The people who zipped down Interstate 10 Friday morning had no idea how significant the drive was for the blond woman behind the wheel of the black Honda Civic.
Since the April 28 Baghdad rocket attack that killed her husband, Julia Mathes' life has been filled with firsts — her first night alone in a hotel room, her first thoughts of attending college.
Friday marked the last leg of her first drive alone from her grandmother's house in Ridge Manor to the home she shared with Army Sgt. Marcus Mathes on post in Fort Polk, La.
They were married two weeks after she graduated from high school. She had lived only with him and her parents. The couple planned to goof off for a year or so after Sgt. Mathes got home from Iraq, then start a family.
Now, at 24, she is a widow and must decide, on her own, what's next.
"Most people are 17 or 18 starting their lives," she said. "I have to get started. I have to start a life."
She loved being a wife, planning parties and cooking dinners. Since that ended, she has toyed with the idea of attending a specialty college so she can get a degree in digital photography — she always took so many pictures of her husband. She even considered joining the military as a photographer.
As she drove Friday, she wondered what it would feel like when she saw the bedside candles that Sgt. Mathes sometimes lit while she brushed her teeth at night. There was also the blue couch, where they sat holding hands on the day he left for Iraq and she tried to explain why this deployment felt scarier than the last.
In their final moments that November day, he gave her a look that made her feel like that was the last time their eyes would meet.
"It was like, subconsciously we knew it was the end," she said.
She had heard so many horror stories about the fighting in Iraq, she couldn't help but ask morbid questions during his phone calls home.
Once, she asked whether she should play an Avril Lavigne song played during a slide show at his funeral.
Sgt. Mathes did not like those questions. He told her he would not die.
But still she couldn't shake the fear. About a month before the explosion, she asked if he wanted to be buried at the National Cemetery near Bushnell. He said yes.
Friday, on her way to Louisiana, she also wondered what people thought of her coming to the Army post. She worried they would say she is no longer part of the military family now that he is gone.
She had not been back since December, opting to spend the majority of his deployment with their families in Florida. She planned to return before he came home on leave to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary in June.
Friday, she looked forward to spending time with other military widows. There were resources for her on post to research her next steps as she decides what to do with her life. And there were men and women in the camouflage Sgt. Mathes always wore.
"I need to be around military life," she said.
She arrived in the afternoon.
Mathes unlocked the door, made her way past her husband's shoe rack, past the black corner shelf he bought with money that he planned to use for a tattoo.
He eventually got the tattoo, a knife on his thigh. She couldn't remember which thigh, and it scared her that her memories of him are fading.
At their home, she made her way to the spare bedroom, her husband's room.
He had painted the walls bright orange and lined the tops with a black and white checkered border. The clothes in his closet still smelled like him — Right Guard deodorant, ammunition and laundry detergent.
She sat down in his black leather rocking chair and wept.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 521-6518.