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Lion Eyes

A Novel

Lion Eyes
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US$ 9.99
Of Claire Berlinski’s marvelous debut novel, Loose Lips–a perfect blend of satire, romance, and suspense featuring a young female CIA operative–book critic Frank Bascombe observed: “It’s more than a little obvious that [protagonist] Selena Keller is Claire Berlinski.” Despite her assertions to the contrary, Berlinski isn’t above poking fun at that notion in her hilarious and intriguing new novel.

In Lion Eyes, a fictional Claire–the author of a novel about love among young CIA trainees–is unsuccessfully dodging a deadly Paris heat wave and her even deadlier ex-boyfriend. When she receives an e-mail from an Iranian admirer who wonders how to obtain a copy of Loose Lips in his native city of Esfahan, Claire wastes no time in replying. Her correspondence with the mysterious stranger, Arsalan–whose name means “the Lion” in Persian–quickly becomes personal, then intimate . . . then obsessive.

As Claire heads to Istanbul to find relief from the heat, her electronic flirtation with Arsalan begins, inevitably, to consume her. The boundary between reality and her imagination blurs and then disappears. The Lion, meanwhile, is nurturing his own powerful fantasies about the author. To satisfy their growing passion, they agree to meet, back in Paris, but Claire soon learns that someone is secretly intercepting their communications.

Suddenly, Claire’s romantic dreams start to dissolve. As events take an unimagined turn, and as life begins menacingly to imitate art, Claire discovers that the Lion is not who she thinks he is.

Clever and witty, Lion Eyes showcases intriguing characters, exotic locales, snappy double entendres, clever spy games, and the forbidden pleasure of reading other people’s mail. Claire Berlinski (the real Claire Berlinshi, that is) expertly plots out chance and chase, love and lies, and brings it all together with intelligence, counterintelligence, and a dossier full of humor.


From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group; November 2008
256 pages; ISBN 9780345513304
Download in EPUB or secure PDF format
Excerpt
CHAPTER ONE

. . . It’s more than a little obvious that Selena Keller is Claire Berlinski, or maybe it’s her sister. The title page has “A Roman à Claire” written under the title, which leads me to believe the fetching drink of water that’s described by Ms. Berlinski in the book is actually the author herself, even though I’ve been assured it’s not. Did Berlinski dip her toe into the Central Intelligence Agency? Go to the Farm? Get trained for work in the CST unit of the CIA? . . .

—Frank Bascombe, book critic, writing about Loose Lips

I don’t drink,” said Jimmy, when on our first date I suggested we order a bottle of wine; and I wasn’t so blind that I didn’t immediately appreciate, particularly given the tattoos on his arms and his ethnic background, that the words meant I’m working the steps. But he was handsome, in a rough, ruined way, and he had swagger. There was something disarming about his smile, too—so disarming, in fact, that when my cranky and suspicious ninety-two-year-old grandmother visited my family in Paris, she fell for Jimmy as well. He gently helped her up and down the stairs and conversed intently with her about James Joyce and Edna O’Brien. He brought her his beaten-up copy of Angela’s Ashes. She read it in one sitting and said the descriptions of hunger and poverty reminded her of her own upbringing in wartime Germany.

Angela’s Ashes has a lot to answer for, actually. When our affair began, shortly after I arrived in Paris, he read the book to me out loud. Och, aye! He had a superb gift for mimicry and a working-class Belfast accent, so it was hard not to confuse him with the characters in the book and easy to ascribe to him all the book’s wit and sensitivity—a confusion he did nothing to dispel by noting, repeatedly, the analogies between his own life and Frank McCourt’s.

He was a former boxer. He had grown up during the Troubles and had seen awful things. He was tough and streetwise. He had a tender Irish sentimentality, and he loved books. If he did not seem particularly ambitious or driven, I reckoned that an appealing quality: I had dated many men who were, and would not have been sorry never again to feign interest in my date’s aggressive business plan for the penetration of the competitive Finnish telecom sector. It was fine with me if Jimmy taught English lessons and did odd jobs for a living. I figured there was only room for one big ego in a couple. I was right about that, I think; I just didn’t realize that there were, in fact, two in ours.

