Photo of “Aida” by the Author
I’ve decided to serialize Honey Ko, my first novel, here over the next few months. I’m also serializing the novel on my page on Medium. If you write on Medium, let me know and I’ll follow you.
It’s funny how the heart aches the same way in grief and love. It’s as if the heart refuses to distinguish between the two most intense of human emotions. The only real difference between them is that one makes you cry while the other makes you smile. But that isn’t always true. I’ve cried when in love and smiled while grieving.
I once asked Aida what love was:
What is love, Aida?
Waking you when breakfast is ready.
Love is waking me?
You work hard, honey ko. Sometimes I know you will wake up tired, so I turn off your alarm clock and let you sleep until breakfast is ready.
We were lying in the dark. She couldn’t see my tears. The ache in my heart gave it a fullness my chest could barely contain.
The grief in my heart when Susanna died filled my chest the same way. 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 for whom all the love stories ever told were written? How do you put the pieces of heart back together? You never forget her, but you leave the pieces of heart where they fall and move on. You must move on. It may seem impossible, but you will love again.
I used to think love wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I tried to force love, but found disappointment. Like many people, I never made it far enough into a relationship to find out. I wanted true love instantly, the same way I wanted everything in life. But that isn’t how love works. Love requires patience, a desire to be together forever, and commitment. Most people flee commitment when it becomes hard work. They expect it to be as easy as it was when infatuation ruled their emotions. Those who give up don’t understand that infatuation is like 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. Flaws can be anything—physical, spiritual, emotional. 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. Unrequited love is not love; it’s desire that stabs the heart over and over and over. Love shared gains breadth and depth over time. When love stops growing, it dies. A heart breaks in response to something. Maybe your lover fell out of love. Perhaps love withered away because it wasn’t returned. Maybe your lover died. Whatever the reason, one heart breaks when the other stops returning love.
Not long before she died, Susanna asked me why I loved her. We were in Barcelona, her hometown, to announce our engagement to her family. She lay with her head on my chest, her face illuminated by the moon rising above the Mediterranean. A warm breeze whispered across the balcony, stirring the scent of orange blossoms that filled the room.
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 give yourself to me completely.
Because you put me first in all things.
Because my heart aches when you leave the room.
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 make me whole.
Because you are my soul.
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, one to the
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 my relationship with Aida began. 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, where the Navy had deployed my aircraft squadron. 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. Aida was soft-spoken and never asked for anything. I wondered how she came to work as a bartender. We met at the bar that way for a while until, one night, she asked if I wanted to walk her home. That night, for the first time since Susanna’s death, I felt the first brush of love when Aida brought my emotions to life again. Maybe Susanna had receded enough into the past, or 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.
But why Aida? Why not another of the women with whom I eased my loneliness? I had not proposed to any of them, but I had placed them between myself and Susanna. I had used them to push away Susanna, to forget her, to stem the tidal wave of heart pain that swept through me when I let the frail wall between us fall. Wasn’t sleeping with other women as much a betrayal as marrying Aida would mean betraying Susanna? If I were to carry Susanna with me for the rest of my life (and eternity?), shouldn’t I at least pretend to be faithful to her?
In some strange way, though, I seemed to have placed myself between Susanna and Aida as if forcing them to fight over me. Was I too weak to choose for myself or too afraid to say goodbye to Susanna? Had I doomed her as if she were a ghost to walk Earth forever while I refused to let her go to her grave in peace? She filled my thoughts and dreams, but I had never considered she might haunt them. I sometimes spoke to her aloud as though we were having dinner together or sipping sangria on the terrace of our bungalow overlooking the Gulf of Cadiz. There were times I heard her voice as clearly as though she were whispering her decision in my ear. Somewhere deep inside, I must have wished Susanna would choose for me. How long would I have to wait? If time heals all wounds, how long would it take to heal the gash in my heart? How long before I was free of …. I couldn’t bear to think it. I didn’t want to be free of Susanna. I wanted to move on, but couldn’t. I was tied to Susanna like a drowning man gripping a lifeline.