Monday, April 14, 2008


She tells me she lives for pleasure. Sitting with the late-lunch crowd in a midtown Manhattan sushi bar, the only one drinking a martini, Ashley watches the Japanese chefs peel cucumbers methodically with excellent knife technique. The top layer of sound is ambient lounge music; the layer beneath that, the anxious buzz of corporate employees talking about their jobs as they tuck into their bento boxes.

"I love to see them work," she says.

Ashley is eating slowly and living for pleasure these days. She knows there's a war on, and we're all plummeting toward recession, yet she feels unexpectedly serene ever since she lost her job as a real estate broker just before Christmas. She carries her laptop and briefcase around town and goes to the occasional job interview, but she's in no hurry to be employed again. She still has plenty of severance and unemployment payments coming in.

"I feel like I'm still washing the stink of corporate America off me," Ashley says with a laugh. "I've learned that it's possible to be out of work and extremely happy."

Her biggest worry today is finding a solid pair of Harley boots that she can wear on her long walks around town. She has stopped buying whatever she likes--those days are over--but a good pair of boots is essential.She repeats that she knows there's a war on and this country is plummeting toward recession, but she can't help feeling that she's simply lucky to be alive.

Ashley's vodka-tinged haze of pleasure in the middle of a Manhattan work day and her simple quest for a good pair of boots put me in mind of one of my bad girls, Isabelle Eberhardt, a rat race drop-out if ever there was one.

Born in Switzerland in 1877 to Russian parents and raised in a community of anarchist-nihilist émigrés, Isabelle traveled at the age of twenty to Algeria and converted to Islam. She renamed herself Si Mahmoud, dressed as an Arab man and spent her days with the Kadriya brotherhood of Sufis when she wasn’t riding the Sahara dunes on horseback. It was her ambition to be a great writer, and she kept journals and served as a war correspondent for El Akhbar, a newspaper in the Sud Oranais. She never got very far with her ambitions because she preferred camping in the desert among the soldiers of the Foreign Legion and sleeping with hot young Arab boys. Although she married a soldier, Slimène, who tried to make a home for them, Isabelle liked to go on the prowl at night, smoking kif (a form of hashish) and drinking absinthe, kummel, chartreuse and cognac until she passed out on the floor of whatever random café she happened to be in.

"There are women who will do anything for beautiful clothes," Isabelle wrote, "while there are others who grow old and gray poring over books to earn degrees and status. As for myself, all I want is a good horse as a mute and loyal companion, a handful of servants hardly more complex than my mount, and a life as far away as possible from the hustle and bustle I happen to find so sterile in the civilized world."Isabelle felt that she lived in the presence of a mystery that held the key to the entire meaning of her life. "As long as I do not fathom that enigma—and will I ever! God alone can tell—I shall not know who I am, nor the reason for my curious life," she said in a state of semi-exaltation, her dreams nourished on the narcotic smoke of kif.

I wish Ashley well as she seeks the answer to her own enigmatic mystery in the vodka-nourished haze of her urban reverie, drinking in the pleasure of watching the Japanese sushi chefs of Manhattan attack a massive heap of fresh salmon ahead of the dinner crowd.

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