I stayed behind after George left and played pool with the barmaids. When that grew tiresome I went into the bar and nursed a warm beer while deflecting playful propositions from the girls. It didn’t take long before they caught on and stopped pestering me to buy them drinks. I’m no prude, but I was never one to pick up women in bars; heck, I didn’t spend much time in bars anyway except overseas and then only as a place to go after work rather than hunker down in the barracks. I reminded myself that I hadn’t had a girlfriend in several years. Maybe I was haunting the wrong places.
The girls feared Marie. That much I gathered as we played pool. I was curious to know more about her and hinted for information. They unwittingly obliged. She wasn’t one of them and didn’t try to know them. She didn’t hustle guys for drinks, didn’t dance, and never went home but alone. Marie might let a guy buy her a watered-down drink, but he never made it past, “thank you, goodbye.” Mystery surrounded her; no one knew where she was from, how she made her living, or why she worked at Rufadora. She drove an American luxury car, wore nice clothes, and didn’t smell of cheap perfume. Her jewelry was real, and she drove to Manila to have her hair done. Besides Helen, only Amy could engage Marie in conversation, joke with her, draw a smile from her. Now, for the first time in anyone’s memory, she had revealed herself to be a woman: she was interested in a man. The last was said with a glance at me.
The barmaid brought me another beer and took away the empty. Warm again. On busy nights, beer sold faster than it could chill. I considered asking for a glass, but it was laborious picking out the bits of rust and the occasional fly embedded in the ice. I looked around for Marie and spotted her at a table with a stocky Marine, the crewcut type who probably had “Mother” tattooed across his chest. The guy swigged his beer and belched. He laughed and guzzled some more and belched again, this time sitting upright and concentrating. The belch rolled across the bar, catching the silence between songs from the jukebox and wringing raucous laughter from the crowd. The look of disgust on Marie’s face spoke volumes. She pushed the glass away with her fingertips and, from the looks of it, spoke brusquely to the Marine, who shrugged as she walked away from the table. He took another swig from his bottle then picked up and finished Marie’s drink. He wavered on his feet but steadied himself and joined a group of Marines at another table. They looked Marie’s way and laughed.
Marie stood at the far end of the bar with her back to me, apparently unaware of my presence. I was disappointed; I had hoped to have a drink with her despite the earlier brush-off. I decided to leave for the base. I had a long day ahead and looked forward to a quiet night’s sleep without the constant worry of the odd mortar blowing up my hutch. I swept the loose change into the bar tray and downed my beer. I wanted to say goodbye to Marie, but didn’t relish another rejection. My self-esteem was solid, but women could make me feel small with just a glance. I shrugged and walked to the door, weaving around tables and couples. I had just stepped through the doorway when a voice stopped me.
“Leaving so soon?”
She stood a few steps away, a blue clutch in her hand. She must have hurried to catch me. I liked the thought.
“I asked if you were leaving so soon.”
“Yes. Tomorrow is a busy day. I need to get some sleep.” My next words were a desperate attempt for sympathy, but what the heck; I had nothing to lose. “I’m going back to Vietnam in a few days and don’t have much time. I’d hoped to relax and chat with you and forget the war for a while.” I motioned toward the blue clutch. “Are you leaving?”
“I had considered it. Did you not ask me earlier if I wanted to have a drink with you?”
“Yes, but you didn’t seem interested.”
“That was then.”
“Oh? What changed your mind?”
“You. You interest me. You are not like other Sailors. Are you a loner?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I’m not afraid to be alone. Solitude gives me time to think.”
“What do you think about in your solitude?”
“Let’s get that drink.” I called for drinks and paid for them, wondering if Marie would get a cut. I regretted the thought immediately.
“Shall we sit at the bar or would you prefer a table?” I handed Marie her drink, a Cosmopolitan. “I thought barmaids’ drinks were mostly water.”
Marie’s eyes blazed like red hot spikes. “I am not a barmaid.” Her voice could have chilled a volcano.
