Lieutenant Colonel Vaughn Strong used to think it was a cliché you only find in movies when soldiers sniff letters from home for traces of perfume. But here he was, sitting on his cot in his hooch at the hot edge of Baghdad, that day’s mail call spilled across his lap, and just like a character from a World War Two film, he was sticking his nose against a card he got from his wife.
Jesus, was this the silliest goddamn thing a lieutenant colonel could do, or what?
But when he’s over here and desperate for even the slightest sensory reminder of home, a man will quickly succumb to the cliché. Since the deployment began, Strong’s wife had been daubing her envelopes with perfume and now he found himself putting his nose to the triangle tip of the flap and inhaling deeply. Something primal stirred in the deep coils of his brain, calling up a memory which felt like something from as long ago as childhood, but actually only dated back six months to their parting at brigade headquarters. He now regretted not giving over fully to the emotion of the moment, not relaxing his rigid stance against Public Displays of Affection, not pulling her to him in a neck-breaking hug, not mashing his lips against hers as if it was the last time they would be mashed. No, he’d held himself in check that day—his men surrounded him, after all, and what would they think of a lieutenant colonel blubbering like a baby into his wife’s hair? He’d kissed her quickly, drily, and said the appropriate words (something like “Buck up, kiddo—I’ll be home before we know it”), then turned back to the business of loading his men onto the bus. As they pulled out, he’d watched her run alongside the bus for thirty feet, had lifted his hand against the window, but then they were fully pulled apart as the bus belched diesel and lurched out of Fort Stewart.
As they turned onto the highway and headed for the departure terminal, Strong imagined his wife running alongside the bus, even as they were rolling along at 55 mph, her hair come undone and whipping around in the wind, traffic honking and swerving, her throat screaming his name. He even craned his neck to look through the window. She was receding behind him, an ant-sized figure waving one arm at him.
He leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes. The bus, full of unusually-silent men already missing their wives and girlfriends, accelerated as it headed north on the highway toward Hunter Army Airfield where the transport plane waited. Strong was already going somewhere else in his head.
It was their honeymoon and they were on the Oregon coast. Once they’d arrived at Yachats and paid for the motel room, they were down to thirty-one dollars and some change. That week, they did a lot of sitting on the beach, visiting the lighthouses, and staring mesmerized at the Devil’s Churn (was that the name, or did he misremember it as the Devil’s Punchbowl?). They couldn’t even afford to go down into the Sea Lion Caves, so they stood at the top of the hill pressed against the chain link fence and listened to the distant bark of the sea lions, craning their necks to catch glimpses of the dark bodies going in and out of the waves far below. Once, after a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a rest stop, they’d fed the flock of seagulls wheeling overhead, tossing stale breadcrumbs in the air. He had a photo of her, laughing and flinching from one of the diving birds. Shortly after he’d snapped that one, the gull had crapped in her hair. She held up the strands of soiled hair, said, “Ewww, gross!” Then he laughed and she laughed and they couldn’t stop. Back then, laughing came easy to him. He’d taken her over to the restrooms to get a paper towel so they could wipe it out of her hair, but the dispenser in the men’s room was empty and he’d had to bring a small ball of toilet paper out to her. Then he’d said something about “shit shampoo” and that had only made her laugh harder, so hard she peed her pants, and instead of being mortified at her darkening crotch, she laughed even harder, and he remembered that was the moment he knew they’d be together for a long time. A long, long time.
Now, sitting in his wind-rocked hooch on FOB Triumph, he pressed the mail to his face and took her scent in through his nostrils, imagining his nose nestled against the hollow of her neck, his lips grazing the pulse of a vein. He sat on his cot for a good five minutes sniffing this latest envelope, finding his wife somewhere in the fibers of the paper, before breaking open the seal and pulling out the card.
Typical flowers and pink curlicues and a Hallmark poem which glazed his eyes and brain. He skipped the verse and went straight to the three-inch space at the bottom of the card where she’d written: “Just think, hon, HOME STRETCH. There was a time when the whole year was looming before us. One day at a time, they faded into yesterdays and so will the tomorrows of the coming months. Soon, they’ll all be yesterdays and we’ll be back together again day-dreaming of our little home in the Rockies! I’ll see you soon.”
There’s no shame in admitting this nearly broke Lieutenant Colonel Vaughn Strong in half, especially coming as it did on the heels of the Walt Whitman poetry he’d just been reading. It was Sunday morning and he’d finally decided to give himself a rest and take advantage of the brigade’s half-day-off policy. He’d brought Leaves of Grass with him on this deployment and he dipped into it every now and then, mainly for the Civil War scenes. But this morning, his eyes had snagged on
A woman waits for me, she contains all, nothing is lacking.
Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking.
By degrees, he fell into a light, soft nap. His fingers holding the card went slack. He dreamt of his wife standing in front of him. He was kneeling before her. She was wearing a black dress with a zipper running down the front. “Would you like me to?” she said.
“You have to ask?” he replied.
She smiled and unzipped the dress by slow inches. Her breasts tumbled forth. She pulled him to her. His tongue darted out and tasted salt, her musk he’d been denied for what felt like decades. He pushed himself deep inside her. He was home.
Strong came awake with a jerk. A Blackhawk passed overhead, dopplering from one side of his head to the other.
He sat up and reached for her card. He held it in his hand for a few moments before bringing it up to his nose. He inhaled so hard, he thought he could smell burning leaves and his Golden Retriever coming into the house after being out in the rain.
Soon, he’d have to put on his gear, leave this trailer, and face the latest bad news at headquarters—another Sunni roadside bomb, another sheik irate at Strong’s doorkickers, another inane directive from the command group, another ball of shit rolling downhill. He’d have to face all of that with his lieutenant-colonel mask of stoic opinion and decisive leadership. He’d have to go out there and face this war.
But not yet. Not just yet.
He sniffed again.