I would have been well advised to pay more attention to Angela’s Ashes.

A few weeks after we broke up, I ran into him by accident up by Montmartre. I was satisfied by the way he looked at me. He had just purchased a motorcycle from a bass player who was going back to Manchester. The attraction was still there, unfortunately, and when he offered to give me a lift back to my apartment, judgment failed me once again, and I accepted, even though generally I never ride motorcycles, for all the obvious reasons. Before he even pulled out into the street, he miscalculated the distance between my hip and the car parked beside us. It made an awful sound, like tongs being fed into a Cuisinart.

When I returned from the emergency room to my empty apartment, on crutches, even the narcotics I’d been prescribed for the pain did nothing to relieve my sense of desolation.

That was the way I was living when the first letter from the Lion arrived, and that, I think, explains a lot.



•••

I wrote Loose Lips in Paris, where I live now. My apartment is on the top floor of a brick building overlooking the Place Dauphine. It is physically impossible to live closer to the heart of Paris. I can’t say that I’m close to my neighbors, however. The elderly Hungarian woman who lives below me once sent an official registered letter to my landlord, informing him that I had placed my garbage bags on the landing instead of taking them down to the basement Dumpster. She is sensitive to noise. She has complained that I run my bathtub too loudly. Below her lives the man with an incontinent Irish setter. No amount of lavender air freshener will ever make the elevator right again.

The concierge and his wife live on the ground floor. Monsieur Tubert has an incomprehensible Provençal accent and the sly face of a village grocer who puts his finger on the scale. I speak to him only when my hot water stops working. Whenever I ring his bell to tell him this, Madame Tubert, wearing a stained housecoat, opens the door just a crack. A cloud of ancient dust billows from the apartment. After appraising me suspiciously for a good long time, she relays the bad news to her husband, who slowly levers himself erect and wheezes upstairs with his tool belt. He inevitably spends four hours in my apartment, taking apart the plumbing, leaving parts all over the floor, sighing, and muttering incomprehensibly to himself before declaring that it’s bien foutu and calling the plumber.

The linden trees on the Place Dauphine are elegant in the winter; in the spring they explode into exuberant buds. This summons the local workmen in their blue coveralls, who come to the plaza to shake each other’s hands for a good half hour and play pétanque all afternoon. Young lovers sit on the benches, kissing each other on the eyelids and earlobes and cooing tenderly.

The restaurants on the Place Dauphine look so inviting, with their belle époque painted storefronts and their outdoor tables. The waiters write the day’s menus on chalkboard easels in that careful round cursive they teach in French schools, and at lunchtime the tables fill up with plump, well-appointed attorneys and their mistresses. The women wear leather pants and carry unhappy small dogs; everyone smokes furiously. The food comes stacked in artful little pyramids: galettes of this and confits of that, all drizzled with a coulis of something-or-other and served in the summer with a cold Sancerre.

My L-shaped studio is not spacious. The stumpy little half bathtub has a hose in place of a shower, and the alley to the minifridge between the cupboard and the sink is almost impassable. But from my windows I see all of Paris, from the Eiffel Tower to the Pantheon. I see the Palais de Justice, the spires of Sainte-Chapelle, and the banks of the Seine. The cobblestones on the plaza glow when it rains, reflecting honey-colored light from the wrought-iron street lamps. At night, I watch the sun set over the rooftops of Paris as the glittering Bateaux Mouches churn serenely down the river, leaving phosphorescent ripples in their wake.

It’s quite a glamorous life, except for one thing. Sometimes I go for days hearing only one human voice. It emerges from my laser printer, solemnly informing me in a mechanical British accent that the printing has started and the printing has finished.



