The flicker of lights along the arc of the shoreline to Subic City snapped me from my reverie. The rising moon with the mountains in silhouette, the soft lapping of the waves, the warm night, all induced a languidness I didn’t want to disturb. Satisfaction with the moment, the weekend, the treasure hunt with Aida all combined to lift my spirit, and for a moment, my constant companion, the pain of loss that never left my side for long, fell away.
Aida caressed my cheek. Are you sleepy, honey ko? The ferry will be here soon. You can sleep on the ride back.
Um hmm, I said behind half-open eyes. 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.
Yes, we should, but you always want to visit Manila. I like Manila too, but we run around taking so many photos we don’t have a chance to relax. Someday, we’ll see if you enjoy Manila without a viewfinder as your guide. I will be your guide, honey ko.
There’s so much to see in Manila, though, especially Rizal Park and the zoo, and the national palace. And my favorite place in all the world to watch the sunset is from the seawall along Manila Bay. The colors are so vivid and run through the whole rainbow of colors.
That’s because the air is dirty with smog.
Aida. Where’s your sense of the romantic?
There’s nothing romantic about inhaling Manila air. All that smog makes it hard to breathe and I cough too much.
Well, maybe I’ll bring you a gas mask from the base.
Honey ko, I gonna tickle you if you keep joking to me.
All right, I’ll be a good boy.
I don’t believe you.
I laughed. Okay, Aida, I promise.
I caught myself fingering the medallion through my shirt the way people drum their fingertips together or sit with their hands behind their head lost in thought. I’d heard the medallion held a curse but never paid it much attention. Family stories were full of oral history, some of which may have held a kernel of truth. My thoughts turned to Aida, and my breathing softened as the sounds of the evening faded. I loved Aida, but what would Susanna think? How could I betray Susanna’s memory by marrying another as if she were a stand-in, a substitute for the woman I had loved at first sight?
Sam and Susanna McBride, my birth parents, had fallen in love at first sight while he was stationed in Spain. The intimate connection they made at their first, brief encounter, over an apple, of all things, blossomed into love during their second encounter later that day. Sam proposed to Susanna on the third day of their acquaintance, and they married three months later. They remained inseparable until Susanna died giving birth to me in the sixth year of their short life together. Six months later, Sam gave me up for adoption. He couldn’t bear to raise me without Susanna. Six months after that, he died in Vietnam.
I had often wondered if my mother and Susanna could be related. But I figured it was just coincidence that father and son had met such similar women with the same name, in the same town, doing the same type of work, halfway around the world. The similarities ended with their deaths, though. My Susanna’s death had brought an end to everything we had planned. Our wedding, the chapel, the priest, the flowers, the dinner with friends and her family, the honeymoon in Barcelona. Our future. Except the ring. The wedding ring that had not touched her finger.
I walked beside her casket from the chapel to the cemetery under a clear, bright blue sky, then helped lift her into the vault, three rows up and two rows from the end. They hadn’t wanted me to help, but I wouldn’t be denied. Birds chirped in the landscaped shrubs, taunting me with their joyful songs as I stared misty-eyed under a heavy brow as the mason cemented each brick into place to close the opening. I closed my eyes and whispered a prayer as the mason sealed the vault, the tap-tap-tap of his hammer forever echoing in my mind as he set the final brick. After the mourners left, after the mason packed up his tools and left, I opened my fist and placed Susanna’s wedding ring on the necklace. Next to my mother’s medallion. It had felt right.
It had felt right, but it was so wrong, and seemed so unfair. Maybe it had to be though, since not only had magic struck twice in bringing both Susannas to us, but it also struck them down too soon, too young, too unfairly. Why had God chosen Sam and Susanna, and Susanna and me, to suffer his whims? I never had the chance to know my parents, and I never had the chance to know my Susanna. I didn’t hate God, but I didn’t understand Him.
I knew my birth parents only by what my adoptive parents told me, through letters between Sam and Susanna, and essays Sam had written after Susanna’s death. The letters and essays told me theirs was a fairy tale romance, the kind others dream of, writers write books about, and parents hope their children find. The kind that comes once in a thousand years.
Twice in two decades. Susanna and I had had that kind of love. Did it run in the family? Would my 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, does it? But magic wasn’t lightning, and magic had struck twice in the same place for my father and me. I thought that if Sam were alive, if my father were alive, I would ask him if he believed in magic and if he believed in God.
Aida straddled the seawall with her back against mine.
What do you see, Tommy?
I leaned my head against hers and closed my eyes. A lifetime passed before me as hopes and wishes, dreams lost and dreams gained, filled my mind. I wondered where we would be in forty years, if we would be happy and content, rich or poor, if we would be successful, if Aida would always greet me at the door with a kiss.
Us. With gray hair, crow’s feet around our eyes, and wrinkled hands.
Are we happy?
I turned and Aida turned too. The moon shone bright over her shoulder, and I wondered if she could see it reflected in my eyes. Magic didn’t strike a second time for me, though. I pressed my lips to her fingers. It wasn’t love at first sight with Aida. Our love took time to develop. Her face and neck flushed red. Two years have passed since we met, and we spent one of those years apart, carrying on our relationship through phone calls and letters without committing to one another. Aida’s emotional state changed and I could feel her rapid heartbeat. Our passion has grown with my return to the Philippines. I haven’t gotten over Susanna, I never will, but I no longer mourn for her. Or do I? I held Aida’s hands in front of my lips. Her eyes widened in expectation of more than finger kisses. Susanna will always be a part of me, and I will always wear her ring next to my mother’s medallion. It feels right. In a burst of emotion, I whispered, I love you, Aida. Will you marry me?