Zelda tossed and turned from one side to the other in the king-size bed belonging to her and Beno. Quieting herself, she lay spooned on her right side and stared at the chipped brownish red-toned vase. As ugly as it was, it radiated the only hope she had. Like a persistent gnawing in her spirit that refused to think negatively, the vessel fanned the flame in her that Beno was alive.
Since he’d slithered into their new home on her birthday to surprise her, she’d heard nothing else from him. Tears escaped her eyes. He’d received a thirty-six-hour pass and hadn’t allowed her to ask any questions about how he got it. Instead, he’d rushed her out of their home and taken her to the flea market. There, he’d shown her what he’d discovered. His face had lit up when he pointed to the chipped antique vase. Even though it was the ugliest vase Zelda had ever seen, Beno’s lips had kissed and caressed it while scrutinizing its damages as if it were a precious jewel.
She’d asked him why that vase. There were others so much prettier.
His head had slanted slightly toward her, and his eyes had locked her in place.
“Chipped, Zelda,” he’d said. “The vase’s disfigurements display its inner beauty and its strength. Don’t you think so?”
He’d purchased it for more than it was worth and handed it to her. “For your birthday, my sweet Zelda.”
They had returned home, and he’d taken it to their bedroom and placed it on the nightstand by his side of the bed. “Think of us every time you turn toward where I sleep and see the vase,” Beno had said, and he had taken her in his arms.
Afterward, exhausted from their lovemaking, she’d fallen asleep with her head lying on his chest, listening to his heartbeat.
Beno snuck away just as he had come. Suddenly. Since then, fresh purple and white orchids with one bloody red rose in the middle appeared on their doorsteps every two weeks with a four-word text––to fill the vase.
Zelda turned over and grabbed her mobile from her nightstand. Two-twenty-eight, she thought. The number twelve, a semi-perfect number.
No sleep again tonight.
She got up, removed her headscarf, picked out her fluffy afro, and went into the kitchen to make an old-fashioned cup of hot chocolate. Taking milk out of the fridge, she measured out two cups and set it on the stove to boil and went to her upper cupboard. She took out the chocolate powder she used whenever she made a German Chocolate cake for Beno. He liked the glazed, rich, creamy frosting. When she’d complain that the cake wasn’t good for her hips, he would grin and say, “Zelda, my sweet, I love your wide hips.”
She looked at the wall clock. One year and three days would be over at five-fifteen in the afternoon. She grabbed a big spoon to stir the milk before it boiled over. Once again, tears accumulated in her eyes.
Since his thirty-six-hour pass, seven months ago, she hadn’t heard from him. No letter, no email, no telegraph, and no text message. Only the flowers delivered on her doorsteps twice a month gave her some reassurance that he was out there somewhere in the world and still breathing.
Taking her box of chocolate powder, she poured enough in the milk to make it creamy and dark. The mixture bubbled, and she set it aside and went to the cupboard to pull out Beno’s cup. It was her favorite. She always used his cup when he wasn’t there. Filling the cup one-fourth full, she carried it to the bar in their living room and took out the bottle of King Louis XIII cognac that Beno had bought for special occasions.
She poured King Louis to the brim of the cup and went to sit in Beno’s recliner. Sipping slowly, her tears reappeared, flowing over the rims of her eyes and running down her face like two streams.
The hot chocolate that she drank hit her like bales of hay falling out of a loft. She sat the half-full cup on the end table beside her and closed her eyes.
Zelda smelled fresh coffee and bacon.
Am I dreaming?
She gripped the arms of the recliner to stand up and fell backward. Her head throbbed.
Okay, have I entered the pearly gates without knowing it?
The sound of footsteps in the kitchen alerted her. She moved to get up again, and dizziness forced her back in the recliner. Zelda groaned loudly.
“Careful, my sweet,” Beno said, walking out of the kitchen into the open dining room area with a plate of bacon. “You’ve got a very nasty hangover.”
“When did you return?”
He sat the bacon on the table and went to her and leaned over. "About an hour ago."
“No, my breath stinks.”
“Who cares?” Beno took his kiss. “Breakfast is almost ready, and I’ve run you a bath.”
Discombobulated and shocked, Zelda had so many questions, she didn’t know where to start.
“Do you have to go again?”
“How long do we have?” Zelda said, trying to assimilate in her mind that she was not dreaming. Beno was home.
“Until April 2023.”
“What?” Zelda shouted in unbelief. “How?”
“The vase, my sweet.”
“What has that vase got to do with 2023?”
“Oh, my sweet Zelda,” Beno said. “I admire that chipped vase because it reminds me of you. It has inspired me to take a sabbatical to treasure what we have.”