I reread Bill’s WhatsApp.

This is really out of the blue.

Not that we haven’t been texting all this time.

I know he spent last weekend with René. He’s still in the Dalí Suite. The apartment isn’t ready yet, even though all his furnishings have already been moved from London into it, and all the paperwork has been “done and dusted,” as he wrote. I even know that René went with him along with the interior designer to look at furniture on the Saturday. Nice. And that Janine has come in a few times, without Serges. Serges has stated she wants to see nothing until it’s ready. She wants to be surprised.

            But Christmas in Cairo?

            This is Hany’s doing. Has he married Maryse? I imagine this is part and parcel of inviting us all to the mansion in Garden City, Cairo, not just to celebrate Christmas with Maman but also to introduce this new couple to Cairo society? Is there Cairo society? I suppose there must be. And, if so, Hany’s mother would be a grande doyenne.

            Next, do I want to go? I don’t think Bill would be asking me if René didn’t want to go. Bill wants to show René the Pyramids.

            I’m chuckling now.

            Okay, I haven’t been to Cairo in decades. I certainly have never stayed in a mansion in Garden City. This ancient bourgeois, leafy neighborhood has always been intriguing. It looks nothing like the rest of Cairo. It is a European appendage on the edge of the Nile, with an exotic, fantasy-driven combination of French and Brit architecture. I think the land it was built on didn’t exist until drained in the nineteenth century. Staying in Hany’s family mansion would be time travel to before the 1952 Revolution, back to the days of King Farouk.

            If I do go, I need to set up not just a beginning but an end. Actually, Hany is doing the inviting, so the beginning would be up to his invitation. But the end, I’m thinking, should be that I’m back home for New Year’s Eve.

            Would it be a Coptic Christmas?

            I google.

            Hopefully not. Coptic Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January.

            Hany did say that his mother was raised Coptic but became Muslim when she married his father – the paternal family was some kind of aristocracy?

            So, now I have an answer for Bill in the form of a question as to when Christmas would be. I text this back. And then put my smartphone in my pocket.

            I’m stalling.

            There’s a buzz, and my smartphone vibrates in my pocket. Bill is relentless. I pull the phone out.

            “No need to be liturgical here. Christmas as in 24 December? I’ll charter us a jet from Paris. Hany and Maryse will already be in Garden City.”

            I succumb.

            Before I can put my smartphone away, he has sent me an emoji😎.

            It’s so nice being met right off the train in a train station. I met Bill off the Eurostar when he popped over to Rotterdam, basically – I can now see – to show me his new persona: billionaire. Now, as I trundle my suitcase along the long platform into the cavernous, Second-Empire steel-and-glass hall of the Gare du Nord, I peer ahead to see if I can spot them: Bill and René will be waiting for me. Bill of course bought me a first-class set, insisting on First. He knew I would only buy Second myself. There’s more legroom in First. And I had a seat all on my own, no elbows to brush up against. It is nicer, but I never find it worth the extra money for a two-and-a-half-hour trip.

            Still, as I move with the crowd, I’m feeling that I’ve been pampered. And I know this is just the beginning.

            “There you are!” Bill steps forward and grabs me by both shoulders and gives me the two kisses, one on either cheek. He steps aside, and René does likewise, though not grabbing me. He stands back beside Bill. My mind’s eye takes the snapshot of a happy couple. They look nice together. I haven’t seen this snapshot since the day René left for Antwerp. They seem to have taken up where they left off. “I thought we’d have lunch across the street. I told Jean-Pierre to park the car in the garage here at the station and get us a table.” Oh, great idea. I like the idea of Jean-Pierre joining us. “So do I. That’s my plan, my strategy. I know he likes wearing his cap when he drives. Okay. But I want him to be part of the family.” Family? So that’s it. I feel so stupid. All this time, since his stint in Rotterdam, Billionaire Bill has been assembling a family.

            I digest this.

            Why not? A billionaire attracts, gets, an entourage. That’s how it works. There are no lone-wolf billionaires, are there? Those billionaire apartments in New York City all had accommodations for “staff.” Bill has now made it clear that he doesn’t want staff; he wants “family.” So, in this case, Bill is the head of the family? This will have to be dealt with on a play-by-play basis, I’m deciding.

            Once again, I think how fortunate that Bill didn’t decide he needed to move to Rotterdam to catch that city-on-the-way-up mood. He’d buy a penthouse in the Zalmhaventoren and throw parties from the top of the highest pinnacle of the city. He’d co-opt my friends. I’d be his Tonto.

            The three of us cross the street. I try not to dwell on the comedy of those three guys with muskets.

            Terminus Nord. Haven’t been there in a while; I try and get oysters there before boarding my train home usually. Bill holds the door open for me so that I can trundle my suitcase inside first. A young woman with a bright smile, dressed in white shirt and black vest and trousers takes the handle, and we follow her. Ah, there’s Jean-Pierre, half-standing, waving his hand at us. We’re deep in the back. Clatter of cutlery, buzzing of conversation, waiters zigzagging with round trays full of platters, others bringing bottles of wine to thirsty devotees of the three-course lunch. I always know I’m back in Paris when I enter here.

            The woman has pointed out where she has positioned my suitcase: next to a dark walnut partition where I can see it. Not that suitcase theft is a problem here.

            Jean-Pierre holds out his hand: “Au plaisir. Bienvenu.” No bisous? No, we haven’t reached that point in the evolution of Bill’s family. And then I think: Do we know that Jean-Pierre is gay? Didn’t we all think Alain Delon was gay, because we so lusted after him, when, in the end he married one woman, had kids, and… oh, Romy Schneider. I think she died.

            I realize I’m thinking of Delon, because Jean-Pierre could be his reincarnation – of course, Alain Delon would have to be dead for that to happen, which he absolutely is not. Is he? No. I don’t pay much attention to movie stars, unless news of one is blasted all over the place.

