Sohail and Helen had begun dating two years earlier, at Yale, where she was an undergraduate and he at the law school. After graduating the previous summer he had returned to his home in Pakistan, while she completed her senior year. They had agreed to put the question of their future in abeyance until she finished schoolnot the question of whether they would be together but of how: in Pakistan, New York, or somewhere else. Sohail had vaguely committed himself to joining his father's sprawling businessa sugar mill, farm lands, and much else. The degree had been a way to put off this step.
Sohail had borrowed an apartment on Île Saint-Louis from one of his childhood friends, also a Pakistani industrialist's son, who had spent much of the last two years in Paris being a writerthough not actually writing. Arriving in Paris two days before Helen, Sohail cleaned the apartment, made the bed with new sheets he bought at Galeries Lafayette, and picked up food and wine from the tiny overpriced shops on the Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île. After collecting Helen from the airport, Sohail carried her bag on his head up to the sixth floor garret, hitting it on the turns of the narrow stairwell. She had come to love this in him, his playing, his willingness to be slightly ridiculous. At the top he dropped the suitcase, panting, and with a flourish produced a strange circular key, unlike those in America.
He lived that fall in the family's Karachi mansion, a rambling pile large enough that he could bear the rub of his parents, who occupied what was called the Old House, leaving him to an annex under an enormous banyan at the far end of the garden. When he announced to his mother that he would be going to Paris for Christmas, to meet Helen, she pursed her lips but said nothing.
A few days later, he found her alone in the living room, having tea, waiting for guests. She had been a famous beauty, from a prominent, cultured Lucknow family. Now at forty-five she knew everyone of a certain class in Karachi, went to dinners and to the polo and to all the fashionable weddings, flew often to Lahore and Islamabad, and summered in London.
In summer, even while she was away, her rooms were kept ice cold; and in winter, warmed by a fire lit at dusk. On her bad nights, as she called them, she took sleeping pills, which left dark shadows like bruises under her eyes. A portrait that hung in the formal dining room showed her reclining on a chaise lounge, one shoe dangling from her long, elegant foot, skin velvety and evenly white; she seemed indolent and dangerous, as if she were waiting in ambush, with herself as the bait.
"Hello, darling," she said. "Come have tea with me." She was sitting on a divan in a green silk sari with her feet tucked under her, her black hair pulled tightly back. "I don't see you enough."
He had been avoiding her, unable to abide her questions about his futurehe was still "settling in," going every couple of days to the headquarters of the family business to write e-mails and read the New York Times online. During this time, with his confidence faltering, he found her overwhelming. He fixed on the cucumber sandwiches, devouring one after another.
"Why won't you ever use a plate? Your manners are even worse since you went to America." She took a plate, put a napkin under it, and gave it to him. "Sohail, I'd like to ask a favor." She blended these articulations togetherfollowing the maternal scolding, her request almost flirtatious.
He raised one eyebrow, nibbling at another sandwich.
"I want your father to take a vacation, he's pushing himself too hard. He's always bored in London. I thought we might come to Paris." She said this brightly. "Only for a week, I know you'll want to be alone. Do you remember when we were in Rome, how nice it was? Your father mentioned it just the other day, how much he'd liked that."
"I haven't seen Helen since the summer," Sohail said carefully. "Wouldn't it be sort of like taking your mother on your honeymoon?"
"Oh, we wouldn't be in your way. And I'd like to see her. You'll hardly know we're there. I've found an apartment."
He acquiesced, because he generally ended up doing as she wanted, and because he would inevitably and soon have to introduce Helen to his mother, in order to move the relationship forward.
She paused at the door, a pretty girl, unmistakably American, her short hair held back with a tortoiseshell barrette. She had lived among and through books, in high school and then college, won a scholarship at Yale. Paris had been a dream from her childhood, when her single mother could not take her places, not to Europe. Walking across the room and opening the window, she looked out over a cloister, then across the Seine to the Pantheon and the city beyond. A phrase came to her mind"My barefoot need"another phrase from a book. She did not want Sohail to see this. It had begun raining again and the slate roofs opposite shed streams of water.
At dusk the following day, Sohail sat watching Helen dress for their first dinner with his parents. He wore a sports jacket, a black cashmere turtleneck, and pleated trousers; she rolled black stockings over her legs, which were pink and damp from the shower. She walked to the closet, naked but for the stockings, removed a black dress that she had hung up the night before, stepped into it, and pulled it over the flare of her hips. She turned her back to him, and he zipped it.
They walked past the half-hearted Christmas tree in front of Notre Dame and then along the left bank of the Seine, among the headlights of scooters and cars, the crowds rushing home into the twilight, the tourists everywhere taking pictures, the Parisians with buttoned-down faces. The wet streets glittered. Helen walked beside Sohail, keeping up with him, her heels clicking. She drank in the city around them, moving so quickly, so differently.
