A Bed of Roses

Melinda Jackson prepares to meet her beau for the first time at a Holiday Inn Express in Hinesville, Ga.
Melinda Jackson prepares to meet her beau for the first time at a Holiday Inn Express in Hinesville, Ga. (Sarah Ross Wauters)
By Stephanie Booth
Sunday, February 12, 2006

He was a combat soldier in Iraq. She was a divorced mom in California. They flirted, fell in love, committed . . . and then they met in the flesh

Melinda Jackson is on a quest for silk rose petals. She is sure the Wal-Mart in Hinesville, Ga., will carry them, because the one near her home in Santa Clarita, Calif., does -- big bags that look like the real thing and are located near the scrapbooking supplies. She does a few slow turns through the aisles with her shopping cart. "They've got to be here somewhere," she says.

The store is crowded with exhausted mothers in sweat suits and sneakers. Teenagers with poorly dyed hair gossip and tease each other by the cash registers, and occasionally a soldier in desert camouflage can be seen fishing through a bin of discount DVDs or awkwardly cradling a screaming baby.

"There's camouflage everywhere!" Melinda whispers. Men in uniform are still a novelty to her. There simply aren't that many of them where she lives, in a nondescript suburb hemmed in by mountains and freeways north of Los Angeles. But judging by the sidelong glances she's getting here outside the gates of Fort Stewart, the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi River, she's the oddity -- a sportily dressed Californian with long strawberry-blond hair and a newly acquired Mystic Tan. Her flip-flops, tight Levis and flash of belly-button ring belie the fact that she's a 40-year-old mother of two. She's too sparkly, too sexy to truly belong in this small, swampy Army-centric town.

But the U.S. Army is the only reason Melinda is here, having taken two weeks off from her relatively new job as a project manager for a marketing firm and entrusted the care of her two daughters to a family friend and her former mother-in-law. It's why, months ago, she reserved her room at the Hinesville Holiday Inn Express. (A wise move -- the hotel is now sold out.) And it's why she's so determined to locate that $5 bag of rose petals -- the ones that would look just perfect sprinkled on the king-size bed of her hotel room.

Tomorrow, Melinda's boyfriend, Army medic Cpl. Joel Buchannan, will likely return from his third tour of duty on the front lines of Iraq. Like all the other girlfriends who have flown into town to meet their significants, Melinda is determined that everything will be perfect on this first night back on American soil. But she, perhaps, is taking a bigger gamble than most.

She and Joel, also from Southern California, have been dating for nine months. They've exchanged secrets and sexual histories, talked marriage, gotten her daughters and his 9-year-old son acquainted with the idea that there's an important new grown-up around. When Joel needed his Jeep registration and civvies for Georgia, Melinda got the key to his storage space and went looking. She retrieved Joel's Christmas presents from one of his sisters. Lately, his mother and grandmother have been calling her from California for updates on his return.

But there's one thing the couple hasn't done yet: met in person. Their whole relationship has taken place on the phone and online, with Melinda in California and Joel in Iraq, some 8,000 miles away.

After 10 more minutes of maneuvering through the congested aisles, it becomes apparent that, aside from a few bouquets of real daisies wilting near the entrance, this Wal-Mart has no flower petals of any kind. Undeterred, Melinda strides back to the arts and crafts section and pulls down a package of heart-shaped stickers. "These kind of look like petals," she says, turning the bag over in her hand, testing one of the hearts between her thumb and index finger. "And then I won't have to worry about them getting crushed."

She tosses them into the cart, convinced she's found something even better than expected. It's a feeling she has often. "Good karma," she calls it.

Before checking out, she makes a last detour through the greeting cards. She'd like to have one waiting for Joel in the hotel room. Standing under a sign that reads "LOVE," she picks up a turquoise-and-yellow specimen from the rack, then winces at the message inside.

"All the cards I read are like, 'Your kiss is this,' or 'I love the touch of your hand,'" she says, beginning to push her cart again. "I'm, like, 'I don't know what you feel like.' How can I get a card when that hasn't happened yet?"

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