“It’s gonna be the best thing ever!” I say, smiling at Leo.
“I’m sure it is, Ami. You’re making it. Also, love that little black number you’re wearing,” he winks as I smooth my hands over the little black dress, stepping back from the phone so he can see all of me in the FaceTime window. Propped against the mantle so that he can see what I’m doing, my phone shows Leo even as far away as he is. Technology I tell you. I pull out some mats, placing two of them opposite each other.
“So, how’s Afghanistan treating you?” I ask, pulling out two plates.
“Well, it has its ups and downs. Ups, I don’t have to listen to you snoring. Downs, I can’t stay up all night listening to you snoring.” He says, scratching his head. I snort at that, placing the two plates on the mats.
“You liar. It was me, staying awake listening to you snore.” I retort, and I’m rewarded with the sound of his laugh. Granted, coming in from over 7,000 miles away, it wasn’t the same, but I would take what I could get.
“So, what’s that delicious smell coming in from the oven?” Leo says, grinning at me. He’s in his tent, feet propped on his cot and phone propped on…well, I didn’t know what it was propped on. I stick my tongue out at him.
“How’d you guess the oven was on?” I say, picking up the phone and walking into the kitchen. Truthfully, I had put something in the oven.
“Well, because you looked stressed, and whenever you’re stressed we end up eating orange chicken marinated with that…mmmm I can practically taste it from here…that BBQ sauce that isn’t quite BBQ sauce, but I can’t tell the difference.” He says, and I see him licking his lips.
“I look stressed?” I say, raising my eyebrows at him. I prop the phone onto the counter, but it slips on the marble, “Shit,” I swear, fumbling for the phone with my oven mitts on. It takes me several tries to pick the phone up until I get the bright idea to take the damn mitts off, and I can hear Leo laughing hysterically all the while. Finally, with a huff, I pick the phone up and prop it carefully onto the counter. Leo’s doubled over laughing, and I shoot him a mock glare. “No, but seriously, do I look stressed?” I ask him again. It takes a few seconds for the question to register, he’s still laughing like a fool. I grab my mitts and pull the chicken out from the oven, the smell making me momentarily pause and inhale that goodness.
“Your hair is in a bun, you’re wearing the dress that you wore on our first date, and there’s fluff on your butt.” He says, and I twist around. Sure enough, there’s a fluffball on my butt. I laugh, plucking it off and putting it on the counter, “Mm, I can smell that from here. God, I wish I was there right now.” He says, his mood sobering up with that last sentence. I force a smile through the lump in my throat.
“Well, that’s why I’m doing this, Mr.,” I say, “just because you’re halfway around the world, doesn’t mean you get to miss your wedding anniversary.” He smiles, and puts his hands behind his head, watching me prepare the chicken.
“Hey fellah, Leo-Oh heya Ami!” I hear over the phone, and look over to see Leo’s best friend, Jonathan, come into the frame. I smile and pick up the phone, grinning at the man.
“How are you doing, Jonny?” I ask, and his grin lights up.
“Aah’m fixing’ to git Leo, here, owah orders. Whatcha cookin’ there, ma’am?” He says, in his thick southern drawl, catching a look at the tray for the chicken.
“Oh, just our favorite dinner for our anniversary,” I say, grinning wickedly at the stark hunger on the guys’ faces, “marinated orange chicken, brown rice, and red wine.”
“Dayam, sugah.” He says, whistling appreciatively, “Well, aah gotta go, nice seein’ yah again, Ami.” He says, and I wave at him as he leaves the frame. Leo turns and fixes me with a starving look.
“Ami, must you tease me like that? The closest thing we got to marinated orange chicken over here is Sloppy Joe with mystery meat.” He says, shuddering at the appalling thought. I snicker.
“Well, it’s what you get. When you come home in a year, you get all this and more.” I say, letting the chicken cool and starting to make the bread, “Oh, you got wine, or whisky, or beer over there?” I say, putting down the strainer and running to the fridge.
