Love in the time of terrorism

Please tell me that you were compelled to take a stranger to bed, then tell me that you will never speak of it again.

By Lillian Ann Slugocki

Published October 19, 2001 7:18PM (EDT)

Date: 9/15/01 6:30:45 AM Eastern Daylight Time

From: (New York)

To: (India)

My friend, my lover, Friday morning and the skyline is still amputated. As I write this, I am looking out my window, facing west, the first blush of dawn creeping into my room. Smoke billows out over the East River. I keep my windows closed even though it promises to be a glorious day. The smell is still very bad. I tried calling you earlier, but I screwed up the time difference, you must've been sleeping soundly. Dreaming of me? My skin, perhaps, caught in your ruby lips, your white teeth grinning at my surprise? Despite everything that has happened, I dreamt of you last night; your indigo eyes, your jet hair streaming down your back like a plume, like a feather. "Oh, my love, thou art fair. There is no spot in thee."

I am determined today to get on the train and go into the city. No, don't protest. I have to get on with my life although I am haunted to the core of my being by the pictures of the missing on every tree limb, every mailbox, every store window. Snapshots of family picnics, of sunny vacations, glorious smiles. We now are a city with the souls of thousands floating over our heads. At times I feel it is not the smoke that stings my eyes, but the ghosts of people ruthlessly ripped from their lives.

And I really can't be persuaded to fly to Paris. Yes, I will miss kissing you in the Fifth Arrondisement beneath grinning gargoyles, sipping hot coffee at the café. And then the train trip south to Cote D'Azure. What happy times we have had there! Thick omelets oozing butter, warm croissants and white cubes of sugar for our coffee set in a white bowl, while we sat on a white terrace overlooking the blue Mediterranean. Remember the restaurant on the beach in Juan les Pins? Yes? First, five hours of making love followed by lunch under the yellow and black striped awning. I do. I remember. I remember how ruthlessly you bit off the heads of the shrimp, then popped their pink bodies in your mouth, how the grease from the butter made your face shine in the hot light. How your dark skin got even darker as we sat on the beach, your head in my lap, your tongue tickling the inside of my thigh. We like to eat and we like to make love.

But I really can't be persuaded to get on a plane. You must understand that the whole world has changed for me. The whine of an ambulance, the roar of an F-15, the smell of smoke signal danger, disaster. It is personal, private. It is global. I cannot be persuaded to get on a plane, not even for you, my darling. I feel I must continue to pay respect to my city, my home. So, right now, we will have to content ourselves with our letters, our words, and the odd phone call until I can get to you or you can get to me. It will be alright. Don't you think? That's what I tell myself, it will be alright.

Here, let's walk through our first morning in the South of France. Read this and then close your eyes:

We arrive in Nice by train at 8 in the morning. We settle into a gleaming silver Mercedes, and haggle over the price to Juan les Pins, the driver finally agrees to 350 francs. While we speed south, you are nestled against me and your hair smells like sunlight. The Mediterranean to our right is a blue bowl of water. I turn and rest my head on your shoulder, suddenly the car swerves and you admonish the driver, in fractured French, to slow down. He pretends he doesn't understand you. Then you relax, hand your fate over to the gods, kiss my earlobe, blow softly in my ear because you know how much I like that. And I do like that. My spine tingles ... wait, momentarily distracted by a fighter jet flying overhead, my God ... that was low. Shit. OK, where was I? Oh, yes, my spine is tingling because you have just kissed me. But my spine is tingling, though not from pleasure, from fear. I've lost it. I will have to try again tomorrow. Sorry. I'm just so sorry about all this. I'm feeling very sad now, and don't think I can continue. Let me try again tomorrow, my love. Let me try again.

Date: 9/16/01 2:00:45 AM Eastern Daylight Time

From: (New York)

To: (India)

You must explain Islam to me, the Middle East. What have I missed? Am I so out of touch with the rest of world? This is what I know of Western culture, this is what I know of New York City: Before September 11, when I rode the subway, I would look around me, at the faces, yes? And before I would bury my nose in my newspaper, I would give a little sigh of satisfaction surveying the diversity around me. There is the thin Korean man wearing black leather sneakers carrying a worn briefcase, his eyes closed but not sleeping; and there a woman, gleaming, her skin the color of onyx, her head wrapped in multi-colored kenta cloth, a choker of shells and leather around her regal neck; a trio of young boys from Guatemala; a well-dressed couple from Park Slope, and me. This is my New York, this is Western culture as I know it. It is diverse, pluralistic. The shopkeepers, the green grocers, the car services, are all run by men and women from the Middle East, Muslims, these are my neighbors, my friends, so what have I been missing?

