He was home. It was difficult to believe. He kept looking around, expecting to see a high hot sky, the interior of a tent, sand. Other men who, like himself, were living in the day.
But he was undeniably sitting at a table, bare but for a bottle, his glass and Kate’s, an ashtray. The day’s last light filtered through sheer gingham curtains, and he was content to let the darkness deepen; he trusted the night. Kate rose and in a kitchen drawer found a plain white utility candle, one she kept for blown fuses on nights alone. She fitted it into one of the beer bottles she’d drained while waiting for him all day, lit it with a wooden match, and set it in the middle of the table.
A seven-bone roast lay on a rack on the sink counter, long since thawed, bleeding. Near it squatted a number of root vegetables—potatoes, turnips, carrots, a yellow onion—in various states of disassembly; a carrot was half-pared and the base of the onion had been chopped flat, but as a group, all suffered from her inattention.
She wanted him to talk. She wanted to say, “What was it like?” or for him to say, “My God, I missed you,” or “It feels like years and years,” or “Kate, take me to bed.” He said little, muttered monosyllables, grunted, wasn’t hungry, barely responded to anything she said, any attempt at conversation, at remaking the connection.
He was a stranger.
She refilled their half-empty glasses with vodka, strengthening its astringent flavor against the lemon-lime soda. She swallowed some and, a little dizzy, found her last menthol and crushed the empty pack. She looked at him until, as though awakening, he stood and leaned across the table, extending his father’s brushed-chrome lighter. A Zippo that had seen Chu Lai, seen Long Binh, now had seen Tallil.
He said, “Guess we’ll have to start smoking the same brand again.” He grimaced and it took Kate six seconds to realize he was attempting to smile. She tried, too, glad there was no mirror in sight.
She said, “So you weren’t hurt?”
“Barked my knuckles on an oil pan nut. Passed out first week, let myself get dehydrated. Was shot at, wasn’t shot.” He paused. “They’d have let you know.”
As he drank, she thought, And you wouldn’t?
She said, “Well, thank God you’re back in one piece.” She had said that at least a dozen times during their—she glanced at the clock—fifty minutes together again.
He nodded, then chuckled. “Pulled a limpet mine off the underside of a Bradley came into the motor pool.” His speech was blurring a little. “Ran outside and tossed the motherfucker over the wire. Came back in and it blew like five minutes later.”
She gasped. “My God!”
He looked suddenly stricken. “Aw hell, I’m sorry, Kate.”
“Sorry? Sorry for what, Rusty?”
“My language. You start talking that way after a while. I ain’t no chaplain.”
She stumbled once getting around the table. She cradled his head in her arms, rocking him like a baby. “Ohhh, honey, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about anything. You’re home now, that’s everything. Shhh.”
When she released him, he backed away from the table and pulled her into his lap. Both faces were wet. She picked up his glass and fed him more of his drink, then drank some herself and put the glass down and kissed him for a long time, tenderly, easily, until both suddenly rediscovered passion. Beneath her, Kate felt him stiffen.
She whispered, “Bed.” He nodded.
He resisted just a moment, bent and blew out the candle.