•••

Before moving to Paris, I worked as a democracy officer in the Elections and Political Processes sector of the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I had originally moved to Washington in the hope of finding work with a think tank, or perhaps as a staffer on the Hill. I took the job with the USDA because I wanted to be posted overseas. “Do you have a yen for travel, a passion for agriculture, and enthusiasm for international trade?” asked the department’s website. I had a yen for travel. What more could they want? But after accepting the job, I found myself sitting in a windowless office in Washington, preparing a series of briefing papers on electoral systems in the developing world.

My father had moved to Paris several years before. A year after taking the job in Washington, I came to visit him over the winter holidays. He had just finished writing another book, and on the last day of my visit, I said wistfully, “I wish I could quit my job and move to Paris and be a writer, too.”

“Why can’t you?” he asked.

Why couldn’t I?

Begin with a voice, everyone says; finding one was hardly my problem. The voice that I heard never shut up. The first time I heard it was the day I moved into my apartment complex in Washington. I was in the lobby, fumbling with the key to my new mailbox, when a door slammed several flights above me and a voice, rapid-fire and insistent, began to echo down the stairwell. I couldn’t make out what the woman was saying, but she was surely saying a lot of it. The voice began descending from the top to the ground floor, accompanied by the chattering click of high heels. The babbling and clicking grew louder. There was a sudden pause in both the heel clicking and the babble as for a moment she stopped to listen to someone; then a resumption of clacking and jabbering, then a crescendo of clacking and jabbering, and then at last a leggy, slender black woman burst into the lobby, a bright yellow scarf tied elegantly around her head and fixed above her forehead with a glittering brooch. “Hold on one sec,” she said to the cell phone cradled between her cheek and shoulder. “Well hiya, new neighbor,” she said to me as if she’d known me for years. “Welcome to the building. I mean, you must be my new neigh- bor; I saw all your boxes. You need a hand with those? I’ll drop by when I get back.” Without waiting for me to answer, she returned her attention to the cell phone and began babbling again. Still talking, she gave the mailbox next to mine a vigorous karate chop with the side of her hand. It flew open. She pulled from it a stack of letters, flyers, brochures, and postcards; leafed through them quickly; and shoved them back in her mailbox. She opened the last letter and—still talking—quickly skimmed the contents. She squinted and frowned. “Dang it, he didn’t even proofread it.” She balled up the paper and tossed it over her shoulder. “Gotta run, honey,” she said to me, “but I’ll drop by later and say hello to you proper.” And with that, she pranced off, leaving a cloud of babble in her wake.

I had not said one word.

Some prurient instinct prompted me to pick up the piece of paper she had just tossed to the ground. I smoothed it, checking furtively to make sure no one saw me snooping. “Charlene, FYI” was written by hand at the top of the page.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

LAWSUIT SEEKS TO CHALLENGE CIA’S CENSORSHIP OF FORMER BLACK OFFICER’S MEMOIRS

Washington D.C.—Charlene Pierce, an African-American who is suing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for racial discrimination, today filed a new lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the CIA’s decision to censor her memoirs. Formerly employed as a CIA Clandestine Service Trainee (CST), Ms. Pierce asserts the CIA is abusing the classification system to defeat her discrimination lawsuit.

I looked at the label on the mailbox she had just opened. It read c. pierce.

I looked behind me again, puzzled.

Later that evening, my mysterious new neighbor dropped by with an apple cake. “Hey there! I’m Charlene, and I just wanted to be neighborly; I’m from North Carolina and that’s what we do. You need any help with all those boxes?” I opened my mouth to thank her but didn’t get past the first syllable. “Hey, you have a better living room than mine! Can I step in for a sec?”

