LaGuardia. We’ll be landing in LaGuardia. I wonder if it’s still that Deco airport. There’ll be a limo to whisk us into Manhattan, in maybe twenty minutes?

I move halfway onto my left side. This bed-armchair thing is very comfortable. The wine has kicked in. A nap after lunch. There was TV on the back of seats. I could have done a movie. No. At least, I thought, let’s give a snooze a try.

Bérénice had made up my bed. The boys had decamped to the bedroom. Bill had insisted on showing me the bedroom. Okay, it was indeed a small bedroom, king-size bed, its own bathroom. Mediocre, I thought, except that it was all on a jet over the Atlantic going a zillion kilometers an hour. Enjoy, guys.

René gives me this look. Does he “fancy” a threesome? I’m hallucinating. Why? René is along for the ride. This trip is for him. Bill is treating him. No, wait, it’s me that’s along for the ride. No, René is enjoying what he’s being offered, which is not the same as being along for the ride. Yes, this trip is for him.

At first, the thought of zipping off to Manhattan was not attractive. Because? Because I’d be tagging along with Bill showing René New York City, plus there was nothing about this Manhattan that attracted me. People? I don’t know anyone who lives there anymore. Opera? Museums? That made me giggle. You can go to Paris, Berlin, Milan, Rome, London, even, and you’d go to New York City for The Arts? Yes, back in the days of Andy Warhol.

Why did Bill want me along? Because he did want me along. He has a strategic reason, I can tell that, but I can’t quite fathom what it is.

Still, I am curious. I’m curious about the hotel. How will it feel to be in a penthouse between Fifth Avenue and Central Park? Manhattan at your feet? Partaking in the billionaire Manhattan that displaced just about everyone I used to know? So, I’m, what, curious to flip onto the enemy side? Yes. With Bill, never giving a second’s thought to the cost of anything. Of course, this was tempting.

I roll over.

I think I’ve been sleeping. I can’t read the dial of my watch. Too dark. Well, vaguely. I’ve set it to EDST: We’re still in daylight-savings time in New York and Paris. It looks like the hands of my watch are saying maybe eleven in the morning? Have I slept for three hours?

My mouth feels parched.

I start to sit up. There’s a plastic cup within reach. Bérénice has left me a glass of water? I reach out. She has. I sit up enough so I can drink.

Thirst quenched, I slip back down. I’ve loosened my belt buckle so my pants shift a bit. Who cares?

Bill is looking around, slowing us down. We’re in no hurry. “Look at this! The old Deco murals all around the rotunda here. Stylized skyscrapers, a globe, seagulls. They’ve restored this. What do you think?” I think, very nice, amazing even. I’m gawking too. There are people in this terminal, but it’s not your usual airport crowds. The colors of the mural are muted but gorgeous. Ordinary people never see this, I bet.

But there are American flags everywhere, and not just as we went speedily through immigration. I think: Billionaires welcome!

All three of us are dragging our own four-wheel suitcases behind us. I never unpacked in the Meurice. Probably René hadn’t either. Bill? I don’t know. He may have wanted to take possession of the suite before I arrived. I don’t check out people’s closets.

At the exit there’s a black limo. And more American flags. The limo is one of those Dubya SUV types, when after 9/11 he went on his warpath. I’d pictured a long white thing. No. No one’s getting married. Plus, I bet that’s the old style. You see them sometimes in Rotterdam: weddings. Yeah: vintage.

The chauffeur jumps out and takes control of our bags, having opened the rear door so we can get in. He repeats the name of the hotel to Bill; he’s making sure. His outfit is much like Jean-Pierre’s. He looks Latino. He’s not as handsome as Jean-Pierre and he’s a lot older, but he moves fast.

There we are on ramps, highways, in heavy traffic, veering carefully, surely, entering the intense bowels of Manhattan, riding over the heads of the peasants living in Queens. Or maybe they aren’t peasants. Maybe that’s where you can afford to live on a middle-class salary, paid to service the billionaire elite.

I’m getting too political. I have no idea. Everything sort of looks the same, but I know nothing is the same. The highway is still in ramshackle shape. That has not changed. It’s brutal and ugly.

René is peering, gawking out the window. We’ve descended a ramp and entered the chasms of Manhattan. Yes. It is intense and still impressive. There’s nothing anywhere in Europe with the same machine-like intensity. Serious traffic, but moving. It’s not Cairo. I glance out my window. More American flags; I don’t think this is a US holiday. Bill is sitting in the middle: Emperor. “Manhattan still looks like Manhattan,” he says into my ear. Sirens. A fire-engine bleats through the cocoon of the limo. “And the city is still on fire.”

“Oh, wow, it’s just like in the movies,” says René, still staring out the window. Bill and I both laugh.

I’m thinking Times Square. Pure Disney now and pedestrianized even the last time I was here for that memorial service. Everyone told us to have a look, so we did. It spoke to us. Bill kept laughing. Well, it was funny to see it so sanitized. “We always avoided Times Square when I lived here. You could get mugged in broad daylight.” He might have been exaggerating, but I couldn’t be sure. I was still living in Paris back then. During that quick visit we never once went down into the subway. We were advised to take a taxi. There were plenty. They were cheap. So, we got the idea that friends who still lived here had abandoned public transport for a reason.

Now, we don’t have any friends here. At least, I don’t have any friends here. Have I asked Bill? “Now that you mention it, one. I have one. A former UN colleague. Stayed in touch because he would come over to London. He’s selling real estate now. I WhatsApped him. He’s expecting me to announce my arrival. He wants to show us around, he says. I think he’s good at real estate. I think he’s made a million. He retired from the UN as soon as he could get some pension. Never looked back, he said. And he’s found a sex scene that meets his tastes. He used to frequent the Mineshaft.” I quip that his friend is a survivor. He’ll be able to write bestselling memoirs. Bill chuckles.

René turns: “I’ve heard of the Mineshaft. I know a little about New York gay history.” I think then that Bill and I both have the same expression on our faces. History? Little twirp, casting us as living samples of history. Perhaps that’s not why Bill has that look, but it is what I’m thinking. “A lot of good friends died, René.” I’ve never heard Bill do his somber pedant voice.

