Author’s Photo. The view from the apartment bedroom.
I edged the gate open with a gentle push, but the squeal of the rusty hinges gave me away. I uttered a silent oath when Aida poked her head out the window.
Oh, Tommy, she cried. You forget again the oil.
I’ll bring the oil home tomorrow, Aida. I promise.
Yoshi had run ahead, barking at the chickens, but stopped in the middle of the courtyard, his eyes following the action between Aida and me.
You are leaving for Thailand tomorrow.
Well, when I get back then.
She rolled her eyes and ducked back in the window. I sprinted across the sunlit, flower-lined courtyard, avoided clucking chickens, ducked under the crowded clothesline, and ran into the house. I reached for the newel-cap but caught myself, skipping on my toes until regaining my balance. I dropped my fly-away bag and stowed the groceries I had picked up at the commissary.
Hey, Aida, I called. Let’s go out tonight.
Aida dashed in from the kitchen. Oh, Tommy! Where are we going? To Rufadora? What time do we leave? I’m so hungry. Can we go to Wimpy’s? I need to change my clothes. Does my hair look okay? Oh, the stove is on. Will you be okay to sleep tonight? You leave so early tomorrow.
I’ll be fine, Aida.
She raced for the kitchen, removed the whistling teakettle, and turned off the stove, then ran for the bedroom to change. I caught her and drew her into my arms.
Whoa, slow down, sweetheart. You’re making me tired. I leaned back to look at her. She radiated a joyful beauty. Your hair is beautiful, and so are you. Don’t change a thing.
Oh, Tommy. You always saying the sweetest things.
She hummed as she changed clothes. Drawers slid open and closed, closet doors rattled in their tracks, and her shoes clack-clacked across the floor. Then silence, as though she were looking herself over in the mirror.
You can come in and change clothes if you need to, she said.
I changed at the barracks.
My stomach grumbled. I went into the kitchen and ate a handful of pork and rice, then washed my hands. I’m ready when you are, Aida.
She walked into the kitchen and spun around on her toes. How do I look?
The white slacks and lime-green pullover complemented her skin tone. If the perfect female form existed, Aida had it. She was a woman all right, and she knew how to show it.
You are so beautiful, Aida.
She looked down, smiling under long eyelashes. Remember this look while you are in Thailand. It will be waiting for your return.
I’m having second thoughts about leaving you, I said. But I love our reunions.
She smiled and drew her fingers across my chin. Not as much as me. I love when you come to me.
We left, Aida leading the way. I hurried to keep up with her. She looked back and frowned when the gate squealed but pushed on. The streets around the vast city market were busy with cars and trucks, and jeepneys lurching along as they stopped and started again to load and offload passengers. We caught a jeepney at the crosswalk to the city market. Aida couldn’t sit still and danced in her seat to the amusement of the only other passenger, an older woman sitting across from us.
We had just rounded the traffic circle onto Magsaysay Drive when the earthquake struck. The jeepney lurched as the road lifted. A telephone pole snapped with the crack of a whip and crashed to the ground, narrowly missing another jeepney. I gripped the handrail and held onto Aida. The jeepney rocked side to side. The driver braked hard but couldn’t hold them. Terror filled Aida’s eyes; she held my arm in a death grip. The jeepney lurched again, and she slipped from the seat. I planted my feet to haul her back and banged my head against the hand rail hard enough to see stars through the pain and tears. When my head cleared, I was eye to eye with the older woman. She strained to hold herself on the bench seat with her arms wrapped around another hand rail. Her lips were a thin, tight line. I nodded to reassure her. She reached up without releasing her hold on the pole and crossed herself before clutching her crucifix and praying.
Put your arms around me, Aida, I yelled without taking my eyes off the woman. Hold on tight. Don’t let go.
Oh, Tommy. Don’t let go. Hold me.
I’ve got you, Aida.
My chest turned cold at her cry. (Hold on. Don’t let go of her.) She slipped from the seat again, and again I hauled her back.
Plant your feet hard against the floor, Aida.
My legs ached. I was losing my grip. Aida was slipping away. I couldn’t hold her.
I was helpless, as helpless as I had been when Susanna died.
The jeepney jumped the sidewalk and lurched to a stop. The ground was still again.
Aida, are you okay?
Yes, I think so.
