The Best of Weed and Whiskey
While Eric and I are different people with different experiences, the thoughts and feelings of a journey back to a fully healed life are the same. This story is my atonement. This is dedicated to the family, friends, and girlfriends I hurt each time I came back. I keep all of you in my prayers, and I appreciate what you did to help. You deserve nothing but the best.
I remembered kissing Rachel on the cheek and seeing her eyes light up for the first time. The feeling of her skin against mine carried me to a place inside myself that was sacred and holy. Still, all I could think about as I flew back to the States was her last teary-eyed conversation with me. I had three weeks left in my term, and I was looking forward to some normalcy in my life.
“I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” she said.
“Why can’t we do this?” I asked.
“There’s this part of your life I can’t access,” she replied. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever have permission to see that side of you. I know you’re committed to your faith… but what about your commitment to me?”
I didn’t know what to say or do. I gripped my cell phone harder and struggled to breathe as I looked at the city from the rooftop of my hostel.
“Do you want this marriage?” I asked.
Rachel waited a few seconds before saying, “I’m not sure.”
I signed up for Quakers for Peace thinking Rachel knew full well what we were getting into, but honestly I don’t think anything could have prepared our young marriage for the stress of my human rights work.
Within the first week, I regretted my decision. As I escorted a Kurdish boy safely to school, bullets suddenly whizzed by my head and bombs ripped the dirt and rocks all around me. I held the boy as we ran to safety and hid until the bombs stopped. It was a surreal moment for me – one moment I had been in a peaceful rural village, and the next I was in absolute hell.
Later that night, when Rachel called me, I couldn’t bring myself to say what had happened.
She asked me, “How are things going over there?”
The sounds of bullets and bombs still echoed throughout my head, blocking all other thoughts and threatening to drown out her voice. Inside, a voice screamed at me to tell her that I’d made a mistake, that I regretted signing up for this, that all I wanted to do was weep into her arms as she held me. My heart was pounding in my chest, but I could only manage to mutter, “It’s stressful so far, but I know I’ll be okay.”
With every phone call ending that way, I knew the gulf between us was growing wider and wider.
We were two stupid college kids when we met.
I was slamming down whiskey without a care in the world at a graduation party for a buddy of mine. As the cheers for me finishing the line of shots boomed through the house, I looked up and saw this beautiful brunette just sitting in the corner smoking a joint. I couldn’t believe someone that gorgeous was at a party like this. Being drunk, I made my way over and sat next to her.
“My name’s Eric,” I said. “I think you’re pretty.”
She laughed and said, “You’re just drunk. You won’t think that way in the morning.”
Later that night, we were cuddling on my buddy’s bed.
“What do you want out of life?” she asked me.
“I want to change the world,” I replied. “I want to show people that there’s a better way.”
I was so used to women laughing at me when I said that – there goes Eric again on his rants about peace on earth and good will towards humanity.
After a long pause she said, “I think that’s beautiful.”
That’s when I knew I wanted to marry her.
The burden of my childhood trauma bled through into most of my relationships. With Rachel, she seemed to know how to make that bleeding stop. If anything though, that made me more principled in my convictions. Here was this amazing woman, finally affirming me in what I felt I was being called to do – and all I knew in that moment was that I was where I was supposed to be.
A few weeks after my student accompaniment in a rural Kurdish village, an obscure terrorist group took two of our visiting delegates and a teammate hostage for about a week. With three of us on the team, we managed to figure out a way to negotiate with them. When the crisis was over and nobody was killed, I wish I could say I felt relieved.
I wish I could say I felt anything.
It had made international news before the team could even debrief and process with each other. The press created a controversy because of our strict policy of not working with armed groups and instead working on terms that stay consistent with basic Quaker spirituality. Somehow, someway, we got them to release our people. Looking back, it was nothing short of a miracle.
I didn’t realize what we had done until the American media got hold of us. As I sat there for the interview, they asked very pointed questions to get us to denounce the military or to say political statements in favor of one party or the other. I grew increasingly frustrated.
“I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” I said. “Politics just so happens to get in the way of that. When you go into a room and you see a baby’s footprints on the ceiling because someone threw a bomb into the house… I don’t know. You don’t care a whole lot about politics at that point. You just want to help.”
“Promise me you’ll be with me forever,” said Rachel after we made love for the first time.
“I promise,” I whispered as I kissed her forehead.
“My heart’s been through a lot. Don’t break it.”
“I’m not those guys, honey.”
“Do you think the military presence has helped the situation in either Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan?” asked the reporter.
Rachel struggled to accept the news that I was going to Iraq. She knew this day was coming, but I guess she never wanted to believe it. Maybe she even felt I was going to outgrow this passion.