René panics. He opens his mouth to probably apologize.

“Just saying.” Bill pats his knee. René looks past Bill to me. Why? I give him a smile. That’s what he wants. He switches back to gawking out the window.

I’d have to turn the clock back to when I was fourteen and my grandfather, a year after my grandmother died, drove me down to New York to stay at a hotel that no longer exists: The Hotel Taft. My grandparents would stay there and go to Broadways shows. I suppose it was the 1930s. They would take that train. They loved New York. They went to supper clubs. They went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. My grandmother’s stories always made her eyes light up. They both liked having fun. My father and his buddies would drive down to New York before he got married: These were things he would mention as weapons against us to make us fidget at how much he had given up for us, to become a family man. My mother would just smile and shrug; it was not much of a threat to the marriage, evidently.

So, I can imagine René’s excitement at the density of the city, its raucous traffic, the chasms the tall buildings made of the cross streets. He says nothing about all the American flags everywhere. I note to Bill that this looks like Madison. “It can’t be.” He is sitting in the middle so no clear vision of the city outside the limo, not like René and myself have. “We’re heading downtown, I hope. Madison Avenue is one-way going uptown.” Okay. He is the New Yorker. “I think this must be Fifth Avenue.” Of course. We’re driving past the square with its fountain that is in front of the Plaza. I remember the Plaza Hotel. I was put up there for a couple of nights once on a business trip. I remember it’s bar: The Oak Room. It was furtively gay, even after Stonewall. Jackets and ties. How have I missed passing Central Park and the Metropolitan? I’ve been watching René gaping at this city he has heard so much about but never seen, that’s why.

“Ha! There’s Trumpster Tower!” By the time Bill has exclaimed this, it’s gone. Out my window I see in letters incised into the granite: 712 Fifth Avenue. An office building still? Who knows.

I’m looking out my own window now and paying attention. I spot Rockefeller Center up ahead, and then the limo takes a left. It’s 50th Street. It stops at the light. Madison Avenue. And then it takes another left. Oh! I recognize this. It’s the old Villard Houses. McKim, Meade, and White. And then the Helmsleys got their hands on it. And named it their Palace as in Helmsley Palace, where the Queen Leona ruled. And then she went to jail. I’m googling. Now it’s owned by a Korean chain. Lots of renovations in the meantime.

The limo pulls up. “Oh, this looks very European,” exclaims René in a disappointed voice.

“Yes, René. Better get used to it. New Yorkers fawn over things European. But this building you’re looking at is from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. New York is not as old as Antwerp, but it does have history.”

“I know,” snaps back René. Good for him, I think. Bill pauses. He is looking for a sign from René. Some sign, but not the sign he’s probably looking for. René is pissed off. Perhaps this is the first time Bill sees that René is not his marionette? I’m surprised too, because I thought René was.

“And part of the hotel is in this older part you can see, but we’ll be staying in the tower that you can’t see, not until you get out of the limo. Let’s go.” I jump out first on the sidewalk side, next comes Bill, and then René’s feet land for the first time in his life on the ground of Manhattan. He looks up and almost says a “wow” but doesn’t. His look does. And his eyes have soared upward. He has spotted the tower part, all glass and steel, towering out of the Villard Houses, all brownstone Beaux Arts. And more American flags flapping in the breeze.

There’s no lingering. Bellboys have gotten our three suitcases, and placed them on a rack with wheels, and are now pushing them into the reception. We are lagging. We should be ahead of them. I stand, looking up to get the René experience. Lights flash, there’s a kind of flashing before my eyes, a switch to high-Technicolor that throbs, and then back to normal real-life color. Are they feeling that? It’s a jet-lag thing. I think it might be around seven in the evening for us. Not so bad. Let’s get moving, I mentally nudge them all. And Bill does.

While he’s checking us in, I gawk. Grand marble staircases mottled a golden-tan on either side going up to a mezzanine. I’d completely forgotten all about Robber Baron New York, the heavy, overelaborate opulence, the rivalry that must have been with London and Paris. And then I remember a few old-fashioned banks. But then this Robber Baron was a railroad tycoon, so more like Grand Central? René looks interested, surprised, takes it all in like a tourist in the Palazzo Vecchio. But I think if he were in the Palazzo, he would feel an awe at the frescos paid for by one Medici or another. So, we just stand there. I don’t know what to say to him. Our penthouse suite should be more to his liking. Antwerp is full of even more vaulted, turreted, gorgeous monstrosities of buildings. This is railroads, banks, and vaults of gold ingots, sober if not crushing.

Bill is taking an inordinate amount of time. Oh, he’s now talking to someone else. I bet it’s the concierge. I may be still a bit blurry, but Bill is perkier than usual. Maybe he’s taken something; he’s not averse to drugs. René has the energy of a kid in his early twenties; no surprise there.

We are escorted to our penthouse by an Asian woman in a skirt suit. She has a nice, soothing voice, but still a neutral American accent like much of CNN. I suppose she’s Korean, because the hotel is Korean owned, on the other hand, she could be US-born. She is US born. René has asked! She grew up in Long Island City. She relishes his surprise. I suppose he asked thinking she was a foreigner in New York like he was. We have our own elevator; it is a relatively long ride up. And it opens in the penthouse suite.

Bill walks in first, next René, and then me. Our hostess is behind me. They’re already in the living room as I arrive. I stop dead. I have to clench my jaw to not exclaim something stupid. Towering windows. Outlook over the tips of Midtown towers. Cobalt blue armchairs and sofas. Tan and gray rugs. Hardwood floor. White, blue, and black minimalist. Bill turns to me: “This’ll do, don’t you think?” René has moved to the windows, first one and then another.

Our hostess has excused herself, but not before pointing out the massive bouquet of flowers on one corner of the wide ebony-colored console that stretches below the huge TV. Bill thanks her and goes over to it as she lets herself out by calling the elevator. Well, it’s our elevator, so, it is still there, waiting for her exit. No calling: button pressed, doors open, and she’s gone.

