I haven’t expected Bill would want to take a nap. I did already make up his bed. He just wheels his suitcase into the room and, without even going into the living room or going to the windows to look out at the view, he says, “See you in a bit,” and gives me a little wave that dismisses me. I clear out.
At first, I don’t know what to do with myself. I sit alone on the couch for a minute. And then I stand up and go to the windows and look out. He hasn’t been here for a good ten years. The skyline has changed pretty dramatically. From the thirtieth floor, you could always see the grand harp of the Erasmusbrug, which quickly became the meme for the city. I think: Is it a meme? And then I think that the last time he was here the very word “meme” didn’t exist. I think it probably is, because it’s not the official symbol for the city, but pictures of it are everywhere Rotterdam is to be invoked.
Well, I’ll give him his wow moment at my windows when he wakes up. I go and sit back down on the couch. Over in the corner is my iMac. I could switch it on, surf the internet. Does anyone still say “surf” the internet? But I’ll want to put on some music. My music is stored on the computer. But not now. I don’t want to keep him from sleeping, although he acted as if he’d be snoring the minute his head hit the pillow. Still.
I get up and go to the iMac and switch it on. I won’t put any music on, but I can google information about Biarritz. I know next to nothing about Biarritz.
I reel around in my office chair. I’ve gotten sidetracked and been reading about Napoléon III, who I also knew next to nothing about. It was he who built a palace in Biarritz for his wife Eugénie, thus starting the trend of Biarritz as a resort town. Before, there were just Basque fishermen, evidently. Bill is grinning at me from the hall doorway. I look at the time on the computer. He walks into the living room. “Sorry for the nap, I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I haven’t been sleeping all that well lately. So, we’re going to begin the day with dinner?” He laughs. I laugh back at him and stand up. I had lost track of time, but we have half an hour before we have to leave the apartment. We can walk to the restaurant in fifteen minutes. It’s still light outside, but the sun is moving towards setting. Bill has already taken in that fact and is heading toward the windows. “You were a lucky devil to get this view.”
I ask him why he hasn’t been sleeping well. “Over-excitement? So much going on in my mind. My head is full of changes since my parents died.” So, as I expected, he was left with what you could call the family fortune, but you’d have never known there was a fortune there. “I’d never been to Saint Petersburg. I was always in touch. They could handle e-mail. But I never visited. I suppose they thought their condominium complex was very nice. It was centered around a pool. But I was surprised how crummy it was. My father hated spending money. My mother was happy if he was happy. I gave all their furniture to the Salvation Army. I saved nothing for myself. Horrible taste, she had, my mother. I never realized. In Andover, we lived in my father’s parents’ house. It was full of old Yankee stuff, antique quality. I remember that well since I grew up surrounded by the stuff. English furniture. Classics. Only the kitchen and bathroom were fifties modern.” He had reached the windows. “But what a change out there!” I feel my face break into a crazy grin. Good. He sees the differences. “It’s really this river that sets everything off in such a dramatic way. Nothing quite like it,” he turns and meets my grin. “Congrats!”
I ask him if he was planning on showering or changing clothes. He’s dressed now exactly as he was coming off the train. He shakes his head. “Unless you think this,” he does a sweeping gesture with his right hand from shoulders downwards, “is inappropriate.” He lifts his right arm then and sniffs. “No smells. I’ll squirt more of my cologne before we leave the house.” I laugh. No, I think I’m the one who should change clothes. I already have something similar in mind, but we both can’t arrive all in black. That would be sinister. He laughs when I say that. “I think it was twenty years ago? When black became fashionable. Men in Black. What was that? A movie?” I tell him I think so. I remember the title. Late nineties? He nods, “I think so. One of those sci-fi movies with plenty of crazy action. Who was that actor? Keanu Reeves. Maybe he was in it.” I shrug. I have no idea. “Sexy dude,” he adds. I grin. The Bill I know is back.
I go to the computer and sit down. I find a playlist and click: music! “Ah, jazz. Billy Holliday? Are we going to have cocktails then? Actually, I could use a glass of water.” He heads toward the kitchen area and opens a cupboard, finds a glass, and fills it with tap water.
I leave him to change clothes.
I return to the living room to see him sitting at my iMac. Glenn Miller is playing In the Mood. He turns, “This iMac is seductive. Just like this song. Makes you think of your parents as young couples dancing cheek to cheek. And it’s just hit me. With all the ugliness since Reagan, whodda thought we’d have gay marriage!” He bursts out into a theatrical laugh. I nod. And then I state the time out loud. He jumps up, “I’m ready.” I tell him of how when gay marriage came on the agenda back in the late nineties here – with a boat dedicated, banners galore, to demanding gay marriage during the Amsterdam Gay Pride canal parade – I thought, who needs it. He shakes his head, whatever that means. I explain that I now understand that it’s a legal safeguard, a marker, a frontier post. I can see he only half agrees as we go out the door.
The elevator is there, as if it’s been waiting for us. I tell him this is a sign of good luck. “For what?” I don’t know. His life? Our dinner? I can see he’s taken me seriously, as if I was some old Roman checking entrails for a sign from the gods. The elevator whooshes down to ground level. “I feel the elevator in my ears.” He says that as if it’s in line with a sign of good fortune? And then I think that I understand what he feels but that I don’t feel it or don’t notice it anymore. So, I tell him you get used to it and don’t notice. “Ah, as so much in our lives. I’ve been thinking that despite all that’s going on right now, that we live in the best of times. Change, innovation is going to outpace our problems, well, the world’s problems.” I like that. We exit the elevator with grins on our faces. A neighbor couple, who I only know from sight. grin back at us. I say, Fijne dag. They say, Het zelfde. What is this church ritual called? An antiphon? No. A litany. “You do speak Dutch.” I decide to bathe in his admiration. I explain that there is a ritual to this, a polite statement and its response. You do it everywhere, even in the supermarket. He says, “It creates a sense of well-being, of shared reality.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but then he might have a point. “In New York people used to talk to each other, perfect strangers, while waiting for the bus. You were all in it together. No one knew how long you’d have to wait. I wonder if they still do that, the serfs of New York who rely on public transport.”
We are waiting for the Walk light. “You know Arabic is full of ritual statements and stock answers. There’s this good morning ritual: sabah el-khahr to which you usually or I usually responded sabah el-noor. Literally: ‘good morning,’ answered by ‘morning full of light.’” Bill did a year’s stint in Cairo. Well, maybe our Dutch greetings are on that level, but not nearly so poetic, say I. He snickers. I grin. The light says Walk.
