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Vol. 2, No. 2

Erotomorphia
by Claire Messud

~

Rejoining the party, Isabella located her father and slid between the guests to his side. From the safety of his elbow, she fixed a smile on her face and scanned the party for the handsome waistcoated man. She wanted to ask her father who he was; and, as if on cue, he materialized from behind Mrs. Whiting, making a beeline for the Senator.
    "Prince Ravi!" Senator Greengrass clicked his heels in an odd military gesture. "What a pleasure, what an honor! Welcome to our country--I hope you've had a chance to look around?"
    "Very little, so far. But I intend to." Prince Ravi bowed, slightly, as he spoke, and looked up at his interlocutor through the longest eyelashes Isabella had ever seen. "You must tell me what to visit."
    "This is my daughter, Isabella--recently arrived herself, in fact."
    Prince Ravi grinned, and Isabella thought he winked. "Oh yes? From where?"
    "I could say the bathroom. But really, San Francisco."
    "A beautiful city, I understand." His teeth gleamed. "Very--individual, no? Perhaps someday I will go."
    Isabella nodded, sipped her champagne. "Beware the rogue shrimp out there."
    The Prince eyed her expectantly for a mortifying moment. Then he smiled again, all formality. "A great pleasure to meet you properly--and you, Senator, do enjoy the party." And then he was gone, back into the crowd.
    "What's his story?" she asked her father, who surveyed the crowd to pinpoint its powerbrokering center. "I met him in the bathroom, and I'm afraid I dissed the party. Is he, he's not--"
    "He's the guest of honor. Their monarch. Smart, too--wants to bring his country out of the Dark Ages. About time."
    "And how will he do that?"
    "They've got oil. Lots of it. He wants to make a deal with us."
    "What kind of deal?"
    "A good one. Good for his country, good for ours."
    "Says you?"
    "Says I. And Congress and the Senate will agree."
    "Did anyone ask his people? The ordinary people?"
    Senator Greengrass considered snapping, and chose instead to laugh; but the laugh emerged as an unfortunate snigger. Isabella fumed.
    Isabella was seated at table between an aged Wexco executive, who proved impenetrably hard of hearing, and a buttery Baburshahnistani councillor named Dewi, who tenderly stroked his breast with his hairy hands as he discoursed upon the beauty of his country's traditional dance. His voice was reedy, and he giggled often.
    "The women--ah, they are very beautiful!" Dewi crowed. "The dances are very sensuous--it is in our tradition. You have not seen this? You must! Our premier troupe is to tour the U.S. later this year."
    Isabella bobbed encouragement. Her head, with so little hair, felt very light.
    "Yes, you must see this. They are like snakes when they move. You are an actress? You could learn a very great deal from this dancing, how to move onstage, yes?"
    "I'm sure."
    "How to use the whole body, yes? To put the spirit in the body, to live in the body, through it. This is not an American understanding, I believe?"
    "Here, you know, lots of people obsess about their bodies," Isabella explained, thinking aloud, "and many Americans are spiritual seekers. But the two don't often coincide. I mean, things are changing--yoga, and all that--but the old mind-body split is pretty dramatic in our culture."
    The councillor played his fingers over his lips and nodded. "This is exactly what I am thinking. And the only way to be a whole person is to have spirit and body be one. Our culture believes this absolutely."
    "I'd like to believe it, too. Then I might know what to wear when I got up in the morning!" Isabella laughed prettily, although she was only half joking.
    "It is most important for an actress," Dewi continued, following his own thought, "to use all her spirit, and her body. You create a character from here--" he rubbed his pelvis vigorously. "It comes from the center. So, to know the center intimately--this is essential. Without that . . ." His hands swept an explosive flourish between them, a silent "poof."
    "You may have a point." Isabella was not merely being polite; she thought he did have a point. She peered down at the slight round of her belly pressed against her black dress: it looked somehow unfamiliar.
    "Look at Prince Ravi," said Dewi with an admiring nod. "He is an embodiment of this unity I speak of. He is very fine."

