Coming Home, Part 1

(by anonymous, 15 May 2008)


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COMING HOME 
Part 1 

I was just back from a security check on the perimeter, something I pulled 
every day at Camp Liberty Eagle, which sits on the outskirts of Baghdad. 
Some days I had the good fortune to walk into my barracks and immediately 
find one of the few shared computers open. Most days, though, I had to 
wait. 

This time a computer was free. Several unopened emails from my fiancée 
Dorothy were sitting there because I hadn't had a chance to read them for 
almost a week. Not much down time when you're pulling duty shifts in Iraq. 
I clicked on Dorothy's oldest message first. She talked about the usual 
things-going to our fundamental Christian church back home, teaching her 
Sunday School class, watching a TV special about koala bears with her 
parents, and working at Save-More, a pharmacy in the city where we lived. 

I met Dorothy, who is 17, in elementary school and we have dated no one 
else. We went to church camp together every summer and later we worked 
together at the camp as volunteer counselors. Whenever we were apart, we 
missed each other terribly. Dorothy had taken the job in the pharmacy-her 
first job ever-just after I left for Iraq. She felt it might keep her from 
worrying about me. She also needed the money. Neither of our families had 
much. 

In the second oldest email she sent, Dorothy spoke of a recent day at work. 
She wrote about going to the back door of the pharmacy and coming upon a 
co-worker named JoAnn, who was standing outside smoking a cigarette. 
Stopping a moment to chat, Dorothy said she suddenly spilled out to JoAnn 
what a nervous wreck she'd been ever since my deployment. I had been in 
Iraq for six weeks and had written to Dorothy about security checks in full 
combat gear and how scary some of them were. And they were scary. I didn't 
tell Dorothy everything, of course, but I said enough, I guess, to cause 
her great anxiety. She had written me that some nights she couldn't sleep. 
She feared something bad was going to happen to me, even though she prayed 
for my safety. By the time she went to work at the pharmacy that morning, 
her distress level apparently was at an alarming high. 

Concerned and perhaps even a little frightened by Dorothy's confession, 
JoAnn reacted by offering Dorothy her cigarette. Dorothy, who has never 
smoked and has a deep faith, as do I, said no thank-you. But JoAnn 
apparently insisted, Dorothy wrote, explaining that it would help her to 
calm down. Dorothy, who tells me everything and is honest as the day is 
long, said she reluctantly accepted JoAnn's partially smoked cigarette 
basically because she didn't want to be rude. She took a couple of puffs 
from the cigarette, she said. "It was like a campfire in my mouth and my 
eyes got runny a bit," Dorothy wrote. "But I didn't throw up like I thought 
I would." 

Her words stunned me. Not for the life of me could I imagine Dorothy 
puffing on a cigarette. I did not like smoking and had never smoked, not 
once in my almost 20 years. Even in the Army, where plenty of GIs smoked, I 
did not. I didn't like the smell or the idea of it. Moreover, I knew 
smoking went against everything Dorothy believed in and stood for. Smoking 
was sinful. Yet reading Dorothy's message stirred me in a way I had never 
experienced. As much as I disliked the notion of her smoking, I became 
drawn to the thought of her doing it. The possibility of Dorothy smoking 
both bothered me and intrigued me. 

As I went through the other emails she had sent, I found no more references 
to smoking. I wondered what had happened. I replied to several of those 
messages with news of myself and responses to goings-on back home that she 
had relayed. But I didn't speak of her smoking. For some reason, I feared 
mentioning it. Feared that she might think I was a wacko. At the same time, 
I didn't want her to think I was upset about her smoking. Because, for some 
crazy reason I didn't quite get, deep down I wasn't upset. 

Almost a week passed when one day I decided to make a casual comment to 
Dorothy, hoping it might tell me something about her possible smoking. I 
prefaced this by saying, "Everyone here is stressed out because we're 
always on alert. Most of the guys are smoking more than usual." Then I 
said, in a sort of throwaway line, "How are you handling your stress, BTW?" 
After that question, I quickly moved on to other matters. 

Dorothy didn't answer my question, at least not right away. Eventually, in 
a message out of the blue, Dorothy said that JoAnn had offered her a fresh 
cigarette from her pack that afternoon. "Please, Please don't be mad at me, 
but I took it," Dorothy wrote. "I am very embarrassed. I don't really know 
why I took it. I don't know if I liked it, but I do know that I didn't not 
like it." That was all; nothing else. I quickly answered that I could never 
be mad at her. I wrote, "If you're that tense, you have to do something." I 
told her I was praying for her and praying for peace. I wrote, "I love you 
very much and the Lord loves you very much." 

Nothing more on the topic for a week or so. Meanwhile, I couldn't stop 
wondering about Dorothy. One day I wrote to her that this charity group in 
the States sends GIs free packs of cigarettes. "The guys appreciate that. I 
gave my packs to some Iraqi civilians." I was hoping that might generate 
some kind of response from Dorothy and it did. She wrote back, "You're good 
to do what you did with the cigarettes. Those people have so very little." 
Then: "I know you probably think of this, but every day JoAnn is waiting 
for me with a fresh cigarette the moment I get to work. She knows just what 
it takes to get me through the morning. When JoAnn has a day off, sometimes 
Ronnie (the assistant manager) gives me one of his to smoke. I keep telling 
both of them I will pay them back, and I will." 

