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Vol. 2, No. 2

Erotomorphia
by Claire Messud

~

Sudden questions about the President's probity (or lack thereof) demanded a series of urgent and highly secretive meetings on Monday afternoon. Senator Greengrass did not want to disappoint the Prince, but he simply could not get away; and he beseeched his recalcitrant daughter to do his duty for him.
    "I don't ask a lot of you, Bella honey," he whispered down the line, the ruckus of an impending huddle audible behind him. "But this one's important to your old dad. Don't let me down? It's only a few hours, for God's sake."
    "I hate the monuments."
    "Just whisk him 'round, answer his questions. Think of it as an acting exercise, if you like. You're playing the role of--I don't know--"
    "Tour guide. Okay. But you'll owe me one."

 

~

When Councillor Dewi--he of the hairy hands--informed the Prince that Senator Greengrass was sending his daughter in his stead, Ravi was miffed at first.
    "This is a state visit," he said. "And this Senator palms me off on a mere girl? He cannot be serious."
    "His apologies were profuse," said Dewi, fingering an ivory toothpick. "Only this matter with the President is very serious. What can he do?" He shrugged. "We can take offense if you wish," he continued, as the Prince grumpily riffled file folders on his desk, "but it would be imprudent. And besides, this Isabella--she seemed to me a rather remarkable young woman."
    "Did she?" Prince Ravi stopped his shuffling and looked up. "In what way?"
    "Complicated. Curious. Not like the others."
    "No, it's true. Not like the others." Ravi had been thinking about Isabella since the party. Her coltish fluster in the bathroom had delighted him. With her wary stare and her sharp tongue, she was not of the political ranks, nor was she a gracefully masked society hostess. She did not even resemble the Americans he had known at Oxford, strapping, athletic specimens of wearying vim, splattering the hallowed halls with their appalling confidence. "There was something about her frankness--those green eyes. A refreshing attitude . . ."
    "A questing spirit. And she is most attractive, yes?" Dewi winked, the toothpick between his plump lips.
    "That, too."
    "She may show you things you don't expect to see."
    "She may at that."
    Ravi was unsettled, even a little excited, by this exchange. He vividly recalled the sensation of Isabella's waist beneath his palm, the fine sheen of her skin. It was to restore internal order and redistribute the flow of his blood that he stood, for twenty minutes, on his head against the embassy's living room wall, his even brown toes reaching up the creamy paintwork toward the dangling crystals of a wall sconce, almost close enough to make them jingle.
    Isabella, ushered in by an unthinking servant who thought the room empty, discovered him thus, at two-thirty in the afternoon. Ravi, apparently unfazed, flipped himself upright and shook her hand (he was a modern monarch, in this respect, and did not expect a curtsey), before repairing to a paisley armchair to put on his shoes and socks.
    "Is that how you receive your ministers?" she asked, removing her baseball cap and running a hand through her flattened curls.
    "Not usually. But it's useful in a crisis, when I want to take them by surprise."
    "Might be a good tip for our President, just now."
    "I shall certainly tell him when I meet him. If I meet him. Now, Miss Greengrass--"
    "Isabella, please. Even Bella, if you like. My friends call me Bella."
    "Isabella, then. I am at your disposal. Where shall we go?"
    "You wanted to see the sights, such as they are."
    "Naturally." The Prince smiled his gleaming, professional smile.
    "Do you know what, exactly, you'd like to see? Because there's an awful lot of marble in this town. Then there's the real city, none too pretty--but my dad wouldn't thank me for showing you that."
    "Show us whatever is typical; what, as they say, 'can't be missed'--how does that sound?"
    "Us? Is that a royal 'we'?"
    "Councillor Dewi will accompany us. He's more fun than a bodyguard."
    "Great. I thought we might start with the Lincoln Memorial, get a view of the Monument--you know, that huge white stick in the middle of town. It's on all the postcards. Then work our way down the Mall, with a detour to the White House, then on to the Capitol, and the Supreme Court. By that time, my father might be free to join us. If he's not too busy impeaching the Big Guy."
    "Your car and driver are outside?" Prince Ravi stood, slipped on his jacket and brushed his front.
    Isabella, who had put on her cap and was rummaging in her bag for her sunglasses, stopped and blinked. "Car and driver?"
    "I told the ambassador he could take my car for the afternoon--his wife wanted his car to go shopping."
    "I came by taxi."
    "Ah. Never mind. It will be like college days. We'll see the monuments like . . ."
    ". . . like ordinary tourists." Isabella finished. "Are you sure you don't mind?"
    "It will be most educational." Prince Ravi rang a small bell, and a servant was dispatched to find Dewi, who joined them, beaming, in his rumpled clothes.

