Kicking Against the Pricks
by David Buchanan
Two women were in the front of the line chatting up a Navy Admiral. The first one was tiny—about five feet tall—dipping and twisting as she fixed her hair and checked her dress in a mirror on the far wall. The dress was fitted and yellow, with sequins and a small purse to match. She wasn’t attractive, but the Admiral looked down the freckled cleavage of her fallen breasts and they exchanged kisses—left, right, left. She threw her red hair back, laughing to something he whispered in her ear. I could see the crowns on her back molars.
As they moved into the crowd and out of sight, I shuffled forward and silently shook the hands of these people I would never see again. I was in my only set of wrinkled civilian clothes—tennis shoes, khaki pants that were too short, and a collared shirt with a stain on it. I never really felt clean in the desert, and it didn’t help that I forgot to shave. The Admiral squinted at me and introduced his wife, then himself. I have a habit of looking at people’s hands when I shake them, and I noticed that hers was way bigger than mine. And they were rougher, like she lifted a lot of weights. The Admiral gripped like he was preparing for an arm wrestling contest, and I just gave him a fish back. He squeezed hard enough that my fingers hurt a little.
It was so nice to be out of uniform. I stepped away from this high-ranking couple and got a slight panic when it occurred to me that I might run into the Admiral some day with a nametag on. I hate being recognized.
I waited for the Major, my boss, to catch up near the pool.
“You know,” the Major said, pushing his glasses up his nose, “you are supposed to introduce yourself. Name, rank, duty title. Haven’t you ever been to one of these things?” He reached into his back pocket for a handkerchief and wiped his sweating forehead. His glasses were fogged over by the misting fans stationed overhead, but he just ignored them. “You didn’t even say anything.”
“I panicked,” I said. “These things make me nervous. Besides, I knew we’d never see them again.”
I went to get us drinks. There was no alcohol in Saudi Arabia, but there was a lot of it inside the diplomatic district here on the outskirts of Riyadh. A few days earlier, back at the little base where we were stationed, I heard a guy say that the empty beer bottles and even the bottle-caps were packed up and shipped out of the kingdom in sealed containers via special garbage trucks. At the U.S. Embassy, though, they didn’t hide it. Crowds had formed in each corner of the patio—mainly Saudis in robes—marking the bars and the free liquor there. I headed to the closest one, got myself a Budweiser and the Major a bottle of water. We retreated to a little table by the pool and stared at this party of strangers. We giggled at the roving waitresses and waiters who were dressed in black and white sailor outfits, smile-less and sweating, weaving through the crowd with trays of finger food.
In the pool floated a 10-foot scale model of a big US Navy boat, the USS Quincy. Apparently, the USS Quincy was the site of the first meeting between a Saudi king and a US president. The Major and I sipped our drinks and studied the glossy brochure on our table together, reading about how FDR and King Abdul Aziz exchanged gifts and drank coffee on the deck of the warship. Aziz got a brand new C-47 Dakota airplane; Roosevelt got a sword covered in jewels.
The rest of the brochure was full of pictures of similar meetings with other kings and other presidents: King Saud’s six-year old daughter in a white dress and lacy white gloves peeking up at a serious JFK—Nixon in a gray suit grinning a lipless smile to King Faisal—Carter, bored next the King in Jeddah—President Bush leading Crown Prince Abdullah by the hand up a Texas path through a garden of blue-bonnets.
This was National Day, an annual faux-celebration of the US/Saudi relationship, and we hadn’t even really been invited. The Major and I had been on our daily visit to the Saudi’s downtown when our British counterpart showed up unannounced and caused a minor stir. Jim, a big black man with a shiny head, strode into the office while we were all sipping tea and chatting about soccer. The Saudi’s spoke to Jim almost every day on the phone (sometimes they had to conference me in to “translate” through his thick Scottish brogue), but this was the first time they had seen Jim face-to-face. They were so surprised to see that a black man owned that voice that the Major and I had to make a lot of awkward jokes and introductions to smooth everything over. To thank us, for what I’m not sure, Jim sent over two tickets and the promise of free cocktails. There was a momentary scramble to figure out what we would wear since no one had told us to pack our service dress when we left home for this four month deployment. Jim assured us anything was okay; so we put on the clothes we had worn for the commercial flight from Baltimore to Frankfurt to Riyadh.