I can’t remember how many Michelin stars this place has; it has at least one. We are escorted to our table, armchairs pulled out, and we are seated. Sumptuous. “Ah, I can’t believe we’re in Rotterdam,” says Bill. You’re showing your age, I quip back. This restaurant has been around for more than fifteen years, I think. It’s been redecorated, haven’t seen that yet. Serenely elegant, I would categorize it. No bling whatsoever, which I state to Bill. “I noticed. No bling in Rotterdam then?” Bling is very un-Dutch, I remind him. “You know there are some Americans that think the Netherlands is a communist country.” I burst out laughing; yes, I’d forgotten. “Trump people,” he grins in tandem. “Most Americans, though, are appallingly ignorant about the outside world, and I’d say especially about Europe. That hit me in Saint Pete. It’s not just the educational system; it’s something that’s sustained by the media, all of it, not just Fox. When you go there, even CNN is skewed and weird and different. Every five minutes there’s a commercial break. It’s noise. It’s sensationalized. It’s very juvenile, I’d say. You don’t find that anywhere in Europe, not even in the UK, and the UK is of course perforce the most Americanized. Think Thatcher; think Reagan. The Evil Twins.” Is he going to continue in this vein? We agree on all this. I don’t know why he’s going on and on. “And so we have my Death theory.” Oh, okay. Something about the end of civilization as we know it. I’m about to say that we’ve heard that for the last forty or fifty years, but I don’t. No. And then a lovely lady appears and greets us in English and hands us our menus, big rectangular things. Bill opens his already while she’s speaking. “You have a tasting menu!” he grins up to her.
“Yes, we do. How many courses, four, five?” he looks at me but only perfunctorily, “Five. And there’s a wine pairing? We’ll do that.” She approves, of course, and takes our menus and is gone. He hasn’t asked me what I want. “I can read your mind. So, I didn’t ask, but is it okay with you?” Five courses is a bit much, I reply. “I’m starving. I’ll help you out if push comes to shove.” Yikes, I haven’t heard “push comes to shove” in ages. Bill has become a repository of slang and expressions through the ages, well, our ages, the lifetimes of the two of us. “I did glance at more than the menu. And I did check the dishes. It looks like French-Japanese fusion. Very trendy. And usually very good.” I inform him that the chef’s wife is Japanese and is the sommelier. “Ah! You see? I was right.” I look behind him and see that the sun is setting fast. It’s almost dark now outside, but the street is still full of pedestrians. I guess I don’t get out enough; this surprises me, because it’s not rush hour or even close to it. It’s become a bustling city with lots of people going out at night. Ten years ago, even, the street would be mostly empty. I love it! But I restrain myself from sharing my enthusiasm. I realize I don’t want Bill to move to Rotterdam. And Bill has loose feet; he said so himself. From what I’ve read this afternoon, Biarritz seems perfect for him, and perfect for me to go visit him. Ah, you selfish bastard, I have to laugh at myself. But I’m only human, selfishly human in not a bad way. “A penny for your thoughts?” Oh, another old cliché coughed up. None, I say. I’m just noting the décor. It’s changed. They had a terrible fire a few years back. “Nothing like a nice fire to bring about needed changes, if you have good insurance.” He purses his lips comically. I tell him quietly to lower his voice.
“Right. Everyone speaks English here. I forgot.” I qualify this. Almost everyone understands English. The TV is loaded with English-language stuff. People grow up with it. He nods, bored.
The first course is served. We are at attention as the young lady explains what it is and then explains the white wine she is going to serve to us to go with it. I watch Bill grab his glass to sniff and taste, which is ridiculous, since there is no choice involved. True, he could find that it’s gone sour or is corked but… But there is no likelihood of that since either this young lady or the sommelier wife has no doubt passed on it. Anyway, Bill is acting reflexively and who cares. He likes it. He likes it a lot. “Delicious,” he says to the young lady, interrupting her commentary. She smiles and just says, Enjoy. She’s given up on her commentary. “I’d say this is sashimi.” I agree, but with a twist. There’s sour cream involved. We dive in. It is scrumptious. Merci, Monsieur, I say to him, raising my glass.
The plates are taken away, and our glasses received a nice friendly splash. I think she said it was a white Côtes du Rhône, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking about why I was not keen on Bill finding Rotterdam so exciting that it would be his pick. Frankly, I don’t really understand why he wants to leave London, so I ask as we sip our wine and wait for the next course.
“Ah, let me count the ways.” Is that his take on Browning, Elizabeth Barret? You couldn’t be further removed from a Victorian woman, I interrupt. He loves that. “Yes and no. But no, I have never wanted to say that to a lover.” I think: Has he ever had a lover, I mean, someone that’s lasted more than six months to a year? “You’re thinking Brexit. But Brexit doesn’t affect me personally. I’m not a European, right? It started before Brexit with the real-estate merry-go-round, the crazy prices asked and gotten. Brexit was the icing on the cake, more a symptom of something very wrong. You could say the same thing about New York. We’ve already talked about that. And, by the way, I know Paris is crazy expensive, too, but I hope you are going to join me there. As I said, it’ll be Meurice or Crillon.” I can see he’s studying my reaction to those names. He knows this is my chance, that I will never ever be able to afford to stay in either hotel. He imagines that I would love to. “We would share a suite.” Cripes! How can he read my mind like that! I could imagine I was floating up out of my armchair. Why am I even hesitating? He has just supplied the clincher. A suite? He grins now. He knows he’s gotten me.
“You don’t have to decide now, but you could clear your agenda for the possibility. As I said, I want to test out both hotels. Unless, of course, you’d also like to do that…” He sips and looks over the rim of the glass at me, Cheshire Cat. I try to remain expressionless, and the only way I can do that is to also raise my glass, this time in a toast, and hide behind it.
I’ve got to ask, and he answers. “Well, there was much, much more money there, a vast pile of shares that pay dividends, you know, that kind of old-money thing, than I had any inkling of. I think it was only my mother’s incipient snobbery that kept them from living in a trailer park with Fox blaring all day and all evening long. Okay, I exaggerate, but they had no interest in what money could do other than provide untold security.” I come out from hiding behind my glass and sit back in my armchair. This revelation is something to contemplate. I mutter that it sounds unbelievable. “And yet you’ve met my parents. Are you really that surprised?” I am. And then, yes, he’s right. There was something crusty about them in an oddball Yankee way that does make me realize that they were on another planet, bound together in Siamese twin fashion, you could say, but sexless. Just the opposite of Bill.
I half expect him to say: Sometimes I thought I must be adopted, I was so different from them. But he doesn’t.
There goes my “Bill can read my mind” thing.
He is now serenely surveying the restaurant area behind me, which is most of the restaurant. He is looking at the other dinners, because he says: “Rotterdam has become bourgeois!” He controls the volume of his voice, but it is a hoot. I explain that the bourgeois quotient has increased, but that it is still predominantly working class and immigrant. “I bet you fall into that statistic. You’re an immigrant.” I laugh. Who knows? If it is a true unbiased statistic, yes, I do.
“You’re so much fun to tease.” Oh, thanks, I reply, and toast him with my glass and almost finish it.
And then I do. The next course, some summer cabbage with seaweed and puffed rice and Indonesian chili sauce, arrives and the young lady with a new wine.
Bill listens attentively to her patter and then dives in. Maybe he had no lunch? I didn’t ask him about his Eurostar trip. He’s had several addresses in London over the years; I don’t remember now exactly where he lives. It used to be Bloomsbury. That would be within walking distance of St. Pancras and the Eurostar. “This is delicious. Nothing particularly Japanese here. The Indonesian sambal reminds me I’m in Holland?” He’s asking me that? I grin. I shrug. He’s right; it’s delicious.