I helped her out of the jeepney, then gave a hand to the old woman who patted my shoulder and thanked me. She hurried away in the direction we had come. The earthquake lasted barely thirty seconds, but left Aida’s nerves strained. She chattered away as we helped free people from an overturned jeepney. Except for one broken arm, there were only bumps and bruises to contend with and three young kids Aida corralled while their mother and I collected her belongings.
Rufadora Bar (down), Cordon Blue & balcony (up).
We headed for Rufadora after doing all we could for others. As we turned the corner to the side street, Grace and Luz, Aida’s former roommates, screamed from the balcony above Rufadora when they saw her. Aida’s pace quickened, and I held the door open and walked in after her.
The bar held a warm, intimate atmosphere, a far cry from the seedy, dingy joint it used to be. There was no real damage other than some crumbled plaster and fallen roof tiles and pool cues that spilled from their wall racks.
Say hello to Mama-san, Tommy. I’m going to help Grace and Luz clean up.
The attractive, cultured woman didn’t fit the mama-san image. She would not have looked out of place sitting at the head of a corporate boardroom table.
Hello, Tom. How is it outside?
Not too bad from what I could see. Some downed telephone poles and store signs. Most of the injuries are from jeepneys; those things are deathtraps. I have a headache from banging around on the ride over.
Oh, dear, let me get you an aspirin.
Mama-san dug through her purse, pulling things out and setting them on the bar. She pulled out a coin purse and a blue clutch and, with a triumphant smile, a bottle of aspirin. Here you are. And here is some water too. I’m glad it was not worse. I do believe the worst is yet to come, though. Mount Pinatubo seems to vent with more violence every day.
I swallowed the aspirin and squeezed my eyes closed. The bar’s old jukebox started playing a screaming guitar song that didn’t help my head. Mama-san clucked her tongue.
Someone is playing that horrid machine. I detest that jarring noise. If it would not prove bad for business, I would change that music for opera. Do you like opera, Tom?
I love opera. My favorite is Aida.
Oh, Tom. I would groan if you were a comedian. She shook her head and laughed, her white teeth flashing in her beautiful face.
On the wall behind the bar hung a photo of a red-bearded Sailor in dungarees, combat helmet, and flak jacket, and wearing blue-lens sunglasses and a wide grin. It was too far away to see clearly, but the Sailor was familiar in some way.
Who is that in the photo behind you, Mama-san?
A dear, dear friend from a long time ago.
She paused and gazed at me for a moment before taking my hands. How nice it is to see you again. Why do you and Aida not come more often?
My rotating work schedule makes it difficult to get into a routine.
You are always welcome here, Tom. You know that. And Aida is so much fun to have around.
She misses her friends. I think she’d like to come back and work here.
Mama-san stopped cleaning up and stood with her hands folded on top of the bar. By the way, Tom. I hear you are off to Thailand. I hope you enjoy yourself, but not too much.
Yes. It’s a last-minute change. I’m replacing someone.
How fortunate for you. I love Thailand. I have visited Pattaya several times and find it an alluring resort. Will you stay in a hotel or is there a barracks at the airfield?
We’ll stay in a hotel. We have a van to carry us back and forth.
I see, she said with what sounded like skepticism. And what do Sailors do in Pattaya when they are not working? Her eyebrows arched. Will you window shop?
I manage to find good deals.
There are good deals on every corner in Thailand.
Yes, it would almost be a crime not to buy the wares they display.
You make paying for it sound virtuous.
Everyone has to make a living.
Even if it hurts someone?
I’m talking about buying trinkets and gifts, Mama-san. What are you talking about?
The slightest smile lifted the corners of her mouth. Jewels. What every woman wants.
I buy from Ben’s. He displays his wares behind glass too.
I’m sure he gets his cut.
I’m certain of it.
I didn’t like the direction of the conversation and excused myself. Her smile followed me as I joined Aida and her friends.
Hey, ladies, how are you?
Fine, Tom, said Grace.
Hello, Tommy. Luz smiled at me like a coy sweetheart.
The seat next to Luz was empty, but I pulled up a chair and sat next to Aida. I had spent my first night in Olongapo with Luz. I hadn’t known she and Aida were roommates until Luz came to the apartment while Aida and I were there. Luz moved out soon after.