At the party, we felt invisible and conspicuous at the same time. Marine Colonels strode past our table without a glance or a nod, sucking cigars as if they tasted terrible. Saudis mingled in pairs, constantly fixing and adjusting their robes and headscarves. The Air Force two-star from our base walked by, made eye contact, and moved on with no show of recognition. Behind him followed an over-achieving toady we knew well, the General’s aide. The Major stepped up to say hello.
They spoke briefly, and the aide glared at me over my boss’s shoulder. I had met him during my first week in country while I was drying off after swimming at the base pool. I was slipping on my flip-flops and getting ready to leave when a muscled, hairless guy in a Speedo marched up and pointed at the Band-Aid on my shoulder.
“Is that what I think it is?” he demanded.
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
“A smallpox scab. Children get in this water,” he said, “Do you have a doctor’s note clearing you to swim in public pools?” Smallpox vaccinations were a pre-deployment requirement, and mine was still scabbed over.
“A doctor’s note?” I asked. “Where do I get one of those?”
The guy in the Speedo pointed, “The clinic’s over there, by the Hajji Mall. Behind the wood shop.”
“We have a wood shop?” I asked, and walked away.
We met again at the weekly staff meeting I was required to attend a couple of days later. At the end of the meeting, the General went around the table, asking each attendee if he or she had anything to add. He called it “piling on.” I thought he was saying “pylon.” When the aide’s turn came to “pile on,” he gave a stern speech about how long it takes smallpox immunization site-wounds to heal and how we should “never trust chlorine,” eye-balling me across the big conference table the whole time. He was a well-connected sycophant and a Lieutenant Colonel, and so, at the party, when he turned to sit down his drink, I snuck away.
I got another beer and mingled through the crowd. More misting fans placed high above the crowd kept the desert heat away. I took an appetizer from each sailor who passed with a tray—something wrapped in grape leaves, a barbecue chicken wing, a cup of chopped apple covered in a white sauce. The band was dressed like the wait staff, floppy sailor hats over Philippino faces singing perfect Sinatra and respectable renditions of songs from the soundtrack of Grease. Between songs they turned and barked commands to an overweight drummer who slouched and sweated over a single snare drum. Behind the band was a ten-foot high reproduction of the handholding Bush and Abdullah from the brochure.
“That’s one way to eat that, I guess,” a voice behind me said.
I had paused at a small table to eat my apple salad out of the tiny plastic cup with my fingers. A guy in a coat and tie gestured to his own cup of chopped apples. He sat his down, still full, without trying out my technique. We stood watching the band.
“It’s impossible to find a good cover band in Saudi these days,” he said.
The band finished “Take My Breath Away” while clips from Top Gun played behind them on a big screen. I clapped, and turned. “They sound okay to me,” I said. But he had already wandered off. A waiter-sailor, thinking I was speaking to him, offered me my choice from another tray of chicken wings. I wondered if someone told President Bush to take the Prince’s hand.
I was in an excellent spot to wait for the end of the party. I could see the whole patio, all the way back to the floating USS Quincy where the Major was now looking for me. He was a nervous man and kept turning in circles, eyeing every robed Saudi like he carried a backpack full of explosives. A Saudi stopped at my table to pour a Budweiser into a plastic cup. He saw that we drank the same beer, raised his glass in a small toast, and moved away.
Near a large group of Saudis and military officers, I saw the redhaired lady from the receiving line. She was drinking very quickly, and she seemed to know everyone, kissing every man and woman on the cheek—right, left, right—“HAHA”—throw her head back—show her molars. She pulled a cigarette from her little handbag, and looked around for a light. Two men offered lighters and she bent forward to light it and took one long drag. But then she realized she had lost track of her drink. Off she went for the nearest bar, kissing cheeks all the way. Her lipstick-smeared cigarette lay behind her, smoking up from the concrete where she had dropped it.
At the bar, she cut to the front of the line, snaking her arm around an Army Colonel’s waist as they both waited for their drinks. New drink in hand, she plucked another cigarette from her handbag and the Colonel lit it, grinning at her through the smoke.
The crowd hushed and from the main entrance a dozen Saudi security guards, dark black Arab men with shoulder holsters on top of their robes, spilled onto the patio and carved a ten-foot wide pathway through the crowd. I kept an eye on the redhead and positioned myself directly across the pathway from her as people whispered and squeezed forward. I felt like a stranger crashing a stranger’s wedding, and everyone exuded an odd energy. I wondered why they all seemed so pleased to be there, and I wondered how the redhead knew everyone.
