Dense clouds of cigarette smoke assaulted my lungs as I made my way to the exit, already missing the scent of the beautiful woman I’d left in the back room. I had reached the door when I heard my name called above the screeching noise of the jukebox.
“Frank! Hey, Frank. Over here.”
I waved my way through the smoke; Sam gestured to me from the bar. As I stepped toward him, the door opened forcing me to quick-step out of the way. A well-dressed man walked in, glanced at me, and strode to the center of the room. He might have owned the place by his manner. He scanned the tables and bar. Amy, passing by with a tray of empties, greeted him. They spoke for a moment before she left for the back room. The man stretched his neck and adjusted his tie, taking in the crowd. He nodded in recognition of Mama-san in her post at the end of the bar. She gave a thin, frigid smile with just the right amount of insolence. The man sneered and looked away.
“Hey, Sam. What are you doing here? Was that you on the piano?”
“Yep. I thought I’d play a tune, but the keys are so darn sticky with gunk and who knows what. That’s a sad way to treat a piano.” He dipped his fingers in a glass of water and wiped them on a bar towel. “Well, I did as you said. I checked into the barracks and stowed my gear, and had dinner with the guys at the Sky Club. You didn’t say I couldn’t meet up with you. The mama-san said you were in the back talking to someone so I decided to wait.” Sam grinned.” I figured if it was a girl with you, I wouldn’t have long to wait.”
The bushy, red whiskers around Sam’s mouth lifted and fell as he spoke. I suppressed a smile.
Sam cocked his head and smiled back. “What’s so funny?”
I drew a finger down the side of my nose until the smile left my face. “Nothing. You remind me of someone.” I ran my fingers and thumb down Sam’s beard.
“Don’t tell me; Yosemite Sam.”
“Great horny toads,” I said in my best cartoon voice. “Is that beard regulation, you varmint?”
“Haha. Very funny, Frank.” Sam smiled at the familiar joke. “Probably not; I’ll trim it up in the morning.”
“I’m only joshing.”
Amy returned from the back room and spoke to the well-dressed man. He appeared agitated as he clenched and unclenched his fists and pointed to the back room. Amy kept shaking her head and backing away, but the man moved toward her each time.
“Still, a trim would be a good idea before you report to the squadron in the morning. You don’t want the Skipper telling you to shave.”
A burly man, dressed like a barback, entered the bar unseen by the well-dressed man and stood with his back against the wall while another barback, equally burly, stepped from the backroom.
The well-dressed man cast a furious look at the second barback and again spoke gruff to Amy. I couldn’t make out what he said, but his tone carried. Amy’s face wrinkled in worry. The tension in the bar rose as people turned to watch the fuss. The man, a hand inside his coat, stared at the mama-san who stared back unperturbed. She spoke to the man behind the bar without taking her eyes off the stranger. The menacing Filipino joined Helen, standing next to her with his arms crossed over his chest. The well-dressed man scowled again and withdrew his hand. He turned on his heel, appeared surprised by the man at the door, and left the bar, slamming the door behind him. Amy, shaken, returned to the back room.
“I’m sorry, Sam. What were you saying?”
“I agreed with you. I said I don’t want to scare the nuns at the orphanage, either.” Sam spun around on the barstool and leaned back, his elbows on the bar. “So. How’d the Chief’s meeting go?”
“Fine. I came in at the end, just in time to have a blowhard senior chief get in my face.”
“About her.” I tipped my head toward Marie as she left the back room. Amy followed close on her heels. Marie spoke to Helen, calming down as the mama-san patted her arm and spoke to her. Still holding the blue clutch, Marie smiled and kissed her aunt’s cheek. She left Amy with Mama-san and returned to the back room.
“Excuse me, Sam. I’ll be right back.” I left Sam and crossed the bar to speak to Helen.
“Pardon me, Mama-san; what’s wrong with Marie? Is everything all right? Can I do anything?”
“Yes, everything is all right. An old friend of Marie asked after her, but he left. She does not wish to see him.”
“May I see her? May I go into the back room?”
“If you wish. However, you will not find her. She has gone home for the night. She will return tomorrow.”