            Jean-Pierre has sat back down. A hurry-up gesture is made by Bill that I should sit next to Jean-Pierre on the banquette.

            “Right!” Bill is now grinning across the table at me and then looks up abruptly. Our waiter in black with long white apron, full brasserie uniform, hands Bill a menu, first, and then hands one to each of us. He inquires as to an apéritif. “Qu’est-ce que vous avez comme champagne?” Bill thumbs quickly through the menu and finds the list. “Une bouteille de Ruinart, Monsieur.” The waiter nods and starts to leave. “Et un plateau d’huîtres. Ah, votre Dégustation d’Huîtres… Deux fois. Ça nous donnera deux douzaines?” The waiter nods and smiles. My eyes follow his back as he leaves and then glance over at my suitcase and then up into mirrors that reflect this nineteen-twenties version of brasserie, no twisting vines sprouting lilies but luminous globes in clusters on chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

            Oysters and champagne: It’s as if I never left.

            And yet it’s decidedly December. The sky overhead as we crossed the rue de Dunkerque was a leaden gray. A cold, damp breeze has reddened my cheeks after the warm trip on the train. Funny, it’s this cold, damp Paris that is the Paris of my memory bank, not the Paris of springtime plane-tree buds or stifling heatwaves, which had always hit Paris, usually in August, which had prompted the traditional August shut-down of the city. We’re all sitting either on our coats, like Jean-Pierre and myself on the banquette, or draped over the back of chairs like René and Bill.

            But the brasserie, I realize, is an unchanging world, removed from the seasons and outside of time itself. The original Belle Époque ended more than a century ago, two world wars intervened, Paris stepped back in the artworld and New York took its place, an empire was fought over and lost, and the English language has replaced French and conquered the world.

            I think back to Bill’s rant on the death of those world cities and to his excitement about discovering and moving to Biarritz as a haven of Old Money. What has happened to the Bill that wanted to break all the rules, who pioneered sex clubs in Manhattan and London? This obsession with Old Money: Is it just exploring and solidifying his own roots, separating himself from Bling World and the Barracuda Billionaires? Something about this reeks of a deep conservatism, except maybe, in fact, this is the stuff of true conservatism, a conserving of values of the past. But what values? I know for a fact that he despises the old heterosexual norms, Reagan, and any form of religion. When I think of Old Money in Bill’s terms, I think of Yankees who wear good clothes until they fall into shreds and shun the champagne lifestyle for frugality. Puritans, really. Bill despised all that, had fled all that, left it all behind when he was a Fulbright student and my roommate. No one could ridicule those values like Bill. What did he say about clearing out his parents’ Florida condo? That he had all their stuff thrown out?

            I can picture him now, a bit stoned, on the Witte de Withstraat laughing hilariously as he described the long month in Florida that it had taken him to settle everything, empty the apartment, sell it, meet with the trustees in Boston, and then fly back to London, I suppose he thought, for good. Was it when he was then back in his London life that he turned on London? I don’t know.

            But now very unexpectedly Bill has rekindled his Paris world and extravagantly updated it to enjoy all the city’s luxuries. Without a care for the cost of anything. I imagine he sees the money there in the trust and that his duty, his job, is to spend it, spend its bottomless millions.

            And here I am: I know this person whose job this is.

            “Hey, dude! Come back to earth!” The champagne has arrived; the ritual of uncorking, tasting, pouring, and toasting. And right on the waiter’s heels comes a huge platter of oysters. We toast. I sit back on the banquette to make room for the trivet to be set down, plates of brown bread and butter placed under it, and the great platter with twenty-four oysters of four different varieties to be set down before me, before us. “A toast to these little devils!” We all laugh, our voices blending right in to the gayety of gourmands à table. Not a head turns in our direction.

            Jean-Pierre takes an oyster in two fingers and toasts Bill with it: “Bon appétit, Monsieur.” Bill does likewise. And then René goes for it. Lastly, I take one. It is huge and luscious, from Charentes, I’m sure. There are no labels. They are arranged in groups. A gourmet should know. I don’t, sadly. But Bill will keep up this life of oysters and champagne, and he will know one from the other by just tasting. Maybe he does already.

            Bill has paused to look at the menu. “Does anyone want a starter?” He surveys us. “Oh, let’s have starters. No one gets filled up on oysters. Have a look.” Bill is orchestrating. I see our waiter eyeing our table. And Bill is right. We should order an entrée and a plat. We are almost done with the oysters. I fork an especially plump and nutty oyster into my mouth, and take up my menu. Of course, there’s our old friend the œufs durs mayonnaise. One day I’ll have to try it here but not today. Escargots! It’s been ages since I had snails. Okay. Plat? Pavé de veau. Ah, a nice little veal steak. Rosé. I like it quite rare.

            I look up at Bill and announce that I’ve made my choice. Jean-Pierre follows me. René hasn’t made up his mind. “Okay,” Bill turns to find the waiter only a few steps away. He’s been waiting. We all order. The waiter takes it all down on a pad. This is no bouillon; he’s not writing it down on a paper tablecloth. I’m surprised when René also orders snails but then steak tartare.

            The waiter is off. “I thought I’d better order steak tartare here. I wouldn’t dare order it in Egypt. What’s the food like?” René is asking Bill.

            “It could be anything. I think we’re expected to have most meals with Hany’s Maman, so it will be home cooking. She has a cook, a Nubian woman as old as she is, if I remember. Excellent cook. She was trained in the old kitchens of Farouk, so the story goes. But I only remember Egyptian stews and things. Delicious. But she’s so much older now. She may have lost her touch. And then, I’m just assuming she’s still there. Anyway, we’ll see.” He looks around at all of us. Is Jean-Pierre also coming? He looks startled. “Except for Jean-Pierre. He’ll be holding the fort.” I’m thinking that the staff at Le Meurice will do that as usual, just like when we were in New York.

            Jean-Pierre drops us off at the private gate at the Place Saint-Georges. “Surprise!” Bill is now laughing at me. When did he move into the apartment? I don’t ask. René insists on trundling my suitcase. I feel old.

