Heartbreak and Heat on September 10
A 2001 Memory
Monday, September 10, 2001. 9:30 PM
Elizabeth and I are having a late dinner.
She’s a therapist exhausted from seeing a dozen needy clients. I just got home from 12 hours on campus.
My third wife and I have been married less than four months. We are silent and a little distant, but that’s normal for us.
The phone rings. It’s Elizabeth’s cousin. Their grandfather, a Korean War fighter pilot, has died of a heart attack. Don was 77, and had battled one illness after another for years. (He had managed to make our wedding in May, but left shortly after the reception began. “I forgot my dancin’ shoes at home, kids; don’t mind me while I shuffle off.” I never saw him again.)
Elizabeth takes the news calmly, sits back down, then starts to cry. I hold her; she wriggles away.
“I need to breathe,” she says. She always complains that I oscillate between total indifference and smothering, anxious attentiveness. She has a point.
Elizabeth needs to move. She leashes up the dogs and heads out the door. I sit, uncertain.
Five minutes later, she’s back, standing in the doorway. “Damn it, Hugo, come with me.”
Marta the pit bull and Sparky the spaniel have never had a better walk, as my wife’s grief propels us up and down the steep hills of Altadena.
I listen to many stories about the grandfather. Elizabeth cries and laughs in turn. I match my pace to hers, and we walk until she and the dogs are worn out.
After nearly two hours, we go home.
As usual, we lie in bed on her backs, lights off. Elizabeth turns on her side, facing me, and puts her hand on my stomach. “I need you,” she says, and I reach to comfort her, expecting her head to rest on my chest.
“No. Not like that.” I realize I hear rural Georgia in her voice, the way I almost never do, the accent of her childhood returning only when she’s very angry -- or very aroused. (She is rarely either.) Elizabeth’s mouth opens onto mine, and her hand slips beneath the waistband of my boxers.
Elizabeth and I do not have much chemistry. That is not our story. We’ve both had our hearts wrecked by love, and we’ve both learned what it is to have intense sexual heat slide into obsession. We are barely into our 30s, but when it comes to sex and love, we are battered veterans, seeking peace and calm above all else. We have settled with and for each other, choosing for our own sanity the safe, the affirming, the friendly, the lukewarm-Goldilocks-porridge that will burn no tongues, a small warmth that will ignite no fires we can’t put out.
There are few exceptions to our lack of physical interest in each other. As September 10 becomes September 11, we find one of those glorious exceptions.
We fall asleep holding hands.
I am still in the glow of her touch and the empathy with her grief when I stumble into the kitchen the next morning just before six. Elizabeth is still sleeping, but I have a 7:30AM class I need to meet.
I turn on CNN seconds after the second plane hits the towers.
I watch the news for 15 minutes.
I know I need to go to school to help my students deal with this. I know the world has changed and I must be there to help them witness. Elizabeth, though, gets Tuesdays off, and can sleep until noon if she likes. She’s exhausted and grief-stricken; she needs and deserves to rest.
Do I let her sleep and find out the news on her own when she turns on the TV? Do I let her get her first understanding of this horror in solitude? Or do I wake her up before I go, so I can explain to her and be there in her first moments of awful comprehension?
Which is the more loving course? I debate for a moment, and decide that love means waking her up.
I walk into our bedroom, sit on the bed, watch her sleep. Five minutes later, I kiss her cheek, inhaling the scent of her – and me, still all over her skin.
“Sweetheart,” I say softly, “there’s something I need to tell you. Something important you need to see.”
Elizabeth opens her eyes, and for two seconds, I see the mix of grief and desire I saw the night before.
My wife studies my face, and sighs. She swings her legs over the side, and rises into a transformed world.