"Why travel so far to visit our little island of
Siargao?” I’ve wanted to know for a long time but
never felt comfortable asking.
Larry, the new American guest at Surfer Heaven, tilts his head to the side, weighing the question carefully, not like the other boys, who talk to me and then turn back to joke with their friends before I can answer. “The waves here are famous; they’re written up in ‘Lonely Planet’.” His voice rises like a young boy, even though he’s almost finished with college and two years older than me. “At tide change, they break in a right curve.” His blue eyes open wide and lighten. “A hollow tube curled ten feet above me, I feel alone and totally free.” He sounds dreamy like the other surfers talking about “catching the big one.” They plug in laptops and scan the latest weather reports to compare wind and wave conditions.
“It must be exciting to visit so many different places,” I say.
“Well, I guess,” he answers, “but it gets tiring after awhile.”
“Tell me about things you’ve seen.” I look up because he’s a head taller than me. His blonde hair is parted in the middle like a movie star.
He talks of different oceans he’s surfed and the beach towns where he’s stayed, but I am more interested when he describes Bangkok. “At Wat Pho, the Reclining Buddha is over 150 feet long and painted with gold.” Is Thailand even richer than America? I wonder if he is teasing me, but know he is not when I glance at his face to check.
I’ve only left the island once to shop with father in the big city on the mainland of Mindanao. Even with its powerful engine, the outrigger took four hours, and in the open water, the swells grew. I feared I would be sick, but my stomach stayed calm. After landing, I was amazed at the crowded streets, four-story buildings and smell of many food stalls mixed with the dead animal stink of the sewers.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Benjing, but everyone calls me Lulu. My surname is hard for strangers to say.” He struggles to shape it on his lips. “Is Larry what your friends call you?”
“My passport says Laurence Chatwin, but I don’t like my first name.” The ends of his mouth pull down.
“Don’t you miss your parents?”
“I told them I wanted to travel for six months. 'Experience life a little before graduating,’ they said, but they didn’t understand.”
“What didn’t they understand?”
“Just about everything.” His eyebrows bunch together as he studies his hands, and his voice sounds full of sorrow like wind rustling through the palm trees before a rain.
“Do they farm or work in a city?”
“They live in San Francisco, best place in the United States. Hundreds of tall buildings, some with 40, 50, and even 60 floors.” I hold my breath. “The Transamerica's over 800 feet high, like a spaceship taking off.” I try to imagine something so big and strange. “The ocean's on one side and the bay on the other,” he continues. “The water’s cold, not like here, and I wear a wet suit to surf.”
“I must prepare lunch now,” I interrupt, but hope he’ll tell me what his family does and what happens in those large buildings some other time.
Occasionally, when Larry returns from surfing, he sits alone gazing far out into the ocean. If I am not busy, I walk over. His face is long and eyes dull, almost black, until he spots me and brightens.
I also like talking to a middle-age Filipina staying at the Surfer Heaven for ten days. She’s married to an American businessman. If he wants a beer, he nods and she jumps to get one. I inquire how they met, and he answers. “Found her picture on ‘Filipino Cupid.’ Best thing I ever got on the web.”
Later, alone with her, I ask many questions. “Tell me about life in America?”
“I own new appliances and can buy all the clothes I want.”
“But what do you do?”
“That’s the best part. I hardly need to do anything.” Her make-up is thick and gold jewelry jangles when she moves her head. Sometimes, rich older women look like they wear a mask.
“Don’t you miss your family?”
“We visit them for a week most years.” She smiles, but her eyes are not happy.
~ ~ ~
Two weeks after his arrival, Larry gives me a small English/Cebuano dictionary.“I've watched you write down new words,” he says. “Maybe this’ll help.” I read books and magazines left by guests, a few pages a night, to improve. All the tourists speak English to each other.
In high school, every minute not farming or caring for the younger children, I studied. While doing tasks, I struggled to remember English words for what I saw. “Lulu’s a smart one,” my parents boasted. “Maybe she’ll marry a rich shopkeeper.”
The next evening, Larry asks, “Lulu, would you go on a motorcycle ride with me?” He concentrates on the salt and pepper shakers. “Only seen surfers and surfer places so far.” He looks up at me as if to guess what I’m thinking. “I’d like to explore the island. Meet people who aren’t tourists.”