            The passage has a different feel: A few of the branches of the trees lining it have a few curled brown leaves, but the autumn freshness that we felt when first viewing the place has been replaced with barren black branches. But there is the beautiful wrought-iron elevator.

            “René is going to show you the room I’ve picked for you. I mean, it’s only for tonight. I’ve chartered the plane tomorrow for eleven. We’ll be in Garden City in time for a drink and then dinner.” So, this is not necessarily my so-called pied-à-terre unless I say so? Nice. As if beggars can be choosers: Is he going to give me a choice of rooms at some point?

            I follow René down the hall. Bill has not changed much. He’s kept the lettuce green edging on the white paneling. And why not? Someone at some point made this choice, and it harmonizes with the passage, especially in spring and summer, giving the place a spring-garden feel all year round.

            René opens the door for me and ushers me in first. Oh! It’s pretty big. A big double bed. It has its window on the passage. I look around. René comes in behind me. “Nice, huh?” Yes, I give him my biggest smile. Practicalities: obviously no private ensuite bathroom. “There’s a bathroom across the hall. It’ll be all yours.” I laugh. I tell him he’s caught Bill’s knack for reading my mind. “Pretty obvious thought. I mean, after the Meurice.” Right. “You’ve been to Egypt before, right? I can’t wait. I really can’t. I used to read books about Ancient Egypt when I was a kid.” Didn’t we all, I almost say. But no. I suppose that’s not true. I smile and nod. “The Pyramids!” He’s gaping. I add, don’t forget The Sphinx. That gets him laughing. Nice. “And then we’re taking this boat down the Nile to Luxor. Are you coming with us?” What? I told Bill I wanted to be back home for New Year’s Eve. I don’t react for René this way; I just show surprise. I tell him I wasn’t in on this plan. “I saw that movie Death on the Nile.” I grin along with his grin.

            For René, both Bill’s and my life would be like that movie, not for the intrigue or crime, but for its depiction of the twenties. And also, a time when the Brits laid down the law in Egypt, at least when it came to foreign affairs. Its navy was in Alexandria as Rommel swept toward the city. The book, the movie, was set in the quieter period before all that. The period I’m hoping to encounter in the mansion in Garden City.

            “I hope you’re coming along. It will be more fun that way.” What does he mean by that? He is just smiling sweetly at me. I tell him I’ll think about it. “Do you like the room? I helped Bill decide what to do with it.” I tell him he has good taste.

            René shuts the door behind him. I’m alone in “my” room.

            I sit down on the edge of the bed. Feels very comfortable. There is a low chest of drawers, mahogany, that looks around 1900. Just a guess. I only have a vague idea about furniture styles. We’d go with friends up to the Marché aux Puces on a Saturday. Bill and I both liked the furniture part, but our place came furnished, so we didn’t feel the need to buy anything. I know, in hindsight, that we could have found amazing things back then, especially Deco, for next to nothing. Our French friends all seemed to be budding antique dealers, on the other hand. It was a French gay thing back then. I’ve lost track of them. Maybe they are now all rich antique dealers. I know at least one who is. There was an article on him in Le Monde last month. He was selling up the contents of his château. I remembered the name instantly. Would he remember me? Did Bill know him? I should ask. I bet they’d hit it off. Or maybe not. Bill never talks about furniture or design. Still, Billionaire Bill now has the wherewithal. He hired a decorator, but I have the impression that, along with René, he might have come up with ideas, and he certainly made the final decisions. Knowing Bill, especially the Billionaire Bill, he would want to leave his imprint on his own Paris residence.

            Because Bill is getting set to collect homes; this is just step one. I know Biarritz is still on his agenda.

            I lay back, my feet on the floor, the rest of my body stretched out on the bed. Yes, super comfortable, maybe more comfortable than my own bed at home. There’s something in the padding. I could be laying in a bed of cotton baton. I could drift off.

            Lunch: We had quite a bit to drink.

The champagne was gone by the time our main courses arrived. Bill announced that we would try the Gevrey-Chambertin. Of course. This is Bill’s little game: comparing different growers of this Burgundy. But at Bofinger after the opera, I think we just drank champagne. And at Le Bon Georges? I don’t remember.

            I’m just along for the ride.

I’m sure this apartment comes with a cave down in the basement of the building. Bill will set about filling it.

            I wonder where Jean-Pierre’s room is? And then I remember the top floor, the chambres-de-bonne that come with the apartment. Fun. Jean-Pierre is no bonne. But these top-floor rooms haven’t been occupied by real servants probably since the twenties. I remember a student at the École des Beaux-Arts that I had a little affair with. He was blond, from Normandy; he stood out in the Paris of minets who were usually petits bruns. As now, most of the young guys I’ve seen in Paris gay bars are relatively short with brown, or as the French say, châtaigne, chestnut, hair and the complexion to go with it.

Anyway, didn’t he live in a chambre-de-bonne, maybe not so far from where I am now? I don’t remember. I do remember that the climb up the back stairs to his little room, with a toilet down the hall, was a climb that always left both of us a bit out of breath and giggling. He had a chamber pot; we couldn’t always go scampering down the dingy hall to the WC. I wonder what’s become of him? Did he survive AIDS. The last time I saw him he had popped up in the waiting room of the agency, sitting, waiting, with a portfolio on his knees. Bisous, and then he showed me: He had these amazing modeling pictures. To think, I thought, I’ve had an affair with a fashion model. But no. He did TV commercials. So, better still: an actor! What happened to his dreams of becoming the next Picasso. Oh, this was just to earn money: He now had a small studio where he painted. I should come around. Did he give me the address? He must have. I didn’t.

“Why don’t you take off your coat and stay a while.”

I open my eyes at this suggestion from a figure in a dream I am emerging from. Bill is staring down at me. I am still in my long black overcoat. Behind him, I see the door to the room wide open.

