DEATH AND A TRANSFIGURATION

SEVENTEEN

           

I don’t know how to answer this WhatsApp from a friend back home. They want to know when I’ll be back, because they’re eager to throw a dinner party.

            I feel I can’t leave Bill right now, not until he’s had a sign of life from René.

            During our cocktails, we decided, or Bill decided, that we should have a bite in the bar. I wasn’t that hungry but knew I would be later. “You don’t want to go to bed on an empty stomach. Aren’t you a bit peckish?” Bill really has no idea how Brit his English has become.

He frowned at the menu. “We could have caviar. There are two kinds.” I demure: That should entail another kind of ritual. If not vodka shots at least champagne. “You’re right. So, what’s most intriguing?” He was back to frowning at the menu. “Something we can share, nibble at. The club sandwich is out. “I know. Let’s start with smoked salmon and then these ‘beignets de gambas’ and then the tuna sashimi thing. All at once, right in front of us.” He grinned like a kid and raised his arm to summon the waiter. “Oh, and let’s have a bottle of wine. A bottle of the Meursault. I told you. I can’t get enough Burgundy. Time for some white.” He didn’t wait for an answer from me. The waiter arrived, and Bill ordered. “That should do us for a while. Sorry. That’s okay by you?” I nodded.

It sounded so great, in fact, that it had stimulated my appetite again. I told him that. He held up his cocktail, toasted me, and erupted in one hoot of a laugh, his face round and flushed. There was this LP album cover I once owned, King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King. Bill looked like this. A bit scary. But then not. My instinct was to reach out and grab his hand lying on the tabletop. But I didn’t.

            And then his phone beeped. I jumped. It sounded like a WhatsApp. I prayed it was from René. Bill’s face went from red to pale white as he pulled the smartphone out of his pocket. And then his face relaxed. “It’s Janine.”

            I realized then how fearful he was of a message from René, because it might be a break. One of those: Thanks for all the good times.

Bill was on hold.

            I’m thinking now, as I try to figure out how to answer the dinner-party suggestion, how long will I have to wait while Bill is on hold, waiting for René? And if there’s nothing, no further communication?

            I really want to go home.

            Tomorrow I’ll go with him to see this apartment on the Place Saint-Georges. If it’s as marvelous as so many do look like they are from the outside, he’ll buy it. Actually, if he buys it, I’ll be out of his crosshairs. He’ll be totally involved with moving into it, furnishing it, changing things. Janine will come in and help. I can pop down at some point and supervise my pied-à-terre.

            He can’t possibly expect me to stay by his side while all this takes place. This will take weeks!

            I wake up. Knocking on the door. I know where I am. This room has become familiar, although I’m still living out of my suitcase. I’m somehow afraid to take things out and hang them up. This turned out to be good when we flew off to New York. Now, I think it’s my way of stating that this is not forever. “You awake?” I tell him I am now. He laughs but doesn’t intrude, doesn’t open the door to come in. “The realtor has called back. Appointment at eleven. I have the address. Jean-Pierre will pick us up and take us there.” I say, sounds good. What time is it? I can’t make out clearly what the hands on my watch tell me. The curtains are drawn. I reach for my smartphone on the bedside table. It’s nine-thirty. I’ve had an incredibly long night’s sleep. I chuckle for no reason. But I feel I can just jump out of bed now. I yell: I’ll be right there!

            It’s nice to see Jean-Pierre’s “smiling face” as he holds open the rear door of his DS for us. Le Meurice is generous to limos picking up guests. “Bonjour, Jean-Pierre. Ça va?

            “Tout à fait!” replies an eager Jean-Pierre, replete with chauffeur’s cap. If Tom Cruise wore a military cap as Top Gun, this might be Jean-Pierre. I bet Bill is showering him with money, and I have a hunch Bill paid him a retainer – right? – while we were in New York. So, even before he’d decided to buy an apartment here, Bill had taken steps to keep Jean-Pierre in his entourage. Bill was to the manor born. He has the old-money instincts of being generous to retainers. Should the sale go through, I wonder how Jean-Pierre will take to Bill’s plans to give him a room, because it is just that: a bedroom, I think, and not a little suite. We haven’t viewed the apartment yet. The Billionaire Row needle penthouse in the sky did have small suites for retainers. Or mothers-in-law.

