Now that I've found her, where'd she go?

My wife, Elaine, disappears on me: in the airport, in the shopping mall, in the grocery store. "I'll meet you right here," I'll say, and just as I'm about to call the police, I spot her over there by the fast foods, or the meat section, or sportswear.

Recently, at the airport, I was on the verge of begging a stranger to go back into the ladies room and shout out her name. Fortunately, she appeared.

"Sorry. I didn't know there were two exits," she said, as if that explained anything. If I object, her expression shifts to that smiling tolerance mothers reserve for the behavior of a well-meaning but somewhat dimwitted child. Once, in a department store, I had her paged. The only person to turn up was an amused acquaintance who offered to help me search the store.

We're at a party, and I turn to say something - continue a thought, perhaps - and she's gone, disappeared beneath the hors d'oeuvres trays.

In a museum, she will strike up a conversation with someone (she used to be a curator). And if I fail to keep her in full view, I may not see her again until I catch her at the front door.

"You'll find me," she says. "Or I'll find you. Don't worry about it so."

But that's just it. By the time we find each other, it may be too late. The plane will have left without us. The gift we went to the store to return will remain unexchanged. We will have to settle for scrambled eggs for dinner instead of veal chops.

The fact is that Elaine has no sense of time. Did an event happen last year or the year before? Last week or yesterday? In the fall or in the spring? She has no idea. The day of the week eludes her, sometimes the month of the year.

Actually, I find this aspect of her charming. I have too much a sense of time: time past, time passing, time ahead. I can almost always give you the time of day - without a watch.

And the year, for me, is divided into fairly regular segments: Seasons break down into months, months into weeks, weeks into days. To me, time is a river that flows at a fairly predictable speed - sometimes faster, sometimes slower - but generally pulselike: seconds ticking off a grandfather clock.

For Elaine, time seems more a state of mind.

I AM OFTEN surprised by the fact that Elaine is my age. Usually she seems much younger. Her voice rises in laughter that is indistinguishable from that of my teenage granddaughter, and there is a freshness and excitement in the way she looks out at the world that is youthful, young.

In my daily life, I am certainly a prisoner of habit. My stomach is an alarm clock; I am a devotee of regular and uninterrupted sleep. Elaine can go for days without real food, spend the whole morning listening to music, and paint or work out in the wee hours of the night.

What are we, then, January married to May? I think not. Or if so, we form a world, "a little world made cunningly," as poet John Donne said about himself. Love is completion. A full circle. And I am fortunate beyond measure to have life and love as my companion; blessed to be perched, however tenuously, up on my toes, there to pirouette for as long as it takes to complete the dance.

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