The car made a stop at the flower shop and bought a bouquet of roses. They smelt beautiful, like the sun before thunderstorms. Roman held the flowers firmly, afraid to hope for more. He was scared of how everything would go after all the months apart and as the car sped towards home, he leaned in and tapped the driver who was whistling a tune.
"Do you think she'll like it?" He asked.
The driver turned back to him with a small smile. He understood Roman's fear and he said, "Your wife will love it. Welcome home, soldier."
Roman shook his head. It still wasn't enough. Five months ago he'd stood in the kitchen cleaning her tears. And he'd promised to come back home. He was just a few blocks away but he didn't want to face her. He was still deep in thought when the car rolled to a stop. Roman looked up at the closed door and the overgrown lawn.
The driver came to his door and pulled it open. Roman dropped the roses on the seat and let the strong hands hold him up. The driver put him gently in his new chair and gave him a tight smile that said so much.
"Will she love me?" Roman asked.
The sun stole half the words away. It started to disappear but the driver caught it and said, "If she loves you, you'll know when she sees you."
After handing Roman the roses, the car drove away. The door creaked open and excited hands flew out to meet him. Roman looked into her eyes, saw how the hope came crashing down in them, knew she'd been expecting her husband back. Not him.
She kissed him. Then rolled him in and locked the door. The house was warm and honest and it made him dizzy. He handed her the flowers, shyly, as if she wasn't his. He sat there, waiting, hopelessly lost in the blinking of her eyelids. She took the flowers and inhaled them. She said, "They are beautiful, Roman."
It was the way she said it, distant, fearful, that caught him off-guard. Her face was pale and her smile was forced. There was love in her eyes but more than that, there was a tantalizing mixture of emotions. He did not know what to feel.
"I missed you." He whispered.
The words were exhausting. She dropped the flowers on a chair and wrapped him in a warm embrace, the kind that soaked oceans in one grip. There were regrets in that embrace, a touch of pain, and the realization that he would never walk again.
"I love you." She helped.
He heard the strain in the words and his heart started to bleed. She sat on his thighs and kissed his cheeks yet it felt different. Like when he fell off a tree and scraped his knees. Like how his father cleaned him up and comforted him with drinks and his mother leaving. Like how he felt like an abandoned child when the walls grew too small for him.
"I baked pie and cooked potatoes." She started, easing up from his laps. He gave her a questioning gaze and she threw her head back. "I prayed for your return, Roman."
"But you're an atheist." He said.
She cleaned her hands in her apron and looked around. She said, "And yet, I prayed for you."
He wasn't thinking of prayers or the war and of his comrades who couldn't make it back home. He was looking at her hands and at the space where their wedding band used to be.
"Why aren't you wearing your ring?" He asked.
She looked startled as if she couldn't believe her hands would be the first thing he'd think about after coming back. She looked at her hands and then at the floor.
"You lost it?" He asked, slowly.
Her head came up and she curled her lips. She said, "No, I sold it."
He did not know which was worse: she losing their ring or she selling it. She said it without remorse, without feeling and he thought he heard an explosion in his heart. The bullets in the war had not made his heart sink in the way her words did.
"Why?" He thought asking would ease the pain but it didn't. He swallowed hard.
"I was losing the house. It's not as if the government was helping." She kept her voice low.
"That was precious, Isabella." He said, achingly.
"You just came home after five months, baby. Just relax." She said touching his face.
He nodded reluctantly. She rolled him into the kitchen and kissed the top of his head. Her kisses no longer felt like love but an assurance. Hot tears blurred his vision. She served him food and then sat beside him.
"Your mother was so excited when I told her you were coming home today." Isabella smiled as she talked, oblivious to the mixed emotions in his head. She chewed delicately, rolling her hands and her words before him, sorrow filtering through. The doors were locked but the windows weren't. He sat there, listening but watching the sunlight.
"You seem distracted." She said touching him. Her hold was soft and he turned to her and searched her eyes. The love was there, untamed, hopeful. He liked her like this, wanted nothing more than to see through her closed emotions.
"War is not beautiful." He whispered.
She pushed him back a little and sat on him. She wrapped her slender hands across his neck and leaned so close their lips were almost touching. "Now you are home."
The thought had crossed his mind like a fleeting show of hope. But he was still at war. The home was so different from what he remembered and all Roman thought he needed was the old normal. When she left him again, he was strangely aware he was never standing up again. The realization came to him as the sun came down and suddenly the food tasted salty.
Hope was too far gone.
How she helped him into their room and into the shower was still a mystery. Or maybe because he hadn't existed at that moment. With her hands in his chest, he was brought back to the war. He was in the dirt, trying to breathe with a bullet lodged in his stomach. He thought people were surrounding him, aiming at his head, screaming words at him. He thought he had died. Then he awoke in a hospital with lights so dim he fell asleep.
"Don't you want to sleep?" She rolled to his side on the bed and touched his face. He was chewing his lower lip, deep in thought.
"Roman?" She asked.
"I'm sorry." He muttered, "I keep thinking about the war. The people who died. I won't be able to walk again."
She sighed. She sat upright and ran her hands in her hair. She said, "I'm still here, Roman. And I'm so glad you came back."
He nodded. The night was slow.
The next morning, the flowers had begun to wither. She smiled nervously and said, "I forgot to put it in water." The explanation was short, uneven.
He smiled wearily. He closed his eyes and reimagined himself hanging loosely in space. He was in the hospital, wounded and in pain. He had lost a lot of blood too, aimless, half dead. Other soldiers had been brought in. Some of them were battered and others had lost limbs. He had pitied them before he realized he had lost his legs too.
He was home. But she was different from before as if she had changed with him. All of it was so overwhelming that he thought of dying. He imagined a life where he didn't exist and all the pictures in their home were removed, of all the smiling faces disappearing in the dark. He stopped himself when she looked down at him and smiled. It was genuine, real, old. She walked to him and placed her hands on his hair. She smelt like cherry sauce. He loved her again.
"Tell me, " She said smiling, "do you still love me?"
"I'd love you even until death."
"Does that count?"
"I guess so."
She took his hands and laughed. He was a little cold but she held him and he liked how her hair fell across her face. She shielded him from the sun. Then she said, "I love you too."
The morning was quick to go.