I thought I had happened earlier upon a secret, or at least something private, but I was quite mistaken. It took her no more than fifteen minutes to tell me that she was suing the CIA and that they had fired her, ostensibly for her indiscretion but really, she claimed, “because they’re a big bag of shitbag racist jerks.” She had been relieved of her position when the agency’s security officers, tipped off by an anonymous informant, caught her sending e-mail to her sister describing the skills she was acquiring in spy school where she had been training to become a CIA case officer. “You know, like how to do land navigation? With a compass? Which is nasty, by the way. Out there in the woods with ten billion mosquitoes, and chiggers, and gnats, and bats, and poison ivy, and poison oak, poison you name it, and these ticks that have what’s-that-disease? That gives you a rash? And these things in the woods made noises; oh, man, it was nasty. So I told my sister, you know? But talking about chiggers—that’s no big deal. That stuff’s all on the Internet anyway. Lots of white folks at the CIA do things just as bad as talking to their sisters about chiggers. Happens every day. They don’t get fired. They get some damned administrative warning.”

I supposed.

Charlene and I palled around a lot that year, and I don’t believe she was ever once silent. Much as I was charmed by her and wanted to take her side, I could see exactly why they had fired her. “Hey, do you want to read my memoirs?” she asked me one evening as we shared a bottle of wine on her balcony. “They’re technically still classified, but I know I can trust you.” She had known me for three weeks.

Of course I accepted—who wouldn’t? The manuscript was not particularly well written, but it described the CIA’s secret training program in great detail. What intrigued me most was her account of her downfall. She suspected that her jealous boyfriend, another CIA trainee, had turned her in after snooping through her mail, looking for evidence of her infidelity.

The CIA never let Charlene publish her memoirs, but they didn’t go to waste.



•••

So there I was in Paris with a voice in my head put to rest. Loose Lips had just been published. I was still moping about Jimmy. And then the thermometer began to rise. The canicule, the great European heat wave of 2003, had begun, and by the time it was over it had claimed 35,000 lives.

The proximate cause of the canicule was an anti-cyclone that had anchored itself stubbornly over the European landmass, holding back rain from the Atlantic Ocean and permitting hot, dry air to be conveyed over the Mediterranean from the North African desert. Indeed, Paris felt like a desert, not only because the heat was blistering and dry but because the light, refracted through the haze of dust and pollution, made the landscape shimmer and turned the skyline reddish brown.

At the flower stall, the blossoms hung limply; the long-stemmed roses drooped over the sides of their buckets. Nearby, the ordinarily voluble merchants stood quiet and motionless by their vegetable displays, their clothes damp and their hair lank against their skulls. No one was making pleasantries, particularly not the waiters in the outdoor cafés. They refused defiantly to wear lightweight clothes, filling buckets of ice and pouring gallon upon gallon of Coke and Ricard, all the while wearing long-sleeved starched white shirts, black trousers, formal black leather shoes, and fully lined waistcoats. Rivers of sweat poured from their temples. They smelled rank and sour, even from a distance. The fish and the fruit stalls stank to high heaven. Even the produce in supermarkets was rotten and mushy.

The neighborhood winos stripped to their underwear and sprawled half naked on the streets, too exhausted even to beg for spare change. Two blocks from my apartment, businessmen swam in the Seine and children splashed in the Châtelet fountain among the sphinxes and the statues. This was, generally speaking, not done, and ordinarily, nothing so troubles the Parisian soul as the sight of children doing something that’s not done, particularly if they look as if they’re enjoying it. But no one was stopping them or admonishing them. Even the old ladies were too hot to get exercised.

My apartment was directly below a corrugated metal roof. I had no fan; in another triumph of French capitalism, every fan in Paris had been sold out. I spent the canicule moving slowly be- tween my bathtub, where I lay in cool water reading for hours— my leg, still not quite right after the accident, poking out and braced against the wall—and my computer, where I sat in my underwear, a wet towel around my back like a cape. I did no work; I gave in to abject laziness. I surfed the Internet and listened to broadcasts of This American Life while desultorily playing a dev- ilishly addictive computer game called Snood. I have to admit that at first there was something pleasant about it, something dreamy and languid. It was a moment outside of time, as if Paris had been merged with some dusty, one-horse Mexican border town.

