Jeweled History: A Creative Writing Series - The Golden Bowl, The Frontlines (Chapter 1)

There are thousands of bloggers and authors out there writing about jewelry - era, history, fashion, "dos" and "don'ts," designer interviews, award show recaps and the like.  Although I will continue to write about those topics in my own way as well; I wanted to bring back a series that brought me an inordinate amount of creative joy.  So, if you've followed me through the years now, you have (hopefully) come across my Creative Writing series from 2018 in which I took a single piece of antique or vintage jewelry that had come across my desk and fabricated a fictional - and yet historically accurate - story around it. I'm bringing the series back for 2023 and taking it to the "next level" in the form of a longer, serialized novel version.  Follow along to keep up on the main character's adventures!  And, I hope you fall in love with her (and the jewelry) as much as I have!

Gold & Lapis Bowl looted from the National Museum of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

Chapter 1:  The Frontlines

The average person would think that as a newsperson reporting from the frontlines; the reporter themselves either 1) enjoys being the center of attention, 2) is an adrenaline junkie or 3) has a death wish.  In EJ’s case, none were true.  Call it luck; right place / right time or even fate.  Looking back on her 40+ year life history now; she’d have said it was just another in a series flukes that had led her to this very moment in life.  EJ ended up on the frontlines in Afghanistan as a teenager shortly after the cease fire went into effect after Operation Desert Storm. 

To some, EJ’s mother would have seemed like a flake.  Or eccentric at the least.  But one thing she could never be called was boring or predictable.  Sarah Jules Anne was, in fact, anything but.  Harvard educated, with multiple business degrees and the fortune to have been born with a charismatic personality, she was the type of person who could convince anyone of anything – and often did.  Her charisma and classically stunning good looks helped Sarah get in front of the right investors early in her entrepreneurial career.  After selling several of her start-ups, she was still looking for “the next big thing;” never satisfied.  It was that constant sense of searching that more times than not spilled into her personal life as well.

She would often throw caution to the wind only to uproot EJ from school thereby causing her grandmother an inordinate amount of stress and anxiety to fly off to some far-flung locale in search of……something.  She would tell EJ with a bright smile and cheeks turned rosy from excitement, “You can never learn as much in school as you can through an honest-to-God adventure.”

Thinking back, EJ smiled as she grabbed her dirty, brown canvas messenger bag and slipped it over her head.  Desert sand boots laced and ready to go, she grabbed her roller bag and headed downstairs to the waiting town car outside her small, studio apartment to take her to Washington Reagan National Airport.

If the cricks in her neck were any indication of just how long the flight was, EJ would have thought the distance was more than the 7,000 flight miles.  Looking out the window as the plane began its descent into Dubai, a flood of memories came rushing back.  EJ closed her eyes as the plane made its final approach.  As she steadied her breathing waiting for the near-constant ear popping to cease, EJ remembered her first visit to Dubai.  The sense of dread; the feeling of running away but with no apparent end goal in mind; even the fear hit at full force.  She took a deep breath and let her emotions settle.  It was those memories after all that had helped get her here.

On a mission to find another lover that was cleverly (or not so cleverly) disguised as a “learning opportunity” for EJ, her mother had packed them up for a 4,500 mile road trip / adventure from Kabul to Dubai telling her there was “no better teacher than the sights, sounds and smells of a city.”  The truth of the matter was Sarah was chasing down a man – again.  Her mom’s latest obsession was an Army Staff Sergeant she’d met through a deployed service member pen pal program during Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield.  EJ chuckled to herself thinking back to those early days.  Driving aimlessly through the various cities and outposts trying to find Staff Sergeant Adam Richter. 

“We just had an instant connection, you know?” her mom would say with a far-off look in her eyes and a smile as the car bounced along some desert road.  At the time, EJ thought it was so romantic, as any teenage girl would.  But as the days turned into months and her mother’s frustration at not being able to find the man who was her latest “soulmate” mounted; EJ would find herself wandering the streets in whatever town they were currently stopped in before hitting the road again to whatever the next location her mom felt might be Richter’s latest assignment.

“It wasn’t all bad,” EJ mused to herself as the plane touched down in Dubai.  “Mom was right about adventure being the best teacher.” 

