In the words of Pope Julius II to Michelangelo from the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, “When will you make an end?” He referred, of course, to the painting of the Sistine Chapel and the agonizing wait for its completion.
Everything has an end, including writing a story. Sometimes, though, the writer doesn’t know when or how to end the story. Sometimes the writing itself is more important than finishing.
Honey Ko has been in draft for five years and three major revisions. The story grew from a simple plot relation of sometimes random events, to a complex plot with many major charactors and two timelines. Honey ko began as a simple love story with an ambiguous ending to a romance with three couples–in two of which the woman is dead, three adopted people who never knew their parents, a death, and a spiritied nun not afraid to use a rifle. The events occur mainly in the Philippines and Thailand, with some taking place in Spain and Vietnam.
The main story is written from observations of my year in the Philippines while I served in the Navy. It also calls upon my year of duty in Spain and the dear soul I met and lost there. As I wrote the story, I found I wanted to understand love and grief and how people deal with both. I found similarities between the two, especially in the way the heart aches the same whether in grief or in love.
The five writing years were well-spent even though I “finished” the novel several times and queried agents for representation. Thankfully, I was rejected. I began the novel without knowing how to write one. I joined a writing group on Facebook after the first draft and discovered just how much I had to learn. And learn and learn and learn. My submission for critique was 500 words. The first critique I received back was 1500 words! (My story had nice pace though 🙂
I shudder at the first two revisions and how tempted I was to self-publish them. Egads! I’m glad I waited. My muses guided me and helped me find the story I want to publish. The writing journey was good for me as it let me develop my voice, those characteristics of a writer that carry over into everything he writes. Several of my blog posts are included in the story. They weren’t written with that in mind, but I guess my muse had the final effort in mind before I knew what it would be.
I gave the story all the passion I had; I learned from my writing group that if the writer doesn’t cry, the reader won’t either. Honey Ko is a story of love, hope, despair, romance, grief, and happiness. Honey Ko is about two men who learn from two dead women what love is all about.
I’ve made an end to Honey Ko. Here’s the beginning.
My Dearest Soul,
I remember the night I fell for you, our romance and a lifetime of nightlong dreams. The dreams where you whisper so close to me, seeding memories inside my mind. And when I awake I think you are there and reach up to touch you but clutch empty air, then flinch from the gut punch when I know you’re a spirit and gone. I fall back defeated with the moon in my eyes and moonsweat beading my lips.
The magical night of our meeting, when I looked in your eyes at the novel unfolding behind, and I paged through your chapters and verses and read the story within. I dogeared each page, highlighted whole parts, underlined the bits I loved most; I inhaled the scent of your leaves. And with Luna’s bright shine behind me, I kissed away the moonsweat dotting the sensuous curve of your lip.
The thrill of our touch, our first “sort-of kiss,” took both of us by surprise, me for the impulse (too courageous by far), you for my read of your heart. The silence that gathered between us-to you more of a shock I am sure-filled the space of a breath and I wondered you didn’t draw back. But then you smiled and I smiled too and our noses bumped again and again when the moonsweat returned and I kissed it away, your spirit sweet on my lips.
That first night of our dance when we burned with desire to a sparkling flicker of fire; when we swept the dance floor illumined by hope and my palms burned with the touch of your hips; swirling music filled my heart while the shine in your eyes lit my face; your hair swept my cheek like the brush of a sigh and moonsweat glowed on your lip.
Our dance had a close but never an end, I meet you again and again at night when I dream you whisper to me that the love we shared has no end. I return to the time I threw off restraint and control of my carnal desire, the abandon of self in favor of two, when I ran my tongue through your moonsweat, glistening beads burning with fire.
When two hearts break, it’s a compound fracture with all the ugliness of a leg bone sticking out of torn, bloodied flesh. It’s a crippling injury that takes a lifetime to heal, if it ever really heals without leaving memory of an exquisitely harsh pain, a bruise of purple and black on the soul, and a reflex action against falling in love again. We all have broken hearts with any number of scars to remind us what we lost. Will a broken heart ever fully heal? No. But it can hold any number of scars to remind us that love will come again.
What is love, Aida?
Waking you when breakfast is ready.
Love is waking me?