A barge passed, going upstream, long and fast, smoking into the night, the lit cabin cozy and cheerful above the cold black water.
"You know," she said thoughtfully, "the Seine doesn't divide Paris, it keeps the city together. It's just the right width, not a little stream but a public place in the heart of the city."
Sohail leaned down and kissed her. "That's a great image, the river not dividing Paris."
"It's yours," said Helen. "For your next poem."
His parents were staying in an apartment on the Quai des Grands Augustins, overlooking the Seine. Sohail and Helen went up to the second floor, found the door, and he had just touched the bell when a voice called, "Coming."
"Hello, darling," said his mother, presenting her cheek to kiss, looking past him to Helen. She had a husky, attractive voice and was dressed quite plainly, a long white cotton tunic embroidered in white over slim-fitting pants.
Helen extended her hand, palm flat, and looked Sohail's mother in the eye, directly and ingenuously. "Hello, Mrs. Gurmani. I'm Helen."
"And I'm Rafia. Welcome." She had fixed a stiff smile on her face.
Sohail's father stood to one side, a smallish man with a little moustache, precisely dressed in a thick brown tweed suit with a vest and muted tie and brilliantly shined shoes of a distinctive tan color. As he took Helen's coat he said, "Welcome, welcome. Thank you for coming." But his statement appeared to be reflexive, without connection to his mental processes. Putting the coat on a hanger, he looked at her closely, with shrewd eyes. Sohail had thrown his coat on a chair near the door.
"Very nice," said Sohail, looking around at the apartment, which had high ceilings and diminutive fittings. A woman on the stereo sang in French, and his mother had lit candles.
"It belongs to Brigadier Hayatullah," said his father, sitting down again in front of the fire.
Rafia and Helen had moved into the living room. The mother leaned down and looked at Helen's necklace, an Afghan tribal piece, silver with lapis.
"Isn't that pretty."
"Sohail gave it to me. It's one of my favorite things."
Rafia said to Sohail, turning and smiling at him, "Will you get Helen and yourself whatever you wantit's in the kitchen." Then to Helen, "Come sit here by me."
Sohail brought a drink for Helen and one for himself. His father sat back in the sofa, his drink on his knee, and looked sedately about the room. Rafia began.
"I promised Sohail not to embarrass him, not to say how much I've heard about you." She had little dimples when she smiled. "But it's true, he keeps telling me about you, it's sweet."
"Ma, please. That makes me sound like I'm fifteen," said Sohail.
"It's the simple truth. And why shouldn't I say it, it's nice to see you happy. But please come help me with dinner. Bring your drink."
As mother and son went into the kitchen, Helen heard Rafia whisper to Sohail, "But she's so pretty."
Helen was left with Mr. Gurmani, who did not seem disposed to conversation. He looked complacently at the fire, his glass sweating. After hesitating to have a drink, Helen had accepted a white wine, reminding herself that she was an adult. Now she took a sip of the wine, trying to relax. She had been sitting up erect, halfway forward in the seat.
Still looking into the fire, Mr. Gurmani said speculatively, "Sohail was very happy at Yale." She waited for more, but the father seemed to be content placing this statement on the table between them, a sufficient offering.
"He really was, Mr. Gurmani. He's been happy as long as I've known him." She wanted to be as straight with his parents as possible.
"Please, call me Amjad." The thick tweed of his suit and the smallness of his hands and feet made him appear to Helen like an expensive toy. He spoke very quietly.
She decided to press on, to maintain even this slight momentum of conversation. "His life in Pakistan is so different, at least from what I know. But he has an American side, what I think of as American. He's very gentleI don't mean Americans are gentle, they're not. But it's easier to be gentle in a place where there's order."
She paused, took a sip of her wine, waited for a moment.
"Go on," said Mr. Gurmani.
"He and my mother got along well, even thoughshe's a secretary in a little Connecticut town, and she has a house with cats and a garden. He liked that. At first I thought he was pretending, but he wasn't."
"It's a wonderful country. There's nothing you people can't do when you put your minds to it. I admire the Americans tremendously." He sipped from his glass, the ice cubes clattering. "So many of our young people want to live in AmericaI suppose Sohail as well."
"He talks about it," she said cautiously. "But he talks about Pakistan a lot too. When he and I first met he told me stories about Pakistan for hours."
"And what about you? What would you like to do?"
"I want to be a doctor. I just sent out my applications to medical school." She blushed as she said this, the color unevenly creeping up her fine-grained cheekbones.
"On the East Coast?"