            In the center of the round square is a white stone pedestal topped with a nineteenth-century figure seemingly reading a book. The pedestal sits in a small basin of water, surrounded by a small piked fence. “Saint-Georges, but actually it seems the area around the apartment is called Quartier de la Nouvelle Athènes.” Sounds promising. “I thought so!” Bill is seated on my right so he can spot the realtor who will be seated on a bench before the entrance. “Ah, there’s our man. Jean-Pierre!”

            Jean-Pierre stops the car right in front of the bench, and Bill leaps out. The real-estate man is already on his feet with a great smile and hand outstretched, which Bill grabs, as I sidle across the backseat and get out. Beautiful fresh air! Another sunny autumn day that, I bet, is going to make this apartment radiant.

            The realtor now shakes my hand. He is middle-aged, with longish graying hair swept back, the picture of the suave Parisian. I suspect that he only deals in the high-end real-estate market. He would wow American socialites. “On peut parler anglais, si vous voulez. No problem at all.”

            “Pour les détails financiers plus tard, peut-être l’anglais…” Bravo, Bill. English for the nitty-gritty of the finances. Bill has seen plenty of photos of the apartment already online, I know. But seeing is believing in the sense of actually walking around in the place. There would have to be something really disappointing, I think, for him to decide against buying the place. He sent me the link. I thought immediately: It’s a steal. And then I had to laugh at myself, thinking that less than two million euros was cheap.

I hope I don’t get the bends when I come up for air, and am back home and have surfaced from Bill’s world.

            Beyond the gated entrance, we step into a narrow, cobbled street – a passage – lined with tall trees, cut-stone Haussmannian apartment buildings on either side. Ghislain (a rather old-fashioned and aristocratic name, I think) punches in the code that lets us into the first building on our left. I look up. At the front end of the building is a wing that is only ground-floor and has a great terrace on it roof, looks like. Inside, he takes us up in a wrought-iron caged elevator. One floor. We could have walked up the one-flight of the expansive stone staircase, but Ghislain is showing us all aspects of the property. Down the hall to the right is a double-doored entrance. Ghislain has the key. My heart does leap then: Is this apartment going to have access to that terrace I spotted?

            Here I am, as excited, almost, as Bill must be. I did enjoy viewing all those billionaire apartments in Manhattan. They are things of beauty after all. And if the photos are anything to go by, this one we’re about to view is out of my dreams as an American kid living and working in Paris. Back in another era, another world in time. I know that. And maybe this is what has just recently hooked Bill. This is a quite different Paris now, but unlike Manhattan it has not sold its soul to the devil aka Wall Street. Not totally. I flash back to that sado-maso theory I hatched in my last day in New York.

            Or – I’ve just had this flash that may be insight – in his exuberance after the success of our lunch, which surprised even me, I now see that he wanted to keep the lunch, the mood going, by visiting the Musée Moreau, whose paintings were close to psychedelic madness in their frenzied symbolism, gorgeous things that they continue to be, and then, further, to reverse earlier rants – prejudices that the great world cities, New York, London, and Paris were dead – by deciding to live here in the Nouvelle Athènes close to this escape into delirium that I’d inadvertently found for Bill. I’d succeeded in diverting him beyond my wildest expectations; I had provided this virtual snort of cocaine to escape the reality that René was gone, probably forever, from his life. In my frantic attempt to avoid dealing with his morosity when he returned from putting René on the Thalys at the Gare du Nord, I had actually succeeded in helping Bill cope.

I have been successful beyond my wildest expectations.

Except that now I find myself excited at the idea of a possible Paris pied-à-terre. Which is a version really of moving in with him: my great nightmare! 

Ghislain unlocks the door, pushes it open, and gestures for us to go in ahead of him.

            Bill does and then steps aside suddenly so that I’m the one going first through this somber hallway with a light at the end of its tunnel. The light is – and then I’m there – a spacious, high-ceilinged, radiant, grand salon, with all four of its walls edged in ivory-white wainscotting framed in a lettuce-green. Its walls are white, and facing me are floor-to-ceiling French double windows looking out into the trees of the passage, the broad alleyway we’d taken to access the building. I stand stunned. Bill moves up behind me and then steps to my side. “Well!”

