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Vol. 2, No. 2

Erotomorphia
by Claire Messud

~

Prince Ravi was grateful. He was also baffled.
    "I am at a loss," he confided to Dewi. "I can't stop thinking about her--but what does this woman have to do with our purpose here? She is irrelevant to our negotiations."
    "Yes," concurred Dewi, with a soft sigh, as he palpated his generous breast. "She has nothing whatsoever to do with them. In spite of your devious commitment to her. Most improper, that afternoon. I'll say it only once more: I was profoundly displeased."
    "If anything, she would be an agent for her father--"
    "Hardly impartial."
    "Except that she despises her father's politics. Then there's this husband, ex-husband, this environmental fellow--and perhaps she thinks as he does, that oil should simply be left in the ground--"
    "My dear Prince," whispered Dewi, "what do this man's opinions matter? You are losing perspective--you, of all people! You must isolate your emotions from your intelligence."
    "It's not his opinion I'm after, it's hers."
    Dewi waved a hand. "Would she consult you in matters of the theater? Similarly, you would be unwise to seek her counsel in matters of state." He grinned. "That's what I'm here for."
    "You don't understand--" Prince Ravi, agitated, paced the room. "I hear her voice. I see her face--looming--in the middle of meetings. Her father is talking numbers and I see her face. It's absurd. It must be for a reason."
    "And why not love?"
    "I beg your pardon?"
    "Perhaps you are in love. It happens. Even to princes. I myself could easily have fallen in love with that young woman. Except--" he gestured broadly from his head to his belly. "What would have been the point? She would not have loved me in return."
    "What good does that do me? There's no time for such nonsense."
    "Love, my dear Ravi, does not ask for time; it takes it. Of its own accord. It is left to you only to decide how to react."
    "What do you suggest? Tell me, Dewi, what to do?"
    "Focus your mind on the work at hand. This . . . Bella . . . must wait. If she retains her grip on your spirit, you will know it. If not--well then, it is not meant to be."
    "You're right." Prince Ravi spoke with a determination he clearly did not feel. "You're quite right."
    "You should be certain," said Dewi, "before you speak. Because it would not please your mother at all."
    Ravi tried, as Dewi advised, to focus on the matter of the oil, to put the image of Isabella, with her matted dark curls and trembling lips, out of his mind. But his renowned concentration and decisiveness failed him nonetheless. He stalled; he dithered; he postponed his negotiations (in this he was helped by America's own preoccupations with its President). And in spite of his resolve, he sent Isabella a note thanking her for their afternoon together. At the end of the week, Prince Ravi flew back to Baburshahnistan having settled, precisely, nothing.

 

~

Agnes tapped her fingers against her long nose as she read the Prince's note. Isabella, sitting across from her friend in the courtyard of the Jolt 'n' Bolt, leaned forward impatiently.
    "It doesn't mean anything, does it?"
    "It's incredibly sweet," said Agnes, pushing the worn page away from her. "Great handwriting. He had an 'unforgettable' time. He calls you 'Bella.' And he signs it 'yours ever'--that talks."
    "But it's just politeness. I mean, I've read it a hundred times--"
    "Try a thousand!"
    "And it's not--there's nothing in it to suggest-- He's thanking me for playing tour guide, that's all."
    "He's a prince, Bella. What do you expect? 'Come to my arms, you beautiful creature'? It means a ton that he wrote at all. I bet slaveys do most of his correspondence."
    "Sure, I know." Isabella scooped the foam off the side of her cappuccino with her forefinger. "But if he really liked me--really--don't you think there'd be something more?"
    "Why don't you write back?"
    "Right! Saying what? 'Let's have a drink when you're next in town'?"
    "I wouldn't assume he doesn't have feelings for you. In fact, I'd assume he does. The guy's brokering an oil deal, right? He took time out to write. That's big. You said he's formal."
    "He's a prince. He takes his responsibilities very seriously."
    "My point exactly. You're hardly his responsibility."
    "Did I tell you what he said when he dropped me off?"
    "Only a million times. And he kissed your hand. And he smells of almonds. Look, if you want my opinion, you should go for it."
    "I don't even know what that would mean." Isabella sighed. "He left this morning for Baburshahnistan. I'll never see him again."
    "Never say never." Ag said. "Remember the sailor? When you met him, he was supposed to be embarking on a Pacific crossing."
    "He was just a sailor."
    "I could write to him, if you like. Tell him he's got no choice. That you're already morphing. That you've turned into a princess. Been to Tiffany's to scope tiaras. That you're no earthly use to your friends at home, because you wear gilded robes everywhere and all you can do is utter imperious commands."
    "Don't be mean."
    "Come on, Bella, laugh. What do you know about this guy, anyway? Maybe he's secretly a creep. We'll check him out. I'll Lexis-Nexis him at work, surf the Net, see what we can see. Where there's a will, there's a way."
    "You shouldn't be encouraging me."
    "Why not? If he takes your mind off the evil Elliott, he can only be a force for good."
    "I told you what he said about Elliott, didn't I?"
    Agnes rolled her eyes. "Isabella Greengrass, get a grip on yourself. Let's plan our New York trip, okay?"

