Fiction

Monsieur Kalashnikov

André Aciman

He is sitting in a café speaking French. Correction, he is not speaking. He doesn’t speak. He rapid-fires machine-gun style, in bursts and sputters—rat-tat-tat—cranky, jittery, crazed, strafing his way from one subject to the next. Rat-tat-tat, like an electric stapler gone mad. Rat-tat-tat, like shattered glass spun in a blender. Rat-tat-tat, like a jackhammer, like a chain saw, like the cicadas on the Mediterranean when they drown out every sound with the raspy musketry of their hindquarters.

“American women are like beautiful manor houses with lavish artwork and spacious rooms. But the lights are always out. Americans are not born; they are manufactured. Ford-ersatz, Chrysler-ersatz, Buick-ersatz. All exactly alike. I always know what they’ll say next, because they think alike, speak alike, fuck alike.”

The late seventies café society of Cambridge, Massachusetts, nicknamed him Kalashnikov. Because of how he argued and how he laughed and how he rattled short, hardscrabble sentences that mowed down everything—people, ideas, things, you name it, he’d shoot it down. He stood for nothing, tolerated no one. I tolerated everyone without loving a single one.

He was loud; I was quiet. He was impetuous; I was cautious, guarded, diffident. He was new to the States yet knew everyone in Cambridge. I’d been a graduate student for five years, yet I went entire days that summer without a soul to speak to. When he was upset or bored, he bristled, fidgeted, then exploded; I was composure personified. Once he started there was no stopping him, whereas the slightest blush could stop me in my tracks. He was up-front; I was oblique. He spoke his mind; mine was a vault. He could drop you and never think twice of it; I’d make up with you in no time then spite you forever after. He was proud to know me; I didn’t want to be seen with him. For him there was no shame in poverty; for me shame had deep pockets, deeper even than identity itself, because it could take your life and turn you inside out. He was a cabdriver; I was Harvard. But we could have swapped roles in a second.

To understand how a relationship blossomed between us you have to go back to Le Maghreb café on that August day in 1977. It feels like one of the hottest summers I’ve lived through in my life. All my friends in graduate school are gone. Even those who stayed to teach in Harvard’s summer program have left by now. Most are in Europe. Postcards arrive from Paris, Berlin, Bologna, Sirmione, and Taormina, even Prague and Budapest. I am staying put, holding a part-time interim job in one of the Harvard libraries. It pays two dollars and thirty cents an hour. The money is to help pay my rent. Other priorities: food, cigarettes, a drink whenever possible. I am preparing for my orals, lugging books wherever I go, while inside me festers the sinking feeling that I’m a fraud, that I was never meant for graduate school, much less for literature, that I’ll be known as the man who hustled his way into Harvard and was let go in the nick of time. I hate every member of the department, students and teachers alike, including Professor Cherbakoff, the man who admitted me with high hopes and who, when he could, would always throw an extra course my way along with a few financial-aid dollars, but whose concern for me had festered into downright oppression. He too comes from a Jewish family that lost everything in the wake of war. He knows exactly what I’m going through, knows how self-doubt strips down the soul, wants me to follow in his footsteps, which is why I avoid him.

I haven’t spoken to anyone all weekend. It’s now very late in the afternoon on Sunday, and I’ve been roaming from coffeehouse to coffeehouse. I am reading Montaigne’s “Apologie de Raymond Sebond” and actually enjoying it. I am drinking an iced coffee that will have to last me at least two and a half hours. Nursing a drink is one thing. Watching your ice cubes melt and turn your watered-down brew into clear soup and still pretending that your glass is half full is like trying to preserve the polar ice caps with a hand fan.

Suddenly I hear him. Rat-tat-tat.

He wears a faded army-navy camouflage jacket with many pockets and is speaking in a Maghrebi accent to an American who occasionally dares to interrupt with tepid pieties, but there’s no stopping the string of invective that comes rattling forth like bullets from an ammunition belt. No sooner has he lambasted the female sex than he begins fulminating against America: All blacks eat fried chicken and rice. Whites, whom he calls amerloques, love all things jumbo and ersatz. As long as it’s artificial and double the value if you buy five times the size, no white man can resist. Their continental breakfasts are jumbo-ersatz, their extra-long cigarettes are jumbo-ersatz, their huge steak dinners with whopping all-you-can-eat salads are jumbo-ersatz, their mugs of freeze-dried bottomless coffee, their faux-mint mouthwash bottles with triple-pack toothpaste and extra toothbrushes thrown in for good value, their cars, televisions, universities, even Star Wars, all of it, jumbo-ersatz. American women with breast implants, nose jobs, and perennially tanned figures are jumbo-ersatz. American women with smaller breasts, contact lenses, diaphragms, mouth spray, hair spray, foot spray, vaginal spray, vibrators, are no less ersatz than their oversize sisters. American women who are just happy to have found a man to talk to in a crowded café on a Sunday afternoon in August will sooner or later turn out to be ersatz all the same. Their lank, freckled toddlers fed on sapless, bland-ersatz white bread and swaddled in ready-to-wear, over-the-counter, prefab, preshrunk, one-size-fits-all, poly-reinforced clothes are ersatz too. And as for the men, big, tall, fast-food lumbering football giants with outsize shoes, penis enlargers, and eight-pack abs, they personify the essence of all that was ever jumbo and ersatz on God’s planet.

