I’ve never been inside a private jet in my life.

         I’ve seen how they look in magazines and, more recently, on Succession. This was not quite Succession standard but close.

         There is a dining room. No meals in seats.

         It’s way too big for us. We’re only three; I think it could accommodate at least a dozen people. So, I’m feeling strange as I sit down in one of the “alcoves” with great upholstered armchairs for four people around a table and strap on my seatbelt.

         We are going down the runway. This is Le Bourget. It’s now a smallish Paris airport, I guess, mostly for private jets and charters. Are there still charter flights? I didn’t notice any great board with scheduled flights, but Jean-Pierre dropped us off at a special entrance for private jets. I suppose French customs were present, but we made no contact with them directly. And then we walked across the tarmac, something you never get to do anymore since it’s usually through this tubular thing right from plane to boarding gate, and we climbed up stairs. I felt a kind of nostalgia. René looked excited: “Just like in old movies.”

         “This isn’t exactly what I expected,” says Bill. I look at him enquiringly. “I mean, the plane feels so damned empty. But once we take off, we get to move to the dining room. Then, it’ll be cozy. Like old times.” What old times? Last night?

         First in the Meurice Alain Ducasse, we had to agree on which menu: Découverte, with basically three-and-a-half courses, plus cheese and dessert; or Collection, with five and a half, etc. I was hungry, but not for five courses. And Bill asked me first. Both he and René fortunately felt the same way. They probably had a bigger lunch than I had with Janine at Versailles.

         Everything was exquisite. One expects nothing less. The dining room was very Versailles, old-time Meurice, with gilt and painted flowers and mirrors and windows that looked out on the last of the sun setting out beyond the Arc de Triomphe, I imagine. Chandeliers shimmering very discretely. Plush white linen tablecloths. China and actual silverware. Very formal. I was lucky to be let in with my cargo pants. I should have changed before we went downstairs. I had plenty of time. We went through a bottle of Krug as if it were tap water. Did we arrive at the restaurant tipsy? A bit, but nicely so. Bill waved away the offer of an apéro or cocktail and asked for the wine list. He announced that it would be Bordeaux. He was in the mood for Bordeaux. Red. And then I saw that he just chose the most expensive bottle: Saint-Estèphe. I just heard Saint-Estèphe. It was gorgeous, of course, but I never got to see the label.

         Each course was a work of art. And I was carried away in the moment. I can picture the araignée de mer de Roscoff. Why? Because I ordered it on a bet to myself, that it would be somehow beautifully prepared so there would be no struggle getting at the crab meat. At the same time, it looked like the beast. Genius! Everything else is now a bit of a blur. I’ve noticed that there’s something about this fine dining. It’s not like cassoulet. You don’t come away with tips on how to make it at home or a feeling that this is the best one you’ve ever tasted. The fine-dining dishes are inimitable by normal mortals, especially myself. So, in that respect there’s nothing for my memory to hold onto, no tips.

         Am I becoming blasé?

         “I’m curious what they’re going to offer us for lunch, aren’t you?” You didn’t get a menu choice? I am surprised. He laughs. “Sort of. I told the concierge to tell them we liked everything, no food allergies. Do your best. And I cited Ducasse.” He bursts out laughing. René grins. I smile but don’t grin. I don’t think it’s a grin. And I don’t laugh out loud. I don’t think I like this game Bill played. Is it a chance to throw a fit because it’s food he hates?

         But of course, I’ve never known him to hate any food. He’s an omnivore after my own heart. It’s one of the things that binds us together as friends. We both had the French indoctrination in the days before MacDo. It was a time when one often saw something described as à la grand’mère… and you’d think, not my granny. And you’d fantasize on old French grandmothers who spent all day cooking and who slaughtered their own rabbits.

