The day Matt left for Afghanistan I woke up in my tiny studio apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to the buzz of a text message on my phone. It was early. The sun was just beginning to peak through the curtains.
“Getting on the bus soon,” Matt wrote. “Will call in a bit.”
He was on his way to Atlanta, the final leg of what already felt like an epic journey through the pre-deployment training process. Matt had been called involuntarily back to the Army one freezing night in February when a Fed Ex letter had arrived at his family’s home. It wasn’t until that humid morning in June, hoever, that he was actually getting on a plane to Afghanistan.
Despite the dread that constantly hovered in my mind, his departure was almost a relief. Once Matt arrived at the airport – an eight-hour ride from the base in Mississippi where he had been stationed for the previous month – and officially took off, I hoped he would finally feel that his time away from home had some sort of point.
I got out of bed. I turned on the radio and began to make coffee in the French Press. It held too much for one person, but I had bought for Matt when we first moved in together, in a dark little sublet in the East Village of Manhattan. He had been working as a reporter for the Star Ledger in Newark while I freelanced. Coffee was the cornerstone of our diets.
I sat back in bed with a mug and my computer. I did some work. I read the paper and talked to my mom. I cleaned the kitchen and, later, made lunch. But mainly, as the hours trickled away and the sun rose higher in the sky, I talked to Matt.
I talked to Matt as he sat on the bus debating the pluses and minuses of phone cards in Kabul. I talked to him when the busload of soldiers in uniform stopped to eat at a Cracker Barrel and a few members of the group were hugged by a woman who had tears in her eyes. She had lost her son in Afghanistan, she said. Matt and I talked when we had nothing to say, the sound of the bus driver’s yells ricocheting in the background.
I didn’t really know what to do with myself in between phone calls. Matt’s deployment was unexpected and I'm not close with anyone else in the Army. I don’t know anyone else dealing with the constant tension and fear of a loved one fighting abroad. What do you do on the day your boyfriend, already states away, goes to Afghanistan?
I went to the farmer’s market in Grand Army Plaza. It felt ridiculous leaving my apartment, canvas bag in hand. But that’s what I had done every Saturday that I had been in town for the previous couple of months, ever since I had left Matt in South Carolina to report for duty on an afternoon in early April. I felt like I should be doing something much larger than buying a tub of local strawberries for a whopping $6. But I did it, because I wasn’t sure what else to do, and by 2 pm I needed an escape from my apartment’s beige walls.
I talked to Matt as he rode the AirTram to his terminal, and I carried sprigs of fresh thyme and a bag of apples down 7th Avenue towards home. Later, I went for a run. I came home and I took a shower. I talked to Matt as he sat at the gate surrounded by a mass of soldiers in uniform, waiting to board. I listened as he went for a final American snack: Starbucks.
“A medium coffee, please,” I heard him say.
“Do you have any chocolate chip cookies?” he asked, sounding hopeful.
The woman behind the counter must have said no, because Matt’s “oh” sounded so despondent tears actually came to my eyes.
But then: “Oh!” I heard him say, more upbeat. “You do!” I could hear laughter. “Thank you ma’am,” he said. I could hear the crinkle of a paper bag.
“They gave me two,” he said, back into the phone. “They got them from the back. They said I was lucky to be a soldier today.”
When we hung up I put on a skirt and a sweater. I dried my hair, which smelled of rosemary and mint. I put on some makeup and drank some more coffee.
I talked to Matt for the last time as he walked onto the plane around 7 pm, quiet amid the raucous clatter of boarding. The next time I would hear from him would be from the dust storms of Kuwait. When we hung up, I cried.
That night I went to a party with some friends from graduate school. We sat together in a dark bar in the West Village, where televisions blared a baseball game and a ring of smokers puffed around the door outside. I drank some beer, caught up on gossip, and laughed. I felt sad, though. I felt quite discombobulated.
Later, a friend asked me how Matt was doing, and I said fine. She said that she had been meaning to send him an email, but didn’t know what to say.
“I even looked to see if Emily Post had any rules on how to write to someone at war,” she said. “She didn’t.”
She wanted my advice.
“Tell him good luck,” I said, feeling strange.
What do I know? I thought. For the majority of my life, the conscious reality of war has resided generations away. Until Matt was called back into the Army I felt much closer to Ernest Hemingway than C.J. Chivers. I have no idea what to write.
“Tell him that our thoughts are with him,” I said.