 

~

Isabella and Agnes went on their whirlwind visit to New York when the divorce came through. Nominally, they went to look for glasses: Isabella bought, at Ag's and the salesgirl's recommendation, a wildly expensive pair made of titanium, all but invisible and, Isabella was assured, indestructible. While they were there, she went to an audition, but the play featured a foreign prince, and she knew she could not take a role: rehearsals would only remind her of Prince Ravi.
    On the train back to D.C., Agnes presented Isabella with a sheaf of computer printouts.
    "Everything there is to know about your prince," she said. "You've been so good about not obsessing--"
    "Just because I don't talk about him doesn't mean I'm not obsessing."
    "--that I thought you should have a reward. A total Babursillystan-fest. Look at this stuff--there's even a Royal Fans Web Site, all about him."
    "Have you read it?"
    "How could I not? He sounds fabulous. He likes coconut cookies. He gets his suits from London."
    "You know more about him than I do."
    "And get this--his mom is trying to marry him off. Your big chance! It's a wild place. Check this out--"
    Together they pored over the documents, soaking up, through words, the colors of the Baburshahnistani landscape, with its craggy mountains and bleak lunar plains, absorbing the smells of its lively bazaars and ancient tanneries. They read about the country's festivals and marriage customs. They stared at pictures of the Queen Mother. "Geez! She looks like a barrel of laughs!" said Agnes. They studied a map of the royal palace and tried to picture Prince Ravi there, his shoes clicking--or would he wear slippers?--along its marbled arcades. In which room did he sleep? Against which wall did he stand on his head?
    The Royal Fans Web Site informed them that Ravi, at thirty-four, practiced yoga for an hour each morning; that he had obtained a starred first in economics at Oxford; that he preferred cricket to polo. His birthday was November 1st.
    "When the time comes, send him a card."
    "Oh, Ag!"
    "Seriously. I mean it. If you don't, I'll stop being your friend."
    "We'll see. I don't want to be a stalker. Looking at this Royal Fans crap, I'd say he's already got plenty of those."
    "How many does he write notes to?"
    "He only wrote one note."
    Agnes shrugged. "Which you haven't answered. It's your call."

 

~

Isabella tried umpteen times to write a letter to Prince Ravi, but she couldn't find the right tone. She felt it would seem creepy to reveal her new knowledge of his habits, but fake to pretend ignorance. She penned missives full of jokes, and deemed them frivolous, struggled over serious letters she then thought pompous. She sent none of them. For weeks she gorged herself on the details of his life until, sickened by her unilateral transformation, she internalized it altogether--determined, as Prince Ravi had recommended, to concentrate instead on the life and the love she had before her.
    Isabella accompanied her father to Maine for the month of August. She was solicitous of his moods, patient with his worries, gracious to his guests--all, had he but known it, in silent homage to Prince Ravi. Strangely, she found that her little acts of love soothed her, gave her peace. She felt, in some way, that they connected her to Ravi; as if he were watching, in some part of herself, and approved.
    Senator Greengrass, in return, worried terribly about his daughter. "You just don't seem yourself," he fretted. "Maybe you want to invite Agnes up to stay? Or you could go for a week to the Vineyard--that Whiting boy is there, I hear, and probably lots of your old friends from college."
    "I'm fine, Daddy. Honest." Isabella smiled. "I feel perfectly myself." And, though she was lonely, she did.

 

~

For months, Prince Ravi and his advisers haggled over Baburshahnistan's oil's future. They debated forming a national consortium, encouraging domestic private enterprise, bringing in the eager American companies. They were distracted by flooding and an outbreak of cholera in the south, and by reports of an eastern governor's corruption; but by and large, they focused on the oil: it was the country's greatest hope. And still Prince Ravi could not come to a decision.
    Rumors began to circulate among his people that he had lost his will to lead--for which, many insisted, an arranged marriage was the clear solution. Ravi was pressed by his mother to receive eligible young ladies.
    "They bother me," he confided to Dewi. "All these beautiful girls, wanting to be princesses. They're so formal. They won't look me in the eye. They mince, they curtsey. They don't seem like women; they don't seem real."
    "And what, to you, seems real?" asked Dewi, with a solicitously narrowed eye. "Or need I ask?"
    "You know perfectly well."
    "Still?"
    "Still. And you know--you were wrong about her counsel. I've been thinking--what she said on the Mall that afternoon--do you remember?"
    Dewi sighed. "I wasn't there, thanks to you. But a thousand times, you've told me. If you've told me once."
    "Well, she's right. I hear her voice, reminding me, all the time. That's what we must do. Ask the people for their opinion. Find out, in the matter of the oil, what they want."
    "It's an unprecedented step. Your mother will not like it."
    "My mother isn't ruling the country, as far as I know."

 

~

Ravi, with Dewi's help, organized a referendum on the future of the oil, the first referendum in the history of Baburshahnistan. His mother was won over only when he promised to entertain a further round of potential wives. As he had predicted, his people were, at first, surprised to be asked their opinion; but in the months leading up to the vote, they formed local committees to disseminate information about the options, and held impassioned debates in dusty squares in every town and village. Prince Ravi toured his country to gauge the progress of the discussions, and was delighted. But he wanted to share the actual event, the counting of the ballots, with only one person.
    And when, on the first of November, among the piles of greetings from his subjects and the telegrams from world leaders and diplomats, Ravi discovered the simple card--but signed "love," he placed great significance on that "love,"--from Isabella Greengrass, he determined not to let the opportunity pass.

 

~

Ten days later, Senator William Greengrass received an invitation to the royal palace in Baburshahnistan, addressed to both himself and his daughter. He took this as a hopeful sign for the stalled negotiations and hastened to accept. Under separate cover, Isabella had a second, handwritten letter from the Prince.
    "Although you are doubtless much engaged in your daily life," the Prince wrote, "I passionately hope you will consider our invitation to observe the referendum. On that long-ago afternoon in Washington, you put this course in motion, and I feel you should share in its culmination. It is wrong always to assume one knows the will of others, and you made that clear to me. In matters that so greatly concern them, my people, I felt, must have a choice. I thank you for this.
    "By the way, you will be amused to hear that my mother, and my subjects, are very keen to see me married. As only you will appreciate, I have come to feel their concern is a 'royal pain'! Surely in this, above oil wells and all other things, choice is vital?"

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