In my bunk that night I tried to picture Dorothy smoking. She is 5 feet 2 
inches, with short, dishwater blonde hair and gray-framed eyeglasses that 
she wears all the time. She has a nice smile, but I wouldn't call her 
attractive in the physical sense. Her parents are heavy and, frankly, 
Dorothy is headed that way, though it doesn't bother her. Unathletic, to my 
knowledge she has never exercised. She gained weight when we were in high 
school, and she weighed about 150 pounds when I left for Iraq. Her weight 
is not an issue with her and she never talks about dieting. Things like 
appearance, clothes and material possessions are simply unimportant to 
Dorothy, and that's fine by me. She is extraordinarily giving, and that is 
what I love about her. She never thinks of herself and is an absolutely 
committed Christian. She collects angel figurines, she knows the Bible 
extremely well and she loves the Lord with all her heart. She would do 
anything in the world for anyone. This goodness is what I cherish. She has 
no clue how to be mean. In fact, I have never met a kinder, more generous 
person. 

Thus it was hard for me to visualize her smoking. I knew her parents would 
be horrified by it. She is an only child. Her father is disabled and her 
mother works part-time in childcare. Church and Scripture mean everything 
to them. I knew Dorothy wouldn't dare tell them she had smoked a cigarette. 
They would freak. 

I racked my brain for ways to learn more about Dorothy's habit, if indeed 
it existed. One day I received by email pictures she had taken of the kids 
in her Sunday School class. She also had included a picture of someone she 
worked with at Save-More. This was a thin, dark-haired woman, in her 
mid-40s, I guessed. She was holding a diet soda and a cigarette. "That's 
JoAnn," Dorothy wrote. "She's become a very good friend. I want you to meet 
her when you get home. She's helped me so much, especially with the smoking 
part." 

I thanked Dorothy for the pictures and then, attempting to sound only 
mildly interested, I wrote, "You're not really smoking, are you?" 

There was no reply to that from Dorothy in her next few emails. But three 
or four days later I received a photo attachment. When I clicked on it, 
Dorothy's picture popped up. She was standing outside what appeared to be 
the employees' rear entrance of Save-More. She was wearing the dark brown 
smock jacket that all employees there wear, and light blue slacks. A 
plastic gold name tag adorned her chest. Draped around her neck was the 
familiar silver cross that she had worn for years. She was smiling 
brightly. But it was sort of an uneasy smile. Then I noticed that in her 
right hand, which she held by her side but out of the way, was a cigarette. 
The lighted end of cigarette, I saw, was pointed straight down at the 
ground, in a manner that told me Dorothy wasn't 100 percent sure about 
having it. 

I studied the picture for about fifteen minutes. I couldn't keep my eyes 
off it. This was the girl I planned to marry. This was the girl I knew her 
better than I knew anyone. She looked so different here, almost as if I 
didn't know her. The cigarette made her seem that way. I was mesmerized, 
particularly by her expression. It was a mix of guilt and, I decided, of 
well-being. 

In my next letter I mentioned all the pictures, thanking her for them. I 
commented on what a joyful time she must be having with the Sunday School 
class and how I wished I could be there teaching the kids with her. Of the 
photograph of her at Save-More, I purposely said nothing about the 
cigarette. I couldn't bring myself to say anything. Instead, I wrote, "You 
look so happy in that picture of you at work. You look like your job agrees 
with you. I'm glad." 

Two months or so went by and I never mentioned smoking, nor did Dorothy. I 
had other things, more pressing things, to think about. Most of those 
thoughts had to do with a good friend from my outfit named Danny, who died 
in the explosion of a roadside bomb. Danny's death tore at me. When I 
finally got around to telling Dorothy about it, she responded in a terribly 
distressed way, saying that she almost wished I hadn't told her about 
Danny. "I'm a mess ," she wrote. "My nerves were so jangly I couldn't sleep 
a wink last night. I read my Bible, mostly Psalms, but that didn't help. 
Finally I got up and went to the garage. I remembered JoAnn had given me a 
cigarette one morning, but I was in a hurry and I stuck it in my glove box. 
Being extra quiet so's not to wake up Mom and Dad, I opened my car and 
found the cigarette. I didn't have a way to light it but I knew that Dad 
used to keep matches at his workbench. I found some and then went out 
behind the garage. JoAnn constantly reminds me that I have to make every 
cigarette count, and I certainly did with that one. When I was done, there 
was absolutely nothing left but the filter piece. I buried that in the 
dirt. This is silly, I know, but I was so worried about getting caught. The 
thing is, I felt much, much better afterward. I don't know if I like 
admitting that, but it's the truth. Please be careful. I beg of you." 

Was Dorothy now a smoker? I shuddered and told myself no way. I replied 
that I understood how she felt and told her not to worry. I wrote, "I'm 
being careful because I want to see you again." Then I signed off. 


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