You work long hours, Honey ko. Sometimes I know you will be tired when you get up, so I turn off your alarm clock and let you sleep while I make breakfast for you.
We were lying in the dark. She couldn’t see my tears. It’s funny how the heart breaks the same way in grief and love.
My heart broke into pieces the night Susanna died. I never thought I would love again. How do you tuck away the memory of a love so deep your spine tingled when she touched you? How do you forget the woman about whom all the love stories ever told were written? How do you put the pieces of heart back together? You don’t. You leave them where they fall and move on.
I used to think love wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It is, but most people never make it that far. To develop a relationship from infatuation to companionship takes time. But most people want true love now, the same way they want everything in life. That isn’t how love works. Love requires two people, patience, a desire to be together forever, and commitment. Most people flee commitment when they find it’s a labor of love. They expect it all to be as easy as it was before infatuation faded and love became labor. When they discover how hard love is, they give up.
Infatuation is a dream where all your attention is focused on one person with nothing to distract you. The dangerous part of a new relationship is when infatuation fades and you notice the other person’s flaws. You don’t see your own, but measure the other person’s flaws against your standards of what is acceptable. When you accept that person, flaws and all, love stands a chance of lasting a lifetime.
What I missed for the longest time is that love has two characteristics: love can’t exist in a vacuum, and love seeks its own level. Love that isn’t returned is not love; it’s desire that stabs the heart over and over and over. Love shared gains breadth and depth over time. If love stops growing, it dies. A heart breaks in response to something. Maybe the lover fell out of love. Maybe love withered away because it wasn’t returned. Maybe the lover died. Whatever the cause, one heart breaks when the other stops returning love.
Shortly before she died, Susanna asked me why I loved her. We were in Barcelona. She lay with her head on my chest illuminated by the moon rising above the Mediterranean. A warm breeze whispered across the balcony bringing with it the scent of orange blossoms.
Why do you love me, Tomás?
Because you’re beautiful, Susanna.
Is that the only reason?
Because you’re a perfect fit in my arms.
Because you’re a wonderful cook.
Because you give yourself to me completely.
Because you put me first in all things.
Because you know what my favorite things are.
Because you love the Beatles too.
Because you kiss me every morning.
Because you make my lunch every day.
Because you’re in my thoughts during meetings.
Because you meet me at the door when I come home.
Because you sing when you cook.
Because you sing when you shower.
You do too.
Shhh. This is about you.
Because you make my heart sing.
Because my heart aches when you leave the room.
Because your touch is warm upon my skin.
Because I can’t fall asleep without you beside me.
Because I miss your voice while you sleep.
Because I feel you even when I can’t see you.
Because you know what I need before I do.
Because you know me better than I know myself.
Because you took my heart when we met.
Because you make me whole.
Because you are my soul.
Because I never knew love until I knew you.
Because you give me confidence.
Because you make me feel like a man.
Because you’re beautiful.
You said that already.
Well, saying it twice means it’s doubly true.
Can a person be doubly beautiful, Tomás?
Only you, Susanna.
Can a truth be doubly true, Tomás?
Only true love, Susanna.
Two people must be truly in love.
How do they know they are truly in love?
Because they have given themselves completely to one another.
How do they do that, Tomás?
Because they understand that true love is the gift of giving one’s self unreservedly to another; that the giving of love is also the receiving of love, and that the spiritual renewal from the physical act is possible only after the giving up of self for one another.
I love you, Tomás.
I love you, Susanna.
I hadn’t begun to move on from Susanna’s death when I began my relationship with Aida. Susanna’s hands still held my heart while Aida’s sought to peel away and replace them. I wasn’t sure it could be done. I wasn’t sure I wanted it done.
She died of pneumonia three days before our wedding. Three years later, I met Aida in the Philippines. The struggle between the two women began at a small table in a crowded, dingy nightclub in Olongapo. One night, after I had frequented Rufadora Bar for several weeks, Aida asked if she could join me. She had seen me in the club several times but was too shy to approach me. She finally worked up the nerve after her girlfriends made fun of her. Aida was shy, soft-spoken, and never asked for anything. I wondered how she ever came to work as a bartender. We met that way for a while until, one night, she asked if I wanted to walk her home. I felt the first brush of love when Aida brought my emotions to life again that night. Maybe Susanna’s death had receded enough in the past. Maybe I had had enough of living with a heavy heart. Whatever the reason, Aida brought back all the passion I sent to the grave with Susanna. Which made me wonder if marrying Aida meant betraying Susanna.
