The Great Rushdie

IT HAS CURED ME of my irrational terror of helicopters, that is one thing I can say. Now all my nightmares take place in airports, racing down endless corridors for flights I’ve missed. Heathrow, D’Orly, JFK. He only trusts a few. I wait as he waits, board as he boards, thrill to the same in-flight film.

Sometimes he will drink a brandy, tipping the plastic glass so it touches the bridge of his nose. Sometimes just a Coke. He is not, as I expected, a vegetarian, and I have seen him swap his dessert with his seatmate for an extra piece of cheese. At times, sitting there in first class with my fake beard tickling my neck, the ludicrous spectacles pinching my sinuses, I will be tempted to raise a finger like him and order myself a Scotch whiskey. Just the word conjures mystery, barrels tucked under rain-beaten, lichened castles, craggy old men with alchemists’ powers. But that is not the way of the yassassin.

Strangely, his cigarettes hold no such temptation. Dunhills in the maroon packet. The amount of money he lavishes on these! And the pleasure he takes, early mornings, standing out on the balcony of the Royal Copenhagen, a puff drifting across the Ostend, the fag-end flicked off to fall through the treetops. How many high-powered sights have I spied through just to find him killing himself? Later, when we are at the reading, Oosmun will slip into the room and fish the crumpled packet from the trash and the next day mail it to his hosts, a token of our vigilance.

I do not always like it, this intimidation. Or perhaps, as Oosmun continually implies, after these seven years away from our country, I have begun to take on Western ideas, to reason as a Westerner. And while I insist it is not true, I insist in a lavish suite overlooking the Hauptbahnhof, Oosmun tuned to the French Open, watching the pert Martina Hingis demolish all comers.

I personally have not read the book of our enemy. Or I lie: I have begun it twice yet could not interest myself enough to finish. It is long and erudite, and its pleasures are the mind’s. I prefer the soul’s nourishment (all right, the heart’s, since we are being honest) and have a predeliction for the work of Leo Tolstoy. In the last seven years I have spent most of my time sitting or flying, and I have read much to understand the West . Winesburg, Ohio, The Catcher in the Rye. The Great Gatsby by your Fitzgerald I find interesting, and not a few times I have compared myself to his Nick. For he is my Gatsby, isn’t he, wandering the empty mansion that is the world with his useless fame, and I, I live in a rented room I cannot afford, my eye on him always, admiring his old notions of innocence. One day, I am sure, I will find him drifting in some metaphorical swimming pool, a scarf of blood trailing out behind, and I will be sorry and despise myself and this horrible world.

How have I become this cynical man, you ask?

I have been trained to dispatch our enemies in the one-hundred-and-eleven ways, the same as my father, and his father before him. My mother’s father was a holy man, his house full of books, but a son must be his father, and so at nine I began the lifelong training that made the other boys worship and run from me. Until I fulfilled my holy destiny, I would have no woman, no family.

(As he does. That first year, I watched through infra-red binoculars the loud bouts he struck up with his soon-to-be ex-wife, a Socialist with a weakness for tea cakes and expensive wine. But I shall not linger on such things, only note that you can see the effect on him; occasionally after dinner with the department chair there will be a comely graduate student who rides a motorcycle and has a deep appreciation of Thomas Pynchon, and you can see him sigh as he turns down the offer of coffee in her apartment, mutter as he clumps up the front steps of the hotel.)

I should say now that I will never fulfill that destiny, or only when he dies from some other hand (or by his own, as I sometimes fear, late at night when only the hotel laundry is alive, the corridors littered with room service trays, scuffed shoes and laundry hung from doorknobs). No, to kill him would be the greatest failure, one I would pay for with my life. The thing is to be here, near him, to let the world know that we have not forgotten nor will ever forgive his impudence.

We are not alone, Oosmun and I. We do not move unremarked upon. Tonight, the Mossad are here in London, the CIA, Scotland Yard.

(That word again! A place he has visited only once since I have been with him–the University of Edinburgh. While he read to a lively, polite crowd, I walked about town. Such quaint pubs and dreary architecture, pigeons pecking chips. I could barely understand the woman at the tobacconist’s. I purchased a pack of his Dunhills for Oosmun to leave on his pillow and sauntered through the park. While strollers marked me, they evinced none of the scorn I feel here, or the ugly dismissal projected by even the lowliest of New Yorkers.)

No, we are among colleagues all the time–attendants, I might say, much like Gatsby’s minions. (Like gaudy moths, F. says, drawn something something to his fluttering flame.) We circle him, pay tribute to his mystery, his singular genius. But finally I am the one left with him. After the reading, the signing, the late dinner with his British editor. Oosmun has finished his prowling, the paid bodyguards are off the clock. Then it is just him at his toilet and I at my window, my heating grate, my fire escape. I have my headphones on, my starlight scope balanced on the rail.

Whoa-whoa, IIIIIIIIII, I heard him sing one night in Palo Alto, California, should have known better with a girl like you.

And then in Ottawa: Baby I need your lovin. Got, to have all your lo-o-vin.
He uses Plax and Crest and Listerine, swishes and rinses and spits. And in a gesture I first found absurd but now find genuinely endearing, he combs what’s left of his crown of hair before he gets into bed. And then, like me, he reads. Not much, just a few pages. Contemporaries mostly, sometimes volumes his hosts have inscribed to him. He feels obliged, I imagine (and he is conscientious; never has Oosmun found one of these presents left behind in the bathroom or tucked in a drawer with the ever-present Bible). I have often hoped to see the familiar yellow-and-green cover of The Great Gatsby raised before his pillowed head, but after seven years one’s optimism wanes.

Yes, one changes.

I will admit that. How to deny it, now, in the very dead of night? And deny to whom? Oosmun has already bowed to the East and is sleeping, while I sit here, listening to him turn the pages. And then he closes the book and holds it to his stomach as if he will begin again shortly, but he is asleep, the bedside light still on. How I would like to spirit myself into his room now, take today’s book from his limp hands and replace it with my tired copy of Fitzgerald’s and click the light off for him. Come dawn, would he understand it is me, come padding across his great lawn to my cottage and burble nervously about his true desires, the humbling terrors of love?

I wait, silent, and soon he rouses, pushes the novel onto the nightstand and finds the knob, twists it.

This is the time I have been prepared for, the long waiting for morning. My grandfather watched over the Shah’s son, his rheumy breathing weak behind a watered-silk canopy, the same son whose SAVAK arrested and then executed my father by a method known as the Rhinoceros, which I have studied and once, unfortunately, witnessed. Now I watch his window giving back the taillights of the road below, listen to his soft snoring (he’s had three glasses of Australian wine, served by a Mossad operative with startling eyes and a disarming overbite).

In Scotland the hills go on for whole counties, nothing but sheep and crumbling stone walls, fallen shearing pens. In the pubs, old men in unraveling tweed jackets smoke and sip whiskey all day, dodder home to their families.

I know he dreams of escape, of shedding this life that has been chosen for him. But what choice does a man have? The hand of fate is heavy on us all, isn’t that the lesson Nick learns? The world doesn’t care about our dreams, punishes our dearest conceits.

Tomorrow we are off to New York again, across that valley of ashes from West Egg. Our tickets have been bought and paid for, our hotel room even now being readied for our arrival, fitted with equipment. He will read from his new novel, the sales of which are disappointing, a matter of no concern to him. He sleeps. I watch, wait. The clock and the world circle. Flight time is six hours, five with a brisk tailwind. In first class the drinks are free. And so to the fresh green breast of the new world we are borne back ceaselessly, something something something.

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