Matt and I talked on our computers over Skype one night last week. His Internet connection was moving unusually fast—fast enough to connect to video—and, as a result, we saw each other for the first time in a while.
It was late in Afghanistan, close to midnight. Matt sat in his office, which was empty but for a dim light and long gray shadows. He looked tired and unfamiliar in his uniform. I felt almost shy.
It was mid-afternoon where I sat in Brooklyn. My apartment was sunny and bright. I was drinking iced coffee from the bakery down the block; NPR hummed low in the background.
On the computer, Matt showed me his rifle, which was sitting on a cabinet behind him. He took it apart, clicking metal on metal. He showed me an open cardboard box: the package my father and stepmother had sent him from Massachusetts a few weeks before. It had arrived that morning, full of magazines, of cinnamon Altoids, of Oat and Honey granola bars, of chocolate fudge.
It reminded me of summer camp.
When I was in elementary school I went to sleep-away camp every summer. Most years it was one up in Maine, at a bohemian-flavored establishment where I learned how to make pottery on a wheel and walked barefoot until my feet were crackly with calluses. I was shy and developed friendships slowly, often hiding behind either a book or my mane of frizzy hair. I loved when my mother sent me care packages, as they were always filled with fresh novels for distraction, and candy to eat and share with my bunkmates, a giddy reminder of home.
I’ve sent a few packages to Matt in the last month. The first one arrived late last week, after a 17-day voyage. The second left Brooklyn just a few days before. I haven’t really known what to send in these boxes. My only experience with care packages is at camp, when they were deposited into my sunburned arms battered and heavy, addressed in my mother’s spindly handwriting. For Matt, I am mainly working by request: Gillette deodorant, disinfectant hand wipes, reporters’ notebooks and mechanical pencils with point-5-sized lead. “Point-3 if you can find it,” Matt had asked, nicely. “I like to be precise!” (Duane Reed, alas, was out of stock.) I added some backlogged mail and magazines like The Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the Economist. I threw in some books—one on the history of Tabasco Sauce and a copy of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov because, hey, why not. And, of course, I added candy.
Last year for a few days in the frigid weeks surrounding Christmas, Matt and I drove to North Carolina to visit his family. One afternoon we went to a general store near his grandmother's house in the college town of Boone and found ourselves in a room filled with candy. Candy of all kinds, filling dozens of wooden barrels to the brim. Feeling giddy and slightly child-like, the sugar fumes gone straight to our heads, Matt and I bought gummy frogs, Sugar Daddies, chocolate crème drops. We ate some before going to meet his family. We ate some on the drive back north. The remnants are actually still in my apartment today.
Two weekends ago I was in North Carolina again, but this time in Chapel Hill with some friends. On that Saturday afternoon I found myself yet again in a candy-heavy store. I bought gummy peaches, salt-water taffy and Sour Patch Kids, which were displayed in large glass bottles on a shelf. I bought little sugared raspberries and individually wrapped caramel. I paid $6.99 a pound and brought them home in a bag that smelled of childhood. I packed it next to the notebooks and mechanical pencils in the cardboard box heading to Afghanistan.
Sometimes I find it strange to be thinking so much of care packages, of deodorant brands, mechanical pencils and the emotional content of candy. In the newspaper every day I read about the violence and danger, the influx of troops and the Marines’ surge into Helmand Province, the pain of the soldiers and civilians on all sides of the conflict in Afghanistan. Just today six members of the Afghan security forces were killed in Gardez, the result of a coordinated attack by suicide bombers. I read the stories with fear, but I also read them intensely, almost greedily, hoping that perhaps they will give me some clue as to what it’s like to be there. Even though Matt and I regularly speak and I occasionally see him in the grainy pixels of my computer screen, it remains incomprehensible and obscure.
I find it much easier to concentrate on packages, on back issues of the Economist and on Saltwater Taffy than it is to think about the harsh click of metal on metal. It’s easier to write about Sour Patch Kids.