         The plane has a stewardess and a steward that we can see, and a personal chef who we can’t. The stewardess now approaches us and asks, in English, whether we would like to have lunch. “Not right at this moment. Will things get cold?” She shakes her head, all smiles. “Gentlemen, I think, if you’re not too bored, we should have some champagne. It won’t be Krug.” He turns to question the stewardess. She nods. It could have been, but we would have had to order that in advance. I expect her next to suggest Piper Heidsieck or Mumm’s, but she suggests Dom Perignon. My, my. “That would be perfect. Thank you.”

         Bill turns to René enquiringly. “I can never have enough champagne,” says René. Well, my boy, who knew? Now I’m back to my gold-digger scenario. I still like him. He’s frisky; he’s cute. He’s also very polite and has found a way to deal with me, as old friend of his “Daddy,” which is very wise beyond his years. But maybe this is a Flemish thing.

         I see it, and the word “daddy”  popped up into my head, but Bill would definitely not like to be referred to as anyone’s Daddy. Actually, it is a strange concept. Are we meant to accept that the norm is for sexual partners to be around the same age?

         To me, it’s aesthetic. A gnarled old dude playing around with a hot young guy does not please my eye. But that’s voyeurism on my part, I’m forced to admit. Anyway, Bill looks good for his age. They make a couple that’s easy on the eyes, well, on my eyes.

         The steward, this time, arrives with a bucket of ice and a bottle of Dom Perignon sticking out of it. In his free hand he has managed to hold three flutes by the stem between his fingers. The bottle is already opened. He sets the glasses down on the table after placing the bucket in the middle. He fills each glass and then stands tall: “Enjoy, gentlemen.” No accent. He might be Australian – he has reddish brown hair and the pale complexion that goes with it – but he’s not French. Ah, but we are now in another, an international world. Why should I think that this company that provides private jets is based in France?

         Both steward and stewardess are wearing vaguely air-force type uniforms. No medals, but they do have name tags. What is this guy’s name? Ridley? I can’t really see. He’s off now.

         Bill picks up a glass. “Cheers. Winston Churchill used to begin his day with a glass of this.” He takes a sip and looks pleasantly surprised. “There is a world beyond Krug.” At the same time René and I take a glass, and we toast him, Bill, our benefactor.

         Whoa! He can be René’s benefactor, but he’s not going to be mine. I’m here, as they say, for the ride. And then René hiccups. We all laugh. He grins and says, Sorry.

         I don’t think I’ve ever had champagne on an empty stomach. It does go right to your head. I feel dizzy for a minute. And the bubbles: super fine, a match for Krug. The flavor, though, is quite different. It’s quite a bit drier. And then it hits my stomach. I feel a slight burn. We need something to nibble on. And here comes the stewardess with a silver tray of canapés, little crackers with things on them: smoked salmon, caviar maybe, egg salad, something that might be Boursin. It does look like they prepared it all fresh, and so, on the spur of the moment for us. No doubt the plane is stocked with Dom Perignon.

         As the stewardess sets the tray down, she says: “Lunch will be served in twenty minutes, gentlemen?” She looks at Bill to check on his approval. He nods, and she’s gone.

         I ask him if he was presented with a menu or a choice of menus. “Yes and no. I left it up to the concierge. So, let’s be surprised. I know we have a chef on board. I suppose he’ll come out and introduce himself after we’ve eaten or, if he’s brave, while we’re eating.” He chuckles. “It’s not going to be a Ducasse extravaganza. Something more down to earth.” I mention my lunch at the Bouillon. “Not that down to earth. At least, I hope not.” I’m insulted and I say so. “Don’t be. Come on, you’re not saying that your lunch was equal to your dinner, are you?” I note that they were totally different things, the proverbial apples and oranges. He shrugs. “When we’re back in Paris, we’ll all go to Chartier, okay?” He gives René a glance. René looks confused. I don’t think he’s registered what exactly Chartier represents.

         “I’m sure it’ll be great,” he says, “you liked it, right?” He’s addressing me with a winsome look. I nod and grin. “Then, what’s not to like?” Where did René pick up this New-York Jewish patter? Oh, probably The Nanny. Flemish TV is full of American stuff, just like Dutch TV. But there’s something disconcerting about the way he speaks English. He does have a slight accent, a kind of burr. Very different from a Dutch accent.