There’s a card. Bill bursts out laughing. “It’s from Hany.” I’m supposed to know who that is? “The UN colleague I told you about? Wealthy Cairo family. Mansion in Garden City, which I think I’d like to see one day, not you?” I nod, taken by surprise. “He asks me to ‘call his cell’ the minute I’m settled.” He looks from me to René. “Are we settled?” He doesn’t wait for us to answer. He already has his phone out and is fingering in the number. “Hany?” He holds the phone away from his ear for a second. I can hear a woman’s voice ask him to please hold. “Ah, Hany. Who was that? Oh. Your card said to call when we’re settled. We just arrived, but we’re settled.”

And then I hear the elevator arrive again. But it sounds like it’s on another floor. Of course, there behind me is a curved staircase. Our luggage is delivered upstairs. Are bedrooms must be upstairs. The bellhop descends those very steps and announces, “Luggage, sir,” to me. Aren’t we supposed to tip. I reach for my wallet. I don’t have any dollars. None of us have dollars. We forgot to do that at the airport, I suppose, though I don’t remember seeing any exchange counter. All I have are two twenty-euro bills. I never carry cash. So used to paying with the bankcard everywhere, usually just swiping it. I give the bellhop one of the bills. He stares at it for a split second and then gives a little bow of thanks and is back up the stairs. I hear him wheel the luggage trolley to the elevator.

“Okay, but it was your idea.” Bill mouths “in a meeting” to me. Do I care? I find all I’m thinking is that I’m in a stupefying penthouse in Midtown Manhattan with only one twenty-euro bill in my wallet. I’m feeling stupid. I’m feeling almost naked. I’ve lost my grip, that’s what I feel. “Oh, good. That’s a plan. We’ll meet you downstairs at the bar at six? Okay, five-thirty. I’ve already had reservations made at what the concierge says is quite a good Mexican restaurant within walking distance of the hotel. Just like the last time. It’s going to be a challenge to get some good food here that’s not French or some other brand of European.” Bill holds the phone away from his ear so I can hear the person, Hany, laughing at the other end. “À plus tard,” says Bill into the phone and hangs up. He slips the phone into his pocket and surveys the two of us. “I you don’t object; my idea is to just keep going until we drop. In an hour a car will pick us up and take us to the heliport. We’re going to take a private helicopter survey of New York City. The sun should be going down. I’m hoping it’ll be gorgeous. As you saw, the weather is just perfect here.” Did I notice? I guess. Temperate fall weather. And, yes, I did notice the bright sunshine when we arrived.

“Wow, I love that idea, Bill. You think of everything.” René suddenly looks like an excited puppy. But he’s right there; Bill is doing great planning. It’s been a while since I’ve crossed the Atlantic, but it’s always a good idea to stay moving until it’s normal bedtime where you are. I also really like the idea of Mexican food. I haven’t had Mexican in years. “So, let’s get our bags.” Bill moves toward the stairway. There is a circular staircase off the entrance foyer. The bedrooms are up one floor? We’re in a duplex? “Let’s find our bedrooms. I think ours is to the left.” He’s already up the stairs, René right behind him. He’s pointing to a doorway at the top of the stairs. Our three bags are on the landing next to the elevator. I’m up on the landing with them now. “You go find yours,” he adds pointing right. “Our hostess should have shown us around.”

I’m going to have another grand bedroom all to myself. Did I think Bill would make me sleep on a couch?

The two of them have already left dragging their bags. I stand there. I’m feeling stunned. That funny electric color thing has hit my vision again. I take a deep breath. It goes.

I pick up my bag. It’s not heavy, and it seems silly to roll it on its wheels.

Through the door, there’s another open door on the right to a small semi-circular room with two armchairs. A small living-room? A little reading room for me? I walk straight forward and enter the bedroom, my bedroom. Huge. There are twin queen-size beds. There’s the view over Manhattan. I drop my bag down and retrace my steps. The bathroom: there’s a tub. I keep going. Now I’m checking out that little lounge room. Of course, there is a chair in my bedroom, but… now I see. It’s not a room at all, it’s a semi-circular loggia overlooking the towering living room we first entered with our hostess. Something for Juliette if not Rapunzel to perch on. There’s a low glass wall edging it, but you could do a swan dive into the living room below, a dramatic suicide. This is a bit crazy. I hear rustling sounds. I head back out to the elevator landing, and then Bill and René come out the far door. “It’s a bit big, but I don’t think we’ll get lost, do you?” I laugh for Bill. “There’s a little gym somewhere too. And there’s another floor. Shall we?” I follow him, after René. Another flight of stairs up. “Looks like a little kitchen. Another living room. I think that’s the penthouse terrace out there.” He’s looking toward the sheer curtains on the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. Sliding-glass doors? “We’ve got to go. Our helicopter ride awaits.”

A bit of a let-down: A yellow cab is waiting for us. But these are bright and roomy, and nothing like the ramshackle yellow cabs I remember. Are they electric? Maybe. Very quiet. But it’s a short hop across town to the East 34th Street Heliport.

Was it from here that there was a seaplane out to Fire Island? I ask Bill. “Yes. Took it almost every week. Those were the days when my UN salary made me a star.” Which means? That because he’s now a billionaire, he’s a star again? There’s no follow-up to this. I grin at him. One summer in the late 1970s I came over and stayed with him and went out to Fire Island Pines with him. One had roommates. One had a house. His was directly on the beach, I’m sure very fancy, but I had nothing to compare it with. Not far down was the house owned by Calvin Klein. That, I remember. It was a Friday and Saturday night thing. His roommates treated me like the Parisian I still was, even though I was obviously American like they were. Bill noted that I was a trophy for the house: a European guest, a Parisian guest. Saturday night Bill cooked. He was the best cook in the house, so he said. No doubt. Bill is still a good cook. Then for some reason you went to a disco in the neighboring Cherry Grove, not the one in The Pines. You took a drug, something on a tab of paper. You danced all night. You walked home along the beach as the sun rose. “Remember those sunrises on Sunday mornings?” I do, say I. Our reminiscence has dovetailed. Not so surprising. But for him it was a way of life. I was just a tourist. I think I flew in on a Wednesday and flew home the following Tuesday. Bill had to work. I was left to my own devices in a city where I knew no one but him. Of course, there were the bars. There were bathhouses for amusement. I had the month of August off, as was pretty much the rule in France back then. When I got home, I took the train to Saint Tropez for the rest of my vacation. Another world from the Saint Tropez of the mega-yachts of today. It wasn’t particularly expensive back then. “Do you still do Saint Tropez?” I tell him he must be joking. That gets him rollicking. René watches like we were a TV show.