“Would you like something else? Are you returning to base tonight?”
“What? No. I mean yes; I am returning to the base tonight. Thank you.” I rejoined Sam.
“What was that all about?”
“The woman I pointed out left to go home. Seems she didn’t want to speak to the guy who slammed the door. Old friends, apparently.” I signaled for a beer. The bartender set a San Miguel on the bar.
“Or old lovers?”
Sam’s answer annoyed me, which surprised me; we had been best friends for years, rarely disagreeing. “I doubt it. The blowhard I mentioned told me she’s pure.”
“She doesn’t go out with customers.”
“Ah. Interesting. Maybe the guy came back for more than a drink. He left disappointed.”
“The blowhard’s a former aircrewman who stopped flying after a crash. He’s a troublemaker the Master Chief is trying to have transferred.”
“Who’s getting transferred?
“Oh.” Sam leaned back against the bar. “Sorry. I was watching the barmaids. Don’t they get cold dancing on those stands in bikinis?” His eyebrows lifted. “That one’s real cold.” He spun around on the barstool to face me. “You like her, don’t you?”
“Who? Her?” I nodded at the dancer, the cold one.
“No. The other girl. The one from the back room.”
“Oh, yeah. She’s something else.”
“What’s her name?”
“She’s good looking. Beautiful. If she doesn’t go home with men, does that mean she isn’t a barmaid?”
“Yep. You’re quicker than I am; that’s exactly what it means. She’s the manager.”
“I thought the mama-san was the manager.”
“She owns the place. She’s also Marie’s aunt.”
“So, despite her job, is there any hope for you? Are you going to ask her out?”
“Maybe. We spoke for a while after everyone left. I think she’s interested—I know I am. I’m coming back every chance I get.”
I spun the beer bottle in my hands as a mental image of Marie passed through my thoughts. “She’s beautiful, Sam. I couldn’t help staring. She’s cultured too; prim and proper, with a feisty personality. Unfortunately, we disagreed a bit and I left her sitting at the table.”
“I called her a barmaid.”
“Ah. I take it she didn’t like that.”
“Bingo. Not a bit. Her flash of anger came quick. I swear bolts of lightning darted from her eyes. I don’t dare test her anger any further. Beyond that, we argued over the relationship between barmaids and Sailors.”
“Were you at any point in the conversation not arguing with each other?”
“I think we were in violent agreement most of the time, but neither wanted to lose the point.”
“Give the point, Frank. Women always win. If, by some stroke of fortune, we win, we lose. Our happiness is only possible when women are happy.”
“Says the man whose wife once told me her happiness depended solely on her husband’s happiness.” I gripped Sam’s shoulder. “She was a wonderful woman, Sam. I would give anything to find someone like her.”
Tears, never far from springing up, filled Sam’s eyes. “Susanna loved you like a brother, Frank.”
“I loved her too, Sam. We had a lot of fun together, didn’t we? You know, I never felt more lonesome than when I saw the way she held you on the pier when we returned from overseas.”
“We spoke about you all the time. Susanna wanted to get you married. Remember how she always fixed you up with her girlfriends? And how you always said you couldn’t talk to them?”
“How could I forget? She’d say “Oh, Frank,” and roll her eyes and ask me what I had done wrong when a blind date didn’t work out. Anyway, Miss Right will come along someday. When she does, I’ll look up and say thank you to Susanna.”
I had to look away. I, too, became emotional. My love for Susanna had begun the day we met, the same day she and Sam met. She had an overwhelming yet subtle presence. She appeared at first ordinary, unremarkable, just another pretty bartender. But the pull she exerted on me was spiritual, not of this world. It was as though she spoke directly to the heart, like a God. A man didn’t hear Susanna’s voice so much as he felt it, somewhere between the mind and the heart. Like the voice that tells you what a nice thing you’ve done, Susanna’s voice made you feel good, happy, proud, at peace with the world. Susanna made you smile because she always smiled and her smile carried the command “Be joyful.” Her life had carried that message, and her life had imprinted itself on my heart. At one point, I became jealous of the love between my two dearest friends and avoided them for a long time. Seeing them together filled me with envy and a burning passion to take Susanna away from Sam. But that could never happen. Their love, their bond, was unbreakable, immovable. Others could love Susanna, but Susanna’s love for Sam, and his for her, had been born when time was born. She could love another man, but only as a sister loves a favorite brother. When I finally understood that, I basked in the warmth of her love for me.