         Anyway, René has set me up on a par with Bill. How can I not like this? I do like it. I don’t care if he’s a wannabe hooker or a real one. Okay, I do know there are young guys who really seriously love older guys. And, as I keep remining myself, Bill is still a sexy specimen. Just not sexy for me. Of course, he never was.

         “You know…” Bill is addressing me. “And I don’t want to bring this up again and I apologize now, but a little spurt of gossip after you met Sergei would have been nice. But, yes, you’re right. You were right. I don’t expect you to be a spy for me.” He finishes his champagne. He has a surprised look on his face. Did it go down the wrong way? He reaches for a smoked salmon cracker and pops it whole in his mouth. He then reaches forward and takes the bottle out and refills his glass. Only then does he look at ours. He tops both of us up. Back into the bucket goes the champagne.  He toasts the air and takes a nice sip. “As I was saying, it was awkward. I got the impression that Sergei or Serges, as she calls him even now, as a female, was not happy to meet me. True, he’s been avoiding it for years. I remember when they met. I don’t know how. All of a sudden, she’d met this Russian and then she married him. It was back in the days of the USSR. Maybe he was some kind of refugee. How had she met him? No clue. Of course, I was living in New York. Anyway, I figured she’d married him so that he could stay in France. Out of the blue after a night at Studio, she told me about him, her marriage, etc. I asked her why she hadn’t brought him along. She said he was broke. She’d laughed at that. So, I didn’t pursue it. I was glad to hear that she wasn’t supporting him.” He stops. He takes another couple of sips of champagne. He’s almost gone through this glass. I take up mine and take a couple of sips. René copies me. Are we supposed to rush through our champagne? Couldn’t we bring it to the table?

         “I told you that I did call Janine first.” He chuckles, “As we drove down her street. She wasn’t waiting for us. I had to jump out of the car and go up and ring her doorbell.” He glances at René. René nods to collaborate. The kid is very relaxed. Does he know where this is going? No, probably not. He just doesn’t care. In fact, ever since I met him this time in Paris, he’s seemed very laid back. He’s not acting like some escort who’s hit paydirt, and will do anything to please and consolidate this gravy train.

         Suddenly, I see us through his eyes. I’ve been there myself. I’m with older guys with lots of stories and experience, and I’m just enjoying it, lapping it up, and, yes, they’re paying for me. I can identify with René. And then I should feel very, very old, but I don’t. I like that I’ve evolved into taking on this role. I give René a grin. He doesn’t miss a beat and grins right back.

         “All Janine said to me when she came to open the door was, ‘Well, there,’ in English. She was pokerfaced. She must have been furious at me, but she didn’t show it. And maybe she wasn’t. But Sergei was not happy. It could be that he was disconcerted that I was meeting him as a woman and not a man.” Bill shrugs. You were looking for trouble, I say to him. “Yes. I admit it. Of course, Janine invited René and I in. And there was Sergei sitting on the couch looking solemn and very darkly Russian. At that first moment, he could have been either sex. Sexless. Just a scowling presence. He did not stand as we were introduced. Janine sat down beside her, and so René and I sat down in the armchairs. She then mumbled something like, ‘you must be thirsty…’ I said, oh, don’t bother. And then she was up and heading toward the kitchen as she turned around, ‘I’ll make us some tea.’” Bill bursts into laughter. René grins.

         I have to laugh. Good for Janine!