She stood directly behind one of the guards, blowing smoke out of the side of her mouth and staring at the weapon in his armpit. She reached forward and pantomimed pulling it out, and then she pointed her finger around like a gun, making quiet little gun sounds, “pow…pow…pow.”
The official party of the US Ambassador, his wife, and the Prince took the stage. The Prince, a different prince than the one in the mural behind him, stood nodding off to one side while the Ambassador read his speech from what looked like paper pulled from a spiral notebook. He read the whole thing, looking up twice, once to take a noisy breath, the next time to slowly wet his thin lips. The U.S. representative to this Arab world reminded me of a seventh grader running for student council. In an awkward mumble, he announced that eight new Fulbright scholarships would be extended to Saudi youths. He thanked the nodding Prince and the entire country of Saudi Arabia and left the stage. The redhead faked a yawn to her friend.
As the Prince surged through the crowd to leave, Saudis stretched around the guards to touch his arm, his robe. I could smell his cologne as he passed. When it hit the redhead she pinched her nose and mouthed, “Peee-you!”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Honored Guests,” a woman at the microphone quieted the crowd. “Now,” she continued, “please enjoy the Ardha, Saudi Arabia’s national dance.”
Men—Bedouins, I learned later—dressed in blue and white robes with gleaming swords hanging from their waists cleared a spot in front of the stage. The crowd pressed in and these men started beating on decorated and tasseled tambourines and drums. Gradually, a deep and rhythmic beat emerged from the seeming randomness and the men began bobbing in time, shifting their weight in tiny steps, their feet invisible underneath their decorative robes.
They formed two lines, facing each other, standing shoulder to shoulder, bobbing and bobbing, drums beating, arms linked. The bobbing and beating drew on and on and then, with no apparent sign or cue, it all stopped, and one ancient man in the middle of one line raised his chin slightly and pitched an Arabic chant in a high, clear tone. He finished, and the other line, a dozen men with arms entwined, picked up the chant and repeated it, some of their eyes up, some eyes on the ground, some straight across to the other dancers and singers. The first side caught the chant and returned it again, louder now. Back and forth the chant exchanged, men bobbing and swaying all the while. The words changed slightly, I think, but the tune itself never wavered and the chants ebbed and flowed seamless across the patio, the pool, the open bars, the crowd.
The redhead stood on the other side of the dance area. Done with the call and response song, some of the drummers began handing out swords to the closest members of the crowd, encouraging the people to sway like the singers did. Most were shy and held the swords limply pointing at the ground, uncomfortably looking around to see how others were doing, if anyone was watching. The redhead reached around a man in a wrinkled suit, gripped his wrist, and shook it up and down, trying to get him to move the sword he held with a little more gusto.
The man offered her the sword instead. At first she refused, but when he insisted, she traded her drink for his sword and turned toward the nearest dancer like she was going to slice him up with it. The dancer smiled and reached out for her free hand and pulled her out into middle. He moved lightly with little dancing movements, and she let herself be drawn into the dance, throwing her head back and showing those caps I’d been seeing all night.
She sensed rightly that everyone was watching her. At first, she tried to concentrate and dance like the men, but after a few beats she started dancing with the sword she was holding like it was a dance partner. She hugged it and rubbed it all over her body. At one point she kissed it.
Cell phone cameras appeared and Saudi men ran forward, snapping pictures of the dancing woman. Some climbed up on the stage to get a better shot. She loved it. She danced as wild as she could imagine, using moves she must have picked up from MTV or from her memories of high school. She looked down at her feet and threw her now-ratty hair back and forth like a groupie in a heavy metal video. She completely ignored the beat, kicking her feet in fits and blowing kisses to the singing and drumming Bedouins.
No one came and got her. Every face in the crowd was laughing. When she danced like she was swimming the crawl, the man beside me pointed and laughed and turned to grab his friend who had his back turned. When she humped the air, more cameras came out. Everyone was smiling. She single-handedly shattered the party’s shyness and soon there were five more women dancing with her in a wedding reception conga line.
Regardless, the beat kept moving, steady and certain. I edged closer. I was almost near enough to speak to her.
