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Chapter 49: Dance, Dance, Dance

I hadn’t seen Stephan since my glimpse of him the morning I was cleaning up at the navy villa. But it was Polish National Day, and we had been invited to the Polish logistics compound for the celebration. Wati and I headed to KPCC together. My Ann Taylor black silk fit a little looser, but the black high heels still felt like they belonged on much smaller feet. Polish National Day was comparable to the Fourth of July in the States and promised to be quite the social event—not that the soldiers needed an excuse for getting soused on vodka and beer while showing off their national pride.

We pulled into the compound and parked under a heavily blossomed cannonball tree. Trailers—metal boxes with buzzing AC units—had replaced the wooden barracks. A larger trailer with showers was hooked up to their water purifying machinery. I could barely hear the noise of the generator above the music pounding out from the large mess tent, where the celebration was in full swing.

I walked into a lot of hand kissing. There was music, dancing and platters of pierogi. By the time I got a chance to dance with Stephan, I had already had twenty sets of lips on my hand and at least as many dances with the Polish truck drivers.

Stephan smiled. “I’m happy to see you dancing,” he murmured softly. As he positioned his arms around me, it felt like the Fourth of July and the first time I saw him. When his hand warmed the small of my back, fireworks went off. I knew that the music was blasting, but I couldn’t hear a single note above my pounding heart. His stance was stiff and formal as he pulled me toward him to take the lead, and I could feel that his heart was also racing. Stephan and the beat of the music were leading me, and our heartbeats fell into a near perfect choreography of provocation. As I felt the weight of his body against mine, I breathed deeply, inhaling his smell; nothing and no one existed but us.

When the song ended and another soldier asked me to dance, feeling awkward and still flushed, I mumbled some excuse and hurriedly went to find a drink. The cold beer hit my throat and jarred me back to reality. Twinges of guilt competed with excitement and expectation. Wati walked over, eyeing me suspiciously as if she were reading my thoughts.

“CJ, have you had enough dancing for the night? It’s time to go back to Skon.”

I looked around the room, trying to catch a glimpse of Stephan in the knots of people laughing and toasting shots of Polish vodka to their glorious homeland. He was in the middle of a group of soldiers and officers, paying no further attention to me. I smiled at Wati. “Yes, quite enough for one evening. Who’s driving?”

After the Polish National Day celebration, I made an excuse to see Stephan every time I went to KPCC. Often, the excuse was my only reason for going. I took him more cream for his rash and gave him suggestions for dinners out together which he accepted gratefully as I had a vehicle and a UN license—he had neither. My favorite impromptu visits were those that resulted in his invitation to eat lunch with him in the mess tent.

We would sit off to the side, not so far that we looked conspicuous but far enough that we didn’t have trays of food passed over and between us or become embroiled in the daily conversations of the privates and staff sergeants—about women, home, soccer, women. Sitting on hard benches, watching out for splinters, and vigilant to avoid even accidentally touching the other, we had long talks over soldiers’ food―real pierogis, Salisbury steak and boiled cabbage. I loved the sensation of my mouth stuffed full of creamy mashed potatoes encased in little pockets of tender noodles, the gut-level satisfaction of starch on starch. In a country where there are more than one hundred words for rice, pierogis were almost a religious experience.

Our early lunches revealed little more than that Stephan was a career soldier in the Polish navy, on his first journey out from under the yoke of Soviet control. He filled our time together with stories of stormy crossings on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Denmark. “I’m trying to install a ham radio antenna here,” he said. “The radio takes me to exotic places I only to dream about.”

As our meals together continued, Stephan confided more. Leaning back in his canvas camp chair and sighing deeply, he began to tell me about his life as a Polish naval infantryman under Soviet rule. “I was caught between the growing Solidarity movement and fearing that the Russians would ruthlessly crush this Polish rebellion. I hated every moment of my service; my brother called me a traitor for enforcing martial law and supporting the Russian’s move to crush the rebellion.” His eyes took on that steely gray color as he spoke quietly, looking past me. “I think I am saving lives of my family, my country.”

I caught a glimpse of the shame and lack of self-esteem that resulted from centuries of anti-Polish rhetoric by his German neighbors as well as from a wide swath of Western Europeans. Hell, hadn’t Russ called him a sausage eater?

Eventually Stephan began to complain that he was getting a permanent headache from trying to catch my English. I laughed, self-satisfied. He was working as hard as I was to connect, maybe harder. I wasn’t sure exactly what game I was playing, but we were both in the game.

Driving back to Skon after one of our shared meals, remembering an accidental brush of his arm or a tap of our knees together that had sent shock waves through me, I repeated the same lecture I had given myself after my marriage fell apart. Don’t look for a man to be your savior ever again, just because society told you to find a man to take care of you.

A relationship with Stephan would never become a lifetime commitment. It would be more like a romance at summer camp―horny teenagers away from home. Stop! I won’t let it get out of hand.

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