I’m happy Larry’s interested in Filipinos, but doubt he’ll find them as interesting as his foreign friends. I hesitate because the girls and customers are listening. I’m not certain if he is asking for a date or a guide for his trip. Still, I’m also curious to discover places I’ve never seen. “Sure, I can go this Sunday, but you need to drive better than you surf.” I point to the bruise on his forehead and hope this answer will sound like joking and nothing more.
Afterwards, Charity teases as if Larry had announced he was my boyfriend. “You’ll be rich and live in a mansion with a swimming pool like those in the magazine if you marry him.” She flips to her favorite picture from a worn-out copy of Better Homes & Gardens. “You won’t have to work like a dog from dawn to sunset either.”
“To keep such a house clean would take more than one dog working full time,” I say. These foreign boys bring their own girlfriends with them or find one quickly from the unattached French or Swedes. They are not for the daughter of a poor farmer, but I am interested anyway to learn things from them that will help me move up in the world. “American women are strange.” I giggle and show Charity a picture of a movie star in People Magazine. I explain about breast implants, a word I needed to look up.
“They are bigger than the mangoes in Lilip’s garden,” she gasps.
“More implantation,” I pronounce its many syllables slowly, “and she’d fall over like a coconut tree during hurricane season.”
On Sunday, Larry and I leave before other guests wake. He brings sandwiches for a picnic. This makes my face hot. The woman takes care of lunch, but I don’t have money to buy food from a store. I climb behind Larry on the little Honda motorcycle he rented for his stay. Foreign girls wrap arms fearfully around the driver’s waist, but I’ve ridden on motorcycles all my life and don’t need to hold on. I press close because that’s how you balance riding double. He smells of soap and shampoo, not the body’s natural scent.
We drive along the coast past Pilar, a village of fishermen huddled on the edge of a mangrove swamp. At Magpoponko, the white sand beach slopes down to the Pacific. “Let’s eat here,” Larry says. No one else is around because tourists visit Siargao for surfing, not sun. Those who do come for sun rarely travel beyond the two biggest towns on the island, Dapa and General Luna.
Larry carries his backpack to the beach and sweeps open a large, colored cloth. Stripping off his shirt, he plunges into the ocean and dives through the first wave. “Come in,” he calls when he surfaces. I shake my head. I can swim, but I don’t want my clothes to become salty. Also, I’m afraid my blouse might reveal too much if it’s wet.
After Larry finishes swimming, he flops beside me. “Lulu, I like talking to you,” he pauses between bites. “You listen as if you’re really interested.” He stares at me, and one side of his mouth is higher than the other when he smiles. “In the restaurant, you make everybody laugh." I want to touch his lips to smooth them even.
In America, not all his friends would find my deep mocha-color so pretty. One day walking home from high school, the wealthy city girls unfurled their umbrellas against the intensity of the sun while they bickered over which skin whitener was best. I overheard one whisper as I passed. “Lulu’s kayumanggi, so dark she melts into her shadow." I wanted to beat her with an umbrella until she squealed like a pig hauled to market.
Larry chews the inside of his cheek while I’m thinking. “You don’t know much about me.” He does not look at me and talks as if to someone who is not there. “Sometimes I don't even understand myself.” The light fades from his eyes and his lips tighten.
What’s to know? You love family; you work hard; and you make the best of what comes your way. Unsure of how to respond, I say, "Tell me about your house."
“It'sa big Victorian near the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“How many rooms?”
“Are there only rooms to sleep in?”
Larry makes his funny smiles as if I am teasing. “There’s also an office for each of my parents, a dining room, living room and kitchen. Downstairs is a den with a TV and ping pong table.”
“It sounds larger than Surfer Heaven,” I say. “How many rooms does it have?”
Larry looks uncertain, “Uh, well, I never counted.”
“It must be very big to require that.”
Larry doesn’t respond. For me, to answer such a question would be easy. My home has two. The bigger space is for living and the smaller one for sleeping. I do not say this because I do not think he can imagine such poverty.
“How many are you?” I guess at least eight children.
“Just the three of us—father’s a lawyer and mother was a shrink before I was born.”
No brothers and sisters; I’m stunned. Also confused. “What’s a shrink?”
“A person who listens to you to help solve problems.” Larry glances at me, and I pretend to understand.
