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.