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Have You Ever Met the Love of Your Life?, a short story

illustration have you ever met the love of your life

Have You Ever Met the Love of Your Life?, a short story

Nasreen, Marion’s dance teacher, was short, dark and wide. She wore black leotards under her frothy, voluminous gold-threaded saris, and glowing silver rings on her largest and smallest toes, which were connected to ankle bracelets by delicate jeweled chains. When she moved, and the big belt of coins around her hips started to sing, Marion often thought of a curtain of water emerging from an alabaster frog’s curving mouth. Nasreen’s lips and toenails were always painted fiery orange, and the air near her smelled of cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. Nasreen had been famous in her youth — she treated all her students with exaggerated courtesy but for some reason, took a special interest in Marion.

From the start, Eleanor, Marion’s sister, thought Marion was crazy, and the whole Oriental-dance notion (she couldn’t bring herself to say the word “belly” out loud) ridiculous. “Why on earth do you want to get up on stage and wiggle back and forth like a cat in heat?” she had asked.

“I’ve always thought it looked so graceful,” said Marion. “It sort of mesmerizes you, it’s so soothing to watch.”

“Soothing? Graceful?” Eleanor rolled her eyes and tossed her head. Her neat French twist bobbled, and a wisp of hair fell to tickle her cheek. She shuddered and tucked it behind her ear. “Grotesque is more like it. I’ve always thought those women looked like they were trying to eliminate peach pits from their digestive tract.”

The two sisters lived together — they had always lived together — in an apartment across the street from the house they’d grown up in, a gaunt, three-story Victorian. After Mother died, as soon as could be considered decent, they had sold the big place and gotten rid of the ponderous mahogany furniture. They kept only Eleanor’s player piano, some threadbare Persian rugs, and their mother’s elderly miniature pinscher. Marion filled the apartment with pickled-pine French country and delicate ruffled draperies in red toile.

Soft-hearted Marion said the rosary thrice daily and didn’t care much if her clothes matched; Eleanor, the younger, was a late-blooming atheist, but knew how to dress. Eleanor had been engaged once years ago but they had never managed to decide on a wedding date — the hopeful young man had insisted she keep the ring anyway, a flawless one-carat diamond set in platinum. She looked at it every night, sitting in her jewelry box, but never wore it.

***

Marion’s first formal belly-dancing costume was to be hand-tailored by her teacher Nasreen’s younger brother, Ahmet. He was known all over the world belly-dancing community for his brilliant costume designs; the only reason she was able to afford him at all was Nasreen’s incessant wheedling on her behalf — as one of his sister’s most deserving pupils, Ahmet finally agreed to let Marion have the outfit at cost.

“I see you in red,” said Nasreen.

“I was thinking of pink. Maybe powder blue?” said Marion.

“Red, it must be red,” said Nasreen. “Ahmet, what do you suggest?”

He leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and squinted first at his feet, then at Marion, then at the stacked bolts of silk gauze rising to the ceiling, and then at his sister. “Yes, red for the trousers and the outer sari,” he said with a faint smile. “And the front of the bustier heavily sewn with pierced and gilded centimes.”

“Perfect!” said Nasreen, and she and Ahmet gave each other conspiratorial smiles. “Remember the one you made for me so many years ago?” she asked.

“Of course!” said Ahmet. “Now get up on the stool. I need to get your measurements,” he said to Marion, his smooth, warm fingertips galvanizing her arm as he prodded her into compliance with the tape measure.

When Marion described Ahmet’s fitting and design process, Eleanor was incredulous. “You’re going to wear red see-through pants and a bra made of nothing but gold spangles and call yourself Ayita?” she asked.

“It’s my stage name,” said Marion. “It means dancer.”

“Well, isn’t that cute!” said Eleanor, slapping the kitchen table with a rolled-up newspaper she’d been using to pursue a small green fly. “I suppose next you’ll be getting your nose pierced and wearing a veil.”

“Good Lord, no,” said Marion.

“I hope you won’t ever expect me to come see you make an idiot out of yourself,” said Eleanor.

“No way,” said Marion. “You’d make me a nervous wreck. I’d never be able to concentrate on performing.”

“Ah, yes — the great artiste needs her concentration! What a load of manure!” said Eleanor.

“I just want to have some fun. I need a change.” asked Marion. “Why are you making such a big deal?”

“Because I think a woman your age parading around dressed like a harem girl is absurd,” said Eleanor. “Because every Arab I’ve ever met treated women like second-class citizens. Because I know you’re doing this just to irritate me. Hobby, my eye. Why couldn’t it have been needlepoint, or gardening?” Eleanor glared, but Marion just shrugged and continued eating her toast.

Marion’s finished dance outfit was a huge success. As a precautionary measure, she danced privately in Ahmet’s workroom for Nasreen. Nasreen stood with her arms folded across her chest. As the music started and Marion began to dance, Nasreen’s eyes narrowed and her lips grew thin. She tilted her head and stared. Marion felt awkward, but after the first few seconds, the music and soothing movements overwhelmed everything else. The glittering red costume transformed Marion; she lost herself to something bigger, her hands were two white birds flying, twirling, graceful on the fluid stalks of her arms. Her smile was steady, effortless. The glittery silk billowed around her legs like cool wind. For the first time, her body moved on its own, strong and agile. “That’s it, you’re ready,” said Nasreen.