And then we board and strap into the helicopter. I’ve never been in a helicopter. “You haven’t?” says Bill to me as if that could hardly be possible.

“I have,” announces René. We both look at him in surprise. “My father is a pilot. He makes extra money flying a helicopter, not much different from this one.” Okay. I learn more about René. He’s a middle-class kid. Bill doesn’t look particularly surprised, but I think he looks anxious.

“I’m doing this for René. I’m not a fan of helicopters. Or small planes. One weekend we had a close call landing on the beach at The Pines.” This was news to me. I wait for him to elaborate. He doesn’t. “What’s your flight plan?” he asks the pilot. Up the East River, circle around over Riverdale and back down the Hudson, turning at the Statue of Liberty, and then back to the heliport. “Sounds good.”

Up we go: It’s like being in an elevator without the shaft. At first. But then the pilot moves us forward as well, and we’re rising and gliding over the East River. I was last to get in and can look down and out toward the concrete and steel forest of mostly skyscrapers. René should be in my seat, but it was too late now to switch. Bill is in the middle. He has planned that, I now realize; he has overcome his fear of flying in small craft just for René. Does that mean true love is about to bloom? No idea. But they do get along remarkably well; Bill also treats René with kid gloves, never a condescending remark or intonation. Quite out of character, which then could imply that magic spell over character that only falling in love quite conjures.

And then we’re still rising as we pass the UN building. I quip something about Bill’s old workplace. René recognizes the building. “Really?”

There is a pause. “Yes. When I lived in New York, René, I worked in that building. It looks better from the outside.” René smiles back at him; there’s admiration in that smile. I’m watching this interplay between them. I glance away to look at the tiled glass wall that is the UN, quite remarkable, if not cutting-edge architecture for the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Very early fifties, I think. There was already the Cold War. Stalin still lived, the survivor along with Franco of the slaughters of the 1930s and early 1940s: Both monsters would survive and die in their beds.

Funny that Bill has not told René lots of stories about his New York life. How has he been able to contain himself? He has told René that he used to live in New York. That helped trigger this trip. I witnessed it happening.

The UN is still an impressive building, and it still leaves its mark on the skyline of the East Side of Manhattan. But there are now spires of high-rise apartment buildings unimagined even before this new century. Our penthouse hotel suite will not be alone. We were in such a hurry, but it will be something for me to gape at while the boys are “fooling around” in their wing. Because they do have a separate wing of the suite, as do I.

I feel a sudden twinge of loneliness. Once I recognize it, it becomes absurd and vanishes. Here I am in this tight flying space behind the pilot; I’ll be glad for my moments alone on this trip.

The sun descends, buildings become myriad beacons of light. The sky flashes with bolts of sunset. It is gorgeous. Manhattan always has been at night but now even more. I don’t know any of the tallest spires of apartment towers. And these towers are for living, not for business like my favorite Chrysler building. Perches for the billionaire eagles: I wonder if Bill realizes that in Manhattan he would be among his own, his billionaire peers, nothing special.

I catch the top of Central Park, and then we’re up towards Fort Tryon Park. I remember visits to the Cloisters, a patch of medieval Europe in New York, oddly out of place I always thought in this patch of conserved ground of a primordial Manhattan Island, granite cliffs, and maples and pines.

No one is speaking. Does Bill expect the pilot to give a guided tour? Because he isn’t doing that. “René, below, I think, is the top part of Manhattan, and a big woodland park. Pretty soon we’ll be circling and following the Hudson River down.” René has never stopped looking out his side and looking forward beyond the pilot and then down at the now silvery East River dotted with shipping. Occasionally, he looks out beyond me to my side. The helicopter is mostly glass and steel. As the pilot gradually turns to head down the Hudson, we are included in the setting of the sun.

“It’s wonderful, Bill,” says René. He’s not interested in explanations; he’s absorbing the visual splendor of the moment. Right he is. Bill senses this and seems content to be silent.

None of us have ever had this helicopter sightseeing trip around Manhattan, but Bill and I both know the sights by other means. The Manhattan skyline is well if not over documented. Except that for both of us it has changed pretty radically. The new spires of apartment towers for one, plus the replacement for the ruins of the Twin Towers. I watched it occurring live on CNN on cable TV in Paris. Bill was still living in New York, though fortunately for him he was nowhere near the Towers that morning. Or was he still a New Yorker? When did he get his transfer to London? Was it before or after 2001? I’m about to ask, breaking the silence, and then I don’t. Bill was in London. Both of us watched the catastrophe as expats. I remember now.

Flying down and over the Hudson River is something else entirely. The East River is heavily industrialized. The Hudson is still the grand river that flows down, I think, from Canada. The route of great explorations of the New World. And there below are the Jersey Palisades, reminders of the primitive if not primeval nature Henry Hudson saw.

There’s Riverside Drive. I ask Bill whether I didn’t go with him to a party in an apartment overlooking the Hudson there? “Yes. A professor at Columbia. You have a good memory.” No details. He returns to taciturn. René has glanced at him, expecting a story, and, getting none, goes back to soaking in what he sees. I try to see the West Side as he’s seeing it. Actually, unlike the East Side, I don’t see many changes. Oh, there below where there used to be abandoned railroad sidings and stuff, there’s a sparkling new city of skyscrapers sticking out. I think and remember: It’s called Hudson Yards. There it is, a bling carbuncle gem on the once busy Hudson docks area. This is where the transatlantic ocean liners would dock, no? I never took one. There is nothing like those ships docked there now. There’s something: It looks like a navy vessel.

