Of all the feelings the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 could have elicited in me, I wasn’t prepared for this: I was suddenly horny.
I’d been recovering from a painful breakup with someone who’d cheated on me. For months, I’d had no interest in dating and was reviled by the thought of being touched. “You’ll be happy to know,” I informed my shrink later that week, “now that world is ending and I’ll probably never need it again? I’ve relocated my libido.”
“Yeah,” he said, shrugging, unfazed by my announcement. “That’s normal.”
He then delivered a mini-dissertation on “post-disaster sex” -- something about how we’re unconsciously hard-wired to try and sustain the species at times when extinction seems a real threat.
“Lots of other people are probably feeling open now, too,” he added. “Go out and meet one of them.”
Oh, sure. It was a great idea in theory. We’d been talking about that -- how in the absence of someone who was a perfect fit, you could connect a little bit with someone who maybe didn’t fit in every way -- temporarily get some needs met, and then move on, that sort of thing.
In hindsight, several of the men I’d been with were much better candidates for one-night stands than for the year or three I’d invested in them -- guys without jobs, guys married to their jobs, a musician whose manager, it so happened, did a good portion of her “managing” between the sheets when I wasn’t around.
But regardless of whether or not a man was relationship material, I had no idea how to keep things light, even in the beginning. How did you get just a little involved? Fall just a little in love? Care for someone only half-heartedly? More vexing, how could you stand someone caring only half-heartedly for you?
So, if you slept with me once, you were basically my boyfriend, no matter how many ways you hit me over the head with the information that you weren’t that kind of guy. Obviously that routine wasn’t working out so well.
I knew of a vigil that night in Union Square. It couldn’t hurt to pull myself together and go be among people. But it felt strange, that evening, putting on makeup, tidying my long, unruly hair, choosing the more fitted jeans -- efforts I’d foregone in the months since my breakup.
Walking from my East Village tenement to Union Square, losing it as I passed walls of missing-persons photos, I became self-conscious about my mini-makeover. It felt like a terrible sacrilege. I was hyper-aware of the blusher I’d applied to my cheeks, a blaring, Dusty Rose beacon of crass desperation.
I waded through the sea of still-stunned but unusually friendly New Yorkers and found myself near the statue of George Washington on a horse, where a demonstration was happening. Hoping to climb up onto the low wall surrounding the statue for a better view, I bobbed and weaved until I reached it, and then looked up.
Right above me was a cute guy with eyes the color of faded denim and a khaki photojournalist-in-the-field kind of vest. He had a professional-looking Nikon pressed to his face, the lens pointing down at me. As I smiled nervously, he let go of the camera, leaving it to rest on the strap around his neck, and extended a hand to lift me.
The conversation was warm and friendly, and it didn’t end until he walked me home and kissed me at my door. It was a bright moment in months of my own personal darkness, gravely deepened by the attacks. I had no idea where it would lead, but I went to sleep that night feeling lighter and more hopeful. Who knew that in the wake of such devastation, it was possible to connect with another human?
He called the next day to invite me to an exhibition hockey game at Madison Square Garden. He was a hockey and skating coach, he explained, a one-time NHL hopeful whose chances were ruined by a torn ACL mid-try-outs. Before the game, over Thai food, we exchanged more details of our lives.
Easygoing as it was, anyone else might have heard in our dialogue a laundry list of incompatibilities. For instance, he was six years younger, 30 to my 36, which in and of itself wasn’t necessarily a problem, but since college, he hadn’t established any kind of settled life. In the warmer months of the year -- when he wasn’t working 12 or more hours a day, six days a week -- he took photos while traveling the country in his VW Van, accompanied by his shedding Shepherd mix, the kind of dog I’m deathly allergic to. He also sometimes coached baseball, and had little interest in the arts, other than nature photography.
I, on the other hand -- then a freelance arts journalist -- had failed gym in ninth grade and was known in college as The Girl Who Slept Through Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the legendary game-changer between the Mets and the Red Sox, in a bar filled with cheering Mets fans, no less. Perfect.
“I found my fling.” I announced to my shrink. I told him all about Cory, mostly about how nice he seemed, and he gave his blessing. But that thing that always happened after my first night with someone? That invisible cement that seemed to automatically seep out of me and fill the gaps between us until I no longer knew where he ended and I began? There it was again.