         So, I guess she doesn’t keep champagne on ice for those unexpected occasions. “No, I guess not.” He laughs again. “She knows how I feel about tea. She was getting back at me. And I love it. I didn’t particularly love it then. At the time. But now, as I tell you all this, yes, this is the Janine I know and love. While she was in the kitchen we just sat there in silence. Sergei made no effort at conversation. He/she barely looked at us. At first, she looked at her knees. She was wearing jeans. And then she pulled out a smartphone and started checking whatever.” I start laughing. “Yes. Well, you know, at that point I just relaxed. There we were. Drink our tea and then we’re out of there. Which is just what happened. Janine came back in with a large tray. There was a small plate with exactly four sugar cookies.” I burst out laughing. René’s eyes are dancing. Bill joins in my laugh. “Yes. But, you know, she’ll forgive me. And now I’ve met the mysterious Sergei after all these years. I bet I’ll never meet him or her again. Nothing was resolved like that.” I suppose not, I say to him.

         The stewardess appears but says nothing, just waits. “Ah!” Bill sees her and stands up. “Lunch!”

         She directs us to the dining room. Well, let’s call it a dining area, not a room, but a few steps back from the alcove where we’ve been having the champagne. Are we going to just leave it there? “Can you please bring us our champagne?” Certainly sir, she says, as if maybe it was her fault that it had not already been done. I get that a bit of a tone of servility is necessary in this billionaire world. The world has not forgotten Louis XIV. Well, maybe they had for a while, but he and his bling are back. The stewardess bends in a show of deference, nothing like a bow, which would be mawkish, but an inclination of the body meant to smooth the way for whatever milord wishes.

         Get over it, I say to myself. It’s her job. Let’s just make sure we make her day memorable in how kind we are. I will reprimand Bill if he gets out of line.

         Bill looks at me oddly as we take our seats. He always can read my mind.

         This is a modern dining table, marble and rosewood edging: elegant. The whole interior of the plane is. Succession was not far off.

         I am impressed now as the stewardess appears with the bucket and our glasses, balancing all beautifully, and then filling our glasses. At which point, the bottle is empty. She looks at Bill inquiringly. “No, that’s quite enough. But I’m sure there’s a wine list.” Off she goes with the bucket and empty bottle. In minutes, she’s back and hands him a wine list. I’m amazed at how big it looks. Already, Bill has his nose buried in it. “I have no idea what we’re going to be served, but I want something red.” He looks at both of us. I agree. René grins. Nose back into the wine list. “They have some amazing things here. I’m in shock.” He looks up and laughs. He’s not in shock. “How about Saint Joseph.” Ah, a very pricey Côtes du Rhône. I nod yes. René smiles and nods; I think this time he’s taking his cue from me.

         The stewardess has been waiting discreetly somewhere behind me, I think, anyway, out of my view. Suddenly she’s there. Bill orders. She says “thank you,” the way they do in the UK, well, London. I don’t know much about the UK in general. Always found that oddly obsequious, but the UK is neo-feudal, right? Just random thoughts passing through my mind. Not to be mentioned. This would kickstart Bill into his anti-UK rant, which I’ve heard enough of: Okay, dude, you’re moving. Forget about it. Fageddaboudit. René isn’t the only one who’s had The Nanny exposure.

         She’s back. Well, she doesn’t have that far to travel. She uncorks. Bill is given a taste. His face lights up with pleasure. He nods. She serves me, then René, and then tops Bill up.

I see a plan. A bottle of champagne, a bottle of wine, and then dodo for a few hours before we land.

The wine is set on the table in reach of Bill. She’s gone.

         But not for long. Our first courses are set down. Scallops with fresh foie gras. I ask Bill if he ordered this for us. “Ah, I did. I’ve been naughty with you, a few fibs, with the best intentions. In the interests of surprise?” He addresses René after me. René grins. Now, I get it: René grins for Bill when he doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. “The concierge actually sent me an email. Are you good with this?” As if I might jump up and throw my plate on the floor in a pique? “I know the Saint Joseph isn’t really right for it, but you’ll see why I went for it. Later.” Yes, Bill, we should have a slightly sweet white wine for this. Do I really care? I start in. Oh, delish. And the fat off the foie gras has been sweetened with muscat grapes. Umami with the perfectly undercooked scallops?

So, fine dining in the air is billionaire normal. I’m not surprised.

I’m not surprised, but I’m not blasé either.