The ancient man who led the chants kept the dance and the music moving. He was the tallest, in the middle of his side of the linked singers, and with ease and poise he imperceptibly directed delicate shifts and changes in the chanted verses. He only had two or three teeth. His skin was deeply wrinkled, and the whiskers of his goatee were silver, his eyes almost black. Before him, the drummers and American dancers surged, but he showed no sign of noticing. He stood straight and erect, staring at a spot on the ground about twenty feet in front of his feet. His strong tenor voice rose over and over above the din and laughter of the crowd and the whoops of the redhead.
The Ardha ended when he stopped singing, and I looked quick for the redhead who had just been playing air drums about three feet away from me. There was no climax or conclusion; he just shut his mouth and stopped chanting, and the sword dance was over. The redhead marched off for another drink and the dancers dispersed. The old man didn’t talk to anyone, and no one spoke to him. He moved to the stage and placed his sword in a foam-lined box with the others and turned to leave. He did not look up at the giant mural of his Crown Prince and my President holding hands when he passed below it.
A week later, the redhead appeared at our weekly staff meeting. She wore tiny little combat boots, cargo pants, a vest, and a camouflaged ball cap. She muttered something to the General’s aide who had ushered her in and of course threw her head back, laughing at her own joke. She shook the hands of those nearby and took her seat, smiling to herself as she scrolled through messages on her Blackberry.
I decided then that I hated her. I hated that she was dressed like a photojournalist in the middle of Baghdad in 2003. I hated that she enjoyed herself so thoroughly at the party. I hated that everyone knew her and seemed to respect her. I hated that her curly red hair was now pulled into a ponytail and shoved through the hole on the back of her hat. She had creases ironed into her khakis.
I glowered at her across the table.
Then, just as the General entered the room and his aide called the room to attention, she dropped her smile and looked up, directly into my eyes. Even without the smile, wrinkles framed her puckered, pencil-thin lips. Her eyes gave way to crow’s feet that stretched into the hairline at her temple. In her freckled face I saw resolve and confidence and, I was sure, a flicker of recognition. She seemed to spot something in me I thought I had successfully concealed.
I looked away first, guilty heat rushing to my face. We stood for the General, and then we sat down when he waved the group back into our chairs. He greeted her first, and when she turned to respond, I had to swallow an urge to interrupt and explain myself. What did I have to say anyway? We were the administrators of one corner of the war, and we went to parties and had meetings and congratulated ourselves and collected hazardous duty pay. I kept my eyes on her, but she never looked my way again, and after the meeting, she left with the General. She was a protocol specialist on loan from the embassy. She was there to plan his upcoming change-of-command ceremony.
With this deep, abiding guilt settling into my gut, I stepped from the air-conditioned office building into the sun and heat and dust of the Saudi Arabian summer. The hot wind spun a plastic grocery bag across the street and into the air where it danced and turned and disappeared behind a building. The Major came out behind me, slipping on his sunglasses. We fell into step on our walk back to our own villa.
“You know, you should volunteer to emcee the General’s change-of-command,” he said, “it will look great on your records when you get home.”
As he nattered on about promotions and performance records, I thought of the quiet dignity of the sword dance singer at the embassy. But it was impossible to think of him without an overriding image of the “protocol specialist” dry-humping a fake sword and the memory of the self-importance I felt when I found out I was being deployed. I thought of the smallpox scab on my shoulder and George Bush and the sister whose upcoming wedding I would miss, and it occurred to me that I had never really made a truly considered decision my whole life. Rather, my first deployment to a foreign land in support of the Global War on Terror had resulted from twenty-five years of inertia and the fear of entering my thirties without being able to say I had been to the desert.
Something from that moment when the redhead and I locked eyes pricked in me the edge of an old feeling of cultural shame. I felt as if I was on the brink of impending doom, as if I was about to get in trouble for some long-forgotten transgression. Back in my office, I sat down at my desk and printed up a spreadsheet containing a list of “coalition” aircraft that needed overflight clearance through Saudi Arabian airspace in the near future. I put the sheet in the fax machine and sent it to my Saudi counterpart downtown. In the morning, he would scribble a number beside each aircraft and fax it back to me. I would send a copy to the Brits and a copy to an Air Force base in Illinois. This was the full extent of my job, and it would be great for my career. The fax machine screeched and squawked.
I looked at the window behind my desk. It was painted black. For security reasons no one could see in, or out.
David Buchanan is a former KC-10 pilot and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Denver. His short fiction has appeared in War, Literature, and the Arts, the Writer’s Workshop Review, the Lascaux Review and Line of Advance. He writes about growing up in a small town and growing old in the military.