“But you can’t generalize about all Americans,” the American says. “And I don’t agree with what you say about the Middle East either.” Machine Gun reclines on his seat as he rolls his nth cigarette, licks the glued end of his cigarette paper, and like a cowboy who’s just spun the cylinder of his revolver after carefully reloading its chambers, points a hard index finger that almost touches the chin of the young American: “All you know is what you learn from newspapers and your bullshit television. I have my own sources.” “What sources?” the American asks. “Other sources.” And before the young man has a chance to cross-examine him, there it is again, as good as new, oiled, rammed, reassembled, reloaded, louder and more articulate yet: rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.

I’ve never heard such an abominable blend of claptrap, agitprop, and misogyny before. “The Italians are rotten thieves. The French will always sell their mothers, throw in their wives and then their sisters; their daughters, however, they’ll sell you first. As for the Arabs, we were better off as colonies. The only person who really understood history was Nostradamus.”

“Who?” the American interrupts.

“Nostradamus.”

“How do you know about Nostradamus?”

“How! I just know.”

This is either a comedy act or the besotted ramblings of Vladimir and Estragon. At some point I can no longer resist. I stand up and head to his table. “I couldn’t help overhearing you. Are you a student here?” I ask in French.

No answer. Just a dismissive shake of the head, followed by a sinister stare that seems to ask, And what business of yours is it if I am?

The silence is hard to take. I am already preparing to bow out. “Sorry to disturb you,” I say. “I just felt like speaking to a Frenchman.”

Again the stare.

“Me, French? With my skin?” He pinches his forearm. “This is not French skin.” As if I’d insulted him.

“Sorry, my mistake.”

I am determined to step back to my table and pick up “Raymond Sebond” where I’ve left him face down.

“How about you?” he asks. “Are you French?”

I can’t resist.

“With my nose?”

He’s playing with me. I know he isn’t French, just as he knows I’m not. Each is basically letting the other think that he could pass for French. A tacit compliment that hits the spot.

“So how come you speak French if you’re not French?”

Anyone born in the colonies knows the answer to that. He’s definitely playing.

“For the same reason you speak French,” I reply. He bursts out laughing. We understand each other perfectly.

We exchange names. He jokes about his nickname. “But you can call me Kalaj,” he says. He’s been here for six weeks. Before that, Milan. This is home now.

He is an Arab; I am a Jew. Actually, he is a Berber and, like all Berbers, proud of it. The one thing that draws us together now is our love of the French language.

He grew up to love France in Tunisia, while I worshiped it all through my childhood in Egypt. Tunis had no more use for him when he jumped ship and landed in Marseille as a teenager than Alexandria had for me when it stripped my family of its wealth and then expelled us for being Jewish. He is now in Cambridge because he is running away from debt, from alimony, from who knows what other illicit ventures in France and Italy. I am in Cambridge because I was never bold enough to pack up and make France my home. We were the closest the other would ever get to France. Each in his own way was trying to find a new place to which neither really wished to belong. He was an Arab trying tooth and nail not to give up on the West, I a Westerner with an Arab past that wasn’t letting me go.

“Were you waiting for someone?” he asks me.

“No, just reading.”

“But you’ve been reading for hours. Why don’t you just sit down with us, and we’ll talk a bit? Bring your books.”

So he’s been aware of me all along. He tells me about his cab, the last Checker cab in Boston. I tell him about my orals. Harvard is all the identity I have, the way his Checker cab is all he owns. We are talking. It takes me no more than a few seconds to realize that he is aware of every woman in the joint. “They’re here for one reason only, and that reason is us three.” His friend asks him why he doesn’t make a move then. “Too soon,” he says. The only people I’ve heard speak this way are fishermen. They look at the sky, gauge the wind, the clouds, have a sixth sense about things, then, when you least expect it, they’ll say, “Now!” The woman with the slender figure, seated a few tables away, has just cast a look at our table. With absolutely no discretion, Kalaj begins to chuckle: “She looked!” We catch a smile rippling across her face.

The next day, Monday, I was once again sitting at Le Maghreb, unsure whether I was hoping he wouldn’t show up or fearing that he might. As soon as he arrived, he pulled up a chair and sat at my table, shook my hand, tousled my hair, scanned the place, and ordered a cinquante-quatre, a fifty-four-cent cup of coffee. It was stiflingly hot. After a while he gulped down his coffee and said that he knew of a place where it might be cooler.

Together we walked out to Anyochka’s, a small French patisserie on Holyoke Street. This was where faculty often had coffee with graduate students when they wished to seem less formal. That night it was totally empty, its large glass door wide open. We ordered two croque monsieurs, a luxury in my budget. Beneath the dimmed lights and a whirring ceiling fan, Kalaj told me about his childhood in Tunisia and his studies in France. His specialty: informatique. But seeing no immediate future in informatique, he had become a self-employed caterer. He’d married his sous-chef, whose money helped him set up the shop. He was now married to an American.

“Where is your wife?” I asked.

“No idea.”

“Does she travel?”

“I told you I have no idea. Don’t you understand French?”

 Rat-tat-tat, but aimed at me this time. What was I even doing having dinner with this creep?

I was about to explain my question.

“No need to apologize. I don’t give a damn. Well,” he changed his mind, “let me explain.”

Five minutes. They’d met in a T station. He had just missed the train to Park Street and had muttered a curse word in French. “You seem upset,” she’d said. “I am upset.” One thing led to another. Within days, they were married. Soon after, he filed his application for a green card.

What had made him come to the States?

“Let me explain.”

Four minutes. It was because of a beautiful married woman in Milan that he ended up in Harvard Square, staying with her best friend who taught at Harvard. That teacher and her lover eventually informed Kalaj that perhaps he should start thinking of moving elsewhere. Which he did. They needed space. Space was a strange concept. As though humans were galactic mutants in need of light-year shields. “Me, impose on people? God forbid.” It was then that he missed that train to Park Street. He had never even heard of Cambridge before, much less of Harvard Square. Now he knows everything there is to know. He and his amerloque wife had split up. Actually, she too had kicked him out. She was an analyst. Sheila. Very rich Jewish family. Now the bitch was divorcing him.

