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Curaçao Cure

Three years and the pitch-dark has not ceased to amaze. It smells sticky and oily, and he knows, that if he rotates his arm in the air, it will churn like rarefied turpentine. Bringing his wristwatch to his face, he sees its luminous dials angling 4:30. He cocks his ears in the direction of Candido's bed, two feet away, hoping to gauge how his cabin-mate is sleeping. He hates to wake Candido up, but he inevitably does. If not with the suction noise of the tightly sealed door being opened, it'll be the bathroom light switch or the whooshing sound of the toilet in the bowels of the ship.

"Go right ahead," Candido growls, "I'm awake."

Putting on his shoes, Andres wonders. Does he hear genuine concern in his roommate's morning gruffness?

"Sorry, pare, I'll be quick. I'm out of here in ten minutes." He grabs his eyeglasses and work clothes he placed on the stand the night before, and goes into the cubicle-size bathroom, before turning on the light. He peers at the thin brown face in the mirror, and with his fingers massages his jowl against the cheekbones.

When he comes out, he sees that Candido has turned on the cabin lights. He says, "Really sorry to wake you up. Let me just put on my shoes."

"Take your time, Andy. I don't want you to fall in the dark."

Putting on his shoes, Andres wonders. Does he hear genuine concern in his roommate's morning gruffness? Candido sits up, the recessed overhead light casting a sheen on his balding head, saying, "Man, you sure were restless last night."

"Was I snoring?"

"Worse, you were making a gagging sound, like choking on something. I shook you but you didn't wake up."

"I'm sorry."

"For a moment, I thought you were having bangungot."

Andres exclaims, "What's that?

"I thought you studied medicine."

Andres winces at the remark and says, "Animal medicine. And, please, don't remind me."

"Sorry."

Andres tells him, "Not as sorry as I am. It's okay. So, tell me, what's bangungot?

"It's a disease that strikes men in their sleep. The cases aboard the ship all involved Filipinos."

"Did they die?"

"That's what I heard. I only witnessed one case though since I`ve worked here."

"How long have you been working here?"

"Twelve years."

It doesn't help to know that immigrant professionals in the United States take step-down jobs while waiting to pass qualifying exams...Many stay that way because they can't pass the exams.

Andres whistles softly, thinking of his own three years. If only he'd passed the licensing exam for veterinarians. Would that have made a difference? It doesn't help to know that immigrant professionals in the United States take step-down jobs while waiting to pass qualifying exams. Doctors become nurses and pharmacists, optometrists become opticians, lawyers take on clerical jobs... the list goes on. Many stay that way because they can't pass the exams. It may sound terrible to a Filipino, but not to an American, who may know about music graduates clerking in record stores, and PhD's becoming "freeway flyers," the name given to part-timer instructors who conduct a class in one city, get in their cars and drive to another school for a second or third round of teaching.

"Yup, I was as young as you when I started," Candido says, as he slips back under the blanket, "Now I'm a grandfather. Shut the light on your way out, will you?"

*****

ANDRES finds perks in his work, when he doesn't think about how menial the work is. His previous assignment was to polish the brass rails on the stairways and clean the public toilets. Now, he cleans the adult and children's pools, swabs the deck, and lays out the lounge chairs. He watches the swimmers go into the fenced and elevated pool areas, the sunbathers lounge and oil their pot and hard bellies. He watches out for discarded paper cups, which he picks up and takes to the trash cans near the bar, where he exchanges pleasantries with the bartender Tony, who keeps whistling the ditty "Oh, Visayan Islands of My Heart."

An unthinking job mainly, it becomes hard when he watches women wearing string bikinis walk nonchalantly about, lie on the lounge chairs and turn their bodies to the sun.

An unthinking job mainly, it becomes hard when he watches women wearing string bikinis walk nonchalantly about, lie on the lounge chairs and turn their bodies to the sun. Then he thinks of Sandra back home and the dimpled piquancy of her charm, the touch of her skin and wet hair on the white sands of Boracay. This image quickly fades at the sight of buns and breasts that regress his fantasies into suckling dreams.