By the eighth day of the canicule, the heat—the highest recorded in the northern hemisphere since 1757—was drying rivers, shriveling crops, warping railway tracks, decimating livestock, melting the glaciers of the Alps, and setting forests throughout Europe ablaze. The elderly and infirm were dying at a prodigious rate. Mortuaries in Paris were unable to cope with the overflow, and the authorities were forced to commandeer a disused farmer’s market on the outskirts of the city to store the mount- ing pile of bodies. The tone of the headlines had changed from amused to concerned to frantic. (Zoo Bears Snack on Mackerel Ice Cream. Europe Broils. No Relief in Sight. Killer Heat Wave Continues. Catastrophe Exposes French Health Care Crisis. Heat Wave Threatens French Nuclear Reactors. Pope Leads Prayers for Rain.) The temperature in my apartment reached 110 degrees, then 112, then 116. At night I slept on the cool tiled floor of my kitchenette. No one in Paris had air conditioning—summers here are not usually particularly warm—and tempers were frayed. Everyone’s windows were open, and we could all hear one another’s voices, televisions, arguments: Couples screamed at each other through the night. Of course I was dying for the heat to break, but some small part of me, relishing the extremity of it all, perversely urged the mercury upwards: Could it go higher? Higher still?

I awoke early during those days, drenched in sweat, unable to keep sleeping in the heat. After sitting idly in the tub for a while, I slowly made my way to my computer to check my e-mail and track the sales of Loose Lips on Amazon. On the tenth day of the heat wave, seventy-eight messages were waiting for me. Of these, seventy-six were concerned with my mortgage rate, the health and velocity of my spermatozoa, and the estate of the late Dr. Jumil Abacha, director of the Nigerian National Petro- leum Corporation. One was from Jimmy: I still had his coat; it was in my storage room, and would I please leave it outside my door for him to pick up? The message upset me, first because it was there at all; second because it was not the apology I had yet to receive for his role in nearly crippling me; and third because it was preposterous: Why did he need his coat, of all things, right now, in the middle of the worst heat wave in European his- tory?

I was struggling to reclaim my equipoise when I opened the next message. It was from an address I didn’t recognize.

From: arsalan@hotmail.com

Date: August 15, 2003 07:40 AM

To: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Subject: (No subject)

Dear Claire Berlinski,

Please allow me to assure you that I am writing to you with the greatest of respect. I encountered the first, and, alas, the only chapter of your novel on the Internet. I live in Isfahan, and Isfahan, as perhaps you do not know, is in the ancient seat and sword of the Persian empire.

But Amazon does not allow itself the luxury of delivering books to my country. Is it possible to order a copy directly from the publisher, and if this is so would you have the kindness to tell me as to how? There is something in what you have written that intrigues me.

With all my very grateful sincerity,

Arsalan









How nice, I thought. I sent him a copy of the whole manuscript as a PDF file, with my compliments. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how, exactly, this person had found my book on Amazon, or what he had been looking for when he found it. A fan is a fan.



•••

Through the Internet, I kept in touch not only with my old- est friends but with quite a few people I had never met. I considered Samantha Allen one of my closest friends, even though I had never once seen her or spoken to her. My agent—who was also her agent—had the year before suggested she introduce herself to me.

From: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Date: August 18, 2002 04:22 PM

To: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Subject: Please read, this is not spam!

Dear Claire,

Rita Steinberg suggested I get in touch with you since I’ll be in Paris next week and you and I are both writing books about people with secret lives. (Except my book isn’t fiction.) Would you like to get together for a drink while I’m there?

Best,

Samantha Allen

From: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Date: August 18, 2002 06:27 PM

To: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Subject: Re: Please read, this is not spam!

Samantha,

I’d be happy to. What kind of book are you writing?

Claire

From: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Date: August 18, 2002 06:43 PM

To: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Subject: Re: Re: Please read, this is not spam!

It’s the gender equivalent of Black Like Me.

From: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Date: August 18, 2002 06:50 PM

To: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Please read, this is not spam!

It’s what?

From: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Date: August 18, 2002 07:01 PM

To: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Please read, this is not spam!