“It’s okay, Frank, to love another woman,” she had told me one day after my jealousy had kept us apart for several weeks. She had come to me while Sam was away on detached duty in the Azores.
“Why have you not come to see me, Frank? I don’t understand. Have I done you a wrong? Have I hurt you?”
I remained silent at first, afraid to give in and appear weak.
“If I have caused you pain, I apologize. I would not hurt you for the world.”
Agony showed in her face, as though I were physically harming her. My resolve was fading. Susanna made you feel as though her happiness depended on you alone.
“I love you, Frank, and I need you in my life. You bring me a comfort no other man can bring me.”
“I’ve loved you since that first night, Susanna.”
Her eyes, when she spoke, contained sorrow, not for her, but for me. “Oh, Frank. That love I can give only to Sam.”
I cried like a baby inside, but clenched my jaw until it ached from holding back the tears.
Her voice, her words, her eyes, her soul had spoken to me, had wrapped around my heart and lifted away my love for her. She had spoken; she could not love me the way a woman can love only one man. She could love me only as a brother.
I had to accept that. I had grasped that bond and let it wrap around my heart to replace the love I could not have. The unearthly, invisible web that she cast over me remained, for Susanna’s spell never left a man but for the hollow void in that part of the heart that loves a woman. My love would be from a distance, though, when I understood the bond between Sam and Susanna. Time and again, I wondered if she were an angel sent to live among man to show him the true meaning of love.
“I loved her too, Sam.”
“I know you did, Frank.”
“I see some of her in Marie. The same self-assurance, the same direct manner.”
“I hope Marie brings you the love you wanted from Susanna, Frank.”
Sam’s words startled me. I felt guilty as though I had done something wrong. “You knew?”
“Susanna told you?”
“The way you acted around her.”
“Was I that obvious? Did I act foolish, like a boy in love?”
“No. Not like that, but the way a man acts when he hopes a woman will love him. You pined for her. You didn’t smile when you looked at her from afar. Your face was serious and your longing for her visible. After a while, though, after you stopped coming by to see us, when we spoke only at work, something changed. I noticed it when I returned from the Azores. You spent your free time with us again. But, your tenderness toward each other was remarkable. Like that of husband and wife who remain on friendly terms after divorcing and hold out hope for reconciliation.”
“That came after she told me she could love only you. My heart fell a thousand miles, Sam. I avoided you both out of jealousy. She came to me while you were away and told me she needed me, but as a brother. She knew I was in love with her.”
“Yes. I thought she must have.”
“I wanted her to cheat on you, Sam. I would have taken her away from you.” I couldn’t meet Sam’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Frank. We both loved a woman whose love was not of this world. You can’t be sorry for that.”
“Do you think she knew how special her love was?”
“Yes. She told me once that men seemed to worship her, and it made her uncomfortable. She said she sometimes felt like a messenger come to bring joy to those who were sad.”
“But you weren’t sad were you, Sam?”
“No, Frank. I wasn’t sad. It was different with me. Susanna and I were born in love and destined to find one another. Our love was meant to show others the meaning of love, the indescribable love, the love that comes from God, that binds a man and woman for eternity. Few people find that love, Frank. The selfish never find it.”
I had the feeling I had lost Sam for a moment, like he had gone to see Susanna to refresh himself of her love. I envied Sam that love, the memory of that love. If I were lucky, maybe my own love, assuming I found it, would last longer than most before ending in a flurry of divorce papers and acrimony.
“No, Frank. I’ll never love again; companionship is all that’s left me, and I don’t want a companion whose love I can’t return.”