“Janine and Serges are coming for dinner. And then they’ll stay over for the first time in the room René and I have set up for them. I’ve invited Jean-Pierre too. He’s already half moved into the rooms upstairs.” Rooms? I ask Bill if he’s happy climbing up all those stairs. I just say that. I have no idea how things have changed since my memory of the handsome little guy from Normandy. “Climb? I think he can handle one flight. Nowadays, you take the elevator up to the top floor of apartments, and then there’s a stairwell leading up to the top floor. Chambres-de-bonne.” Progress, I quip. “The old days were not always so good. I think two rooms were combined sometime in the eighties to make the little flat. Jean-Pierre, in case you wanted to know, is not abandoning his mother in Neuilly. He’ll be living in both places.” I almost say, how cozy, but don’t: so stupid. I sit up. And then I begin to sweat. Crazy falling asleep in this overcoat. The bedroom is far from cold. I stand up and take the overcoat off and toss it on the bed. The spread on the bed is a pale jade green, satin. I notice it for the first time. Crazy. “René found that. He thought you’d like it.” I do, I say immediately. “Did he tell you there’s a bathroom across the hall? Can you manage that in the middle of the night?” He purses his lips, jokey Bill. I make a groaning noise. Bill turns to leave and then stops. “I know what you said about New Year’s Eve. There’s nothing stopping you from flying home for that. Hany told me that you can rent this sort of giant felucca and sail down to Luxor. I couldn’t resist. And we know what that night train is like.”

Bill leaves the room. I think, he’s leaving me in peace. I look around as to where I am. Aside from the bedspread, which I do like a lot, the room is comfortable looking but neutral, neutral in terms of the standard presence of a stoically classical marble fireplace, those moldings creating panels in the walls etched in that lettuce green that’s at the same time relaxing and enlivening, the standard but beautiful wide French windows that look out on the passage, and, of course, the high ceilings. I think, it’s standard Belle Époque as if I was brought up in such rooms.

So, what is so neutral about the room? It could be a very nice, five-star hotel room. No. No, that’s not true. There’s no ensuite bathroom.

It’s neutral because, aside from René’s charming touch of the bedspread, Bill has left it a rather clean slate that he hopes I’ll at least scribble something on.

He has imposed nothing on me in this room.

Just as I’m feeling how benign Bill is, I remember the boat down the Nile. Maybe René had downloaded the movie? I can’t think of any other triggers for such a trip other than Death on the Nile. Bill could fly René and himself down to Luxor in a few hours or less.

The last time I was in Luxor, I found that for a bit more money than I usually paid, I could stay at the famed Winter Palace. And I did. It was half empty, I remember, which made it deliciously melancholic. Everything was kept up but aging; I loved that. The mattress could have been less lumpy.

I’m thinking now: This will be what it will be like staying in Hany’s mother’s mansion in Garden City. I can’t wait.

New Year’s Eve. I fucking told Bill this was my limit!

Of course, as he just said, he’s not twisting my arm to go.

What he’s doing, the bastard, is tormenting me, tantalizing me with this heady, gorgeous fantasy of a luxury cruise on our own yacht or felucca down the Nile.

He’s torturing me with the choice between that dream voyage and celebrating the start of the new year with my friends.

I wander down the hall to the living room. Is all this Phillippe Starck? I basically just know the name and remember the chairs in the restaurant at Le Meurice. Whatever the designer choice – probably it’s a mix of different ones – Bill, and I guess along with René, have chosen couches and armchairs that are as neutral as I feel my room is. The cerulean blue of couches and armchairs is of a shade that melds nicely with the lettuce green etching around the white panels. White, I’d say more a light cream. I test out the couch facing the fireplace. I spread my arms wide. I’m tempted to put my feet up. I’ve left my shoes in the bedroom. But I don’t.

Where are they? I hear the rattle of a pan. Kitchen. Where’s the kitchen?

I find it. Is this why he didn’t move in right away? Because I swear it’s exactly like that spectacular kitchen we saw that night in the showroom window on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Bill and René turn. Both have on big white chef’s aprons. “You could help, you know, now that you’re awake. This is going to be the first dinner I’ve cooked in this house, with René as sous-chef.” René grins and gives me a little bow to acknowledge his status. He’s peeling a huge celeriac. Bill has before him on the cutting board a huge chicken. “Poule de Bresse. I’m slipping slices of truffle and butter under the skin.” I step into the kitchen. Brushed steel and Chinese red cabinets. There’s a grand restaurant range and oven. There’s a matching American-style ice-making fridge, also in Chinese red. The double windows look out onto a courtyard, because I can see, far off, the windows of another apartment. Bill is back to truffle-inserting under the skin of this most expensive chicken in the world. I can smell the unctuous aroma of the fresh truffle. They’re back in season. “Yes, they’re back in season, so we’re going to have a lot of them tonight. I won’t be intimidated by those stories of Chef Serges.” He says this as if he thinks Serges has made these stories up.

“Oh, certainly not!” We reel around to find Serges standing in the doorway in a kind of black pantsuit. When did they arrive? She moves right in next to Bill and looks down. “That’s perfect.” She looks up at him with seraphic blessing radiating from her face. Her spikey magenta hair creates a halo.

A lot has happened while I was napping.

I wonder where Janine is. “She’s in the salon. She’s testing out an armchair.” I figure this is the perfect excuse to get out of the kitchen. I announce I’m going to find her. “Not before…” Serges takes hold of me and gives me the two bisous. “This is such a bel appartement, mon cher. Mais, j’oublie. C’est avec toi que Bill l’a vue pour la première fois.” True. I was there when Bill fell in love with the place. I like how Serges says the full word, appartement, and not the current slangy appart. I suppose it sounds stuffy nowadays, but Serges seems not to be interested in modernizing. I realize also that I should feel privileged that she has used tu with me and not vous.

