Like two red eyes, the imperfections in the ruby blinked in the sunlight. He pressed the jeweled medallion to his chest to keep it from swinging on the necklace. The sun burned his back as he walked along the rock-strewn beach hunched over looking for seashells. The best ones he placed in a red, plastic cup that smelled of San Miguel.
“Look, Aida.” he called. “I found a sand dollar.”
“Ohhh, that’s a big one, honey ko. Don’t break the edge.” She squatted on her heels, her head down, turning the wet sand with her fingers. “Honey ko, if we find enough of these little shells I will make a soup for you.”
“How many shells does it take, Aida?”
“Two cups, honey ko.”
He placed the sand dollar in the paper cup with the shells and crept along. They had spent the day exploring Grande Island. They had thrown rocks at coconuts in a futile attempt to knock them loose from tree tops. She had encouraged him to climb the trees like her brothers, but he had refused, telling her he wasn’t her brother. Later, they had clambered around the now silent, rusting artillery guns that had guarded the entry to Subic Bay in World War II. Now, they called out in excitement when they came across blue-green glass balls – floats – that had broken away from fishing nets during storms and drifted ashore.
She scrambled among the sea-weed covered rocks, careful to avoid sea urchins. She placed the baseball-sized floats in a small bag as she found them.
“Honey ko, I’m going to hang them from the ceiling in a net. They will look so nice reflecting sunlight in the window.”
“Here, Aida. I have two more. This one is huge. Look.”
“Ohhh, it looks like a football. You carry it, Tommy. It’s too big for the bag; I don’t want to break it.”
For lunch, they ate hot dogs and hamburgers, and skewers of cold chicken breast. Later, they snacked on fried lumpia she had prepared the previous day. Toward dusk, they showered at the beach pavilion and changed into street clothes. She shook the sand out of the backpacks and blankets. She placed the shells they had collected in a plastic bag, and helped him pack up the remains of the picnic. They left their bags on the ferry pier and strolled hand-in-hand along the beach to the seawall overlooking the dark-blue water of the bay. A warm salt-laden breeze rustled through palm trees above the high-tide mark. They sat on the seawall while waiting for the ferry to Fleet Landing.
They kicked off their flip-flops and dangled their legs above the waves lapping below them and watched the sun set. Its golden rays changed from orange to purple to red through the filter of ash drifting from another eruption of Mount Pinatubo. For miles around the bay, strings of colored lights winked on at clubs and resorts dotting the shoreline. Aircraft from the USS Midway roared overhead, the orange-blue flame of their afterburners splitting the twilit sky.
He slipped his arm around her slender waist. She leaned her head against his shoulder and caressed his leg. She tickled him, and laughed when his leg jumped. He leaned over and kissed her in mid-laugh, his lips rubbing against her teeth. She snuggled closer, her honey-brown skin warm against his. Aida, sweet and lovely like the opera, breathed softly against his cheek.
“Oh, Tommy. You make me so happy. I’m glad you bring me here. This is where you say you love me for true the first time, remember?”
“I could never forget that, honey.”
“I like when you call me honey, honey ko.”
“I like when you call me honey ko, honey.”
“Oh, stop it, Tommy. You are so funny.”
“Oh, Aida, we’re both funny, aren’t we?”
“Oh, you,” she said with feigned exasperation.
Tom “ummmed” as Aida rubbed her cheek against his.
“I love the scratch of your beard, Tommy, and the sound it makes against my cheek.”
“I remember, Aida, one night after we made love and you lay with your head on my chest. You said you loved the sound of me made intimate by my closeness and the warmth of my body.”
“I remember, too.” She pressed her nose to the hollow behind his earlobe. “The smell of you is unique, honey ko. It’s masculine and gentle. I like to breathe in your fragrance, and let it fill my nose. Yours is a husky, full fragrance, but soft like the smell of fine leather. When it fills my lungs, it is like you are filling me from within.” She moved into him. “Hug me so I feel you.”
She pressed her face to his neck, and he put his arms around her because she wanted to feel the muscles of his body. They sat close, so close that her heart beat with his. Soon, their bodies melded into one. Her body ceased to be separate from his, and he moved away and back again to feel her.