I sat on the bed and rubbed her back, “This is what God’s calling me to do.”
“But you made a promise to me that you’d be with me forever,” she whimpered.
“And I still stand by that.”
“What happens if you die in Iraq?”
I sat silent for a moment or two.
“Then you’ll know I died doing something I loved, and the odds of me dying as an American guy… there’s just no way they’d touch me. It would draw too much attention.”
“I think it’s made things worse. Persecution against Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities are only rising up. There are no Jews here anymore. They are doing this in response to what we’re doing here.”
“What happens if we have kids?” Rachel asked. “How are we going to tell them what you do for a living?”
“We tell them their dad is standing up for something he believes in,” I replied.
“What makes you think you’re not doing that as someone who teaches Middle East Studies? Why do you have to do this?”
“Because I couldn’t live with myself if I ignored what God was calling me to do.”
“A lot of pastors have said that invading Iraq was God-ordained. As part of a spiritual organization, how do you reply to that?”
“We’re meant to be, honey,” I said. “Nothing’s going to get in the way of that.”
Rachel looked at me with fearful eyes, “I’m not sure if I can agree with that.”
“I think it’s ironic that God would approve of us helping to kill off indigenous Christians.”
Later that night, I got a call from Rachel asking me about the interview.
“You look so different now,” she said. “Are you getting the help you need?”
“Yeah, yeah… I’m fine,” I replied. “Please don’t worry about me.”
I was surprised by my tone and the feelings of hatred I had begun to harbor towards her. I just wanted her to leave me alone in that moment and to stop asking so many questions.
“My husband is in Iraq with no way to defend himself,” she said. “How can I not worry?”
“I’m trusting in God.”
“That sounds like a forced bullshit answer to me. I know you have faith, and you know I have faith… but you’re destroying yourself by not addressing this.”
Shortly after I got hired at the university to teach Middle East Studies, Rachel had finally finished grad school.
“I’m so proud of you, honey,” I said the day Rachel graduated. “Words can’t express it fully.”
Rachel looked at her degree with a wide smile. She was going to become a social worker finally. She was going to do the work she always felt called to do.
“I hope we can do this together,” she said. “I’m not just in it for myself, you know?”
“I know,” I said. “And I’ll be here every step of the way for you. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
As the plane landed, I went through the usual routine of being interrogated by the TSA. They confiscated my laptop and everything on it. I made sure to save everything I could before they could flip through it.
“What was your reason for going to Iraq?” one of the agents asked.
“Human rights,” I replied. “I work for Quakers for Peace.”
“Did you participate in any armed groups or train with them?”
I glared at him, “I… work for Quakers for Peace.”
He sighed, “Just answer yes or no.”
As I looked at the room across from me, I saw an Arab family being held and asked extensively about where they came from. I knew I would leave the airport that day. They, on the other hand, would never set foot in America.
I played with my wedding ring in the taxi cab on the way to my house.
People said that our wedding had something special to it that they had not seen before – like a sense that two people were coming together in a cosmic way that could hardly be put into words. It blended together Quaker and Methodist spirituality. The silence between us drew us together closer during the ceremony. I didn’t want it to end.
After the congregation signed the wedding certificate, we had our honeymoon in Oregon. The first morning afterwards, I made her breakfast, all the while thinking to myself, How did I get with someone this amazing?
I remembered something that morning that her pastor said to me. She said, “I know you’re going to go into peace work, and that is sacred ground… but don’t forget about the love you two share.”
Over the past three months in Iraq, I kept forgetting about her and pushing that to the side to breathe. I didn’t have it within me to keep going. Slowly but surely over time, we had disconnected. I wish I could pinpoint when it happened, but trauma has a way of disassociating us from actual timelines. All we tend to remember are the emotions and angst we feel when those things happened.
As the cab pulled alongside the curb, I stepped outside and saw the lights in my house blackened. I walked in to discover that Rachel had cleared out all of her belongings, leaving a note on the kitchen table: I will be at my sister’s house. We can talk more tomorrow. I am happy you are safe home. I need time.
And just like that, she was gone.
The numbness that comes with post-traumatic stress overcame the numbness of my grief over my wife walking out of my life. For the first few weeks, I laid in bed in complete silence – sipping only whiskey and forcing myself to eat food every twelve hours. Opening my blinds, I checked outside to see if there were any suspicious people looking in on me or if there were any strange packages being left at my doorstep. I had to remind myself over and over again that I was not in Iraq. I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, reaching for Rachel to hold – only to have an empty spot next to me.
My message machine filled up with people checking in on me to make sure I was okay. I rarely returned any calls. Every time I saw a call on my cell phone I thought it would be her.
