At about 7:15 on September 11th, 2001, Daddy Sparta, my police officer/soldier husband, called me on his way to work and woke me up. “Are you listening to the news?”
“Of course not, I just woke up. Why?”
“Two planes have hit the World Trade Center. They think it’s a terrorist attack.”
“Wha- What? Are you serious?”
“Yes. I’m serious. It’s started.”
It didn’t surprise him.
For many people, the notion of being on alert was born with the September 11th attacks. For Daddy Sparta, Condition Orange is a reality of life — of survival. He calls me regularly throughout the day, my “Hello?” followed by one of three questions: “Are you all right?” “Is Niko all right?” or “Is everything all right?” When we end a call to one another, after the — “okay, bye, love you” — Daddy Sparta sometimes tacks on, “Remember, stay in Condition Orange.”
Sparta is a coiled spring. Whenever we are out of the house, he is scanning for possible threats. Trying to anticipate. Trying to prepare. If life calls on him to take action, Sparta intends to be ready. When I asked a good friend his first impression of Sparta, he replied, “Taut.”
Sparta was ready when we went on a vacation to Belize, arriving in San Pedro and settling into a ramshackle beachside hotel above a bar. Lugging our duffels up the peeling stairs, we could see the owner’s apartment landing below us. A family gaggle burst out the door, at its center a screaming young woman and a muscular young man holding a baby.
The woman was yanking the man’s tank top and ululating in Spanish, “Don’t take my baby! Don’t take my baby!” A grandfather and other family members also clutched at the pair’s limbs. I leaned against the railing watching them. I didn’t think I blinked, but I must have, because there was Sparta’s head — black stripe down the middle — and his white shoulders, in the middle of the fury. He was holding the young man from behind, almost embracing him. In a low voice, the grandfather spoke to the young man, who, with an epithet, relinquished the baby and stormed down the steps.
I treasure Sparta’s safety-consciousness, his ferocious concern. Once, I saw a little boy in the schoolyard getting on his bike, saying, “But Dad, we forgot my helmet!”
“Just don’t fall,” his dad replied, smiling sheepishly at me. I had to keep myself from shaking my head. Lazy shmuck. Go get your kid’s helmet.
When I’m walking in our neighborhood with Sparta, I know he’s got my back. I can be languid. I can drift among the smells of lavender and poppies, and watch the bees circle the roses. Or let the California bungalows blur as I wander through the landscape of my own thoughts.
But being married to vigilance has a price.
When our son was six months old, we took him on a hike. When Niko started to fuss, we found a hummock with a few stones on it, and I sat down to nurse, Daddy Sparta beside me. The air was so clean I thought I could see the individual molecules dancing in it. Daddy Sparta’s thigh was warm next to mine and our baby was nursing happily. Don’t miss this, I thought. This is a perfect moment, feel it, breathe it in.
Was it the sluicing of the long green grass against fur that caused me to look over? A dark mass hurtled toward me and the baby. The dog’s mouth was open, its pink jowls gleaming. I fell forward on my knees and arched my body over the baby’s as the dog thumped against my back. What the–?
I heard the dog’s sharp gag, and looked up to see Daddy Sparta jerking a bucking pit bull by the collar.
Daddy Sparta shouted, “Get this dog away from us right now, I’ve got a gun and I’ll shoot it.”
A man cartwheeled off his mountain bike and yelled, “Okay, sorry, man, I got him, I got him.”
Later, I tried to laugh with Daddy Sparta, release the adrenaline, but Daddy Sparta shook his head and berated himself, “That dog could have killed Niko, or bitten you, Christ I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t see it, how could I be so completely in Condition White!”
“But you did great, you got him off us and we’re all okay.”
“No. I let my guard down. Something could have happened to Niko and it would have been my fault.”
“But Sweetie, we’re in about as mellow a place as can be. It’s okay for you to relax once in a while.”
“But I can’t relax when Niko could get hurt. I have to be in Condition Orange.”
“Babe, it’s not fair to expect this of yourself. You have to find a balance. Yes, we need to keep Niko safe, but we ALSO need to show him how to be joyful, to notice beauty. That’s my Condition Orange.”
But I don’t think he heard.
Lately, Niko has taken to pulling on my hand when we’re well on the sidewalk. “Careful, Mommy, careful of the street!” he cries and tugs me farther onto the sidewalk.
I sigh, “We’re okay Niko — we’re fine,” but he interrupts me and points, “A flower Mommy! Look at the yellow flower!”