Bernie Aragon Jr. Looks for Love
Watsonville, California, 1927
|They walked side by side in silence for two blocks. When they reached the edge of the woman’s small, but meticulously tended front lawn, she hesitated.
On his way home from working the morning shift at the Silver Spoon Diner, Bernie Aragon, Jr., aged twenty-seven, stopped to help an old woman. She wore a brown hat with two grey feathers tucked into the band and was struggling to cross the street while cradling an overstuffed bag of groceries.
"Can I help you, ma'am?" he asked. “Here, your handbag is falling.”
"How gallant you are!" the old woman said. She transferred her burden into Bernie’s arms and settled the strap of her handbag firmly over her shoulder. They walked side by side in silence for two blocks. When they reached the edge of the woman’s small, but meticulously tended front lawn, she hesitated. But then she led him up the walkway, unlocked her front door, and ushered Bernie through with a sweep of her hand.
He placed the bag on a small, lace-covered table in the foyer and turned to face the woman. She held a nickel in her outstretched hand. Bernie blushed and said, "Oh, no! No thank you ma'am."
"Well why on earth did you help me, then?" Her tone was not unkind.
"I saw you and thought of my mother. She lives in the Philippines," he said. "I haven't seen her for six years, and I miss her terribly." Then he walked out the door and shut it quietly behind him.
Bernie often imagined—and why should he not?—that the pretty and not-so-pretty girls he held in his arms under the dimmed lights of the Paramount Dance Hall were the girls he had grown up with in Bacolod. That their hair carried not the flowery scent of drugstore shampoo, but the perfume of coconut oil and salt water. That they were never taller than he, but rather just the right size to rest their small heads against his shoulder. "I'm Kathy," one would whisper into his ear. "That's beautiful," he would answer, silently re-naming her Pansing, Naty, Marites.
But the girls were back home in the Philippines and, because Americans believed their little brown brothers could do without little brown women, home was where all but a few would stay. For a time, some of the Pinoys— asparagus cutters, bellboys, dishwashers, salmon cleaners and a sprinkling of students—received tear-speckled letters postmarked everywhere from California to Alaska. But the frequency eventually subsided and soon they heard news of happy marriages and healthy children. Bernie and his friends danced and gambled and sweated and fornicated their way through the pain of being forgotten, and they woke each morning hoping to fall In Love.
|...daydreams saved Bernie from taking note of all the things his life had not become, and they held at bay the voices of customers who hissed "gugu" or "monkey" while he performed his duties.
"Bernie, I like the way you are," Mr. Tompkins said every evening as he nodded and counted the till. And Bernie, touched, always responded with a "Yes, boss!" as he double-stepped it back to the kitchen lugging an overflowing tub of dirty dishes that would have dropped to the linoleum in the hands of a less conscientious worker. Mr. Tompkins believed his fondness ought to count for something in this crazy world, and so paid Bernie less than he paid the boys he didn't like.
At work, daydreams saved Bernie from taking note of all the things his life had not become, and they held at bay the voices of customers who hissed "gugu" or "monkey" while he performed his duties. Confused by the first term, he’d asked another Filipino busboy to explain. “Hoy, insulto yan!” the young man had said. “They’re calling you the devil.” Bernie simply shrugged and chose to focus, instead, on other things. As he cleared away dishes, stacked them neatly for the dish washer, wiped his hands on his apron and began the cycle again, his mind twisted and turned around thoughts of the dance floor and, more particularly, of where to find Love.
Mexican girls were one possibility. Like Filipinos, they attended Mass and took Communion. They had comforting arms and generous hearts and wide, open smiles. Bernie was sometimes mesmerized by the ones who wore their shiny hair in braids, thick as rope down the center of their backs. He liked their spicy food, even, and welcomed the tears it brought to his eyes.
Bernie had a friend in Chicago who had found solace in the kind and soothing voice of a Negro woman. The friend had written a rhapsodic letter and sent a snapshot, which Bernie tucked into the frame of the mirror on his dresser. "Come visit, pare," the letter said. "She has a wonderful sister.” Several times he began to set aside the money to take the trip, only to lose it on a Friday night playing five card draw in a smoke-filled bunkhouse.
