I wait for his reaction, but his initial response at least tells me the temperature has not burned his tongue. His poker face tells me nothing about the success of my achievement, besides that the concoction has not poisoned him.
I wait. I wonder. I finally take a taste myself, similarly blowing cool breath across the surface of the spoon. It might be bland and nothing special. He could be considering a polite way to tell me my efforts are adequate. But no, I am delighted with the outcome. I try to remain as stoic as he is able, but I still crave his approval, regardless of my opinion.
He takes a second taste, as if the first did not provide an adequate assessment of the food’s quality. Damn him and his laconic response to all subjects. I sit on the edge of my seat, almost literally, waiting for his opinion. When finally he speaks, I am already through a second taste of my own portion, plus a generous nibble from my roll.
“You never told me you were this good of a cook.”
“I might still have a few secrets.” Honestly, even I did not know I have this one.
“As if I needed another reason to be happy to be home, this might just be it.”
If I were coming home to him, he wouldn’t even have to chill wine and I would be satisfied. I am grateful to Archie for so many kindnesses in the past week. This contribution, though, is by far the most impactful.
“I’m glad you like it.”
“I know this is our first time having this, but this tastes like home.”
Here in our mountains, together again, within the cozy security of this great room, his words fill me with the sense of home more than the scents of our hearty meal. I shrug off the prospect that he’s been counting down the days, too, until he returned home – as if it is more of a feeling than a flavor.
We eat in near silence with no more than a dozen words throughout the remainder of the meal. We are exhausted. The prospect of dishes getting washed tonight exacerbates the inability to lift the conversation, yet we manage the former without discussion and drag ourselves upstairs for the night.
I wander in to wash my face, brush my teeth, check to be certain my alarm is set on my phone, swallow a few vitamins, and meander towards the bed to draw down the covers. No matter my degree of efficiency, Daniel always completes his bedtime routine ahead of me and he usually builds and lights the fire. Tonight he sits with the covers folded down on his side of the bed waiting for me when I finally extinguish the bathroom light. He’s obviously tired as he did not even waste time lighting the fire I prepared in advance. I expect what little energy remains will be used for our favorite welcome-home activity.
I pull back my own covers and slide into bed as he sits near his pillows, tapping an envelope in his hand. My curiosity piques.
“Whatcha got there?”
“I wrote you a letter.”
“Ahh, thanks sweetie.” I imagine him sitting in his room in Afghanistan after a long, exhausting day, taking time to tell me the details of his experience.
He doesn’t move to hand it to me. He doesn’t even turn to look at me. I curl up behind him wrapping my arm around his hips.
He still doesn’t turn, but he speaks even slower than his usual cadence.
“I wrote it for you before I left, and I put it in the bed.” He finally turns towards me. “It’s still here where I left it.”
I pull back and see what I expect is disappointment covering his expression.
I let out a deep breath and respond equally slowly. “Yeah.”
I presume his expression asks me to confirm I slept elsewhere.
“I didn’t sleep here.”
“I gather that.”
He’s waiting for me to tell him where I slept. He still holds the letter, not offering it to me. I deliberately stall, thinking how I want to convey this information.
“I couldn’t be here without you. I came in here the first night – not even, the first afternoon – and just felt so completely alone and scared. I wanted to just lie down and cry, but I felt overwhelmed imagining how I would get through each night, much less fifteen nights, when I couldn’t even manage the first day.”
He listens, setting the letter on his nightstand, and lying down next to me so we’re face to face.
“You were scared?”
“Yeah,” answering genuinely. “Daniel, I’m not good at being brave.”
He reaches up and plays with my hair, gently moving it out of my face.
“You are more courageous than you realize.”
I lean sideways nearly touching him, but still feeling the sense of isolation I felt during his absence.
“I don’t feel courageous. I feel like I cope. I push away my fear so that it can’t get too close to me, but ultimately it’s…” My words stop coming out of my mouth, as if they can’t make it past my throat.
It’s like those childhood dreams when I couldn’t yell for help. He waits for me to resume, which takes me longer than I expect, as he continues to run his fingers through my hair. He waits, patiently, and I know I owe him an answer.
“It doesn’t go away.” I practically croak the words out. “You’re here, and you’re safe, and we’re together, and still I am terrified that something is going to happen to you, or to us.”
His touch is making every effort to ease me, but I can feel the fear as bitter adrenaline in my mouth.
“Nothing is going to happen to us.” I’m not reassured.
“You can tell me that. You can say it every day. You can say it a million times, but it doesn’t make it go away.”
Nonetheless, he repeats himself. “Nothing is going to happen to us.”
“You don’t know that.”
He nods, but barely.
“You’re right, I don’t know that. But I do know that you can’t let it stop you from taking some risks – even little ones. Even coming to Wyoming was a risk. Where did you find the courage to come here? Something inside you pushed your fear aside.”
“But that’s it: I don’t overcome fear. I just push it aside and it comes back to me. And I don’t think coming here was as much about overcoming fear as escaping.”
He looks at me, as if these are words he’s never heard me say.
“Daniel, I know this sounds selfish, but your being gone set me back, even as busy as I was. I mean, I don’t blame you, and I am so proud of you for facing your fears and going into what is basically a war zone…”
He whispers softly. “It is a war zone.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know exactly where you were. But if it had not been for everything that was required of me at work, I’m not certain I could have gotten through our time apart as effectively. Being busy is just another way to push aside my fear.”
He looks at me, from one eye to the other, as if the right might betray the left.