He produced a tiny notebook in which he had written a few words. His handwriting was neat, tentative, timid, the product of a frightened child in harsh French colonial schools. The handwriting of someone who had never grown up. It surprised me. “Read,” he said.

Dresser.

Turntable.

Television.

Striped ironing board.

A standing lamp to the left.

A night table to the right.

A tiny reading light clasped to the headboard.

She sleeps naked.

Cat snuggles on her bed.

The stench from the litter box.

Bathroom door never locks.

Bathroom flushes twice.

Impossible to repair. Shower drips too.

What do you see when you look out her window in the morning?

I see the Charles. And the Longfellow Bridge.

Sometimes nothing because of the fog.

What do you hear when you open her windows?

I hear nothing. Sometimes, airplanes.

No one sleeps in the adjacent room;

It used to be her mother’s.

 

After all his put-downs, he had written a poem for his wife in the style of Jacques Prévert. Was he trying to tell me that he cared for her?

“It’s all true,” he said, taking back the notebook.

Had he ever shown it to her?

“Are you out of your mind?”

I must have looked totally baffled.

“I just wrote this because I didn’t want to forget what her apartment looked like.”

I must have looked even more baffled.

“She claims I married her for a green card.”

“Well, did you?”

“Of course I did. You don’t think I married her for her good looks.”

“Then why did you write her a poem?”

“What poem?”

“This thing about the dresser, turntable, ironing board.”

It was his turn to look baffled.

“What are you, stupid?”

Baffled looks on both our faces.

“Poem? Me? My lawyer gave me a list of the sort of questions they ask you at Immigration Services. They want to make sure that you actually live together as husband and wife and that your marriage isn’t just a ruse. So they ask you to describe the bedroom, the kind of pajamas she wears, where she keeps her diaphragm.”

 Rat-tat-tat.

“Me, write her a poem? You should see her face first.”

He imitated her mouth by pulling his lower lip all the way down to expose the roots of his gums. “When she laughs with these gums of hers your dick goes into hiding. When I kiss her all I can think of are dentists. As for oral sex!” He feigned a shiver.

“She took away the only roof I had in this country. The only thing I own now is my cab. That’s it. I sew my own buttons like a woman, like a fisherman, and I hate fishing, and in my world, a man who darns his own socks is not a man.”

A woman walked into the café and sat at a table near ours. She was svelte, beautiful, with lovely skin. “French,” Kalaj said. “French and Jewish.”

“How do you know?” I whispered.

“Trust me!”

I told him to hush. “She’s looking at us.”

“All the better. She’s looking at us because she wants to speak to us. Pretty soon,” he said, a little louder, “we’ll have to go back to listen to Sabatini, the guitarist who’s playing tonight at Le Maghreb.”

Suddenly, there was a touch of something sly and velvety in his voice. He didn’t look at her, but his thoughts and speech seemed aimed at her.

At some point, he could no longer stand the silence between our tables.

“You’re looking at us because you understand.”

“Yes, I do,” she said, blushing.

“We didn’t happen to say anything offensive, did we?”

“No.”

“Unless you’re thinking of eating alone, would you care to join us?”

It turned out that she had no plans for dinner and the next thing I knew we were all sitting together. No one had told her that Boston could get this hot in the summer. She missed home. He missed home, too, even though it was hotter there. Where was his home? she asked. Almost reluctantly, he named a tiny town in Tunisia—Sidi Bou Said, the most beautiful whitewashed town on the Mediterranean, west of Pantelleria. “Ever heard of it?” “No, never.” There was a reason why most people had never heard of it. Why was that, she asked? The Tunisian tourism office was even more incompetent than the Massachusetts tourism office. She laughed. Everyone told you about Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Walden Pond. The first two were obvious enough, but who was Walden Pond and what role had he played during the Revolution—about this not a single guidebook had anything to say. Laughter from her and from me. The ice was broken.

Her name was Léonie. Léonie Léonard. Kalaj couldn’t resist. “But it’s a pleonasm.” “Yes,” she said shyly. Pléonie Pléonasme. Laughter, laughter. In no time we had reinvented France with the very little we had. Bread, butter, croque monsieurs, a bowl of vichyssoise soup for her, a green salad to share, cheap red wine, dimmed café lights, French music. Cambridge was just a detail.

Within minutes, we had her entire life story. He listened, asked questions, joked, and on occasion, reached out to touch her hand, her wrist. He had picked up shrink talk from the cafés of France and understood that once a woman had bared her soul there was little else she wouldn’t bare. It was just a matter of how you led her there. He asked, she answered, he asked again, each essentially leading the other on. I interrupted once or twice, and both times would have ruined their seamless give-and-take had each not chosen to ignore my intrusion.

Kalaj was available to all women, yet he always ended up with the same type. They were between twenty-five and thirty. They tended to be brunettes with curly hair. They had either been married or just got out of a terrible relationship. All were handcraft artists of one stripe or another, which meant that they came from money and were all in therapy. He was after passion, because he had so much of it to give; after hope, because he had so little left; after sex, because it leveled the playing field between him and everyone else, because sex was his shortcut, his way of finding humanity in an otherwise cold and lusterless world. But if you asked him what he wanted most in life, he’d have said, green card—la green carte, as he pronounced it. It defined who he was, how he lived, and ultimately what everything was intended to procure him. I had a green carte. Aysha, the girl behind the counter at Le Maghreb, had a green carte. As for the brunettes, who would have done anything for a man who spoke like a Kalashnikov when he was hot but could reach out and touch their hand, their wrist, they had probably never even seen a green carte in their lives. They were bona fide U.S. citizens. Kalaj simply looked on, like a Titan staring at the comings and goings of lesser divinities from across crags of exclusion.