"In New York, maybe. When I was little my mother would drive me to the city, to the Museum of Natural History or the Met, or sometimes we would just walk around looking at the stores and the people. I've always wanted to live there." She paused again, conscious that she might sound pathetic. "It feels like the center of everything. And it's not the way it used to be, it's safe and clean, you can walk through the Park at midnight."
The father looked at her with an expressionless face. "Perhaps Sohail can set up a branch of our company there."
Sohail had come in and heard this last part of the conversation. He sat down on the arm of Helen's chair, put his hand on her shoulder, and said. "Now you've seen it, Helen. That's as close as my father comes to humor." He leaned forward, took his father's empty glass, and stood up. "I warn you, this man has more factories than your mother has cats. Watch out for him. Stick to name, rank, and serial number."
Mr. Gurmani smiled appreciatively.
"We both want the same thingwhat's best for you," said Helen in a flirtatious tone quite new to her. "Why would I need to be careful?"
They had dinner at a small table under a spiky modern chandelier painted with gold leaf, Mr. Gurmani sitting at the head and filling their bowls with bouillabaisse, saffroned and aromatic. Rafia tasted hers from the tip of her spoon and said, "It's good. It's from Quintessencethat's the new chic place, supposedly." Sohail poured the wine and then turned down the lights, so that the table was illuminated by candles.
A bateau mouche glided by on the Seine, its row of spotlights trained on the historic buildings along the quay, throwing patterned light through the blinds onto the living room wall. For a moment they carefully sipped the hot stew.
Helen felt she should break the silence. Just as she was to begin, Rafia turned to her.
"Do you know, Sohail was almost born in Paris?" She sipped from her spoon, looking at Helen sideways. "I was in London to have the baby, and I was enormous and felt like an elephantso I begged Amjad to come over with me and let me pick out some outrageous outfits. I thought I'd have my girlish figure back the day after I delivered."
Sohail beamed across at Helen, his face framed by two wavering candles. "You can tell this is one of my mother's tall talesby the simple fact that she's never begged my father for anything. If she had said she ordered my father to Paris it might have been true."
"In any case, you were almost born here, in the Hotel d'Angleterre."
"I wish it had happened," said Sohail. "For a Pakistani being born in London is about as exciting as being born in Lahore. Paris would be glamorous."
Rafia tilted her head toward Helen. "Where would you have liked to be born?"
"I've never thought of that. The first time I met Sohail we talked about where we'd like to be buried."
"In seven years of dating that line has never once failed." Sohail appeared to be saying the first thing that came into his head, filling up the gaps in the conversation.
"Don't be flip, Sohail. Amjad, where would you like to have been born?"
The father, who had been drinking his stew with the equanimity of a solitary patron in a busy café, looked up from under his brows.
"I suppose in the happiest possible home. And not in India, I think. And not in Europe. Perhaps in America."
This interested Helen, relieving her of an irritation at the conversation between mother and son, which seemed too practiced, as if they were performing together, and in their display excluding her.
"Why America?" she asked. Her oval face reflected the light of the candles.
Placing his forearms on the table, still holding his spoon, Mr. Gurmani looked for a moment over his wife's head at the opposite wall. "You know or you correctly assume that I was born into a comfortably well-off family. All my life I've been lucky, my business succeeded, I've had no tragedies, my wife and I are happy, we have a wonderful son. The one thing I've missed, I sometimes feel, is the sensation of being absolutely free, to do exactly what I like, to go where I like, to act as I like. I suspect that only an American ever feels that. You aren't weighed down by your families, and you aren't weighed down by history. If I ran away to the South Pole some Pakistani businessman would one day crawl into my igloo and ask if I were the son of K. K. Gurmani."
Rafia touched his arm. "Darling, you're too old to be menopausal. Americans aren't more free than anyone else. Just because an American runs away, to Kansas or Wyoming, doesn't mean that he succeeds in escaping whatever it is he left behind. Like all of us he carries it with him." She turned to Helen. "Let me ask you. Do you think you're free?"
"I'm not old enough yet to know. I think that at twenty-one many girls think they are."
"Brilliant!" said Sohail. He poured more wine for himself and for his parents; Helen put her hand over the mouth of her glass.
After a moment Mr. Gurmani stood up and began gathering their dishes. He prevented Sohail from rising to help him, saying, "No, no, you sit, let me do this."
"You have to admit, my dad's pretty evolved," said Sohail. "He even likes to cook."
Her mind cooling, prickly from the wine, Helen listened to Sohail and his mother talking about their plans for the next few days, museums and the ballet on Christmas Eve. Rafia had a slight British accent, but softer than that, more roundedas if the accent had been bred by the personality, as one of her individual characteristics. So this is how Sohail grew up, Helen thought. She wondered what lay beneath the angularities of Rafia's charactera woman so imposing not only in her speech but in her manner, the way in which she moved her hands, the angle at which she held her head. In any case, Helen would manage with Rafia, they would make their peace.