The American girls, though they lacked the warmth of darker-skinned women, possessed unique charms: they were reckless, bored, and angry with their parents. True, they could be romanced and fondled and whispered to, but unless fending off a hail of rocks and the pale fists of male relatives was your idea of a good time, it was best to forego the easy temptation.
|Giddy with power, the girls chose and discarded their suitors on a whim, crushing hearts along the way and averting their lovely eyes from the impact|
of the destruction.
But in the end Bernie knew he could only be truly content with the kind of woman who would know him best, a woman who would know instinctively to squeeze fresh sampaloc into the sinigang, a woman who could fall into the rhythm of his family’s life, stand hip-to-hip making buko pie with his mother, laugh at his cousins’ bawdy jokes without needing an awkward translation, and make tsismis with his sisters.
Lying on the cot in the room he rented from two widowed sisters, Bernie calculated his chances and knew they weren't good: the Pinoys in California outnumbered their women twenty to one. Though always kind, well groomed, and courteous, he had been unceremoniously passed over by every young Filipina between Oxnard and Salinas. On his day off, he sometimes took the five-mile bus ride to Monterey Bay, where he stared out at the water and remembered moments when it seemed he was only a breath away from winning someone’s devotion: a girl who smiled and put her hands in her hair, for example, or one who touched him lightly on the shoulder and laughed when he hadn’t said anything particularly funny.
Those moments had come to nothing, of course. Giddy with power, the girls chose and discarded their suitors on a whim, crushing hearts along the way and averting their lovely eyes from the impact of the destruction. At night, Bernie often summoned the women into his dreams and woke with a gasp at midnight. Still tangled in his blanket, he rocked himself back to sleep like a child.
Whenever he grew weary of playing the romantic martyr, Bernie eased his mind by pretending that none of those girls had possessed the exact combination of virtues his demanding heart required. He resigned himself to waiting, but grew frantic when he received a letter from another friend in San Francisco, who was soon to marry a Chinese seamstress. She owned a dressmaking shop with her two sisters, and they planned on opening a restaurant together one day. Out of desperation, he fell to his knees beside his cot and did as he thought his mother would advise: he prayed a novena to St. Jude, twice a month for nine months.
And at last, at last, he was rewarded.
It happened on an unseasonably cool Saturday in May. Bernie and Aurelio Santos, a strawberry picker whose main attraction as a companion was that he spoke very little, walked side-by-side down Lake Avenue with their hands shoved in their pockets. Nobody asked where they were going, but the answer would have been, “Nowhere.” Just as they passed Waddell’s Drugstore, Charito Bautista—looking like a grown-up version of every schoolgirl Bernie could remember from Bacolod—cleaved a path between the two men without taking notice of either of them. Bernie turned to watch her go, his mouth agape.
|Her father...believed with bull-headed certainty that his daughter, though no great beauty, deserved better than a simple houseboy or stoop laborer.
Since the morning of her thirteenth birthday, when she realized with a startling calmness that she was not a late bloomer (or any sort of bloomer at all), Charito Bautista—-called Chito—had spent hundreds of afternoons staring out windows and waiting to grow old. Not older, but old. In fact, she hurried herself along, imagining aching bones and a poorly functioning liver. When I am an old woman, she thought to herself, no one will care that I'm ugly. But now, at age nineteen, being ugly mattered more to her than chastity, more than kindness, and certainly more than intelligence.
Practically speaking, her plainness was no cause for alarm. From the moment she'd arrived in this dusty town, she knew the odds of romance were tipped in her favor. It had been the same in her birthplace of Seattle. There, she emerged from her adolescence understanding that men bathed away the odor of field dirt for the sole purpose of smelling good for her. Her father, who had attended the University of Washington for a year before leaving to work in the canneries, watched the goings-on and shook his head because he believed with bull-headed certainty that his daughter, though no great beauty, deserved better than a simple houseboy or stoop laborer.