I enter the living room. Janine is sitting in the armchair whose back is to me and which faces the bank of windows looking out onto the passage. “Que c’est beau ici.” She has heard me come in and has tilted her neck around so I see her in profile. Her nose is not big but it is quite curved. I hadn’t noticed. I go and sit back down on the couch that I’d previously “tested out.” “I’m sure it was your presence with Bill that made him snap it up. I suppose it cost millions. Everything of beauty does these days.” She lets out a sigh, as one would expect. Of course, they just inherited that little mansion in Versailles. Filthy lucre was never involved.

“Was this Bill’s taste? Or do you think that young René has had a hand in it. Whatever, I like it.” I tell her I agree, but I don’t go into whose taste it is. “So, how have you been doing? You know, we’re hearing quite a bit about Rotterdam. There was a bit on TF2 about those funny cube houses.” I tell her I saw it myself, I mean, the bit on the TV. Of course, I see the actual buildings almost daily. She laughs: “So, it’s all old hat to you. I couldn’t live in one of them, but I’m glad they exist. We just knew about Rotterdam as the biggest port in Europe and of course the drugs, the cocaine.” I grin. What else is there to do?

“It’s quite wonderful that after all these years Serges and Bill have taken a liking to each other.” I thought that too. “It’s Serges. Serges is very complicated.” I just give her a wide smile. “I envy you this trip to Cairo.” Wasn’t she invited? “Yes, but Serges didn’t want to go. Something about experiences she had in Egypt back in the days of the Soviet Union. You know, I never interrogate her. I just wait for her to come out with things. It’s been like that since the start.” Of course, I’m curious how she really feels about her male husband – with whom she must have had sex, right? – turning into another woman. But I’m practicing her strategy with Serges. There’s no hurry. It doesn’t affect me personally. “I’m surprised you can do a retake of Death on the Nile, actually. Back in Agatha Christie’s day, I don’t think there were real roads, let alone highways, down the Nile to Luxor. Maybe there weren’t even trains.” I pull out my smartphone. “Ah, I left my mobile in my purse in the bedroom. You always have yours on you?” I nod. I google. The railroad from Cairo reached Luxor in 1898. “Interesting. I suppose a cruise would have been more comfortable. Anyway, you know I do use my smartphone. And I did look up cruises from Cairo to Aswan. I found one. An organized luxury one with a lot of other rich tourists. I don’t think that’s what Bill’s friend Hany promised, do you?” I put my phone away. No. I could myself go and check out cruises down the Nile. But what’s the point? Tomorrow at this time we’ll be in Cairo.

“Bill has made us a nice room in this apartment. It’s very kind of him. I don’t know how much we’ll use it. Maybe we’ll subscribe to the opera now.” I tell her about Don Giovanni followed by the oyster souper. She laughs. “Bill has suddenly become a nostalgique. I know French people who do obsess over the Belle Époque, but I’m not one of them. Closer to me are the existentialistes. Sartre was a reprobate, but he had a new lease on life after Mai Soixante-huit.” I agree with her, I suppose, because this is really the Paris I lived in too. “Il n’y a plus de personnages comme lui. Ce pourri de Mélenchon, grand dieu! I’m quite content with Macron. He’s a man who lives in the present, in the real world.” I’m not surprised about her politics. I’m glad she doesn’t have a soft spot for Marine Le Pen. I make the mistake of mentioning the woman’s name. “Garce de merde. C’est Trump au féminin.” I’m surprised at her vehemence. “Mon père a fait la Résistance. Oui, tout le monde vante ça, mais c’est vrai en mon cas. Il a été interné par les Boches. Ça lui a affaibli la santé pour la vie. I was twelve when he died.” There are tears in her eyes. I don’t know what to do. I just sit and let her recompose herself. This is my first encounter with the daughter of someone who was in the Résistance, who was deported, who died from this prematurely while she was still a young girl. She looks away from me and out to the passage. “Such a lovely silence here. You don’t find that very often in Paris.” No. It came as a surprise to both Bill and myself. Another thing that made him want the place on the spot. “J’imagine. J’imagine.”

Serges enters the room carrying a silver bucket with a bottle of champagne sticking out of it, and five flûtes that she has inserted by their stems between her fingers. “I’ve been ordered out of the kitchen.” She’s laughing. She puts the bucket down on the low coffee table. The table has straight chrome legs with a large rectangle of polished grayish marble – is it marble? – about two-centimeters thick. “The boys do not need me. My job now is to serve us some champagne. They will dash in when they hear me pop the cork. And then we shall toast the new home. One of many to come, says Monsieur Bill.”

Pop! Serges is a master: She has made the cork pop loudly, but not a drop has foamed out and over. She turns toward the door leading to the kitchen to see if Bill has heard. “Bravo!” We hear Bill’s voice. And then he’s framed in the doorway, René right behind him.

We all stand around as Serges distributes a flûte to each of us from between her fingers. She gives each of us a coquettish grin as we get our glass. I think: Serges is more a drag queen than a woman. Janine seems set to burst out laughing when Serges hands her a glass. Bill is about to grab the bottle out of the bucket. Serges intercepts him. Out it comes. What kind will it be? Ah, Krug, of course. For such an occasion? Serges carefully fills each of our glasses and then her own.

Bill first raises his glass toward Serges. “May I?” Serges nods. Has this little drama been choreographed? “Here’s to chapter two of my Parisian life.”

Bill has grabbed my attention when he speaks this line. Okay. I get it. I give my glass a double toast to him.

Bill sits down on a couch; René sits down beside him. Serges sits down beside Janine. I take an armchair.

“The chicken,” Bill glances at his watch, “will take about another hour. Who wants to open two dozen oysters?” He looks at me. I do know how to open oysters. I suppose I should volunteer.

“I’ll do it!” René is up on his feet. “I can start now.” Bill doesn’t look happy, but René is already on his way to the kitchen. I could volunteer to help him, but this could be construed as some chance to be alone with the sexy devil. I keep quiet.

“You know you were invited to Cairo, Janine.” She looks at Bill as if he’s just attacked her.