He's putting cushions on the chairs near the bar, when Tony calls out to him, "Going ashore today, Andy?"

"I've to make a call," Andres says, looking past the bar at the shoreline of St. Thomas, capital of the Virgin Islands.

"Good luck," says Tony, who is wiping the sinks and bringing out trays stacked with cocktail glasses. "Three other cruise ships have already docked, waiting to unload thousands of tourists. They'll be jamming those pay phones"

"I know," Andres says, knowing that callers take advantage of the much cheaper rates on shore.

Tony says, "Don't go for the street phones. Your best bet are the pay phones in the mini-malls. There's one on the balcony behind the Hard Rock Cafe building. It's across the street from where the tender drops you off. How much time do you have to make the call?"

"Two hours. But it's Saturday over there and she isn't expecting the call."

"You want to surprise her."

"Exactly. It's her birthday."

"Oh, that's nice. You're the kind of guy who sends his girlfriend birthday gifts of roses and chocolates."

"Please," Andres says, waving aside Tony's sarcasm.

"Hope you make the call. If you can't, don't feel bad. She might have other plans for the weekend. Besides, you don't have to sing the lonely sailor's blues. There's always the sure-fire Curaçao cure."

Andres shakes his head on his way to the storage room for more cushions.

*****

WEARING a baseball hat, Andres nods at the Filipinos in white uniforms checking out the passengers lining up to go ashore. He slips his ID card into the machine, pulls it out at the buzz, and steps on the bridge to the tender, a boat that carries over two hundred at a time. The tender chugs toward the shore, its diesel tingeing the humid Caribbean air.

A woman wearing a straw hat already has the phone and a Chinese man sits on the top step, waiting his turn. Andres looks at his watch and holds down his breath to wait.

He skirts the taxis and hawkers at the docking area that runs parallel to the main street, fronting stores that offer French perfumes and tanzanite jewelry without sales tax, and boutiques showcasing trinkets and souvenirs. He bounds up a stairway to the balcony behind the Hard Rock Cafe. A woman wearing a straw hat already has the phone and a Chinese man sits on the top step, waiting his turn. Andres looks at his watch and holds down his breath to wait. Speaking French, the woman in the straw hat leans leisurely against the pink wall; the Chinese on the stairway seems wrapped up in meditation.

Andres calculates a thirty-minute wait before he gets on the phone. Sandra must be preparing to attend Mass at nearby Santo Domingo Church, which she does every Saturday. On Sundays she sleeps in, for on weekdays she gets up at four o'clock to be at work by eight. It hurts to think about the time Sandra spends to commute from Quezon City to Makati; his father got her the job as a receptionist in a fellow doctor's office. In four hours, he's already put in half a day's work, and he's ready whenever the ship calls for overtime.

Fifteen minutes, the French woman is still on the phone, her tone cooing and laughing, sprinkled with mon ami and mon cherie. The Chinese begins to flex his arms, as if rowing a boat, breaking the rhythm to glance at his wristwatch. Is that how he keeps his poise, doing sit-down tai chi? Compared to the Chinese, Andres must seem delirious, as he shifts his weight from foot to foot, puts his arms behind and clamps a hand on the watch, as if to slow down time.

When it is his turn at the telephone, the Chinese looks at Andres and gestures "ten" with his fingers. Andres nods and mouths, "Thank you." He sees three other people waiting and tries to keep still, the passing minutes now paced by a Mandarin cadence.

Finally, the phone is his. He slips a card into the slot and dials. He cups his other ear and says, "Hello, this is Andy, yes, Andy. May I please speak to Sandra."

"She's not here, Kuya Andy."

"Where is she?"

"She is in Tagaytay. . . a conference. She was invited by her boss."

"When will she be back?"

"I don't know, Kuya."

Still holding the phone as the line goes dead, he says aloud, "Happy birthday, Sandra, hope you have a good time in Tagaytay."