 

~

Isabella had, in fact, been looking a good deal at Prince Ravi. His sharp but fluid gestures, his penetrating gaze, his manner of simultaneous engagement and detachment--these comprised a demeanor enigmatic to her, unlike anything she had known. He attended to his guests, each in turn, in brilliant focus, without giving away anything of himself. He chuckled readily with Senator Greengrass, only to turn with patient concern to the whisperings of a hesitant Baburshahnistani grandmother, his features recomposed in the blink of an eye. Isabella could recognize virtuosic performance, and Ravi was a master. She found herself wondering what he was like when the crowds had gone home, when the tables were cleared and the musicians silent.
    She watched him slip among his guests, noted the apparent pleasure with which he took partners by the elbow and led them to the dance floor. He whispered something in the ear of a Georgetown matron that made her flush to the roots of her hair. Younger women tittered coyly in his arms, fussed with their jewelry, touched his sleeve with their manicured nails. Their eagerness to please him irritated Isabella, who sniffed and crossed her arms over her breasts. But when, in turn, the Prince asked her to dance, turning his limpid dark eyes to hers, Isabella bit her lip and agreed. His right hand lay light upon her waist like a fluttering moth, and his left, in its certain grip, was dry and smooth against her palm. He smelled faintly of almonds.
    "So, is my party very dreadful?"
    "Oh no, it's a lovely party."
    "You don't mean it."
    "I'm so embarrassed by what I said in the bathroom. It's just not the sort of event . . . I usually attend. More my father's domain. That's all."
    "I, too, have had to adjust to my father's domain." Prince Ravi looked thoughtful. "It isn't always comfortable, to take up these responsibilities."
    "But I don't have any responsibilities to take up. I'm just passing through."
    "On your way to?"
    Isabella shrugged. "On a road to nowhere."
    The Prince fixed her again with his inquiring eyes, precise and birdlike.
    "And you're here for an oil deal, I understand--or is it rude to mention it?"
    "I am here to investigate possibilities. For the good of my country."
    "Oh really?"
    "Really."
    They stopped their waltz; the music was coming to an end.
    "Do you agree with my father, about the oil deal?" Isabella asked, as they applauded the orchestra.
    "Do you not?"
    "I didn't say that."
    "No, it's true. You didn't."
    Isabella was distracted, in spite of herself, by the gentle pressure of the Prince's hand on her back as he accompanied her to her seat. He did not direct her across the room; it was as if he listened, or his body listened, to her movements before they were made. She did not know him; he was, in his royal role, an actor. But it was as if he knew her center.

 

~

"I just can't, Ag. I can't face it." Isabella, on her back on her childhood bed, hooked her forefinger around her left big toe and tried to straighten her leg while talking on the telephone. "After last night--enough already."
    "How was it?"
    "Eeugh."
    "That bad?"
    "I don't know. The whole premise was disgusting--the Prince--a prince, for God's sake!--of Baburshahnistan--"
    "What was that silly name? Babou what?"
    "Baburshahnistan. More like Babursillystan. It's a tiny country of picturesquely impoverished peasants, off in Central Nowhere. So there's this prince--kissing up to a bunch of Republicans and oil magnates--and my dad gloating over it all. You think of his miserable people, about to have their country torn up and their lives turned upside down so we can get cheap gas to drive to the mall--and this prince is literally throwing a party to celebrate-- Don't get me started!"
    "So was he cute?"
    "Who?" Isabella had a vision of the councillor's hairy hands.
    "Come on. This Babursilly guy. I saw his picture in the Post. He looked pretty cute."
    "'Cute' isn't really the word. He's got an English accent. He's more--suave. He's definitely suave."
    "A flutter?"
    "Get out."
    "A tiny?"
    "Maybe a tiny."
    "You danced with him, didn't you?"
    "Only after I humiliated myself in the bathroom. I met him there first, and thought he was a random guest. I whaled on the party, said it sucked. I think he asked me to dance to show there were no hard feelings."
    "And? Were there other feelings? Mushy ones?"
    "So what? He's in their camp. He's the enemy."
    "How about Elliott? Friend or foe? Things aren't always as they seem, right? 'Handy-dandy, which is the thief, which is the justice?'"
    "Life isn't Lear, Ag. Besides, he's a prince."
    "You could morph into a princess."
    "He's more likely to morph into a frog."
    "What's he like?"
    "How would I know?"
    "You spoke to him. You danced with him."
    "He's unknowable. He's--he's a chameleon. He was what each person in the room wanted him to be, for as long as he was talking to that person."
    "He's like you, then."
    "Thanks a lot."
    "No, I mean, maybe he's a very heightened form of erotomorph, susceptible to infinitesimal encounters and demands."
    "In other words, a politician."
    "Or an actor. As I said, like you. The question is, what's he like underneath?"
    "If there is an underneath." Isabella stretched her right leg. She stared at the blur of the ceiling. "Maybe he's a lizard. Or a frog."
    "Going to see him again?"
    "Funny you should ask. My dad promised the Prince a tour of the monuments, on Monday."
    "You'll go along?"
    "Dad wants me to. I'll see how I feel. It might be more fun than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."
    "Like tonight. Tonight will be fun."
    "I told you, Ag. I can't. I just can't face it."

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