Mais non…” Serges intervenes. Ça n’a rien à voir avec elle. C’est moi. And she will not leave me alone for Christmas, eh, chérie?”

“But of course, you were invited as well, Serges.”

“I know. Et je vous en remercie, Monsieur Bill. But I have my story. You want to hear my story?” Serges does a round, checking on us all. Of course, we all want to hear her story, except Janine. Janine theatrically raises her eyes to heaven. “Janine, la pauvre, connait bien mon histoire.” Janine smiles, her smile directed at no one in particular. Again, this seems choreographed: The spouse telling the same story over and over. And I now know that Janine actually knew Serges’ story all along.

Serges does a quick run of the tip of her fingernails over her forehead up through her magenta hair so that it perks up. I hadn’t paid attention to her fingernails, and for good reason: They are unvarnished, nothing like a vamp’s pointed talons that might have gone well with the magenta hair and perhaps have been painted purple. And then I realize these fingers are chef’s fingers, gardener’s fingers; they are still male.

Bill gets up and refills our glasses and sits down again. “We’re all ears.” Bill throws me a glance. We have our own little Egyptian anecdotes. Will they be next?

Serges takes a long sip of her champagne and puts the glass down on the coffee table. “I was very young. Not even twenty. Nineteen. I was apprentis? Apprentice? I was doing a stage as sous-chef. Ah, you know. I forget. It was the Soviet Union.” She grins at us all as if we might well share her thoughts on the subject. I suppose with her grandfather’s gulag experience, she is not sympathetic to the Soviet Union. But I don’t know for sure. “We were very involved in Egypt at that time. Nasser had died. Sadat was at the steering wheel.” We all smile at “steering wheel.” “So, mes amis, c’était bien un Noël qui s’approchait. There was no Christmas in the Soviet Union. Not officially. But there was that season, with the parties and the feasting. But not in Egypt. Still, I had time off. The archeological team I was assigned to along with le grand chef Vladimir… They had gone back to Moscow. I was still in Luxor. I’d long ago seen everything. The temples. And there were no tourists, really. I had Karnak to myself one afternoon. There you are, among the stone lotus columns, a small ant scurrying among reeds of stone. You are this small human in the realm of the gods.”

Bill looks at me and smiles. Yes, we also had that experience. We could even have been in Luxor at the same time as the young Serges. Bill was still doing his thesis research. It had been his idea to go to Egypt to escape the Noël en famille business. Christmas was insufferably a French family thing.

Serges reaches out and takes her flûte to her lips and sips. She is toying with us. We are watching her every move. She puts the glass back down on the coffee table. “I decided to take the day train back up to Cairo. I wanted to see more of Egypt. In those days, foreigners were only allowed to visit Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan. I’d seen all four cities. But then I had found this tourist brochure. There it was, offering visits to other places. Now, this was on the train after lunch – and it was a serious dining car then and I had drunk a big bottle of Stella beer – well, I just decided to get off at El-Minya.” She looks around at us. She wants to know if we know about El-Minya. Do we? I want her to explain, so I just echo the name El-Minya? “Yes. Well, the brochure did not promise spectacular temples like at Kom Ombo or Edfu, but it was the site of Akhetaton, the city built from scratch by Akhenaton. I thought: This will be interesting. I knew that some of our team had been up there digging.”

“I think there’s still not much to see there.” Bill is beaming encouragingly at Serges. “It’s not on my wish list.” That gets Serges chuckling. She reaches again for her champagne. Bill jumps up and tops her glass off, and does the same for the rest of us. As I take a sip, a frothy, biscuity, flowery sip, I think how incongruous this fine Krug is with the image we now all have of the young Serges, no doubt a cocky little male, staring out the window of an Egyptian train.

“So, I hear El-Minya announced. I can understand a bit of Arabic. I get up and pull down my bag – it was like a carpetbag? Janine has one like it; but don’t think it’s the same one, because it is not – and the train pulls into the station at El-Minya. And I get off.”

“Can someone open the door?” René’s voice comes from behind the closed door to the hall. I jump up and go to open if for him. There he is, grinning, holding a large tray of oysters on a bed of crushed ice. “Merci!” He enters the room with a ceremonial stride that gets everyone up on their feet to applaud. “Merci! Merci!” René has created pomp with no circumstance, except the pleasure of eating all these big fat oysters. Room is made in the center of the coffee table. René has placed them in great spirals and then mounted still more in intervals. Quite beautiful. Impressive. We all sit and stare at the platter. It’s a circular art piece, rhombi in shades of gray, opaline lozenges. Bill fills René’s empty glass.

“René, you take the first oyster. Where to begin?” René smiles at Bill, his tongue peeks out over his lower lip as he looks down at the platter. Devilish. He reaches out and seizes the one on the top nearest him, threatening to disturb the whole pattern, but he doesn’t. I just laugh and start to applaud. He grins over at me and nods a thank you.

Oui… mais la preuve? Is there no bit of shell?” Serges is addressing René archly.

“I did my best.” Oh, a very Dutch reply, so Flemish as well: this self-effacing response to praise. Serges is playing the bitch. Her El-Minya story has been interrupted.

But then we all grab an oyster, and the platter turns into controlled chaos. My first oyster is impeccably clean, and René has loosened them in the shell so that, with a tip, the oyster slides out and into my mouth: no little forks needed.

Serges is already on her third oyster. “C’est très beau ce que tu as fait avec la chair.” Serges heartily approves of the loosened oyster meat. “On peut les mangers comme les grandes courtisanes d’antan.” We all laugh. True enough, we all know that image of the wealthy courtesans tipping oysters down their throats followed by great quaffs of champagne and then waltzing around the ballroom. Verdi knew his Belle Époque Paris: Musetta’s Waltz plays in my head, yet again.