As a teenager in Kabul, EJ had taken to wandering through some of the historical landmarks like the Babur Garden, the National Museum or the City Center.  But her favorite place then had always been the Chihilsitoon Garden.  It was located only a few miles from Babur Garden in the foothills of the Sher Darwaza Mountain.  The history of the area had fascinated EJ when she was there.  Its orchard had served as a Mughal outpost below a hillside settlement along the Kabul River in the 16th Century and until the 1980s, the Chihilsitoon Palace had remained a hub for government activity or as a state guesthouse for visiting dignitaries.

As she grabbed her bag to disembark, EJ muttered, “Damn Palace.”

Holding a tablet with her name brightly displayed was a gentleman in a crisp linen suit over a white button down.  Brown loafers and a straw-colored fedora that allowed just a hint of his dark, black-peppered hair to peek through completed his look.  Making her way over, EJ smiled brightly.

“I didn’t expect you to come pick me up!”  She exclaimed as she pulled him in for a deep hug.  “I would have grabbed a cab to the hotel.  There’s no reason to pull you away from what I am sure has been a very exciting day for you.”  EJ winked.

The man laughed, “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

Adam Richter was one of the many men who had come into EJ’s life over the years.  Each brought their own unique perspectives and life experiences with them.  Honestly, none stuck around for any true measure of time worth noting.  Some so fleeting in their presence that EJ didn’t even remember their names.  But Adam was different.  He may have broken her mother’s heart but he’d saved EJ’s life….and introduced her to a career that would become the stepping stone to something she never could have even imagined as that scared little teen girl who’d snuck onto an Army base to give him a what-for.

“That all you got?” Adam asked as he grabbed her roller bag.

“You know me,” she smiled, “I like to pack light in case I need a quick get-away.”

“Why? Are you planning on going someplace you don’t belong that would require immediate exfil by an Ops Team?”  The look Adam gave EJ out of his peripheral vision and the one raised eyebrow said it all.

With a heavy sigh, EJ replied, “I’m not planning anything.  I’m just here to hand over the artifacts; do the grip-and-grin thing; take a few photos and get back to D.C. as quickly as possible.”

“You know, Red, one of these days it might do you some good to plan something,” Adam offered.  “You can’t ignore a whole country just because of one incident.  The director at the Aga Khan Trust has been asking me when you’re going to be in country.  He says they’d like to do a little something for you after that business all those years ago.”

“I know Adam.  He keeps leaving me voicemails.  What I can’t figure out is how he got my number?”  EJ’s sour look says it all.

“I gave it to him,” Adam states.  No malice, no concern, no hurt – just a fact.  “Try returning them.  Your safety will be guaranteed.  No one is going to arrest you.  Or kill you.”

“Very funny.  I’m not taking any chances.  I can find plenty of work outside of Afghanistan,” EJ snaps.  “Let it go.”

“For now,” Adam concedes.  “But don’t think this discussion is over.”

“With you?  How could I,” EJ says as Adam loads her roller bag into the backseat of his Hummer.  He chuckles as he climbs in the driver’s seat and buckles his seatbelt.  EJ snaps hers and settles into the sun warmed leather seats as the car comes to life.  Lulled by the road noise, she’s asleep before she even realizes it.

Adam glances at the sleeping girl in the seat beside him and shakes his head.  She’s a woman now, capable of making her own decisions and choices.  It’s been twenty years since he first met that little girl with the thick auburn curls made even more red in the desert light.  She’d come into his life kicking and screaming with a mouth and attitude as loud and bright as the hair on her very head.  He still remembered the first time he saw her in the car with her mother as they were tearing away from the base - backwards.  The anger in her eyes could have melted steel.  He’d had no idea that several hours later she’d be standing in front of him kicking and screaming calling him all sorts of names for the hurt she thought he’d caused her mother.  The MP attempting to detain her for sneaking onto the base had his hands full.  He had her by the scruff in one hand his other arm wrapped around her midsection attempting to keep her from kicking either of them. 

“Should have known then what a handful she’d be,” Adam laughed to himself. 