         We are hungry. In minutes, we’ve all polished off the dish.

         Bill leans back: “Ah, now that’s a surprise, right?” I nod and agree. René grins. Bill picks up his glass of Saint Joseph and starts sipping, sip, sip, sip, quenching his thirst after drinking nothing with the starter. I drank no wine with the starter. Did René?

Oh, he’s triggered me. I’m thirsty too.

Isn’t there water? I’m about to say…

         The stewardess arrives with a bottle of Badoit and three water glasses. I’m spooked. She pours us all a sip. Okay, nice to have, but let’s go for the Saint Joseph. Have I ever had this wine? Don’t remember.

Dry, good body, mild fruit, a bit peppery. Elegant.

         René goes for his water. In Belgian restaurants they always make you pay for your water: no tap water, only bottled allowed, seemingly. Belgium does have its spa waters. Okay. Anyway, he’s downed a full glass and refilled. I suddenly feel a twinge of shame. I put my wine down and take up my water. Badoit. Slightly effervescent. And cool but not cold. Perfect.

         “You’re going to laugh when the main course arrives.” Bill eyes me and glances at René. He then sits back pokerfaced. Silence.

         Or not. Humming gently in the background I’m hearing music, just noticing it for the first time. Barely audible. Sounds designed to create wellbeing. What is it? It’s classical. I think it’s Ravel. I ask Bill.

         “Very good. Yes, I chose Ravel, well, I chose that roster of Frenchmen, you know, isn’t this our Belle Époque?” Maybe it’s yours, Bill, but I remain neutral. I’ll leave Belle Époque for Monsieur Proust. I smile at Bill and then check out René. He looks content, but he isn’t bothering with the music or the Belle Époque thing. I think he’s zoned us out. Are we being boring? Yes. He takes a sip of his wine and smiles at me. I’ve been caught staring. What can I do but raised my glass to him in a toast.

         How old is René? I think he’s a least half our age. No, much younger than that. And yet he’s at ease with us. But then I’ve always noticed how at ease European kids in general are with older people. Don’t American teenagers always have that look for older people that says, Why aren’t you dead yet?

         This time our stewardess – I finally get her name tag: Bérénice, quite an unusual name in France – arrives with a tray. Three platters. Oh, gods, what is this, a joke? It’s burgers and fries. There’s a little paper US flag impaled in each burger.

         Bérénice is off. “America the Beautiful,” states Bill with a chuckle, eyes dancing before they land on me. He raises his glass as if toasting the paper flag.

         René says, “Looks good.”

         Right. It’s no Burger King thing. The flag is holding the rather stacked layers in place. “Let’s have a taste,” declares Bill. He reaches forward and picks the burger up in two hands. No fussy European knife-and-fork method. I see René taking note. Bill bites down. Bits of tomato and Romain lettuce and sliced red onion slip onto the plate. He chews; his eyes light up. And then he swallows and sits back. “Delicious. The meat is veal. The mayonnaise is truffle. I think that’s the Big Apple that awaits us. What do you think?” I ignore his question and grab hold of my burger. I’ll try and be a bit more fastidious. I bite in. Failure! Bits fall out for me too. But, yes, it’s tasty as hell. A true gourmet burger. I see René is copying me. But he beats me. Only a bit of onion slips out. Bravo, René. The veal is slightly rosy. I put the burger down on the plate while still chewing and pick up a frite with two fingers and pop it in my mouth. I then take a sip of the Saint Joseph. I announce now to Bill that it’s “delish,” and it’s fun. “Fun,” he echoes back. He also has been watching the dexterity of René with the burger. “René, you’re such a gentleman with your burger.” René looks confused and almost seems to panic. “I mean, you are so fucking neat!” Bill bursts into a belly laugh. I try and signal with a smile to René that all this is a compliment. It works. René grins and pops a frite into his mouth, imitating myself.