I’m thinking now: The combo of Bill and René has subtly lit this beautiful room, but then I remember there was a decorator involved too. The tall mirror over the fireplace reflects all the various sources of light, creating a lush haze in this great, high-ceilinged room: a few lamps with white silk shades, but then other kinds of spotlighting hidden from view. Money to hire an interior designer pays off.

“Basta! Je peux continuer mon histoire?” Evidently Serges has had enough oysters. Either that or she wants to regain the spotlight and tell her story. “El-Minya. I tell in English?” She eyes René. René says nothing and just smiles back at her. I have no idea how much French René knows. The kids in Belgium learn both languages in school, but they seem happier to speak their third language, English, than the language of the other community. I have a hunch that René speaks perfectly good French.

We’re all ears.

Écoutez. The train pulls into the station at El-Minya, and I get off. It seems that the platform is elevated. I see nothing, but no, I look left and see the station building. But there are other people on the platform, and they are all staring at me as if I were a Martian. I smile at one and the other. They smile back. I head to the station building. My memory is that it was not very old but already musty. I looked through it and could see a town beyond. As I moved forward, I saw a hantour, horse-and-buggy, you say? The brochure had a list of hotels in El-Minya. I had already chosen one Hotel Nefertiti. I step out of the station and signal the nearest coachman. He also looks at me as if I were a Martian, but he clambers down off his perch behind his horse and takes my bag, and then he helps me into the hantour and places the carpet bag at my feet. I give directions: Funduk Nefertiti, min fadluk.”

She pauses and looks around at her audience. Are we rivetted? Enough. There are still oysters. I have taken one and just eaten it, and then I’ve sipped some of my champagne. Was this rude of me? She gives me an odd look that might be a reprimand. “So, I’ve given directions. The man in galabia and a turban of a cloth wrapped around his head, as you see everywhere in Upper Egypt, turns and says something I don’t understand. I repeat my command. He seems to reconcile to my directions and with a snap of the reins, the horse sets off. Slowly we proceed in this nearly empty street. I don’t remember cars. I’m feeling we are parading. People have stopped to look at us. Finally, we emerge from what I suppose is the center of town, and he stops the hantour. He now turns fully around. He repeats his near lament. And now I recognize what he is saying: Nefertiti mafish. Mafish. Oh, I know that. I hear it all the time in this Egypt. It means, ‘there isn’t any.’ I have my brochure in hand. I open to the page. I show him the name of the hotel. Silly: He can’t read it, probably can’t even read Arabic. I have been startled to realize the high level of illiteracy in this Egypt. He smiles. Egyptians are always smiling and looking kind. And then he just ups and turns the hantour around and heads back the way we have come. No, no! He ignores me. Back across from the train station is an old hotel. He stops there. He says in English, something like chamber of commerce. Chamber of Commerce? He jumps off his perch, takes my bag, and then helps me, pulls me, out of his hantour. A man in a two-piece suit comes out of the hotel. ‘Welcome, welcome to Egypt!’ You hear this all the time. Over and over. I bow and smile and say: ‘I’m looking for the Hotel Nefertiti.’ He raises both hands: ‘Malesh. There is no more Hotel Nefertiti. It is closed. There are no tourists. Why are you here? But, please…’ And he gestures me inside. There I am greeted by a tall portly gentleman in a white galabia with a great dark blue sash, a man of a certain age and stature, which I have learned usually means some kind of sheikh. He raises both hands in greeting, his sleeves flapping. ‘Marhaba! Welcome to Egypt!’ We are in the area in front of a reception desk. I begin to explain that I wished to be taken to the Hotel Nefertiti. ‘Ah, Nefertiti mafish. Sadly, Nefertiti is closed. There are no tourists now. Are you a tourist?’ My mouth is open to reply when suddenly we are invaded, rushed by three men in suits, who grab hold of my shoulders. ‘Mukhabarat! Marhaba!’ And then the sheikh says softly and solemnly to me, ‘Security police,’ or something like that.”

Serges sees that she has our undivided attention. “So…” she takes one of the last oysters, tilts it up, and lets its opaline flesh slip down her tongue, puts the empty shell upside down on slushy ice, takes up her flûte, and takes a long sip, “delicious. So. So, you see it is forbidden at that time for foreigners to be anywhere in Egypt except in the four cities of Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan. But I think you all know that. I was a very bad boy.” She bursts out laughing.

She looks down again into the tray. She looks around at us questioningly and then takes one of the last oysters. She makes an even greater ceremony of it slipping over her tongue and swallowing. Several sips of champagne and she begins, “So, I suppose they arrested me. There on the spot. Without a word. Except to explain that I will be taken for interrogation at military headquarters. I burst out laughing: ‘Military headquarters? Isn’t that just what I’m not supposed to be seeing?’ One of them raises his hand as if he might hit me. Another says something that calms him. They ask for my passport. I give them my USSR passport, great hammer and sickle shining at them. This, I see, is making them pause. One of them pulls out a walkie-talkie, some kind of phone, because he seems to rather quickly be in touch with his headquarters. I hear him say, ‘Rusy.’ ‘Da,’ I say loudly and perkily. I mean perky. In my youth I was very perky. I would stick my chest out with pride at the drop of a hat.” That gets us all laughing, which is what she’s looking for. She grins. She picks up her flûte and toasts us, and empties it. Bill jumps up and refills it, topping off the rest of us, before sitting back down. He toasts Serges. And then we all toast Serges. I’m thinking we’re all just slightly drunk but perfectly so.

She looks at her audience then. We wait with bated breath. We define the very expression “bated breath.” Her eyes light up. “And then they put me in the backseat of a small official-looking black car, and off we go. If things military, installations, were to be kept secret, then there they were revealing all.