How much does his mother get paid for listening? We both look out to the ocean, and I think of my family. We live from the land and grow the food we eat. For the few things we must buy, papa dries coconut meat and sells the copra to Chinese buyers. They pay little from the fortune they are rumored to receive for oil extracted from copra. I was paid 50 pesos a day with food and lodging provided when I started at Surfer Heaven, more than father earns but less than a liter of gasoline costs. At the end of my first year, the boss promoted me to manage the restaurant and raised my pay a little. “Lulu,” he said, “the surfer boys like you. They laugh when you greet them, ‘G’day, Mate,’ the same as an Aussie.” I pull myself from these thoughts and smile at Larry to encourage him to continue.
“My parents sent me to all sorts of camps and programs, but I was lonely inside most of the time.” Larry wiggles his toes and appears to search for a secret hidden among the countless grains of sand.
I’m quiet and don’t interrupt his silence as I recall village life. “Lulu, wake up,” mother would call before dawn, pulling me from the sweetness of sleep. “Yes, mama,” I’d sigh and roll up my nipa mat. As the oldest daughter, it was my job to cook the rice and prepare lemon grass tea for the four younger children before they walked to school, licking the last stickiness of breakfast from their fingers. Then, I’d rush to catch the bus to high school.
Larry discovers the answer he sought in the sand. “Mom and dad met at Stanford. So I went there.” His thoughts escape slowly. “I was on the rugby team…popular. Everyone saw me from the outside―clean cut, my own car, money. Called me 'the boy of the perpetual smile'.” His voice flattens. “I had lots of girl friends, but nothing serious. The girls at Chi Omega were more into discussing the next party than talking about anything important.”
“What’s Chi Omega?” I ask.
“It’s a sorority, a house on campus where only women students live.”
“That’s how it is here at the Surfer Heaven, also. Girls and boys sleep in separate dorms if they are too far away to return home each night.”
Larry looks confused. “Life was mapped out, but inside nothing made sense.” He stares at the water swirling at the beach’s edge. “I’d whistle through the day when I felt good. Other times, I’d paste on a happy face and ask people about themselves before they'd ask after me.” He turns pale and wrinkles his eyebrows. “When I couldn’t get out of bed, I told my roommates I was sick." He tilts his head, hesitating to continue. “I started drinking and smoking too much dope. Mother insisted I visit the school psychologist, but he only gave me different drugs.”
I know he waits for me to say something. No one’s ever talked to me of their pain in this way. I also have sorrows, but you either keep moving or you don’t. Mothers die in childbirth, kids don’t have enough to eat, fisherman fail to return from the sea after a storm. Everyone experiences so many sadness no one speaks about it much.
“You’re handsome, strong, with a college education and money,” I say. “Unhappiness is not a reason to drink.” I don’t talk about marijuana because that is not something we do. The young foreigners all smoke what they call “weed,” but it is illegal for us.
“Darkness…I don’t want it…but it comes anyway.” He chokes, and his eyes tremble. I worry he will cry.
“You’re good.” I strain to touch where his hurt lies. “You treat everyone with respect. Even after Canada beat the U.S. hockey team, you smiled at that man who sang for hours to anyone who’d listen, ‘Oy Canadar, we stan’ on guar’ fur’ee.’” I mimic the slurred speech of the drunk, but I don’t get the accent quite right.
A small smile replaces the haunted expression on Larry’s face, spreading slowly from his mouth to his eyes. “Lulu, you must have a bunch of boyfriends?”
Because he has revealed private things to me, I’m not offended. Also, I’m happy my words calm him. “No, I want more from life than to be some man’s wife, pulling a plow through the rice fields like a carabao.”
“I can’t imagine you as a dull, plodding carabao.” Larry laughs.
I can’t either, I think. “In my village, you graduate or not, and by 18 marry the boy who makes your family the best offer or causes you to be pregnant.” Larry waits for me to finish. I remember the boys in high school, especially from the countryside, following my movements with hopeful, furtive glances. “Lulu’s smile would warm up the bed at night,” they jabbered. I couldn’t imagine any of them being my husband nor understanding my dreams. For them, the future would remain the same as the past. “My plans don’t include marriage, at least not now.”
Before I had only discussed such things with my older brother when we talked softly at night from our mats resting beside each other. Dodong dreamed of buying a motorcycle and building a frame with two wheels in the back and a bench to carry passengers. “I’ll decorate the inside with paper-twists of many colors and paint the outside with sunset over the ocean.” His fingers drew what he described on the dirt floor. “I’ll be my own boss and make good money. After, I’ll marry and have a family.” How alike we are, I’d thought, and then smiled as the soft whistle of his sleep filled the darkness between us.
“What do you want?” Larry asks. Something about this serious foreign boy, who talks so freely of his emotions, encourages me to answer.
