Honey Ko (Sweetheart), Book 2, Chapter 9: Frank

The silence pounded in my ears. I wanted to sit and think, but my knees were locked. All I could do was stare at the door that had both opened and closed a moment before. I had learned something about Chip and something about myself. 

I had often noticed the purple heart ribbon among his many decorations but never asked for what action he earned it. Those questions weren’t asked; the answers were volunteered. Chip was one of those men you didn’t question but accepted as invincible, courageous, impervious to harm and fear.

I had learned too that I needed a woman’s understanding and strength, her gift of love for a deeply injured man carrying a heart full of scars. I needed a woman’s tender touch to smooth away the creases and ridges of worry and fear that life flays a man with, and temper the thoughtless exploration of the dark side of the soul with soothing words and caresses. 

All women are nurses and all men are flawed, and both come together to love and be loved. How many words had I exchanged with Marie that night? A dozen? Two dozen? Something wonderful had shaken me, and Marie too, I was certain, when our fingers touched. She had felt it. Maybe Marie will save me. Would she? Could she? Did I need saving? I needed nursing. I needed a nurse.

I wasn’t in Vietnam, however. It was over. I was safe. For now. But, still, something told me it wasn’t over. Thinking about it raised the hairs on the back of my neck. My head filled with the faces of friends who died over there. I remembered them and regretted their eternal absence. Did the faces come to stay right away? Or did something trigger them to show up unbidden later as nightmares? Did I need saving now or later? I had never thought I needed saving, and never sought a woman because I needed her. 

But now. Was now different? Was I falling for Marie because I needed her? I wanted to talk to her, but her refusal to have a drink with me made me gun shy.

Some servers had come into the back room after Chip left and invited me to play pool with them. My heart wasn’t in it, though, and I went into the bar after a few games and sipped a warm beer while deflecting playful propositions from the servers on duty. I reminded myself that I hadn’t had a girlfriend in several years. Maybe I hadn’t been needy enough. I had been lonely, though.

The girls feared Marie. That much I gathered as they spoke openly about her while we played pool. She wasn’t one of them and didn’t try to know them. She didn’t hustle guys for drinks, didn’t dance, and always went home alone. She might let a guy buy her a watered-down drink, but he never made it past, “Thank you. Goodbye.” 

Mystery surrounded her; no one knew where she was from, how she made her living, or why she worked at Rufadora. She drove a luxury car, wore nice clothes, and didn’t smell of cheap perfume. Her jewelry was real, and she drove to Manila to have her hair done. Besides Helen, only Amy could engage Marie in conversation, joke with her, draw a smile from her. Now, for the first time in anyone’s memory, she had revealed herself to be a woman: she was interested in a man. The last was said with a glance at me.

The bartender brought another beer and took away the empty. Warm again. On busy nights, beer sold faster than it could chill. I considered asking for a glass with ice, but it was laborious picking out the bits of rust and occasional fly embedded in the ice.

Marie was sitting with a stocky Marine, the type who probably had Mother tattooed across his chest. The guy guzzled his beer and belched. He laughed and guzzled more and belched again, this time sitting up and concentrating. The belch rolled across the bar, catching the silence between songs from the jukebox and wringing applause from the crowd. 

The look of disgust on Marie’s face spoke volumes. She pushed the glass away with her fingertips and walked from the table. He took another swig and picked up and finished Marie’s drink. He wavered on his feet but steadied himself and joined a group of Marines at another table. They looked Marie’s way and laughed.

She stood at the far end of the bar with her back to me, apparently unaware of my presence. I was disappointed; I had hoped to press my luck and have a drink with her despite the earlier brush-off. I decided to leave for the base. I had a long day ahead of me and looked forward to a quiet night’s sleep without the constant worry of the odd mortar blowing up my hutch. 

I swept the loose change into the bar tray and downed my beer. I wanted to say goodbye but didn’t relish another rejection. My self-esteem was solid, but women could make me feel small with a glance. I shrugged and walked to the door, weaving around tables and couples. I had stepped through the doorway when a voice stopped me.

Leaving so soon?

She stood a few steps away, a blue clutch in her hand. She must have hurried to catch me.