Adam hadn’t lied to her mother.  He’d just neglected to share the full story.  He was married – to his brother’s widow, Stephanie.  While he had joined up and gotten deployed overseas, his twin brother, Elliott, had married his high school sweetheart.  They were expecting their first child together – a boy.  His brother worked at the local lumber mill.  One night on his way home, Elliott was hit head-on by a drunk driver.  He died before the paramedics arrived.  After the funeral, Adam had learned that Stephanie would no longer have health insurance through the mill and with a baby due in just over a month…It made sense.  He married her so she and the baby would have health insurance through the Army.  Adam had always looked at it like he was taking care of his family.  Obviously, it was only a marriage on paper but Sarah never gave him the chance to explain.  And EJ, well, she was her mother’s daughter.  It wasn’t until years later when she was in a jam and he was her only option that she even gave him the opportunity.

Her hair, and her mouth, have toned down over the years but her attitude is just as fiery as it always was.  Most people thought he called her “Red” because of her hair.  Nope, it was all because of the fire in her.  Most the time, she was calm and reserved.  If you didn’t know her, you might even say she was quiet.  But Adam knew the storm that roiled just below the surface.  Ready to explode any time EJ’s will, patience or sense of right and wrong were tested past their limits.  She was a spitfire, that one.  Just like her mom - in more ways than she’d cared to admit.

“We’re here, Sleeping Beauty,” Adam chuckled.  “Let’s get you checked in so you can get a proper night’s sleep before you become the media darling that you are.”

EJ groaned before rolling in the seat, head propped against the window.  “Just leave me here.  Tell them I missed my flight but to carry on without me.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve slept in a car.”

“Not a chance,” Adam replied as he climbed out and fetched her roller bag before walking to the passenger side and opening the door.  EJ all but fell out of the car had it not been for the seatbelt keeping her strapped to the seat.  Adam reached over her and clicked the buckle before offering his hand and helping her climb out of the Hummer.  EJ’s messenger bag was still slung across her shoulder as she padded along next to Adam into the lobby of the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah Hotel.

“Swanky,” Adam whistled as he nudge EJ with his elbow. 

“I can’t believe anyone actually says ‘swanky’ still,” she laughed.  Adam may have only been her senior by 20 or so years but sometimes he seemed to have come from a generation three decades earlier.

Before the ribbing could continue, the hotel manager came forward signaling to one of the bellhops to take EJ’s luggage.  Adam turned over her roller bag but EJ held firm to the messenger bag.

“Welcome to the Burj Al Arab, Ms. Anne” the manager said.  “We’ve been expecting you.  I am Malik Noor Al Zeera, the hotel manager.  Your room is ready for you.  I understand it’s been a long flight and I’m sure you would like to get some rest before tomorrow’s festivities. Amir will show you to room.  Should you need anything during your stay, please do not hesitate to contact me directly or your floor valet.”

EJ took the man’s card and thanked him for the hospitality before turning to Adam. 

“I’ll be here to pick you up in the morning at 0800 for breakfast before we head over to the Saruq Al Hadid Archeology Museum,” Adam said before pulling her in for another hug.  “Don’t be late.  And get some rest.  You look like Hell.”

EJ smiled, “Yes Sir!  I’ll do my best to look like one of those exotic Arabian supermodels you seem to enjoy so much.”

Adam chuckles as he walks off, hand waving behind him, “With that hair and those eyes, not a chance Red.  Not a chance.”  He’s gone before EJ can offer a retort of her own.

“Lead the way, Amir,” EJ turns to look at the young bellhop.  He jumps to, turning on his heals towards the elevator.  He uses a key card to call the elevator and holds the doors open for EJ.  Once in, she leans against the back wall and sighs.

“Are you alright, Miss?” Amir asks.

“Yes, just tired,” EJ responds.  The elevator doors open and Amir leads the way down the hallway to a large set of double doors.  He swipes the key card again before opening the doors.

Once inside, Amir hands her the card and says, “Ma’am, if you’d like?” as he gestures towards the suite.  He brings her bag inside and gives her a brief tour of the suite, depositing her bag at the foot of the bed.

“Room service is open until 2am should you like a bite to eat, the menu is available in the kitchen.  The maids will be in around 10am tomorrow morning and your floor valet’s contact information can be found next to the phones in the bedroom and living areas,” Amir says.  “Is there anything else you require?”

“No Amir, thank you,” EJ replies as she hands him a 20 dirham note.  The smile that spreads across his face says it all as he quickly leaves before EJ can think better of the tip.