He wiped his eyes at the memories. It was hard watching him as he remembered and suffered. I often wondered if this were only grief, but banished the thought; I’d seen people grieve for a while, then set it aside, place the memories on the bookshelf, take a deep breath, and go on living for the future. In a way I felt sorry for Sam. Susanna had been his future, his sunrise, his good morning kiss, but her death had pulled the past, like a blanket, over his head.
Then I smiled. Susanna’s presence was strong. I could almost smell the orange blossoms she loved to wear in her hair. “Maybe that’s why she fixed me up with her friends.”
Sam laughed. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Susanna’s attempts to fix me up with her girlfriends invariably failed and left her perplexed and exasperated. Only one had lasted longer than six months, ending when I deployed aboard ship. I could never seem to find the kind of love Sam and Susanna had shared. Their love was special, a mutual giving and receiving, a respect for each other’s feelings, and a concern for the other’s well-being. They loved without the expectation of a return of their love. That kind of love was rare.
I had almost experienced that kind of love. Before I knew Susanna, I had known a woman while stationed in Hawaii who brought me to the brink of everlasting love. I knew the moment it happened. I had gone to her tiny, one-room cottage in the mountains above Kailua, my third visit there. The mood was expectation of something intense, I realized later. We both had known something wonderful was awaiting us. When she led me to the bed, all sound hushed but for the sound of the waterfall plunging into the pool at the far end of the yard. The air smelled of tropical ecstasy and the breeze from the sea blew soft through the window and ruffled the curtains like palm fronds. Senses heightened and details sharpened, and when my skin touched hers it was as though silk were brushed across my body in one long sheet like a soft, warm breath. When we joined in that rapture borne from Heaven, I melted into her the way air fills the atmosphere, and when the sun burst like a supernova deep inside me, I felt reborn as though my soul had just reached awareness. Her lips, her embrace, the pillow of heaven that surrounded us told me the love was there, that I need only give Lynn the love that only a woman can bear, but that love I could not give. I could not give that love to any woman.
“Women always left after growing impatient with my reserve—one girlfriend called it my unnerving dispassion—or we drifted apart. Solitude never bothered me though. If women don’t like my company because I don’t talk much, that’s their problem. I’m not going to change for someone else when I’m happy in my own skin.” I grinned and rubbed a hand over my stubble. “I might change for Marie, though.”
“Susanna would have liked that. She would have taken credit for your change of heart.”
“Wouldn’t she, though? I was afraid to face her after a breakup. She worked so hard to find dates for me, I felt bad for her when nothing happened.”
“She couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong. She thought she knew what kind of woman you liked.”
“That was the problem. I wanted a woman like Susanna, but she was the only one, and she was yours.”
“Susanna wasn’t mine, Frank. I didn’t own her.”
“I’m sorry, Sam. I didn’t mean it that way. I only meant that you and Susanna had each other.”
“We had each other, yes, but even that doesn’t describe what we had. We didn’t choose each other, Frank. We found each other. It’s hard to explain.”
The Sam of a few minutes before changed. He leaned forward, staring into the distance, his thoughts far away. He clasped his hands and he trembled.
“There could only be one Susanna, Frank. My life began when I found her.” He fell silent as he collected his thoughts, pored over memories, touched her again. “An inexplicable feeling overwhelmed me when I met Susanna. I saw her for the first time from half a block away. As I drew nearer, a feeling of warmth and familiarity enveloped me like a second skin. My heart skipped. It skipped, Frank, and I felt a burn in my gut. It was intense, like in a dream when you love a woman and the joy you feel is so incredibly intense that your heart feels like it’s going to burst.
When you dream, there are no outside forces competing for your attention, Frank, nothing to dull the effect of the emotions. When you’re sad in a dream, it’s the most intense sadness possible. When you’re happy, it’s the most intense happiness possible. Dream emotions are pure, unadulterated, undiluted. They are the form, the definition, the substance, the being, the universal truth of the emotions we experience less deeply when we are awake. The love you feel for a woman while you’re dreaming is the purest, completest, and most fulfilling love there is. Do you know why that is, Frank?”
“Because in your dream, Frank, you give the woman your undivided attention. She is the sole object of your dream. The same thing occurs when you’re infatuated with a woman. She is the sole object of your life. You give her your complete attention. That’s the key to love, Frank.”
