Chapter 30: What I Need to Feel Alive
The road to KPCC in the daytime was minimally less treacherous but no less tedious, and within a few days I was on my way to the Unmos’ villa. Téphanes, who shared it with them, greeted me with two cheek kisses and a warm embrace. We hung out on the terrace, talking about the political situation in the province, until she had to go up country to do some more census work.
I stayed and had dinner with the Unmos, including two I hadn’t met—the Russians, Oleg and Kyrill, who had been on holiday. Oleg, who Russ claimed was a KGB spy, belonged to the KPCC Unmo unit. My attention fixed on Kyrill because he was assigned to the Unmo team in Skon.
Kyrill was tall and painfully thin. His narrow face ended in a sharply pointed chin, and the wire-rimmed spectacles covering his glacier-colored eyes made him look like a starving poet or a writer from Dostoevsky’s time. His hair was thin and prematurely gray; his slouched posture gave him an even sadder look. He had a sly sense of humor, tinged with a cynical melancholy.
I practiced some of my rusty college Russian, which consisted of little more than the words for red dog, hello and no. When I announced my Russian and Ukrainian origins, the table erupted into increasingly silly toasts in my honor. Oleg raised his beer bottle with a hearty nazdar ov’ye, encouraging us to enjoy, and Kyrill supplied a string of consonants that apparently meant, “It is easy to make a woman happy, but it is very expensive.”
Aiden joined the dinner later. Although his skin had the pallor of oysters, I was excited to see my fantasy lover again so soon. Worried that I would end up in the ‘friend zone’ if I didn’t make a move, I maneuvered into the seat next to him when the party relocated to the patio for a beer. The evening was sticky and oppressively hot. The others quickly abandoned us for air conditioning, leaving me with an opportunity to act. I was still trying to figure out the whole “what if he rejects me?” thing when impulsively I leaned in, brushing my lips against his. His mouth lingered on mine . . . until I jerked back.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have done that,” I said self-consciously. “I need to stay focused on my job and not on trying to seduce war heroes.”
“No worries, CJ.” He laughed. “There will be plenty of war heroes trying to seduce you. Stick with the work. Safer for everyone.”
I smiled, relieved at his response and my narrow escape from my own vulnerability to romances doomed to fail. Aiden didn’t move away, however; he stayed close, stroking my hand lightly with his finger.
“Why are you here? Peacekeeping is about being macho, living on the edge and dealing with insurgents, hardship, mud, Land Rovers and this hellish heat,” he said. “Maybe even death.”
“The search for hope and meaning,” I said. “No, that was too glib. Sorry. But it isn’t too far from the truth. I wanted a time out. I have to go home when the mission ends.. But for now, I get to be inspired as well as helped by those I am here to help. What about you?”
“I get to be a soldier. It’s miserable here, but it’s the best game in town. There’s a sliver of human existence, full of suffering and misery, looking to us for something better. And besides, there’s the brilliant camaraderie with my mates. It’s what I need to feel alive.”
“If by camaraderie you mean getting soused and arguing about soccer, I think I’ll take my chances living on the edge—alone.” We both laughed. Then Aiden sighed and withdrew his hand from mine.
“Aye, I kin get that. Sorry luv, but I really feel like shit—can’t shake this headache or the chills. I haven’t been right since we got back yesterday, empty handed, from the swamps where the Khmer Rouge like to hide. I think this place is going to kill me.”
The other Unmos returned to the patio, and the mood turned even more morose as Aiden talked of death and his desire to receive last rites if he died. Pity and fear mixed in a swirl of emotions. I felt helpless, but I didn’t want to over-reach. The Unmos, who had listened to Aiden complain for most of the day, tuned him out. They considered his complaints to be nothing more than a depressed phase caused by too much time in the field. Kyrill suggested in a somber tone that Aiden needed a swig of Russian vodka and a good night’s rest. On the drive home that night, I tried to convince myself that he would be okay after some rest.