Pardon me?

I asked if you were leaving so soon.

Yes. Tomorrow is a busy day. I need to get some sleep. My next words were a desperate attempt for sympathy, but I had nothing to lose. I’m going back to Vietnam in a few days and don’t have much time. I’d hoped to relax and chat with you and forget the war for a while. I motioned toward the blue clutch. Are you leaving?

I had considered it. Did you not ask earlier if I wanted to have a drink with you?

Yes, but you didn’t seem interested.

That was then.

Oh? What changed your mind?

You. You are not like other Sailors. Are you a loner?

I wouldn’t say that. I’m not afraid to be alone. Solitude gives me time to think.

What do you think about in your solitude?

Let’s get that drink. I called for drinks and paid for them, wondering if Marie would get a cut. I regretted the thought immediately.

Shall we sit at the bar, or would you prefer a table? I handed Marie her drink, a Cosmopolitan. I thought barmaids’ drinks were mostly water.

Marie’s eyes blazed like red-hot spikes. I am not a barmaid. Her voice could have chilled a volcano.

I spoke without thinking. I’m sorry.

I thought you were a smart boy.

I said more careful than smart. I was neither this time.

You’re forgiven. She turned toward the back room. Come, it’s quieter in the back; all the Chiefs have gone.

We sat at a table circled by the yellow light of a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. Piano music poured through the door when two barmaids entered, laughing and giggling. They stopped short when they saw Marie, one bumping into the other. They backed out quietly, shutting the door behind them and silencing the music.

So, if you’re not a barmaid, what is it you do here? The other Chiefs call you pure.

Pure? Is that what you men discuss at your meetings? Are there not more important topics to discuss than my purity? War, peace, wives?

The meetings are usually about work. I came out tonight to see Chip, an old friend. Everything stopped, though, when you brought my beer. One of the Chiefs pointed out that you never serve anyone. Am I special?

Special? Hmm. She tilted her head as she considered my question. Her chin rested on her hand, fingers folded against her palm. Her hair fell away to bare the breathtakingly perfect curve of her neck and shoulder, the delicate filigree of her ear. I yearned to press my lips to the hollow behind her ear and trace with my fingertips the smooth, pure line of her neck. Such skin. Not a blemish. She was carrying me away and breaking my heart. Danger signals should have flared up, but instead I just stared.

No, she said, just different.

Is that good?

It’s attractive.

You’re attractive.

Am I? She smiled, revealing perfect, white teeth.

Yes. And intriguing.

Oh? In what way?

You don’t fit the pattern of the women in a town like Olongapo. You don’t appear to be after a husband, or a Sailor’s money. The words had barely left my lips when I realized my mistake.

Do you know how insulting that is?

I don’t mean it to be. Looks like I’ve stepped in it again.

Yes, you have. Not all barmaids are gold diggers, Frank. Most of the girls here send money home to support their families.

Marie leaned forward, her eyes intent. You seem to think the only thing barmaids want is money.

That isn’t what I think.

Marie ignored me and went on.

Do you believe every Filipino thinks all Americans are rich? That the way Sailors throw their money around getting drunk and paying for women to sleep with them proves that they are smarter than everyone else? That they have so much money to spend, all they have to do when they empty their wallets is go to the bank and get more?

No, of course not. Don’t put words in my mouth, Marie.

Filipinos are not naive, Frank, and most women are smart enough to look with disdain on Sailors who care so little for their hard-earned pay.

Marie, I’m not questioning the virtue of the girls who come to Olongapo seeking work. What concerns me is the disillusion that awaits them when they don’t find the life of luxury they expect to find in the States. I see it all the time. Sometimes I think they would be happier staying here and marrying a boy from their village.

How do you know what will make a Filipina happy? Why do you assume that a woman does not truly love the Sailor she marries? For that matter, why do you assume the Sailor does not love her?

I never said that, Marie.

Tell me, how many Filipino-American marriages end in divorce? How many Filipinos return to the Philippines when they become disillusioned?

I couldn’t tell you.