EJ walks to the windows and sighs.  Taking the messenger bag off her shoulders, she deposits it in the nearest chair.  It’s evening in the desert.  Staring into the dark horizon, peppered by the occasional lights of a passing ship; EJ couldn’t help but smile when she thought of something her Grandmother used to always say, “Nothing good happens after dark.”

“Not recently, Grandma. Not recently,” EJ chuckled and headed towards the bedroom for what she hoped would be a scalding shower and a well-earned sleep.

Once in the shower, EJ let the hot water rinse the travel grit off her skin and help her ease back into herself.  The steady thrum of the water hitting the tile and the way the steam wrapped around allowed her mind to wander.  It drifted to the time when her mother was on the hunt for Adam through what felt like most of the Middle East.  The day-long drives from the streets of Kabul through Islamabad in Pakistan then through the vast, sandy Iranian desert before taking a ferry across the Gulf of Oman to Dubai.  Of course, with EJ’s mother, it was never as simple as a straight shot.  No, it was a series of circles; zig-zagging across three countries and stopping to quiz any American Service Member they happened to spot trying to find the elusive Adam Richter.  EJ remembered how what had felt like a grand, romantic adventure in her teenage mind quickly became a months-long attempt at managing her mother’s emotional stability.  Each military base they stopped at, Sarah would become increasingly convinced that this was “The One” she would find him at.  He’d be told she was at the gate and coming running to her; their love sealed.  Each time, she’d be crushed.  No service member by that name is assigned here, “You really should take your daughter and go home” seemed to play on repeat.  Sarah would become more erratic and depressed as time and frustration took its toll.

At her heart, EJ’s mother was a hopeless romantic.  Too many Disney daydreams.  Then the scene played out differently at a random stop at one lone military outpost on the Afghani side of the border between Iran and Pakistan.  They pulled up to the gate arm in their dust covered beater when a rather imposing U.S. Army Private approached the driver’s side.  For what felt like the thousandth time, EJ listened as her mother recounted the story of her soulmate and how she had traveled here from New York to find him.  With the utmost patience, the Private listened and then asked for his name.  Sarah gave it, her eyes seemed filled with hope.  EJ listened, head down in the passenger seating waiting for that fateful phrase that never came.

“Oh Wow!  You must be Mrs. Richter!  Sarge talks about you and the baby all the time,” the Private responded, “Let me call him on the radio and have him come meet you!”  EJ looked at her mother, watching as the tears welled in her eyes and all her hopes were crushed as the Private walked away, radio in hand.

The water continued to cascade down EJ’s shoulders and back, a deep sigh escaping her.  The movie of her first Middle Eastern adventure still playing in her head.  The memory of a handsome Staff Sergeant jogging toward their car, a huge smile on his face that was quickly replaced by one of shock and confusion as his eyes darted from the Private to the car then to EJ with her bright red curls.  Sarah sitting frozen behind the steering wheel sobbing.  As he approached the car, EJ’s mother put it in reverse and squealed (as much as one could in the desert, anyway) backwards down the dirt road narrowly missing the line of cars waiting their turn for entry.  Not more than a few kilometers away, they stopped in a small village and paid for a room for the night.  The words still ringing in her ears even after all these years, “Use the man up before he uses you up!” Sarah had proclaimed as she cried herself to sleep that night.

Fury and a sense of protection ignited in EJ listening to her mother’s sobs.  Once the sobs were over and her breathing even, EJ snuck a peek to see that her mother had finally fallen asleep.  And, as every rash teenager in her position would do (or so she thought at the time), she snuck out of the room determined to give that Adam Richter fellow a piece of her mind for how he’d lied and broken her mother’s heart.

EJ silently shook her head before turning off the shower and reaching for one of the towels on the warmer.  “I really was a hothead,” she thought to herself.  “It’s a wonder I survived those years.”  She’d long ago forgiven her mother for dragging her all over the world with no rhyme or reason.  She’d even forgiven her the endless and rotating series of “father-figures” that had been introduced into her life.  After all, several of them had become her only lifelong friends.

EJ pulled an oversized shirt out of her bag and slipped it on.  Climbing into bed, she let a deep, dreamless sleep finally take her.  


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