            From where I’m standing, the broad fireplace mantel is either painted wood or white marble, carved in Doric pediments. The herringbone parquet floor is dark honey colored, no doubt original to the house, and in glossy condition.

            Double-doors are open to my left, opening onto a dining room. I leave Bill and walk into that room. Another Greek-revival fireplace and a bank of windows with leaded-glass panes also looking out, of course, onto the passage. This room is even more beautiful.

            Bill is once again by my side. “Got to see the bedroom and kitchen, of course, but this is it. Right? I’m buying this place.” I turn to meet his grin. He’s got me. What can I say? I can’t hide the fact that I find this place stunning in every sense. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

            Ghislain is now standing in the dining room with us. He’s smiling. Of course he’s smiling. He knows he’s made a sale. “C’est 1880. La Belle Époque a commencé.”

            The bedrooms are spacious and in keeping with the living and dining rooms. The kitchen is what realtors call “cuisine Américaine,” which means modernized with dishwasher and ample space, though not as splendid as the kitchens in the windows of the stores the other night on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The extra surprise is that there was a service apartment in the top floor where there were traditionally maids’ rooms, chambres-de-bonne. Jean-Pierre could have his own little apartment. There is nothing missing: Bill will have everything, including a place for his chauffeur. There is private parking within walking distance.

            I stand at the living room window looking out on the passage, listening as Bill, now in English, makes the arrangements to finalize purchasing the apartment. I look down from the branches of the trees still golden with leaves that are just ready to fall but not quite yet. The passage is a microclimate. The cobblestones are almost immaculate. This feels so unreal, an example of a modern fairytale, and yet I am overhearing that it’s happening. Bill will have a residence in Paris, one of the three cities he cited as dead.

            Bill and Ghislain shake hands downstairs out in the passage. “Bonne journée, Messieurs.” I then also shake Ghislain’s hand, and off he goes leaving us to enjoy the calm beauty of this garden alleyway. Bill pulls out his smartphone and begins texting. Finished, he puts the phone back in his pocket.

            “I’ve given Jean-Pierre the day off. Let’s try and get some lunch at Le Bon Georges?” Yes, maybe. But to just walk in now? “We can try.”

            A press of the button and the gate clicks open. We’re suddenly in the city, a bus passes by, there are other pedestrians to dodge, and there are the sounds of cars, city noises. We’re not far from the restaurant.

            “Désolé, Messieurs.” The restaurant is packed. I turn. Bill shrugs. He doesn’t seem crushed by this rejection. We both look around. Plenty of other places. And I spot a café a few doors down advertising plat du jour. I point it out.

            “Oh, that looks better, actually. Not so crowded. We can sit inside and talk.” Talk. Right. I’m going to be consulted, finally. It’s too cool to eat outside. Only smokers are eating lunch on the terrasse.

            Bill holds the door open for me. I like this place. Cleanly modernized: red plush seats on bent-wood chairs. I spot a table in the back and head for it. No banquettes: a table and two chairs. Still, I take the chair facing the wall; Bill will sit facing me, looking out across the café to the street outside.

            Bill sits down as I’ve planned and looks around. “Fresh.” I think so. “So…” A waiter in normal street clothes and no apron arrives and hands us menus, and he notes the plats du jour on a chalk-board. He asks if we want an apéritif. Bill looks toward me. I shake my head. “Mais…” Bill has already spotted the wine list. “Une bouteille de votre Gevrey-Chambertin. Et un plateau de votre charcuterie d’Auvergne pour commencer.” I think the waiter is a bit startled at the pick of this high-end Burgundy on their list; he gives a little bow and is off. I’m surprised that he’s ordered the charcuterie platter without asking me, but I have picked up on the fact that this café has Auvergne connections. It will be good. And suddenly I’m starving.