         Bill and I make no concessions to European manners. When we are through, within seconds of each other, everything is a mess, especially our hands. “Who cares?” Bill pulls the large white linen napkin off his lap and cleans up: hands, mouth, chin. I start laughing; I’m doing the same thing. René of course has been impeccable; he ate everything with knife and fork. He doesn’t need to clean up; he glows in his superiority. I grant it to him. I tell him he’s in for a rollercoaster ride in New York when we go for slices of pizza: no knives and forks. He grins; he knows.

         Of course, he knows: TV has taught him everything he needs to know about American habits, and now there’s Instagram.

         “Now that we’re all just big kids…” Bill eyes René, “I have to confess. I could have ordered glorious desserts for us. But I didn’t. New York will have those. What I mentioned to the concierge was that I wanted to end the meal with just a nice perfectly ripe piece of Brie de Meaux. It will be glorious with the Saint Joseph. And there can’t possibly be anything like it in New York, so let’s enjoy it as a farewell to La France.”

         Bérénice is back, back with her tray, and scoops up everything. She smiles all the time but says nothing. It’s not like a restaurant where they inquire whether everything was satisfactory. And how does she know when we’ve finished? I’m thinking there’s a control desk with TV monitors for every corner of the plane. Even the bedroom? Because Bill tells me there is a bedroom, to which he and René will retire, while I’ll get to nap in an armchair that turns into a bed. It crossed my mind when he told me this that he might be thinking I’d want to jump into bed with them. No. Actually, the idea is horrifying if not disgusting. I don’t want to see Bill having sex.

         Bérénice is back. Small cheese plates, small knives and forks, and a black porcelain platter with a runny piece of brie in the middle. Elegant. Is there bread? She produces bread in a silver wire basket, slices of baguette, as if we were at home.

         Bill fills our glasses, and the Saint Joseph is gone. A half glass of wine each. Perfect.

         I take some bread. I just want to taste it. Oh, it is superb, definitely from the best boulanger in Paris: there are a couple with golden laurel crowns. Perfect nutty crunch to the crust, perfect density and lightness to the white. That done, I take a big sliced of the brie. I go first. Bill insists René go next, and then he takes what’s left. I’m going to eat my brie just with my little knife, while sipping the Saint Joseph. At every bite, there seems to be another melding of flavors, various umami moments.

         I finish and lean back in my armchair. And then I remember that we are cruising in a jet just below the stratosphere. I want to yelp: insane! I don’t. I’d feel I was embarrassing myself in front of René. I also don’t want to feed Bill’s ego more than is already happening. He’s already changed from the old friend who just got off the Eurostar and wanted a joint ASAP.

         How has he changed? It’s subtle. It could just be my reaction to the never-ending sumptuousness.

He seems lordly.

         He’s told me the name of our hotel in New York: Lotte New York Palace. Never heard of it. Guess it’s part of the new billionaire Manhattan. I don’t know that Manhattan. The Manhattan I remember had row after row of homeless people camped out and strewn over Astor Place, and stepping over and around them one night to get to some newly opened sex club. There was still AIDS. People were still dying like flies, but there was still the need and less fear because there was this invention called “safe sex.” I must have been in New York more recently, no? Because that would have been late in the last century. Where did the homeless go? Suddenly, they were gone. No questions asked. Well, someone must have been asking questions, and someone must have known how and where, but not me. And I somehow didn’t really care.

Oh, I know when that was: I went with Bill to the memorial service for a very old friend of his, and who I had met and even stayed in his loft once. Was that the same time as my Astor Place experience? Or a later time?

Anyway, that was the last time I set foot in Manhattan. I agreed to hook up with Bill at Heathrow and fly over with him. Yes. But I think we were only there for thirty-six hours. We stayed in the loft. Memories. Final memories, because it would soon be sold for a hundred times what our friend had paid for it. Bill melodramatically had referred to our trip as our “Farewell to an Era” trip.          So, what were we going to find now in Manhattan? At the Lotte we would be in a suite in the tower. From the windows, the city would be at our feet. I looked at the website. I don’t know this New York.