When the doors of the plane were finally thrust open, they’d been in the air for over an hour while the pilots rehearsed their low-altitude flying maneuvers. Nap-of-the-earth, they called it, as the pattern hugged the terrain, exploiting valleys and folds like an unremitting wind, swift and able and imperceptible. Inside the iron-ribbed fuselage where the soldiers sat lodged in vexation it was cold and gray and noisy, dank with their sweat and unsettled stomachs, and the plane dipping and rising, dipping and rising, and the soldiers with barely the room to move and the pilots toying around like that, indulging their godliness, hoping one of them might vomit.
She sat leaning against the skin of the aircraft, her head tilted back as if sleeping, two two-thirds up from the rear of the plane. When the loadmasters opened the doors and unleashed the breeze on the crowded assembly she drew it in through her nostrils and held it there a moment filling her lungs with its freshness.
The soldier sitting beside her, another lieutenant, leaned in closer and over the roar of the jet engines asked, You ok?
I’m fine, she said quietly. She wanted terribly not to move and so kept her eyes closed beneath the lip of her Kevlar helmet.
I said, I’m fine. Her voice louder, but sounding weak and tired.
Excuse me for saying, he went on, but you dont look fine.
She looked at him then. It’s like they’re trying to make us sick.
As soon as aircraft doors opened it became the Army’s operation and the jumpmaster began issuing commands to the paratroopers, taking stock of the singular, echoed response, and the safeties were moving up and down the deck, checking equipment, harnesses and static lines, and rousing any of them who might’ve been fortunate to have fallen asleep.
Maybe you should say something, he suggested.
She laughed. Yeah, sure. I’ll just mosey on up front and have a word with the pilot.
You never know, they might listen to you.
She cut her eyes at him. She was five foot one in combat boots, a slender, dark-haired Italian immigrant who’d majored in accounting at an Ivy League school. Why would they ever do that? I’m a woman.
She got her feet beneath her and pushing up shifted her bottom on the webbed seating and arching her back found some relief to the straps digging into her shoulders. She looked across the plane at the jumpers on the other door and made eye contact with the soldier directly opposite her, an officer she recognized. The Post Chaplain, a tall and sturdy, full-bird colonel, gave her a big thumbs up.
You know, the lieutenant said, leaning over and speaking into her ear, this is our first time.
You know what I’m talking about?
How do you know?
I just do. I know you.
You dont know me.
Yes, I do.
I know you better than you know me.
That’s not true.
She turned her shoulders to get a better look at him. Then tell me something about yourself and I’ll tell you if it’s true or not.
He looked across the aisle at the soldiers sitting opposite them, their stiff, tired faces. I’m not doing that, he said.
Just try. You have nothing to lose.
He thought about it. Okay. He leaned in close again. I’ve only ever been with one woman.
No, please, go ahead, take your time.
I don’t need more time. It’s true.
This is stupid, he said.
My turn now, she said and sat up straighter and looked at him.
He watched her, waiting. Anytime now, he told her. Tick tock.