            The waiter is back and uncorks. Bill tastes and smiles his accord. I’m poured a glass and Bill’s is topped up. I taste. Ah, luscious, but it needs a bit more air. “Give it five minutes.” I nod. “So,” Bill leans back in his chair. His eyes once again survey the café, survey the world, survey his domain, and then come back to me. “You like the apartment, I know. But I think you’re also surprised.” I just grin. “It all started when Jean-Pierre picked us up at Le Bourget. The drive in was familiar; I felt at home. And then we just sat and had breakfast. That also gave me this home feeling. I could also picture René settling in here in Paris.” My eyes must have betrayed my dismay. “I know. René is gone.  I don’t know if he’s gone forever.” Pause. Bill has been leaning forward but now sits back, as the waiter arrives with the plateau de charcuterie: slices of various kinds of sausages, a slice of pâté. A basket of sliced baguette. We both look down at the array of things set down between us. I don’t wait. I fork a slice of saucisson. Rich, a bit salty, then a pepper corn, I chew. I take a sip of the wine: yes, opened up. What a luscious combination this is. Bill starts with the pâté. He also sips some wine. His face brightens. “See? Here we are. We just stop in at some random café and look what we’re eating. This is why I’m moving here. It doesn’t hurt, too, that I know the city, that I have memories here. You must feel that too, no?” I nod. Of course I do. I always like coming down to Paris. I remind him that I do so at least once a year. “In London, I got out of the habit. Even after the Eurostar started running. You might expect that it’s because I got caught up in the London sex scene. The Hoist. And, okay, you’d be right. Now? I’ve moved on…” And you’ve also suddenly inherited a fortune that must have rocked your foundations. I think that phrase through first and then I say it. “You’re right. You know, when I had that joint with you and sat facing you and looking at that Rotterdam street, I thought, I own the world. No. No, I didn’t think I owned the world; I thought I can do anything that pops into my mind. But you know, neither thing is true.” He forks a piece of saucisson now. “Oh, this is good. You were right to start with the saucisson.”

He stops talking so he can chew leisurely and taste. Another sip of Gevrey-Chambertin. I toast him and take a sip. I’m getting crazy spoiled with these amazing wines, I state. He lights up. “That’s my idea. I want to spoil you. I want to share. Fantastic apartments, great wines, fine dining? There nothing without someone to share them with. You know that.” I almost say, I can imagine, but then I just smile. I’m sensing a trap. Bill is not the big bad wolf, but, again, I resist the idea of sharing my life with him. I throw caution to the winds and ask him if he’s given up on René. “No. No, I may still love René. I certainly like René very much. And,” he grins so that I spot a piece of sausage stuck between his teeth, “he’s made me enjoy sex again. He’s very cuddly.” I saw that and I almost say that I saw that, but then I just smile, happy for Bill’s look of happy memories. “René. He’s just a kid. Do you think he’d want to spent the rest of his life with me? I mean, as long as I’m still around? Give or take another thirty years or so? He’d be fifty.” Bill pauses and looks in shock. That makes me grin at him. This is just not news. “But, you know, us? We’ll probably pop off around the same time.” I make a grim face. He snickers. And then he takes another sip of the wine, grabs the bottle, tops up my glass and refills his: He’s already done a glass of wine.

He takes a sip and positions his glass carefully back on the table; he has an expression of precision on his face. He looks up slyly: “You do know that a pied-à-terre means just that, right? I’m not expecting you to move in, move to Paris, spend the rest of your life with me. Right?” I try and take this in stride. I grin back at him. He grins cautiously back and then looks away. “We should make a final dent on this charcuterie. What are we going to eat next?” He opens the menu back up. “Boudin noir.” I’ve already seen that. I want the same thing. He chuckles. “As ever.” Yes, we usually want to order the same thing. “And why not. Don’t fight it.” He eyes me. This is supposed to have deeper meaning.

            The waiter arrives to take away the ravaged plateau de charcuterie. “Messieurs.” Bill orders for both of us.

            “By the way, do you know what espelette is? The boudin noir is with espelette.” I tell him it’s a mildly hot Basque pepper. “Ah, fuck! Biarritz! Let’s not forget Biarritz!” I quip that we’ve gone full circle. “What? Oh, right. Was that before or after I smoked the joint? Kidding. I’ve never been to Biarritz, have you? Or did I already ask you that?” I have. And I remind him that he had held it up as a paradise for old money and bon ton. “I haven’t changed my mind. You have new info?” I tell him that some Russian oligarch had bought a house there. It was empty most of the time. Finally, it was attacked by a mysterious mob. “Oh? That sounds just my kind of place.”

