Erik’s Porsche pulled out of the garage as Melissa ran out of the house, shoes in hand, hair damp. He stopped the car, reaching over to open her door while she ran around to the passenger side. When she hopped in, she held up a finger in silent focus, taking a moment to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything. With a grimace, she asked, “You’re not going to need me to drive, right? I don’t have my wallet or ID.”
“Nope. You good to go otherwise?”
She reached out, yanked her door shut and grabbed her seatbelt. “Yep.”
He was accelerating down his winding entry road as she clicked the seatbelt into place. She looked at the greenery speeding past and took a deep breath, blowing it out. “I can’t believe I slept so long. Especially when I’m meeting your uncle for the first time.”
“I’m sorry, it was my fault. I got caught up crunching the numbers on that possible new Glanox deal. I completely lost track of time.”
“Yeah, well so much for us getting some exercise this morning.”
“Well, you got some exercise.”
“Ha! Maybe you did, but I was immobilized. With that damn hood, I couldn’t see or hear anything.”
He pulled out on the main road, quickly shifting through gears, disregarding the speed limit more than usual. “Hum. Does that mean you didn’t like it?”
“I’m not sure. Getting slapped and that whole simulated rape thing – it kind of threw me off.”
“Oh… sounds like I might have messed up. I’m sorry…”
“Nooo… it was powerfully erotic. But yeah – I got caught completely off guard. Then I went so deep into subspace. Total la-la land.”
“Yeah, I saw that.” He paused to make a turn, then continued. “Ah, the face slap thing… too much, or was it okay?”
“It totally freaked me out… but I got so fucking wet… and that was what really freaked me out.”
“You know, you can always say ‘yellow light,’ if you need a break.”
“Yeah, but you’re mostly really amazing at picking up on when I need some extra time to process something. So, I feel like, if I said ‘yellow’ or ‘red light,’ it would really mess up the mood.”
“Um, for me, ‘being safe’ is way more important than keeping ‘the mood.’ Going too far could be a lot more damaging. Remember, I’m still feeling my way around, trying to figure out what is and isn’t okay for you. You’ve got to help me out by telling me.”
“Ah, okay. Well, being slapped, and grabbed by the hair, and chased – that did totally freaked me out… and it scared me… and made me so fucking wet and horny, I didn’t know what to do with myself. It still feels pretty freaky weird.”
“You know it was all pretend, right?”
“Yeah, but getting slapped across the face felt pretty fucking real.”
He nodded, then explained, “I cupped my hand, so it sounds loud, but doesn’t really hurt as much as a real slap.”
“It’s a stage acting trick.”
She shook her head, bemused. “Sometimes, it all seems… play acting. I’m not sure what is real.”
“How we feel about each other – that’s real.”
She looked over at him, startled at his serious tone. He was looking out the windshield at the road ahead. His words felt simple, direct, and honest, in the same way as he almost always was, but his words had hit her much harder than the earlier slap had. She started to feel dizzy, which made she realize that she had stopped breathing. Forcing herself to take a quiet, deep breath, she finally replied, “Yeah. What we have, that’s real.”
He nodded, seeming preoccupied with getting onto the highway. She watched him drive, shifting through gears and slipping through traffic with the careful, deliberate intensity that seemed to be so deeply part of who he was. Falling in love with this man felt simultaneously wonderful and terrifying. Losing herself in him and his world seemed so easy, but it seemed equally easy to lose who she was along the way.
* * *
As Erik walked with Melissa through the restaurant, his stride seemed less certain than usual. He was looking around, scanning the busy dining room until his eyes locked on an older man sitting by himself at a table near the windows. The man at the table looked up. When he saw Erik, a broad smile broke out across his face. Moving a bit stiffly, he stood to greet them.
Erik hurried to his uncle’s table, tugging Melissa along at a pace that was awkwardly fast for her mandatory high heels. With a wry smile, she skipped along on her toes to keep up with him.
Erik’s uncle called out, “Erik, my boy! It’s so good to see you.” Holding out his arms, he stepped forward to embrace Erik. Even though Erik towered over his uncle, there was no question of who was the senior. Erik seemed instinctively deferential to the older man in a way that Melissa had never seen before. The contrast with how Erik normally held himself made her realize just how effortlessly he projected an air of being in charge in nearly every other situation.
Before she could ponder her insight any further, Erik’s uncle stepped over to great her. Barefoot, she would have been taller than him, but dressed as she was, she found herself self-consciously staring down at him. He disarmed her, however, with a genuine smile, reaching out to take her hands in his own, rather than presuming to hug her. He said, “You have no idea what an absolute delight it is to meet you, my dear.”
“And you too, sir,” Melissa replied.
“Please, please, call me Jacob.”
She smiled back at him in agreement.
With his own smile in return, he then stepped back, gesturing to the table. “Please, sit down. Tell me what is new and wonderful.” He pulled out the chair to his right, adding, “Sit here, next to me, so I can ask you all sorts of embarrassing questions about what my nephew has been up to.”
