Salsa Night by Francisco Martínezcuello

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abstrabt shot of firey lights, blurry night

We step, shifting our weight. Our upper bodies remain level like when we combat glide—moving heel to toe in a fighting crouch, rifles up, gunsights steady, ready to fire.

One two, one and two. One two, one and two.

The son clave strikes like an ominous drill instructor forcing us in motion. We are in rhythmic syncopation, three steps for every four beats. We follow orders and our rubber soles grip the dusty concrete floors—we pivot, we turn.

The Quonset hut, a lightweight prefabricated structure with a semicircular cross-section, is dark; it is night, and the only light creeping into the dim galvanized steel building is emitted by flares, the nearby stadium lights, lit cigarettes, explosions or indirect fire.

We dance.

The DJ is a fellow soldier on a four-day respite from dusty outposts to take hot showers, load up on ice cream, and download pirated movies. We are in Iraq, but quite frankly we could be in any combat zone. We are in Al Asad, the Lion, so we roar when we hunt.

One two, one and two. One two, one and two.

The son clave speaks. We listen.      

There is an oasis in Al Asad, a stone’s throw away from the dance floor, where birds flit and chirp in the date palms behind the spring. The same spring where Abraham, patriarch of three religions, stopped to bathe. We are on hallowed ground, but it feels like we are imprisoned with all these high walls, barbed wire, watch towers and guns.  

One two, one and two. One two, one and two.

Salsa Night is on Saturdays. The participants are white, black, brown, all shades in between. Our pigment is not homogenized like Sundays—Country Western Night—and we span more shades than Fridays—Hip-Hop Night.  

There is no rank, relationship status, or labels on the dance floor. Some of us wear our issued athletic clothing, olive drab t-shirts tucked into too-short nylon shorts. None of us carry our rifles or pistols. They are placed neatly in racks at the entrance. We hang our Kevlars and flak jackets on cedar gear stands that resemble miniature crucifixes.

The music changes, faster now. The clave is gone and replaced with diatonic accordion sounds. We hold each other closer and merengue. We smell body spray, cocoa butter, multipurpose gun lubricant, chewing tobacco, cordite, and musk on each other. The speakers pop and move the air like a sandstorm; we press our bodies together.

We hear sirens.

The airbase missile alert system signals us to hunker down. It is deafening and we are forced to duck and cover in concrete indirect fire bunkers littered throughout the base. The bunkers will save us from foreign rockets but won’t shield us from traumatic brain injuries or PTSD. Some of us might rape or get raped in these bunkers. Some of us may commit suicide here, but in official reports the suicide will be listed as a non-hostile related injury. Some of us will get pregnant or contract STIs, because there’s no need for condoms in a combat zone.

The sirens stop. The voice of god tells us, All clear, and we emerge from the tomblike bunkers.        

One two, one and two. One two, one and two.

At midnight the power cuts off to signal the end of Salsa Night. We don our tactical gear and retrieve our weapons, sling them around our bodies like dancing partners, and return to our tents.

Meet the Contributor

Francisco MartinezcuelloFrancisco Martínezcuello is a first-year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He was born in Santo Domingo, República Dominicana, and raised on Long Island. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan while serving on active duty in the United States Marine Corps. He has been published in Iron & Air Magazine, Wrath-Bearing Tree, Hobart and elsewhere. Publications and social media are posted on his website:

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/oliviawelman

  1 comment for “Salsa Night by Francisco Martínezcuello

  1. I went to salsa night in Al Asad one time in 2005 out of curiosity when we had an over night stay on main side. I saw two Marines fake fight over a chair that was their dance partner. They “argued” with the chair, “argued” with one another over who would get to dance with the chair. It was pretty funny to watch. I never went back. That seemed like a great ending. Also, not long after the CG in Al Anbar province stopped salsa night, fight night, all the nights. What I had heard was the the MWSS at Al Asad was not supplying base security as the mission says they are supposed to. It was, instead, Marines from 3/25 from Haditha Dam. He had said until those Marines could attend those nights, no one would get to go until the grunts had that same opportunity. All us combat arms Marines celebrated.

    It was nice to read this. When I saw the title I immediately thought of Al Asad. I was glad to read this and see how it stuck out to another Marine.

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