A fall from a loft bed left author Shulman's 75-year-old husband with traumatic brain injury and utterly dependent on his wife, as she recounts in this deeply affecting memoir of their ordeal together. The fall in the summer of 2004 in their Maine seaside cottage inflicted numerous broken bones, internal bleeding and blood clots to Scott York's brain, causing damage that Shulman gradually learned would take years to heal and probably cause permanent memory loss. Advocating for the best treatment, therapy and eventual care back in their New York City loft became the author's "calling" for the next year, though to her growing dismay she recognized that her once brilliant husband, a sculptor and former financier, would never make art again or even be able to hold an intellectual conversation. His impairment is rendered particularly poignant as Shulman (Drinking the Rain and Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen), moves backward in time over their 50-year relationship, first as college lovers in 1950, meeting up again in 1984, when as divorced adults in their 50s they rekindled their passion and mutual interests and got married. Carving out time for herself and her writing kept her from having a nervous breakdown, and while her hope at times flagged, Shulman's devotion never faltered, as demonstrated by her candid account. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformedby Alix Kates Shulman
A personal story of crisis, commitment, and hope from the best-selling author of Memoirs of An Ex-Prom Queen
One day it happens, the dreaded thing that will change your life forever, the more dreadful because, though you’ve half expected it, you don’t know what form it will take or when it will come, and whether or not you will rise/b>/i>
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A personal story of crisis, commitment, and hope from the best-selling author of Memoirs of An Ex-Prom Queen
One day it happens, the dreaded thing that will change your life forever, the more dreadful because, though you’ve half expected it, you don’t know what form it will take or when it will come, and whether or not you will rise to the challenge. For Alix Kates Shulman, it happened on July 22, 2004, at two a.m. on a coastal Maine island in a remote seaside cabin with no electricity, running water, or road to reach it—where the very isolation that makes it a perfect artist’s retreat renders it as risky as life itself. She woke to find that her beloved seventy-five-year-old husband had fallen the nine feet from their sleeping loft and was lying on the floor below, naked and deathly still. Though Scott would survive, he suffered an injury that left him seriously brain impaired. He was the same—but not the same.
Each of us has imagined with dread the occurrence of just such an event outside our control that will permanently alter the course of our lives. In this elegant memoir, Shulman describes life on the other side: the ongoing anxieties and risks—and surprising rewards—she experiences as she reorganizes her world and her priorities to care for her husband and discovers that what might have seemed a grim life sentence to some has evolved into something unexpectedly rich.
In her third memoir (after Drinking the Rain ), Shulman details the transformative effects of her husband's traumatic brain injury at the age of 75. Prior to Scott's fall from a loft bed, their relationship had been one of two deeply committed yet autonomous souls. Steadfast in her opposition to a nursing home, the author decided to tend to her husband herself. A genuinely moving story, especially of interest to those who've experienced or known those who've suffered from traumatic brain injury or who have devoted their lives to caring for another.-Elizabeth Brinkley
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On a moonless summer night my husband fell nine feet from a sleeping loft to the floor and did not die.
He did not die, though he was seventy-five years old and the accident happened in a remote seaside cabin inaccessible by road, on a Maine coastal island that has no doctor on call, much less a hospital.
He did not die, though X-rays taken several hours later showed that he had broken most of his ribs and both feet; punctured both lungs, causing perilous internal bleeding; and suffered so many blood clots in his brain that each CAT scan of that precious organ resembled an elaborate filigree.
He did not die, though my neighbor’s husband fell from a tree and died in a week, and my doctor’s father fell from his roof and died in a day.
How did it happen, that near-fatal fall which he somehow survived? What mysterious combination of mistakes and miracles? He can’t remember it, and I, no matter how indelibly the details of that night are branded on my mind, still can’t fathom it.
Like everyone over a certain age, I sensed that some dreadful thing was coming, the more ominous for not knowing what form it would take or when it would come or whether, when it finally arrived, I would rise to the challenge or succumb.
Every couple who stays together long enough has intimations that a catastrophe is waiting; it’s right there in the wedding vows: For better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Having taken the oath, however cavalierly, you know that unless you separate, one of you is going to wind up taking care of the other, or one of you is going to wind up surviving the other. But which one it will be, when it will happen, how long it will last, and at what cost is unknown, though the odds predict that she will take care of him, then he will die, leaving her alone. But like a curse in a fairy tale, you don’t really believe it’s coming; you try to ignore it until it’s upon you. In the enchantment of life, you forget.