I haven’t met a barmaid yet, Frank, who returned from America because she didn’t like it. However, I have met barmaids who returned to PI when their husbands transferred here for duty. They come to Rufadora and talk to their friends. They show off their babies and talk of how wonderful it is living in America. Moreover, not one of them has expressed a desire to remain in the Philippines. Indeed, Frank, they — 

Wait a minute. Let me talk, Marie.

Do not interrupt me. They all want to bring other family members back to America. Marie spoke in earnest. The haughtiness had disappeared. I think you possess an altruistic nature, Frank, but it is misplaced in this case. I don’t think you’ve thought through your feelings on what makes a happy marriage between barmaids and Sailors.

Maybe not, Marie. I truly hope all the marriages are happy.

I drew a finger through a water stain on the table. Cigarette burns rimmed the edges and it wobbled on uneven legs.

Who are you, Marie? You’re not a barmaid, yet you work in a bar. Wait, let me rephrase that, I added hastily. You’re not a barmaid, yet I met you in a bar where you seem to be on close terms with the mama-san, and you served me a beer. And, I might add, somehow the bartender knew enough to use top-shelf liquor for your drink. You’re a contradiction. Not to disparage the girls who work here, but you don’t fit with them. You don’t speak and act like the others, and your bearing suggests a life lived in the city. I would guess you’re from a wealthy family, well educated, and bored. Am I right?

I didn’t serve you; I brought you a drink out of courtesy.

That was nice of you. Thank you.

We’ve already been through this part.

You’re being evasive.

You’re being impertinent and interrogative, Marie snapped.

Another ninety-degree turn.

Excuse me?

Yes. Just as our conversation starts to warm, one of us says something that causes tension, and the thread of our conversation turns cold.

Maybe we’re not trying hard enough to make general conversation. Shall we talk about the weather? I think it will be hot tonight.

It’s always hot here. General conversation is great in a waiting room or on a bus.

But impersonal.

Yes. But people are only passing the time in a waiting room, not trying hard to know one another.

Is that what we are doing?

I truly hope so. We seem to be aiming for some objective other than small talk.

My heart beat fast, and I was becoming emotional. My eyes tended to tear up when I became passionate. I have an intense urge to engage with you and find out more about you. I think you want the same.

Marie’s eyes softened as she smiled. I do, Frank. I don’t know what made me bring you your beer, but I wanted to be near you again. She sat back and crossed her legs, then arched her eyebrows and flipped her hair to one side. Since you asked, I manage the bar for Helen, the mama-san and owner. She is also my aunt.

She captured me again. I don’t care what you do for a living, Marie. I’m drawn to you. I like talking with you. I can hang out with my friends and talk all night, but they can’t offer a female point of view or companionship. They can’t flash brilliant white teeth at me from behind beautiful lips or look at me with bright, brown eyes that make my throat tighten and my heart skip two beats with every blink. You have a firmness of character belied by a delicate beauty, and eyes expressive of two sentiments: come hither, and go away, far away. I don’t know how to interpret either one. Two days ago, I launched aircraft during a battle in Vietnam; tonight, I’m battling wits with a beautiful but perplexing woman. Maybe the feeling of doom hanging over me makes me speak this way. Maybe I feel a sense of urgency to know you because I don’t think I’ll return from Vietnam again.

Emotions visibly churned behind Marie’s eyes. She appeared anxious, like she had gone too far when speaking earlier, or she wanted me to continue. I wasn’t sure which. I hoped I hadn’t gone too far. It was too late now, though; I had to leave, not because I needed sleep, but because I didn’t want to make another foolish ninety-degree turn.

I’m sorry, Marie. I’ve said more than I should have. I usually don’t speak this frankly, or this much, until I’ve known a woman for, oh, eight or nine years.

I couldn’t take my eyes off hers. I’d better get going. I’m exhausted and have a big day tomorrow.

She wanted to say something but remained silent. But that was okay. Her eyes told me all I hoped for, and when she lifted her hand to me, my heart melted. I took her soft, warm hand in mine and held it tight. She pressed my hand in return and smiled. Oh, how my heart melted.

Goodnight, Marie. I’ve enjoyed meeting you. I hope we meet again. You’re unlike any woman I have ever known. My eyes teared up as I walked away, completely in love with this beautiful woman I had known barely two hours.

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