What Rachel didn’t know about the letters she wrote to Private First Class Moralez was that sometimes he ate them. He would read them from beginning to end and then he would lick the paper. He would run his finger along the jagged edges where Rachel had torn the paper from her spiral notebook, imagining her fingers pulling on the page and the tightly coiled metal resisting as it ripped. Soggy with his sweat and tears and saliva, the pages would tear off easily in his teeth. In his mouth, he would rub his tongue around these morsels covered in Rachel’s words. When the paper was almost dissolved, he would swallow. The pages tasted like Rachel’s skin. He could close his eyes and, for just a moment, forget he was in Vietnam.
What Rachel also didn’t know was that her letters confused PFC Moralez. In them, she spoke of college classes and new friends, but she would also discuss the war—“his war”—and her pride and his courage. To her, PFC Moralez was “changing the world” through his “act of sacrifice.” But PFC Moralez knew nothing of the victory and courage she wrote; the burden of words like “sacrifice” pulled at his mind. The distance felt overwhelming, and he realized that he had no idea what she was trying to say.
He did know, however, that for months a green and black fungus had covered his feet, and chunks of his skin came off each time he removed his socks. He knew that his face and body itched and burned almost every hour of the day; he could no longer remember what it felt like to be dry and cool and safe. PFC Moralez also knew what it felt like to spend six hours cutting a landing zone out of the jungle for a dust-off to come and retrieve the bodies of two men he had admired—two men who he had believed invincible. He knew what it felt like to listen to their screams and prayers and to see their blood pouring onto the ground. And he knew what it felt like to wish for their death out of his own desire for silence.
What Rachel didn’t know was that, while she continued to devoutly proclaim her virginity, PFC Moralez had sacrificed his own to a frightened young prostitute in Saigon. He’d done it without much thought or regard, following the others’ lead. He’d forgotten how to make decisions of his own. Afterward, though, he was glad, proud of the proof he could offer. He had always believed that Rachel was too good for him, and now, he knew he was right.
What PFC Moralez didn’t know was how much longer this would continue. He spent his days and nights considering and wondering and reflecting on the time he spent breathing the putrid air around him. According to her letters, Rachel spent her days and nights juggling homework and field hockey practice. At night, PFC Moralez counted down the days he had left “in country” with indifference. Rachel counted her tip money out of a jar at the pizza parlor with disappointment.
If PFC Moralez had asked, Rachel would have married him, even after the draft; he knew that. She had hinted repeatedly about wedding rings and children’s names, and a part of him wished he had married her when he had the chance. The rest of him knew, however, that it wouldn’t have been fair; and because of this, some nights he found himself on the ground, sobbing into his bent elbow, when the sleep he so desperately needed refused to come.
PFC Moralez knew what it was to end another’s life, but he also knew this came from necessity, not desire. The throttle of the gun didn’t excite him. The hunt didn’t thrill him like it did some of the others. His greatest pleasure came in retreating when the steady fire was over. It hadn’t taken him long to decide that walking away was more important than having anywhere to go.
What Rachel didn’t know was that PFC Moralez had stopped reading her letters long before she stopped writing them. He kept the unopened envelopes in his rucksack, and sometimes, he would take them out to smell them and touch them. Other times, he would tuck them into the waistband of his camouflaged pants and let them soak in his sweat until the ink had blurred and smeared onto his skin. Most often, though, he found himself grinding the remnants between his teeth. He relished in the uncertainty of their contents, finding comfort in the parallels to the unknown of his daily life. When the letters stopped coming, however, the wave of relief was surprising in its reassurance. He signed on for another tour because he knew it would be easier than going home.