She felt a momentary shock of fear, not sure what his uncle knew about Erik’s private life. As Jacob helped her sit, Melissa stole a look at Erik. He gave her a quick smile and a subtle shake of his head, seeming to indicate that she didn’t have to reveal any embarrassing sexual details.
Once Jacob and Erik sat down, Jacob looked at her inquiringly, inviting her to answer his question. Melissa said, “Ah, just the usual, I suspect, you know, saving companies, tilting at windmills, rescuing fair maidens.”
Jacob turned to Eric, a delighted twinkle in his eyes, “Aha! She’s discovered the idealistic streak you thought you’d so carefully hidden away.”
Erik nodded sheepishly. “She is an amazing woman. A few weeks back, she even accused me of tikun olam.”
Jacob’s eyebrows raised in surprise and he looked back over to Melissa, “Are you a member of our wayward tribe, my dear?”
Melissa was puzzled by his question, so Erik answered for her, “No, she’s simply an awesome person.” To Melissa, Erik explained, “He was asking if you’re Jewish.”
She laughed, “No, I’m a recovering Catholic.”
Jacob nodded, “But still, to know my little Erik so well. To understand the concept of tikun olam, that means you have seen how deep within him, there lies a powerful need to fix what is broken, to do his part to heal our world. That is not a thing that most people would realize about our Erik. He is right, you must certainly be special.”
Melissa ducked her head in embarrassment. After a moment, she said to Jacob, “Well, I may have seen it, but it’s your nephew who actually does it. He’s the one who takes all the risks and who works so hard.”
Jacob nodded his agreement. “True. Erik does try to hide it, but he cares very deeply about making things right. Do you know, when he was thirteen, his school decided to mainstream the Special-Ed kids in the lunchroom? There was this girl with cerebral palsy. She steered her wheelchair to a lunch table with some seventh grade girls. They were so upset, they stood up and left. Erik was furious. He picked up his tray and sat down with the girl, talking with her for the rest of lunch. He ate lunch with her for the rest of the year.”
Melissa felt tears gathering in her eyes. She looked over to Erik, who seemed uncharacteristically embarrassed. She asked Erik, “What happened to her?”
He took a breath, as though he needed to steady his emotions. “Anne. She went to high school the next year, where the Special Education kids didn’t interact with the rest of the student body, but we kept in touch. We still e-mail back and forth, every once in awhile.”
Jacob snorted. “Erik visited her every week that summer. He had to ride his bike for several miles each way. His grandmother didn’t approve, so she wouldn’t drive him. Anne invited him to her high school and college graduation.”
Melissa looked over to Erik. “Like Jake, at Sunstone.”
He stayed quiet, but his uncle said, “Oh yes, Erik told me about my namesake at Sunstone. You know, the day that Erik found out some of the employees were teasing Jake, he was furious. It was like that day he came back from middle school when Anne had come to the cafeteria the first time. He was livid.”
Jacob paused, then asked Melissa, “Have you ever seen him when he’s really angry?”
“No, but I imagine it’s quite frightening.”
Jacob looked up at the ceiling, lips pursed in memory. “Even as a thirteen-year-old boy, his rage had an intensity and determination that was… intimidating.”
She nodded, “I can believe that.”
They both looked at Erik, who shrugged with an apologetic smile. A soberness, however, underlaid his expression.
Jacob continued, “He’s protective of those he loves.”
Melissa laughed, “Did he tell you that he hooked me up with this retired Green Beret, Mike? He’s teaching me self-defense and stuff, for someday when I go overseas on a dig.”
Jacob laughed softly. “No, but I’d believe it.” Looking over at Erik, Jacob said, “You’re being awfully quiet. Don’t you have anything to say for yourself?”
Shaking his head sadly, Erik answered, “I don’t know why I ever thought it was a good idea to get the two of you together.
His uncle chided him, “You’re supposed to pull the people you love together. Aren’t you the one who’s always telling me to let people in?”
Melissa turned to Jacob with a shocked look. “I can’t believe that you keep people away”
Jacob seemed unsure how to answer, so Erik explained, “Oh, he has generations of students who absolutely adore him. He’s one of the most popular professors on campus. But at home, he has no one of his own, no one to warm his feet on a cold night.”
Jacob frowned. He said quietly, “We all live with our own situations, and our own choices.”
Erik answered as softly, “The world has changed, uncle, a long time ago.”
“I know, alas, but I have not. Every week, I still go for services to the same little schul where I became bar mitzvah. Every morning, I still put on tefillin and thank Adoni for blessing me with another day.” He shrugged, indicating helplessness. “It is true; I am trapped in my own tradition.”
Melissa looked back and forth between the two men, seeing the strange combination of generous compassion and quiet reserve that marked the two of them. She wondered if it was a family trait, knowing Jacob was the only family bond Erik had left.