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Chapter 71: Last Tango

Stephan strode, with his head down, to the truck outside the Polish camp where I sat waiting. His eyes remained fixed on the ground, as if he were lost in thought. He climbed in beside me and, taking my face in his warm hands, looked intently into my eyes. At that moment, I knew that all of my tomorrows had suddenly vanished. He would depart from Phnom Penh in two days.

Whether expected, dreaded or secretly desired, the news had arrived—the Polish battalion was being transferred.

“It’s not a choice,” Stephan said.

I felt his big hands move down to my shoulders. They were hands that usually made me feel safe, but right then they felt heavy and unfamiliar.

“The Poles have no options,” he said, explaining that his battalion would be transferred to a remote northeastern province on the Mekong River. “There is big panic to make roads to Vietnam, and Untac says Poles must hurry to build them for troops to escape if a civil war starts. Our intel guys say that Khmer Rouge guerrillas are on the move. They go down toward the river and capture villages on their way, making the people run to larger villages, looking for safe place . . . but I think the war will be with the mosquitoes, at least for me.”

I said nothing. I turned the key in the ignition as if I could drive away from the words he had spoken. As we drove to my house, our house, the realities of the mission’s inevitable end slowly crept into my conscious mind like a stalker moving stealthily from a hidden place into the daylight. Stephan would relocate. I would lose him, probably forever. Stephan would continue his adventure, and I would return home. I had known this from the beginning. It was time to accept it.

Bruno, relieved that I wasn’t going to follow Stephan again, grudgingly approved my short leave to send him on his way.

I wanted to spend every moment in his arms, but we had to waste a whole day attending to a laundry list of errands before we could hole up at our hotel in Phnom Penh.

In my experience, a relationship either ended abruptly or deteriorated slowly. But rarely did I know which night would be the last I would ever spend with someone. That time, I did. Tears streamed intermittently down my cheeks as I pressed myself against Stephan.

“Tonight is not goodbye,” he whispered, draping his leg over mine, as if touching were not enough. He wanted to entwine us together as one. The tears had stopped briefly but, hearing those words and feeling his body, my eyes filled up again.

“Shush,” I whispered, placing my index finger on Stephan’s lips and feeling a wave of confidence sweep over me. “I’ve had a lifetime of promises from people who have had no way of keeping them,” I said, pulling my finger away to kiss him.

“Let’s just play out the hand we were dealt,” I added—my face a mask, as I looked to him for a reaction.

Stephan stared at me, with his head slightly tilted, looking dazed for what seemed like an eternity. Then a smile spread wide across his face, and he laughed as he wrapped his arms around me even more tightly, sending the sheets into a pile on the floor and leaving nothing for me to feel but his strong, warm, naked body straddling me as he kissed away the tears that wet my cheeks.

Our lovemaking was at once sweet, intense and passionate—silencing my thoughts as I melted into him. The countdown to the end of our time together was only a matter of hours away, but we rushed through nothing. We lingered on every kiss and every touch. By the time that we transitioned from foreplay, we were in perfect harmony―our bodies moving together as one, rhythmically building to climax.

“Stay in me, please.”

“I try,” he murmured. We fell peacefully off to sleep, Stephan still inside of me, his body my blanket.

I decided to take the back road home. Strain and danger steadied me. I hoped that the threat of being slaughtered like the Bulgarian soldiers would keep me alert on the drive to Poŭthĭsăt. But did I really need to feel that my life was in danger to stay distracted from the emotional distress of losing Stephan? Would I ever realize that I didn’t need a hero?

Thinking of Stephan's last words and comfortable with our parting, I was anxious to get complete the drive and leave its perils behind. When I arrived in Poŭthĭsăt, I drove by the Polish camp. The grounds were dark and empty―an unwanted affirmation of reality. I went to HQ to use the phone and finally got through to the Polish transit camp in Phnom Penh.

My message for Stephan was, “The doctor is in Bakane; all is okay.” I really wanted to say, “Tanya is pregnant.”

Home at last, I stapled a photo of Stephan and me to the wall near the window where he liked to sit watching the banana leaves curl and uncurl. I sprawled fully dressed on my small bed in the early evening and didn’t wake up until eleven hours later.

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