“For what?” asked Marion, wiping her damp forehead with a jingly forearm.

“A trip. To Paris. A month from Saturday. I’m putting an international dance exhibition together. I want you to go with me, to dance.”

Marion protested. “I couldn’t. I’m not that good.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you are.” Nasreen pulled a passport application out of her cavernous black purse. She shook Marion’s shoulder. “Why did you want to learn to dance in the first place? What are you waiting for?”

            ***

Eleanor wouldn’t let Marion travel to Paris with only Nasreen and Ahmet for company. Eleanor put her foot down; Marion hadn’t been able to say “no” loud enough. It was Marion’s first overseas journey: she’d underestimated jet lag. She awoke abruptly at 2 a.m., trembling through her arms and legs as if on amphetamines. Eleanor – she’d been to Ireland and Spain, she knew better, she’d taken four different pills to zonk herself out — was sound asleep, mouth open, a tiny puddle of saliva glistening on her pillow. Nasreen also slept, lying curled on her side, hands tucked under her chin, emitting the most genteel and melodious of snores. Marion didn’t want to turn on the lamp and produce chaos, there was enough of that within her; instead she went downstairs to seek light and order in the lobby.

The desk clerk on duty — a tall, thin Algerian graduate student — was very eager to demonstrate his grasp of English. His dissertation was going to be about the evolution of American street slang, curse words or something. He announced himself to be Muslim; this formality alarmed her briefly, but he seemed to possess abundant humor, lightness, reason. His name was Badr, which meant “full moon.” The image suited him. His smiling face was boyish, benign; his moustache highlighted the fact his skin was silken as a girl’s. Dark chestnut hair lay in soft curls against his cheeks. His clothes were rumpled and mismatched, like an absentminded schoolboy’s.

The small lounge area was arranged with delicate birch wood cafe tables and slippery turquoise-upholstered armchairs. She noticed Ahmet sitting over in the farthest dark corner, wearing a long yellow silk tunic over his rumpled jeans, pretending to read the newspaper. Marion raised her hand in greeting; Ahmet nodded. Badr served her mineral water and orange juice. She tried to read the French newspaper lying open in front of her, understanding only every third or fourth word. Every time Marion glanced over to see if Ahmet was still there, his eyes were upon her. He folded, inspected, and re-folded his own paper for several odd minutes, then picked up his drink and wandered over to the bar.

“May I sit here?” he asked, pointing to the stool next to her. He seemed embarrassed, or shy, or ill.

“Sure,” she said, shrugging.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked.

“Not a chance. They’re both sound asleep, though.” She adjusted herself on the stool, crossed her legs at the ankle, then at the knee, and then rested her elbows atop the bar. Her hands clung to each other like nervous gerbils.

***

“You’re jealous,” said Marion four hours later, when she finally got back to the room she shared with her sister and found Eleanor livid with rage. “For once I’m having a good time, and you just can’t stand it. It’s not my fault you’re so lonely.”

“I’m not lonely,” said Eleanor, glaring at Marion with laser beam eyes of death.

“Yes, you are,” said Marion. “We both are.” She thought then of the way Ahmet’s lips had tasted when she kissed him goodbye before opening the door to the brightly lit hallway. She thought of the way his hands felt, stroking the small of her back, running down her hips past the hipbones down to the upper thigh. She thought of the way he held her when he came, murmuring her name into her ear like a tiny puff of wind, carrying a sound she couldn’t quite recognize at first. Her name. The man knew how to say her name.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion asked Eleanor.

“Oh my god! You’re in la-la land,” said Eleanor.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion asked again.

Eleanor stared at her, her lips moving, but no sound coming forth. Her hand struck out quick as a venomous snake and slapped Marion’s forearm viciously, which hurt like the devil — but Marion was so amused she laughed, which only made Eleanor slap her arm again and again, harder and harder. The harder Eleanor slapped her, the harder Marion laughed. Suddenly Marion grabbed both Eleanor’s wrists and twisted them so hard Eleanor shrieked.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion whispered. A full minute ticked by in silence. Marion waited. She felt Eleanor’s arms relax and go limp.

“I’ve never even thought of asking that question,” said Eleanor.

When both sisters shocked themselves by starting to cry, they pulled each other close, each of them bear-hugging the other — grouchy/beatific, horrified/overjoyed — as though both their lives depended on it – which they suddenly realized was now, always had been, and would always be, the truth. Marion and Eleanor had finally let each other in, all the way in.

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I was thirteen the first time I had to lie to the police to protect someone I loved, a short story

illustration mom hit the boy on the bike

I was Thirteen the First Time I Had to Lie to the Police to Protect Someone I Loved, a short story

I was thirteen, in my first year of high school, and one afternoon I was home watching TV by myself while my mother went to pick up my little brother from nursery school. The doorbell rang: a police officer stood outside, tall and broad and scary. He had gleaming handcuffs and an oily looking gun buckled to his belt; a long black stick with ominous scuffmarks hung at his side. “Your mother’s okay, but she’s been in an accident,” he said. Less than an hour ago I’d seen the way her whole body swayed as she went out the door. Her empty glass was sitting right behind me in the kitchen, unrinsed and still reeking of Scotch.

