Story — From the January 2014 issue

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Tom arrived with his suitcase. Its John Kerry sticker did not even say for president, so it seemed as if John Kerry might be the owner or designer of the bag. “I have to leave,” Tom said, sitting down, scraping the chair along the pavement, setting the suitcase beneath the table.

“Before you eat?” she asked.

“No.” He looked at his watch.

“Then order. Order quickly if you have to. Or you can have my salad, if you’d like.” She indicated the watery romaine on her plate.

He scanned the menu, then put it down. “I can’t even read right now. Is there couscous? Order me the lamb couscous. I’ll be right back.” He grabbed his phone. “I’m going to the gents.” His face had a grip of worry beneath the sun-beat skin; his body was lanky and his gait lopey but brisk as he wended his way inside. The suitcase stayed at the table, like a bomb.

She summoned the garçon with a gesture that was a hand flutter quickly pulled away lest the teacher actually call on you. She had no ear for languages — in that way she took after her mother, who once, on her French honeymoon, seeing a sign that read école de garçons, had remarked, “No wonder the restaurants are so good! The waiters all go to waiter school!”

Photographs from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys

Photographs from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys

Pour mon ami, s’il vous plaît,” she said, “le couscous d’agneau.” Was that right? Did one pronounce both s’s, or just one, or none, as in “cuckoo,” perhaps requesting a small musical bird from the park? When lamb was a food, was it a different word, the way “pork” and “pig” were? Perhaps she had ordered a living, breathing creature mewling in broth and fleece. The waiter nodded and did not say, “Anything more for you, madame?” but turned quickly and left. The outdoor tables were apparently all his this afternoon. It was April and the weather had changed into something oppressively lovely, with an urban breeze of garlic, diesel, and hyacinth. Where she ordinarily lived, there was not the same oniony, oily air of possibility as you walked down the street. Winter prairies choked the air clean. And spring was a brief, delicate thing quickly overtaken by tornadoes.

“Here,” Tom said when he returned, trying to lighten the mood. “I think you may have left your notebook in the loo.”

He handed her a small open notebook, clearly his own, in which he had written the lyrics to Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Exclamation marks and curlicues decorated all the lines. As did a small game of tic-tac-toe. The bottom of one page read, “Fish bite the least / when winds blow from the east” and “What is destiny, if you have to ask?” Also, “I love your hair the way it is, for Chrissakes.” That it seemed hilarious made her think, This has always been the man for me.

“I have to fly back to the States,” he said. He put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. She found the few people she’d known who moonlighted in the international-intrigue business to be very high-energy, but there was also a price paid; Tom now seemed tired and defeated. He glanced up and added, “You know, the intelligence world: we’re not James Bond. We’re puny, putrid graspers and gropers, deciding things at home from our laptops, playing on a field that is far too large for us.”

Photograph from Paris by Agnès Dherbeys“Didn’t Richard Burton make a speech like that in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold?”

“That was the speech.”

“The laptop part?”

“You gotta let a guy improvise. Did you order?”

Oui, monsieur.

Merci.” He smiled. She knew that he liked it when she said anything in French. His specialty was languages, including Urdu and Arabic, although only an hour and a half of Urdu, he had once declared, and then his mind turned into a blank blue screen. “And actually only four hours of Arabic,” he said. “And maybe even only five of English: five hours is a long time to keep talking.” Decades ago he had driven cars for a living, from Holland to Tehran, a drug runner (though he had not said this, she had surmised). Then he was recruited by American officials to teach the shah’s guards’ children.

“What did you teach them?” she’d asked.

“Critical theory,” he’d said, his face lit with a desire to amuse. “Movies and Marxism. Of course not real Marxism, nothing so practical as that. Nothing like ‘Here’s how you kill people and throw them in a ditch.’ No, we did very abstract Marxism. Very ivory tower.”

“Ha ha,” she said.

“I taught the kids English,” he mumbled in a defensive tone, “and some of their parents as well.”

“Did you feel the shah was all that bad?” she had asked and then received a long, strange lecture on Chiang Kai-shek and the doubtful, simple-minded shelvings of historical figures. She believed that in the photographs of the embassy hostages, the handsome blindfolded one, tall and bright-haired in the embassy doorway, was Tom. She herself had been a teenager at the time and only decades later stumbled upon the photo online; the likeness took her breath away.

But he had said no, he had gotten out a month beforehand. The closed-then-open-again secrets of his work enchanted and paralyzed her, like the frog who fatally acclimates to the heating water.

He paid for everything in cash.

“Everyone looks bad now,” he’d said. “Not just the shah.”

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is the author of six books of fiction. Her next collection, Bark: Stories, will be published in March by Alfred A. Knopf.

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  • Tim

    This is completely wonderful.

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