            The boudins noirs arrive. Bill bends down to sniff the aroma. “I’ve always loved this, even back in the day.” I remind him that “back in the day,” we ate it also because it was cheap. “I don’t think it was particularly cheap on this menu.” It’s still cheap in the supermarket, I tell him. He pauses to reflect. “But this one has a pedigree. A producer’s name is attached to it.” He tops up my glass and refill his own. Bill has become a thirsty devil. “Cheers!” I raise my glass to his. I glance at the bottle: two-thirds empty. I’ll stop him from ordering another bottle; can I do that? Is it my place to reign him in? He’s already attacked it with knife and fork. “Oh, this is delicious. I can taste that pepper thing.” Espellete, I repeat. He puts knife and fork down to toast me again: “Biarritz! Next on the agenda!” Bill, you haven’t even signed the papers and bought the apartment we just saw? I think that. I should say that, but I don’t. What’s the point? If he’s being manic, then depression could only be a stone’s throw away. I don’t want to trigger that.

            I know he’s not nearly as cool and rational about René as he sounded when we’d just sat down. He’s drinking like those proverbial fishes.

            No. I will put my foot down if he suggests ordering another bottle. It was one thing to walk him home on the Boulevard Saint-Germain after Lipp under the cover of darkness: This is broad daylight if a bit overcast. Paris skies can change quickly; there would be no golden light shining into that apartment now.

            Bill has consumed most of his boudin. I have just started on mine. I suggest we get a carafe d’eau, some water, and turn to get the waiter’s attention before Bill can say yes or no. I mouth the request. He understands and in seconds is placing a carafe and two bistro glasses down on the table. “Who ordered this?” Bill looks at it, doing his W.C. Fields imitation: a blast from our joint past. He goes back to finishing up his boudin. He takes a small sip of the Gevrey-Chambertin, and then surprises me by pouring himself a glass of water. He drinks it down in one go. He sees me looking at him. “I was thirsty.” He notices that I’ve gotten most of the way through my boudin. I love it, but I just can’t eat as fast as Bill can. Did he always eat faster than me? I can’t remember.

            Bill sits back and pulls out his smartphone. I finish up. “Hey, let’s go to the opera tonight. Bastille. They’re doing Don Giovanni. Who doesn’t like Mozart?” Is he challenging me? “You like? I’ll do it. Right now.” He begins typing frantically on his smartphone. He’s abandoned his wine glass; it’s still half full. Mine is empty. I take the liberty of pouring myself a bit more. What a treat! It is now perfect. The fruit, the depth, the dance it’s doing on my palate!

            “Done! It’s at seven-thirty. So, what’s that brasserie near Bastille? I remember. Bofinger.” I can see his thumbs moving now. He’s picked up the Generation X thumbs ability to type on a smartphone, which I have not mastered. “Oops. They close at eleven. The opera is more than three hours. How silly of them. Okay… Wait a minute.” I’m not going anywhere. I take another sip of the wine. This is better than a dessert. I hope Bill doesn’t want dessert. Or, if he does, he can have it by himself. I’ll watch. Just like I’m doing now. He breaks into a roar of laughter. “I knew it. You can reserve at Bofinger for ten-thirty. Dude, I want oysters after the opera!” I grin back. Of course. It’s his Belle Époque.

            I suppose at Bofinger they know that a reservation made for ten-thirty means after the opera. We arrive closer to eleven. They look unsurprised and graciously usher us to our table. As the waiter hands us menus, Bill orders two dozen of their assortment of oysters: There are Breton ones and various kinds from the Charentes. “Et une bouteille de Cristal.” I watch the waiter’s face as it registers delight. I’m seated on the banquette, again, the seat of the mistress. “We’re going to finally decide which is best: Cristal or Krug.” As if this was the beauty contest judged by Paris, the Greek kid, not the city. Bill licks his lower lip and grins.

