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Vol. 2, No. 2

by Claire Messud


Piqued by a sense of adventure, Isabella could not control the spring in her step as they approached the edge of the crowd. It thrilled her to see children racing under the trees while their parents marshaled great banners on sticks and struggled to hold them aloft. A clutch of chubby housewives with permed hair and tight shorts brought a lump to her throat. Hippies handed out clumsily printed leaflets with peace signs on them. A man in a tree costume, his face slick with perspiration, lumbered past into the melee. Isabella realized she was grinning only because the corners of her mouth ached, and she forced herself to stop.
    After all, what had she to smile about? Months before, she had helped Elliott organize this event. Were she to push her way to the front of the crowd, she would run into environmentalists she knew, crusaders from Seattle and Boise and Denver and San Francisco. She didn't want to see them. Above all, she didn't want to see Elliott--or to be seen by him.
    She kept an eye on Prince Ravi. His fine lips were curled in a half smile that might have been amusement, or fondness, or contempt. It might have been simple smugness at his escape from Dewi. He watched the gamboling children, took in the saffron-robed Hare Krishnas, nodded faintly at a group of old men with medals on their lapels. One carried a sign that said VETERANS AGAINST THE OIL BARONS: WE FOUGHT FOR OUR COUNTRY ONCE, AND WE'LL FIGHT AGAIN!
    "At least this way the government knows what the people are thinking," suggested Isabella.
    "Indeed. But do they listen?"
    "It depends. Probably not. But it means something anyway. Don't you ever ask your subjects for their opinion?"
    "I think they would be surprised to be asked."
    "Would that be so bad?"
    Prince Ravi did not answer. He turned, instead, to the podium, where a tall man--who strongly resembled a young Senator Greengrass--in a baggy dun suit with a scarlet bow tie, approached the microphone.
    "An orator," Prince Ravi pointed.
    Isabella looked up and saw her husband. "Shouldn't we go find Dewi?"
    "He will have gone home. Besides, I'd like to hear this fellow."
    "If you insist."
    Elliott Morton spoke with great conviction. He had the skills, some said, of a young Martin Luther King. He had studied the classics in college, and preferred to compare himself to Cicero. Whatever his influences, he knew how to move the crowd. In his earnestness--his gangly arms aloft, his voice a raspy tremolo--he roused them to cries and chants of rebellion. There were sniffles of emotion among the housewives. Elliott affected Isabella in spite of herself: she sneered at his amateur theatrics but stood in awe of him at the same time. She had to walk away.
    "You've had enough?"
    "I feel a bit sick. Maybe it's the heat."
    "Perhaps you need a cool drink, something restorative?" In his concern, Prince Ravi's nose beaked further toward his mouth.
    "You don't need to get back to Dewi?"
    "I don't want to."
    Isabella led Prince Ravi away from the Mall, back up into the city center. Within blocks, the streets were empty in the angry afternoon sun, and they wandered beside darkened storefronts and locked office blocks. Only occasional homeless men lingered in the doorways, mournfully rattling their plastic cups.
    "You must, as I do, feel great sorrow for these abandoned fellows," observed Ravi, who gave coins to each of them. "They have no families, no love."
    "And no money."
    "Money is a poor substitute for these things. You know," he shook his head, "in my capital also, there are many like this--women, even children. And I have spent days with them, talking--"
    "You have?"
    "I am their Prince, too. Of course I have. And yes, undeniably, they want the necessities of life; but simple handouts will not solve their problems. It is more complicated."
    "I suppose it is." Isabella frowned. "But a roof and food would be a start."
    "What are a roof and food without something to live for?"
    Isabella, surprised by the Prince's perspective (so unlike her father's!), directed him to a fashionable new restaurant in a basement beneath a failing discount store. The walls were of bathroom tile, the floor of pressed earth, and the tables were narrow metal slices pressed up against hard pews. The waiters, all with shaved heads and ankle-length hessian tunics, skulked sourly by the bar.
    Prince Ravi, in his summer suit from Jermyn Street, winced at their surroundings. "What sort of place is this?"
    "The latest thing."
    "It's a shame Dewi will not see this. It is most extraordinary. These are monks?"
    "They're just dressed that way. For effect."
    "What effect?"
    "It's . . . I guess it's sexy. European. They have eighty-five kinds of beer. It's impossible to get a table here at night."
    "Perhaps because they are so small. And these benches are so uncomfortable."
    "The designer is a very famous guy."
    "So, this theater of poverty is the playground of the stylish? America is very strange. Do you enjoy this sort of thing?"
    "It's cool, and in the afternoon, at least, it's quiet. The beer is good."