“I think if I were still hot to trot…” There he goes with expressions that are blasts from the past! “I’d move here.” Here? To Rotterdam? “Probably to Amsterdam. A nice big apartment overlooking the Vondelpark?” I just read this morning that a sanctioned Russian oligarch had a house there. I tell Bill about the squatters who’ve taken it over. “There’s one in Biarritz. Been vandalized last year or something. Did you read about that?” No. “Anyway, sex is no longer my big motivation in life.” He grins at me as I show surprise. “I told you. It’s plaisirs de la table.” I have to laugh and do. He’s going to get fat, then, I tease him. “I go to the gym. I don’t mean fine-dining every day. And, look at your plate; is this dinner going to make you fat? I don’t think so.” He has a point. “But anyway, who cares? I’ve moved on. And there are plenty of cute guys who still seem to be into me.” Ah, just as I suspected. He’s become – what do they call them? – a silver daddy. But I just nod and say, I’m sure.
Our plates have been removed, and the young lady is back. I hear her announce sweetbreads. I see a look of surprise on Bill’s face. To trigger him into greater acceptance, I announce “riz-de-veau.” The lady is surprised at my interruption and then asks if we spoke French, and then quickly apologizes and announces that she does not speak French but is her English okay? Almost simultaneously Bill and I both mutter that her English was great and not to worry. The anxiety, brief but, I think real, fell away from her face, and she smiled a thank you. We looked down at our new plates. I usually like my riz-de-veau fried crispy. This did not look like that. There was a flash of orange, which I think she had announced was pumpkin, and then little bullets of morilles mushrooms, like those little pasta shapes called radiatore.
I don’t know if my translation helped Bill, but along with myself we were digging in. I needn’t have worried. It was, again, scrumptious. “I’m glad you said ‘riz-de-veau’. Sweetbreads sounded like such a turn off.” I grin up at him. The lady is back, looks surprised that we have not waited for her to explain and then pour the next wine, a white, but goes into her spiel. Graves. White Bordeaux. I should wait for Bill, but I grab my glass, sniff, and then taste. Oak but not too much. Bill follows and then nods to her, and then she’s gone. “I usually don’t like this oaky biz in wine, but this works.” I agree with him.
We eat in silence. I see that he has become more of a foodie than myself. He dissects with knife and fork, carefully like a surgeon, creating small bites and thus more to enjoy. I glance up from my own plate from time to time and see him in rapt concentration and pleasure, interrupted only by a sip of the wine. He’s inspiring. I begin to do the same. I don’t eat like this every day. Make it memorable.
Bill dabs his mouth with his napkin and puts it back on his lap. “I bet the Japanese do not eat… riz-de-veau. Yet another reason to meet up with me in Paris. You know, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have sitting across the table from me in the great restaurants of France than you.” I feel my face flush. His sincerity is piercing right through me. I mumble out a thank you. I almost say, likewise, but don’t; that would sound so dumb. He gives me a break and is back scanning the restaurant and its diners.
I consider Bill a friend, a very old friend. And we have a lot in common. But is he softening me up for some late-in-life proposal? Some kind of mariage blanc? I never thought of him as someone who was afraid to go through life alone. He pretty much has gone through life alone already. Just a few minutes ago I was about to cave into to his plan of me joining him in Paris and then even going on to Biarritz. The offer was more than generous. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience France without any thought to the expense of anything. There is no inheritance in my future, certainly not of his kind. I’ll be able to retire pretty comfortably, but that is not in the same realm as the millionaire universe – maybe even billionaire – that Bill has invited me to join him in. France was a playground for wealthy tastes; it is the capital of luxury. Luxury. I say the word to myself.
But as Bill’s life partner?
Is he that desperate? It would be all of a sudden. I needed to know why?
And then I take a final sip of the Graves. It sobers me up. What he just said to me? It’s just a compliment. He enjoys my company. We both love good food. Basta.
“Your next course is duck. And so now I have a red wine for you.” She has reappeared, snapping me back to reality. Bill has seen her coming from across the restaurant and just smiles at her. Is she hiding the label with the palm of her free hand? She pours out a bit in new glasses, first for Bill and then for me. “Do you want to guess?” Bill nods and grabs his glass. He sniffs. He gives her a foxy look. And then he takes a sip.
“This could be an American wine. Is it a Zinfandel? No, no, it isn’t. I know what it is, it’s one of those amazing wines from Bergerac.” I haven’t touched my glass. I watch her face.
“Are you American?” She’s turned into a bit of a tease. Bill doesn’t reply. “You are right. It is a Bergerac. But it is quite peppery, so…”
“So, what’s my reward for the right guess? Do I get to drink the whole bottle?” He bursts out laughing. He’s a bit loud. And then he shakes his head. “No, I enjoyed the game. It’s its own reward.” I take up my glass: rich peppery sniff, fruit, prunes. And then I drink. I can see immediately why Bill thought it might be a zinfandel. I haven’t drunk any zinfandel in years, decades. I wonder if he has. Ah, probably in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Not to put zinfandel down, but I bet it’s quite popular with the Trumpy people. It used to be cheap. I know it isn’t any more. How clever of him to recognize Bergerac. He’s been drinking good wine in London. I ask him. “Yes. The price has skyrocketed, but, yes, I’ve had great experiences with Bergerac.” I am so tempted to quip, Cyrano. “But I hate any play with Cyrano in it. And they keep dredging them up. London is still huge on theater. I’ll miss that.” He looks surprised. I think he hasn’t thought of that. The young lady is still standing there. And then a waiter places our plates of duck before us. “Enjoy,” she says, sounding like a New York Jewish momme. And she’s gone, leaving a faint scent of her perfume, which I recognize. But no: Terre d’Hermès? That’s a men’s perfume. But I know it is.
“Oh? I couldn’t smell anything from here, but she was right next to you. So, does that make her a dyke?” He’s grinning. I laugh and shrug. Who knows these days. “So, I guess we are living in the best of times.” He suddenly looks thoughtful and then remembers his duck. He picks up his new knife, which looks like one of those antique ivory-handled knives used for steak. But it couldn’t be ivory. Not these days. Ah, I know: It’s Bakelite. And it’s new; Bakelite has gone through a revival. I pick up mine. Nice. And then I catch up with Bill. “Delicious duck. Perfectly pink. I suppose the spring onions give it an oriental, if not Japanese, touch.” I state the Bok choy, baby Bok choy. “Yes. But these lovely little puffs are potato. We are back in fusion world.” He takes a big sip of the red. “What a mouthful of wine. Gorgeous.” I agree. “Imagine living in Biarritz. Mild climate, I read. And so close to all the most amazing food and wine. A hop skip and a jump from San Sebastián. That whole corner of the world has more Michelin stars than any place on the planet.” His eyes literally glow, hot embers. I’ve only ever seen those eyes when he’s been talking about some amazing sex he had in Amsterdam. So, he has made that Gallic switch after all.