And then looming up out of the hole in Lower Manhattan left by 9/11 is the much argued-over tower, a clutch of slivers of glass and steel narrowing toward the top. I remember the views from the World Trade Center roof Bill took me to once, which he admitted he was seeing for the first time himself and thanked me for being a tourist. What is this called? “The Freedom Tower.” Bill’s tone is perfunctory. I wonder if there’s an observation deck. He shrugs. “Do you want to make the pilgrimage? I don’t.” He glances at René, but René is caught up in his own sightseeing. “I think after this panoramic sky view, we don’t need to go up the Empire State building or the thing they call Freedom. Dubya won.” Is Bill going to launch into a political diatribe? I could get into it, but I doubt René would be amused. Silence. Bill is now looking at the back of the pilot’s neck. I’m thinking: not as attractive as the neck of Jean-Pierre.

“Oh, wow! There’s the Statue of Liberty!” René is almost jumping out of his seat. His face is wildly lit with excitement. Yup, there she is. What’s Bill going say? Some arch quip?

“The Belle Époque’s gift to America from La Belle France. See, René? New York is full of history. There’s a small model of it in Paris not far from the Eiffel Tower. I think Eiffel was even involved in the thing himself.” I assume that’s true. René is absorbing this information with respect. Does Bill know more? Somehow, I doubt it. And in fact, he stops talking. René returns to staring at the harbor below. It is impressive. I’m glad I’ve come along.

Bill checks his watch. “Our happy hour date is in forty-five minutes.” Is he going to ask the pilot if we’re going back to the East Side Heliport? No. A smile comes and goes on his face. “I think we’ll be on time. If not, Hany can just wait. He’s one of those Muslims that loves an excuse to drink.” I’m thinking: Bill, when was the last time you saw your friend Hany? This encounter between the two of them is going to be interesting to watch. I know that not all real-estate people in New York City are barracudas, but I assume most are.

René is back, paying attention to Bill. Out of the blue he says: “Thanks, Bill, for this incredible trip. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.” I watch Bill’s reaction to René’s candid sincerity. René means this. I see immediately that Bill doesn’t know what to say. For some reason, I blurt out that, yes, this trip was memorable. Bill then turns to me and makes a giggling sound.

“I can think of earlier trips I’ve taken you on in New York that were much more memorable.” Okay, yeah. René is looking confused. He switches away from the two of us to watch the pilot land the helicopter.

I ask Bill if there is a dress code for the Gold Room. I’m implying that maybe we should change our clothes.  What I’m actually feeling is that I’d desperately like to either exchange my body for a fresher one or have a nap. I know neither is possible, so maybe if we just freshen up?

“We don’t have time for all that. I feel comfortable. René is always elegant.” René has turned at hearing his name and now he looks confused. “You look fine.” I don’t feel fine, I’m about to say. “Let’s go.”

We’re in the elevator. “Hany will probably be wearing a suit. He’s coming from work, remember? Anyway, since all three of us are wearing our blend-in Parisian look, I think we’ll be more than acceptable.” Bill, this is New York City, not Des Moines; they’re used to the European mostly black numéro. But I keep my mouth shut.

I ask him if we’re still going to the Mexican restaurant. “I made a reservation.” When did he do that? I don’t ask. Oh, something to do with the concierge, at the same time he booked the helicopter? I do ask whether Hany is joining us for dinner. “I don’t know. I’ll invite him, and we’ll see.” Bill chuckles.

We’re changing worlds now. We’re going from glass and steel, to the sculpted marble world of the Palace. And then we step into the Gold Room. Nothing prepared me for this. First, it has a vaulted and carved gold ceiling. The ornate wainscotting is gold. The furnishings are brown leather and mahogany, but it seems that everything else metallic is gold. “Right. Well named. This is definitely a gold room.” Bill says this under his breath but loud enough for both us to hear him. “Ah, I think that’s Hany seated at the bar.” I follow Bill’s eyes. Seated next to a man in a black suit is a woman in an emerald green pants suit. I think it might be Chanel, but I’m no expert on women’s fashion. She has blond hair pulled tight and upward in some kind of clasp. I know this is a fashion for women these days. Is she with him? They are separated by an empty stool. Yes, I think she’s saying something to him. I thought somehow that Hany was gay.

We move into the Gold Room towards the bar in trio. I think, first, three musketeers, and then alien European invaders. Something about the place has never made me feel less American. It is happy hour. It is an afterwork crowd. Men are mostly in suits. In the elevator down I googled the dress code and saw Casual Dress but had no real idea of what that meant. I do know that office attire in the US is no longer suits and ties. And, yes, I don’t see lots of ties on the men, but I do see suits. How is this casual? Some of the women look dressed for a very chic and expensive evening out: They do look gorgeous. The other women are dressed much like Hany’s companion at the bar. There’s a nice buzz to the place, but this is no world I know. I guess that we are the ones in “Casual Dress.” As we cross the room to the bar, I don’t see eyes flash to us. We are of no interest. We are only alien European invaders in my mind.

“Hany?” Bill seems unsure.

The man twists around and welcomes Bill with an enormously bright smile and flashing eyes: “Bill!” His shirt is open-collared, revealing black chest hairs, his cheekbones high, face lean, nose slightly hooked, classic haircut parted on the left, more the desert-Arab sort of Egyptian than the round-faced millennia-old inhabitant of the Valley of the Nile. He gets up off the square bar stool, leaps forward, and grabs Bill with this bear-hug thing I’ve seen American men do with each other on TV. Bill looks like he might lose his balance. Bill releases himself and then retracts and positions to give Hany the French bisous on both cheeks. He has taken Hany by surprise, but only slightly; Hany bursts out laughing. “You’ve brought Europe over with you. C’est parfait.” The woman has turned around. She is gorgeous in the way Melina Mercouri was gorgeous. She is decidedly Levantine. She could be Greek, Lebanese, Turkish. “Je vous présente ma collègue Maryse.” She holds out her hand for Bill to take, gold bangles jostling on her wrist. Is she expecting him to kiss her hand? He doesn’t. He shakes it. And then it’s our turn. Bill introduces us. I get polite smiles from Hany and Maryse, but René gets the appreciative once-over. Well, he is cute.

And then I ­– well, all of us – find ourselves in the rarefied, faintly jasmine cloud that is Maryse’s perfume. I don’t know what it is. I assume something French. Something so expensive that I’ve never smelled it before.