“I spoke without thinking. I’m sorry.”
“I thought you were a smart boy.”
“I said more careful than smart. I was neither this time.”
“You’re forgiven.” She turned toward the back room. “Come, it’s quieter in the back; all the Chiefs have gone.”
The room was empty; we sat at a table circled by the yellow light of a bare bulb dangling at the end of a wire. Piano music poured through the door when two barmaids entered laughing and giggling. They stopped short when they saw Marie, the one bumping into the other. They backed out quietly, shutting the door behind them and silencing the piano.
“So, if you’re not a barmaid, what is it you do here? The other Chiefs call you pure.”
“Pure? Is that what you men discuss at your meetings? Are there not more important topics to discuss than my purity? War, peace, wives?”
“The meetings are usually about work. I came out tonight to see George, an old friend. Everything stopped, though, when you brought my beer. One of the Chiefs pointed out that you never serve anyone. Am I that special?”
“Special? Hmm.” She tilted her head as she considered my question. Her chin rested on her hand, fingers folded against her palm. Her hair fell away to bare the breathtakingly perfect curve of her neck and shoulder, the delicate filigree of her ear. I yearned to press my lips to the hollow behind her ear and trace with my fingertips the smooth, pure line of her neck. Such skin. Not a blemish. She was carrying me away and breaking my heart. Danger signals should have flared up; instead I just sat and stared and lapped up everything she said.
“No,” she said, “Just different.”
“Is that good?”
“Am I?” She smiled, revealing perfect, white teeth.
“Yes. And intriguing.”
“Oh? In what way?”
“You don’t fit the pattern of the women in a town like Olongapo. You don’t appear to be after a husband, or a Sailor’s money.” The words had barely left my lips when I realized my mistake.
“Do you know how insulting that is?”
“I don’t mean it to be. Looks like I’ve stepped in it again.”
“What do you mean, “stepped in it.””
“That’s just an expression. It means I put my foot in my mouth.”
“Ah. That I understand. Yes, you did. Not all barmaids are gold diggers, Frank. Most of the girls here send money home to help support their families.” Marie leaned forward, her eyes intent. “You seem to think the only thing barmaids want is money.”
“That isn’t what I think.”
Marie ignored me and went on.
“Do you believe every Filipino thinks all Americans are rich? That the way Sailors throw their money around getting drunk and paying for women to sleep with them proves that they are smarter than everyone else? That they have so much money to spend, all they have to do when they empty their wallets is go to the bank and get more money?”
“No, of course not. Don’t put words in my mouth, Marie.”
“Filipinos are not naïve, Frank, and most women are smart enough to look with disdain on Sailors who care so little for their hard-earned pay.”
“Marie, I’m not questioning the virtue of the girls who come to Olongapo seeking work. What concerns me is the disillusion that awaits them when they don’t find the life of luxury they expect to find in the States. I see it all the time. Sometimes I think they would be happier staying here and marrying a boy from their village.”
“How do you know what will make a Filipina happy? Why do you assume all she wants is money and a life of luxury? Why do you assume that a barmaid does not truly love the Sailor she marries? For that matter, why do you assume the Sailor does not love her?”
“I never said that, Marie.”
“Tell me, how many Filipino-American marriages end in divorce? How many Filipinos return to the Philippines when they become disillusioned?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
“I haven’t met a barmaid yet, Frank, who returned from America because she didn’t like it. However, I have met barmaids who returned to PI when their husbands transferred here for duty. They come to Rufadora and talk to their friends. They show off their babies and talk of how wonderful it is living in America. Moreover, not one of them has expressed a desire to remain in the Philippines. Indeed, Frank, they…”
“Wait a minute. Let me talk, Marie.”
“Do not interrupt me. They all – all – want to bring other family members back to America.” Marie spoke in earnest. The haughtiness had disappeared. “I think you possess an altruistic nature, Frank, but it is misplaced in this case. I don’t think you’ve thought through your feelings on what makes a happy marriage between barmaids and Sailors.”