Attach: Sam.jpg (36.5 KB) Samantha.jpg (41.5 KB)

I’m disguising myself as a man for a year and hanging out with men. Then I’m going to write a book about it.

Below her message was a photograph of a tall, handsome woman in a skirt and heels; she had broad shoulders, intelligent eyes, and a strong, jutting nose. Below that was a photograph of some nebbish in chinos and a button-down men’s shirt, wearing a baseball cap and glasses. He had a distinct five-o’clock shadow—and precisely the same nose as the woman above him.

From: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Date: August 18, 2002 07:22 PM

To: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Please read, this is not spam!

Holy shit, that’s amazing! How do you get the stubble?

From: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Date: August 18, 2002 07:28 PM

To: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Please read, this is not spam!

It’s from my head; I put it on with spirit gum. It takes forever. Good, isn’t it?

From: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Date: August 18, 2002 07:32 PM

To: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Please read, this is not spam!

It’s really good. I wouldn’t have known at all. But isn’t your voice a giveaway?

From: Samantha Allen allens@aol.com

Date: August 18, 2002 07:50 PM

To: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Please read, this is not spam!

No, it’s naturally really deep, that’s the beauty of it. I got the idea for the book the five billionth time some receptionist asked if I’d mind holding, Sir. Must ask before I get too attached, though: You wouldn’t happen to be of the Sapphic persuasion, would you?

She didn’t seem to hold it against me that I wasn’t. Several days later, however, she wrote to tell me that she was canceling her trip; she had decided to go to Antigua, instead. Nonetheless, we kept in touch. Our friendship was confined to lighthearted exchanges about the books we were writing until, late one night, I had received a message from her asking, “Isn’t it four in the morning over there? What are you doing awake?” For some reason I had told her the truth: I was miserable. I couldn’t sleep. Jimmy and I were still dating then, and he had disappeared several days before. When, at last, I had gone to his apartment and let myself in with my key, I had found him sprawled on his fold-out sofa, snoring and impervious, surrounded by empty wine bottles. “Your kind of love,” he’d said to me after I shook him awake, “doesn’t nurture. It destroys.”

Samantha proved a patient interlocutor. Never before had I encountered someone with first-hand insight into male behavior and an eagerness to discuss my relationships at great length. I didn’t feel that our relationship lacked anything because we had never met. In fact, in some ways I enjoyed my epistolary friendships more than ordinary ones; they seemed to me to function more smoothly. An e-mail relationship is, after all, undemanding. When you want it to go away, you just shut down your computer: Three clicks of the mouse and voilà—it’s gone.



•••

On the twelfth day of the canicule, I was reading a message from Samantha when I received another message from Iran.

From: arsalan@hotmail.com

Date: August 17, 2003 04:22 PM

To: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Subject: Re: Re: (No subject)

Dear Claire Berlinski,

I am touched by your generous nature and I shall greatly enjoy your gift. I send my very sincere regards and kindest wishes.

Yours respectfully,

Arsalan









Out of curiosity, I clicked on the hyperlink embedded in the words below his name. It took me to a page of photographs without a single word of English, only row upon row of incomprehensible, curvaceous Persian script. The photographs were the kind you find on someone’s personal web page: this is my neighborhood, this is my family. One showed the exterior of a small mosque, speckled with a glittering cream-and-peach mosaic. Perhaps it served as a bathhouse, because towels hung to dry at the entrance. An elderly man with a hawkish nose and graying stubble on his cheeks stood beside the billowing towels in the intense light, balanced on a cane, staring past the camera but not smiling, an inscrutable expression on his face. His face was traversed by deep lines, and his cheeks draped inward. I wondered if he was the man who had written to me.

I scrolled down the page, studying the snapshots of a lazy Middle Eastern city: straw-roofed shops, a child riding his bicycle along an alley shaded with plane trees, a street vendor selling pomegranates from crates. Bright sunlight splashed over the plastered mud walls and the old Persian roofs, creating a spectrum of beautiful colors. The scenes in the photos would have been timeless had it not been for the television antennas on the roofs and the surprisingly artistic graffiti spray-painted on the walls.

