Why a table? Where to put it? The living room is cramped. Mine were male questions.
For guests, she replied; a place to sit and dine, to sit and stay a while. Not like our coffee-flavored transit lounge with its stained mugs, or the rattan raft in front of the sofa where no one felt at home. Those places had no sense of pause.
Faraway men agree to what they think smoothes things over. What harm could come from agreeing to the purchase of a dinner table? If all went as planned it would become another item in a lifetime list of “whens,” as in, “She got this when…”
February is a busy month for purchases. Goods forfeit holiday pretensions to attract winter’s reluctant consumers. She told me the table now cost “only” £800, instead of the “much more” of the before. I earned good money. We’d been together nearly four years. Cracks had appeared in our bonds. Maybe the table could be a tawny band-aid.
“You’ll really like it,” she said. I trusted her voice.
The other voices — those before the table — soothed me less. Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema had agreed to see me only after I’d told his office I was tired of waiting for an interview. It had been three months. I’d was instead scheduled to travel with the pope the next day to Mexico and America. Hours later I found myself in D’Alema’s office.
He looked like an elegant ferret sleuthing for an identity in opulent surroundings. He exhausted himself rationalizing policy he clearly didn’t like, namely the NATO bombing of Kosovo. It was the mothballed prejudice of his Communist past: NATO as an American lapdog.
“Grande l’Italia,” I quipped half-ironically after he spent 10 minutes spitting on Italy’s bureaucratic shortcomings. “Not for you to say,” he snapped.
Our table, she told me, was elegant and long; it could sit 12. She’d installed it in front of the two barred windows that overlooked Buckingham Road, where we rented a ground-floor flat. From the couch, I’d see lovers push up against our window bars; they’d execute last sighs before descending into the Charing Cross Tube. I worried about my sight-line. Would I still see the kisses?
Up close, the pope looked as if parts of him had been sold off to a bone yard. A pinkish, elfin aunt, he was helped toward the lair of chain-smoking journalists and propped up from behind, a piece of good-natured putty moved around by aides.
No one dared say as much — maybe because he seemed to know what he’d become, a decaying talisman who mobilized billion-strong empathy.
You rarely see just when a relationship ends. Once decisions are made, good intention loses meaning. I had agreed to the table. I wanted her to belong. But I wasn’t there.
Instead, there was the matter of the dying king of Jordan, the Hashemite enforcer on the brink. After the Italian prime minister and the pope I suddenly found myself in Amman. I nibbled on Chinese food and borrowed the hotel’s prayer rug to prop up my computer. Mecca’s directional map I kept to myself, a travel token. The city was sullen and overcast.
But the king’s death unleashed a surge and the city was thick with moaning. I couldn’t write about it. Americans wouldn’t be interested, I was told. Stick to the queen, said my editors. Noor was once Halabi, a Lebanese-American beauty. She’d been a stewardess for TWA.
How’s the table? I asked her by phone.
Fine, she said.
I now recall a catch in the voice. I sensed nothing then.
I do remember Valentine’s Day and my London return after three weeks. Fevers speak a perceptive language, and mine was high. Her embrace was vacant, reluctant.
What a great table, I said. Good choice.
What she said next came in fragmentary bursts. “To tell you something” was part of it. “Not working” was another. “I can’t stay…” The pieces fit.
On Valentine’s Day? That was my question. Does it have to be today, now? Do you have to leave me now?
It’s just a day, she replied. I have to.
I liked the feel of the new table and sat down at it. It could easily seat more than 12. Who to invite? What to serve? When? The table had been a very good choice. Now came the rest.