            I’m no purist. I liked the #MeToo Don Giovanni. Modern day. And, really, what else was Da Ponte getting at? “I agree. Great and fun production. Gorgeous singing.” I ask him if he went much to Covent Garden. “Once. Because it was part of a party that afterwards ended up in an orgy.” Bill almost rolls his eyes. But you like opera? “I like opera. Let’s not go there. I don’t want to rehash my London life. I was another person.” Transfiguration? “You could call it that. Like New York. Like London. Paris? Really, not so much. My present theory is that money is back in Paris, and this has just added a new chapter to La Belle Époque. You know, killed by World War One?” The waiter is there. He removes the Cristal from the ice bucket in all due ceremony: wrapping and cradling the bottle in a great white-linen napkin. He pops the cork. He serves Bill. Bill tastes and nods. Can champagne be corked? I guess so. And then my glass is filled. The waiter is off, leaving us to toast. I taste. Ah, Krug? Well, I just think Cristal is different. Maybe more and finer bubbles? I offer this. “Yes. I think you’re right. It’s party champagne.” I want to but don’t add, party for millionaires. There’s no point. It’s delicious, frothy, and going right to my frontal lobes as it should. I like his New Belle Époque theory. But it’s flawed, unfortunately. The original Belle Époque had the likes of Debussy and Saint-Saëns composing music, and, well, the full gamut of Impressionists and their offspring. No comparison now.  We’ve just come from a revisiting of Mozart, not a new opera by Debussy or Saint-Saëns. Which would return Bill to his initial theory or rant, as he sat in the aftermath of his joint on the Witte de Withstraat in Rotterdam.

            Another, younger, waiter arrives with the wire stand, and the small plate of butter and small slices of dark bread, followed by an equally younger waiter with a massive iced platter of oysters. The heady smell of cold sea is in my head now, overwhelming the Cristal. “Bon appétit, Messieurs.” Off they both go. I don’t wait for Bill; I dive in and take one oyster and with the tiny fork I pick it out of its shell and put it in my mouth and chew. Spectacularly fresh, nutty. I can only guess that this one is Breton. I look over and see Bill watching me with a silly smile. He then takes an oyster himself.

            I love this Belle Époque moment. I mean: champagne and oysters? It’s almost silly. Bill has paused and opened the menu. “I don’t want their, I’m sure, fabulous choucroute at this hour, do you?” No. No heaps of boiled potatoes, sauerkraut, sausages, and porkchop. No. “Are you still hungry?” Of course I am. “Good. Let’s have fish. They have a sole meunière. I think it’s the whole fish. Let’s split that.” I nod and grin. “I can’t imagine digesting their fish and chips at this hour, can you?” Not to mention that fish and chips is so Brit, and Bill is not nostalgic for London. I agree that it’s a good choice for the hour. But I’m still eating oysters. “Oh, oysters, right. You’ve gotten ahead of me!” He starts in again. He refills my flûte de champagne and his own.

The brasserie is roaring with the clatter of cutlery and conversation.

I close my eyes. Musetta’s Waltz comes up, couples whirl around in a dancing embrace, ostrich plumes wave, ladies clutch up their bustled gowns, corks pop… I open my eyes again. Bill takes an oyster and points to the last one: “That one’s for you.”

            We walked home. We walked from Bofinger to Le Meurice. It took around forty-five minutes. It seemed like a good idea. There was a wait for Ubers, and there wasn’t a regular Parisian taxi in sight. Walking along the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine began with a great kick of nostalgia. We had lived not far from this street, were on it daily to shop for food. It was just as messy, if not ramshackle, as ever. Hardly chic. It was never meant to be, of course. Maybe when the aristocracy inhabited the grand hôtels particuliers of the Marais there was a parade of coaches, but the street itself would have been dwellings for the working class. The Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, one of the first department stores in the world, had been closed for years and revamped, and it was now a thing of chic. We could see that as we walked by. In “our day,” its sidewalks were full of vendors of cheap anything and everything. The store itself catered to a clientele on a budget. Now, like this new Belle Époque, it was back as chic. We agreed we needed to take a look at some point.

            And then it was the rue de Rivoli, the Arcade, and finally the hotel.

            I went to bed immediately.

            My smartphone now reads ten-thirty. I slip it back on the bedside table. The suite is strangely quiet, strangely, because Bill is not quiet in the morning when he enters the salon. He’s always up before me.

            I realize he must have gone to the realtor’s office and then maybe even the notary. I’ve never bought an apartment in Paris.

            Walking back to the hotel, he’d asked me if I’d stay and help him decorate, that is, help him pick out furniture. He would move stuff from London, but this apartment was much larger than the one he’d lived in there. And he loved the idea of shopping for new things. I said I’d think about it.

            I want to go home.