As soon as they finished dessert, Sohail got up to leave, refusing coffee.
"You don't have to go yet," said Rafia, her voice tentative. "It's only nine-thirty."
Mr. Gurmani looked out of the window and then insisted upon loaning Helen a scarf. "It's very cold, you know. And it looks good, the red suits your dress." He showed her how to tie the knot in a new way.
Outside it really had become very cold, and even though it was early the streets were empty, the restaurants along the quay deserted.
"That was nice," said Helen, intending it as a question.
"I wish, I wish they hadn't come. It's too much."
"Your mother loves you a lot, you know. She wanted us to stay, it was almost pathetic. She's afraid I'll take you away."
"God, and my father with his scarf. When I was little I went into the drawing room every evening to say goodnight to my parentsthey always had guestsafter my bath, with my hair wet; and my father would send the servant for a towel and rub my head with it. That's it, that was his parenting. And he did it so badly, roughly, just because he didn't know how to touch me."
She took his arm, squeezed it, and leaned in to him; they walked quickly along the river, across to the Île de la Cité, Notre Dame looming overhead.
"Did they like me? Did I do all right?"
"You did beautifully, my love. I was proud of you."
She knew that he wasn't being perfectly sincere. "I feel like Sohail's stupid girlfriend."
"It's not at all like that."
The apartment felt warm at first, and they threw off their coats and lay back on the futon. Then it became too hot. Helen lit the candles on a little table near their heads, and in the orange light they both softened.
They made love, gently. When they finished Sohail opened the window and a delicious cold air blew in, billowing the lacy curtains and flickering the candles. A light rain fell. He stood by the window, naked, looking out at the city, and she watched him and knew that she loved him very much.
The next morning Helen and Sohail walked along the cold Seine. Among the cobblestones of the quay little puddles had frozen, rough at the edges and black at the centers; as the sun hit them, the ice softened and broke underfoot. The hard blue sky stood enormously tall over Paris. Helen wore high-heeled boots and a long wool skirt. Her friends at Yale each had loaned her something, the reefer jacket she wore that day, some little bits of jewelry, and other simple things. Sohail wore what Helen called his interesting shoeshe had a dozen pairjeans, and a long camel-hair coat.
They stood in front of a wooden houseboat painted cream, black at the waterline, the interior visible through latticed windows cut into the sides.
"Let's buy one of these soon and live on it," he said.
"I know," she said playfully. "And we'll raise sheeps and rabbits and live off the fatta the land." Helen liked to use this line from Steinbeck. She put her little mittened hand into his, turned to face him, and kissed him on the tip of his nose. "You make too many impossible plans."
They left the quay at the Pont de la Concorde and turned down the Champs Elysées. Under the trees the fallen leaves smelled bitter from the previous day's rain. They passed a young man selling chestnuts, warming them over coals in a tray cut from a tin barrel, standing on a piece of cardboard for insulation and stamping his feet.
Sohail pulled Helen close and whispered in her ear, "He's one of mine, from Pakistan, from Punjab."
The young man, shivering in his inadequate coat, held up a packet of the chestnuts.
"I'll try some," said Helen. She took a euro from her purse and paid.
They emerged from the little park onto the sidewalk and could see down the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, humped unnaturally large over the avenue.
"There's a line from Merrill," said Sohail, "it's on the tip of my tongue, something about a ‘honey-slow descent of the Champs Elysées.'" Sohail had an excellent memory, which had compensated for his lack of work ethic in law school. After a moment, he began reciting.
Back into my imagination
The city glides, like cities seen from the air,
Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger
Having in mind another destination
Which now is not that honey-slow descent
Of the Champs Elysées, her hand in his,
But the dull need to make some kind of house
Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.
He finished and sat down on a bench. The sun had come out brightly.
"That's beautiful, sweetie. Say it again."
While he recited she looked at him, his handsome dark profile, and ran her hands through the thick black hair at the nape of his neck.
"What does it mean?" she whispered.
The next night was Christmas Eve, and Rafia had gotten tickets for the ballet, Sleeping Beauty at the Garnier. Helen changed first her dress and then her shoes, so that when they arrived at the Opéra they found the Gurmanis waiting in the lobby, Rafia wearing a midnight blue sari of shot silk; a long, heavily worked pashmina shawl; and earrings made from cabochon emeralds, heavy green drops. Mr. Gurmani looked at his watch pointedly.
"It's fine, darling," said Rafia, in response to Helen's apologies. "We've been people-watching. The clothes are wonderful."
