It was a week or so after Christmas and time to put the decorations away. I was in Fort Lewis with my wife, Emily, living in a two-bedroom condo in downtown Tacoma, Washington. I had just returned from my first deployment in Iraq a few months prior.
I started with some lights we had put up, long strings of clear white ones that added a festive elegance inside our home. I wrapped them like I learned to wrap ropes in the military, thinking about the noncommissioned officer who taught me how to do it so the ropes would not “get all goat fucked.” I hoped he was doing well and made a mental note to check in on him. I placed the lights securely in our large matte-green Christmas decorations Tupperware.
I grabbed the next few boxes and moved to the seven-foot pine tree in the corner of the living room. I crunched over the hundreds of pine needles that had fallen off; some were green, but most had turned brown or yellow. I inhaled the scent of pine and smiled at the wonder of it. It lasted only a couple of seconds, then my mind brought me back to the smell of Iraq. I remembered the first time I stepped off the plane in Mosul.
We had a bumpy landing, but we were safe. I expected it to be desert-hot so was pleasantly surprised as I stepped off the plane and into a cool evening. The surprise turned to disgust as a toxic smell assaulted my nostrils. There was no smoke, but the air smelled like every evil corporation that had ever existed on Earth had dumped all of their chemicals in one spot and then set them on fire. It smelled like a landfill in summer. It smelled like cancer. I thought of a green-and-yellow snake sliding into my nose and wrapping around my brain.
The pine scent came back to me, and I was thankful to be home putting away Christmas decorations. I started taking each of the ornaments off the tree. Emily’s family had given us dozens, maybe even a hundred ornaments. There were antique glass globes so delicate I worried I would break them and woven-cloth Santas and brightly colored ceramic reindeer. I took each carefully and gently placed them in a bin.
I felt a sense of gratitude, thankful that all the soldiers in my platoon came back alive. The gratitude lasted another moment, but turned to sadness as I remembered a classmate killed about a month earlier, right before Thanksgiving. I thought about his family and the unimaginable Christmas they would be experiencing. The way the memories and the emotions bubbled up made me feel like I was on a shaky canoe. On either side of me was an ocean of tragedy I could fall into at any moment. I pushed the thoughts away and turned back to the task at hand.
I picked up one particular ornament. It was one of our wedding favors, a maroon glass ball. I stared at it and thought about our wedding a little more than a year ago. It was held on a snowy day in upstate New York, Emily glistening in a white dress surrounded by soft, white snow on the ground. I wore a freshly pressed uniform, my own second lieutenant bars bright and shiny. I had deployed shortly after. I finished putting the ornaments away. I picked up the tree, and about a thousand more pine needles sloughed off. I took the tree downstairs to the curb.
On my way upstairs a memory popped up about the last IED strike I was in, near the end of my deployment. It was a small one that hit near my platoon sergeant’s Stryker, about 50 meters behind me. It had the concussive force of a grenade, so even though we heard the explosion, we didn’t feel much. I remember my platoon sergeant yelling over the radio, saying, “Can’t kill me.” I was glad he was confident.
When I came back upstairs, I moved to pack up the manger scene. It was a beautiful hand-carved wooden manger with glass-and-gold figurines. When Emily was growing up, she would get one more piece of the manger every year until lo and behold 22 years later she had the full set. I admired it for a moment and started putting it away. Each glass piece had its own specially designed box. The box had a felt-lined indentation in the shape of one of the figurines: the wise men, some camels and other animals, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
I was putting them away, but I couldn’t get the camel to fit into the camel box. I maneuvered the camel 180 degrees and tried again. It was not fitting. I turned it another 180 and tried again. The thing was not fitting. I tried to force the camel into place and the felt of the box started ripping. My heartbeat started to rise, and I could feel my jaw clench, teeth grinding together. The Goddamn camel could not fit in this Goddamn box. I turned it again and again and pushed harder, the hooves biting into my palm. My lips pressed together in a thin line, and my rage continued to build. This fucking box was designed for this fucking camel but nothing worked. I could feel the blood rushing to my face, cheeks feeling hot. I opened my mouth, as I started panting and grinding the camel into the box. I was so filled with anger and hate and rage that my vision faded and the world went black.
As I came to, I was punching the wall above the manger as hard as I could. The pain from my bare knuckles hitting the wall jolted me to my senses. I paused and looked around.
The camel and its box were sprawled across the carpet with the rest of the manger scene. I felt physically exhausted and I was crying. My hand hurt and I was ashamed. I wondered where this rage came from and why I couldn’t control it. I worried about what it meant and what would happen if I blacked out again. I took a couple of deep breaths. I went to the kitchen and grabbed a beer. Then I went back to the manger scene, put the camel in its specially designed box, and finished packing everything up.