Fatima was for me the double-thrill, first for the fact of her, our improbability and the easy way the small of her back fit into my palm which could lead, so easily, to the naked small of her back in my palm.
And secondly because I didn’t know her well. Not immediately, anyway. This is the double-burner nature of every affair, which can light a room for weeks, months, even, and then—out. The interim is a delicious change in the perception of time that moves more slowly, heated to a pleasant thickness over a hot fire that, because of this change, this slowing down, you can come to believe that yours would last longer, burn brighter, illuminate whole houses. I lived longer when I was with her. Now, without her, time sped up again and assumed, again, its ruthless pacing. I sat in my apartment in the new and unflickering darkness of the rest of my life.
It was nearly September.
I met Rob Heltzer for lunch. I hadn’t seen him since shortly after the Ramayana attack and his message to get together frankly startled me. I had stopped getting together with people some time ago, drinking alone in my apartment. “Working,” I guess I called it.
But Rob was someone I could trust, I realized, and I could benefit from just getting his take on things. He had managed to incorporate the Blast Zone into his bus tours and then as a stand-alone route that proved, over the summer, to be his biggest seller. So I was happy for him, looked forward to seeing him again and I arrived a full fifteen minutes early. Unsure of what to do and without any reading materials, I looked over the menu twice and then the choking procedures posted over the bar.
But the conversation unfolded for me with a higher degree of honesty than I had thought possible when we sat down. “I’m crazy,” I said to him. “I mean I’m out of control right now. I’m not even sure where she is—I can’t reach her anymore. I’m thinking about this stuff all the time. Look, I was cooking pasta the other night and read the packaging while I was waiting for the water to boil. It said something like, ‘Multigrain pasta, a good source of protein and ALA omega-3,’ you know I actually read that as Allah. As in, ‘This pasta is a good source of Allah?’
“It means nothing,” he said.
“I don’t know what it means.”
“But then I think, why shouldn’t I be Muslim? I mean, I’m not particularly religious as it is, and I’m not against religion, either, Rob. I’m not. Obviously. I don’t know. Is there a God? Will we be judged? I have no idea. So why wouldn’t I be a Muslim? Maybe everyone’s a Muslim in some way? If that’s the right way to put it. Or is no one a Muslim? Who can say?”
“No,” my friend said, using his napkin with this aggressive push that left a small red mark near his mouth. “You’re not. You weren’t raised that way. It’s not your background. Six months ago you didn’t know this woman. Now you know her and you have some feelings for her or whatever and so you’re a Muslim?”
“This is way too early,” I said. “It’s only relevant if we decide to get married.”
“Decide to get married? Sam, I don’t know if I’m hearing you right.”
“In which case you’d convert?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “I would have to.”
“This isn’t making any sense, Sam. She’s not even in the picture right now.”
“No. I mean, I mean for God’s sake … for… damn it! That’s not the whole picture. That’s. And then when we’re together, when we were together, it was, all we did was laugh. She was a riot. And I loved the way she saw the world and how we are together. The way I felt. It was nothing like Meredith. I’m in love with her,” I said. “I am.”
“It sounds like it,” my friend said. “Got that distinct ring of the unhinged.”
Rob signaled for the waiter and ordered, when he came, a whiskey soda and I asked, in this didactic way that I’ve never been able to curb fast enough, if he wasn’t working later and he said, “Don’t worry about it” and so I had to say, “Okay,” and then, “Sorry.”
Rob took a sip of whiskey.
“No. What I mean is,” I tried again. “Listen. And that’s only part of her. That’s just one part.”
“It’s a major part,” my friend said. “And it’s the changing your identity part, in less than a year. Do you know what that says about you?”
“I don’t know, what?”
“That you’re a pretty malleable guy, that’s what. I mean, frankly.”
“Or that I love deeply?”
“Perfect,” my friend laughed. “A malleable, deeply loving guy. That’s just the putty the world needs.”
“And this is just the kind of shit the world does not need,” I said. “Have you thought about that?”
“You’re on your own with this,” my friend pushed back from the table and finished his drink. I watched him drain the glass and let a neat pause spread between us before saying, “That’s fine. That’s just fine. And how’s your marriage? How’s everything with you?”