“I’ll work hard until I’m promoted to manage the hotel. Then save to buy a business.” I hesitate because I don’t want Larry to laugh. “Maybe a hair salon, the best and cleanest on the island.” Does he think I’m foolish, that I could never rise so high? “Women, even foreign tourists, will come to the shop for styles and pedicures.” My voice becomes stronger as I contemplate what such independence means. “That’s why I didn’t want a boyfriend in high school and don’t have time for one now.”
Larry’s face wrinkles. “You've never loved one special boy?” His mouth hangs open as if the words jumped out before he’d sorted them, and he wishes he could swallow them back.
I blush. “A boy doesn’t ask a girl that.”
“I’m sorry.” His eyebrows knit together like they do when he’s worried. “In the United States, it’s…well…not the same as here.”
With a start, I realize how late it is. “We must go. This is the first time in many months I failed to visit home on my day off.”
We bounce against each other as we speed around the rest of the island. Del Carmen, San Isidro. I imagine myself a tourist traveling to foreign lands, touching others without being drawn into their daily life. Where the path to our village reaches the road, I ask Larry to stop. A little boy I know walks by, and I give him a note to carry to my parents.
The sun flattens against the ocean and pink highlights streak the clouds when we reach the hotel. Larry leans forward to embrace me, but I step back and his arms fall to his side. Seeing his confusion, I move toward him and peck his cheek like a foreign girl before darting to the workers’ dormitory. He remains next to his motorcycle beaming with happiness and doesn’t pursue me, calling softly instead, “Goodnight, Lulu.”
The next morning when I take his order for breakfast, he reaches out and catches my hand. I’m embarrassed because I know he isn’t playing but making a declaration of, well, what I’m not sure. I'm prepared to say if the other girls notice: “Oh, that Larry, he’s the same as all the surfer boys; he likes to pretend he’s in love with us.”
Larry recognizes my concern and releases me. “Will you visit another part of the island with me this week?” Worry and hope alternate in his face like dark clouds between patches of light in a troubled sky.
“I had a good time yesterday, but Sunday is my only day off. I must spend the next with family.”
The blue in Larry’s eyes darkens. I’ve come to know that means he’s sad, but he only says, “Isn’t there some way you can go with me again?”
“The following weekend if you drop me off in time to help prepare the evening meal at my home.”
“Two weeks from now then.” Relief smoothes the wrinkles from his face.
We continue talking at meals and frequently in between, discussing ideas that don’t come up in conversations among the girls who work at Surfer Heaven. Like why the land is rich and people educated in the Philippines, but still there are no jobs. He’s also interested in the superstitions of my village. “Do your neighbors believe in evil spirits?
“Some fear the aswang, who approaches in the night and sucks your insides out through your nose.” He snorts that Filipinos worry about such horrible creatures, and I assure him I don’t. Not mostly, anyway.
I tease him because he’s so serious. “When you’re at home, do you play golf in a white uniform every day, riding around in a cart with a motor?” Although I’ve only glimpsed Larry’s world on the hotel television, I know most Americans don’t live that way. Still, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if he answered, “Of course, we all do.”
Larry thinks this is funny and pretends he’s sitting on a golf cart, wheeling back and forth in front of me. When he stops, still grinning, he says, “They could pour two of you into me.” He compares our waists with his hands, his fingers barely grazing me. His waist is ten inches larger than mine.
~ ~ ~
Two Sundays later, we leave early and motor along, each fork in the dirt road an exciting opportunity to choose between competing adventures. Stopping for lunch, we talk while the ocean crashes against a limestone outcropping below. After eating, we drive to Del Carmen where we pull over at a wooden stand to fill the tank with gas from liter coke bottles. As we continue toward General Luna, I remind him to stop. “This is the path to the village.”
Larry pulls over and I climb off. “Can I go with you?” he begs.
I’m startled; it’s a bad idea. “My grandfather built our home from bamboo he cut and fashioned with his bolo. The floor of our house is packed dirt and the roof thatched with palm leaves,” I say. “We’re used to this because it is how we’ve always lived, but it would be strange for you.” I hesitate. “Also, I might be embarrassed.”
With his lopsided and dimpled smile, Larry spread his hands. “Maybe you’re worried about bringing home a big, awkward foreigner.”
