Leela walked quickly to her rendezvous. At a takeout joint, a man ate a sandwich with some friends. They sat on plastic chairs outside the store. He was trying to feed a sparrow. The sparrow pecked too sharply at the piece of bread the man had offered and he withdrew his finger with a groan. The sparrow, startled, let go of the crumb.
Why couldn’t a gesture like that — feeding lunch on a Tuesday afternoon to a bird — be who you were and what you were known by?
Leela arrived at her knowledge of people by their gestures. All the words in the world, the if-s and but-s and if so-s, hid people. In a small gesture a whole soul was revealed. She knew that she would marry a man who made a gesture she liked.
She had sent her mother an SMS from New York saying: I’m getting married!
Her cell phone had rung instantly, “To whom?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have more than one boyfriend?” her mother demanded.
“I have zero. But I am getting married on April 12th of next year in India. Start making the arrangements.”
Her mother who had been accumulating china and silver tea sets for years in the hope of Leela falling in love was unable to react with any enthusiasm.
“Aren’t you going to say something? I thought you wanted me to get married.”
“Of course I do. But you need a boy first.”
“Have faith, Mummy. The boy will come.”
“Should I start looking?” her mother ventured.
“I don’t want an arranged marriage. I said that already. I’ll find someone.”
“You better email me exactly what you have in mind.”
Leela had one or two tentative applicants for the ceremony. She wanted at least five. Her mother had refused to have invitation cards printed for a wedding with no groom and Leela had resorted to creating a website with dates, airfares and hotel reservations. She had sent links to her friends so that they could block that week.
She now consulted her map of Paris and headed at a slower pace to Angelina’s to meet her l’homme du monde. In his last email he had finally told her his real name. Pascal was a writer. He had been sure he would recognise her without any trouble.
Leela stopped and pulled out her compact case from her purse to check herself. The new French high heels she had bought with Marcelle hurt a little. A man was standing outside Angelina’s holding a copy of Pariscope. She felt the inevitable nervousness that goes with meeting a stranger.
Ralph, her friend who had introduced her to Internet dating, had reassured her, “There is nothing to lose. The other person in the encounter can’t report negatively to a common friend.”
Ralph’s approach was not working for Leela. In the attempt to make a terrific impression she ended up hating the process. She was too guarded. The man with the Pariscope made no move toward Leela when he saw her long black hair, her Indian eyes, and her rose-coloured skirt. Instead he made a call on his cell phone and spoke in German.
Leela wanted to sit down. Her lower back and legs hurt from walking in the heels and she was dying for a cup of tea. The sky over the gardens of the Tuileries was blue, the giant wheel that had been put up for the popular fair was still.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she heard in her ear; a hand warmed her shoulder.
She turned around and withdrew herself a little from him.
“I’m Leela,” she said somewhat awkwardly as she put out her hand to shake his.
“I know,” he said as he led her inside by the elbow.
Once seated at the table Pascal worked in a few compliments about her neck, her smile and her eyes before they had a chance to order their tea. Leela smiled uncomfortably.
“But you are really much more beautiful than I expected,” he pressed on.
“Stop,” she said finally feeling like herself.
“Okay, it’s just that I like to tell a woman when she is so inspiring.”
“What do you write about?” Leela asked changing the subject.
“I write about French cinema. Do you know French cinema?”
“The only director I know is Rohmer.”
“Ah! There’s a lot more to French cinema than Rohmer. I will introduce you to Rivette, Chabrol, Techiné and Bliér.”
The hostess arrived with Leela’s Mont Blanc and tea and Pascal’s Orangina.
“Who are your favourite writers?” Pascal asked.
Leela was sure it was a trick question. Talking to writers and English professors about her favourite books made her feel as if she were taking a test.
“My favourite book by a French writer is The Lover.”
“We have many new French writers since Duras. One for every taste, especially about sex, we love to discuss sex. There’s Catherine Millet on multiple partners. On the subject of incest there’s Catherine Angot and if you prefer a cocktail of sexual tourism and global terrorism there is Michel Houellebecq.”
“Marcelle, the friend I am staying with here, is reading that Catherine M. book.”
“We French are much more open than the Americans. The Indians are, too, aren’t they?”
“Open? Not this way!”
“The land of the Kama Sutra is not open? Have you read it?”
“No. I think words and books are limited. Gestures count for much more,” Leela said changing topics once more.
She was still thinking of the man feeding the sparrow.
“Yes, they are important. What has a gesture revealed to you?”
“I was in Morocco with some people once.” Leela remembered another gesture.
“Who were the others?”
“My friend, Marcelle and some Moroccan men we had met on the train.”
“We were having dinner and the stalls in the main square were very busy. We sat at a long communal table and ordered some dinner. For a few souks we each got an enormous plate of food. An old man came to our table. I think he had trouble seeing because he held his hand out to feel the corner of the table when he was sitting down. The stall owner gave this man a small plate for free. The man started feeling the food in his plate to remove the bones. Jamal who was with us and was only 20 asked the man to move further down the bench, nearer to us.”
“He spoke in Arabic?”
Leela noticed Pascal’s eyes for the first time. They were a dark deep blue, darker than Hugues’.
“Yes. I didn’t know exactly what he said but the old man moved near us. Jamal took some bread from our table and started making a sandwich. He pulled out every single bone on the fish. It took him ten minutes to remove all the little bones during which time the rest of us were finished with dinner. After he had made the sandwich, Jamal gave it to the old man and said something to him. The man laughed and placed a greasy hand on Jamal’s shoulder.”
“The gesture you are talking about is the old man’s or what Jamal did?”
“Jamal’s gesture. I don’t have it in me to do that.”
“How did you feel?”
“Shame for myself. Respect for Jamal. I felt as if he were no longer 20 but a wise and grown up sage.”
Pascal was silent for a minute. The waiter arrived with the bill.
As they rose to leave Pascal said, “We have not yet discussed the real purpose of our meeting. I don’t know if I want to get married,” Pascal said.
“But then why did we meet?”
“I like you very much.”
Then with no warning whatsoever Pascal placed one hand behind Leela’s head. Before he could move closer to her she pulled away.
“I’m looking for physical intimacy to follow the other intimacies, not precede them.”
“Sorry, I feel as if we already know each other very well.”
“But we don’t. Email is like ether. It’s cold and impersonal. Purely mental.”
“Careful! You are speaking to a writer. My whole life is words.”
“I know. I know.”
“If I don’t marry you will I be able to see you again?”
“No, you won’t. I told you from the beginning that I only want to meet men who are ready to marry on April 12th. The first meeting is to test that we both have a basic interest in each other.”
“So you don’t believe in love. And what about dating?”
“In love, out of love. You yourself said in an email that you were in love with me, so you see, both are inevitable, one follows the other. You can’t build a family on the foundation of passionate love. Eventually the only thing that lasts is the daily life a couple has built.”
“I need more time to think.”
“You have till April 12th. The invitation to the swayamvara is open until the last minute.”
“Aren’t you worried that none of your candidates will show up?”
“That’s my problem, Pascal.”
They shook hands to say goodbye. On her way back from the rendezvous Leela passed by Beaubourg. The Niki de Saint Phalle Fountain in the shape of a scorpion threatened to clasp her in its pincers.
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