The waft of the tea leaves fills the kitchen. Turning the kettle on, I listen as the water begins to bubble and spit. Dropping my keys and wallet on the bench, my eyes water as the mint surrounds me.
I used to hate tea. It had always just been flavored hot water to me. I pull the kettle off of its holder and pour into my teapot. Ripping open the bag of tea leaves, I reread the ingredients. I hadn’t bothered to learn the language until I fell in love with the warmth of being able to write to her.
She was unlike anything I’d seen before, a woman dancing behind her window, the sun highlighting her face; I remember thinking she looked warm. There I was, lying on a rooftop, M24 leaning against my chest, admiring the way her green dress seemed to flow in slow motion.
I remember the first time we spoke. It was a scorching Saturday afternoon outside our Forward Operating Base. Saturdays were everyone’s favorite – market day. I used to never go to the markets, repulsed by the idea of somehow buying from the enemy. But that day, I did.
The locals had gathered as usual outside the gates and set up their stalls with an assortment of local produce: vegetables, rugs, and of course tea. Knowing the limited diversity of the vegetables and having no pressing need for a rug, I wandered over to the tea. A large red blanket was spread on the dirt, and there were silver teapots with complicated designs and glass teacups, searing in the sun. Mesmerized by the mix of red and silver, I hadn’t noticed the woman on the rug. I looked up and saw the green. The green of her dress, the green of her eyes, the green of the teabags.
“Hal turid bed alshshay?” she asked, motioning at the teabags. I searched my mind for my basic Arabic.
“Nem min fadlik, w hdha,” I mumbled, which loosely translates to “Yes, and this please.” I pointed at one of the glistening silver pots. As she wrapped the items, I noticed burns and scratches covering her hands.
I only saw her on Saturdays, so that day became my favorite. I would make my way toward the red and silver and green. She smiled the same smile each weekend, and I would practice my broken Arabic, asking for this and that, wasting time before I had to go back for dinner. Sometimes I would just sit next to her and watch the market rush by. She never seemed to mind.
I remember the first time I wrote to her: in my room on a Friday night. Stomach churning, I tried practicing what I wanted to say. Maybe I would tell her that her eyes made my head feel fuzzy. Or perhaps I would say that she smelled like soap and the earth. And then maybe I would say that the burns on her hands probably hurt me more than her. But I knew being with her would make me forget all my words.
So I tried to write her a letter. Pen and translating book in hand, I felt warm. The pile of papers next to my bed grew bigger by the minute and my heart began to sink. I was lost for words. I fell asleep, then woke up a couple of hours later, feeling inspired. So I wrote about her green dress.
• • •
The tea sits on the counter; I am crumpled on the cold kitchen tiles. Tears stream down my face. This woman changed me. She taught me to open my eyes and just look, at the green, the red, the silver.
I catch a glimpse of my uniform hanging on the wall. It is green but not the right kind. I am angry.
She never got my letter. Not because I was too scared to give it to her or because she threw it away. But because that day, she disappeared. A scatty old car drove through the market that Saturday afternoon. It exploded. I remember seeing her from across the market, letter in hand. Everything was slow, my legs too sluggish to run to her aid. An alarm sounded and I was crushed by soldiers running to the safety of the base. A luxury she did not have.
I remember the last time I saw her. She was lying on her red rug, shards of glass in her face and arms. As the dust settled, I noticed that her green dress had turned red.
It has been three minutes. I pull myself up from the ground and reach for the teapot. My whole body shakes as I sniff and pour the tea into the glass. My hand slips and now there are burns on my arm. It’s the only thing warm about me.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.