Helen had settled on a pale apricot dress and ornaments that Rafia had given her as an early Christmas present, dangling white earrings. Her agitation was reflected in her young bright face.
Rafia smiled, showing her dimples. "You make me wish I were twenty again."
They moved up the stairs among the crowd, Helen very conscious of her long dress, afraid she would trip on the hem, particularly in the reflected attention drawn by Rafia.
The Gurmanis had the center box in the second loge. "You ladies sit in front," insisted Mr. Gurmani, standing in the vestibule at the back of the box and placing his Burberry overcoat carefully on a hanger.
Helen protested and then gave in, arranging herself into one of the small, uncomfortable chairs upholstered in the same muted red velvet as the walls. The musicians in the pit were warming up, the sharp sounds of the string instruments cutting through the murmuring of the crowd.
The ballet beganNureyev's choreography, the production fine-spun and brilliant. At first Helen had trouble following the story, which was darker and more adult than the version of Sleeping Beauty she had known; but gradually she became absorbed in the precision of the dancers' movements. When the intermission came she blinked and for a moment didn't know where she was.
The crowd stopped clapping, and the silence in the box became prolonged.
"Well it's absolutely first rate," said Rafia, with a finality that did not invite further opinion. She rose and positioned her shawl, flipping it around her neck in an economical little movement. Looking at Helen, touching her elbow to guide her out, she said, "I was watching youI could see it all reflected in your face, the freshness of your impressions. I'm so glad you like it."
They walked out onto the balcony, and Sohail drew Helen over to the banister, where they could see the crowd emerging from the orchestra.
"I love you," he said, kissing her on the neck.
"I love you too," she said. Everything in this world seemed to her finer, more defined, more weighted. The lights blazed above them in immense chandeliers, and the people walking up the Garnier's famous stair seemed themselves to be gravely dancing, moving in unison, chatting with fluency and choreographed gestures.
Standing behind her, Sohail whispered in her ear, "Let's have a glass of Champagne."
The Gurmanis wanted coffee"Your father's falling asleep," said Rafiaand so the two couples separated.
Helen stood by a tall golden window overlooking the Place de l'Opéra, gazing back into the elaborately decorated room, watching Sohail approach with two flutes of Champagne. She felt shy, her senses alive.
As the ushers came through to call the audience back into the hall, Sohail asked, "Can you find it? I have to go to the bathroom, I'll be right there."
Helen climbed the stairs to the curving wall set with the doors to the boxes. The first door she opened was wrong, and a strange couple stared at her, as if she were trying to slip into their seats. Confused, she looked gingerly through the next door, which was half open. Stepping into the vestibule, she saw Rafia and Mr. Gurmani seated together in the front seats, looking down at the orchestra, intimate in a way that she had not seen them before. She immediately sensed they were speaking about her.
"I suppose that depends on who is being fascinated," said Mr. Gurmani.
"Not really," answered Rafia; and then: "Look at that couple, aren't they superb. Look at the way she carries herself."
Just then Sohail burst through the door behind Helen, his face splashed with water. "Hello, hello," he said, carrying Helen forward into the front of the box.
She felt naked and ashamed as Sohail's father rose quickly from her seat. "Please, Mr. Gurmani," she implored. "Please sit in front."
He wouldn't hear of it, and so she sat exposed by the bright lights until the curtain rose, studying a program, her face burning.
When the ballet ended Helen couldn't look at Rafia and pretended to be fumbling with her little beaded purse. Her chest felt tight, and it all seemed false to her, the people shuffling down the staircase and out through the lobby, each one to a particular evening, the wood moldings painted gold, the massive and elaborate chandeliers. As they emerged into the cold Paris night she thought, It's Christmas Eve.
Sohail and Helen decided to rent a car and spend New Year's Eve out in the country. Upon their return to Paris the Gurmanis would be gone. Both felt constrainedin college they sometimes fought, as couples do, but each night they came back to each other. Helen would say, "Let's not go to sleep angry," and they would stay up and talk and sometimes make love to drive away whatever had hurt them. But in the days following the ballet they had begun to guard their thoughts. They agreed it would be better in the country, in another place, staying in a little hotel room with a creaky bed and eating a country dinner in a rain-washed town overrun by catsthat was the way Sohail described it.
Sohail had seen his parents apart from Helen, respecting her desire to have a little space, as she put it. On Christmas Day they had dropped in at the Quai des Grands Augustins apartment to exchange presents, and saw the Gurmanis for coffee several days later at Rafia's favorite café, La Palette.