Middle of the night, July 22, 2004. Many hours earlier, we’d left the great island of Manhattan for the small island of Long in Casco Bay, Maine, where we have a summer place. In two backpacks and a wheeled suitcase we’d lugged some basic supplies and everything we’d need for a couple of months of work: I, my laptop and a draft of a short novel to polish; Scott, plans for a new set of sculptures.
After an all-day bus ride from Manhattan to Boston and from Boston on to Portland, then an hour’s ferry ride to the island, and, with our gear on our backs, a twenty-minute walk from where the road dead-ends at the ocean across a long beach to our house, we were pretty exhausted. Especially Scott, whose stamina has been waning for some time.
First mistake: to have taken the bus instead of flying.
By the time we reached the island, it was already late afternoon. Our nearest neighbors and closest island friends, Heather Lewis and Norm Fruchter, who, like us, live in New York in the winter, met our boat at the wharf and drove us in their truck to their house, which stands at the end of the road in front of the long beach that leads to our house. "Why don’t you come back here and have dinner with us? You don’t want to start cooking now," Heather said as we started across the beach with our gear. I couldn’t figure out which would be more tiring: to rustle up a makeshift meal at home or walk back across the beach to Heather and Norm’s. I said I’d call her later and let her know.
As Scott and I began to unpack and attend to the essential chores of opening our house for the summer—lighting the small propane fridge; priming the pump that draws water from the rain barrel beneath the deck; checking the propane powered gas lamps; sweeping away the winter’s mouse droppings; putting a roll of toilet paper out in the privy; and turning on the solar system I use to charge my laptop, printer, and cell phone in the separate studio Scott built for me—Heather’s invitation became increasingly attractive. When we took a break from our labors I called her on my cell phone to say we’d be over in an hour, and after washing up and changing clothes, we walked back across the long beach to their house.
Second mistake: we should have stayed home, eaten bread and peanut butter, and gone straight to bed instead.
Eating Heather’s delicious lasagna, catching up on island gossip, watching the sky take on the glow of sunset as we sipped wine (third mistake: allowing Scott half a glass, forbidden because it clashes with his meds)—I could have stayed for hours being cared for and amused at Heather’s table; it was a perfect transition from the dense throb of Manhattan to our quiet island life. Over dessert, Scott leaned across to me and whispered that it was time to go home. "But we haven’t finished our coffee," I said, and turned back to hear the end of a funny story.
Fourth mistake: I should have heeded the distress signal and left immediately.
At least another fifteen minutes passed before Scott, uncharacteristically, stood up, insisting that we leave at once, and I finally got the message.
We had barely started the trek across the beach toward home when he began to complain of feeling weak and cold— so cold that his teeth were actually chattering. I suggested that we return to our friends’ house, which unlike ours has all the traditional amenities and comforts, and take them up on their standing offer to spend the night. A fog was rolling in, and though it was mid-July, there was a chill in the air. Why push it? Ever since he’d survived an aortic aneurysm a dozen years before, I’d felt protective of him, taking seriously each odd symptom. But he refused to turn back, even after some urging, so I took his arm and we pressed on.
Fifth mistake: I should have insisted that we turn back instead of crossing the long beach for the third time that day.
By the time we got home, it was dark. Instead of unpacking, we decided to go to bed immediately. We left the house and walked down the path past the outhouse, with its one-hole privy, to the east-facing studio, where we often prefer to sleep in order to wake up to the exhilarating sight of sunrise and surf crashing on the rocks below. As is our habit, I preceded him up the ladder like stairs to the sleeping loft to light a gas lamp to illuminate his way up. When I had it lit, Scott locked the doors, turned off the downstairs lamp, and followed me up. We got into bed and talked a while before turning off the light. This was always our pleasure, talking over the highlights of the day, and tonight, having just arrived, admiring the studio Scott designed and built for me sixteen years before, with its steeply pitched roof forming the high ceiling of the single room, its asymmetrical fenestration, its lush mahogany floorboards of irregular width, the gift of a boat builder friend, which we laid and varnished together, and then our special game, identifying animals and faces, as varied as the patterns in passing clouds, in the knots of the pine boards that form the walls and ceiling.
