“Get down on the ground!”
I watched him fall to the floor, not quite knowing what to do. There was a lot of commotion around me, but the alarm hadn’t gone off yet. That was usually the first thing to alert us to the danger — loud, repetitive, and every bit as frightening as the event it was used to signify.
“Get down on the ground!” he shouted at me again. I still had the strange, whistling sound we’d just heard in my head, replaying over and over and drowning out his voice. It was a sound I’d never forget. Not even now, a whole decade later. At the time, I had no clue what it was. I just stood there, mesmerised, watching the weird thing zoom across the sky directly above me, a flash of something that briefly lit up the darkness. Even as he shouted at me again and again to get down, it didn’t occur to me what was going on. In the end, he scrambled across the floor towards me and grabbed my leg, forcefully tugging at it until I tumbled to the rocky ground.
“Rocket!” he shouted again, pointing to the sky with one hand. “That’s what the whistle was.”
And just as he finished his sentence, the ground bumped and shook and rumbled, sending ripples of fear through me. A second later, a terrifying boom followed. A loud one. Like one of those really big fireworks that you can feel right in your soul when it explodes, but worse. Bigger and stronger. Louder. More intense. Like nothing on earth I’d ever felt before. And then, a few moments after that, the rocket alarm finally went off. Better late than never.
He held his hand out for mine.
“Are you okay?”
And I wasn’t. I was scared. Petrified, actually. Completely out of my depth, wishing I was anywhere but there. It was my third rocket attack and just like the other ones before, I’d been completely unprepared. Everyone else seemed to know exactly what to do, dropping to the ground as soon as they heard certain sounds, alarm or not, but it felt completely alien to me. It felt alien right up until I left that war zone, many months later. I did finally get into the swing of things, of course; I had no choice. But it took a while.
“Just wait for the all-clear alarm, okay? It won’t be long.”
And those were famous last words. ‘It won’t be long’ turned into longer and longer periods of time each time, and we weren’t allowed to move from the closest blast wall until we did get the all-clear. Sometimes it would take minutes. Other times, hours. Rarely, it would go on for days. That particular time – my third rocket attack – took forty-five minutes. Forty-five long and painful minutes in which all we could do was gaze into each other’s eyes, make small talk and hope that it would all be over soon, all the while breathing in dust and trying not to think of the horrors that might be going on wherever the boom came from. It was pretty intense for a couple only on their third date, but that was the reality we faced over there. We had very little choice but to make it work. Or, you know, not bother at all.
When the all-clear alarm finally sounded, we headed back to his tent. As everyone returned to whatever it was they’d been doing before the interruption, a rumour chitter-chattered around. We could hear snippets of it being passed from person to person as we walked the five-or-so minutes back.
“It was close this time.”
“I heard it hit the boardwalk. They’re getting closer and closer each time, aren’t they?”
“Someone said there was blood everywhere. The boardwalk is all closed off.”
Most of it was exaggerated, fast-moving Chinese whispers, so we tried to pay little attention to what we heard, but it was hard not to get shaken up about it. And I was shaken up about it. I couldn’t stop myself shaking, something he picked up on when we finally unzipped the door to his bed space and sat on his tiny bed.
“Here, put this around you,” he commanded, wrapping one of his too-big, fleecy jackets around me, rubbing my arms up and down to both calm and warm me. “You will get used to the alarms and booms and stuff eventually, you know?”
I hoped he was right, although it wasn’t exactly something I wanted to get used to. Not ever. He made me feel safer, at least. He always did. Something about him seemed to rub off on me, injecting me with some kind of newfound bravery that allowed me to do things I’d never even thought possible. And we ended up doing the craziest things together over the next couple of years. Things that I never in a million years thought I’d do. My entire twenties was an absurdly crazy ride.
“Let me put some music on,” he said, choosing a band I’d never heard of before: Sick Puppies. “The album’s called Tri-Polar, I think you’ll really like it. This one’s my favourite song …”
And he put on a track called ‘Odd One’. He was right, I did like the band. I still listen to the album today, a decade later. I’m listening to it right now. It’s the music playing in my headphones as I write this and it’s giving me all sorts of crazy nostalgia. If he and I had parted on better terms, right now would be one of those times I’d send him a Facebook message, asking him if he remembered such-and-such. But we didn’t part on good terms.
“Do you feel better?”
