Cafe Society

Wedded Bliss

Laura staggers as we step through the double doors and into the Royal Peacock. She doesn't swoon, exactly, but there's not much in this world that can make her swoon. She misses her footing a little, and then a huge smile spreads across her face, and her eyes go wide as though she's just experienced a sudden and unexpected spiritual enlightenment. She inhales deeply, her nostrils flaring, and takes my hand.

"Can you smell that? Isn't that your favorite smell in the world?"

Back at the house, she'd been in a lather, skipping from the bed to the closet to the computer, where the Royal Peacock's menu was up on the screen. She'd been planning her assault for most of the afternoon, throwing around words that I didn't even know she could pronounce, translating for me a language that, for her, is pure sensuality: Jaipur masala, ghoste ka salun and Rajasthani rajput thali, describing not just a vegetarian combo plate, but the smooth sweetness of creamed spinach, the yellow stain of turmeric, the arcing burn of dry cumin and fresh coriander, the texture of mashed, baked raisins on her tongue.

"Look at this," she said, pointing to a special of caribou in a sauce of coconut and sweet potatoes that had been one of the Peacock's game specials for April. "I can't decide what to eat. I want everything."

She bounced up from the computer and went to the closet. I edged toward the bedroom door, trying to make a quiet escape. "You're going to change, right?" she asked. "And shave?"

I said no, that jeans and boots and a button-down Oxford would be just fine for a Sunday night in Boulder. She pulled clothes out for me, anyway. "I like this place, Jay," she said. "And they're so nice. You should respect that."

Apparently, respect would be shown by me wearing khakis and white linen and not my grungy work boots, by not spilling the saag or eating inappropriately with my fingers, by not mispronouncing "shajahani" or stepping out for a smoke between courses or doing any one of the myriad things I regularly do to embarrass myself while dining out.

Laura was back at the computer, silently mouthing the names of various dishes, tasting the words on her lips. I kissed the back of her neck, and she waved me off.

"Go brush your teeth," she said. "We have to go. Now."

In the warm, dim, tattered dining room of the Peacock, Laura takes my hand. She comments on the smell. It is Nag Champa incense and curry. It is old carpets and fresh cinnamon. It is twenty-year-old tandoor smoke. It is warm and cloying and sweet, and, as in those old cartoons where the hungry dog is hooked in the nose and lifted by the tendrils of smoke coming from a fat T-bone cooking somewhere off-screen, it has a potent and undeniably attractive force. Laura floats to our table behind Laxmi Lalchandani, the niece of Shanti Awatramani, the man who runs the Royal Peacock, wrote the menu that's stood unchanged since the '80s and still cooks some nights. I swear Laura's feet aren't even touching the ground. She glows like she's swallowed a string of Christmas lights, and before she sits, she runs her fingertips across the scratchy, industrial poly-blend tablecloth. The menus are faded, printed on loose paper folded inside covers upholstered in threadbare purple cloth with beaded peacocks on the front. We order bottles of Kingfisher lager, and Laura looks at the pictures of elephant-riding warriors hung above the windows, the scenes from the Bhagavad Gita, princes and princesses locked in permanent embrace, Shiva with arms outstretched, one foot forever descending.

"It's just like I remember," she says. "Nothing has changed."

Everything has changed.

I first heard of the Royal Peacock almost ten years ago. I was in the Southwest only by dint of powerful drugs, poor life choices and my legendarily bad sense of direction. Leaving Buffalo and headed for Rochester one night, I'd somehow found myself in Santa Fe. There was a New Year's Eve party going on around me, and I was on the phone with Laura, in Colorado, whom I hadn't seen since being thrown out of college (for the first time) years before. We made plans to get together, and did. It was a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-ends-up-staying-in-girl's-new-boyfriend's-basement-for-a-week-and-stealing-her-away-while-boyfriend- is-at-work kind of story. Pure American romance. And though we never made it to the Royal Peacock then, I remember Laura telling me about her favorite Indian restaurant in Boulder. We talked of biryani and saag, but mostly ate takeout Chinese food and made long drives to Johnson's Corner for coffee, cigarettes and pie. Back in Santa Fe, regrouping, we ate eggs and chile. Staying at her parent's house outside Philadelphia, we ate roti canai and bastilla and she made me herbed chicken and pasta. In our tiny apartment in Rochester with the hardwood floors and the cockroaches, we would lie tangled in blankets beneath the cracked windows, and I would ask what I could do to make her happy.