Dim Sum Diaries
He carried a picture of her wherever he went. During the day, while on duty as a soldier and enduring the extreme heat of the Iraqi desert, the picture was safely tucked in his pocket. Every so often, he would absently pat that pocket to ensure it was still there. Sometimes it earned him strange glances from the men in his unit. Dan quickly learned to do it when no one was around.

At night, lying in his cot, he would take the picture out and stare at it intently while his tent-mates snored loudly. By now, he had memorized every aspect of her face: the aristocratic arch of her brow; the glossy black texture of her hair; her rich, dark-chocolate eyes which revealed her intelligence and wry humor.

The picture was of his best friend, Kate. It was a portrait from one of those photography studios in the mall. She had taken the time to apply make-up and worn an elegant, but simple black dress that accentuated the graceful curve of her neck. She seemed to be smiling directly at him. Just for him, he liked to think.

Yet it had been nine months, six days, thirteen hours and six minutes since First Lieutenant Daniel Huffman last saw a live glimpse of her face. That time had been spent on active duty since the conflict started. He completed his duties with the excellence and precision that was second nature to him. Life during deployment often meant enduring long work shifts, always wondering if the unknown person approaching you was friend or foe. He endured because he had little choice in the matter. His love for her only deepened as time passed. Yet he still hadn't dared to tell her of his feelings, fearing rejection. However, as time passed he realized he would have to, lest he lose her to someone else. He swore to himself that if...when...he got back to the States, he would.

They wrote each other frequently via snail mail. Sometimes through email if he could sneak onto a computer. Kate included the picture of her in one of the many care packages she sent him. This particular package included beef jerky, Good 'N Plenty (his favorite), wet naps (for quick on-the-spot bath), toilet paper (one could never have enough of this) and a videotape of recent episodes of The Daily Show (good place to get the news).

Dan had never considered himself a writer, but the letter-writing provided an outlet for his emotions. It helped to cope with the monotony of the daily routine as well as the relentless onslaught of the heat. It helped him to endure the terrifying moments when live rounds exploded or there was live weapons fire around the compound. She would never truly understand what he was going through. She was a civilian and safe on the other side of the world. But her willingness to listen and the unflagging emotional support in her letters kept him sane. He tried to express how he felt once in a letter:

Kate...for all the crap I keep telling you about...I'm glad that you are there to listen. It helps me get through each day. Sort of like I am load of dirty laundry...all the colors, whites and darks are mixed together. Somehow you manage to get everything clean, get them all separated and folded nicely...how lame a metaphor is that? You mean a lot to me, I hope you know that.

It was as close as he dared to declare his feelings for her. He wondered if she realized the subtext of his message.

The only time he really went out of his mind was when he recieved an urgent call from his mother. Kate was in the hospital. He went crazy with worry until Kate herself called him directly from the hospital. There were only two things that were broken, she said. One was her arm. The other was her relationship with Brad, whom she had kicked to the curb. He sighed in relief on both counts.

After what seemed an eternity, the order to come home had finally come through. He wanted to be home. He wanted to have the satisfaction of being in his own place. He wanted to drink a beer while lounging on his sofa, watching a game on television. He wanted to sleep in his own bed. How long had it been since he had done those things? Most of all, he wanted to be in the comfort of her arms, because that above all symbolized home to him. Everything had been packed up and all the soldiers were loaded on a commercial flight back to the United States. On the long flight home, he thought of the last time he saw her...

She and a group of their mutual friends had gone to some dive to celebrate his last night of freedom. Kate volunteered to be the designated driver, and after a long night of carousing, she had dutifully driven each of the others home. Only Dan and she were left in the car and they shared a comfortable banter on the way to his apartment. When Kate reached in front of his building, she slid into an available parking space and turned off the ignition. Dan glanced at her in surprise. He thought she would merely drop him off and leave.

"Brad is going to get jealous when he hears we've been alone," he joked to break the increasing tension. Their friendship over the last three years had evolved from friendly teasing to a rock solid friendship, each unhesitatingly being there for the other through various crises.

"He'll get over it," Kate replied. "I'll miss you. I wish you didn't have to go."

"I know," he replied. "But I'll be back."

"Well, this may sound lame, but I wanted you to write me, if you could. If you need someone to talk to, I'm here."

"I will," he promised. He had been planning on doing that anyways.

"I care for you, you know," she said.

"Same here," he said casually. He ruffled her hair as one might towards another guy. "Hey, why are you so serious now? I'll come back and then we can resume annoying the hell out of each other, as always."

She slid him an unfathomable gaze. "Fine," she said. "Well, I guess this is it then."

Kate leaned towards him, intending to kiss his cheek in farewell. At the last second he turned so that his lips softly met hers. Time stilled for a moment before she pulled away. His green eyes met her wide-eyed brown ones, and his world suddenly shifted from beneath his feet. He stiffened as a sudden realization hit him. He loved her.

"Kate..." he murmured, his voice suddenly husky. "I..." Yet the words crammed in his throat as he tried to express the depth of his emotions to her.

Awkwardly, she cleared her throat and shifted away, as if to put some distance between them. The moment was gone. Dan shook his head, mortified at what he had been about to reveal. She had a boyfriend, for god's sake. She probably didn't feel the same way. To her they were still the best of friends, platonically. He was going away tomorrow. His earth-shattering declaration would have to wait.

"I should go," she mumbled. Not sure of what he was feeling himself, he opened the car door.

"Goodbye, Kate," he said quietly and was gone...

Dan shook himself out of his reverie when the plane landed. He got his gear together and waited patiently while others filed out before him. Everyone was called to formation. The soldiers who were almost home and could certainly hear the cheers of their waiting families expertly lined up in three rows and stood at attention. It was an impressive sight to behold. "Great job!" the Commanding Officer barked. While the senior officers made the usual rousing speeches of "Well done!", Dan tried unsuccessfully to scan for a glimpse of Kate out of the corner of his eye. The speeches lasted another ten minutes.

Finally, the command all had been waiting for: "Dismissed!"

Families and soldiers surged towards each other. Dan walked quickly towards the waiting area. Suddenly he spotted her, standing beside his mom, dad and brother. Kate waved.

"Son!" his mom cried joyously as she ran forward to greet him. He dropped his gear and ran forward as well, embracing his mother in a fierce hug. He could see his dad heartily clap his younger brother on the shoulder, his face all smiles.

He took in the sight of her. She was smiling too, but stood a slight distance from his family as he walked towards his father and brother, one arm around his mother. As if she didn't want to intrude on the family privacy. Was she glad to see him? Did she have any idea of how he felt? Did she feel the same way?

The jubilation he felt at finally reaching home and seeing his loved ones turned to nervousness as he finally stood before her, face to face. She smiled he stepped towards her.

"Hi," he said, his heart full of emotion as he swept her, weightless, into his arms...

to be continued...