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Chapter 27: Patrols, Swamps and Malaria

I heard chatter over the radio that Aiden was leading a unit of Unmos into the swampy wetlands north of KPCC to look for a group of guerrillas, hell-bent to force a confrontation. They were looking for the same group of guerillas that Russ’s unit had encountered. I decided to pay a visit to Téphanes, since several Unmos, including Aiden, shared the same villa. If he was there, I could find out if he remembered anything about the party, and if he did . . . Actually, I didn’t really want to learn anything; I just wanted to see him again.

Téphanes wasn’t at home, but Aiden was. “CJ, hi ya. Glad to see you. I think I might owe you an apology.”

“No harm, no foul,” I answered, shrugging my shoulders. He was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, a sandwich in one hand and a can of beer in the other. His eyes were bright, so I assumed it was his first beer of the day.

“Really? Well, that’s too bad. Leastwise it’s good to know I didn’t forget kissing you. I don’t think I could forget being with you.”

I smiled. “Well, how about I take a rain check? Or is that too cheeky for middle-aged woman to say?”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Havra. Those young birds don’t have a thing on you. I’ll be back in a couple of days . . . and we’ll see if we can heat things up.”

I kept smiling all the way back to Skon, with images of twinkling eyes and a drooping mustache replacing one-legged landmine victims and shelves of skulls.

I went to the next big party without Brielle, hoping to see Aiden again and catch him while he was still sober. I heard that his unit had returned the night before, after a few guerrilla sightings but no joy. The room was a sea of men who were drinking and arguing about their favorite soccer teams. “They’re a bunch of useless tossers, bloody Manchester United,” shouted Chad, the Aussie captain with the accent as thick as crocodile skin. The few women who attended were not looking for girlfriends, so I stood alone and tried to look interested.

Russ and Aiden had not shown up yet, but something else —caught my attention. Across the room under a haze of blue smoke was a knot of matching blue berets who were hefting beers, heads practically butting as they jabbed fingers at one another’s faces. I assumed they were arguing about soccer, but the language spoken sounded like skates over ice. Slavic, I thought—but not Russian, based on the little I remembered from college, which was mostly swear words.

Then I noticed one man in particular. He wore an orange t-shirt under his pressed green khakis, and his blue beret was perched at a slight angle over his thick, curly hair. I stared because he seemed so familiar. Then I remembered where I had met him— at the Fourth of July party. I was thoroughly unnerved to realize how attracted I was to this man, who had told me he was Polish.

Intrigued but hesitant, I took a long time considering whether to walk across the room. I had come to a decision when Aiden arrived, the navy chief by his side.

“Hi,” I said, giving Russ my second best smile while reserving my best one for Aiden. If warning buzzers went off, I ignored them. “It’s about time you got here.”

“All right?” Russ asked. I answered by looking directly at Aiden.

“Yeah, only I can’t figure out why you men are all so excited about soccer.”

“You’ll learn,” Aiden said, making eye contact with a half-smile.

I shouldn’t have hung around, inviting trouble. Romance was absolutely not my reason for coming to Cambodia. But rather than take my own good advice, I found myself powerfully attracted to Aiden. So I stayed and listened to him trade tales of outrageous escapades with the others.

Good lord, I was acting like a silly coed again. Back then, once I had started to develop feelings for someone—especially someone who was emotionally unavailable to me—my natural reaction was to try harder, initiate more and stick around in the hope that he would take the bait. I was in a monumental state of relapse.

As the others droned on, Aiden, who looked exhausted, became quieter. I made a desperate attempt to salvage my fantasy of an evening with him. “What you need is some quality time with a quality woman,” I said, pulling up a chair and smiling. I used every bit of inflection and body language that I could muster to signal that I was that woman. “Maybe,” he mumbled.

“You’re losing points with me,” I winked and tried a more playful approach.

Smiling weakly, Aiden slouched further down into the couch. I decided to admit defeat and left for Skon.

Everyone on the mission made connections quickly, as if our lives were happening in a high-speed film. I worried about Aiden as I drove home, but only a bit. It was already dark, and the night presented more immediate concerns—like navigating unseen potholes and the shadowy forms of people who stayed warm by sitting on the paved road.

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