“Maybe not, Marie. I truly hope all of the marriages are happy.” I drew a finger through a water stain on the table. Cigarette burns rimmed the edges of the table and it wobbled a bit on uneven legs. “Who are you, Marie? You’re not a barmaid, yet you work in a bar. Wait, let me rephrase that,” I added hastily. “You’re not a barmaid, yet I met you in a bar where you seem to be on close terms with the mama-san, and you served me a beer. And, I might add, somehow the bartender knew enough to use top-shelf liquor for your drink. You’re a contradiction. Not to disparage the girls who work here, but you don’t fit with them. You speak and act different and your bearing suggests a life lived in the city, not a village. I would guess you’re from a wealthy family, well educated, and bored. Am I right?”
“I didn’t serve you; I brought you a drink out of courtesy.”
“That was nice of you. Thank you.”
“We’ve already been through this part.”
“You’re being evasive.”
“You’re being impertinent and interrogative,” Marie snapped.
“Another ninety-degree turn.”
“Yes. Just as our conversation starts to warm one of us says something that causes tension and the thread of our conversation turns cold.”
“Maybe we’re not trying hard enough to make general conversation. Shall we talk about the weather? I think it will be hot tonight.”
“It’s always hot here. General conversation is great in a waiting room or on a bus.”
“Yes. But people are only passing the time in a waiting room, not trying hard to know one another.”
“Is that what we are doing?”
“I truly hope so. We seem to be aiming for some objective other than small talk.”
My heart was pumping and I was becoming emotional, which was dangerous since my eyes tended to tear up when I became passionate. Would Marie think me weak?
“I feel an intense urge to engage with you, Marie, and find out more about you. I think you want the same.”
Marie’s eyes softened as she calmed. She smiled. “I do, Frank. I don’t know what made me bring you your beer like a common barmaid, but I wanted to be near you again.”
She sat back and crossed her legs, then arched her eyebrows and flipped her hair to one side. “Since you asked, I manage the bar for Helen, the mama-san and owner. She is also my aunt.”
She captured me again. “I don’t care what you do for a living, Marie, I feel drawn to you. I like talking with you. I can hang out with my friends and talk all night, but they can’t offer a female point of view or companionship. They can’t flash brilliant white teeth at me from behind beautiful lips or look at me with bright, brown eyes that make my throat tighten and my heart skip two beats with every blink. You have a firmness of character belied by a delicate beauty, and eyes expressive of two sentiments: come hither, and go away, go far away; I don’t know how to interpret either one. Two days ago, I launched aircraft during a battle in Vietnam; tonight, I’m battling wits with a beautiful but perplexing woman. Maybe the feeling of doom that hangs over me is what makes me speak this way. Maybe I feel a sense of urgency to know you because I don’t think I’ll return from Vietnam again.”
Marie stared. I could see the emotions churning inside her. She didn’t know what to say. She sat up again, her back straight, eyes wide. She appeared anxious, like she had gone too far, or she wanted me to continue. I wasn’t sure which. I hoped I hadn’t gone too far.
My heart was racing now and I knew I had to go, not only because I needed sleep, but because I didn’t want to say something that would end any chance of seeing Marie again.
“I’m sorry, Marie. I’ve said too much, more than I should have. I usually don’t speak this frankly—or this much—until I’ve known a woman for, oh, eight or nine years.”
I paused again and smiled, my eyes fixed on Marie’s. “I’d better get going. I’m exhausted and have a big day tomorrow.” I stood and extended my hand. Marie looked perplexed and I could tell she wanted to say something, but I squeezed her soft warm hand, then kept squeezing. I felt awkward but couldn’t let go. My mind churned with emotion and my eyes teared up. The she squeezed my hand in a gentle but firm grip and smiled. Oh, how my heart melted.
“Goodnight, Marie. I’ve enjoyed meeting you. I hope we meet again. You’re unlike any woman I have ever known.” I walked away. I fell in love with Marie at that moment.