This story is by Maria Salmon and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Adrian slams his boot down onto the gas pedal of the rust-bucket Humvee and we speed past the guard shack. Looking in the mucked-up rear-view mirror, I see the guard shaking his head under the power-generated spotlight.
“Where are we going?” I ask tentatively, afraid of his answer. Ignoring my interrogation he pushes the gas pedal down further, lurching us quicker away from the base and into total darkness. War darkness.
He glances over at me, an adorable smile playfully taunting me to continue my questioning. I bite my lip, swallow my words and look out the window. Please keep us in the safe zone. I can’t deliberately leave post. A female officer outside the wire, in a borrowed military vehicle with a civilian contractor—would I be looking at Leavenworth?
“Baby, don’t worry. You’re with me.” I smile inwardly. The only place I want to be. We could be in Iraq, back home or on the moon. It was all the same—I think I love him.
I look over at his arm gripping the wheel—his tricep visible in spite of his helicopter mechanic coverall. Why did these crusty bucket seats and piece of shit radio divide us? Watching my gaze he flexes his arm before darting it across the wide front seat, pinching my nipple.
“Adrian!” I yell out in surprise. Not stopping, his hand reaches up to unsnap my helmet.
“Well you liked it last night,” he laughs shifting back into his seat.
“Last night?” I stiffen as I remove the Kevlar and run my fingers through my hair. I worked last night; it was Thursday night.
“Thursday—the days are all the same,” he says quickly. That wasn’t true for me. The days when I don’t see him, I’m dying.
“What’s that?” I shout at him, pointing to a dim light ahead, losing my cool. There is no electricity aside from that produced by Uncle Sam. I feel for the 9 mm resting in its leather harness holster draped behind my back, the weapon resting slightly on my waist.
“That is where we are going. What are you going to do with that gun?” his says disapprovingly.
I could be a sniper and he’d say the same; the fact I’m a sharpshooter isn’t worth mentioning. We drive in silence until we reach a massive parking lot, pulling up behind a black Land Rover. In English, the words announce, “_AGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.” It’s missing the B. Did we do that when we attacked? I looked at the massive space that once held hundreds of passengers’ cars as they visited exotic escapes. Now we were all trapped in this country together.
Adrian switches off the hummer and orders, “Leave your gear.”
“I can’t leave my weapon.” Not even for him. Please don’t ask me to.
“Don’t bring in the helmet and flak jacket.” I frown at him but shove my cover on the ground next to the flak jacket already by my feet.
The moonlit, illuminated tarmac is cool in the night and I walk over it quickly, side by side with Adrian, a sense of anticipation filling me. Whatever is in this hanger we are walking towards, I don’t care. I think I’ll tell him I love him.
Adrian heaves open the once automatic door and I step inside. The building is musty, yet cool like cement after a rain. The entrance leads to a sitting area with dozens of round soft chairs around unlit lights. The ticket countertop was smeared thick with mud and “3ID” is sprayed on a cement beam. 3rd Infantry Battalion—the first invaders of Baghdad just a few months ago. Adrian reaches behind me, breaking my stare and pulls me along the hallway. A small handwritten sign outside of the lighted room we walked towards says “Best Restaurant in Baghdad.”
Adrian lets go of me and pushes me ahead through the door and into this place. Dear God, let it be safe.
“Hello, Miss!” a man merrily shouts from behind the small bar in front of me. I catch my reflection in the cloudy mirror behind him—my large eyes betraying my surprise. The man has dark eyes shrouded by long, black eyelashes and thick eyebrows, a small potbelly touching a spit-shined belt. His smile relaxes me.
“Hello, Mr. Addie, my friend,” the Iraqi bellows. Adrian shakes his hands smiling. A bigger version of the man behind the bar turns to me.
“Hello, Miss Sarah” he says apprehensively. My elation vanishes and I frown. Who the hell is Sarah?