You know this city, you do, you've spent many months here in my small apartment in Brooklyn Heights. And you must understand, darling, that this is the supreme irony to me, to attack this city, above all cities. It continues to be incomprehensible. And here is the further irony, we are all so far from the world of politics, even you, halfway around the world in New Delhi. For the most part, we just live our lives, we just fall in love, we just go to work to pay our cable bill and then eat dinner at the little Dominican restaurant on the Lower East Side.

So don't try to poke holes in my resolve to get on a plane, to fly to Paris. There is no half-way now. Listen, I am afraid. My classes are cancelled, perhaps permanently, and to make matters worse I am running out of money. And to make matters worse, more than 5,000 people are still missing, they stare at me, accost me on the simplest of tasks: mailing a letter, shopping for tomatoes, they are always there.

I confess that these days I am seized by a desire to cradle the head of a fireman on my shoulder. If we are to be completely honest with each other, as you entreat me, then this is what I am feeling as I write you. I want to cradle the head of a fireman on my shoulder, I want him to shower in my bathroom, illumed by the morning sun pouring in from the skylight. I want him to feel safe, redeemed. This is my simplistic, perhaps clichéd response when I see their anguished faces on the evening news. This is what I feel -- an almost atavistic desire to offer comfort, succor. A hot cup of coffee, a hot shower, my warm body, my life. Don't let this hurt you. I love you, but you are so far away ... and they are here, standing at the fire station, one block from my house. I see their mute faces, standing in the open doorway, talking softly to each other. I long to go up to one of them, enfold them in my arms, kiss their tired eyes.

Don't let this hurt you! What else have I to offer? Don't worry, I won't do this. I am too shy, but I wish I could. I wish I could open my mouth to them, my legs, enfold just one of them within myself. But again I am too shy, so instead I offer them coffee, I offer them a smile, a "good morning," and then I move on, feeling horribly hopeless, unable to offer anything of real substance.

Don't give up on me after reading this. I am still yours, body and soul. You have my heart. I love the cinnamon taste of your dark skin, the feel of your warm tongue trailing up my legs, the way you grip my hips as you enter me, your habit of humming Hindu music, just under your breath, after you slide off my body, covered in sweat. I love your mind, too, the way words pour from your mouth, so eloquent, so impassioned and so intelligent. The way we have not cared about cultural differences -- your God, my God, in the end we know they are the same God, and how we always find redemption and connection in the act of making love. This is the highest form of worship I know, to open up to another human being so completely, and this is what we have, you and I.

But there has been a shift in the paradigm here, so profound and so tragic, I feel I have lost my way. I get off the train in Times Square and cannot for the life of me discern east from west, even by looking at buildings that I have known for 15 years. What does that mean, do you think? Will I ever find my home again, in a home so utterly changed? And will we ever find our way back to each other, now that jumping on a plane and flying across the Atlantic, even to Paris, seems impossibly remote, filled with hidden danger. "Oh, my love, thou art fair to me."

Date: 9/27/01 10:20:23 PM Eastern Daylight Time

From: (New York)

To: (India)

Your continuing silence really hurts me. I have set my alarm for the middle of the night to call you, but you must turn your phone off because I get your machine time and time again. Listen, I cannot help what I feel! It was just a desire, a wish, abstract. Surely you get a glimpse of a dark-haired woman, her sari drifting luminously from her shoulders, like a cloud of yellow silk, and desire her? Want her? All the more so because she is flesh, because she is palpable, standing in front of you at a cocktail party, her lips just inches from yours, your resolve lessened by a couple of scotches. Perhaps you have wanted to invite her to a dish of curried lamb at the café that stays open all night, where you listen to music you both can hum along to, sing to?

And her eyes are infinitely warmer because they are gazing straight into yours, and not just a photograph because photographs are cold, they are. I have often kissed your photograph, and it is cold, it is flat, and not at all real. If you say this isn't so, then I don't believe you. You are lying to me, and we have always promised to be honest, no matter what the cost. Don't you see, this is the price we pay for falling in love with people who live on opposite sides of the world. And this is the price we pay for living in an age of terrorism, where 19 people armed with box-cutters massacred 6,000 people. What can I say? This is not something either of us asked for, yet this is what we are given, and we have to struggle along somehow, learning new rules, new ways to soothe our broken hearts.