He didn’t actually wait for me to respond. He just planted his lips on mine, taking me completely by surprise. His kisses had the power to shut me up every time, that’s how come I couldn’t ever stay angry at him for long. Good kisses are my weakness. Those kisses, his kisses – soft at first, building with intensity – would make my knees go weak. It didn’t matter how scared I was, or angry, or sad, tired, grumpy, hungry, frustrated, kisses from him would make things better as if by magic. If I could piece together my perfect man from all of the best bits of the lovers in my past, I’d choose his lips and the way he kissed me.
As things started to heat up, we fell back against the bed, causing a shaking ripple to make its way through the rest of the tent.
“Keep it down in there, you two. Less thrusting, please,” came a call from someone in one of the other bed spaces.
“Let’s go watch a movie instead,” he whispered. And I let him take my hand and guide me to the makeshift movie theatre, still wearing his blue jacket, pottering down past the long row of tents, left before you got to the communal toilet and shower blocks. I could easily give you directions around his part of camp now, but I could never remember the way back then. I kept getting lost and needing to ask someone for help; that’s why he got me the cheap, little mobile phone that I wasn’t meant to have. It came in handy when I got lost again and needed him to come and save me. And for us to talk into the early hours of the morning without anyone knowing, obviously.
The movie theatre – a wooden shack with a TV, DVD player, and a few couches and chairs – was empty when we got there, so he faffed around finding a film to put on as I chose a couch right at the back, taking off his warm jacket to wrap around me like a blanket.
“Can I sit with you?” he asked, and I said yes by patting the empty space next to me.
We started off perched politely at each end of the couch, but it wasn’t long before we both made ourselves comfortable, uncurling and relaxing and draping our limbs over each other. About halfway through the movie – Sin City, after we’d spent a stupidly long length of time stealing glances at each other that weren’t as subtle as we’d hoped, it became obvious that neither of us was bothered about the movie. I wanted to kiss him. Actually, I wanted him to kiss me, the same way he’d kissed me in his tent earlier on. I thought about making the first move, about leaning in and just pulling his face towards mine, but I was too nervous to do it. He was so different from any of the other men I’d dated before, there was part of me that just didn’t know how to be around him. Just as I thought I might’ve plucked up the right amount of courage to take the leap, he did it for me, planting another of those surprising kisses on my lips that left me breathless when he stopped.
“I’ve been waiting to do that since we got in here.”
“Oh my gosh, me too. Please do it again.”
And he complied with my request. Again and again and again. Until light and playful kisses turned into different ones. New ones. Ones I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of. Urgent kisses. Hungry. Forceful. Lightly bitten lips and quiet mumbled groans. And those kisses turned into impatient grinding. We hadn’t fucked yet, but we wanted to. Well, I wanted to. I think he did too. I wondered if the movie suggestion had been a bid to move things in that direction. It was quieter in there, just us two. Although his tent space was private, the entire military structure was actually home to eight other men. And as we learned from earlier on that evening, they weren’t into listening.
Once again, it was him that took the lead, reaching underneath my shirt to play with my nipples through the lace material of my bra. I gasped, a mixture of relief that he’d made the decision for me, excitement over being touched sexually for the first time in what felt like a very long time, and surprise because I didn’t expect him to be so assertive. Plus, he was someone brand new. There’s always been something about touching someone brand new for the first time that I’ve found highly thrilling, mostly because you just don’t know what you’re going to get. It might be awful … but it might be the next best sex you ever had, with a lover who does things to your body that you didn’t even realise was possible. For me, with him, it was the latter.
As we gyrated and writhed together, the old couch creaking beneath us, I felt his cock harden under the confines of his jeans. It was hitting me at just the right angle, sending jolts through me each time he thrust forward and our bodies clumsily crashed together. If we carried on like that, it wouldn’t be long before one of us came. It had been a while for us both.
“I’m taking this off,” he stated, pushing my arms up above my head and nodding his head towards my t-shirt.
My voice made it sound as if I was begging him to do it — and it wasn’t lying. I was desperate to feel his hands on my skin.
We struggled to get the shirt over my head and as the material got caught over my face and pinned my arms in place, he held it there with one hand so I couldn’t break free. He used his other hand to yank down the cups of my bra, releasing my nipples for him to suck and bite on. First one, then the other. Repeat. I did the only thing I could do: wriggle and squirm and agonise beneath him.
