On a cold morning in March of last year, Matt and I rode our bikes down the West Side of Manhattan. We pedaled from his apartment on the edge of Harlem to Penn Station, where we hopped on the Long Island Railroad. We were escaping the city for a few days, on spring break from graduate school.
I watched the sun rise over the Hudson as we passed through Riverside Park. It was early and I was hungry. We hadn’t had breakfast and my fingers, in too-thin cotton gloves, were numb. But I remember feeling content. I was on vacation and going on a trip. I was entering the final months of a master’s program that I found both challenging and fun. I had borrowed my roommate’s bike and relished the smooth sound of tire on pavement. And I rode next to Matt, whose brown hair was long enough to poke out from under his helmet and who, everyday, I grew to love a little bit more.
When Matt and I had first met, six months earlier, his hair was still short. He had it cropped close to the skull, reminiscent of his life before Journalism school: as an officer in the Army.
I knew about Matt’s past. I listened to his tales of studying as a cadet at West Point, of being stationed as an officer in Germany, of spending 2 years fighting in Iraq. But it was a foreign world to me, and difficult to imagine much beyond his words. When we met, the sand storms of Ramadi were thousands of miles away. Matt’s uniforms and combat boots were packed in boxes at his parents’ house in Tennessee. He wore jeans and T-shirts. His hair was soon long.
We rode our bikes quickly, gliding down 8th Avenue with wind at our backs. I followed as we weaved among cars and stopped at red lights. When we passed a large truck, double-parked on the west side of the street a few blocks above Times Square, Matt turned his head back towards me.
“That smells like Iraq,” he said.
The scent of diesel permeated the air. It reeked of gas and metal and didn’t leave my nose for a few wind-swept blocks. For a brief moment, breathing in those thick and noxious fumes, I could imagine a world far away. One of sand and stone, heat and violence. One that smelled of fuel.
I told Matt about that moment on our bikes, late one night last week. I sat at our kitchen table while he stood nearby. We were drinking wine and talking about the war. My head felt encased in a cloud and I couldn’t breathe out of my nose. The wine tasted vague and sweet; the grape fell flat on my tongue.
A few days earlier Matt had received an envelope in the mail. It held a packet of papers: orders from the Army, written in a screaming capital-letter font. He’s been called back into service and will soon deploy to Iraq for his third tour of duty.
When he first told me we were sitting on the steps of our apartment building, one night after work. I immediately thought of that truck. Of that smell.
It was a scent that Matt knew well by the time he returned from his first tour.
“Iraq smells of diesel exhaust and human waste,” he said. “It’s like nothing else.”
Even between deployments, the scent was never far from his mind. Matt lived in Germany and would pick up whiffs here and there. But when he went back to Iraq for the second time, two years later, and he breathed in the burning oil, the gas, the waste and the sand it hit him hard. He immediately remembered things that had happened before, things that he hadn’t thought about since he last stepped foot in that country, things that happened back in 2003, when the US first surged into Iraq.
“It felt like I had never been gone,” he said, leaning against the kitchen counter.
Matt told me about the mornings in Iraq. Away from the baking sun the temperature would drop. The sun would rise, pink over the horizon. He would see birds flying into the palm groves near his base. The scent was still there, but it was better in the coolness of dawn.
“It was beautiful,” he said.
I listen. I try to imagine what it’s like. But sometimes words just aren’t enough.