I didn’t regret proposing to Aida. Romance had fallen over us like dew as we sat on the seawall overlooking Subic Bay 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. 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.
Before Aida, I had tried too hard to rediscover the love my parents had, the love I found with Susanna. Twice I had made the same mistake. 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 spoken the words while telling myself I would always love Susanna, thus leaving Aida the loving cup for second place.
Something in the back of my mind had told me—or hoped—Aida would laugh my words off as a joke. She believed me, though, when the words floated from my lips like music taking wing and trilling into her ears. She had earnestly wanted to hear them. I could almost feel her heart flutter the way a person’s heart does when they’re in love and feel the joy spread like a warm smile inside. Aida would have believed anything I said if it included the breathlessly beautiful words, I love you, Aida. Will you marry me? Had she read my mind, she would have read, I love you Aida, but I love Susanna first.
Another voice had slipped into my head, the voice that whispered cynically to most Sailors who visited Olongapo and fell for the treasures of that city. What if going to America were Aida’s sole reason for being with me? What if Aida were using me for a one-way ticket to the States so she could send for the rest of her family?
The balut man’s quavering voice called from the next street as he and his handcart wobbled away.
I squinted at the clock. Six o’clock. Right on time. I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed.
Aida rustled beneath the covers and peered at the clock from behind the edge of the bedsheet. She scratched the side of her nose and closed her eyes, her upper lip dotted with moonsweat glistening in the light from the window.
“You tossed and turned all night, Nelson. I barely slept.”
She bunched the bedsheet about her neck, and exhaled rather loud. An old, brown fan, ineffectual for the most part, hummed behind her head as it blew the humid air around. I hurried to dress, dashed to the bathroom and splashed my face with cold water, then stepped into flip-flops and raced to catch the old man. I returned with two balut wrapped in newspaper. I couldn’t stomach them, but Aida loved balut: fermented duck embryo, seventeen days ripe and sold in the shell, a delicacy in the Philippines. Sailors ate them when dared or offered free beer, or when too drunk to care.
I leaned over the bed and whispered. “Aida.”
Her long black hair splayed across the pillow. Her warm, lovely brown eyes had followed me from the door to the bed. Worry wrinkled her forehead as she reached over and touched my cheek.
“Did you sleep okay, Nelson? You look tired.”
“I slept like a rock. My eyes enjoyed the deep sleep so much they didn’t want to wake.”
I kissed her and went to shower, opening the window so the mirror wouldn’t fog up. While the water warmed, I leaned against the sink and stared at my reflection in the mirror. Women considered me good looking, though for years poor self-image left me thinking otherwise. I had light, smooth skin, a ready smile, and short, blonde hair in a Navy haircut. My green eyes looked hazel in light just so, and my square jaw 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, although I used them as defense mechanisms too. Lack of sleep often left bags under my eyes.
I pursed my lips at my thinning crown and tested the water. Damn; the water was cold. Aida’s frugal-to-a-fault landlord hadn’t replaced the gas tank. I steeled myself for the shock. The water seemed so much colder in the oppressive heat and gave me goose bumps and made everything shrivel. I could take a hot shower at the barracks, not that it would do much good; I’d break into a sweat as soon as I went outside. But that was the 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, then pushed it aside and joined me. “Honey ko.”
I put my arms around her waist and drew her close. 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 held her as she moved against me. She reached down and pressed my hand. I whispered “Aida,” at the feel of her wet hair between my fingers. I kissed her until her legs stopped trembling.
I dried her with a thick, heavy bath towel. When I finished, she bowed and leaned her head against my chest and I dried her hair while avoiding her wandering hands.
“Let me, Aida,” I said when she reached for the hairbrush.
Any man who has never brushed a woman’s hair has missed something tender and beautiful. I ran my fingers through Aida’s black hair. The 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 and she pressed against me. The intimacy brought us closer, unspeaking, the hum of the vent fan the only sound. I took the brush. My heart pounded as I drew the bristles through Aida’s hair.