As he drove me to almost despair, focusing on my nipples and my nipples alone, my hips writhed and bucked towards his. It was an uncontrollable reaction. My body wanted his body, without the barrier of our clothes between us. I wanted him to hurry up and move on, to stop playing with my tits and move further down my body. I wanted him to pay my cunt the same care and attention he’d just paid to my nipples, to tug at my lips with his teeth and flick at my clit with his tongue. I’d have settled for him fucking me, but I wanted more than anything for his mouth to make me come.
Eventually, he released his grip on my t-shirt binding and yanked it free, letting it fall down to the dusty floor. As he fumbled with the button and zipper on my jeans, I tried to get the buttons open as his. Just as I got to the final one and managed to pop it open, the door of the theatre room burst open.
“Hey, what are you watchi … Shit. Um.”
As I fumbled around trying to cover my bare chest with my hands, one of his work colleagues stood at the door, mouth wide open, staring at us, frozen for a couple of seconds. Then he turned, quietly shut the door behind him and made his way down the wooden steps.
“Okay, let’s take the second interruption as a sign. Put your top back on and we’ll get you home.”
And we nervously laughed as he helped me get back into my bra and shirt. We laughed because we didn’t know what else to do, and because calling my tiny tin-can room a “home” was absolutely ludicrous, and because we were so turned on and sexually charged at that point that there was a good chance one, or both of us would spontaneously combust.
“Wait here for a second, I want to grab you something.”
He ran off in the direction of his tent, returning a couple of minutes later with a CD clutched in his hands. It was the album we’d been listening to earlier on in the evening. He handed it to me.
“I want you to have this. Unless you were only being nice earlier on when you said you liked the band and actually don’t mean that.”
“Hahaha, no! I do actually like the album.”
We laughed again about the events of the evening as he walked me back to my tin-can room shared with three other women. A toilet-trip-turned-rocket-attack; forty-five minutes spent lying on the rocky, dusty, dirty ground; frightening Chinese whispers; a half-watched movie; two failed attempts at sex — and it was only our third date. Was the universe trying to tell us something?
He kissed me as passionately as we could get away with once we got to the door of my room, pulling away just in time to subdue the stirrings of his erection. If I’d have thought no one would catch us, I’d have fucked him right there and then, lit just by the moon, against the cold external walls of my tin-can dwelling. Nighttime was still fairly busy in that kind of place, though. Nothing quietens down at night when you’re in a war zone. The chitter-chatter of people quietens down, but there are still regular wanderers-by, people to-ing and fro-ing from their own tents or tin-cans.
After I waited and watched him walk away until I couldn’t make his figure out anymore I made my way back to my space on the top bunk of the bed as quietly as I could, not wanting to disturb the other women sleeping. I grabbed my laptop, inserted the CD he’d given me into the drive, waited for it to load into iTunes, and then added the songs to my iPod. With one headphone in my ear, the other left out so I could listen for the changes in the sleeping-breathing of my roommates, I listened to the album and daydreamed of my newest obsession. There was no way I’d be able to sleep. So, keeping as still as I could, using the tip of just one finger to lightly glide up and down and around my clit, I gave myself the release I was going crazy for, biting the insides of my cheeks hard and holding my breath to refrain from making a single sound. I bit down so hard that I could taste a faint metallic twang of blood in my mouth.
That was the first time I came in the war zone. It’s hard to forget about that kind of event when it all started with a too-close-for-comfort rocket attack and two failed attempts at sex. And album track number 11 – ‘I Hate You’ – the song I came to a still and silent climax to, is still one of my favourite ever songs. One that will forever remind me of him and that night.
In case you’re wondering why I decided to tell you this tale today: I found myself looking for a different picture from the same war zone album this morning, to show Bear something unrelated. I scrolled past the movie theatre image above, and then I went back to it, not quite recognising what it was from the small thumbnail. I smiled when I saw the leather chairs pop up larger on the screen, instantly remembering that night with all the big, awkward interruptions at crucial moments. And as my finger hovered over the image, ready to scroll to the next, I noticed the image date: 6th November 2009.
Exactly ten years ago today. What are the chances of that?
I decided to take the massive coincidence as a sign and open up a brand new Pages document to let my memories flow free …
What’s the point in having a tale like this if I don’t tell it?
We’re all going to be just a story one day.