“Yeah, gimme a sec.” I hear Leo say as I rummage around in the fridge. Triumphantly I pull out a bottle of Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon, half-full. I pull out a wine glass from the clean dishwasher, and uncork the bottle, filling up my glass about halfway. I sniff appreciatively and see Leo holding up a cold beer. “What are we toasting to, Ami?” He asks, pressing the cold bottle to his lightly scruffed cheek. I rest my hip on the counter and ponder.
“Um, how about we toast to you coming home? To our anniversary? To love? To war? I mean there are so many options.” I say, looking at him through FaceTime. His warm brown hair is cropped short, and although I prefer it longer, I still love it that way. He’s sporting a five o’clock shadow, although it’s nine o’clock here, and eight o’clock in the morning there. But we took whatever time we could, together, and made it work.
It had been two years since Leo had gotten his orders and shipped out on tour, and he was scheduled to come back later next year. I was very excited about it and repeatedly told him so on our phone calls.
High-school sweethearts, we knew each other was the one after being paired together for the play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and had stuck by each other’s side ever since. Now I was twenty-eight and he was thirty, and we both loved each other, possibly even more, than when I looked down at him on stage and said the iconic lines ‘Romeo, oh Romeo. Wherefore art thou, Romeo’, or something like that.
“How about, to us,” Leo says, holding his beer up in a salute. I smile.
“To us.” We both clink our respective drinks to our phones, and I almost giggle and inhale wine when Leo pitches his voice high and said ‘clink’.
"I love you, Ami." He says softly, and my heart throbs at the unfathomable distance between us.
"I love you too, Leo," I whisper back.
"Always and forever?" He says, and I smile at him.
"Always and forever," I say. We both sip our drinks for a moment, staring at the other as if we would paint a picture right away.
“So, any plans for the week?” Leo says after we both drank and set our glasses down. I shake my head, straining the remainder of the brown rice and putting it in a bowl.
“Nothing much, just work and more work,” I say. Leo leans forward, and I can see the desperation written on his face.
“Tell me about it, I wanna know.” I smile, knowing he craves these little bits about life back home. As I finish up preparing dinner, I regal Leo with all the gossip about the current drama at my office, how the intern was caught with the assistant desk clerk, and how the CEO didn’t give anyone a holiday bonus. All the good stuff, really.
Finally, once everything is ready, I carry the phone into the dining room and then go back to the kitchen for the chicken and rice. I set them both on the table, then realize I’d forgotten the candles.
“I’ll be right back,” I yell, already halfway up the stairs. I hunt through my closet and find the box of candles, running back down. I place them in the mason jars already set up and light them each in turn. We’re both silent as I work and I can hear the faint sounds of the army doing its stuff around him.
I sit down, and cup my head in my hands, smiling at him.
“Well, happy eleventh anniversary, Leo,” I say, and he smiles.
“Happy eleventh anniver-…am… I…am….er…..ie.” My smile fades as the phone glitches.
“Le-Leo, you’re cutting out. I can barely hear you.” I say frantically into the phone.
“Am…..ull…er….uth……ar….ow….” He says, everything coming out garbled over the phone.
“Leo, can you hear me?” I ask, forgetting all about the damn dinner and trying to hear his voice over the static that’s coming over the line.
“Un…l….ooe….hu……ae……low….” He says, everything freezing and coming back simultaneously. I shake my head.
“I can’t understand what you’re saying,” I say. His picture freezes, so all I can see is his handsome face looking down desperately at the phone. “I love you,” I whispered, right before the call cuts, and I’m staring at a black screen. I close my eyes, feeling the sting of tears. The smell of chicken cuts through to my brain and my eyes fly open, landing on a picture of our wedding day, sitting on the mantle across from the table. It’s my favorite picture in the house, me on piggy-back, laughing like a fool, and Leo, holding me up, grinning into the camera.
I stand up and walk over to the frame, picking it up and running a finger down the picture. I press a kiss to Leo’s face, forever immortalized on print. Setting it down, I go back to the table to retrieve my attempts at a romantic dinner across seas, hoping to drown my sadness in marinated orange chicken and red wine.