At 6PM southern Iraq broils, 114 degrees Fahrenheit, the air thick with dust. I check the platform where the VIPs will sit, check the microphone, the podium, step back into the seating area to view the whole affair, an awards ceremony, bunting, all red white and blue.
She touches my shoulder from behind. "Hello, sir."
"Hi," I say, before I turn around to see who she is.
She raises her hand, knife-edge straight, saluting. I return the compliment. Bright blue eyes like water. A swirl of dust forms and dissipates above the gray gravel behind her, golden and glimmering in the sunset.
"Hi," I say again, stealing a guilty glance at her nametag. "LT Kilcannon, Jesus, good to meet you finally." I put my hand out to shake hers. Better than a salute, that.
"Yeah," she laughs. She bites her lip. "This is a good spot to shoot?"
"Maybe over here . . . "
I lead her to the edge of the seating area. The podium and the VIPs will appear in profile, the flags, the soldiers at attention, a backdrop. In an hour the courtyard should fill.
She sets up her tripod, tests the camera. I catch her looking at me. She looks away.
The big CAT generator grumbles, wheezes. We cannot hear each other, except when shouting. The heat, stifling enough outside even now at midnight, reeks inside with oil and diesel and sweat. We've opened the door. I toss my flashlight in and listen as it rolls to a stop in the dust on a shelf of the shaking, pumping machine.
"In here. It's private. It's a little hot . . . "
"It's really hot."
She pushes the door wider, a creaking metal hinge, slips inside, waits in the darkness where the slit of orange flickering light from the far guard shack shines.
I join her.
Undressing her is like art.
Shouting, close to each other's ears, the first kiss comes quick like that, brushing along her cheek, letting her turn toward me, my hand running up behind her head to pull her close to me. Her hair is black and soft, wet and trembling at the base of her neck, sticky like lightning.
"I want you," I say.
Our uniforms match, all but the rank. I know the zipper down the front as intimately as if I had undressed her a hundred times before, a brushstroke movement. I know the way to peel back the Velcro latches, like daubing away mistakes, and the way she has tucked the tail of her belt back under the first belt loop to prevent it from sliding open. Sliding it free from the loop sounds like wiping fine bristles in a jar of warm water.
She won't take everything off, not with thoughts of quick escape playing in the back of our minds, covering up in case—in case what?—in case someone comes to tune the machines at midnight? That won't happen, I'm sure, but the idea of it thrills me.
She won't take the boots off, that's for sure. But there really isn't a need.
Generals file into their seats. The crowd mills, soldiers in loose order, First Sergeants hovering with company colors, battle streamers bright on flagpoles embroidered with names like Antietam and Argonne.
I step to the podium. "Please turn off all cell phones and paging devices. The ceremony will begin in two minutes."
Kilcannon adjusts her camera lense.
A sergeant from my first platoon leans against the side of a pavilion behind her. He lights a cigarette and glances at her, slowly, from head to foot. We make eye contact. He winks at me. I shake my head at him: way out of your league.
Two minutes expire.
The battalion commander calls the troops to attention.
The air tightens.
"Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the awards ceremony for Specialist Manuel Rodriguez."
I pause. Kilcannon snaps a picture of me. Above and behind me the gold tassles of the American flag snap in the hot wind like whips.
"The Soldier's Medal has only been awarded six times since the start of this war. SPC Rodriguez will be the seventh. The Soldier's Medal is the highest military decoration for actions not in direct contact with the enemy."
Kilcannon crouches behind her camera. She turns it toward Rodriguez. He stands stiff and unsmiling beside me.
"Lieutenant General Moynihan, CENTCOM Deputy Commander, will read the citation," I say as I step aside and let the general rise to the podium.
The camera hones in on the General then returns to me.
Way out of his league?
Way out of my league?
I slip my hand into her pants, down the back, pull her closer, lift her a little.
She bites me, nips.
I hold her tighter, crush her to me. Her hand crawls under my shirt. Her fingers rake the front of my chest. She pulls back, kneels, slips my belt open as easily as I had opened hers.
I lean back against the machine. It hurts, hot, burning, but I press the flat of my palms against the metal.
Kilcannon curls a finger inside the band of my boxers, lowers them. I stand stiff as Specialist Rodriguez on the platform. I am slick with my own perspiration. The air, even the rumbling hot air, cools me.
The camera does not turn from me as she shoots.
She's already gotten all she needs from the ceremony: Rodriguez won't move again, not until the finish, the medal pinned, the final salute. It is all routine.
I hold my breath in order to keep myself perfectly still.
The General punctuates the air with his finger: " . . . at the risk of his own life, as the hummvee burned, this young man ran back to it. Ammunition inside began to explode. The soles of Specialist Rodriguez's boots melted to the roof as he leaned into the top gunner's hatch and cut the seatbelt straps to free the two soldiers . . . "
Kilcannon still focuses on me. Her finger clicks, not once or twice, but rapidly, compulsively. I try not to watch her but can't look away, the black button on the top of the camera, a bud; her fingernails blood red.
She closes her eyes but keeps clicking.
Rodriguez reaches into the hummvee, cuts the straps, but the blast bent the doors on their hinges and the fire has contorted it more, creaking and groaning, the kiss and sting of it, the smoke, a strange whistling like fireworks all around.
Rodriguez grabs the first soldier by the shoulders, by the straps on the man's body armor. He pulls and lifts and somehow, though the physics of it shouldn't allow, the limp body cooperates, is up, is out on the top of the hummvee, handed down into other arms.
Rodriguez reaches into the vehicle again, reaches down and through the hatch.
He grabs for the same strap, the same latch on the back of the second man. But it pulls away smoldering.
He grabs again, something, whatever he can find. His hand is on fire. He realizes it but only as if from a distance. A clinical fact: my hand burns.
He grabs hair, no helmet, knocked away. Hair will have to do.
With a sound like a sigh, like an orgasm, the second body lifts, lifts slowly. But then it does a strange thing. It stretches.
Rodriguez knots his fingers in the hair, deeper, tighter.
What holds the skin to the body, if not inertia? During such burning, the limp body will not rise. It will slide. It will come free. It will no longer matter. Not anymore.
The limp body, the dust, Kilcannon hooks her thumbs in the elastic of her thong, lifts her white hips toward the ceiling of the CAT generator compartment. She slides her pants down to her boots where the mass of fabric bunches up over the lip of her green knee socks.
My blouse on the floor beneath her is wet, tangling as I kneel on it, awkwardly, shuffling forward.
Kilcannon wraps her hand around me, guides me into her, into the heat and sliding.
It is my downfall, the heat, the sliding and shaking, the two bodies I watch from above as Rodriguez screams with the flat soft face burning in his hand. The peace of it, eyelids closed, looking at him as he lifts it by the hair and looks at it backlit by the darkness of stars smoking above.
Without safety hasps on the ends of the pins, the General pushes the pronged medal into the fabric over Rodriguez's heart. Rodriguez clenches his teeth, but does not cry out.