As they were parting, Rafia said to Helen, "I'll see Sohail in ten days. But let's you and I meet for a girls' tea, just to have a little time alone." She suggested the next afternoon at the Hotel George V. Sohail and Helen would pick up their car the following day, early in the morning, and drive to the Loire Valley to celebrate New Year's in Montresor, which would be empty of tourists this time of year. They would walk along the little stream Sohail described and have Champagne beside the pond at midnight.
Helen had brought to Paris the suit she bought for medical school interviews, a conservative blue jacket and knee-length skirt, and she wore this to tea, with cream-colored stockings and a fitted white T-shirt to make it less formal. She looked armored, cool and efficient, exactly as she wanted to feel. After walking up Avenue Georges V, past decorous stores, under a warm sun, Helen was not intimidated by the liveried doorman who quickly assessed her and welcomed her in English. Although she had timed her arrival five minutes early, looking across the large airy room she saw Rafia sitting at a corner table, reading a magazine.
"I'm sorry," began Helen, hurrying across the carpet.
"No, no, I came early, I like to settle in." She stood up and kissed Helen on the cheek. "How are you?"
Rafia wore western clothestailored brown slacks, brown high-heeled boots, and a white cashmere sweater with a thick turtleneckwhich surprised Helen, this collected, hip look.
"Have some petit fours, Helen," Rafia said, as the waiter approached the table. "They're delicious." She sat back and lit a cigarette, looking at Helen with a hint of a smile, a friendly, appraising expression. "So, you're going to the Loire," she began.
"Though it's strange to be leaving Pariswhen I spent so much time wanting to be here."
"Sohail's like thathe always wants to do the extra bit, the flourish. You'll be back in Paris another year. I'm glad for you."
Rafia was gentler than she had been at their previous meetingseven the clothing was less assertive.
"Somehow it's difficult for me to think of myself as someone who will do all these things, travel and live in other countries."
"One of the things that I like about you, Helen, if you don't mind my saying so, is that you don't assume those things. But I know you will have a life in the big world. You're the right kind of American, the Americans who went to the moon. And the Americans of Hawthorne and Robert Lowellthe puritans and the prairie."
"Hawthorne and Lowell are more puritan than prairie."
"True. I suppose you are also."
The waiter brought the tea and a silver dish with a selection of delicate petit fours. Rafia took one, holding it distinctly with her long fingers, nails immaculately filed.
"Would you like to talk about Sohail?" asked Helen.
"Yes. Though that's not the only reason I asked you here. I also wanted to have a real moment with you. Quite aside from Sohail, I respect you, and I envy your freedoms. In your life you'll have solid things, and you'll have them more solidly than I did."
"And we both wonder where Sohail fits in."
"You tell me." Rafia said this softly. "Is he one of those solid things?" She placed her elbows on the table, joined her hands together, and touched her lips with her fingers, the gesture masculine, her eyes bright. Watching her, struggling to keep up with her, Helen marveled at how quickly Rafia could transform herself.
She had known that the question of her future with Sohail would be at the center of this meeting, but now it seemed irrevocable to speak with his mother of these things.
"Sohail and I haven't really talked about it. Of course we've walked around the subject, a million times. He's so good at ignoring things that bother him. I can't help being the responsible one. I brood."
"And where does this brooding lead?"
"It depends on the day. I try to live in the present, not to ask so many questions."
"I owe it to you to be frank, even more because I like you and I respect you. Sohail is gentlenot weak, soft. That's one of the reasons we both love him, and it's also his greatest flaw. My husband never missed a meeting or a day of work in his life; and I've spent or misspent my life helping my husband's career and more or less having a career myself, as someone who knows where the power lies and how to focus it. Sohail doesn't have that mettle in him. He gets by on intelligence, that's why he's still successful."
"Perhaps he won't need to be hard."
"Because of his money? He'll need it more because of that. Even I can remember when everyone knew everyone in Karachi. Pakistan isn't like that anymore, there are many powerful men who would look at Sohail and his property and see a lamb fattened for the slaughter. And then, it's as difficult to have a meaningful life with a lot of money as without. But my point is, he'll follow you and do what you decide. I can't do anything about itif I could I probably would, because I don't think you can make him happy, and I know he can't make you happy. You would hate Pakistan. You're not built for it, you're too straight and you don't put enough value on decorative, superficial thingsand that's the only way to get by there."
"He could live in America."
"And how would that be? He would be emasculated, not American and not with any place in Pakistan, working at a job he wouldn't like. I see these boys come through Karachi on two-week vacationsthe boys who settled in Americaand they always have this odd tamed look, a bit sheepish. It's so much worse after 9/11they more or less apologize daily. Sohail's background will always be a factor, when he flies out for a deposition to the Cracker Belt or the Corn Belt. He's proud of who he is, but they would knock a bit of that out of him. In any case, for you he would do it, join a law firm in New York. He would even stay with you, if that's what you wanted. But I promise you, he wouldn't be happy, he wouldn't feed the best part of himself."