But it was never her.
“They tell me you haven’t been answering your phone for a while,” said my pastor.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“What happened to you over there, Eric?”
I looked out my window and saw the sun slowly starting to set, “I lost something I can’t quite put words to… this empty feeling that I just gave up all of me for something I believe in.”
“You need to talk about this. I have never seen you this depressed. You need to find help.”
“Have you heard anything from Rachel?” I asked with blurry eyes.
“I haven’t,” she said. “Last I heard she was with her sister.”
“I can’t believe I fucked up my marriage for… for what? What was I even doing over there? Was it worth hurting her?”
“The world needs more good people like you,” my pastor leaned back. “People like you keep the darkness at bay.”
I scoffed, “This is not the life I wanted. I didn’t want to hurt her.”
There was a long silence.
“How do I move on?” I asked. “I don’t think she’s ever coming back.”
“You continue breathing,” said my pastor, “and pray that God is taking care of her too.”
As I walked back into my house, I saw the verse that Rachel had hung up so many years ago. She was always a fan of those craft Bible verse posters made from indie sellers. It was from John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
I popped a whiskey bottle and drank from it straight as I stared at that verse. “God,” I whispered, “how do you view that love when your whole life walks out on you? Is it still as pure as we make it out to be?”
A few months later, Rachel and I agreed to meet at a local coffee shop. I sat in the corner and watched the news on the television until she came in. I smiled and hugged her.
Our chat started off small, with me explaining how much I regretted not letting her in. She listened attentively, and bit her lip in nervousness when I went on to talk about things I had experienced. I had processed a lot in therapy. Things could change, I told her. She could have all of me.
“I’m so happy for you,” said Rachel. “But I’m not sure if this is for me.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Your life… your calling. I can’t do this stress anymore. I can’t keep wondering if my husband will die for his faith in Iraq.”
I sat and thought about it for a while, “We can figure this out if we really need to. No one in my organization has died. We can still make this work. It’s dangerous work, I know… but I’ll always regret not doing this. But you’re worth more to me than that.”
That’s when the familiar name popped on to the news screen behind him: “The human rights organization Quakers for Peace recently uncovered evidence of genocide by the Turkish governemnt in the Middle East… so far, they are the only organization to uncover this. We will be back later tonight with an in-depth interview.”
I turned around and looked at Rachel’s eyes. I could see pride in them, but they were also full of sorrow. She didn’t know what to make of this moment. That’s when my pastor’s words echoed in my mind: “People like you keep the darkness at bay.”
I realized that she too carried a burden – a burden of seeing children abused in the foster system. She deserved a husband who could be present entirely for her. All this time while I was in Iraq, I never checked in on her. I never made that intentional step to be there for her when she was trying to be there for me. She chose a career that could pull me in her life, and I chose a career that pushed her out.
“I don’t want you to say goodbye,” I said. “And I’m sorry I was such a terrible husband. I want to work this out… but I understand if you want to leave. This life isn’t for everyone.”
Rachel forced a smile, and then leaned in to kiss me one more time. After we kissed and embraced, she whispered in my ear: “Don’t change for anyone.”
She left me at the coffee shop staring at the news and both dreading and accepting my fate.
I walked into my house that night greeted by the familiar silence… but this time there was something sacred about it. I went to my freezer, grabbed all my whiskey bottles, and dumped them in the sink. I knew what I had to do.
I have often called Rachel the best of weed and whiskey because of how we met at that party. I used to show her off at gatherings, making people laugh at the irony of how a religious couple met at a crazy college party. She would blush every time I bragged on her, and then she would show me off to her friends.
I hope to someday forget the horrors of the things I have seen, but I hope to never forget the curves of her face and the way her body felt against mine on those late summer nights. I hope to never forget the way she laughed, the way she always cheered me up after a bad day. I hope to never forget the way her eyes lit up when I came home from work.
I know now that perhaps these things were temporary, that God had sent a love into my life that was meant to be for a season. I had to learn to be thankful for the time we spent together.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever see her ever again or what my future holds, but I know Christ is waiting at the other end of this journey with arms wide open. When I returned to Iraq, I fell asleep without any issue – even with the calls to prayer blaring in the mosque next to me. As I fell asleep, I saw her face one more time and smiled.
After all, it’s people like her that help keep the darkness at bay… and I couldn’t be prouder of her.
Nathan Perrin is a Quaker pastor who spends his time between Wisconsin and Illinois. He writes devotionals for Barclay Press, and is currently working on a book centered around Friends theology, COVID-19, and Christmas. He holds an MA in Quaker Studies from Barclay College. He is currently a doctoral student for Northern Seminary studying Christian Community Development.