“This is Mary, Ali,” Adrian says quickly, winking at me.
“Nice to meet you,” I say dryly, keeping my hands by my side. I want to say more; this is the first Iraqi I’ve really met. But I know better—the army training briefed us on local customs.
“Nice eyes,” he says turning to Adrian, “Pretty lady, Miss Mary.”
Adrian laughs and reaches in to kiss my burning cheek. Turning, we follow him towards the dining room. The space was remarkable but only from war weary eyes as the once golden wallpaper and gilded mirrors are now ripped, in ruin.
Entering the dining room, I see an officer I know, LTC Gormon, his wedding ring glinting as brightly as the rank shining on his collar. Across from him was Captain Morene, wearing a tight t-shirt and jeans. I’m suddenly aware of my own dirty Battle Dress Uniform—civilian clothes in a war zone? Good Lord, even General Thomas was here, sitting with that leggy blonde from Finance whose red dress certainly wasn’t issued. I avert my eyes—we were all breaking General Order Number 1 together.
Ali pulls out my chair and I perch on the soft cushion. A white, faded tablecloth covers the table with pink, plastic roses serving as a centerpiece. He pushes me in as Adrian cracks open a bottle of wine, filling our glasses. The rules—no alcohol, no fraternization, no anything—doesn’t seem to apply to the best restaurant in Baghdad.
“Cheers,” I say looking at the contents of the glass. I can’t drink with all the other officers in here. And what if my soldiers found out?
“Cheers,” Adrian toasts, gulping it down and glancing around the room.
“How many times have you been here?” I ask, afraid of the answer.
“Come on, baby, you’re mad at the Sarah comment. Ali is confused. He doesn’t know everyone.” I glance around at the packed dining room, Ali and his friend are laughing with the LTC. It seems like he does.
“Are these people always here?” And why didn’t I know about this strange land of food, drink and infidelity? My nose starts to run and I pat my cargo pocket in desperate need of a tissue.
“I need a Kleenex.” Do you tell me everything?
“They have real bathrooms here,” he points, “right behind the dummy wall behind me.” My weapon presses heavy on me, as I stand up and walk towards the bathroom.
The bathroom, with its curvy silhouette on the door— what a cliché for a woman’s refugee. I look at my reflection in the cracked plastic rimmed mirror over the sink. I peek in at the toilets and rip off some toilet paper—yep, there are flush toilets. I wipe my nose and decide, if other officers are here, then it’s okay. Plus I’m with Adrian—he was nice enough to surprise me with this. It’s his way of telling me he loves me. I pull the tinted lip balm out of my cargo pocket and I run it along my lips. My beauty holds even with tangled hair and frumpy fatigues.
I open the door slowly; I’ll surprise him with a kiss but I hear Ali—he made his way to our table.
“Who-itza this new office-zah.. Whatza happ’n to Sarah?”
“Sarah’s fine,” Adrian says, “I saw her last night. This one needs some work.” This one? As in me?
“Addie-man no good, two womens,” Ali says. My head shakes along in agreement. Whoever the hell Sarah is, he’s in love with me.
“You’re right,” Adrian agrees and laughs,” I have three.”
“No way, man,” Ali chuckles, “This-a one is pretty, Addie-Man. Be happy”
“She’s pretty but the soldiers are wild. Sarah wants it in her conex, man.” He laughs and a bomb detonates inside of me. He’s laughing at me. Sarah—as in Specialist Sarah Shaw, the supply clerk for the 501st? He’s cheating on me with her!
“Addie-man you the crazy one,” Ali snorts and I hear him back away from the table. Adrian is crazy—what a traitor! I don’t love him, I hate him. And now he is making me break the regs. I’ll show that miserable contractor he messed with the wrong woman.
Carefully, I remove my weapon from its holster. Sliding the clip into the 9 mil, I casually switch the weapon off safe and turn the corner. I found the B missing in Baghdad.