Darling, please listen to me! I promise to not make love to a fireman. Just writing these words makes me laugh, because the sentiment is so naive. And trust me, there isn't a red-blooded American woman alive right now who doesn't have this desire, this attraction. This, too, is atavistic. They represent strength and courage, they are 100 per cent masculine, a glorious sea of testosterone. In truth? They are probably just as wounded, they cry as much or more as anyone walking the streets of this city. In truth, they probably go home to their beds at night, to their wives, too broken, too tired to do more than just roll over and fall into dreamless sleep.

Come now, don't pout. Let me tell you about the river I walked into this evening. Since you have refused to speak to me, I called an old friend from high school who lives in the East Village. We agreed to meet for dinner. I took the 4 train to 14th Street, half asleep, still very numb, disoriented, displaced. I walked up the stairs and took in the memorial at Union Square, the posters, the half-burnt candles, the dried flowers, and just let it wash over me. I couldn't take it anymore. I can't take it anymore. So, resolute, I turned away and walked east to Avenue A. I fell into step with the myriad of people sauntering along, the air still warm, the smell of smoke still lingering in the air, but now almost familiar. As if the air always smelled this way, dark and sulfurous. Soon I was walking beside a well-dressed couple. I admired her gray felt hat, its flourish of feathers at the brim, her elegant skirt, her trim legs encased in silk stockings, the cut of his jacket, the bright flash of his tie. I deliberately matched their step with mine, why I don't know.

At the crosswalk we were joined by a group of men and women in their 20s, also dressed up, their skirts shorter, their hair longer, but still elegant, still somber, dignified. When the light changed, we crossed the street together, but now I felt I was walking in a river, the water warm and sweet. Then in flash I remembered that it was Yom Kippur. I was walking in a river of Jews on their way to synagogue. Soon, the whole of 14th Street was flowing with Jews, accompanied by scores of others. And it seemed we were all walking in step with each other: Jew, Christian, Muslim, agnostics, drug dealers, kids on skateboards, teenagers with yellow and pink hair, hip-hop blaring from speakers. And, as if by mutual consent, we all stopped in front of the fire station, and reverently gazed at the names of the missing. After a moment, we all started to process again.

Finally, the procession stopped in front of the synagogue. Where, I confess, I touched the hem of the jacket of the woman with the gray felt hat, silently wished her love, and continued walking east.

Date: 10/1/01 5:20:23 AM Eastern Daylight Time

From: (New York)

To: (India)

Well, darling, I'm afraid I have done the unforgivable. I slept with my old friend from high school. No excuses. I am tired of begging you to write me, to call me. So I won't proffer excuses. I will just tell you the story. You be the judge of whether or not I am an immoral woman (though I don't think I am).

We sat at a tiny storefront restaurant, there couldn't have been more than 10 tables. The waitress set down a plastic bowl of homemade salsa, fresh chips and then sangria filled with peaches and apples, wine-colored. I had one glass, then two, then three. I ordered chicken fajitas, he ordered a vegetarian burrito. Midway through our meal, someone lowered the window because the smell of smoke had become intolerable. It made a loud noise, everyone in the room jumped. It sounded like gunfire; then a collective laugh at our panic, then back to the business of drinking sangria and eating Mexican food.

After dinner, without saying a word, I followed him home to his one-bedroom apartment. Without saying a word, he closed the door behind us, didn't turn on the lights, took me in his arms, and kissed me. Yes, I kissed him back. I hadn't a thought in my head. I didn't think of you, I didn't think of the amputated skyline, I didn't think of the 5,000 souls floating in the air over us, I didn't think of a single thing except how good it felt to have a warm body next to mine. He continued to kiss me. Then we both silently and slowly took our clothes off, still standing, still kissing, still not talking. Then we lay down on his red leather couch and quietly, silently he entered me. I rose up to meet him.

When it was over, he poured me a glass of wine and turned on the news. We haven't spoken of it since, and I don't suspect we ever will. It was totally in the moment, stuck between the pages of history like a footnote, like a maple leaf picked up from the sidewalk and pressed between a forgotten book of poetry. Nothing more, nothing less.

So there you have it. My story. Write me and tell me that you have done the same thing. Write me and tell me that you also felt compelled to take a stranger to bed, an elegant woman clad in yellow silk, delicate gold filigree dangling from her ears. Tell me that as you unwound your lustrous black hair, she kissed your back and your shoulders. Tell me that you caressed her nipples as if they were spun sugar. And that when it was over, you still didn't know her name. That you will never speak of it again. That it meant nothing. Then call me and tell me you love me.

Lillian Ann Slugocki

Lillian Ann Slugocki is coauthor, with Erin Cressida Wilson, of "The Erotica Project."

MORE FROM Lillian Ann Slugocki

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Fiction Love And Sex Sex