After Anyochka’s we ambled back to Le Maghreb, which is when Léonie, on impulse, decided to leave us. “Bonne soirée,” Kalaj said abruptly, his version of a gallant send-off; it suggested that the evening was still quite young and that it might take her to wonderful and unexpected places. “She must have felt the heat,” I said, trying to show I knew a few things about women myself.

“Maybe. My hunch is that she has a young child and it’s time for her to get back. There’ll be another time.” He ordered a cinquante-quatre. “I give her at the most three days—she’ll show up.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

“Did she give you a sign?” I said, emphasizing the word in an attempt to be funny, and to show how baseless his assumption was.

“No sign at all. I just know.” He looked at me. “With all your Harvard education, you don’t understand women, do you? You’re too flustered. So you rush things. In all things, it’s how you manage time.”

I said nothing. Was I so easy to read?

What was he doing with me if I was such a bungling hanger-on?

We ended the evening at La Coriandre, on Brattle Street. We grabbed a table and ordered a glass of red wine each. On my way to the bathroom I ran into Professor Cherbakoff, who was having dinner with his wife and another couple in the more expensive and far more glamorous French part of the establishment. Would I mind coming and saying hello? Of course not. I knew his wife from departmental parties and had to make small talk. “They’re coming up soon, aren’t they?” she asked in French, referring to my orals. I affected a horrified sigh. The professor and his friend recalled how dreadful oral exams had been in their day—“Remember so and so, and such and such”—then, with one or two nodding gestures meant to signify something I wasn’t quick enough to catch, they eventually returned to their oversize appetizers. A moment of silence passed. Then it hit me: I was being congédié, dismissed.

I understood suddenly why people brandished Kalashnikovs, chain saws, jackhammers, and rat-tat-tatted at real or imagined foes. I was, it occurred to me, no different from Kalaj: a felon in a finishing school.

Later I walked Kalaj to his cab. “Everything I owe I’ve put into this monster,” he said proudly. “My life savings. Here, knock on this hood—knock with your knuckles. Real metal, hear it? Dong, dong, dong. Like cathedral bells. Now knock on this car,” he said, as he walked over to the green Toyota parked next to his cab and pounded his knuckles on the hood. “Hear the ersatz thud? Well, I’m like my cab. I’ll outlive every one of these spit-glue men and women whose imagination is no bigger than a condom.”

I met Kalaj over coffee almost every evening the next few weeks, sometimes by chance, sometimes because neither of us knew what to do when the late summer evenings wore on long after I’d read myself to exhaustion and before he was due to start his night shift. At Le Maghreb, we always ordered a cinquante-quatre; we read, played backgammon, made friends, and on certain evenings sat around and listened to Sabatini, who would bring his star pupils and show them off in free, impromptu recitals. On Sundays, we got into the habit of catching an art film at the Harvard-Epworth Church, for a dollar each. Léonie, who became one of us exactly as Kalaj had predicted, called it going to Mass.

To celebrate our newfound friendship, Kalaj, Léonie, and I decided to have a dinner party. Kalaj invited two friends; I invited two fellow graduate students and an Italian friend who had just returned from a summer in Assisi.

Kalaj and I met at Le Maghreb as soon as I was done teaching. We hopped in his cab and headed to the Haymarket to buy fish and vegetables. He wanted to cook a complicated seafood bisque of his own devising. He had not used a kitchen in almost six months, so this was something of a celebration.

But the evening started poorly. While Kalaj was busily cooking, we kept hearing Maria Callas on the radio sing one aria after another, until a voice announced what I was beginning to fear: Maria Callas had died that day in Paris. The mood of the party fell. Because I owned a few of her records, I decided to play some arias, trying as best as I could to explain why she was la prima donna assoluta.

Kalaj, who had nothing to say on the subject, was unusually quiet. When asked why, by Léonie, he simply put on a contrived simper that was meant to call attention to its forced character. “Me, I’m listening,” he replied. “I like to listen.” But I could see that, without instant recourse to his verbal Kalashnikov, he had lost his bearings.

We changed topics and began discussing a French movie that had just been released in Cambridge about a poor girl who becomes the mistress of an ambitious young man who ends up exploiting her. This was more to Kalaj’s liking, and right away he had loaded his gun, wiped its muzzle clean, and was soon inveighing against all women for abandoning the simple way of life and against all young men for taking advantage of them. There were no prisoners. Léonie disagreed, but the bisque was ready and everyone was urged to sit down around a table that could handle no more than four people. People sat on the sofa, on the floor.

During dessert, things began to fall apart. Léonie and Kalaj were still disagreeing about the movie. Why they had resurrected that subject wasn’t clear, but at some point Kalaj left the dining room and went into my bedroom to lie down. Then he turned off the lights and started smoking in the dark.

We all have our phantoms, and I was seeing Kalaj’s, perhaps because, for the first time, he wasn’t able to shout them away. Was he missing someone, was this reminding him of somewhere else, were his problems catching up with him—the green card, money, solitude? “No, nothing, nothing,” he replied when I asked. I shut the door quietly behind me.

When I returned to the living room, Léonie was sitting on the sofa and my Italian friend was sitting on the floor, his back resting against the sofa, her bare foot under his thigh, the back of his head almost reclining on her knees. At some point the Italian said he was going around the corner to buy cigarettes. Léonie looked up and said she’d walk him downstairs and she asked Kalaj to let her have the keys to the car to get her sweater.