I mean to say no, or make an excuse, but gazing into his pleading eyes, I change my mind. Although I am anxious about what he will think, a part of me wants to see how he reacts to my home and village. “Okay, if you want to meet my family, I must buy something first.” A small shack of sticks with a thatched roof leans against the road. I enter and ask for six packets of Nescafe. Larry tries to pay. “No,” I tell him, “if you come to my house, you’re the guest of my family, and we must offer you something.” Despite our talks, he doesn’t yet understand our ways. “At home, we drink only tuba wine, which papa makes from the buds of the coconut, or lemongrass tea. My parents would not think either was right to serve a foreign guest.”
On a narrow path beside the rice fields, Larry steers for half a kilometer. At the village, kids spill from the houses; we barely move fast enough to stay upright. “Mabuhay,” my parents call as we stop. Their eyes do not reveal the amazement I understand they must feel because I have not yet told them of my American friend. Father gestures for Larry to enter. He mutters “Gikasubo nako,” apologizing with a sweeping gesture for the poverty.
I know Larry’s been studying Cebuano because he asks me the meaning of words. Still, I’m surprised when he shakes father’s hand and says clearly, “Lipo ko nailaila tika.” The house is full of extended family and friends―Dodong on his day off, Auntie, GramGram, all my younger brothers and sisters, and several neighbors. They smile with astonishment that this stranger should be able to say “I am pleased to meet you” so politely in our language. Even Dodong, who scowls on first meeting Larry, grins at his struggling Cebuano.
Larry sits on the floor with apparent ease, as if being in our house packed with strangers is natural for him. My little GramGram, wrinkled like a nut and toothless, snickers and finally heaves into snorting giggles. Everyone attempts to look disapproving at what she gasps between hiccups, but, one after another, they also laugh.
“What’s funny?” Larry asks.
I whisper to him in English. “GramGram said, ‘Lulu’s friend has a big nose.’” He looks startled, and I add quickly, “It isn’t so big. It’s just that foreigners have such large noses and Filipinos have little ones.”
Mama serves the Nescafe and sticky rice on a banana leaf. Larry mimics us and rolls the rice in his right hand before placing it in his mouth. He makes a mess and looks uncomfortable with his gooey fingers. Dodong speaks the most English besides me, but he doesn’t talk much to Larry. When conversation drifts to family topics, we forget and speak in Cebuano. I translate for Larry and then the others will also remember to say a few words in English, but he seems content to listen quietly without understanding a word, watching me when he thinks I won't notice.
After several hours, it’s time to leave. The visit, to my surprise, has gone well. Everyone, except Dodong, likes this polite American boy, trying so hard to speak the little Cebuano he can and acting toward elders with respect, like a young man should. “Maayong Gaii,” good evening, good evening, everyone cries as we leave.
Larry remains quiet as we drive. Was my home too strange? We stop at the town square, and he asks, “Can we walk here for awhile? At the hotel, we’ll be interrupted.”
“Yes, certainly. In the church garden.” I answer calmly, but my heart flips.
“Glad I met your family.”
“I told you we were poor farmers.”
“Well,” he says, “everyone was welcoming.”
"Yes, we are polite to strangers," I say. "It is our culture." I do not tell him being friendly and understanding each other are not the same thing because he seems to have more on his mind.
“Maybe I seem like a young surfer without much going on inside. But I'll finish college and graduate school. Become a professional...possibly a lawyer.”
I also want to make something of my life, I think.
“Each night, I'm impatient for the morning—to talk, see you smile, and hold your hand when you’ll let me.”
I wait for Larry to reach where he wishes to go.
“Could…you love me?” Larry stutters in a hoarse voice.
I stoop to pick up a deep-red orchid blossom from the path and gather my thoughts. “I’m happy when I’m with you. Still, I can’t say I love you or not because there’s so much I don't understand about love.” He wants, or needs, more I realize, but I care enough for him, and myself, to say only what I can. I draw close in the deepening shadows of the evening and stand on tiptoe to kiss him. Our lips linger together. “You’re the first I’ve kissed this way, as a woman kisses a man.”
Hand in hand, we walk for an hour. I no longer care if someone seeing us thinks I’m Larry’s girlfriend, rather than a waitress from the Surfer Heaven showing a guest around. He bends and kisses me again. “Not too much, not too fast,” I whisper. “I’m not ready.” Conscious of the pulse of his heart through his hand in mine, I’m dizzy. Under the stately Kamagong tree, spreading its protective branches wide, I don’t notice how often we circle in the garden and later remember only the sweet smell of the jasmine.