 

~

The trio walked ten minutes along the sticky asphalt of Massachusetts Avenue before locating a free taxi. The sun pounded them through the June swelter; Dewi sweated profusely, and mopped at his dark brow with a hanky. When, at last, Isabella hailed a cab, it was a greasy, unsprung jalopy with rear windows that did not open and a morose Slavic thug at the wheel. Dewi grimaced as he climbed into the front, displacing a half-empty carton of malodorous Chinese take-away. The driver tackled potholes like a rodeo rider, hurling his charges around in their seats. He plummeted so violently into intersections and jacked the brakes with such apparent lack of motive, that when he arrived at their destination Isabella did not ask him to wait.
    "We'll find somebody else," she assured Ravi, whose hair had been disarrayed by the drive. "Sorry about that. It's par for the course around here."
    "Most amusing," he countered. "It reminds me of the backstreets of our own cities, in Baburshahnistan. Or out in the country, the villages--I have ridden in horse-drawn carriages and on elephants, with much the same effect. Not so, Dewi?"
    "I find an elephant's back more comfortable. Except for the fleas." Dewi giggled.
    "What's it like--Baburshahnistan, I mean?" Isabella asked.
    "I don't think you could imagine it. You will have to come to see, sometime," said the Prince.
    "Are your people poor?"
    Ravi paused on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and turned to face the vast stretch of the Mall. Brightly clad tourists beetled around the base of the Washington Monument, and beyond, nearer the reflecting pool, a mass of them seemed to be gathering, tight, into a crazy flag of color. He closed his eyes against the glare. At his side, Dewi fiddled noncommittally with his hanky.
    "You don't have to answer--if it's not an appropriate question. I'm not very good on royal etiquette."
    "No, no," Dewi said. "His Highness will answer. Won't you, Sire?"
    "Are they poor? Yes, most of them are poor, if you mean money. In the rural areas, they live as they have lived for centuries, as farmers and artisans. We have a strong culture, strong families, and in this sense they are not poor at all. But if you measured their wealth by the number of television sets . . ."
    "But your country is rich."
    "In spirit."
    "In oil."
    Ravi squinted at Isabella, whose expression, behind her sunglasses, was not clear. He did not know whether this was a prelude to a sales pitch on behalf of her father, or whether she sought some other response. He shrugged. "We have discovered oil recently. Who knows how much there is? And oil is not money."
    "As good as. Good for business. Good for your country, good for ours?" Isabella wanted the Prince to admit it, to stand squarely in her father's camp. She had been finding him handsome and appealing, and felt it necessary to stamp on the glow she would, in other circumstances, have defined as attraction.
    "I imagine we could discourse all afternoon on the nature of 'goodness,'" Dewi observed. "But tell us, instead, what is happening down there?" He pointed at the seething crowds in the distance.
    "It's a rally. Now that's an American sight," she said. "The people, speaking their minds."
    "On what are they speaking?" Prince Ravi asked.
    "I'm not sure--hang on." Isabella trotted down to a uniformed guard, exchanged a few words, and returned, taking the steps two at a time. She tripped over her words. "I can't believe I forgot! This one is crucial--I worked on this, for God's sake--it's been planned over a year--it's for--" she stopped, suddenly reminded of her part for the day, her official presence as her father's daughter. For these few hours, she was not invited to have potentially controversial opinions. Besides which, it was Elliott's demonstration--not literally, of course, but he was the keynote speaker. He would be down there, in his trademark hemp suit, riffling papers and clearing his throat. "It's nothing," she finished. "Want to see the White House?"
    "Nonsense. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people. You said, this is a truly American sight: I should like to see it up close."
    "I don't think, Your Highness, that this would be advisable." Dewi's high voice was stern.
    "What are they protesting?" the Prince persisted.
    "Just a bill--that's what it usually is. A bill that's before Congress."
    "Concerning?"
    "Oh, conservation stuff."
    "I'm sorry?"
    "You know how it is--the struggle between big business and the little guy. Development and the environment. Trying to save parks, trees, animals, people's way of life . . . Regular Washington hoopla."
    The Prince considered for a moment. "I take it," he said, "that this is not big business on the lawn."
    "No."
    "I'd like to see."
    "I'm sorry, Your Highness, but I can't allow it." Dewi was frowning as he again mopped his beaded brow. "We would require an armed guard. Your security is paramount, and my responsibility. It is impossible."
    Ravi thrust his hands in his pockets. "I suppose you do what you have to, Dewi."
    "I wouldn't cross you otherwise, and you know it."
    "All right. We'll proceed to the White House. Run on ahead and fetch us another of those excellent taxis, would you? I want to see this marble Lincoln up close."
    "Down on the left, then, where we arrived?"
    "Marvelous." Ravi watched his councillor huff down the steps but made no move himself.
    "Shall we?" Isabella started upward.
    "Wait. There is another way out?"
    "Only the other side--but--"
    "I would like to see this rally. I will not be bullied by my minion, no matter how dear he is to me. You will take me to the demonstration."
    "But he said--"
    "But I say. And I'm your guest."
    Isabella wavered.
    "Besides, there's nothing like a private conversation--not so? They are more honest. Like our very first."
    "Won't we get in trouble?"
    "You forget, I'm a monarch. Dewi cannot spank me. I forbid it."
    "Okay, Your Highness." Isabella, exhilarated, plunged forward. "This way, then." They darted down the far end of the steps, behind a troupe of octogenarian tourists with video cameras, and slunk along past the Korean War Memorial to the street, where Isabella, at Prince Ravi's bidding, flagged a cab.
    "If we walked, he might run after us," he explained. "And in this heat--I'd hate for him to have a heart attack. I'm very fond of him, you know."
    The taxi made a loop to take them back toward the crowd, and from the window they could spy Dewi, drumming anxiously on the roof of a waiting cab, his face puckered as he peered up at the groups on the steps.
    "What will he do?"
    "Go back to the embassy, I'm sure. It's air-conditioned. He'll be much more comfortable there. Don't worry."

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