He gave her the keys. About five minutes after they’d left, he got up and bolted out of the bedroom, rushing down the stairs. Three minutes later he was back upstairs. Not a word. He headed directly into the dark bedroom and slammed the door shut.

He came out only after everyone had left. I was cleaning the dishes and putting away the food. Someone had dropped a strawberry on the rug, and then stepped on it. I scraped at the stain with the knife and then poured stain remover on the rug.

“I wish I had thrown gasoline on her face,” said Kalaj. “And on his.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“What happened? What happened? I beat them up. That’s what’s happened. Now you know.”

“What do you mean you beat them up?” I asked, unable to believe the obvious.

“They were in my cab. Neeking. Or nearly. Well, she’s a woman, so I slapped her a bit. But he’s a man. So I punched him.”

Kalaj didn’t have a scratch.

“Where are they now?”

“They went home.”

I looked at him.

“Let me call her and make sure she’s all right.”

“Don’t you dare. I know what she’s doing.”

“What?” I asked.

“I already told you. They’re neeking.” He took a breath. “I can just hear her now. Kalaj do this for me, and Kalaj do that, and please take care of me, and I have a child, and my husband is gone, and I can’t work. Whore!”

“You should never hit anyone.”

“Pummel her, that’s what I should have done.”

With that he uttered his usual “Bonne soirée,” and was abruptly gone.

The next day my buzzer rang.

It was Léonie. She had a black eye and red blotches all over her face. “That’s nothing,” she said, once she realized how shocked I was. “Feel my head.” She grabbed my hand and let my palm feel its way under her hair. Her scalp was full of lumps and bumps.

“He pulled out my hair. And tore my clothes too.”

She wanted to report Kalaj to the police.

“He’s crazy. He’ll kill me. I don’t want him near me. I was so scared last night that I ended up at my husband’s.”

If she files a report, I thought, they’ll deport him in no time. I tried to dissuade her from doing anything rash. They had to make up, or at least have a talk—in my presence if they wished. I’d seen it done in movies. People airing their differences, their grievances, all of it very ersatz, I said.

She laughed. Then, seeing herself laugh, she began to cry. It was the first time she had cried, she said. She’d held up well enough until now.

But the damage was done. When they met in public a few days later, things seemed to go well. Kalaj put his arm around her son and was kinder than any father could have been to the poor boy. But they had lifted their hands, and one evening he showed up at Le Maghreb with scratch marks all over his neck. When he rolled up his sleeves, I saw that his right forearm was covered with bruises. “What on earth is going on?” I asked.

He smiled it off.

“Do you guys beat each other up now?” I asked, trying to make light of it.

He didn’t reply. Then, a few seconds later, as if out of nowhere, he replied, “Sometimes.”

“Sometimes?”

“We like it.”

“You what?”

“Some people need drugs. Others alcohol. She likes to slap me.”

“Do you really like it when she slaps you?”

He thought about it as though the question had never occurred to him before. Who in his right mind would dare ask such a question of a Berber?

“I don’t mind,” he said.

“You’re both sick.”

“We are.”

I began to grow weary of Kalaj. Summer had turned to fall, and perhaps my teaching obligations, now that the semester was in full swing, took me away from him. Perhaps, having passed my orals, I felt I belonged to Harvard more than I had hitherto allowed myself to believe. There was also the possibility of a new woman in my life, Heather, though I still wasn’t sure which way things were headed. She was a student at Harvard, and though I had mentioned her to Kalaj, I didn’t want him to see us together, nor did I want him to see who I became when I was in her company. I certainly didn’t want him to see me fumble and fret in my usual flustered state.

But then something else was troubling me, and Heather’s presence made me see it more clearly. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want Kalaj to see me with her. I didn’t want her to see me with him. It finally hit me one early fall afternoon when she took me to meet her parents over tea at the Ritz-Carlton, and all I could think of as we parked her car and walked toward the hotel was, Please, God, don’t let Kalaj’s cab pass by now, don’t let him pull over and speak to us, because it’d be just like him to turn up as I’m trying to look dapper at the Ritz-Carlton. I was ashamed of him. Ashamed of myself for being ashamed of him. Ashamed of letting others see that what we had in common went far deeper than this surface thing called lousy cash flow. We were transient, dirt-poor, low-life hustlers. He was my shadow self, my hidden picture of Dorian Gray, the mad brother in the attic. Me unmasked, me in rags, me with the stifled rage of the unmoored, uprooted, and marooned. Me without books, without finish, without a green card. Me with a Kalashnikov.

At the Ritz-Carlton, Heather’s father tried to impress me with his knowledge of The Odyssey; I told him that I had studied with Fitzgerald. He spoke of his years in the Middle East; I dropped all the right names. He listed the spots he loved in Paris; I told him mine. It was a draw, but it brought us closer.

That evening we had dinner at Le Pavillon du Roi, a stately French restaurant that suddenly resurrected a world I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. Waiters, wines, luster everywhere. What did one do these days with a Ph.D.? her father asked. Well, one could always write, or teach, I said. I explained that my father had become a wealthy businessman even though all he’d ever wanted was to write books. Was I amenable to other professions as well, then—to another career, perhaps? He looked down, toying with the edge of his knife on the tablecloth. Absolutely, I replied, trying to sound at once earnest and spontaneous.

Was he going to ask me about his daughter too? The man was too tactful for that. But he wasn’t going to let me off so lightly either. He made subtle prods: about my plans, my future, my hobbies, trying his best to steer clear of the stubbornly persistent if muzzled word intentions bouncing around our table. I did not come to his rescue.