One photograph showed a group of women of various ages, all in black chadors, picnicking by a still, turquoise pool. They were smiling. They looked as if they were enjoying themselves. Were those my correspondent’s relatives? His mother and sisters? If so, how had a family like that produced an enthusiast of American spy novels? The face of a girl of about sixteen stood out; she was the only one looking directly at the camera. She was not particularly pretty, but her eyes were clever and amused, as if she and the photographer were sharing a sly joke. Could Arsalan be a woman’s name? Was she the one who had written to me? I entered the name Arsalan in Google. There were thousands of them, and it was definitely a man’s name. It meant “the Lion.”

Two larger photographs at the bottom of the page were extraordinarily clear and detailed, as if they had been taken with a much better camera. One showed the interior of a room framed by a large, wide-open window overlooking a skyline of turquoise minarets. Thin muslin curtains billowed in from the window, through which poured an intense, almost white light, illuminating every detail of the shimmering carpet below. The carpet was intricately woven with ivory palmettes, crimson rosettes, and floral shapes in shades of dusky rose and alabaster. Creeping vines and arabesque tendrils framed the centerpiece—a golden bird with wild plumage and flashing ruby eyes.

The other photograph showed the same room from a different angle. A bowl of crystallized sugar filled with pomegranates sat atop a low rosewood coffee table. Beside the bowl stood a tea set and a tarnished copper samovar. Strewn haphazardly around the table were half a dozen luxuriant silken cushions, and on the plumpest cushion lay a small gray cat, sprawled on its back, batting at a mote of dust caught in the sunbeam.

The air in my own apartment was absolutely still.



•••

My relationship with my friend Imran was outstanding now that we communicated almost exclusively by e-mail. We had met years ago when we were both graduate students; he was now a clinical psychotherapist with a busy practice in London. We had seen each other in person only rarely since we graduated; Imran led an extremely scheduled life. There was no “I’ll meet you outside the museum and we’ll see how we feel” with Imran; it had to be “My 11:30 patient leaves at 12:20, and it will take me four minutes to get there, or six if I take the stairs, which I’m committed to doing these days. I have the tennis court booked for 2:15, so we can spend fifteen, no more than twenty minutes on the Braque exhibit, and the rest of the hour with the Giacometti mobiles—not the sculptures, though; I’ve already seen those twice. Lunch at the sushi place on the northwest side of the gallery would work for me. I have four phone calls booked between my 9:30 and my 10:30, and I shave between 11:20 and my 11:30, so you’ll need to make the reservations. Tell them we’ll take the table at the window, because the music isn’t as loud there—not one of the ones by the counter.” Imran had an immense gift of insight into the behavior of others, which of course made him both an interesting interlocutor and tremendously good at his job, but about the prominent role of timekeeping in his life he was, if not precisely blind, then not unusually perceptive.

The canicule had entered its thirteenth day, and, stuck in my studio, I found myself checking my e-mail repeatedly, then returning to the photographs of what I had decided must be arsalan@hotmail.com’s apartment. It looked peaceful and pleasantly breezy. I had been roused early by the heat and was looking at the photographs again, in fact, when I received an e-mail from Imran. (These arrived at precisely 6:45 in the morning, except on Sundays, when they arrived at 9:15.)

From: Imran Begum imranbegum@gmail.com

Date: August 18, 2003 06:45 AM

To: Claire Berlinski claire@berlinski.com

Subject: Booked!

Dear Old Friend,

I have signed up for speed dating! Once per week I shall present myself at an upmarket venue in Mayfair, where over the course of an hour I shall go on twenty dates of three minutes each.

How perfect for him, I thought.

. . . in other news, I’ve been experimenting with prefacing my remarks to patients with the phrase, “It is entirely possible that I am mistaken . . .” This preamble
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0345513304
9780345476173
9780345513304