“We arrive at a rather ramshackle but obviously military building. The door is opened, and I am made to understand that I should get out. It’s at this point that I decide I will say something in English to them. It is obvious that none of them speak Russian. ‘Where am I?’ I say. Jaws drop, but only for a split second. ‘You will be held here until the general decides what to do with you. You, Rusy, speak English?’ And he bursts out laughing at me with fairly obvious contempt. I told you that these were edgy times for Soviet citizens here in Egypt. Sadat. Times will be changing. Still, I don’t think they will shoot me. But of course they could.” She stops then to make sure we understand the trouble she was in back then. “I was a spy.” She grins at no one in particular and adds, “or I could be seen as one. I am marched into this building, this headquarters. I see rather confused and slovenly men in uniform. I am shocked. I think, no wonder they lose wars. I think this. I do not say this. I am met by a very large man in officer’s uniform, replete with hat. He holds his hand out. He is smiling. I take his hand and smile back as solemnly as I can. He is handed my passport. His face lights up as he sees it, and then he shakes his head and lets out a great, loud sigh. ‘You speak English? Why you here?’ I clear my throat. ‘I apologize, sir. I work with Soviet command. I am a cook. I am a tourist. I got off the train to discover El-Minya.’ I still have my brochure and open it to the page for the Hotel Nefertiti. He takes it from me and stares down at it. ‘Ah, my friend, this is very, very old.’ Of course, it looks quite new, fresh. It had never been opened until I got my hands on it. I can’t remember now where I found it. In the hotel lobby in Luxor?”

“Ah, where did you stay in Luxor, the Winter Palace?”

Serges shakes her head. “Oh, no, Bill. That would have been for my bosses. No, I was at the Savoy Hotel. Do you know it?”

“Yes, I do. We might have crossed paths. I remember Soviet apparatchiki staying there as a great treat. They were like robots and never looked at any of us other guests. I was around your age. Sadly, it no longer seems to exist.”

“You will all stay at the Winter, as the natives say. El-Wintur.”

“That’s the plan. Hany is arranging everything.” I can see that Serges doesn’t really know at first who this Hany is but then figures it out.

“So, Serges, they didn’t shoot you.” Bill is holding the last of three oysters in mid-air. Serges, rather than focusing on Bill, eyes or mouth, focuses on the oyster. Bill circles the oyster shell in the air as people do with a string or dangling a mouse toy in front of a cat, and then he pops it in his mouth. Serges nods.

“No. The officer insists we all have tea. And then he picks up the phone and begins a low growl of a conversation, most likely with some superior bureaucrat that can decided what to do with me. Before the officer is finished, the tea arrives. Tea always arrives very quickly in Egypt under these circumstances. I did not want any tea. I didn’t touch it. The officer took his up and sipped. ‘I wish I had better news for you. You will be held here at least overnight, while your presence in Egypt is being investigated. Please, your tea is getting cold.’ That’s when I betrayed my age and ignorance. I flew into a rage. The officer stared at me in alarm. And then in minutes two soldiers had me by the arms and I was – what do you call it? – frog-marched out of there.” Bill takes up his flûte, finishes it, stands up, and grabs the bottle, filling his and topping up the rest of us. The bottle is empty. He puts it upside down into the bucket as if a waiter would swoop in with a fresh bottle. Bill sits down and takes a nice sip. We all take sips, including Serges.

“They marched me for a good five minutes through the base. It created quite an uproar. Soldiers stopped and stared at the spectacle. And then I suppose they reach the brig. You call a military jail a brig? I think so. It was dark. One small window. It stank. There was a bucket for a toilet. The bars clanged behind me.” Serges stops and focuses on René: “You should take a picture of me, René.” Serges holds her glass up in the air. René pulls out his iPhone and takes several shots. “You will remember me now.” René grins at her and slips the phone back in his pocket and sits down.

We are all waiting now for how this all turned out, everyone except Janine, who fidgets with her glass and then suddenly notices there are two oysters left and reaches over and takes one. Serges ignores her. “There was a bench. I was supposed to sleep on this bench. I lay down on it after pacing back and forth for a bit. I was nervous. Yes, I was afraid. I knew I had been stupid. I had made a stupid mistake, getting off the train, into a dangerous situation. We all knew that the mood in Egypt had radically changed about the Soviet presence in the country. I might just provide the excuse for an incident that would lead to serious disruption. In that, I was both right and wrong.

“I finally stretched out on the bench. It was uncomfortable, but I managed to position my body so that there was no pain. I must have dozed off. I was awoken by the noise of keys and locks. And then a flashlight was shined in my face. In Russian, a shadowy figure of a man told me to get up quickly. I did. He pushed me toward the open door and then grabbed hold of my arm and marched me out of the building. There was a Soviet jeep waiting outside. He opened the door and urged, pushed, me into the back and then came in beside and shut the door. The driver gunned the motor. ‘We have twenty minutes to get to the station where you will be put on the night train up to Cairo. I will be with you.’ I thanked him. I apologized. He wasn’t angry, but he wasn’t interested in my apologies. He handed me my passport.

“We did make the train.”

“Ah,” exclaims Bill, “I thought as much.”

“Yes. And now you might imagine that I cannot go back to Egypt.”

“What? After all these years? Do you think they’d arrest you as a fugitive from justice at the airport?”

“Oh? And what do you think, Monsieur Bill? You have such powers that you can assure me that…”

Bill downs half his glass. “Well, first of all. I assume you now have a French passport, am I right?” Serges nods. “And then you are no longer that brazen young lad. You are a lovely lady.” I expect Bill to say something like a lovely lady of a certain age, and I’m sure he was tempted, but he doesn’t.

Ah, tout ça est bien vrai. Mais je ne prends pas de risques. I have seen enough of Egypt for my lifetime. As you might imagine.”

I see René doesn’t quite get it. “So, why were foreigners only allowed in those cities, those, what, four cities?”

“Ah, I’m sure Monsieur Bill can tell you.” Serges nods toward Bill. “Egypt was still technically at war with Israel. Paranoia was everywhere. In Cairo, sandbags were piled high in front of doorways. Windows were painted blue and taped with crosses to contain flying glass in the event of a bombing.” Bill nods toward Serges. I look at René. I can just guess what he’s going to say. “Cool!” And he does. I’m first to laugh.