Photo by Dominik Simecek
The balut man’s quavering voice penetrated my sleep-filled head, and I squinted at the clock. My brain read zero-dark-early, but six a.m. glowed bright and cheery in the dark. He called out again as he wobbled away, pushing his creaking handcart.
Aida peeked at me 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. Next to the bed, an old, brown fan blew the humid air around. Aida bunched the bedsheet around her neck and exhaled in exasperation.
You tossing and turning all night, Tommy. I barely sleeping.
Sorry, Aida. You stay in bed while I make breakfast for you.
I ran to the bathroom and splashed water on my face, then raced to the street to catch the balut man, flip-flops slapping my heels. I returned five pesos poorer with two balut wrapped in newspaper.
Aida loved balut, fermented duck embryo, seventeen days ripe and sold in the shell, a delicacy in the Philippines, but I couldn’t stomach them. Sailors ate them when dared or offered free beer, or when too drunk to care.
I leaned over the bed and brushed my lips across her cheek and whispered. Aida.
Her long black hair splayed across the pillow like a dark flower around her head. 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.
Do you sleep okay, Tommy? You look tired.
I slept like a rock, Aida.
She put her arms around me and closed her eyes as I kissed her forehead. We lay together for a long moment before I untangled myself and left to shower, opening the bathroom window so the mirror wouldn’t fog. While the water warmed, I leaned against the sink and stared at my reflection in the mirror. I pursed my lips at my thinning crown, inherited from my maternal grandfather.
I tested the shower water. Cold. I had forgotten to change the gas bottle, but wasn’t about to run out to the shed for another. Steeling myself for the shock, I stepped into the stream of cold water. I could take a hot shower at the barracks, but it wouldn’t do much good since I’d break into a sweat as soon as I left my room. But that was the PI, where the weather was always hot and damp, except during the monsoon when it was hot and wet.
I had almost finished showering when Aida peeked around the shower curtain. Honey ko, she purred. She stepped in to join me and pressed her warm body against mine.
Aida’s touch elicited the natural response, and I moved hard against her, the ache of desire intense. I put my arms around her waist, and her nipples pressed against my chest. I leaned down and drew my lips along her neck and across her cheek, tracing the line of her ear. A soft cry fell from her lips, and she turned to me with her eyes closed, and our mouths came together in a long, slow sigh. The flowing water glistened as it ran along her skin. I knelt and brushed my lips along the small of her back, caressed her calves and thighs and the curve of her hips, and inhaled the scent of her belly. Aida was impatient and urged me up, and I stood and let her move against me. She reached down and pressed my hand. The feel of her wet hair between my fingers aroused me.
Oh, honey ko, she whispered. You make me so happy.
I held Aida until her legs stopped trembling, then soaped her and rubbed her with a washcloth. She didn’t open her eyes again until I took her hand and helped her from the shower. I dried her with a thick, heavy bath towel, moving slowly and massaging her body. When I finished, she leaned against my chest, and I dried her hair while avoiding her wandering hands.
Here, Aida. Let me, I said when she reached for her 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 through 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, silent, the hum of the vent fan the only sound. My heart pounded as I drew the bristles through her hair.
The morning ritual stirred me with a peculiar sensation, a 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. Awareness of the surrounding room faded 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. 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, Tommy, why your face is 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.
The aroma of Aida’s cooking reached the bedroom, and I hurried to the kitchen. I put my arms around her and peered over her shoulder.
Mmm, smells so good. What is it?
Your favorite: sweet and sour fish with celery, carrot, red bell pepper, and snow peas, all in my world-famous red sauce. She stirred the dish and lowered the heat.
And rice too?
Oh, Tommy. You’re so funny. Of course, we have rice. This is Pilipino breakfast.
I checked a smile. Aida’s occasional transposing of P’s for F’s embarrassed her. She was sensitive about it and would correct herself when among my friends from the base.
She pecked my cheek and said, Thank you for the balut, honey ko. You’re so thoughtful. 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, Tommy, and sit.
My taste buds watered as she brought breakfast to the table. Yoshi, Aida’s stray mutt, a Lab and Great Dane mix, ran his tongue around his mouth as I stirred the dish to release the aroma. Without warning, he barked. Aida jumped, then jumped again at a loud banging on the door.
I’ll get it, Tommy, she said.
I tossed Yoshi a last piece of fish as Phil Bryant’s voice rose from the foyer. He ran up the stairs, his flight deck boots thundering with each step. He ran to the table and leaned over, hands on his knees as he caught his breath.
Tom, he gasped. You’ll never guess what happened.
Kenny transferred to Alaska?
Hah. Don’t you wish. Jeff broke his leg. 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. 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 held my happiness in check. It wasn’t my turn in the rotation for Thailand. What luck!
I have to get back to base, Phil said. You coming?
Oh, Tommy, Aida cried.
I grabbed my backpack and slung it over my shoulder. I’m sorry, Aida. I’ll make it up to you when I get back.
Do you have to go? When will you return?
We’ll be there at least a week. I won’t know for sure until I get to the hangar.
A week is so long, Tommy.
I know, Aida, and I’m sorry. Her eyes were watering, and her face looked so sad. My heart ached as I caressed her cheek and kissed her. I have to run now, sweetheart. I’ll be back this afternoon.
The neighbor’s chickens scattered as Phil and I hurried across the courtyard. Aida called from the bedroom window. Honey ko.
You forget your wallet.
I dashed 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, Tommy.
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, Tommy, or they gonna send someone else.
Not a chance, 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.
The gate screeched on dry hinges as it swung open. I made a mental note to bring home a can of oil. A distant rumble from Mount Pinatubo reached my ears as I walked away. I worried about leaving Aida alone.