Sixth mistake: knowing how tired he was, I should have turned off the light at once and let him sleep.
When I finally closed my eyes, I fell instantly into a deep sleep. Too deep to notice Scott leaving the bed or remember his crying out, though I must have heard him, because—
Suddenly I’m sitting bolt upright in bed, flooded with adrenaline. In that black night it’s almost too dark to see the empty place beside me, but I sense his absence. "Scott?"No answer. Louder: "Scott?" The studio where we sleep is a single room topped by the sleeping loft. If he doesn’t answer, where can he be? "Scott? Scott!" Maybe he’s gone off to the outhouse and can’t hear me call. But inside me I know the catastrophe has come.
On top of a bluff that protrudes into the ocean from the edge of the rocky coast like a small peninsula—a shore formation called a nubble—the studio of pine and glass usually gets more than enough moonlight and starlight to see by; in a lightning storm the entire nubble is lit in every direction. But by this hour of the night the moon has set, and whatever ambient light might normally glow is obscured by a dense fog. Gas lamps take time to light—to find a match, strike it, then, with one hand hold it an exact distance beneath the lamp’s delicate fiberglass mantle (any closer and the mantle would break), and with the other hand turn a difficult valve to allow the propane to flow into the lamp. Frantic for light, I instead grab the flashlight I keep next to the bed and shine it down over the low wall of the loft onto the floor below.
There he is, lying on the floor, curled up like a fetus. Naked and deathly still.
I dash down the steep stairs, shouting his name, then repeat it directly into his ear.
This can’t be happening. I can’t believe it’s happening. Maybe it’s not? All at once I recall the day, many years before, as the studio was being built, when I came inside to see Scott with hammer and nails high up on a tall ladder that leaned against the loft. Seconds later he and the ladder fell backward in a great arc to the floor, he landing on his back with the ladder on top of him. Although that fall was from almost the same height as tonight’s fall, after a moment he got up and brushed himself off, with only a fright, a few bruises, and the next day a sore back.
This time he is silent and immobile.
More light! I set down the flashlight and light the nearest gas lamp, then crouch down beside him. "Scott!" I repeat, moving his shoulder—gently at first, then less gently. No response, nothing. Is he breathing? I hold my own breath to listen. I can’t tell. I remember the mirror test, but there’s no mirror.
His body isn’t cold or gray or spurting blood—not that I can see, anyway—all good signs. But he doesn’t respond. I refuse to believe—or even imagine the possibility—that he is dead.
My fault, my fault, my fault! For not waking up when he woke up. For not keeping a closer eye on him. For not nagging him to put a higher railing in the loft. For failing to insist that we spend the night at Heather and Norm’s. For taking a bus from New York instead of a plane. For not seeing this coming. How could I have let this happen?
Somehow I manage to find my cell phone and call 911.
Eerily, over dinner that evening our neighbors had told us amusing gossip about infighting among the island’s emergency rescue team, part of the Long Island Volunteer Fire Department. After the stories, it occurred to me to ask what number to call in an emergency. I was surprised to learn that it was now 911, rather than some ordinary island number, as it used to be.
Another eerie coincidence: in bed that night before we turned out the light, we talked about broken bones. I asked Scott, once a star athlete who in his youth had suffered his share of broken limbs, if there were nerves in bones to make them hurt. He speculated that what hurts is the adjacent tissue but not the bones themselves. The next day, recalling these coincidences under the terror of my guilt, irrationally I wonder if they might not be used as evidence to suggest that I pushed him over.
After I’ve described the accident to the 911 operator, he asks if Scott is unconscious.
"I don’t know. He hasn’t moved or spoken."
"Is he breathing?"
"I don’t know," I admit again, feeling stupid.
Then suddenly Scott makes a sound—a senseless babble, like garbled underwater speech, stroke talk.
The first miracle: he’s alive!
As I’m reporting this miraculous news, I hear him say, weakly, "Turn me on my back."
Not only alive but speaking!
Jubilantly I repeat his words into the phone and my worst fears vanish in the fog.
"Do not move him," orders the operator. "It will be dangerous to move him until a medic gets there and assesses him."
No sooner does one fear disappear than another one rushes in to fill the vacuum. Alive, coherent, but in what condition?
And how will he be saved?
"Can you please tell me your address?"