Outside the restaurant, I stop to thank him. I need to make a point of this. A separation. I’m thanking him for this fantastic meal. He starts to wave it all away. And I’m afraid he might say something like, this is only a start, a taste… I turn and lead the way.
I’m feeling full, almost too full. I could have done without dessert. Bill loved it. He waxed poetic about passion fruit. It was his new thing. He’s been using it for everything from cocktails to citrus butter for fish. I knew he liked to cook and was a good cook, but it was sounding like he has been devoting his life to it recently. I can’t help asking him whether there hasn’t been something to replace The Hoist in his life. He chuckles at the juxtaposition. “Nothing that fresh, or as fresh as it was when it was fresh. And didn’t I tell you I got tired of the piss?” I give him my best guffaw. He has always loved to shock.
The evening is mild, too mild for so late in the fall, but I don’t mention this. First, I’m sick of all the global warming talk, and then I don’t want to make Rotterdam sound too tempting. Yes, that’s the real reason. Time to shut up about all the things I like about living here.
What can I give him as a nightcap? I see him sniffing the breeze. He’s also enjoying the balmy evening. I announce that I have a pretty good single malt scotch. Even as I’m saying that, I realize this is a dumb suggestion. He’s come over from the fucking UK. So, I say, wait, and suggest the good Armagnac I have. He brightens. “Oh, I love Armagnac.” I explain that it’s nothing you can find on the market, that it comes from a village not far from Toulouse, that they sold me some of their own stash in a restaurant in Toulouse that is famous for their cassoulet. “Oh, that sounds, well, out of this world.” He quickens his step.
As we approach the building, I think to ask him what time his Thalys leaves. “Eleven. And you don’t have to get me to the station. I’ll call a taxi, I mean an Uber.”
I turn over in bed, because I hear something. What time is it? I don’t know. I can’t read my watch in the dark. But there is light out. I sit up. It’s Bill. Maybe it’s later than I think.
“They’ve cancelled my Thalys.” Bill is standing in the middle of the living room in a paisley silk dressing gown, looking very Brit but very cross. I’m about to ask how and why. “But they’ve rebooked me for the same time tomorrow.” Ah, that’s a relief. And then I realize: not quite. What am I going to do with Bill today? I did take the day off. It’s Friday, so no problem. Most people take Fridays off in this country these days anyway. There’s plenty of stuff to show him here that he hasn’t seen.
No. No, I don’t want him to get too excited about this city. I don’t know quite why, but I don’t want him to move here.
Why? It’s irrational. I could just add him to my friends here. Another person for the dinner-party roster. And someone who I remember knows how to cook and probably cooks even better nowadays.
I go over to the espresso machine. Cappuccino? Yes, he nods. “I’m fucking up your day.” I think yes, but say no. He brightens. “But now we have another day together. What other Michelin star restaurants do you have in Rotterdam these days.” Bill knows how to seduce me; he reads me like the proverbial book. Of course, there’s a list. Both for lunch and for dinner. No. We should leave town, go to Amsterdam or The Hague. Or Antwerp. We could go to Antwerp.
As I fiddle with the espresso machine, I ask him if he’s ever been to Antwerp. He’s pacing around the living room. He is visibly still riled at the cancellation of his trip. “What? Antwerp? No. Why should I have?” I explain how it’s about an hour away by train, sort of closer than Amsterdam, that it’s different, that it’s changed a lot, much like Rotterdam has changed. I mention Rubens. A mistake. “Agh! I hate Rubens, all that fat female flesh.” I start laughing. And then he joins in. “I exaggerate. I don’t hate Rubens. I know he was probably the first superstar painter, at least the first to become really rich.” That’s very neolib of you, I quip back. “Ah, you see? I’m not immune to the forty-year brainwash. It’s all about making money, see?” A UN international functionary is hardly poor, mostly pretty well off, but, true, they are not motivated by making money.
I prepared for Bill by buying a bag of fairly decent croissants. I also have some packaged fruit juice. I don’t remember him ever being the muesli type or wanting eggs and bacon or omelets or fresh fruit. I mention what’s on the menu and hope it’s enough. “Oh, plenty. Antwerp. Are there good places for lunch there?” Yes. I explain that Antwerp is used to three-course lunches. Dutch think they’re more French than themselves, the shared language and history notwithstanding. It is explained that it’s because they are Catholic and not Protestant or, worse, Calvinists. They are far more food oriented is usually the point. “I know. The Dutch are famous for the sandwich lunches. When I used to come over here more, that’s all I ever saw anywhere.” I tell him times have changed, but he’s still mostly right. The three- or two-course lunch here is a rarity. People eat their main meal in the evening. And early, because they’re starving, I laugh. “At six? You’re joking? My father always wanted to eat at six. My mother didn’t think that was very civilized, so we would eat at seven.” We sit down across from each other at the dining table. We’re both in our bathrobes. Years ago, when he’d come to visit so he could hit the baths in Amsterdam, did we sit like this eating breakfast in our bathrobes? I suppose we must have. Neither of us are wake-up-and-hit-the-shower types.
My watch shows me it’s almost nine-thirty. We have plenty of time. And then I think: We could also go to Ghent. Has he been to Ghent? But then I think about the changing of trains in Antwerp and the fact that we’d have a hard time making it to a fancy restaurant for lunch in time. I remember checking it out. Most didn’t serve lunch after two, some even one-thirty. I don’t ask him about Ghent. Antwerp is the easy solution. “You seem lost in thought?” I half-lie and tell him I’ve been thinking about good restaurants for lunch in Antwerp. This is true, but only in the last few seconds. I have a little list. I go to Antwerp about as often as I go to Amsterdam, which is not all that much.
And then I think that if we go and have a big lunch in Antwerp, what are we going to do for dinner? I like to cook, but I’m not ready to cook for him. Nothing is planned. Always something to eat in the house. Pasta. Stuff for pasta. I would have gone to the supermarket today for myself.
“I love trams. These are nicer than the Amsterdam ones.” I agree with him. He is staring out the window, taking in the passing high-rise office buildings, not minding the abrupt jags the tram can make periodically on the tracks. The tracks are surrounded by and are inserted into grass, unlike train tracks. We are making the backend turn to get to the Central Station on its east side. “And look, this is going to just pull up alongside the train station.” He moves to get up; I’m already standing. I remind him to check out. I have an anonymous public transport chip-card for him, well, not specifically for him but for all my non-Dutch-resident visitors. It’s also good for the train, domestically, but we’ve already bought our tickets online, so have them on our smartphones. I have a yearly subscription, so he gets to ride for a discount with me while we remain in the Netherlands. For such a newbie billionaire, he is very excited by the discount. Well, it’s the “newbie” aspect, probably. Although his generosity is without precedent and now seemingly limitless, he is still true to his Yankee roots and loves a discount, a bargain. I wonder if old-money Biarritz is so Calvinistic.
