Great billowing clouds drifted lazily through a cobalt sky. The wind was warm temporarily clearing the valley of soot and dust. For the first time in weeks the air was clean and did not smell of wood smoke or bitter cordite. There was a soccer game in full swing behind the military hospital. Patients and doctors crowded around the protected lot, cheering on a handful of local players.
I went inside and found Emira making rounds. We went up to Alto’s room where he and his roommate were playing cards. He said the letter still wasn’t quite finished. I asked if it would fit in my pack or I’d need a truck to haul it away. Emira suggested we all go down the hall for a bit of coffee so that Alto could conclude his “epic.”
Alto was managing a bit better these days. His foot would forever remain mangled, and with each step he was forced to kick out to keep the front of the foot from bending under. He was walking better, but would always need the crutches. Emira made us all tiny cups of bitter Turkish coffee, while Alto spent more time kidding around than writing. Emira banished him to the far end of the table. She gently touched my hand and leaned close.
“William, you look so sad.”
“The thought of losing her is killing me.”
“She’s a special girl, isn’t she?”
“I know that if I leave I’ll never see her again.” I ran a small spoon through the soupy black coffee.
“That’s up to the two of you, don’t you think?”
“And the war.” I sighed. “But that’s reality, right?”
Emira slowly took my hand in hers. “Bill, do you love her? I mean, do you really love her?”
“More than life,” I answered without hesitation. “But that…”
“No excuses, Bill. Do you love her? Wouldn’t it be nice if she could come to Chicago with you.”
It was an absurd thought. There was no way I could take her through the war with me. Still I couldn’t help but smile.
“Getting her out of here is damn near impossible.”
“Yes, yes, but if you truly love one another then anything is possible. If you were married things would be faster and much easier, once you got out of here.”
The idea of marriage was utterly ridiculous, yet so seductive. Ana and I had only known each other a short time, but as I left the hospital the idea of spending my life with her became absolutely intoxicating. There was no time to think clearly, but by the time I reached her neighborhood I was fully prepared to ask, to beg her if need be. It all came down to one simple proposition. Was I fully prepared to sacrifice everything for her? Was I prepared to sacrifice everything for love? The answer had always been there, seemingly from the moment I had sketched her picture before ever coming to Bosnia. My life was hers to squander, without reservation and without condition.
I hesitated below her window, suddenly filled with misgivings. I feared my reason was slipping, my heart eclipsing the reality of the situation and the war. I was weighing all this when Ana appeared at the window. She was crying.
We met on the stairs. She threw herself into my arms and covered my face and neck with kisses.
“Baby, what is it?” I asked, holding her tight. I breathed in the scent of her hair, believing it might be the last time.
“I’m sad,” she said. “This is the last time that I will hold you.”
I found the world in her eyes. Her voice and crystalline tears answered every question, and made the world much less severe. I wanted her, not in the vain hope of completing myself, but because she was my light and my example. I wished to become more of the person I found in her.
Certain of what I had to do, I led Ana back upstairs. She sat at the kitchen table while I formed the words. From the couch Renata was enjoying a rare moment of peace. Tono was asleep in the pen beside her.
“I was telling a friend about you,” I began. My heart was racing. I might have held less fear for snipers than for what I was about to do. “She thought that if we were married you could come to America faster and easier.”
Ana was stunned, and leaned closer as though she had not heard correctly. Renata, equally shocked, struggled to her feet.
“Is that the only reason you want to marry me,” asked Ana, “because it would be easier?”
Renata’s hands trembled so much that she gave up trying to light a cigarette.
“I want to marry you because I love you,” I replied.
Olja walked in at that moment and exclaimed, “Oh my god!”
Ana ignored her. “Bill, are you serious?”
Olja was elated, laughing through tears. Renata interrupted. She rubbed her forehead and seemed cornered by this unexpected turn of events. She ordered Olja to take me into the war room so that she and Ana could talk.
I collapsed on the small couch in the war room while Olja shut the door to give Ana and her mother some privacy. I buried my face in my hands, certain I had made a terrible mistake. Olja joined me on the couch and threw an arm around my shoulders.
“Relax, my sister loves you, and my mom thinks your great,” she said. “I’m telling you not to worry.”
It seemed a lifetime before Ana called me back to the kitchen. Renata had finally managed to light that cigarette, but there were tears in her eyes. I looked for some clue in her expression but could find none. she tried to smile as our eyes met, but it seemed it was all she could do to hold herself together. I looked at Ana expectantly. She stared back at me for a long moment. The silence was torture. Then, almost too soft to hear she said, “yes.”
“Yes?” I asked.
We embraced. Olja cheered and danced around the room. Renata limped back to the couch mumbling something about it being impossible for her to have a child old enough to be married. Ana and I kissed.
“So you want to marry me, huh?” she asked.
“Then ask me right.”
Feeling a bit foolish, I bent on one knee and held her hands in mine. I was shaking.
“Ana, I love you more than life and want to spend my life with you.”
Even Olja was crying now. Renata fetched a bottle of “Mostar” cognac from the cupboard. She had been saving it for the end of the war. There was an oddly melancholic smirk on her face. With a heavy sigh she slammed down a shot and let the glass bang loudly on the table. Ana grabbed a couple glasses from the counter. Renata poured us each a healthy amount.
“I am thirty-nine years old,” she said. “Thirty-nine! That’s young. At least I still feel young, so when I heard I had a daughter old enough to get married my first thought was I’m getting drunk. But I’m not drinking alone. Drink up!”
Renata recalled her first love, before she met Ana’s father. His name was Misha. Renata said we reminded her so much of those beautiful days. They had hoped to marry, her and Misha, but something went wrong and they broke off the relationship over something foolish. Renata met Ana’s father on the rebound and married him partly out of spite, and partly to mend a broken heart. Not long after Ana was born Renata learned Misha had cancer. Before he died Misha confessed that he had never stopped loving her. For that reason, as difficult as all of this was for her, Renata could not bring herself to stand in the way of her daughter’s happiness. With that she downed another glass of cognac. She looked about to cry again.
“Mom, are you okay?” Ana asked.
She looked into the empty glass and frowned. “I’m happy. I’m sad, but mostly I’m happy.” She looked up. “Bill, I’ll give you a bit of advice so that we will always get along. Never call me mom. I am Renata. If you ever call me mom or mother I will have to kill you.” She winked and bumped me with her shoulder. “Now leave. It will be curfew soon and I don’t want my daughter to marry a convict.”
I was afraid to leave Ana that night. I was sure that if I left her for even a second I would awaken to find this was all a dream. We lingered at the door for some time, unable to say goodbye.
“So you are sure you want to do this?” I asked.
“I dreamed that we were married.”
“I almost didn’t ask you.”
“Do you wish you could take it back?”
“What if I hadn’t?”
Ana shook her head. “I wouldn’t have said anything, but I would have cursed you until the day I died.”
I touched her pretty face. “I hope that I make you happy, Ana.”
She smiled and shoved me into the dark hall. “Don’t forget, eight steps, eight steps, eight steps.”