“Let’s get a table,” says Hany, taking control. Bill nods. He seems oddly passive confronted with Hany. Hany signals a waiter, who picks up his and Maryse’s drinks from the bar and leads the way to a table in the furthest corner from where we entered. Maryse slips elegantly off her seat onto a pair of very high wedge-heels with a strap around her ankles. I think “bondage wear” shoes; is fashion kinky again? And she seems to have no bag. Her jacket has big oversized pockets, though. Nope. I’m wrong. She reaches around and pulls a black leather bag up by long straps. I’m sure it’s designer, but it’s all meant to resemble a kind of briefcase. Of course, she’s also come from work; they work together.

The tables have straight chairs with brown leather padded backs and seats, not armchairs, and are square. The waiter sets the drinks down on one table and moves the table next to it over so that we have seating for four. There are small cream-silk shaded gold lamps on each table and a small orchid in a small tumbler of a vase. Gold everywhere notwithstanding, the décor is quite sober, not bling. I’d say it’s very banker, a thought that gets me smiling. Fortunately, no one notices me. Hany can’t take his eyes off René and asks him where he’s from. René preens under the attention. Well, why not? But I can see that Bill is annoyed.

We sit. Hany is opposite Bill and René. Maryse parks her bag on the floor, or starts to, before pulling out an armchair and sitting down opposite me, but a waiter appears with a stool and places her bag on it next to her. I love my seat. I get Hany’s profile and Maryse’s full portrait as Levantine heiress.

“And this gentleman is one of my oldest friends. We were two American students in Paris. We were roommates. Quand je vous ai rencontré ici à New-York, il vivait toujours à Paris. Maintenant, Il vit à Rotterdam.” Hany has turned his attention politely towards me. I get his full white-teeth smile. Are his eyes also sparkling? No. I get this respectful and very charming look of consideration, but the sparkle is for René. Hany has defined everything. I glance at Maryse. She is watching us with languid interest and is sipping her drink. I note it’s a Dry Martini with an olive, quite a big one served here, I see. And then I realize the waiter is standing there waiting for us three to order. I announce that I’ll have what Maryse is having. Bill chuckles and says the same. René looks confused for a split second and then becomes the third. What has Hany been drinking. It looks like a Negroni; I see an orange slice at the bottom of the old-fashioned glass.

“I hear of Rotterdam,” says Hany to me. “Lots of new architecture. Koolhaas has an office there and here in New York, am I right?” Yes, he’s right. I don’t correct his pronunciation by repeating the Dutch architect’s name. Let him be Cool House. “Maryse is my fiancée as far as the family is concerned.” He nods to her; she smiles and takes a delicate sip but says nothing. “We make the star couple of the New York real estate scene. We’re already closing in on a profit this year that might hit a billion.” Now, his eyes flash, flash at Bill. Maryse puts her glass down on the table and looks abruptly serious. “Bill, maybe we have something for you. We were discussing a few places that might suit your taste.”

“Me? You’re joking. I have no intention of moving back to New York. We’re only here to show René the Big Apple.” Bill lets out a hoarse chuckle at the Big Apple. René grins. I suppose he’s heard the term The Big Apple. I never heard it until the seventies. I associate it with I HEART New York. Bravado. The city was on the ropes, nearly bankrupt, and almost as much a mugger capital as Rio.

I ask Hany what the size of his average apartment for sale is and how much it costs? I’m playing with fire: I get an acid glance from Bill. Something in me just loves that. I wait. Hany is calculating or he’s wondering whether he should bother to answer me. He knows nothing about me. I don’t think he does. I could be a billionaire along with Bill. And that’s where his mind seems to land.

“I try and seek out interesting layouts and ample spaces. That usually means an asking price of ten million and up.” I nod as if I find that instructive. René is watching me. He must know that I’m no billionaire. Bill looks pensive, and then annoyed, and then bursts out laughing.

“In my case that would be paying a fortune to be tortured.” Hany joins in his laugh. Maryse has a smile now that would rival the Mona Lisa. I ask her if she’s a native New Yorker. That gets her reacting: smile gone, replaced by contempt.

“Oh, mon dieu, no. No.” I wait for her to tell me she was born in Beirut. “I was born in Genève.” I didn’t think of that. Of course. Well-to-do refugees, rich enough to emigrate to Switzerland. She would have attended an international school. Her accent is neither American nor British. I watch her as she considers whether to tell me more. “La famille de mon père a été Ottomane.” That has perked Bill’s interest.

“Did the family take refuge in Geneva after the First World War?”

“My grandfather was not that foresightful. He moved his business to Alexandria. But they got out with most of their possessions in 1953. Pépé woke up to reality.” She laughs. What a charming, light laugh, the sort they say is like tinkling bells. So, she is Turkish or Circassian Turkish, hence the blond, which does look original. René is gaping at her.

“I’d say your family has a lucky streak,” announces Bill. Hany laughs and Bill joins in. Maryse smiles, shrugs, and then joins in the laughter, before taking a sip of her Martini.

The waiter arrives with Dry Martinis for me, Bill, and René. They are ice cold, and the glass is nearly frosted. The waiter looks at Maryse’s drink. She is looking at how frosty cold ours are. “Can you get me a fresh Martini as cold as these? Right now?” Her “right now” is an order. The waiter glances across the room at the bartender. Have they communicated?

“Certainly, Madam,” he says. What kind of accent is that? It’s not American. He’s fairly tall, lean, and with coal-black hair trimmed short to the scalp on the sides and wavy at the top: the international fashion of the moment. It could be Bulgarian, something Slavic. And he’s gone.

We’re now confused. Can we toast now, or should we wait until her fresh Martini arrives. Hany decides for us. He raises his glass. Great. Now we can raise ours. I’m dying for a first sip.

My tongue and then my whole mouth is frozen and then just as quickly melts. This defines ice cold. It is very dry. It is flavored either by an unknown dry vermouth or a mix of herbals I can’t quite put my taste buds on. I announce delicious.