Still holding the phone as the line goes dead, he says aloud, "Happy birthday, Sandra, hope you have a good time in Tagaytay." He wipes the phone dry against his shirt and replaces it on the hook, and removes his fogged-up glasses. Outside, walking to the landing dock, he gazes blankly at the panorama of clouds and white ships and a dark blue sea.

In an undertone the Filipino who stands in the sun as he checks the ID's of returning passengers, says to Andres, "Why so early, pare?"

"Nothing much to do here."

"So hot, just like Manila."

Andres pockets his ID card and descends the stairway to the pontoon bobbing next to the boat. As he steps into the tender, he offers his hand to the woman following him; her blonde hair is cut short and tapered down her nape. She smiles and takes his hand lightly, acknowledging the courtesy rather than help which she obviously doesn't need. Andres finds an empty bench in the lower deck, the woman sits next to him, shading the smell of diesel with her scent. The tender unmoors and swings out toward the ship. Somehow, even without his uniform and nametag, Andres finds himself slipping into the mindset of a crewman on his watch, ready to wipe spilled soft drink on the deck or fulfill a bather's request for a towel.

"Excuse me." Andres starts at the woman talking to him. "I heard you speak to the man at the pier. What language was that?"

"It was Tagalog," Andres says, holding back the crewman's deferential "Ma'am," when he sees her smile.

"Is that the same as Ilocano?"

"Not really. They're both spoken in the Philippines, but quite different."

"Hmn. I have this friend at work, Isabel. She speaks to her mother on the phone in Ilocano. That's what she told me."

Andres wants to hear more, pleased that he needs no pretext to look at her face. He sees the contours of her tank top, but no cleavage, the bobbed hair giving her face the clean lines of a Grecian bust.

"I can tell when Isabel's speaking in Ilocano, even when she tries to keep her voice down."

"Oh, yeah?"

"No kidding. Her gesture's different, the way she moves her hand."

"Really," Andres says, puzzled at the idea of a language dictating its own gestures in speech. Perhaps, it's the same as putting on the crew's mustard yellow shirt to polish the brass rails on the stairways, or blue jacket to wait on tables.

"Nice talking to you," the woman says, as the tender nears the huge white ship. "Say 'Hi' next time I see you around."

"I shall," Andres says, putting on his sunglasses and allowing her to walk ahead. On the pretext of watching his steps, he looks at her legs walking up the tender stairs and crossing the bridge to the ship.

*****

Keep busy even when there's nothing to do, seems to be the axiom of contract workers aboard the ship.

ANDRES sees the empty bar, and smiles ruefully at Tony wiping the stainless-steel sink. Keep busy even when there's nothing to do, seems to be the axiom of contract workers aboard the ship. Polish the brass rails, start at the bottom all the way to the fourteenth deck; do the bathrooms on the way down, and then, do the rails again.

Tony looks up and say, "Aba? I didn't expect you here this early. What can I get you?"

"Water, please, with ice," Andres sits, and scans the lounge chairs, undisturbed by the few sunbathers and swimmers who've not gone ashore.

"Did you make that phone call?"

"Yes, I did."

"You don't look too happy about it."

"Oh, I'm okay," Andres says, forcing a smile.

Feigning sympathy, Tony says, "I know, sometimes, a phone call home makes you lonelier than you were before." Then he says, "Of course, you can call again in Curaçao, or. . . ."

"I know, I know, take the sure-fire Curaçao cure at the Venue Hotel."

Tony chuckles but quickly turns impassive when two men approach, the red-haired man sitting two bar stools away from Andres. They order fruit punches and Andres begins to eavesdrop when he hears the redhead with thick jowls, boasting, "This is my tenth cruise, since I retired eighteen years ago."

The redhead's name is Russ, Andres gathers, the man with the salt-and-pepper hair is Sieg. "So, you've been in this part of the Caribbean before," Sieg is saying.

"Many times. But my wife and I don't take the land tours anymore. Hate to see those shanties and garbage on the streets in some of these ports."

"Don't blame you. I feel the same way."

"Ain't the islands pretty though, from afar, I mean? Beats shovelling the snow in front of the garage back home."