Here is a problem. Our official post office address corresponds to a mailbox in front of Norm and Heather’s house at the end of the nearest road, a twenty-minute walk across the beach from here. Useless for guiding anyone to us. I try to explain the difficulty, but it’s futile. Why have I never prepared myself for this crucial question? Going back and forth with questions and answers, we waste precious moments, until I abandon the concept of address and tell the operator that we are on Long Island in Casco Bay, twenty minutes out beyond where the road to South Beach dead-ends, on a spit of land that juts out from the intersection of South Beach and Singing Sands Beach. The spit is called Andrews Nubble on the nautical charts. Assuming he’ll send a helicopter to land on the beach, I imagine more minutes lost while he locates a nautical chart. "We have two structures," I warn, "the house and the studio.
Three, if you count the small outhouse in between them. We’re now in the studio, the farthest structure from Singing Sands Beach. It’ll be the only one with lights on." I warn him about the steep, rickety stairs up from the beach, the rail-less deck, the pitch-black night.
"What’s your husband’s name?"
"Okay. Now, don’t go away. I’m going to send out an emergency call. Whatever you do, don’t move your husband until someone arrives. It may take me a while, so just hold on there. Don’t hang up."
For two decades of summers I came to this island by myself, in love with solitude, my only connection with the outside world weekly phone calls from the island’s single pay phone down near the dock or old-fashioned handwritten letters. The next miracle on that night of mistakes: the phone never once lost its signal, which is always chancy and quickly broken in this remote cabin. It’s even something of a miracle that I have a cell phone at all, having bought it only after I began to worry about Scott alone in New York.
While I wait for rescue, I light the three downstairs gas lamps, then run back upstairs, grab my watch (it’s after two), and throw down a pillow and a sleeping bag to cover Scott with.
"Turn me on my back, please, it’s killing me."
"I can’t," I say, tucking the bag around him gingerly. "I’m not allowed to move you till a medic comes. You mustn’t move. I’m so sorry." Over and over he pleads to be turned over. How can I go on refusing him? As I carefully slip the pillow beneath his head, I am seared by guilt for refusing to grant his wish— the first of many seemingly cruel refusals and tyrannical commands from me to him in the months to come.
Finally, the 911 operator comes back on the line to report that he’s sent out the highest, most serious alarm, a Number 10.
I’m perplexed. Scott is talking okay, and I don’t see any blood. "Why a Number 10?"
"An elderly man falls nine or ten feet and loses consciousness? That’s a Number 10 if anything is." Elderly? The word takes me by surprise. It applies to one’s parents, not one’s husband. Whenever our children have shown that they consider us old, we’ve balked or laughed. Scott, whom I fell for when he was twenty and I seventeen, is timeless to me, not elderly. Maybe that’s why we fell in love a second time, after thirty-four years apart: in each other’s eyes, we were still the (by then mythical) youths we’d been in 1950, the summer of our first romance.
Science has firmly established that memory is unstable and unreliable, that whenever you summon up a recollection of the past you are liable to change it slightly until, with the passage of time, it may no longer represent what actually happened. Nevertheless, I can still see in my mind’s eye, as clearly as if it were yesterday, the twenty-year-old Scott York, blond, blue-eyed, and fabulous, sitting halfway up in the biology amphitheater as I stood at the bottom surveying the room on my first day of college. From that moment on, I set my sights on him. Seventeen and newly sprung from Cleveland Heights High School, I was no longer subject to the rule by which Jews and gentiles were forbidden to date—a restriction so rigorously enforced that even at my thirty-fifth high-school reunion, held at a country club where the ballroom was divided by the dance floor into two separate wings, Jews occupied the tables on one side, gentiles those on the other, as Scott and I alone noticed.
He had long figured in my fantasies. When I was a freshman at Heights, he was a graduating senior—captain of the basketball team, president of his (gentile) fraternity, school vice president. At the games where I went to cheer my own ( Jewish) boyfriend, it was Scott York I watched. At six feet, with thick blond hair, chiseled features, and muscular shoulders and thighs, he was a thing of beauty, despite the sweat staining his jersey or the occasional foul he inflicted with a well-placed elbow. His spectacular leaps to make the point, his perfect long shots from impossible distances, and his bone-risking dives to recover the ball made him the highest scorer, whose picture was often in the school paper and, during the championship play-offs, even in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He had the speed and grace of an antelope—not only on the court but also on the dance floor, where he and his girlfriend Nancy were among the slow-dancing and jitterbugging couples people formed circles around to watch.
