SAN DIEGO — The glowing red numbers of the digital clock near my side of the bed read 1:23. Wide awake, I'm lying here listening for the front door to open. Our 20-year-old son came home yesterday after 15 months in Iraq. Tonight he is out with a couple of friends he's known since grade school.
"Jonny and I are going over to Nicole's. OK, Mom?" Roman said, after the party that officially welcomed him home had wound down; after the deli platters in the dining room were bare, the salsa bowls empty, and the homemade Oreo cookie cheesecake little more than a sweet memory.
In the months his infantry unit was based in and near Baghdad, I can't count how many nights I watched this clock's red numbers flip toward morning. A certain amount of sleeplessness is an inevitable part of parenthood. But things like colic and missed curfews, I've learned in the last fifteen months, can't hold a candle to roadside bombs and Shiite militia.
How did it happen that my son was in the thick of all that? The way I see it, his after-high-school decision to join the Army was an act of independence, pure and simple. Or as it turned out, not-so-simple. It took us by surprise - his computer-engineer dad, his Stanford sister, and me, his English-major mom. Roman's choice of the infantry surprised us even more. While I still viewed him as the gentle boy who loved animals of every kind, he was e-mailing us pictures of himself in desert khakis in a camp near Sadr City, toting a machine gun. I couldn't help wondering when he came home, whom we would meet at the airport.
When Roman was still in Iraq, he had initially said "No way" to the whole idea of us throwing a party when he returned. He's always been a quiet kid, more comfortable in front of his computer than in front of a crowd. That partly explains his reaction. But it must have been hard, too, for him to imagine a room full of "Welcome Back" balloons, while he was still in the midst of falling mortars. Or to envision red-white-and-blue streamers fluttering here in the living room, when only the week before, one of his Bravo Company buddies had gone home in a flag-draped box.
The party question had come up again in a phone conversation shortly after he arrived in Germany, where his division, the 1st Armored, is based, and where he returned for two weeks of debriefing before flying home to California.
"A party? Well, OK. Sure. I guess," he said.
It's 1:32 now, and I'm lying here replaying it all. The garage-door banners up and down our street. The long hugs. The smiles. The flowers. The merengue music from the stereo in the family room. The way the slanting rays of the setting sun backlit and burnished the whole happy group of friends and neighbors on the patio.
I see him standing out there in the middle of a cluster of men, and overhear him telling them the story of the day he was chased by three camels on a dusty road. For comic effect, he does an imitation of those animals' faces just before they spit.
"I'd run faster. They'd run faster," he says, pumping his arms as if he's still running.
The men laugh, but the group grows quiet as he relates how in an effort to leave those camels behind, he made a sharp turn off the road and into a field of scrub and rocks - only to notice that the ground around his feet was dotted with land mines the enemy hadn't even bothered to bury.
"Whoa," one of the guys says solemnly.
"Yeah, I know," Roman answers.
And I sense, more than know, that there are stories from this war that he will never tell.
It's 1:36 and the front door finally creaks open. When he still lived at home and got in this late, I'd sometimes catch him slinking past our room on the way to his.
But tonight he heads here first, opens our door, and comes right in. From the vantage point of my pillow, I see a tall shadowy figure stride past the dresser, turn left at the foot of the bed, and come to a halt inches from my side.
"Roman?" I murmur.
In the darkness, he slowly bends toward me. His hand finds my cheek, and I feel his lips press against my forehead.
"Love you, Mom," he whispers.
Before I can blubber anything in reply, he's walking around to the other side of the bed, and leaning down to kiss his sound-asleep dad.
And so our soldier has returned. One homecoming of thousands across this country since the war began. And even though it's not over - in Iraq or over here - I close my eyes, and for the first time in a long time, I know what peace feels like.