The tickets on our phones include a QR-code. It gets us through the turnstiles. “I don’t think they’re this advanced in the US, do you? Decades ago, they destroyed, well, oil interests destroyed the train system. No high speed really in the US. Thatcher and Cameron fucked the Brit train system. I’m going to just love living in the European Union.” I point out that our train ride to Antwerp will only be partially high-speed. I tell him the tale of administrative failures that led to what is now a bit of a mess, though the future is promising, I add. “Life has its glitches. Neoliberalism has ultimately been a disaster everywhere, even over here.” He is an economist. I’m buoyed to hear his pronouncement. But did he always think this way? I’m not sure. “It’s all this Green biz that’s going to spur things into the future.” I agree with him and then mention electric cars. Won’t they compete with high-speed trains? As I say this, I hear “high speed” and start laughing. “Exactly. Already I know full well that the Thalys, when I finally get my ass on it, will get me to Paris twice as fast as any car.” Truth, I say.
I’m busy with my smartphone. I explain that I’m trying to find a restaurant in Antwerp for us. I mention Michelin, and he nods, “Yes, Michelin. Let’s go for it.” Have I ever eaten in a Michelin star restaurant in Antwerp. Maybe once. But it’s a bit of a walk from the station. My plan is to find something we can walk to easily.
And then I start laughing. I’ve found a Michelin star restaurant that only serves lunch. I click on the website. It’s in a house in a garden. And, though it started out foggy, cloudy, it’s a bright and sunny day now. “What’s up?” I explain. “That is crazy. Let’s do it. I like the idea of going to a city I don’t know and then ending up in a garden. You do have a knack.” Right. Well, then, it’s meant to be.
“I suppose it costs a fortune.” Is that a problem? “Nope. But give me an idea.” I calculate. I don’t know their wine selection. “Under three hundred euros is doable. Well, anything is doable. The point is: Is it good?” I’m back on the smartphone. I’m checking reviews, etc. They’re in Dutch. “So, your Dutch is not as primitive as you claim. Let me see.” He pulls out his smartphone. In minutes, we are literally on the same page. “Whoa! You understand this? Google Translate wants to translate this for me.” I see him tap with one finger. “Ah! That sounds like fun. We’re going to be wiling away an afternoon eating fab food in a garden. Call them. Fingers crossed they have a table for us.” I call. I hang up. They do. “You spoke to them in English.” I explain that this is sort of the lingua franca in Antwerp and in Brussels. It sidesteps the language dichotomy. “Dichotomy? You mean that it’s supposed to be bilingual but isn’t. That the Flemish don’t like speaking French. And the Walloons don’t like speaking Flemish. I’ve read about that. But it’s been decades since they’ve fought each other in the streets.” I laugh. True. I can barely remember it. When was it? The fifties? I’m a faster googler than Bill. I find it. “Early sixties? That sounds right to me. Anyway, I’ve only been to Brussels once and that was maybe thirty years ago?” There’s no UN stuff in Brussels? I suppose not, not really; that would be Geneva. “I know Geneva pretty well. Been there a lot. Way too much. Not my favorite city.” I laugh. “Why are you laughing?” I explain my train of thought. He shrugs. “You know, the UN is based in New York City. It wasn’t so easy to get a transfer to London. But I wanted out.” Oh? I like it when he talks about his days in New York.
“The Peace Corps sent me to India.” We went to college together; I know that. “I was sick a lot. But then I must have gotten used to all those germs. Did you know I used to fuck women, prostitutes?” I did. “I know you find that weird, but back then I was like that cliché about Arabs you’d hear in Paris. You know: A hole is a hole?” I mutter my disapproval. He smiles. We’ve been there before. “I always knew I was gay. Did you?” I nod, yes. “But you know India was complicated. And going to a hooker was normal. All the Peace Corps guys did it. We got free condoms. And, frankly, it would have been too compromising to go after a guy. Not that there weren’t some hotties around.” I love when he says “hotties.” “But, yeah, it wasn’t normal or satisfying. And there had just been Stonewall. It wasn’t hard for me to land that UN job. Economist? India? I was their dream candidate. And I still spoke French.” Does he now? “My French isn’t as good as yours, but it will come back.” I have no clue. It’s been decades since we were in Paris together. “We had fun as roommates back then, didn’t we?” I remember we led pretty separate lives. He was doing a year at Sciences Po. “Yes, it was a Fulbright. Again, not hard to wrangle after a couple of years in the Peace Corps. I worked like hell. I got that MA in a year.” He did. Back then, I was the slut, out all night, cruising constantly. “I always thought you were very romantic, living in Paris, like some Nouvelle Vague character.” I remind him that this was a woman played by Jean Seberg. We laugh. And then he was back reading on his smartphone. “The chef is famous for his desserts,” Bill looked up at me and then burst out laughing. He always used to say that he was indifferent to desserts. I say, You hate desserts. “I don’t hate desserts. I usually find desserts boring. I don’t think I will this time, do you?” I smile back. “Desserts. I think moving to New York turned me off desserts. Cheesecakes.” He made a face to make me laugh. “We used to eat choux à la crème in those Paris days, remember?” I do. Once a week, usually as a dessert on Saturday night. There was a good no-nonsense boulanger-pâtissier in our street. “You were a good cook. I barely knew how back then.” He looked out the window in surprise. “Where are we? This doesn’t look like my idea of Antwerp.” It isn’t. “Breda? Ah, wasn’t there some famous truce signed here?” I shrug. We sit, waiting. I know that the train waits a good five minutes here, maybe more, to make connections with trains from the east of the country. Breda has become a hub. It’s the gateway to Belgium. “I think that has historic precedents. Maybe Napoleon.” Again, I shrug. I always find this wait annoying and say so. “Oh, I don’t mind.” He fiddles with his phone, checking his email, looks like, and then turns it off and puts it back in his jacket pocket. He’s not in full black today. Same black trousers, but he’s wearing a white shirt. He sees me examining his outfit. “But I’m not black and white. I don’t see the world that way.” He stares me down; I didn’t say he did. Lighten up; you’re doing Claus Nomi drag. I get a chuckle from him. He pulls his smartphone back out of his pocket. I can see he’s googling.
“Jean Seberg. After Belmondo, what?” He says this as he’s starting in on her Wikipedia entry. I’m sitting there watching him read from his phone. I’m tempted to pull mine back out. What am I going to do with Bill after this lunch? He’s never been to Antwerp. We won’t be far from the Rubens House, but he hates Rubens, so we walk to the Grote Markt instead. We pass the Cathedral. We go into the Cathedral? I think he hates churches. “Oh, this is off the wall!” He looks up from his phone. “She was harassed to death by J. Edgar Hoover.” What? “Seems she gave some money to the Black Panthers and then to some American Indian groups. Hoover put her on his black list. What a fucker! Those were the days when the FBI was like the KGB. She committed suicide in Paris in 1979. You were still living in Paris then, right?” I was. I can’t remember the death of Jean Seberg. I google J. Edgar Hoover. He died of a heart attack in 1972. “Yes, but he set the juggernaut in motion. The FBI wasn’t reformed until after her death. Or something. There started to be these congressional investigations into FBI abuses. Jimmy Carter days. I remember that vividly.” Me, not so much. Bill has always been more into politics than me. I decide to google Jean Seberg too. What pops up is FBI COINTELPRO operation. Pops up in the sense that there is a whole section explaining what it was. I start to read. The train starts to move. I look up at Bill. “We’re off to Antwerp. Go back to reading about the fucking FBI. You need some educating.” I grimace at him. I scan. Yes, I know about these horrors. And wasn’t it that FBI chief who they say helped swing the 2016 election for Trump?