Kalaj’s thundering advice, repeated every time I’d spoken to him about Heather these last few days, was never far from my thoughts. Marry her. Become rich. Buy me a fleet of cabs. I’ll make you a millionaire. Then, if you have no children and she bores you, dump her.

Father, mother, and daughter saw me to the cab that would take me back to Cambridge. “When I was your age, I didn’t have a penny for the bus, let alone a taxi,” Heather’s father said, handing me a twenty-dollar bill in a clenched fist.

I was caught by surprise and genuinely refused the father’s money. He insisted. Finally, I relented. Poor people refused because their pride was at stake. Rich people accepted money because it was not perceived as charity, but simply as a favor that comes with friendship. A poor person would make a point of repaying the money. The rich man would simply forget.

I accepted, hoping he would mistake me for the second.

But because I was not, I got out of the taxi two minutes later and took the underground back to Cambridge.

At Le Maghreb that night, I told Kalaj that Heather’s father had given me a twenty.

“I would have taken the money, gotten out of the cab, and headed back by train,” he said.

I looked at him and smirked.

“That’s what you did, isn’t it—that’s exactly what you did—and you weren’t going to tell me!”

I don’t think I ever bought rounds of XO Cognac with more gusto in my life than I did that evening with Kalaj.

I paid dearly for dinner. In the middle of the night I felt a pain in the kidney area that extended down my right side. I tossed and turned, thinking of Heather, who was probably wondering why I hadn’t asked her to drive me back to Cambridge, especially when it was clear that her parents had liked me and already knew we were sleeping together.

An hour later, the pain growing worse, I figured I should go to the infirmary. As it turned out, I had no money to call a cab. I called Kalaj, but there was no answer. I didn’t dare call Heather. Sexual intimacy was one thing, but I’ve-got-no-money-for-a-cab intimacy was quite another matter.

It was cold outside. I walked all the way down Concord Avenue in cold weather. They took X rays, and I was immediately admitted. At around seven the next morning, the head surgeon knocked on my door, carrying a manila envelope with the X rays already sticking out. He slipped them under the lighted glass panel, and after musing a while at what looked like off-gray paisley patterns, said that I had gallstones.

“Anyone else in the family with gallstones?”

“All of them.”

“On both sides?”

“All four of my grandparents.”

What had I eaten for dinner last night?

I said, Le Pavillon du Roi. He pursed his lips. A moment of silence elapsed between us.

The operation was not urgent. But I had to watch my diet, he said. No fats, no alcohol, no coffee. Meanwhile, they wanted to run a few more tests, so I should stay in bed for another twenty-four hours and eat the bland food they fed me.

I called no one. I wanted to be alone. I was ashamed of being stricken with an old man’s disease. But around two that afternoon, I heard a timid knock at the door. It was Heather. How had she found me? I wasn’t answering my phone. She’d been calling all morning. Instead of supposing I didn’t want to see her, or had spent the night with someone else, she had assumed the worst. What amazing confidence in herself, in people, in the power of truth. In her place, the first thing I would have imagined was that my lover had disappeared—or, better yet, absconded.

She sat next to my bed and we spoke. Her parents loved me, she said. They thought I was funny. They loved the way I complained there were no fish knives at Le Pavillon du Roi. It was typical of them to have noticed this.

Later that afternoon, one or two of my students straggled into the infirmary, then a few teaching fellows, colleagues. Professor Cherbakoff dropped in to say hello. He too, apparently, had heard. Then my entire sophomore tutorial. There were about sixteen of us in the room, the hospital staff came and complained that there was too much noise and that no one was allowed to smoke. “But I smoke,” I protested. “Well, you can, but no one else can. And incidentally, you shouldn’t either.”

At seven-thirty, Kalaj walked into the room, bearing three porno magazines. I wanted to disappear under my bedcovers. At eight-thirty, long after official visiting hours were over, Aysha from the café appeared. Then, minutes later, Abdul Majib, the old Iraqi dishwasher from the Freshman Union, decided to make an appearance as well.

I lay in bed, helpless, in a universe where all my partitions had collapsed. Kalaj and Heather, my students, the department head, Aysha, my colleagues, everyone, careerists and lowlifes, were thrown together as if in a Fellini movie or at a Provincetown clambake.

Heather looked totally ill at ease. She sat on a chair in a corner, silent, remote, waiting for everyone to leave, not sure whether she should be my student or girlfriend. Kalaj, who must have originally assumed I’d be alone, leaned against one of the walls with his camouflage jacket, his beret, his gunner’s scowl, and his three porno magazines, trying his best to look like an overgrown graduate student who’d spent an all-nighter working on his dissertation.

He immediately put one of my students in his place by saying that the Marquis de Sade disgusted him. With another he insisted that American writers were all ersatz, including those he hadn’t read and wasn’t likely to start reading now. Then he reminded everyone in the room, including the nurse who came to remove my tray, that hospitals, like courthouses, were put on this planet to beat down your soul till it was flattened into toilet paper—and as far as souls went, ladies and gentlemen, we each had one only, and it had to be returned when we were done with it, as good as new for the next person. As Nostradamus said—and he began to quote.

In the space of five minutes, he managed to scare everyone away. “Who was that crackpot?” someone later asked.