“Yes. This is very good. But Maryse…” And then the waiter arrives with her new one. She picks it up as the waiter moves away, gives each of us a mini-toast, and then takes a sip. She puts it down and then, out of her bag, she produces an iPhone that her whole hand can barely grasp. She takes a selfie of herself and Hany, and then she and Hany are up and behind us as she manages to take another shot, which I suppose includes the three of us in full jetlag. “Nice!” she proclaims and then proceeds to do something on the keyboard with her emerald-green talons, her fingernails. “Sent.” She is back in her chair and takes a sip of the Dry Martini. Hany is back in his seat.

“We’re now on Instagram and TikTok. Maryse is also an influencer with thousands of followers throughout the Middle East.” Maryse takes another sip. I expect her to add to Hany’s information, but she doesn’t. “New York fashion. And also lifestyle. She brings in a certain Gulf State clientele.” I’m expecting his grin to turn into a chuckle, but it doesn’t. This is all very serious. I bet. I’ve never been around influencers or paid any attention to the scene, but I know it is a big deal. Bill looks annoyed.

“Maryse, did I give you permission to put me on your feed,” Bill knows the lingo, “because I don’t want it. Please, no more.”

“Oh, it’s just the five of us… with no further information. I’ll keep my followers guessing.” And then I witness the magic of her tinkling laugh. Bill melts. No harm done.

“I’m surprised you’re staying in this hotel. I would have expected you at the Carlisle, or the Sherry Netherland. Maybe the Plaza?”

Bill bursts out laughing. “You don’t seem to believe me that I’m just here to show René New York. Why would I pick one of those old-money hotels with all that European influence? Have you seen our penthouse here?”

“I’ve seen pictures. It’s on the Internet. Don’t you think of poor old Leona Helmsley staying here? You were still a New Yorker back then.”


Hany smiles as raises his Negroni in Bill’s direction. He is drinking very carefully and sparingly. Bill has already down half his Martini. I think I need to catch up to Bill. Aren’t we going to dinner at that Mexican place soon? I mention dinner.

“Oh, you don’t want to go there. I can get you a table right now at Per Se.” Maryse takes a sip and waits for Bill to answer.

“I like Mexican, and it’s been a while. This one is highly recommended, and we can walk there in five minutes.”

“But Per Se, mon cher Bill. Il faut le connaître. And you know, it is American cuisine at its cutting edge?” Ah, she’s picked up that habit of ending everything with a question. At least she hasn’t adopted the machine-gun sharpness I’ve heard come out of American businesswomen on TV. But really, I think she’s flaunting her influence. Surely, this is a restaurant that you have to book weeks in advance. “Let me call for you. Hany and I will come along, too. It’ll be a table for five.” She produces her phone. Bill shakes his head firmly. She gets it and puts her phone back in her pocket. I’m feeling slightly disappointed. I’d have liked to experience Per Se myself. She suddenly picks up her glass and finishes it. “Dans ce cas, je vous souhaite une excellente soirée. I have an early morning.” She’s up on her feet and bending down to kiss Hany on both cheeks. She turns to us and gives a little wave of her fingers. She grabs her bag, and the strap goes over her shoulder. We stare after her as she walks out of the Gold Room almost as if it were a catwalk, but without any of the ungainly exaggerations. She doesn’t look back. She’s gone.

And, with her, the cloud of elegance that was her perfume. Now, sitting cattycorner from him, I can smell Hany: Terre d’Hermès.

“Well.” Bill gives Hany an angry look. “I bet she’s a killer in the real-estate biz.”

Hany shrugs. “She wouldn’t have pulled strings at Per Se for just anyone.”

“Sorry. I made other plans.” Bill checks his watch. “I was able to get a table because we’re dining early. Our table is for seven-thirty. Already that will have us eating dinner at one in the morning. You’ll join us, of course. I reserved for four.”

Am I mistaken or is Hany checking the state of his stomach? He’s hesitating. “Mexican?”

“I dare say, gourmet Mexican.”

Now he’s looking at René. René is smiling, takes a sip of his Dry Martini, “This is a strong drink. I know it’s famous. New Yorkers drink Dry Martinis, right?”

“New Yorkers drink anything,” states Bill. I second that. We all laugh. “But I think when we’ve finished this, we should hold off. I’m sure the restaurant has amazing margaritas.”

“I love margaritas,” yelps René. He is a puppy dog now. Hany launches a grin at him, maybe an Egyptian grin, because he is trying to do a Sphinx number, but he is failing. I can see he would like to have a nice bite out of René.

“Bill, how could I refuse such an invitation. And it’s been so long. How long? We’ve been in touch, but when did you transfer to London? I haven’t seen you since then.” Instructive, I think: So, Hany was quite a bit younger, probably full of the allure that René now has. Is he even in his fifties? I can’t tell. He’s certainly nowhere close to the usual retirement age: What was the business Bill said about Hany arranging things with the UN before going into real estate?

Bill checks his watch again. It’s an unassuming watch. He has not gone Rolex or Patek. “It’s going on seven. How’s your drink, Hany?” I don’t think Hany has taken more than one sip of it since we moved to the table. It must be watery. He picks up the tumbler and nearly finishes it. Bill laughs. “I didn’t mean to hurry you.”

“You know, Bill. I’m not much of a drinker.”

“Your father liked his birra kebira, am I not right?” So, Bill has been to Cairo, has visited Hany’s family, probably with Hany. When was this?

I ask. “Hany invited me to his family home in Cairo before I moved to London. They were very gracious. His father knew someone in Antiquities. We had to get up at dawn, but we saw the Pyramids before the tourists arrived in all their buses. Sunrise. Gorgeous.” I bet, I say. Hany is looking nostalgic.

“My mother still lives in the house. It is much too big for her now without Baba, but where would she move to? She’s always lived in that house. If you ever go to Egypt,” he says now to me, “you must let me know and you must stay with her. It’s a beautiful old house. Not rundown like so many are.” I thank him. I have no plans to visit Cairo, but he is very generous. “Fadlak,” he says, as if I know what that means.

Bill eyes me. “We’ll go to Cairo. I’ll take you. I’ll arrange a time when Hany is there. We’ll make his mother very happy. She loves people. She loves parties.” Sounds wonderful, I say. I take a sip. The Martini has long ago lost its icy edge, but it’s still delicious. I look at Bill’s glass and then at René’s. I should hurry up.