She possessed a sexual magnetism that drew him to her. She wasn’t voluptuous, but had a perfect figure. She wasn’t a striking beauty, but was beautiful. Her voice wasn’t high-pitched or low-pitched, but sultry. Her accent wasn’t awkward, but endearing. She was a natural at being feminine. Some women made themselves alluring or attractive. They puffed up their breasts, preened their feathers, and strutted their stuff. Not her. Not Aida. She attracted men like hummingbirds to nectar. Men hovered about her, hoping for a lick of Aida.
The flicker of lights along the shoreline snapped his reverie. The rising moon with the mountains in silhouette, and the soft lapping of the waves made his eyes heavy. He rubbed them and yawned.
She pressed a hand to his cheek. “Are you sleepy, honey ko? The ferry boat will be here soon. You can sleep on the ride back.”
“Um hmm. I love to sleep on the boat, but I’m not sleepy, just relaxed. It’s been a wonderful day; I wish it didn’t have to end.”
“We should come here more often.”
“I would like that, but you always want to visit Manila when you are off work. I like Manila too, but we run around so much while you take photos that we never seem to relax. It’s hustle and bustle all the time. Someday, we will see if you can enjoy Manila without a viewfinder as your guide.” She smiled her sweet, lovely smile and hugged his arm. “I will be your guide, honey ko.”
He leaned his head against hers. He fingered the medallion through his shirt the way some people drum their fingertips together, or sit with their hands behind their head, unconscious habits when contemplative. The sounds of the evening faded away. The roar of the aircraft sank into the nether regions of awareness.
His breathing grew soft as he reflected on their relationship and the false starts and near-proposals. The thoughts that said “now is the time.” But always, something held him back. His heart said one thing, his mind another.
His mother and father had fallen in love at first sight. The connection they made at their first, brief encounter – over an apple of all things – blossomed into love during their second encounter the following day. They had married two months later. They remained inseparable until Susanna died giving birth to Tom.
Susanna. He had loved his own Susanna while stationed with the Navy in Spain, just like his father. His Susanna was also a bartender. They too, fell in love after a brief romance. His Susanna died before they could marry, though. He had had to cancel their wedding; the chapel, the priest, the flowers, the dinner with their friends and her family, the honeymoon in Barcelona. Their future together. All except the ring.
He buried the engagement ring with her. Walked beside her casket from the chapel to the cemetery. Helped lift the casket into the vault – three rows up, two rows in. Watched misty-eyed as the mason tapped and cemented each brick into place. He had closed his eyes and whispered a prayer for Susanna as the mason sealed the vault with the final brick. After the mourners left, and the mason packed up his tools and left too, he opened his fist and placed Susanna’s wedding ring on the necklace. Next to his mother’s medallion. It had felt right.
He never knew his mother and father but through others, family and friends, who had known them. He learned theirs was a true love, love-at-first-sight, a fairy tale romance. The kind of romance others only dreamed of experiencing. The kind of love writers wrote books about, young girls sighed for, and parents hoped for their children. The kind of love that came once in a thousand years.
Twice in twenty-two years. He and his Susanna had had that kind of love. Did it run in the family? Would his son find that kind of love? No; that kind of magic was rare, if it existed at all. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in one place. But magic wasn’t lightning, and magic had struck twice in the same place for him and his father.
A jumble of thoughts played pinball with his mind as he remembered the past and looked to the future. He swung his legs up and captured Aida between them. Magic didn’t strike a second time for me, though. He pressed his lips to her hands. It wasn’t love at first sight with Aida. Our love took time to develop. She smiled the way she did when he became passionate. Two years have passed since we met, and we spent one of those years apart. Her lips parted and she tilted her head. We carried on our relationship through phone calls and letters without committing to one another. Her eyes grew wide and fixed on his as if anticipating his next move. My return to the Philippines has seen our passion grow. I haven’t gotten over Susanna, of course – I never will – but I no longer mourn for her. He held her hands in front of his lips. Her pupils were dilated and her chest began to heave. Susanna will always be a part of me, and I will always wear her ring next to my mother’s medallion. In a burst of emotion, he whispered “I love you, Aida. Will you marry me?” It just feels right.
Sometimes, though, the weight of two Susannas was too much.