I click and turn off my phone. Back it goes into my pocket. A side-pocket. I’m wearing my cargo pants, perfect for travelling. Passport in the other pocket. I assume Bill has his passport on him. Too late now if he doesn’t. I don’t dare ask. It’s Schengen territory. Not very likely for anyone to ask us for our passports on this train.
“Funny, when I think Antwerp, which I don’t do much, I think beer. Am I right?” I smile and nod. “Oh, that’s right. That’s why we were drinking yesterday. So, the question will be: Do we order beer or wine with lunch?” Is he seriously asking my opinion? I decide to shrug. “But you’ll help me with the beer menu, if there is one, right?” Considering that I know only slightly more than he does about beer, I say yes anyway. “Good. Or we can ask the waiter.” That sounds like a good idea. Bill grins at me. “We could be Laurel and Hardy.” I grimace. “See?”
I can see he is impressed. Our train pulls in three levels down. He stares up into the cathedral that is the Antwerp Centraal station. There are escalators. Each level has trains and tracks. We get off deep in the bowels of the station. It is brick constructivist modern, or something like that. It’s a feat of engineering as well as architecture. “You didn’t warn me!” He bursts out laughing; I grin back. We head to the escalator. Escalator after escalator, level upon level, and we are in the nineteenth-century cathedral that is the ancient train station. “This is an amazing and unique piece of architecture. What did they call this style, Flemish baroque?” He isn’t expecting an answer. I tell him the old city buildings are all like this. “I am, like, blown away, dude!” Dude? Okay. We emerge into the now-pedestrianized street lined with cafés and leading deep into the old city, eventually ending at the River Scheldt. We make our way through the crowds. This is a shopping street. It used to be a bit of a nightmare before they renovated into this nice pedestrian thoroughfare. Of course, we have to share it with cyclists. But since the pedestrians far outnumber them, the cyclists tend to behave and avoid us, not vice versa.
When we reach the first set of traffic lights, I know we could turn left, which would be a shortcut to the restaurant. But I want to go further on this street so that he can get an eyeful of nineteenth-century Antwerp in what he calls Flemish baroque. I know he doesn’t mean the real baroque, like in Ghent, which is actually mostly medieval. I’m not much of a guide, I tell him. “You don’t have to talk or describe. I have two eyes. Just lead the way. These are amazingly tall massive buildings, all the ornament, the turrets, the domes.” My crafty plan is to eventually take a left and go past the Rubens House. He may just be tempted to see it after lunch. How often does one get to go inside a Flemish High Renaissance house? He laughs when we pass it and I point it out. “You devil. Okay, I know Rubens was very rich, so it will be grander than the interiors you see painted by Vermeer. I’m in. But right now, I’m starving.”
We turn right into a pocket park. It is a garden. There are trees. In the middle is this cute little brick house, Flemish gingerbread, steep pointed roof, gables, a steeple, large open shutters, leaded window panes. There is a greenhouse. “We’ve stepped into a fairytale.” I agree; I’ve never been here before. “We’re no longer in the city.” I glance at my watch. We’re almost ten minutes later than our reservation. I nudge his elbow. “Right.” There are tables outside set with linen tablecloths. All are occupied. It’s warm enough in the sunlight, but diners tend to be wearing jackets or sweaters. We go inside. I imagine our table is inside, but we will soon find out. The host is standing behind a small podium, black shirt as smock, jeans for that touch of relax. He beams at the two of us as we enter. “This way.” He’s offering us no choice of eating inside or out. I prefer being inside. It’s a warm fall, but it’s not summer by a long shot.
We are seated, handed the menu, whereupon I immediately tell them we’ll have the sumptuous six-course lunch menu. I see that it includes wine. The menu is in Dutch. I ordered in English, but tell the host that we understand the menu. “You understand the menu!” The host has gone. “I’m in your hands.” I explain about the wine. No beer. He makes a tear gesture toward his right eye. “I think they’ve just redone the interior. Plush and modern. Very comfortable seating. I like it. Outside we’d be in wooden chairs.” He slips his jacket off. I do the same. The host arrives with two glasses of what looks like champagne. He says it is champagne. We didn’t order this, but who cares. The host hasn’t left the table before Bill is toasting me. “I approve. You’ve never eaten here?” I shake my head. “Well, a Michelin star rarely disappoints.”
A mini pizza with mackerel? I hear and I taste. “This is going to be fun.” Bill toasts me again. Shrimp croquette? Very Dutch. But this redefines the brand. Langoustine tartar on a little bun? It erupts in lobstery flavor. Tartare? How is this done raw? “I like the timing. We taste and eat; we sip. We have a moment to contemplate and then: next!” I agree. The pacing so far is perfect. I confess that I’ve never eaten like this in Antwerp. “You’re repeating yourself.” Not exactly, but, yes, a bit. There’s a Flemish food channel on TV that I’ve been watching. I think the chef appears on it. Not sure. “You remember all those BBC food shows, star chefs, competitions?” Yes. “Now, there’s this old aristocracy-swooning bitch. I’ve got to get out of the UK. This is a matter of life and death!” He bursts out laughing, I think, a bit too loud. When did he go so American and so loud? “I’m a bit drunk!” He’s apologizing. So, he hears it himself. His flûte has only one sip left. “Just think, if they hadn’t fucked up my Thalys, we wouldn’t be having this experience. This place, this city, is very different from Brussels. You can smell the nineteenth century everywhere. Not like Rotterdam.” I point out that the street where we sat after he’d had a puff of his joint was about that old. “Oh? I thought… Well, of course you’re right. Funky style of architecture.” Not everything got bombed. “Evidently not. It’s so different from Paris buildings of the same time. And, come to think of it, so is what I’ve seen of this city. I guess this city stars as the bling of its day. Over ornate. Gaudy. Almost grotesque, but I love it.” I didn’t think he would. “Maybe we’ll all love the bling-bling shit of today in a hundred years. From our graves!” He makes a chortling sound. He is drunk. Did he also take a puff of that joint this morning? I don’t remember smelling anything.