This time the concrete set faster than usual. In a matter of days, without any discussion, we were essentially cohabitating, alternating between his place and mine. Most of our relationship was spent sleeping together -- literally sleeping, his shedding allergen factory snoring at our feet.
There wasn't even much sex. Because of Cory’s long coaching hours, most nights we’d meet up for a late, quick dinner, and then turn in soon afterward, so he could start the next day at 5 a.m.
I think it was all that slumbering that got me. Unlike most men I’d been with, Cory would wrap himself tightly around me, cradling me affectionately non-stop through the darkness until his alarm went off. Night after night, he lulled and comforted me in a way I clearly needed during that incredibly scary time in the world.
But quick dinners followed by six hours of shut-eye didn’t afford all that much getting to know each other. And so it wasn’t until Cory invited me to his mother’s house in Maine for Christmas -- and we faced a pair of seven-hour rides alone together in his van -- that more details of our mismatch emerged.
Take the return trip, when, “Let it Be” came on the radio and I started singing along.
“Who is that?” he interrupted.
“You’re kidding, right?” I replied.
He nodded blankly.
“It’s the Beatles??”
“Oh,” he said, after thinking for a second. “I think my step-mother likes them.”
I stared at him. “Seriously? That’s your reference to the Beatles? What kind of music do you like?”
“Oh, no,” he answered matter-of-factly, shaking his head, “I don’t really like music.”
There wasn’t a whole lot more talking the rest of the way. But did I take this as a sign, three months in to my “fling,” that I should be grateful for what we’d had, cut my losses, and move on? No, instead I adopted a new strategy: I would culture-ize him.
I took him to dance performances, and to hear friends play music. I got him to sit -- granted, baffled -- through a Richard Foreman play. OK, this piece is the hardest to admit but here goes: I wrote and recorded a song for him, about one of our camping trips together -- cleverly merging our interests! CRINGE.
Other foreboding clues too loud to ignore, I worked around. Cory, an expert skier, ritually spent his one day off on the slopes. I, who never got over the time I fell off a descending chair lift at age 12, was “welcome to join” him. I fought with the part of my brain that couldn’t decipher a proper invitation in those words -- and the other part that once wrote an essay called “The Joy of Not Skiing” -- and became a regular in beginner school at Hunter.
When he wasn’t skiing, Cory was practicing his flight skills in a tiny rented Cessna out of Teterboro. Lucky me, I was “welcome” there, too. And so I logged many flight hours, my head thrown backward into the only position that thwarted projectile vomiting.
Eventually the snow and ice melted and it came time for Cory to make his way toward Alaska in the VW Van. He once again informed me I was free to tag along for the next six months. But of course, I couldn’t just pick up and leave my life.
Or could I? Wasn’t that what laptops were for? I could line up some travel assignments -- maybe about the virtues of domestic road trips in vans, in the wake of 9/11! But Cory clearly hadn’t expected me to take him up on that “invitation.” When I considered it out loud, he pulled away, clamming up, taking impromptu day trips without me. We talked about breaking up, both of us unsure.
Our differences were glaring. But we liked each other! Cory was wrong for me in every way but an important one: he was the kindest, warmest person I’d dated.
“What do I do here?” I begged my shrink. “Do I try and make this work with Cory? Could I make this work?”
“Sari,” he answered, throwing up his hands and laughing, “if the guy was wearing a sandwich board that read, ‘I’m unavailable,’ it couldn’t be more obvious. This is not about you. Give it up. This was supposed to be a fling, remember?”
We broke up. But then the first anniversary of 9/11 rolled around. Terrified and mournful again, I reached out for my real live teddy bear once more. True to form, instead of just getting the little consoling I needed and moving on, I held on for dear life -- and irrefutable evidence that I was being cared for whole-heartedly.
It wasn’t until another five months later that I finally woke up. One afternoon, Cory blankly asked, “Do you think my playing spin-the-bottle last night with some women coaches constitutes cheating?”
I felt like Elizabeth Perkins in the final scene of “Big,” when she turns around to glance one last time at Tom Hanks, only to see a little boy in a man’s suit. I knew without question that I had to move on.
A few months later, I met my husband, so I never did learn to have a fling. It’s okay -- I long ago gained enough distance from my relationship with Cory to laugh at my clueless, misguided attempts to cling to a “fling,” and to feel nothing but gratitude toward him. Each year around the anniversary of 9/11, I recall the hope and comfort he surprised me with when it felt like the world was ending, and I silently thank him.