I understood then the bond between Sam and Susanna. The infatuation that gave way to passion that should have given way to companionship. But Susanna died before they could move on. Sam’s grief would never leave him. He was stuck in a love that had never moved past passion, that restless phase of the process that defines human love. He would never move past passion and into companionship because Susanna had died during the ultimate expression of passion – the birth of their son.
“When I met Susanna that day, I knew we were destined to be together. There was no doubt in my mind. The thought that we were not never occurred. It was a truth, an absolute, an a priori fact. Water seeks its own level, fire burns, gravity is, we were destined to marry. It just was.”
Sam’s faced glowed with the rapture of memory and I knew Susanna was with him.
“When our eyes met, the deepest, most intense dreamlike feeling of joy and happiness, fulfillment and inevitability came over me. It nearly brought me to tears. My knees were shaking and my face drawn, and my gut burned, Frank. My gut burned. When we reached for the same apple in the vendor’s cart our hands touched, we looked at each other, and I saw it in her eyes, Frank, it was in her eyes; she knew it too. She knew it too.”
Sam shook his head and then he bowed his head. The plaintive wail that burst from the deep recesses of his soul echoed the grief of a broken heart.
“Oh, God, how I miss you, Susanna.”
I laid my hand on Sam’s shaking shoulder. I understood his grief, but couldn’t feel what he felt. I had not suffered the loss Sam had suffered. I wanted to feel the love Sam and Susanna had shared, the love that connected them still, the love that, somehow, had bound them from birth. Someday, perhaps, I would find a love that special, my own wished-for love.
Mama-san was used to crying drunks, but Sam wasn’t drunk. She approached us and asked if Sam were okay.
“Yes, ma’am. He’ll be all right. We’re leaving for the base now.”
I asked Sam if he needed anything.
“No, Frank. I’m okay. Let’s go.”
Later, I lay in bed, hands behind my head, my shadow cast onto the wall next to me by the glow of the bedside lamp. The shadow did not reveal my smile as I lay thinking about my encounter with Marie. Our fingers had touched too. I had touched Marie for only a moment, but it sent a thrill through my body. I had nearly dropped the bottle of beer. The beauty in the curve of Marie’s neck, the glow in her face when she smiled, the way her eyes flashed in anger had made my heart race. Was this how it had been with Sam and Susanna? Perhaps. However, I hadn’t felt born in love with Marie. That part of the magic had not occurred.
Love affected people in many ways; maybe the recipe differed for each person or couple. The first blush of love always appeared magical as, in Sam’s words, the couple gave each other their undivided attention. Infatuation had the same impact as love, but died away whereas love, real love, heartfelt love, blossomed, nurtured by the desire for companionship and the desire to please the other. Sam and Susanna had lived to please one another, not expecting anything in return but knowing the other would reciprocate the love and the gesture to please.
What would love with Marie be like? She had a quick temper, but so did I. She was passionate while I was easy-going. Easily perturbed but slow to react, I had, nevertheless, managed to bloody many a nose in my naval career and had paid a hefty penalty in punishment.
My thoughts flew too far ahead. I wondered where Marie had grown up, where she had gone to school. Her life of privilege was evident. She had too much of the finishing school in her, along with a touch of debutante arrogance. What was she doing in a place like Olongapo? She would have fit better in Manila or Baguio. She carried none of the roughness of a woman who spent her youth working in bars, none of the provincial naïveté of the small villages that made up most of the Philippines. Women like Marie had no notion of innocence and desperation; they lived lives of luxury and convenience and expected things delivered in neat bundles with pretty ribbons on them. Women like Marie used men like gym towels: nice soft cloths for wiping away sweat after a rousing bout of shopping for shoes. Not that Marie was superficial. Far from it.
None of that mattered, though. I needed a woman like Marie after Vietnam. The cold chill returned. Vietnam. I didn’t want to go back. Not even to collect my belongings. If I returned, I wouldn’t leave; I knew it. I switched off the lamp, and settled back into the soft, comfortable bed. I closed my eyes and fell fast asleep.