Helen looked at Rafia squarely, "And in Pakistan will he feed that best part?"
"I don't know," cried Rafia, startling Helen. "I don't know."
"And would you be willing to let him go?"
Rafia leaned back in her chair and lit another cigarette, her hair, which was drawn back in a bun, cutting across her temples in two gleaming black bands. "Yes. But that's a different concern. I've said my piece, and now I trust you to do what you will. I trust you, it's as simple as that."
"That's almost blackmail, Mrs. Gurmani. Suppose I don't agree with you."
"Then you'll do what you will."
Now Helen leaned back in her chair and looked out onto a little courtyard. In summer the hotel would serve tea there. "I also had something to say, Mrs. Gurmani."
Rafia laughed, the sound husky and pleasant. "After all that, I think you should call me Rafia."
"Thank you. Rafia, then. I guess I just wanted to thank you for making Sohail what he is. He's been everything to me, he's been good to me. I think a lot of the things that he showed me, you showed him first. Just his way of looking at things, I mean, the good part of it. And books and pictures." She stopped. She could go no further in being gracious. It was dawning on her that Rafia had driven her to say more than she wanted, and perhaps more than she meant.
Rafia narrowed her eyes. "I can't decide if those are or aren't the words of a future daughter-in-law. There's something valedictory about them."
"Maybe of a daughter-in-law from the prairie. We are ingenuous, you know."
This broke the tension. Helen knew the interview was over. They began speaking inconsequentially, of an exhibition that they had seen, separately, at the Petit Palais.
When they had finished their tea, they walked out together, down streets drowsy in the warm, still afternoon.
"I'm going to walk," Helen said.
"And I will take the Metro."
At the entrance Rafia embraced Helen closely and then leaned back, holding her forearms. "Thank you."
And before Helen could respond Rafia turned and skipped down the stairs, in her impeccable high-heeled boots, went through the turnstile, and disappeared into the station.
At Fontainebleau Sohail exited the motorway in the direction of Orleans, among the little towns with narrow streets. Helen observed the mossy orange-tiled roofs, the weathered stucco walls, the drives leading to the large summer homes of Parisians. Now in December, the day before New Year's Eve, the towns were shuttered. Helen played with the radio, alternating between classical music and French pop, and they spoke only of the passing countryside.
She felt comfortable with him, the car warm, the windshield wipers throwing off the rain that began and then stopped. As they reached the city center of Orleans the sun emerged among strips of cloud. The blueness of the sky struck Helen as she uncurled herself from the car. Immaculate puddles reflected the brightening light.
They walked on the washed pavement, among crowds going to a fair in the main square, with an ice-skating rink and booths selling crafts. Weaving in and out of the people, holding hands, they broke apart and then came back together again, hardly aware of doing it, under the facades of nineteenth-century municipal buildings that crowded shoulder to shoulder around the square. They passed through the rough scent of pine boughs, between lanes of temporary plywood shops hammered together. Heavy orange electrical cords lay tangled underfoot, feeding the many lights.
They shared a crepe, chocolate with bananas, and then bought a Nina Simone disc. The people around them were in a holiday mood, many of them old, the country aging.
Helen stopped at a booth selling candy, sour balls and gummi bears, jelly worms striped green and yellow, chocolate almonds, peanut brittle, each type in a little glass cookie jar, each to be weighed separately.
"Can we get some?" Helen would sometimes eat a whole bag of candy, then become sad and childish, with a headache.
Sohail pulled at her leather-gloved hand. "Let's get it at the grocery store, we need water anyway. It costs four times more here."
"But I want this."
"Why? It's the same thing."
She walked away, angry for a moment, and then her cheeks burned at the thought that she was spending his money. She had hardly any of her own for this trip, no savings; at school she lived on nothing, always had a job, even after she met Sohail.
They passed through a little alley to reach the car, and when they were in the shadows he turned to her and buried his face in her hair. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
She comforted him, his face wet.
"I can't believe I didn't buy you that fucking candy. I know I'll remember it, that I didn't."
He wanted to walk on, but she wouldn't let him, and held him. "You always give me nice things. You've taken such good care of me."
In the grocery store he laughed brokenly, sun after rain. "They really don't have the same candy."
They sat for a moment in the car. She leaned over awkwardly from her seat and kissed his neck. She kissed him on the lips, her tongue in his mouth, his face tasting of salt.
"I'm OK," he said, pulling himself together. "It's OK." He unfurled the map.
She picked randomly. "Let's spend the night here. I like the sound of it, Beaugency. It's on the river."