Even now I see my mother’s face, soft and drunk, pale and frightful, moving through the darkness, soaring over me as mysterious and unreachable as the moon. Her affection waxed and waned, never constant. When she’d had enough to drink, she loved me, but the way she went about her mother love, pulling at me with sorrowful, clumsy arms given unnatural strength by liquor, made my flesh wither under her touch.

“She hit a boy on a bicycle,” the policeman said. “Do you know if she’s been drinking?” he asked. He shifted his weight from one leg to both legs evenly, spread his feet wider on the cement walkway and moved his arms from his sides to his belly, holding his hands together down low at his belt.

“No,” I answered the policeman, looking unflinchingly into his eyes, which was excruciating but imperative, I knew, if I wanted him to believe me. “She hasn’t been drinking.”

My mother had skin like rose petals, eyes like a fawn’s. There were the rare times when she forgot to be sad, if only when some equally sad eyed man noticed her. If a man loved her to the point of obsession, to the point of contemplating suicide, she imagined she might find the strength within herself to survive, but she eventually rejected all such suitors, wanting only those who were hard nosed and cold blooded, as her father and, later, her husbands were. Remote, a source of funds and orders and criticism, the closest men in her life approved of her external beauty but not her soul. They didn’t care what she wanted: they wanted her to be like all the other girls and women, to be beautiful and obedient. They broke her will; she broke their hearts.

She was memorable for simple things: her rose garden and her Scotch and water, her menthol cigarettes and her Pucci nightgowns, her ladylike hands and her A cup breasts, her bitterness, her resignation, her unending string of sentimental, alcoholic boyfriends. She taught me how not to be. How not to live. A psychic once told me she was my one true soul mate in this life and that my heart had been broken the day I was born, that first hazy time I looked into her eyes and saw nothing there for me. One normal thing I remember is hanging clothes out to dry with her in the backyard when the dryer was broken. Once, she even took me out to the movies.

“Are you sure she’s not drunk?” the policeman said. His face was a smooth blank, revealing nothing, but then so was mine. “She’s acting pretty out of it.”

“She gets that way whenever she’s really upset,” I said.

“We need you to come take care of your brother,” he said. “While we decide what to do.”

The policeman herded me into his car, and we drove to the place Mom had the accident. They’d already taken the boy away in an ambulance; all that remained was his bright yellow bicycle, its frame horribly crooked, its front wheel bent almost in half, sprawled on the ground in front of my mother’s car, a powder blue Cutlass Supreme. I glanced offhand at the front of the car, afraid to look too long, afraid the policemen would be able to tell something from the way I acted, but I didn’t notice dents or blood or anything. Even without that, the bike, obviously brand new before the wreck, was as frightening as a dead body. Mom was sitting in the back of another patrol car, and her eyes were red, her face was wet.

My three year old brother sat beside her, and I could tell he hadn’t cried yet, but I could tell when he did it was going to last a very long time. Then I wanted to tell the police she was drunk, yes, she was drunk today and every single afternoon of my life, but the way she looked — her beautiful hands trembling as she smoked — temporarily severed the connection between my conscience and my voicebox. I couldn’t talk at all, because I knew I’d cry. I’d protect her from the police, make sure she wouldn’t end up in jail, but later, I would coldly steal money from her wallet, cigarettes from her purse, clothes from her closet. In the end, the boy on the bike died, and she died, too.

Toward the end, my mother said she was on fire from the neck down. Her arms and legs felt like they were glowing, orange red, molten. But her head felt like a block of ice. She was emotionally or spiritually paralyzed, she said, and worried about whether the condition was permanent. She felt like the nerves from her head down to her body were cut, and she didn’t know if they would ever grow back.

Right before the end, she said she could not distinguish life from dreams; she slept little, ate even less. She didn’t feel mad, she felt terribly, irrevocably sane. Everywhere she walked the ground seemed on the verge of opening up into blackness, into fire. If only she could go mad, she said. When I found her cold and stiff on the living room floor, she wore nothing but blue nylon panties and her white gold wristwatch, given to her by her own mother in 1958.

A watch which is in my jewelry box, upstairs, right this second, and which I wore to the Palm Sunday service, yesterday, at Holy Faith Catholic Church. I took Communion from Father John, even though I am not now, and have never been, and never will be, officially a Catholic. My friend Clyde, my dear friend, mentor, and fellow lawyer, told me that he thought I would still be eligible for Heaven, regardless of what the Catholic Church, as an institution, might determine.

Because of all this, and a couple of other things which I won’t bother to mention here, I had to hold myself very still, and open my eyes a bit wide, during the reading of Jesus’s betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane in order not to allow the fucking tears to drop out of my eyes. Yes, I am a liar. So sue me. Good luck!

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