Chicken in two forms has been announced. White wine served. I have not paid attention, because what has been set down before us is a work of art. “Do we dare eat this?” Bill takes out his smartphone and does a snapshot; I do the same. “I hate to do this.” He has his fork raised in one hand, knife in the other. “How to begin the desecration…” But he starts. “Oh, it’s delicious. This crispy sphere is stuffed with chicken rillettes.” I tell him, translate for him, that the menu says the crust is made of chickpeas. He looks stunned. I shrug. Whatever. It is delicious. And then there is recognizable grilled chicken on couscous, along with various preparations, sauces, jellies, and bits of pumpkin. “Pumpkin. It’s fall.” We have gobbled everything up and look down at traces of the ruins. “I’m glad I took a pic.” We both chuckle. Yes, because memory would not have been enough. “I suppose the theme is that food is art. Luckily it is delicious. That said, I’ll be glad to hit a few basic Parisian bistros. Do you remember your first céleri rémoulade? I do. I had no idea what it was. The US we came from had no celery root. There was no idea that such a thing as a celery root existed. There were crunchy long sticks of celery. Good for stirring Bloody Marys.” He is chuckling, and I join in. Yes, Paris was a mind-blower for us little Americans back then. “You can get céleri rémoulade at fancy New York bistros nowadays. Costs a fortune.” He gives me a belly laugh this time. I grimace in harmony with him. “This is part of my thesis that New York is dead.” I wait, feeling that he’s going to continue. “Sixties, seventies, even eighties? Eating out was still cheap and good. I remember when you could suddenly get Mexican food, and not just Tex Mex, although the arrival of Tex Mex in the late seventies was so great.” He sighs. “It was really about the margaritas, though.” This time I laugh. It took much longer for anything remotely Mexican to hit Paris, let alone margaritas, let alone cocktails. Of course, now, I tell him, he’ll find it all. Paris has gone insane for cocktails. He brightens. “I do know that, but thanks for reminding me. I would take the Eurostar to Paris a couple of times a year. I’d check out the gay sex clubs. Finnicky queens, but not bad.” I… I, who was the slut while he worked his ass off to get his MA, now can tell him that nothing has changed. “Ah! I remember your frustration. But you were dedicated. I remember a certain Patrice.” He starts laughing at me, because my expression must be deer-caught-in-headlights. I remind him of my chagrin d’amour. “You were smitten. You did suffer in the most romantic way. Darling, he obviously was a little asshole.” He purses his lips. We both crack up. “Now we’re two loud Americans.” I suppose he’s right. I don’t care now. Did I really care before? Yes. Especially the new breed of American woman who caws like a crow, loud, eardrum splitting. I mention this. “Oh, London is full of them. They’re exercising their right to be seen and heard. But it didn’t start with #MeToo.” No, it didn’t. “It started with Dubya. In the reign of the first coup of a prez, Trump being the second.” Ah. “And that’s when bling went wild.” Yes.
The host is back and explains. An unlikely mix of scallops and braised ribs and truffle. And, voilà, it appears before us. The host vanishes. We take out our smartphones. We have another white wine. I haven’t been paying attention. It’s silky and fruity, with just a hint of citrusy snap to it. I sip. And then I say this to Bill, as he sips. “Yup. You should be a poet. You are a poet.” Is he mocking me? I don’t think so. But do I care?
“I’m glad you got me to go inside. Rubens’ house is much more interesting than his paintings.” He pauses. “I suppose I’m exaggerating. But anyway, I’ve never been in a wealthy Renaissance house. The painted beams. It’s much darker than those Vermeer rooms. And then the amazing little courtyard with its garden plots, herbs.” I make a murmuring agreement sound. We’re heading toward the Cathedral, which we need to pass to get to the Grote Markt and its cafés. “Thanks for steering us to that place for lunch. What do the French call it: un farandole de desserts?” The chef is famous for desserts, has won prizes. I repeat this; I’ve already told him this before. “Right. And now you’re pointing us towards that cathedral. Our Lady something? Think of how medieval that sounds. Our Lady. Milady. The church is just a hair’s breadth away from feudalism, if that.” The cathedral was built in various stages. It’s not finished. “You could fool me.” We pause at the entrance. “I was just thinking, ‘Our Father.’ Do you think there is some father of us all in heaven? Is heaven the sum total of the universe? I mean… Oh, let’s go in. I don’t think we’ll be struck by lightning. That was a Zeus thing.” I forgot. You have to pay. I look at him apologetically. “I’ll get this.” I hear myself going on about how odd if not sacrilegious it is to have to pay to go inside a Catholic church, do you have to pay to attend Mass? He’s walking a few steps ahead of me. I don’t know if he can hear me. We’re in and down the main aisle. “Oh, this is crazy. This is where Baroque ends and Gothic begins. I love the juxtaposition.” He looks up at the soaring vault. I do the same. I’m seeing it all though his eyes, or at least I imagine I am. Yes, and there’s this round skylight dome thing. “I can imagine people having these religious flurries in their brains.” He rubs his neck. He glances toward the massive bloody crucifix. “What a weird religion.” One of the things that connects us our indoctrination into this religion. I can see before me what he is saying. “When you travel and enter mosques or in India, in those wild temples full of painted gods and goddesses, and then remember this horror of a torture execution that was common in the Roman Empire…” We both stand, no longer looking up, but not focusing. I’m listening to him. We agree; we’ve had this conversation before. I follow him into a side aisle and we stop in front of a rather tacky chapel, something nineteenth century for the most part. There is no one around. Most of the tourists are following the routes that expose the architecture of the cathedral. The pied colors of the stain-glass windows are all that’s left of what was originally all painted walls. All these churches were painted. The Parthenon was painted. The Temple of Karnak was painted. He’s right: All those Hindu temples are painted crazy, garish colors. There’s something austere and protestant about the inside of this cathedral. “I was thinking the other day… Can you remember when they first started teaching you the doctrine, how they told you that you were sinful and needed to examine your conscience and name your sins so you could go to confession and then do the First Communion thing?” I start to answer, but his question was rhetorical. “I do. I remember thinking that I didn’t understand this sin thing. Okay, you could do bad stuff, like, be mean to another kid. I once snitched some quarters from my mother’s purse to buy bubble gum or something. I remember the thrill of stealing. I wasn’t so interested in the gum. Ah, so that’s sin. But we were both baptized. Didn’t that mean we had our sin washed away? How did it come back? Remember, we were born with sin. Sin. Sin. What is this sin thing?” He stops and turns to me. I start to shrug and then just grin back at him. “Is sin like Trump, being consumed by yourself to the exclusion of anyone else, being motivated just by aggrandizing yourself to counter all the harm that Daddy did to you? But we have psychiatrists that deal with all this nowadays. Sin?” He’s not looking at me as you do when having a conversation. He’s discoursing, maybe even pontificating. No, he’s just querying. He’s wondering. I don’t get the feeling he has the answer, a doctrine to explain anything, which would be pontificating like the Pontiff. “I do see evil. I understand evil. Well, not understand, I see political and social stuff taking place that is evil, that is destructive, that hurts others and the world we live in. Would you call Trump’s egomania evil?” Here we are in the Cathedral of Our Lady talking about evil. I say: Evil is an adjective. “Ah, right. So, sin means a capacity to do evil? Now, evil. It’s a noun, dude. This isn’t really an abstraction, is it? No, you were right. It’s just an adjective. Like bad.” He turns toward the huge crucifix with the bloody corpse nailed to it. “I remember when they told me I had to have a list of sins to confess, I remember not knowing what they were talking about. Here we were, a pack of little kids. And then the nun began giving us examples, sort of putting words, sins, on our mouths. I remember not identifying with any of them. Something like when they asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up? I must have been five years old. Grow up? I was living in my total present. I was being a kid. And then the teacher suggested fireman. Oh, right. I want to be a fireman. Had I ever seen a real fireman? Maybe. Maybe not.”