The morning ritual stirred me with a peculiar sensation, an entirely sexual feeling that took me to the brink but stopped short, my toes gripping the edge. The urge to brush through the strands of hair grew more intense with each stroke and I lost awareness with the room around me as passion consumed me. I wanted to take Aida to the same brink she took me. The soft bunches of hair slid between my fingers caressing my skin and slipping away and I reached for more and drew the brush through again and again until my arm shook and I let it rest at my side. I leaned my forehead against her shoulder and she reached behind and caressed me. When I placed the brush on the table Aida winked at me and said, “Hey, Nelson; why is your face so red?”
I held her hand as she walked away, her fingers slipping from mine. She paused in the doorway to tie the towel around her hips. My throat tightened at the silhouette of her pointed breasts against the bedroom light. I swallowed hard as she left to dress and make breakfast.
Soon, the aroma of Aida’s cooking drew me to 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 my world-famous red sauce.”
“And rice too?”
“Oh, Nelson,” she said. “You’re so funny. Of course, we have rice. This is Pilipino breakfast.”
The occasional transposing of P’s for F’s was the only giveaway that Aida wasn’t a native English speaker. I checked a laugh. She wasn’t sensitive about it but would sometimes correct herself.
She pecked my cheek and said, “Thank you for the balut, honey ko. You’re so sweet. I like when you do little things for me.”
“I do them, Aida, because you make me so happy.”
“My food makes you happy too. Hand me your plate, Nelson, and sit.”
My taste buds watered as she brought breakfast to the table. Outside, the sounds of the jungle had already reached the crescendo they’d maintain all day even as they faded into background noise. Yoshi, Aida’s stray mutt, watched hopefully as I stirred the dish to release the aroma. We both breathed in the savory smell. Without warning, Yoshi barked and Aida jumped. She jumped again at a loud banging on the door.
“I’ll get it, Tommy,” she said. Her flip flops smacked her heels as she walked down the stairs. I finished eating and tossed Yoshi a last piece of fish. Steve Minnifield’s voice rose from the foyer as he greeted Aida. He ran up the stairs, his heavy boots thundering with each step. At the top of the stairs, he leaned over with his hands on his knees to catch his breath.
“Tom,” he gasped. “You’ll never guess what happened.”
“Kenny transferred to Alaska?”
“Hah. Don’t you wish. Jeff broke his leg. Master Chief Thomas called the barracks and told me to find you; you’re taking his place on the detachment to Thailand. You leave Tuesday on the C-130 carrying the equipment. Pre-flight starts at 0400. The other crews take off Monday afternoon. You need to go to the hangar today and put together your pack-out kit of tools and supplies. They’ll load the aircraft Monday morning. I’ll meet you there; I have to run over to Lucy’s and grab some clothes.”
I held my happiness in check. I had wanted to go to Thailand, but it wasn’t my turn in the rotation. What luck!
“Oh, Tommy,” Aida cried.
“I’m sorry, Aida. I’ll make it up to you when I get back.”
“I wish you didn’t have to go. How long will you be gone?”
“At least a week. I won’t know for sure until I get to the hangar.”
“I hope you aren’t gone more than a week.”
“Me too, Aida. I gotta run now, sweetheart. I’ll be back this afternoon.”
The neighbor’s chickens scattered as I hurried across the courtyard. Aida called from the bedroom window.
“You forgot your wallet.’”
I dashed back into the house and swung around the end post of the stairwell. The newel cap wobbled but stayed put. Aida met me at the top of the stairs.
“Don’t look so sad, Nelson.”
“Oh, Aida. You know how much I love Thailand. I’ll take you there someday.”
“Promises, promises.” She handed me my wallet. “You’d better hurry, Nelson, or they might send someone else.”
“No way, Aida.”
I ran down the stairs, avoided tumbling the newel cap and called goodbye as the door closed behind me.
“Prop the door open so it won’t jam shut if there’s an earthquake, okay?”
I ran back and propped the door ajar between two bricks. Yoshi squeezed through the opening and ran to the gate, his tail wagging as he waited for me.
“Sorry, fella; you can’t go this time.”
I pushed the gate open; it screeched on dry hinges. I made a mental note to bring home a can of oil. A distant rumble from Mount Pinatubo reached my ears as I closed the gate. I worried about leaving Aida alone.