    The waiter who took their order had a pierced tongue. He played the bullet noisily against his teeth. When he returned, he threw down an immense bowl of french fries, and slopped their pinkish, cherry-flavored beer onto the metal table. One frosted glass slithered across the surface almost to the edge. The waiter clicked his tongue as if it were their fault, and flounced away, tunic flapping.
    "We pay them extra to be so rude?" asked Ravi, with a frown. "And what has happened to his tongue?"
    "It's all an aesthetic. You don't like it. I thought it would give you a more genuine impression of . . . something."
    "Of a place where artificiality is genuine?"
    "I shouldn't have dragged you away from the rally. We should get you back to the embassy. Dewi must be worried sick."
    "No, I'm most interested to come here, to see what American people enjoy."
    "Only some of us. A select few," Isabella said. "I guess it does seem weird. But it's about getting as far as possible from the culture of monuments and sixteen-ounce steaks."
    "That I can understand." Ravi smiled. "Truly, I can. I'm only sorry the rally made you feel ill. I thought it might be your idea of a good time--unlike my party."
    "I thought it was, too. It used to be. It's complicated."
    Prince Ravi nodded, adjusted his back against the hard pew. He made a temple of his elegant hands. "Tell me."
    "You don't want to hear."
    "But I do."
    Isabella scrutinized the Prince and decided that he was telling the truth. She took a deep breath. "That was my husband," she said.
    "Your husband? Married? Who?" Ravi seemed truly shocked.
    "Elliott Morton--the speaker. That's my husband. Was my husband. In eighteen days he'll be my ex-husband. We split up a few months ago."
    "I see." Ravi sipped his drink. "He is a very good speaker," he said, after a time. "Clearly a fine politician." He paused. "He reminds me of your father."
    "He's nothing like my dad. They hate each other."
    "Perhaps because they are alike? This is often the case."
    "Not with them."
    "If you say so. Your father, it is true, is a wiser man: he would never have let you go."
    "You can say that again."
    "You don't seem grateful? But a love like his--"
    "Is a royal pain in my butt. If you'll excuse me saying so."
    Prince Ravi sighed. "You know," he began, "a life such as mine is much about duty, about living up to the great love my people bear for me, all that they desire of me. I, too, could choose to see it as a . . . 'royal pain,' as you say--" he smiled, slightly, "and I have done. I did, at Oxford, where I led an irresponsible and debauched life. But then I came to realize it was a part of me, as much as my hands or my nose," he made a funny cross-eyed face, to indicate that appendage, "and that I could use all my energy to try to run away, or I could embrace it and work for it. I will always disappoint some people, but . . . if I cut off my hands, how much freedom would I really have?"
    "My father is hardly a country of people."
    "How simple, then, to give him the love he so wants, instead of showering it, in perverse compensation, on lesser men. You don't have to agree with him in politics, or become a politician yourself. Surely, your father loves you unconditionally, and only wants your happiness."
    "I guess."
    "Unlike this Elliott Morton . . ."
    "That's for sure."
    ". . . who may be a fine speaker, but who, underneath, is clearly a fool."
    Isabella blushed and turned to her pink beer. She looked up to see that the Prince, too, was clearly embarrassed: he examined his fingernails with great care.
    "Well," Isabella said, with artificial brightness, "if ever your country becomes a republic, you can become a therapist--you're very good at it."
    "I don't speak in generalities. I did not intend to lecture. I want to hear, so tell me."
    Isabella did. She recounted the breakup with Elliott, the romance that preceded it, the affairs before that. She revealed her distaste for her father's beliefs, and her confusion over what her own might be, so bound up had they been with the other men in her life. She tried to explain--with reference to Dewi, and their conversation at the party--that she did not know herself, that she wasn't sure whether she had a self to know.
    "That is very strange," Prince Ravi said, when she was done, "because I feel as though I know you. It is as if your soul were a thousand tiny lights of many colors. Different lights glow at different times, perhaps, but they shine through you, and around you, and it is beautiful to see."



It was past suppertime when the taxi stopped on P Street in front of the Greengrass home. The cicadas and tree frogs shrieked in the dusk. Prince Ravi got out and opened Isabella's door. He walked with her up her front steps, not quite touching her; but she could feel him, as she had felt him at the party, listening to her movements, anticipating them. On the doorstep, he took her hand, and brought it to his lips, in an obsolete and courtly gesture. The brush of his skin against hers made Isabella tremble, and she hoped--feeling as she did that the hope was madness--that he would kiss her.
    "Thank you for this afternoon," he said. "I even liked the restaurant. It was--I really mean this--my idea of a good time. I can't imagine a better. I am most grateful."

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