"I'm looking forward to Curaçao. They say it's a nice place."

"You bet. Looks like a Dutch village."

"I was told Curaçao has a synagogue that's open to tourists." Sieg says. "I've never been in one before."

"Don't be foolish, man, go to Venue Hotel instead, and find solace in the arms of a Columbian beauty."

To visit a synagogue, must be an interesting first. He sees Tony smiling, as if reading his thoughts and saying, "Don't be foolish, man, go to Venue Hotel instead, and find solace in the arms of a Columbian beauty."

*****

"Good morning," Andres greets Candido, his bald head sheeny with the cabin lights.

"Last night was a surprise," Candido says. "You were talking and laughing in your sleep."

"What was I saying?"

"I didn't catch it. But then I heard you sing. The song that Tony sings at our socials."

"You mean, 'Oh, Visayan Islands of My Heart.' That's funny, I'm not Visayan."

"You've been around him too much."

"We work on the same deck," Andres says. "How was work last night? Did that old guy at your table give you problems?"

"Yeah. First he orders the steak and says, "It's no good. Take it back.' Then he orders the fish. 'Can't taste the damn thing,' he complains. The maitre d' has told him we can prepare a special menu. He says he'll think about it."

"He's probably lost his sense of smell," Andres says. "I hate to think of the food that's wasted on ship."

"Well, the ship grinds it up and feeds it to the fish. Oh, by the way, they're serving adobo and pansit at the buffet today."

"Thanks for telling me."

"Look for the trays that say 'Menudo' and 'Singapore Rice Noodles.' They won't call it adobo or pansit," Candido says. "On your break today, are you getting off in Curaçao?"

"I don't know yet? Have you seen the synagogue there?"

"Oh, yes, nice place of worship. It has benches but no pews, no altar images either."

"How do you get to it?"

"Cross the pontoon bridge, go down the road that connects to it. When you reach the square. . . you'll see the trees, turn left. You won't miss it. There are signs."

By midmorning, the pool deck has not attracted many sunbathers and swimmers. Andres keeps busy, with another half hour on his watch. He straightens cushions, pick up bits of paper napkins, pausing to look at the Dutch village. The sun catches the red tiles of pitched roofs and the pastel walls of green, beige and amber.

He feels a jolt, nudged by an unseen hand, when he sees the woman walking towards him.

He feels a jolt, nudged by an unseen hand, when he sees the woman walking towards him. It's the blonde with the bobbed hair he met in the tender from St. Thomas. She's still wearing the same tank top, now with its matching bikini that shows her belly button and the sinuous fullness of her legs.

"Good morning," he says, holds back the deferential "Ma'am."

"Hi," the woman says, as she walks on by.

He feels stung, worse than being slapped, then berates himself. What did he expect, greeting her in his denim work clothes? He stares hard at her, forgetting his place in the ship. The blonde stretches herself on the lounge chair, spilling her whiteness on the blue cushion. He lets out a lungful of air that hisses against clenched teeth, and propels himself toward the bar. Tony is bringing in trays of empty glasses. He looks at his watch and throws another glance at the blonde. She's waving, trying to catch his attention. Warily, he approaches. She sits, swinging her legs on the chair's edge, and squints at him.

"I thought you looked familiar," she says, laughing, "the man from the Virgin Islands. How's it going?"

He doesn't quite know how to respond. Is she ribbing or flattering him? So he smiles and asks, "What can I do for you?"

"Could you order me a piña colada from the bar?"

In seconds he finds the proper response. "Yes, Ma'am."

At the bar, Tony gives him a bemused look. Andres stammers, "I need, I need... oh, shit, that woman over there needs, I mean, wants a piña colada."

"One piña colada coming up," Tony chirps.

"I'm off now, Tony. Will you take it to her?"

"What's the hurry, man? Don't you want to do it yourself? She's a real stunner." Tony asks, and then grins when he sees Andres looking in the direction of Venue Hotel.

© Paulino Lim, Jr.

-----------------
Curaçao Cure first appeared in the October 23, 1999 issue of Philippine Free Press magazine.

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