Now here he was in summer school, three years after having graduated from Heights, taking the same botany class I was taking—and a long summer ahead of us. The class would be meeting from nine till noon every weekday for the next six weeks; much could happen in six weeks’ time. I had no illusion that he, who had left high school a semester after I entered, might remember me. Nevertheless, feeling predatory and bold, I walked up the steep steps and sat down beside him.
The biology building (now gone) was built at the beginning of the last century, with high ceilings, tall windows, dark wooden floors, and old-fashioned oak chairs that turned into desks when you swiveled up the heavy arm—an awkward maneuver. Scott graciously helped me unfold the arm of my chair. I put down my books and slipped my cardigan over the back of my seat before I flashed my most seductive smile and introduced myself. I couldn’t tell if I’d made an impression on him until two days later, when, arriving in class after me, he scanned the faces in the hall and then made straight for the empty seat beside me.
Scott was a premed student at Duke, on a four-year basketball scholarship, spending his summer back home to earn money and get the extra science credits he needed to graduate the following year. Most of the jocks I knew went to one of the state colleges and studied business administration, not a hard major like premed. I was impressed. But then, I too had sobered up since I’d last seen him. Once a boy-crazy social butterfly, in my senior year I’d withdrawn into a cocoon of my own making and emerged a passionate seeker of knowledge who over the past year had begun to disdain the limitations of our one-track adolescent minds. As I became absorbed by books, my mind became two-track. Perhaps, after three years of college, Scott’s was too? Over burgers and fries at the campus café I tried to draw him out, but as doggedly as I asked my questions, he was determined to deflect them, thus preserving his mystery.
Even if I’d succeeded, what can one know of another soul?—especially at seventeen, when the neural and social networks are more potential than secure. The assumptions we made about each other were based on the flimsiest preconceptions, which set us both up for some surprises. Not that I was surprised to find him an innocent when it came to girls— common enough in boys who thought of little but sports for most of their lives, faced with girls who thought of little but boys for most of theirs. A proud practitioner of feminine wiles as performed in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, I welcomed his social naïveté for the advantage it gave me against his three-year edge in years. But his reticence, his modesty, his lack of even a whiff of macho posturing surprised me in an athlete. In the jock culture of our high school, the athletes I knew were mostly so full of themselves that they thought they could get away with anything, from classroom cheating to rape; and though most of them never stooped that low, even the best were vain and self-important. Scott seemed different. Despite his uncommon good looks, he was shy, earnest, and humble, with a sweetness about him that puzzled me.
For his part, he was surprised by what he called my "braininess." He’d never before had a book-reading girlfriend. He knew his way around a microscope well enough—so well that he succeeded in getting me to see cells floating on a slide—but I doubted he’d read more than half a dozen unassigned books in his entire life. He questioned me about the books I loved, and sometimes he jotted down titles. (A half century later, packing up his studio, I came upon a small notebook of his from that summer, with a list of authors I’d suggested— Mencken, Emerson, Voltaire, and the debut fiction of Capote and Isherwood.) Evidently, I was as exotic to him as he was to me.
On the Friday of our second week, our class went on an expedition to Cleveland’s Holden Arboretum. There, for the first time, Scott and I engineered a few minutes apart. A light rain was falling as we left the parking lot for the trail, allowing us to huddle arm in arm under a single umbrella. Walking slowly with the pretext of collecting leaves, we fell behind the class until we were alone, surrounded by nothing but woods. Scott stopped under the shelter of a tall Ohio buckeye, with its huge hand like leaves spread in benediction; then he took me in his arms and kissed me. Unlike other kisses I’d known, this one felt as chaste as it was ardent. There we stood in the rain, kissing, until Scott pulled away, murmuring an apology. For what? My age? Did he think me an innocent (like him)? Perhaps a virgin?
Time was slipping by; I had to disabuse him quickly, make him recognize me as not your ordinary freshman.
A great pounding, and the studio door bursts open.
Another miracle—it’s Greg Middleton, the island arborist. "Greg!" I cry giddily. What a relief that the first rescue worker to arrive is not some stranger dropping from a helicopter, but a friend. Never have I been gladder to see anyone. I want to throw myself at his feet, put our lives in his hands.
