|“You are my ears, Dwight.” Roberta’s words tickled his mind from the past, or the afterlife. He would never forget them. They meant a million times more than ‘I love you.’
Fifty-one weeks out of the year, suppressing the pain was easy. He worked sixty-hour weeks and drank himself to sleep each night. Roberta would have chastised him for this. She didn’t drink and abhorred workaholics.
“If you don’t make time to enjoy life, why live at all?” It was one of her favorite sayings. Dwight could still hear her fight to form the words.
Speech was a struggle for Roberta, an attribute of her deafness. “It’s not a handicap. It’s a source of strength,” she often said. It wasn’t false bravado, it was her creed. The hearing impairment wouldn’t stop her from living.
The smell of burning plastic broke his reverie. He took the cigarette from the ashtray and mashed the burning filter in on itself. He lit another. The room was silent as Roberta’s world had been. He enveloped himself in white noise to honor her.
This was his mourning week. The seven days he took off every year for the last decade to give in to his self-pity. The freezer was packed with frozen dinners and his cupboards with Chunky soup cans. He would not leave the house. In Roberta’s memory, he would not drink. The sacrifice was another self-flagellation he forced upon himself. He wouldn’t deaden his emotions; Roberta deserved more.
On the coffee table were a picture and a blade sharp enough to split a hair. He touched the razor, not ready to pick it up.
“I will do it this year, Roberta. I promise,” he said.
They met at Shultz’s Caf√©, a trendy coffee shop located on the ground floor of the World Trade Center. The shadows of New York’s monolithic skyscrapers cooled the humid summer air. He sat alone, thoughts on his work; his brain never imagined anything else before Roberta. He noticed her the way an ordinary man perceives any beautiful woman in close proximity, but business was on the brain and he disregarded her. Icy cold wetness broke him from his deliberation. His lap was drenched in cubes of frozen water and diet coke.
“I’m so sorry,” Roberta said. “I’m so clumsy.”
Dwight rose, his face red with anger. “How could you be such a klutz?” he yelled. Everyone in the caf√© turned to look at them; some covered their mouths to hide their mirth.
Roberta glared back at him. “It was an accident. I said I was sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t clean my suit.”
That was the first time she signed to him. He knew the universal gesture. He learned it in the second grade. She held the extended middle finger an inch from his face, making sure he couldn’t ignore it.
For reasons he still didn’t know, he laughed and fell in love with her in that moment.
They went back to the caf√© every year, celebrating their life together. Each anniversary renewed their feelings. It was as if they met for the first time all over again, although she never again flipped him the bird. Dwight would never return to that place—could never return.
The tears burned in his eyes before cascading down his cheeks. He only cried during this week. How could he not? Everywhere he looked, there were reminders. If he closed his eyes, he would hear screams and the hurried voices of frantic news anchors. If he blocked his ears, he would smell her perfume, and that was worse.
Dwight heard that some people denied the truth of their loved ones’ death. They pretended that they weren’t ripped from the world by an evil force; that they weren’t murdered. He couldn’t deny it, he watched Patricia die. Everyone saw her die. It was on CNN.
He caressed the knife. He didn’t pick it up. That would mean he was ready to cut. There was still pain to absorb; the time was not right.
Memories of that day rushed in on him. He expected them—wanted them, but the emotion was like a wildfire. It burned without prejudice, leaving scars behind.
Roberta stood on the precipice, flames behind her roaring like a hungry predator. The sky beyond her was thick with smoke, its peaceful blue turned to a deathly black. Sweat glistened on her skin and dripped from her hair. Her eyes were open wide, exposing a fear deep enough to make Dwight’s breath catch.
Her hands moved in a wild frenzy as she stared through Dwight. The hand signals burned into Dwight’s mind like an iron brand.
“You are my ears.”
Dwight’s shriek of despair drowned out the rest of the broadcast.
Dwight reached for the blade and grasped it in his hand. Grabbing the picture in the other, he held it up before him.
The New York City skyline reached out to him from the past. It was magnificent and beautiful, but it brought pain.
He slapped the picture flat on the table. He raised the blade close to his face, admiring its keen edge. There was so much damage that a sharp razor could do. He was about to use it for another purpose.
He tested the edge once more. This time, a thin trickle of blood ran down his hand from the miniscule slice on his fingertip. He was okay with that.
He placed the palm of his hand down on the picture and cut. The blade sliced and Dwight felt his pain recede.
He grabbed the picture by its corner and held it up with his hand. The skyline was changed. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were gone.