~ ~ ~
Many trips afterwards, we drive north to Tak Tak Falls where the silence is unbroken except for the gentle coo of the fruit dove. We’ve returned to the village several times and don’t always stop now. My parents consider Larry a boyfriend and whisper to each other that the good fortune they wished for me may come true. Even though it is not our customary way, they do not resent my spending some of my little free time alone with him.
Larry bounds into the pool filled by water cascading down the rock face and begs me to join him. Staring dreamily at rainbows dancing in the spray, I jump without thinking and paddle to him. I hold onto his shoulders and listen while he sings a silly song about Clementine, a foolish girl who tripped and fell into the water. I don’t care that the words are stupid, and he must not either. The force of the waterfall pushes my body tight against him. Does he feel me tremble? I push off and swim to the ladder.
Without speaking, we retrace the path to the main road. The air rushing over us is cold at first, but soon, dried in the hot midday, I laugh into the wind. We stop to picnic on the west side of Siargao, looking far out to the islands of Dinagat and Samar beyond. Huddled together on the blanket, shaded by coconut trees and warmed by each other and the sun, we talk and embrace. Over time, I’ve learned some things. We kiss and kiss again.
Larry strokes my hair, murmuring, “You make my life complete.” This declaration makes me happy, but also a little uneasy. After a pause, he says, “I promised to finish the last semester of school I need to graduate.” I tense. “I’ll leave in three weeks.” Although I knew Larry had to return home soon, this is not the time I want to hear it. He breathes deeply. “Will you…marry me?” he stammers. “While I finish school,” he adds in a rush, “I’ll submit paperwork for you to join me in the U.S.”
I am light-headed but also worry. “Why must we live in America?"
Larry looks startled, as if he hasn't considered any other option. “I'd never earn enough to support a family here.”
“You could start a hotel, and I would help you manage.”
He doesn’t respond.
What would I do in America? “I must consult my parents before I can give you an answer.”
I rest my head against his back as we drive, inhaling his smell deeply. We stop at the Paradiso where they grill Dogso, the thick white sea fish Larry loves. Some girls I know come in for cokes. I introduce Larry who makes small talk with them in Cebuano, which they understand once they stop giggling. Foreigners, who surf with Larry, approach and speak in English. We hold hands under the table, and I remember our bodies pressed together at Tak Tak Falls. I sip a cool mango lassi, conscious of the heat between us. We talk of this and that until the restaurant closes.
I kiss Larry goodbye when we reach the hotel, but he holds my hand. “I don’t want to stop being with you.” With a soft pull, he leads me down the path toward his room.
“I’m nervous,” I tell him. “The other girls will gossip if they see us.” I check, but nobody is around.
“No one will know,” he says. “We’ll talk quietly.” He does not understand how much we have already learned about the guests from cleaning rooms and serving meals. Yet he has asked me to marry, and I also don’t want to leave him.
In his room, there is only one small chair at the desk and his unmade bed. I am unsure where to seat myself until he sweeps the cover back over the sheets. I am happy when he slides near me, but it will be hard to talk with our bodies so close. Larry turns halfway and asks with his eyes if he can hold me. I think I should not do this and not be here alone with him.
Later, I cannot remember how we progressed from kissing to touching and finally to holding each other with fierce need. “I don’t know what to do,” I say. “And I must not get pregnant until we are married.”
He squeezes my hand to reassure me. “I’ll use a condom.” I have learned about these things from the other girls, although none of the women in my village use such devices.
“And, Larry, I’ve heard it hurts.” Again, he presses my hand and his eyes promise he’ll be gentle. After I tell him I’m embarrassed to undress in front of him, he goes into the bathroom. I slip out of my clothes and slide between the sheets, soothed by the crisp caress of the cotton.
I close my eyes as Larry crosses the room and turn slightly to avoid his nakedness. Warmth invades me when he kisses me softly and traces the hollow of my neck. In no hurry, he explores my arms, elbows; each part of me holds special interest. “Your skin is rich chocolate,” he whispers. I curve toward the pressure of his hand on the mound where my legs meet. Wetness washes through me. Breathing comes more rapidly, and a sweet scent escapes from deep within. Without effort, I slide under Larry, opening myself. He enters me and moves, pausing when he senses resistance. I experience a sharp pain as he pushes deeper and cry out.
Larry holds himself motionless on his elbows. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Kissing his neck, I urge, “No talking now; come further into me.” Sinking downward, his body unites with mine. He pauses to kiss my eyes until I can no longer control myself. “It’s okay, okay,” I tell him, “you mustn’t stop any more.”