Everything I had feared since the school year had started was now happening. From a traveling companion picked up in an oasis during my lonely summer days, Kalaj had become a deadweight that was impossible to shake off. After my release from the hospital, I could go nowhere in Cambridge without running into him. I couldn’t sit with anyone in public without being joined by him or, as was more often the case, without being invited to join him at his table. I went out equipped with excuses and white lies the way people with runny noses carry a box of tissues. I hated myself both for being too weak to fend him off and for worrying about it all the time. I tried to avoid the bars and coffeehouses where I was likely to run into him. Once, at La Coriandre, I was sitting with two colleagues, and there was Kalaj at the bar, drinking his usual dollar vingt-deux wine. I’ll never forget his eyes. He had seen me, of course, as I had seen him, but he was allowing a glazed look to settle over his eyes, as if he were distracted by troubling, faraway thoughts—his cab, Léonie, his long-term projects in the U.S., his father, his green carte. Five minutes later, I heard his explosive, detonating, hysterical laugh. He was sending me a message. It was impossible to miss. I don’t need you. See, I can do better. There was something camp and histrionic about it, which reminded me of the first time I’d met him. You’re trying to be like these colleagues of yours, he seemed to say, but I know you’ll stiff on the tip when no one’s looking.

He wasn’t pretending that he hadn’t seen me. He was pretending that he hadn’t seen me pretending not to see him. He was letting me off the hook.

A few days later he was waiting for me outside of Boylston Hall. He needed two favors. “I’ll walk with you,” he explained.

His landlady was remodeling the house, and God only knew when she’d be able to let him have his room back. She was therefore giving him fair notice. It didn’t sound very convincing. Had he done something wrong, tried to bring women into his bedroom, I asked. “Me, soil my sheets, when I could dirty a woman’s instead? Never.”

He wanted me to help him find another bed-and-breakfast. But when we approached Porter Square, the old, prim ladies on Everett, Mellen, Wendell, Sacramento, and Garfield streets took one good look at him and had no vacancies. “Can you put me up for a few days?” he finally asked me. The question had never occurred to me and I was totally unprepared for it. Of course I could, I said. All he needed, he said, was a sofa to sleep on, a quick shower in the morning, and he’d be out of my hair till nighttime. Maybe he’d arrange to sleep at Léonie’s, but he didn’t want to push things right now. “Just give me a copy of your keys—I won’t be in your way.” I didn’t have a duplicate set. Not to worry, we could have copies made on the way to Harvard Square.

The spare keys cost next to nothing, but as we stood waiting for the locksmith to grind them I caught myself making a mental note of the hardware store’s name and address. I was already pricing a new lock for which Kalaj wouldn’t be given a key.

Halfway to Harvard Square, he bought me a warm tuna-fish grinder. While we were eating, he told me the next news item: his driver’s license had been revoked for a month. With all my Harvard contacts, he began—this was his typical phrase—could I help him find a job?

I thought for a while. The only jobs I knew of were in education.

“I’ve taught before.”

“I mean university education.”

“Teaching is teaching.”

Instead of going home after lunch, I decided to pay my chairman a visit.

“But has this friend of yours ever taught in an American institution?” Cherbakoff asked when I brought up Kalaj’s predicament.

“He barely speaks English—which is exactly what you’ve always said we needed in a French teacher.”

Cherbakoff concurred. As it happened there was a slot open for a French-language teacher.

Kalaj was ecstatic.

“But you can’t yell,” I said, as a way of telling him that the American teaching methods were entirely different from the French colonial. “And you can’t—can’t—hit anyone, you can’t even make them feel bad about themselves.”

“Then how am I to teach them anything?”

I couldn’t stay long with him to celebrate—I had to be in Chestnut Hill for cocktails at Heather’s parents’, and all I kept thinking for the rest of the evening was: Now he has my keys. I’d never felt so weak.

I was furious with myself. For not wanting to give him my keys and for surrendering them with a smile. For agreeing to go to the cocktail party at Heather’s parents’, and for taking the long train ride there. For not wanting to marry Heather and for letting her think I was dying to. For not wanting to be at Harvard and for not ever finding the courage to leave.

As I watched my reflection on the glass panels of the Green Line car headed out to Newton, I asked myself: Is this really me? Who am I when I’m not looking? Or when no one is looking at me? Was I simply a being without shape, to be molded by circumstances and by what everyone around me wanted? Or by complying was I simply making up in advance for crimes I knew I’d never have the courage to commit?

That evening, Heather wanted to drive me home. I let her, though I would have preferred the train. There was a moment at the party when I suddenly longed to be alone, to watch Kalaj roll a cigarette in the corner and make fun of the entire party with its jumbo-ersatz gravity hanging from its jumbo-ersatz chandeliers and its froufrou guests who kissy-kissied and huggy-huggied with their jumbo-ersatz show of wealth and plenitude. Amerloques, I could hear him say. Take this one, he’d point out to a woman in the crowd. Skin like burlap. Three generations ago she was scrounging turnips out of the dead land. And as for these two, he’d snicker, they may have come over on a sailboat, but look underneath and you’ll find the coarseness of a sea dog and the larceny of stevedores.

I wanted to sit by myself in an empty train car and let the hypnotic rhythm of the wheels dull the fire inside me. All these wealthy people who simply belonged. Their large cars. Their large mansions. Their professed love for the people of the Mediterranean whom they couldn’t, if you gave them ten lifetimes, begin to understand. Kalaj would understand, and yet I didn’t want to have anything to do with him either, because I was tired of him, because however much closer I was to him than to any of the people at this party, the distance between him and me, for all our love of France, and our exile, and our longing to hear the loud cicadas of the Mediterranean, would always remind me that we came from very different worlds.

Heather and I sat in the car outside my building. “Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?” she asked. I hoped she wasn’t going to cry or make me feel sorry for her. I didn’t want to hate myself more than I already did.

