I was tired, tired of being me. Tight-assed white boy with short-cropped hair, stiff-pressed uniform fitting perfectly tight. Saying all the right words to all the right people.
"Loosen you're hips, Tenyente. Like this." Johnnie grabs me and salsa's forward, back and again, moving to the loud music like he's born to it, in his blood. Loud Latin music pounding late into the night as carelessly as palm trees on the beach under moonlight.
The girl smiles, smiling at me maybe. Such a pretty smile, a pretty face. But it's not her, not the same girl. Doesn't matter, not tonight. Reach for tequila, tip it up and dance with the bottle, like I was holding her, getting the rhythm, the feel of it. She laughs and takes my hand, hands the bottle back to Johnnie.
Then it hits me, either you are, or you aren't. There's no middle ground, never will be. That's the secret, to this place. The girl is warm and soft, arousing me with her gentle innocence. Johnnie tips up the bottle and comes round behind me, grabbing my hips making them move to the beat.
The three of us dancing at his place, like the party never has to end. He reaches around me for the girl and pulls her close against me. Feels so I good. I've never done this before. Dancing with a man, and his pretty young wife, after hours. Even if it isn't her, the girl I'm looking for.
But you can do anything when your life is over. They never tell you that. It's a secret and they don't want you to know. Johnnie told me when we came in, to this plain little house of his, in from the bars and the night. "It's an honor, Tenyente, Never had such a high-ranking person in my home before."
Imagine that. You go to a school and they give you a rank. And it's more than somebody else. How is that possible, to be more than somebody else. To honor them by being in their home. Imagine that. I imagine the girl in my arms on a soft mattress, kissing her in the dark.
But it's late, and I have to go. Doesn't matter, it was the night, the night I stopped being me. Driving through dark deserted streets, away from the black jungle, the base, and crossing the high bridge over the canal. With the ships anchored in the distance, waiting for their turn.
Take a run past the bars one more time, the red-light district, just to see. Might as well, it's on the way. A pretty girl stops me on the street. Pull over under the light. She comes over, leans in through the window. Pretty face with lots of make up.
But not a girl, not at this late hour, and I have to excuse myself and leave. Tell him it doesn't interest me. Takes some doing, finally just pull away, with him standing there alone in the light with his makeup and pretty dress.
I feel for him, for some reason. All of us want to be picked up and taken home. Even me, even him. Too bad it wasn't a girl. Sometimes it is, you get lucky. Is it luck, or does looking all the time increase the odds. Always looking for her.
The phones rings, midnight. I should've been at work. "My day off" I say. "No, check the schedule, should've been here at ten." Throw on my clothes, and drop the girl off, apologize for being late. The split-shift schedule, six days on, four days off. Who can tell them apart, all run together after a while. And she was the girl, I think. Maybe, never saw her again. "Lisa" she said her name was.
Arriving in Panama, landing with hills and green jungle to the right, in the bright morning sun. Beaches and flatland to the left, and buildings all white in between. Tropical white with their red-tiled roofs. Old, stately, and quiet, glimmering in the morning sun.
They put me up at the Albrook Club. A room above the club and the salsa music below. You can smell the air, thick with tropical sweat, inviting. Maybe go down there, to the music, pick up a girl, bring her up to the room. My neighbor is Lenny Urving. But I never knew his last name, just Lenny, everyone calls him Lenny.
He knocks on my door. "Let's go" he says, to the Twenty-One Club in his open air jeep, almost cold in the night. A ten dollar cover, girls get in for a buck. Pretty good odds, you'd think. Swanky place, soft-carpeting; leather sofas in the dark recesses, away from the bar and the chandeliers. Pretty people here, we stay awhile and Lenny buys them drinks.
Much later in pre-dawn fog, end up in the dark dark alleyways. Lenny's OSI, undercover, wearing tropical khaki with the cloth belt around his jacket. Meet up with the head of secret police, an old brown-skinned man; quiet, dignified. Armed guards salute as we walk in the whore house, all red inside and lit up with candles. Columbian girls, the whores are Columbian girls. The government owns their contracts.
Lisa was a Columbian, with her coffee and cream skin. So skinny, with Indian cheek bones, and such a smile. "Let's do it" she'd say, watching football at my place on tv. Couldn't wait 'til halftime, and then again when the game is over. Or at the beach, in the water, everyone around. I liked that girl.
Driving through the streets of Panama, with Lisa; stopped by the throng of marchers in the streets with protest signs. "What is it?" I ask. "They want the Americans out" she says "they're marching for General Torrijos, to kick the Americans out."
At work we fly the meaningless sorties, marking the target range with phosphorus smoke. The jets come by and hit the smoke, as if we were at war. And we are, we just don't tell anyone. Tracking the missions down country with four-letter codes for Santiago, Rio, La Paz. The cargo planes go there for . . . training, I guess. Nothing else, contraband if you've got connections, pistacio nuts and things like that, Hummel statues, nothing much.
Upcountry is different, very different. Managua, Tegucigalpa, Guat City. The choppers go there and we track them with four-letter code, xxxx. The rioters killed in Guat City, gunned down from the choppers above. They say the government fired on them to disperse the crowds.
I see my neighbors back home, all our apartments are joined together in one long row. All young officers in green, green jump suits. Pilots, young lieutenants and captains playing rugby and flag football on the weekends. And me too. I see Dave back home from his mission, knowing the Guatemalan government doesn't have any helicopters.
The major gives me a reprimand. They don't like me, I don't care. I make complaints to the wrong people, say the wrong things. The colonel chews me out. Everyone coming into the club for commander's monthly social hour. We drink and get the pep talk. Not today, the colonel's chewing me out. "Everyone's gonna think you're an asshole" he yells at me. "Everyone already thinks you are" I tell him. The wrong thing to say, to the wrong person.
Watching football on tv, Sunday at work, no flying today. A captain rushes in all frenzied. "Turn to the local news" he says. Torrijos has been killed. His plane went down in the jungle. All souls on board are dead. The room fills up with colonels and ranking men. "Where's the squadron leader" asks the commander. "I'm trying to raise him on the radio" I say.
We watch and listen to the local news. Those who can, translate for us. Major Rodriquez, a little Latino, is head of search and rescue. "Send up a plane?" he asks the commander. "Hell no" is his response. Finally the squadron leader arrives, back from fishing. The commander sees his come in "when I retire, I want to be squadron leader" he tells him. "Sure thing, boss" he says.
They assemble a team to meet with Panamanian officials. See if they can help. Top brass, heads of the different sections, search and rescue, flying ops, diplomatic liaisons. "Should I contact CIA" I ask, trying to helpful. The commander looks at me with his hard-set eyes "that'd be a damned poor idea" he says.
I don't understand. Not that it matters. For days it goes on, no one can get close to the wreckage in the deep dense jungle. A reporter calls, wants to know what hotel William Casey's staying at. Tell him I don't know. Wrong thing to say. Director Casey, head of CIA, isn't here, officially. Or is he . . . officially not here. Either way, he was on the pax manifest, so he must be here somewhere.
Driving through the streets of Panama, with the crowds of protestors, angry that Torrijos is dead; stopping for the crowds in the streets. Looking for Lisa in the crowd and never finding her.