It didn’t take long before Chito’s father realized that his daughter’s suitors would be no different from the ones they’d left behind in Seattle. As for Chito, in only a few weeks she’d learned that when the California Pinoys strutted like roosters the morning after having bedded a blonde or a redhead, it was a simple fact that they would have traded every kiss and touch for an evening of handholding with her. This, despite her face.
Which is not to say that good looks didn't matter. Beauty was still the bulls-eye at which the men aimed and let fly their hearts. At Fidel Cabezon's barbershop, where they had their own appearance tended to by expert hands, Bernie and the others analyzed every feature of the town's few Filipinas, even the married ones. As Watsonville’s newest arrival, Chito naturally came under extreme scrutiny.
Fidel-the-barber, holding a razor to his customer’s throat, declared with his usual lack of tact, "She's not so pretty."
"Flat nose," said the guy in the second swiveling chair.
"So is yours!" said someone else.
"Small eyes, di ba?" said Efren Soriano. His finely shaped head was hidden behind the covers of Photoplay Magazine. Efren could afford to criticize because, as everyone agreed, he was the Filipino look-alike of Rudolph Valentino. Exempt from the air of romantic anxiety that hovered around the other men, his many physical blessings included a chiseled jaw and an inexplicably regal nose.
|Her voice sounded like the jingle of keys. Not melodious to the average man, perhaps, but it was pure music|
to one imprisoned
in a loveless life
Bernie’s face went hot. Though she had never deigned to look at him, though she appeared generally dismissive and rude, he was injured by the assessment of his Chito. It was true that her features—observed individually as a nose, a pair of eyes, a mouth—were three strokes short of beautiful. But taken in all at once he believed they composed a delicate, perfect picture.
To purify himself for the Love of Charito Bautista, Bernie had stopped his gambling and his visits to the Paramount. He emptied his suit of extra dance hall tickets—each one representing five minutes in the arms of a sweet-natured partner—and kept them in an ashtray beside his bed. Shortly afterwards, like a reward for exemplary behavior, Chito walked into the Silver Spoon Diner and said to the man behind the counter, "One Coca-Cola, please."
Her voice sounded like the jingle of keys. Not melodious to the average man, perhaps, but it was pure music to one imprisoned in a loveless life like Bernie’s. It would have been okay to sip her pop inside the diner, but Chito thought better and took it outside. Bernie whispered an urgent request to Mr. Tompkins, who gave his favorite busboy a pat on the back, pushed him towards the door, and made a mental note to dock his pay a few minutes.
Like a man with nothing to lose, Bernie walked with solid steps towards what he had begun to think of as his future and said, "Hello." He whipped the crisp pointed cap off his head and bowed slightly. "I'm Bernie Aragon, Jr., and I hope to make you my wife,” he said. He realized at once how ridiculous he sounded and tried to find the words to right things. “Someday, I mean,” he added. “If you would like. If I’m worthy."
Chito held her chin up while she took note of her would-be suitor's carefully pomaded hair, the pristine apron wound nearly twice around his small waist and, finally, his dull black shoes. She placed a hand on her hip and bit her lower lip, and Bernie would later wonder if it was out of annoyance or to keep from laughing. "Hello yourself," she answered as she walked away.
Bernie swallowed hard and felt the familiar weight of failure bear down on his shoulders. He placed his cap back on his head and watched her go. Long after she’d disappeared around the corner with her yellow skirt swishing about her knees, he could hear the click of her heels against the sidewalk.
|Bernie felt himself walk, then run, then jump out of his skin. All at once, without knowing how he'd arrived there or what he would do next, he was standing before them.
For months Bernie endured the sight of Chito in the innocent company of nearly every Pinoy in Watsonville. He watched as other men greeted her and her family at St. Patrick’s each Sunday. He regarded his reflection with distaste and grew so thin that his friends joked he might simply disappear one day. The bus trips to Monterey were replaced by midnight visits to the granite quarry on the edge of town, where the echo of his sobs made him feel less alone.
