–Hello, I said, turning round on a high stool at the busy counter of an even busier bistro in the busy heart of Paris.
– What do you want, she asked with a ‘deer in headlights’ look, followed by a raising of inquisitive doe-like eyes, in a voice well marinated in alcohol.
– I don’t know you from a slug on the street.
– You’re right, I chuckled.
I’d been quietly observing her in the bistro mirror for the last half hour. She was the kind of woman with enough femininity, vitality and sex appeal that I was ready to swear on the bible that at least 6 men in her lifetime had asked to be her next husband if the current one dropped dead. She was chatting in English with a neighbouring gentleman.
A very tired strange looking bag, like a sack of weary laundry, sat at her feet. She did her best to ignore it. Also, at her elbow, was a business card, with the name of Sheik Mohammed Albalak on it.
– Does this card belong to you? I inquired with genuine inquisitiveness.
She hotly turned round from speaking with the man on her left, and frostily tossed a look of impatience smack into my face.
– Yeah. It’s my husband’s business card, if you don’t mind.
Soon the gentleman she’d been chatting with got down from his stool, kissed her on both cheeks, according to the French style and left. She turned round to me again.
– Sorry. I was rude.
– No need.. but your husband, this Sheik Albalak, where did you meet him?
– I met Maurice, that’s what he calls himself in France, in a coffee shop in Cairo.
– Are you Egyptian, I asked.
– Not at all. I’m Croatian born , from the town of Sisacko-Moslavacka, on the border with Bosnia.
– Some day I’d like to visit Croatia, maybe visit your native town. I’m sure it must be as lovely as you.
– You’re not missing anything, trust me. I mean the town. Anyhow I was raised in Cairo where my parents emigrated.
– So, what kind of guy is Sheik Albalak, your husband?
– He needs irrational amounts of personal privacy, wears disguises, wears false moustaches. Otherwise, he’s a really decent guy, and yeah, I married him for his money, if you want to know. My former husband was a smut peddler, but a smut peddler who cared. Only, money ran away from him. He scared it off. We lived in misery.
– So you jumped at the opportunity of marrying a rich Sheik.
She shook her head in disagreement, in a capricious, erratic way, that spoke of too much drink.
– Not at first. I’ve always been very independent. My mother raised me in the tradition that says that a man stands tallest on his knees. You see if you don’t say no to the man the first time he asks you out, he’ll treat you lightly, he’ll leave you for another at the drop of a hat ; so you say no; you say you can’t go out with him. So you wait. You wait till he asks you again, and you hear a pleading in his voice, a kind of wobbling pain, though he tries to cover it up. And then you’ve succeeded; you’ve succeeded in proving to yourself that he truly wants you, and quietly sown a fear in him, that one wrong move, and he’s out the door. And he won’t forget it either.
– I see you don’t take these things lightly; you’ve given them some lingering thought.
– I’m not as independent as I used to be. I’ve had to compromise. My husband’s rich friends are all conservatives. I could if I wanted to, close myself off in a conservative echo chamber, like them. They all reinforce each other’s divorce from reality. It’s not me, but, I admit, I have had to compromise, she uttered slowly and plaintively with a great slow-going sigh.
– Sein oder nicht sein: das ist die Frage ..to be or not to be ..that is the question. Shakespeare…Shakespeare understood everything. I attended a private German run school in Alexandria. In 12 years of school, I fell sick only once.
– Admirable, I kicked in.
– In grade one I contracted an incurable disease from which I’ve never recovered..
– And what was that?
– Boredom. Unutterable boredom. I need excitement, lots of it. And excitement costs money. I’ve already travelled around the world three times with my husband, staying at 5 star hotels. No one is forcing me to live this way. It’s what I choose, but I’ve had to compromise.
Suddenly a car horn began to honk interminably, followed by my companion of conversation leaping off her stool and fiddling in the sack below her. She promptly took out a long voluminous piece of black fabric from the bag and slid it over her head. It was a burqua.
With the car horn blaring out front, she nervously, in a panic, shook my hand. In spite of the speed of things, I was sure I saw a flicker of worried smile break out from the eyes beyond the slit.
The door of a black stretch limousine opened to her. She scurried in. One could see Maurice with his relaxed princely grin graciously helping her into the leather paradise.
At that moment the waiter jolted towards the bistro front door with a book waving in his hand, just as the car sped away. She had forgotten it on the counter. Thinking I was a friend, he turned the book over to me. It was Shakespeare Quotations. I opened it up at the page holding the book mark, and read the one at the top. “The fault is not in our Stars, but in ourselves…” For a moment, I paused.