            I want to answer yes to that invitation to the dinner party Saturday night. I want to see my friends, resume my life, check in at work. I still have vacation time, but I want to save some of it. Plus, there is that sabbatical-year possibility.

            I have Janine’s WhatsApp. I text her: She should come into Paris and help Bill out with all that shopping. Would she? “He bought an apartment?” She texts me back so fast it’s as if she had her smartphone already in her hand, waiting. I explain. I give the address and details. “Biarritz, yes. I expected. But not this…” There is a pause. I see she is typing. So, she has more to say. But I don’t wait. I text her my suggestion. I see she’s stopped typing. She’s thinking. And then: “Of course. I’ll replace you. 😁.”  I text her that I’ll talk it over with Bill. “He won’t like me replacing you, you know. But he’ll get used to it.” I send her an emoji kiss.

            When should I tell Bill I want to leave? If I leave this evening, I can accept that invitation. No one knows that I haven’t just been to Paris but also zipped off to New York. I have stories!

            I get up. I could use some coffee, but I’ll shower first.

            Out of the bathroom, I hear noises coming from the salon and then: “You aren’t still sleeping, are you?” I start laughing. He hears that. “Show yourself then.” I tell him I’m dressing. “Oh, just put on that cheap bathrobe of yours. I have news.” I ask him to order some breakfast as usual, for both of us, if he’s in the mood. I want to dress. “Okay. Okay. Your wish is my command.” I think the image of Bill as a jinni out of a bottle is weird, but I thank him. He must have been standing right behind the door, because now I hear his voice far off in the salon. He’s ordering.

            “Aren’t you going to ask me how it went?

            I’ve just taken my first sip of café au lait after a small glass of juice. Bill is ahead of me in the coffee department. I think and then echo: How did it go?

            He laughs at me. “The apartment is mine. Well, it will be when the funds get transferred and I sign with the notaire. This is France. It will take a week or more. But, mon cher ami, I have the keys!” He pulls a mass of keys on a chain out of his pocket. We can start taking measurements.” I reach for a pain au chocolat. “Don’t eat too much. It’s really getting on to lunchtime, you know. I thought we’d just have lunch downstairs.” He takes another sip. “You don’t look too excited about taking measurements. You’re right. I’ve got to hire someone. I can’t do this all on my own, even with your divine help.” Divine? I repeat. “Yes. You’ve been my angel if not a demigod. And I’ve got even more news. News that will knock your socks off.” Yikes, I haven’t heard that expression in forty years. “I got a WhatsApp as I was leaving the realtor’s office. It was from René.” I gulp and almost choked. I am shocked. I think I really and truly thought that René was totally out of the picture. “It’s a divine sign. I immediately asked him if I could call him on WhatsApp, and then the little devil called me.” Bill looks like he might levitate from the sofa. “You know he still lives at home with his parents…” I did not. “Well, I’m tell you now. I always knew. And he was arranging a stage with a photographer he knows. He wants to learn the business, not so much to photograph himself, because he thinks that’s a long shot, but to learn how to manage a photography business. And stuff like that. I told you he has an art-school degree, right?” I tell him no. “Okay. Now you know. So, the photographer wants him to start working.” Oh? Bill smiles at me. “That’s okay. It’s not the end of the world. Did you think I wanted to have him living with me as my pet or my spouse?” I just smile. “Antwerp is two hours away by train. He’ll have an apartment in the Nouvelle Athènes to live in. When he wants…” I think I must look surprised that Bill is so cool about this. “I see you thought I’d lost my mind. You thought I’d fallen madly in love with René.” I try to be pokerfaced. “I know you did. I do love René. You’re right there. But at this point in my life, madly? I think not.”

            Those last three words echo in my head as I finish my coffee.

            I suppose he must have asked the concierge to reserve us a table when he came back, because the restaurant is packed. I also suppose that when you’re living in the Dalí Suite, you have leverage. But what do I know? The maître d’hôtel has smiled at Bill, addressed him by name, and escorted us to a table from which we can see the Tuileries. I still find that astounding. They must hold such tables for high-flying guests of the hotel.

            How am I going to break it to him that my greatest desire is to leave all this by the end of the day and go home?

            A little voice in my head then tells me I’m crazy. I’m not crazy, I tell that voice. And then I have doubts.

I don’t want to ruin lunch. I probably should bring up my departure over coffee.