One evening Aurelio Santos, worried about his friend’s increasing melancholy, successfully persuaded Bernie to take in a showing of Clara Bow’s Rough House Rosie. In an effort to distract Bernie from his troubles, Aurelio became uncharacteristically verbose. Unfortunately, this didn’t keep Bernie from seeing Chito enter the theater and walk down the aisle on the arm of Efren Soriano, the Pinoy Valentino. He spent the show glaring at the back of Chito's head and begrudging Efren his handsome Mackintosh suit and perfectly straight, white teeth.
When the movie let out, Bernie pushed by a number of patrons so he could keep an eye on Chito. Aurelio scooted along behind him, apologizing to everyone, and bearing the brunt of the complaints. Outside, Bernie mumbled a quick goodnight to his friend. “Wait, wait,” said Aurelio, still trying to keep Bernie from making what would certainly be a mistake, “it’s still early, B. Kumain muna tayo! I’m really hungry.” But Bernie walked away without another word.
He followed Chito and Efren past the Sherman, Clay & Co. store and around the corner, towards an unknown destination where Bernie could only assume Efren would steal a kiss. As they walked, he gazed at the small slice of space between them. He heard the familiar click of Chito's heels. He heard her laugh at something clever and saw her squeeze Efren's arm. He heard Efren strike a match and then a moment later he watched as the smoke from his Lucky Strike disappeared into the night air. “Can I try?” said Chito. And they stopped for a moment while Efren held the cigarette to her lips.
Bernie felt himself walk, then run, then jump out of his skin. All at once, without knowing how he'd arrived there or what he would do next, he was standing before them. Efren smiled and held out a hand in greeting, but Bernie slapped it away. He turned his full attention to Chito and said, "Hello. In case you don't remember, I was hoping to make you my wife one day."
Imperious as a queen, Chito rolled her eyes and looked expectantly at her escort. When it seemed Efren would do nothing, she crossed her arms over her chest. “Efren!” she said. “Efren Soriano!” Efren had no choice. He threw his cigarette to the sidewalk and lunged at Bernie's neck. But the effort was half-hearted at best and the two men ended up in a long and awkward embrace that culminated with Efren gently patting Bernie on the back while they turned slowly in a circle. When they parted, Chito was gone.
"I apologize, pare," Bernie said. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. "I don’t know what to say. Shall I help you find her?"
|He danced until he had held every pretty and not-so-pretty girl in his exhausted arms, until his eyes closed in semi-sleep, until torn dance hall tickets littered the floor.
Efren looked to the right and then to the left. He lit another cigarette. "A girl like that will be fine on her own, believe me. Let's you and me get out of here."
At the Paramount Dance Hall, Efren bought Bernie a fat roll of tickets at the door. Inside, he ordered four shots of bootleg whiskey and offered him a cigarette. They drank and smoked and marveled at the newly acquired mirror ball and the way it transformed a few naked bulbs into a thousand twinkling lights.
"You haven't been here for awhile," Efren said. He pointed out some unfamiliar girls and told Bernie which ones were from Stockton, Oxnard, Reno. A few of them waved. One reached down, lifted her skirt to her thigh, and pretended to check a snag in her stocking. The boldest girl blew a kiss and mouthed the words ‘mahal kita,’ which made Efren laugh out loud.
Bernie raised his eyebrows in greeting, but couldn’t bring himself to smile. He stared at the table while he finished his second drink. Then he turned to Efren. "Salamat."
"It's nothing, pare." Efren reached out his hand for the second time that night, and this time Bernie shook it. The two men said good-bye and then spent the rest of the evening on separate sides of the room.
Bernie Aragon, Jr. danced until midnight. He danced until he had held every pretty and not-so-pretty girl in his exhausted arms, until his eyes closed in semi-sleep, until torn dance hall tickets littered the floor.
© Veronica Montes
| Judging Bernie by Luisa A. Igloria |
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