We sleep wound tightly together and wake several times to make love. In the morning, I try to remember if we used protection each time, but I am unsure because of a dream-like memory of rolling into a deep embrace during the unconscious hour before dawn.
Accustomed to rising early, I wake with the first light. The top cover is pushed aside and I study his handsome body. I am amazed at what I have done, but I am not sorry. His eyes open, and we talk quietly until he notices a small red stain on the sheet and flinches.
“It’s okay,” I try to comfort him. “This goes with making love. It was also my choice.” I continue, “I must sneak back into the dormitory before the others wake. Our secret won’t remain hidden long, but I don’t want them to know everything.” Smiling, he whispers, “Maayong buntag.” With a kiss, I also wish him “Good Morning.”
At breakfast as I take his order, I hold Larry’s hand, no longer concerned what the other girls think. “We’re lovers now," he says. His feet twist around the legs of his chair. “It’s not right for you to wait on me like a customer.”
With a shrug, I respond. “This is my job. That doesn’t change because you’re my boyfriend.” I cannot bring myself to say lover; that’s not the way we talk.
~ ~ ~
The next Sunday, I spend the whole day with family. Marriage to a foreigner, especially an American, means to be rich, and this is so much more than my parents imagined for any of their children.
“He wants to live in America,” I say. “My heart would ache from loneliness.”
“There are no jobs here, no future,” they say. “Many of our women live in their husband’s country.” They bless the marriage, but I also want Dodong’s approval.
I ask him to walk with me. When we’re alone, I say, “Well?”
His heart opens in a flood. "Foreign men joke about finding a Filipina. 'They’re submissive,’ they say, describing our women like candy, using words I can’t repeat.”
“Larry doesn’t think of me that way.”
“We’ve shared our plans since childhood,” Dodong says. “Do you intend to give up your dreams to become a plaything for a wealthy American?”
I’m uncertain how to answer. “I’ll send home more money than I could ever earn here.”
“Do you really wish to visit your family only once every year or two. To return with suitcases full of expensive presents and misery in your face.” I cannot change Dodong’s stubborn opposition; he makes me confront unanswered questions.
That evening back at the hotel, Larry is playing pool and greets me with an anxious look. I move close and whisper. “Let’s go to your room to talk after this game.” In his apartment, I sit on the only chair and begin abruptly. “I want to marry you, but I want us to live here.”
“Siargao’s too isolated; I’d never find a decent job.”
“But you always tell me how happy you are here.” Perhaps, he’s unable to imagine spending Sundays for the rest of his life in my parents' small house crowded with noisy relatives, as I find it difficult to conceive living in distant America.
“In the U.S., I'll earn a big salary. We could afford a beautiful home.”
He already envisions me in an expensive house, cooking and cleaning as I do here. “What do I want with many rooms?”
“And you could fly back every year with the kids.” How many children does he see me bearing?
“What would I do?”
“You'd be my wife and in charge of the home.” He has my life carefully planned out, I think.
“Away from my parents, brother and sisters, aunties and uncles, I will be like a fish left on land by the tide.” My eyes dampen. Larry has never watched father’s coconut trees emerge at dawn from the darkness, stretching silent and invisible to the rice fields. He has not felt the closeness binding my family as we quietly prepare for the day. Nor heard the soft snuffling of our carabao after work is done, and I lead him, sweaty and tired from plowing, to the village waterhole where he cools his body, submerged to his nose in the mud. In the vastness of the night, he has not consulted the stars and dreamed. Seeing my tears, Larry wraps his arms around me.
“I’m bound to help support my family. If you marry me, you take on this responsibility also, not for a month or a year, but for life.”
“We’ll send money regularly,” Larry answers firmly. I am sure that he believes this, but it’s hard to foresee what will happen in the future.
“In the US, people will think I’m black and treat me badly.” I worry about stories I’ve heard. “What will your parents think of your dark-skinned Filipina? I don’t know how to live in a rich person’s world.”
“My parents will love you, Lulu. If other people act stupid, we’ll ignore them.” I don’t doubt he would, but maybe it would not be so easy for me. For the next two days and nights, we discuss my concerns. I sneak to his room every night, although all the girls now know where I’m going.
On the third day, I wake to a certainty. I cannot be separated from family, nor give up my ambitions. I slip out quietly. When Larry joins me, I say, “If we must live in the United States, I can’t marry you.” He turns pale and stumbles away, and I don’t see him the rest of that day. I don’t go to him that night.