Bill signals the waiter. He’ll charge everything to the room. I’m wondering if this is possible. Bill gives him the suite number. Is he going to ask for some kind of ID from Bill? No. He does ask for Bill’s full name. Is he checking something on his phone? Well, of course the bill. Doesn’t Bill have to sign something. Ah, yes. Another waiter appears with a paper bill and pen on a tray. Bill does have to sign something.  Couldn’t I have done that? How would they know?

Both waiters are gone. Bill looks at my glass and at René’s. Empty now. His is empty. Bill examines Hany’s glass. “It’s just a bit of colored ice water, Bill.” Bill stands up.

As I walk up Madison Avenue with them, I think that not much has changed on ground level. Even in the worst of times, this part of Manhattan was usually clean and in repair. Well, maybe not the streets: pothole city. Bill and Hany are walking ahead. Hany is gesticulating, looking very eloquent, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. René is dawdling. Of course, this is his first time with his feet on Manhattan pavement. He pauses to look up and around. The bleat of a firetruck roars closer, becomes deafening, stops René short to watch, and then speeds off down Madison Avenue. “Is New York always on fire?” I tell him, no, that no one really knows why there are always all these fire engines, ambulances, police cars, except that it’s a big city, and stuff happens. He laughs.

When we left the hotel, he noted that Saint Patrick’s Cathedral looked weird and then explained that it was because of all the skyscrapers around it. What he saw was the gothic back of the church and the chancery. Yes, out of place now, but it probably fitted in with the Robber Baron mansions of the period when it was built. I mention that. He gets it. I explain that Madison Avenue is a code-name in the US for advertising, because it was the street where most of the agencies used to be in the fifties and sixties. Pretty soon, we’re really lagging behind Bill and Hany. I tell René we’ve got to catch up to them. I have no idea where the restaurant is. I don’t even know its name.

We catch up to Bill and Hany outside the duplex glass-windowed entrance. “How did you find out about this place? I’ve read about it in New York, but I haven’t been. Very trendy,” I hear Hany saying.

“I just googled Mexican for the neighborhood,” says Bill. Hany laughs. “It’s in the Michelin,” adds Bill. Maybe he did that later, but he told us that the hotel concierge had recommended the place.

“Is it, now?” teases Hany, at least I think he’s teasing. “You are still an American citizen, right? Just kidding.”

At this point I’m starting to feel strung out. It is one in the morning for us. René looks his perky self. Well, of course.

The entrance to the restaurant is a two story pane of glass. I think this is a mistake, but Bill says, “We’re here.”

The young male host in black shirt and black trousers (I think Zorro!) approaches, and Bill declares our reservation. We follow him up a flight of steel stairs. The interior design is stunning. I don’t know this New York at all. I like it. Upstairs the lighting is indirect, and the colors are sort of classy Yucatan, I think to myself, maybe more American Southwest rather than mariachis. I know: This is Mexico City, the millionaires neighborhood. I saw a documentary after the earthquake there; I don’t think the millionaires were much affected by Mother Nature’s urge to heave. Has that volcano Popo-something erupted lately? Did the documentary say it had lots of little eruptions constantly? I’m not going to google. We’re led to a very large, black-slate (I think, but it’s totally smooth), comfortable table, with one side a banquette and the other, two armchairs. I take a banquette seat. I don’t feel like waiting for Bill to assign seats. I’m sensing that I could be cranky. Will a margarita help? Anyway, no one seems to care where I’ve decided to sit.

We’re handed menus. I think the prices must be in pesos, the numbers are so large. But I know it’s dollars, millionaire-New York dollars. Why do I care? I don’t. I know Billionaire Bill is paying. But for some reason these astronomical prices are more jarring to me than those at either Meurice restaurant. Is it because these are dollars, the currency of my birth?

“Have you ever eaten Mexican food, René?” asks Hany. Bill and René are side-by-side on the banquette. Hany is seated opposite René.

René looks up from his menu. I think he looks a bit dazed: It is late for us. “Antwerp has lots of Mexican food places.” Bill looks deflated. René seems to sense that: “But nothing upscale like this?” René adds a smile to his interrogative. I can’t remember ever hearing him speak this brand of English. I know: It’s TV English.

“Ah.” Hany looks toward Bill. “Can I treat us all to their magical margaritas?”

“I thought you didn’t know this place.” Bill is looking tired. We all should have gone to bed, except that, yes, it is too early, New York time, and we need to push our envelopes to overcome jetlag.

“There are two places downtown.” Does Hany live downtown? I ask him. “Tribeca.” Oh, yes, the loft-chic downtown that I really know nothing about. “I love Tribeca, but, Bill, I’d like to show you a few places you might like here in Manhattan. Can I take you all to lunch and then show you around? Seeing the best living available in Manhattan will open your eyes, you can bet on that. And it will give René a chance to see the good side of New York.” I’m stunned. What is Hany talking about?

“Hany, I have no intention at all of moving back to New York City. The very idea…” Bill is looking angry but has paused so as not to be offensive.”

“But will you be my guests tomorrow?” Hany is fixing Bill with eyes that have the power of a cobra over a pussycat; he has had practice and is used to winning. I see Bill flail. He’s tired. I guress he hasn’t made plans for tomorrow, much to my surprise.

He caves. “That’s very kind of you, Hany.”

I feel the waiter hovering behind us. None of us have paid much attention to the menu yet. Is he going to barge up to the table? No. He backs off. I give this restaurant a point!

Hany lurches around, his arm hitting mine. “Waiter! Four of your great house margaritas!” So, Hany also sensed the hovering waiter. Of course, Hany is not jetlagged. Hany has us all in the palm of his hand. I feel like putty; I don’t care. Bill looks tired but resigned. René suddenly looks super alert. I see that he’s almost mesmerized by Hany, or am I exaggerating? For Bill’s sake, I’ll chalk it up to Hany’s upper-class Egyptian allure. He is something else. I catch myself hoping we do make that Cairo trip. No, that trip was just Bill bullshitting. Wait! Hany is going to spend tomorrow afternoon showing Bill and us billionaire Manhattan apartments? For sale?