She took out the guide and read aloud to him about the town as they drove through the streets and then along the Loire, the sky becoming dusky, the clouds first orange and then red.
At the Auberge Maille d'Or in Beaugency, an old posting inn hovering between tight-lipped poverty and seediness, with the plaster cracked and paint chipping on the iron bed frame, their room looked onto a courtyard paved with cobblestones, with a fountain at the far end and, in the gloom along the wall, green plastic crates filled with empty beer bottles. They were the only guests and had what would pass for the best room, at the end of a long gallery on the second floor, with big windows. "I love run-down hotels," Sohail said. He turned on the TV and found a channel showing cartoons, dubbed in French. Helen moved about the big bare room putting away her things, her toiletries in the bathroom, hanging up her clothes.
At dinner they ordered a second bottle of wine. Helen became giggly and afterward asked him to drive her along the river, which glittered and then ran dark under the arches of an old stone bridge. Back at the hotel, a fat black kitten with white paws stuck its nose around the door of the reception desk.
"Look, it's our country cat," she said, tipsy, looking down at it. She knew she was looking pretty, she had been flirting with Sohail all evening, and now she wanted to hold the little kitty, it would suit her. The kitten looked up with wide green eyes, intent, face uplifted like a little black bowl, its feet splayed. It turned and raced out the door, skidding on the tiled floor, chubby tail standing upright.
"Viens, viens," she called, rolling the unfamiliar French word on her tongue, playing at being a little girl.
The kitten slipped behind the beer crates and would not emerge. The long courtyard shaded away into darkness, its silence broken by the splashing sound of the unseen fountain.
Helen sat on her haunches, calling. The kitten came out toward her a few feet, but when she moved forward it scrambled away again, its little white paws flashing.
She sat back and looked up at the stars, at the moon framed by the pollarded branches of a lime tree, stark without leaves. The same stars lit the snowfield behind her house in Connecticut. She would never again be twenty-one in an old hotel in the Loire Valley in France. "I can't believe Paris is over," she said, very softly, because she knew that Sohail was nearby, watching her. Fluidly she stood up, made a kissing sound toward the kitten, and walked back to him.
In their room she led him onto the bed and pulled his clothes off, threw off her own, raising her legs in the air to push off her panties, biting him, his nipples. The loose bed springs made long rusty sounds, like a knife leisurely sharpened on a whetstone.
Afterward, she stood in the window with a blue-printed cotton scarf wrapped around her body like a sarong, looking out over the courtyard. The kitten ambled on the path beneath their room, on its fat clumsy legs. She called to it, "Hello, kitty cat."
In the morning a heavy mist lay over the winter fields. They drifted south on tiny country roads, Helen driving. She drove fast, not smoothly but with a kind of angularity, from point A to point B. A hare burst from the woods on their left, crossed the road, and then bounded over a plowed field. Helen stopped the car, and they watched it lope far across the field and into the woods on the other side.
At Chenonceaux rain began to fall lightly, as if the mist were dissolving. The brown wooded bank on the far side of the River Cher set off the quirky, light chateau, which seemed too playful to be a house, too fantastical, its towers and filigree, its position astride the river. The current as it flowed through the arches, rippling and white, appeared to Helen to be towing the chateau out to sea.
A fire burned in the guardroom, and they stood in front of it. Through the windows they could see the gray water flowing underneath. Helen wandered away from Sohail and up some stairs into a dark rooma bedroombelonging to some widowed queen. She stared for a long time out the window, west, down the river as it flowed to the sea. Soon she would be going back there, to classes, to the snow in New Haven, to the old beaten car that she loved. Every few weeks she drove into the country to visit her mother, who would open a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate. Now, she thought. Now, now it's time. It can't wait any longer.
She found him in Catherine de Medici's little study, which hangs out over the water like the cockpit of a plane, glassed on three sides. "I've been looking for you, baby," said Sohail.
Helen leaned her body against him, put her head on his shoulder. "Let's go home," she said.
"Do you mean to the inn in Montresor?"
"No, I mean Paris."
"What about New Year's?"
"Let's be in Paris. I need to, I really do. We'll walk along the Seine. It's only three hours away."
He didn't ask why. Returning to the car, Sohail insisted on stopping to see the maze. The hedges stood only to waist level, and so she watched him as he worked his way through it. It wasn't fun, she knew it wasn't fun for him, but he had to do it, pretending to play. He looked so beautiful in the rain. Quite consciously she was renouncing him.
He seemed to be taking a long time to get through, and then he succeeded and stood on the little platform in the center. "Look," he said.
She waved. He came out and approached her slowly. He didn't touch her but stood kicking at the leaves, looking down at his feet, trying not to sob, she could tell. Her few tears squeezed out.
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