I knew her back then. Of course, everyone, these days, who wants some claim to hipness, they all like to claim they were there in the beginning before the fame, before it all went wrong.
But I really was there, at the time.
It was one of the cities near the edge of the war zone. We weren’t even sure if it had a name. On our maps, it was called City C. It was behind the lines when we arrived as fresh raw recruits, new meat for the grinder. But at one time, City C had been the front line. The city still wore its battle scars, and so did its people.
There were places where most of the buildings still stood, often down the alleys and the side streets. We were warned about those streets, about the locals who saw us as conquerors, not liberators. But it was away from the front line and we no longer cared about what could happen to us away from the war.
In the end, by the time the politicians signed the treaties though, I knew more who had been killed on those city streets and behind the lines in the safe zones than had died on the front line. That is probably not true, of course, but that is how it seemed, and that is how dangerous a war can be, even away from the shooting.
Not that by then, by the time we arrived, there was much of what you would call a front line. It had turned into one of those asymmetric wars, a war of guerrilla tactics and terrorism. It became a dirty war. Turning the smiling face that passed you on a routine patrol into an ambush where you were lucky if you crawled out with only minor wounds.
I limped into the club down one of those half-ruined side streets at around midnight. The building still had – most of – its roof, so I knew it would be expensive. I got stares from the locals who turned back to their drinks muttering to each other. The women at the bar looked me over, some of them smiled. The more expensive ones turned away, guessing from the way I was dressed that I was no officer.
There was a woman there though, who did not turn, did not look. She sat with the working girls, sharing their drinks, their smokes and their jokes. But there was something about her that did not look as though she still belonged with them, even though she had been in that line of work herself for a while.
Then the band started up. You wonder sometimes how such things like musical instruments still manage to get through wars. They can be so delicate, easily destroyed by armies rolling over them. But since then I have come to know musicians, and they care for their instruments like we soldiers care for our weapons.
The woman at the bar let them play the introduction twice. I saw every eye in the room turn to her as she stood tall, slim, elegant, in a long tight dress. She finished her drink and glided to the stage as though she had all the time in the world, but still arriving on exactly the right note.
Then she sang, and I fell in love.