He sweeps a powerful torch around the studio, then rushes over to Scott and crouches down beside him. "How ya doin’, buddy?" he asks softly. He moves away to report his arrival into a big boxy radio.
"How did you hear?" I ask.
"The radio woke me up. As soon as I heard the dispatcher say Singing Sands Beach, I knew it had to be you. I jumped into my boots and took off."
"You sleep with the radio on?"
"When I’m on duty I sure do." He looks up at the sleeping loft. "He fell from way up there? Wow! What happened?"
Before I can answer, there’s more pounding on the door and three more men explode into the room, breathless, wired, filling the small studio with their bristling male energy and the crackling static of their radios. From every corner of the island, one by one, the heroic Long Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue Team burst through the door, then report by radio to the fire chief. They include several lobstermen, a carpenter, the builder who put in our solar, the island gas man, a hospital orderly who commutes to Portland. Some I know, some I don’t. The last to arrive is Tim Lambert, the EMT medic. Taking charge, Tim kneels down to Scott, while the rest of the men huddle around him in a closed circle that excludes me, and asks me for a list of Scott’s medications.
Why have I never compiled such a list? (Nowadays I keep one in each of our wallets and all over our loft.) I get the pills, but before I begin to write, I see a stretcher being readied. Afraid of being left behind, I quickly snatch up Scott’s things— his wallet, medicines, clothes, shoes, glasses—and, together with a flashlight and my cell phone, throw them into my still partially packed backpack. Everything is happening so fast! I’m barefoot when the men start out the door with Scott on the stretcher. Frantically I fumble to put on sneakers. Greg stays behind to help me close the studio and with his powerful torch guides me back across the decks, down the iffy stairs, and on across the narrow path from Singing Sands to the longer South Beach, where the hazards of high tide await us.
Usually the beach is wide and firm enough to run across, but at high tide it shrinks to a strip of wrack strewn with treacherous driftwood, rocks, rope, and plastic—too narrow for a stretcher and its bearers. Nevertheless—another miracle— somehow the men manage to carry the stretcher in relays across that long beach without stumbling, though it’s almost impossible to see the ground for the soupy fog. I trot along at the rear, trying to keep up, afraid of being left back as superfluous or worse.
At last we reach the end of the beach, where the road begins in front of Heather and Norm’s house, and the island’s ambulance truck awaits us. I look up. Their windows are dark, the house is still. Can it really have been only a few hours since we sat on that porch and laughed through dinner, carefree and confident? I see through a scrim to that distant world where life proceeds by days and nights, not minute by terrifying minute; it occurs to me that we’ve left that calm, carefree world behind forever.
But there’s no time to think. The men are already transferring Scott from the stretcher to a gurney and lifting him into the truck. Someone leads me to the truck’s cab, where I can ride beside the driver. Someone else thrusts my bag onto my lap, and off we go, racing across the island through the fog, down to the dock where the fireboat from Portland, fitted out as an ambulance, awaits us. In the fog I can just make out Dickey Clarke, the fire chief—whose day job is to run the island dump—standing on the wharf directing the rescue with radio and bullhorn. Despite the hour, some of the island women have also turned out to lend support; Robin, who is part of the rescue team, wishes me luck as Scott is wheeled onto the boat.
Now we’ve pulled anchor and are heading out to sea. The island recedes, our friends are gone. Seeing it disappear, I feel a wave of overwhelming gratitude toward those heroic men and women who showed up in the middle of the night to save my husband. Without them, how will I be able to protect him from further harm?
Inside the truck’s cabin, the gurney is secured to the floor. A medic claps an oxygen mask over Scott’s mouth and nose. At last I can see his pale blue eyes, study that handsome face. It’s changed; it radiates less light. He’s trying to say something, but behind the mask his words are too muffled to make out. All I can do is stroke his forehead and hands and try to reassure him that things are under control and that he’ll be okay.
"How long before we get to Portland?" I ask the medic.
"Maybe twenty, twenty-five minutes," he says of a trip that by ferry would normally take forty-five minutes, including stops. I check my watch. Almost 4:00 a.m.—two hours since the universe flipped over. Silently I urge the boat to go still faster.