“Sometimes I need to be alone,” I finally said, not knowing that I was going to say it until it came out of my mouth.

“I thought we were happy.”

“We are.”

“Then what is it?”

I didn’t know. She sat silent for a while. Then she said it: “Well, if you want me to, I’ll drive back home now. I’ll call you tomorrow. If you can’t tell me the truth, then I’ll know, and I swear I’ll never bother you again.”

She did as she promised. She called me once. And then never again.

To Kalaj, when I told him what Heather had said, it was all corporate-ersatz-speak. But it was, and I knew it even then, the most candid and most honorable behavior I’d witnessed in my life.

Kalaj took the job in my department, and in the days that followed he would come in at odd hours to consult my dictionaries and correct homework sheets. It made him feel as though he too were a graduate student and we were roommates living in some sort of American Bohème. I helped him compose his first grammar test. I took him to the ditto machine and taught him how to fill it with solvent. Then I helped him distinguish between an A, a B-minus, and a C-plus. This was an altogether new world for him, and part of him, you could tell, was starstruck and awed, like an immigrant who, on board a steamship at dawn, suddenly spots the hazy outline of Manhattan’s skyline.

Two months into the semester, he had one of the greatest shocks of his life. A student asked the administration to invite Kalaj to a teacher-student dinner at one of the river houses. What was that? he asked. Had a student lodged a complaint against him? No, it was an honor, I explained. A student invites a teacher and has a formal dinner with him, one-on-one. He thought about it for a long time. “Can I go dressed like this?” he asked. “No, you need a tie and a jacket.” He was rolling a cigarette, staring at the tobacco without saying a word. I felt for him. “I’ll lend you any tie you want, but my jackets won’t fit you.” On the evening of the dinner, he knocked at my door wearing a double-breasted gray flannel suit with a light blue shirt and a dark blue tie. “Courtesy of Goodwill,” he said. But the suit was French. As was the shirt. He would never have admitted it, but I knew that he had gone out and bought the whole outfit, even the black shoes. He had combed his hair with a touch of brilliantine and he looked five years younger. “I’ll call you when it’s all over. Maybe you’ll meet me for a drink at La Coriandre. We’ll find new women,” he said. I watched him leave.

The munificent dinner sold him on the wonders of America. The sight of a juicy roasted ham with pineapple slices and cloves, coupled with the most oversize shrimps he’d seen in his life, was simply too much for him to resist. He ate things he had never seen alive and wouldn’t have recognized if you had whispered their name to him, but they tasted of heaven, and there was so much of it that part of him kept looking for a paper bag in which to put extras—for me or for his friends at Le Maghreb. It was an inexhaustible PX of all that was ever jumbo and ersatz. He loved it.

The moment he was hooked he became weak. Until then, he could survey the New World from a quarantined distance, but he couldn’t get near to it, much less touch it, so he ranted against it. But having been invited in, if only for an evening, had made an instant convert of him. In his heart of hearts, I am sure, he couldn’t wait to say the Pledge of Allegiance. “What did it?” I teased him. “The Old World opulence, the abundance, the sheer self-satisfaction of the rich?” “Actually, it was the ham. The next time we have a dinner party we must cook roasted ham with pineapples.” He also began to worry. “One day my students will hail a cab, and it will be mine. What do I tell them then?” “You tell them the truth.” “Do you tell them the truth?” he asked. He’d seen right through me.

Harvard sucked him in during the fall semester. He knew it couldn’t last, but he had no idea how brutal doors can be when they suddenly shut on you. In mid-November, just when he was preparing to savor his first Thanksgiving in America, he received a letter from Professor Cherbakoff, sent in care of my home address. The instructor he’d replaced would soon be returning, and there were no openings for the spring semester. Cherbakoff thanked him dearly for his help and wished him the best for his career.

Kalaj was not surprised.

Why, I asked.

“Because for the past few weeks every time I cross Cherbakoff in the corridors, he looks away.” He knew that look. “It’s the look on customers who, even before opening their wallets, have decided not to tip. The look of people who have already signed your death warrant but don’t want you to know it. The look of a wife who kisses you as you head out to work at seven in the morning but has already scheduled the movers for ten,” he said.

“I don’t make these things up,” he added, in case I wanted to warn him against paranoia. I had to write to Cherbakoff, he said, and explain that he was very important to his students, that his departure would demoralize the entire class, that in good conscience Cherbakoff should not allow this to happen.

I tried to explain that such letters never work and very often backfire, turning you into more of an outcast, especially if your boss must continue to see you until the end of the semester.

He called me a coward, an apologist for the system, a réac.

“If I thought it would help, I would write the letter. But it will do nothing. Reasoning is pointless when you’ve lost.”

“I must resign immediately.”

“You will do no such thing. You will teach till the end of your term and when you look back on it, you’ll have nothing to reproach yourself with.”

He listened. “It’s bound to get out.”

And then it hit me: he couldn’t face his employer, he couldn’t face his students, he didn’t even know how to face the people at Le Maghreb who had been watching him sit with his students day after day, going over the agreement of the past conditional with the pluperfect in counterfactual clauses, and never once raising his voice, always remaining positive and upbeat, and always throwing in a cinquante-quatre to make them feel better about themselves.

He wanted to hide. He didn’t even have it in him to mention the matter to Léonie, who was gradually going back to her husband. “Do you still pummel each other?” I asked, trying to change the subject. He looked at me with surprise. “We stopped that a long time ago. We stopped everything a long time ago as well. I don’t want to go back to her. Can I stay at your place tonight?”

The next morning I made coffee for the two of us. Then he said he had to go and teach.

Later in the day he told me what had happened.

 

 

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