The next morning when he isn’t at breakfast, I think maybe he went to surf early because the waves are good...until Charity rushes up. “Lulu, come quick, Larry’s sick.” The curtains are pulled and air conditioner off. The room is stuffy, filled with the sickly odor of vomit. In a heap, half-on and half-off his bed, Larry looks grey and smells stale. Beer bottles litter the floor. A plastic bag of herbs rests half-open on the nightstand.
I call for one of the gardeners to help drag Larry, moaning, into the bathroom. Removing the remaining shoe on his right foot, I prop Larry, still in his surfer shorts, under the shower and allow warm water to revive him. With a towel, I wipe specks of vomit from his chin. I scold him, and he holds his head low like a village dog.
Collecting himself, Larry mutters. “Don’t know what got into me...smoked dope with the Aussies...came back and started drinking.”
I stare at Larry to appraise whether he can hold himself up. “Okay, Larry, stand up,” I say. “Charity will clean up your mess, but you must dress and come to the restaurant to get some food in your stomach.”
I recall the drunk in our village, alone since his wife died in childbirth. When he drinks during a binge, the neighbors take care of him. They understand but don’t respect him. Larry is kind and with a good heart. Still, at times he acts more like a boy than a man, as if something is not yet firmed up within him. Is this how he will deal with life's challenges?
I avoid Larry the rest of the day, but he follows me with a dejected expression until I feel guilty. “Don’t be mad,” he pleads, but I interrupt.
“I am mad. If you don’t respect yourself, how can I respect you?”
“I want you.” His voice wavers and face crumples.
“Do you think with a pretty Filipina wife you will live without problems in America?”
“No, no. I love who you are, what you are.”
“I’m not sure you’re ready to marry.”
Larry breathes deeply and walks off silently. After several hours, he returns. “I’ll never do that again.”
“That may be a hard promise to keep,” I say. “Life is a long path full of pain we must endure.”
We walk to the shore and sit beneath the willow tree, its branches sweeping into the ocean. “After I graduate, I’ll receive $10,000 my grandparents put in a trust. I’ll come back to marry you and we’ll start a business here with the money.”
“Why don’t we get married before you leave?” I ask.
“My parents wouldn’t forgive me if I did not involve them. I’m their only child. Also, I will need the help of my family to make a life for us here on Siargao.”
I understand his concern for his parents' feelings because I share the same worries, but I don’t think we need his grandparents' money for our dreams come true. Will he change when he is surrounded by his familiar American life? He sounds determined, yet I have seen how young and uncertain he still is. Love does not often turn out like a soap opera on television.
~ ~ ~
The final two weeks pass quickly. I work and the other girls are happy for me. “Lulu," they tease, "you used to be so full of energy, but now you act lazy.” It’s true. I’m unusually tired and no longer hurry from one task to another. In the afternoon before he’s to leave, I become sick while preparing lunch and rush outside to throw up. I remember the talk of the women in my village and guess I am pregnant.
Should I tell Larry? I wouldn’t sacrifice happiness for a life in America far from family. And I don’t want him to live as a foreigner in a strange land out of a sense of duty. If he returns, it must be for love, not obligation. I decide not to reveal my secret.
The last morning, we wake early. The taxi drives us to the island’s small airport. Emptiness seep into Larry’s eyes, which I have seen before when he talks about his unhappiness. Holding each other, we speak quietly until the plane makes a tight circle to land. Then, there is no more time.
“Naguul ako,” I sigh and Larry understands that I’m sad. I place my head against his chest to absorb the rhythm of his breathing.
“Selamat, Lulu, I’ll write each day and return in four months.”
I kiss him gently. “Goodbye, you are in my heart now.”
“And you're in mine,” he answers.
After a silence, I say, “Do not forget me.” He looks startled, but then they announce last call. His eyes flare, and he forgets whatever troubled his mind. Instead, he holds me with a long kiss until the flight attendant coughs.
He walks to the plane, up the steps, ducks at the entrance, and reappears behind a window waving frantically like a young boy lost in a crowd. I raise my arm, but he already seems far away as if he swallowed by another world. With engines roaring, the plane hurtles down the runway, hops, and rises rapidly. My heart follows hungrily until it disappears.
I am alone except for the janitor, who stares at water poured out on the dirty floor as if seeking answers. I do not have to search for signs revealing the future. My stomach turns over, and I know hard times are coming.