More than half a century before, at the end of our second week of summer school, Scott finally took me out on a genuine date. He picked me up in his secondhand blue Ford convertible and drove us to the Sea Fare Lounge, a smoky cocktail bar with live piano music and leather banquettes, at the edge of Cleveland Heights, halfway down the long hill to the city— more sophisticated than the high-school hangouts I was used to. On a platform just inside the entrance, a gaunt brunette, cigarette dangling from her lips, played show tunes on a baby grand and nodded to Scott as we entered. When he told me she was a classmate of his, I felt intimidated and jealous. Could she be the reason we’d come here?
We slid into a booth and ordered shrimp cocktails and martinis. Though Scott sat with his back to the pianist, giving me his full attention, I bridled when she dedicated a song to him. That a Heights High girl could or would have a job playing music in a cocktail bar was unimaginable to me. Though I was prettier, she was at least twenty, and far more accomplished. What cards did I have to play?
("Don’t kid yourself, you had plenty of cards," Scott tells me decades later when I read him this passage off my computer screen.) After my second martini I played the sex card, my one trump, and lightheartedly challenged him to find us a bed where we could make love. No backseats for us! I said it with enough flippant bravado that he could dismiss it as a joke if he wanted to, though I’d already tried to make clear that I disdained prudery and considered myself not bound by Heights High conventions.
He said nothing, just leaned over to light my cigarette— a Chesterfield, my mother’s brand—though he himself, like my upright father, was not a smoker. Was he shocked by my invitation? When he took me home and chastely kissed me good night on the front porch, it was as if he had not heard my challenge. So I was surprised when, on our next Saturday night date, instead of taking me dancing or home, he headed across the bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River to Cleveland’s West Side, where neither of us knew a soul, and turned into the entrance drive of a motel.
A motel! In the movies, motels were where seductive fallen women and doomed married lovers begin their plunge.
"Wait here," he said, getting out of the car and heading toward the office. Embarrassment and exhilaration battled inside me as I waited. Motel sex was supposed to be sordid, base, degrading. But I was relieved that it was finally going to happen and ecstatic that despite his inhibiting shyness, gentleman that he was, he had accepted my dare. Seeing him return to the car waving a room key, my admiration for him soared.
In 1984, when he suddenly reappeared in my life after a thirty-four-year hiatus, Scott amazed me by recalling the name and address of the motel, complete with our room number (26). What I remembered was that for all my swagger, we spent a good half hour sitting on the bed talking before taking off our clothes. As we try now, in 2005, to reconstruct our early courtship, the passage of more than half a century has left only a few images undimmed and undiminished. For me, the layout of the room, the smell of woolen blankets even in summer, the Big Ben clock ticking on the night table, and, most vividly, his hard, smooth biceps pressed against my cheek while we made
love, and afterward the bed sheets soaked with his sweat ("It was summer, what do you expect?" he protests defensively when I read him this passage); for him, the shock of seeing my black pubic triangle as I emerged naked from the bathroom. When I question him and probe for more, nothing comes; he can’t remember anything but what he’s told me already. It can’t be only a result of his brain injury, because I, who once prided myself on my memory for detail, retain of that faraway time only the few images I’ve recorded here from which to infer what our affair meant to me, to us, what really happened.
That summer, though we did manage several quick couplings in the car, we never returned to the motel or made love in a bed again. Nor did we speak of the sex we shared, even though when the botany course ended, we both registered for zoology, giving us six more weeks of class together, plus weekend afternoons in my parents’ garage dissecting the frog we stole from the lab in order to study for the final, and our regular Saturday nights. What kept us from going back again? Embarrassment? The risk of being caught? The expense? Perhaps it was my unspoken understanding that although the romance was of a high order, the sex, like most sex between the inexperienced, was not worth the risks. Like any 1950 Heights High girl, I feared being carried away and losing control, which could lead, in those pre-pill years, to pregnancy, exposure, ruin. As for him, if he’d felt apologetic for merely kissing me, how much more so must he have felt over having sex with me. Having demonstrated to each other our daring and audacity, perhaps prudence induced us to quit while we were ahead.
Excerpted from To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed by Alix Kates Shulman
Copyright © by Alix Kates Shulman
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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Alix Kates Shulman is the author of four novels, including Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen; two previous memoirs, including the award-winning Drinking the Rain; and two books on the anarchist Emma Goldman.
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