Aida was having fun reminiscing with her friends and making plans to get together, but I was bored, and hungry too. Aida was sharing from her friends’ plates, so I left after a few minutes and walked to Mariposa’s. I returned with a hamburger and fries, and with Phil, who had come from the base. We took a table to ourselves and ordered beers.
So, how’s Jeff? How did he break his leg?
He fell off a jeepney.
How do you fall off a jeepney?
Yeah, that’s what I asked. He was coming back from Subic City and thought it would be fun to hang off the back of the jeepney. The jeepney veered into a monstrous pothole, bounced around and threw Jeff off. He landed with his leg under him. Roger and Ed said they heard the bone snap. Compound fracture. It was sticking out of his leg and everything.
God, that sounds painful. Where is he?
In the hospital. He’s doing all right. He was so drunk he won’t remember what happened.
Well, I guess that’s a good thing. He’ll remember me taking his place in Thailand, though.
One, maybe two weeks in Pattaya Beach. Long days flying out of U-Tapao airfield and long nights barhopping. I loved the buzzing excitement of the nightlife, the beautiful women, sidewalk vendors, even the street urchins begging for handouts. I’d have to find Lek too.
I’ve only been talking to you for five minutes.
Sorry. I was thinking.
About Thailand, no doubt.
Yeah. Wondering what to do about Lek.
You’d better be careful, brother. You’ll be in a world of trouble if you do anything more than say goodbye to her.
We’ve been over this, Phil.
I’m just hoping it sinks into that thick skull of yours.
My headache returned. I rubbed my temples. You know what, Phil? It just doesn’t matter. I love Aida. That’s all that counts.
All right, Tom. But I hope you don’t hurt her.
I wasn’t sure if Phil believed me or not. He didn’t speak right away, but seemed to consider me for a moment. Finally, he said, You know what? I believe you, and left to join Mama-san at the bar.
I finished my burger and joined Aida, who was alone while Grace and Luz took their turns serving customers.
Are you having a good time?
Yes. I’m glad we came. I’ve missed seeing everyone. There’s so much to catch up on. I told Grace I will go to Manila with her next week to see her sister.
What’s her sister doing in Manila?
She studies teaching at the Normal School.
I caught Aida’s smile as she spoke.
Let’s play pool, she said.
I couldn’t beat Aida at pool. She had learned to play from the best pool players in the Pacific Fleet and could hold her own against most guys who challenged her.
Why not? Just try not to bloody me too badly. I have to fly tomorrow.
She laughed and pressed her head against my chest. You break, then I will clean up.
That hurt, Aida.
Ohhh, so sorry, honey kooo.
Not tonight, Sailor. I’m going to make you want to go to Thailand to recover.
She gave me a beating for the ages. When it was over, you couldn’t tell me from the black and purple cue balls. At least I got a kiss out of it.
It was late. I had to get some sleep if I was going to make my flight on time. Aida made her goodbyes while I joined Phil at the bar.
Look after Aida while I’m away, will you, Phil?
What do you mean?
Check on her, especially if the earthquakes get worse. The volcano, too. They keep saying it could blow any time. I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to Aida while I’m away.
Don’t worry. Lucy and I will keep tabs on her. I’ll let you know if anything happens. I won’t leave her without knowing she’s safe.
We said goodbye to Mama-san, who wished me luck in Thailand, and left, choosing to walk home rather than take a jeepney. The apartment door had opened in the earthquake. Inside, a thin layer of dust covered everything, and some plates had fallen off the counter. We cleaned up the mess, showered, and went to bed.
We made love the way people do when they want to avoid thinking. Aida couldn’t bear the thought of my being away, and I found that, despite my eagerness to see Thailand again, I didn’t want to leave Aida. We made love to hold on, to message each other that no matter what happened, this was it: we were committed to a lifetime together.
Aida, born in a poor fishing village on Manila Bay, in a hut with sand for a floor, palm fronds for a carpet, and a raised bamboo platform for sleeping, could be tough as nails. But she was also tender, kindhearted, and sensitive. She held onto me that night like I was a crucifix, and I held onto her like the answer to a prayer.
I woke during the night to find her watching me. There were tears in her eyes.
What’s wrong, Aida?
Nothing’s wrong, Tommy. Go back to sleep.
As I crossed the courtyard early the next morning, Aida called from the window.
What is love?
Coming home knowing you’ll be watching for me from the window.
I love you, Tommy.
I love you, Aida.