To say what I have to write next would take the breath out of me. I will recount some memories of my first real encounter with Ruhaba, as a meeting of a man and a woman. I feel as unprepared to write about it as I felt unprepared to go through it then. When I think about it now, I can see that I was not the one in control. Ruhaba was.
I arrived at the cafe and spotted Ruhaba through the glass windows while I was still outside. I slowed my step and watched her sitting there in the faux fireside glow of the cafe as I stood in the whispers of the disappearing fog. She seemed to have freshened up a little, and her lips were now painted a deep red. For me? I felt my pulse quicken.
She was peering deep into the foam of her coffee, circling an index finger on the rim of her cup. She blew on the foam and lowered her skin toward the steam that rose up. I was revisited by my earlier vision of her in the shower. She dipped a fingertip into the hot coffee and licked it.
I looked at the people around her. Seattle has found a way to throw quick glances and never quite stare. But a young man with headphones and a laptop, wearing a T-shirt that declared “Gender Is Over,” seated at a table across from hers, was breaking these rules of disengagement. He—if he was a he—seemed to me to be in a high state of arousal—an across-the-gender-sexuality-spectrum arousal—from Ruhaba’s odd little attentions to her coffee.
A feeling twitched dully inside me. A flicker of an eye, perhaps, a corner of Ruhaba’s eye, arched toward the aroused young man. Was that the briefest exchange of a suggestive glance, or was it an arthritic tug of my imagination?
A deep sense of ownership coursed through my veins. A feeling from years ago arrived, pushing me through the doors of the cafe with a misplaced but beloved thrill of walking toward someone awaiting me, who was mine. I shook an imaginary rain off my jacket and, as I’d expected, the movement caught Ruhaba’s attention, causing her to look up. As I walked to her, she greeted me with the warmest smile I had seen turned toward me in a long time.
I sat down and my sense of ownership receded quickly. The feeling that replaced it was that she was somehow in charge. This wasn’t always a good thing, as I had learned. I’d have to work a little to ensure that my desire for her was front and center, so I wasn’t sidelined to be a bystander, a friendly, asexual senior faculty member with a dog to be walked. I summoned up the charms of my not-so-distant past and said, “You look ravishing.”
Her face registered surprise, though not an unpleasant one. Still, I felt the need to qualify my words, given the times we lived in, where the feeblest compliment could be accused of an intention to plunder. “Especially given that you’re coming from the gym,” I said.
“Oh, thank you, Oliver,” she laughed.
My heart skipped a beat. My name sounded strange on her lips, the r not entirely audible, in the manner of speech of the men who had colonized her ancestors, and the l spoken deep as an Indus Valley, prolonging my presence on her tongue by one beautiful microsecond.
We were interrupted by a barista who gaily laid a large cup of coffee before me. “Sixteen-ounce Mexican Chocolate Mocha,” she sang as if at an opera.
“I took the liberty of ordering this for you,” Ruhaba said, smiling into my eyes, her octave pitched as pure sophistication after the barista’s.
“We’re known for our coffee art,” the barista said, lingering. “Happy almost-Halloween!” She gestured at the face of a screaming ghost crafted within the foam of my coffee and the word “Boo” scrawled above. I smiled thinly at her and thanked Ruhaba. She thanked the barista and sent her along her way.
“About the other night,” she said, leaning across the table toward me. “The visit of those . . . agents. You must have been thinking, ‘What have I got myself into?!’ ”
Yes, that’s precisely what I had been thinking. Nailed it, as the kids say. But I waved my hand as if shocked that anyone could have such a thought, and I joined in her laughter. “It’s just the world we live in now, isn’t it? And mostly, it was just family drama. Your transnational family drama is safe with me,” I said, holding her gaze. She did not look away.
“Thank you. I am still reeling from it all myself. Dear God, how easily our boys can go astray. I am so glad Adil’s association with those people in Toulouse ended when it did. I feel for my sister. Goodness, how do people raise children?”
“Don’t ask me. I seem to have failed at that.”
She shook her head. “I forgot to ask. How was your lunch with Kathryn? How old is she, by the way?”
I was pleased she remembered Kathryn’s name. I jumped to her second question. “She’s twenty,” I lied. Twenty-three put Kathryn closer to Ruhaba’s own profile of independent adulthood. Ruhaba wanted to talk about the raising of children. So, Kathryn would be a child.
“Oh. Definitely too young to get married. Did she ask you to walk her down the aisle?”
“Yes, she did. But I said ‘No.’ ”
“Oh, you did? Why?”
“I don’t like that she is marrying at twenty. And I discourage the idea of a young woman being given away by her father into the custody of another man.”
She raised her eyebrows. Admiration? Disapproval?
“You will go to the wedding, though?” Ruhaba said.
I grunted noncommittedly. I distracted her by reaching over to circle my hands around her coffee cup, as if to warm my fingers. An old move of mine, to herald intimacy.
She put her hands over mine and wriggled the coffee cup from me. She held my gaze and, raising the cup to her lips, drained it as I watched. Behind her, on a wall of the cafe was painted a voluptuous red female devil seated on a bar stool, her legs crossed at the knees, one hip thrust outward. The devil was topless. Her perky red breasts had no nipples, but the way she held her espresso cup and saucer at a tilt, she seemed to offer up one breast as a delicacy, her eyes imploring, almost pining for a connoisseur. I was struck by the thought that perhaps Ruhaba had chosen this cafe on purpose, sat silhouetted against the bare-breasted devil on purpose, that everything she owned was bold in color and everything she did was pigmented with promise.
We sat for a moment, Ruhaba and I, watching each other. With any other woman, this would have been where I would reach out and hold her hand, pull her close, tell her we should go back to my place. With Ruhaba, I needed at least one more cue.
“I worry about Adil,” she said.
I should not have waited. I should have reached for her hand.
She spoke again. “What do your instincts tell you? About Adil.”
I was beginning to learn not to be taken aback. And I could see she wanted a straight answer.
“I am inclined to believe him. At least most of what he says. There is one thing I believe he is hiding from us, though.”
Her face darkened.
I said quickly, “His feelings for this . . . Camille. She’s the only girl he mentioned.”
She broke into that smile again. We chuckled together. I could perhaps steer us back yet into the realm of desire. Laughter, as we know, is an aphrodisiac, and I had a certain flair with which to stir it up.
“His parents are worried and phone me every day,” she said.
Nope. We were to linger in the realm of terror. The world has marched us all into a War on Desire.
“My poor sister calls from their friend’s phone, to avoid disclosing to anyone where Adil is, in case some of those bad elements are . . . it all sounds so . . . menacing. I don’t know whom to trust.”
Me, I wanted to say. Trust me.
Excerpted from The Laughter: A Novel. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher HarperVia, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2023 by Sonora Jha.