him the handful of pork I had saved and crossed the courtyard.