We left the Cathedral. Bill didn’t ask me if I wanted to leave. I didn’t ask him. We were in sync. We just both wanted to get out of there.
“Is there a gay bar around here?” I burst out laughing. He joins me. We need to exorcise the madness of the church. I pull out my smartphone and google. For a second, it hits me once again how open and freely available gay stuff is now. It seems like only yesterday that it was all clandestine. Ah, there’s one only a few minutes away. Just perfect. “God is with us. Or the gods. I like the idea of lots of them. Like the world. Multifaceted. A god for every thought and occasion. Why do we need One? Why does anyone just want one? Was it just those crazy Jews who thought like that in the Roman Empire? But their one god was just a god for them, for their tribe. He was the one and only. The other gods, other people’s gods, were fakes. We need a beer.” I felt it too. I suddenly felt hugely thirsty. Bright and sunny day, warm but not hot, we were crossing the Grote Markt, this ancient square now dominated by a massive city hall in a hodgepodge of nineteenth-century Baroque styles, horrible and wonderful at the same time. And the statue in the middle of this fountain in the middle of the square. Tourists milling around, mostly young. I suppose adults were at work, Friday afternoon. Kids with backpacks. Sidewalk cafés were packed with people sipping beers or other drinks. Maybe this is what has gotten me so thirsty.
There were guys sitting at tables outside the gay bar, but I could see there was more action inside. Disco music poured out. Oh, nostalgia! I look at Bill. “I hear the sounds of gay anthems.” Is that I Will Survive? The Covid pandemic is mostly over; but I associate it with AIDS, although the song, if I remember, came out before the word AIDS even existed. I figure the interior of the bar must be full of old geezers. I’m wrong.
There are a few people standing at the bar, but more people are at tables. This is not the cruise-bar of my youth. “How do people meet if they’re seated at tables?” I say that this must not be the point. “Right. There’s Grindr for that. So, it’s all about socializing? I have to say… there still are bars in London’s Soho where men congregate and there is cruising.” Is Bill having second thoughts about London? “But I rarely go to them.” I state that he’s part of the problem. I add that so am I. “I’ve used Grindr.” Is that a confession? “If you want.” He winks. When did he pick up this winking thing? He’s never winked at me before in his life. “I see there are some people who like to stand at the bar.” He is eyeing a group of younger guys. One of them had turned to look at us as we came in. He paid for lunch so I need to order and pay for our beers. I suggest witbier. I have to explain. It’s a lighter beer people drink especially in summer with a slice of lemon in it. “It’s not summer yet. I liked yesterday’s beer. But I am thirsty. Sounds like a beer for the thirsty.” I nod and then order. The bartender is around our age. Maybe the sexy young type of bartender is for the evening shift? This man could be the owner. “Is this happy hour?” I look around. People are starting to come in, and it is Friday. “TGIF.” I haven’t heard that one in a while either: Thank God It’s Friday. The beer is on tap. It’s tall and slightly frothy and pale colored. I hand Bill his, take the other for myself, and toast. Ah, it’s perfect. Like a glass of water, but better. Water for thirst; this beer for taste. “I like this. You claim you’re no beer aficionado, but you know all these beers.” It goes with the territory, I explain. “Do you want to sit?” We have been walking a lot. I wouldn’t mind. He heads toward a table and takes a seat so that he can still see the guys at the bar. I move my chair cattycorner so I can half-see, too. And then I’m staring at the table two tables away. Are those two guys or two women? I look quickly back at Bill. He has seen what I see. “It’s all those initials after LGBT. It’s another world. We’re old.” He toasts me. “I like this beer.” Suddenly, I have to pee. I explain and get up. Where is the toilet in this place? Probably in the back. It’s an old bar, but it’s been cleaned up, sadly, and modernized so that it’s lighter, and there’s all this disco paraphernalia, a DJ-booth and tracks for lighting like some drunken Eiffel Tower: no more grunge. As I move toward the back, I realize I miss all that old stuff. And the smells. And then I see a sign for toilet and it points to spiraling stairs going into the basement. Ah! That’s better. I’m in a fifteenth-century cellar, if not older. No idea what use the building served when it was built. The bar area would probably have been nineteenth century. In Amsterdam they’re called bruin cafés, but here I have no idea. Same principle. Old dark wood, rich beery odors, not to mention soot and ochre stains from decades of tobacco smoke. The men’s room has a trough for a urinal. Authenticity at last. I suppose the owners think they’ve done good, the modernizing overhaul, but it looks too sleek and sparkly.
I mount the spiraling stairs back up into the new look. Oh, it’s okay. I suppose it’s attracting a younger crowd. I move from the back into the bar area. Where’s Bill? I see the non-binary couple. Ah, I see two beers on a table, so that table must be ours, but no Bill. I stare for a minute and then decide to sit where he had sat, on the banquette, facing the bar. The group of younger guys standing at the bar is gone. I switch the beers, not that I think Bill is infectious but out of politeness, I think. I take a sip. Ah, I was thirsty and still am. I take a few more. Where could he have gone? I look around to see if he’s talking to someone in a corner. No. And then I look up. There’s a mezzanine. Probably crowded when the place is hopping, but there’s no sign of life up there now. Crazy, but he’s somewhere. He’s not going to run off. Where would he go? I pull out my phone and check my email. My monthly cable-internet bill will be deducted from my account next Monday. Exciting. I look up, and there’s Bill, Bill and a skinny blond kid with that haircut – Timothée Chalamet? – that’s skin-short all around the sides and wavy, curly on the top. He gives me a grin and then turns to Bill. Is he embarrassed? No. “This is René.” Bill turns to him. They’re the same height. He gives René a long kiss on the mouth, and then René turns to me and gives a little wave and is gone. “So!” Bill sits down in my chair, turning it away from the bar to face me. “Cute little guy. I’m a daddy, did you know?” I say I can well imagine. “His friends left, and he came over and stood in front of me and said, Hi. He had an impressive boner right at face level, I mean, my face level.” He laughs. “He suggested we go upstairs.” I say that I wasn’t gone all that long. “Long enough, I guess.” I’m waiting for him to give me his old-time blow-by-blow description. This time I am curious. Come on, Bill. But he doesn’t. And then the music pipes up. I look toward the back to the DJ perch, and there’s a guy. There must have been a playlist on before. Now, he’s playing this shuffle-shuffle music, I call it. Okay. Cool. And people are filling the place up.
Look! I say to Bill. He turns around. They’re filling the bar up with stuff, looks like tapas. “Welcome to foodie Belgium, I guess?” He grabs his witbier and downs half of it. “Thirsty.” I wonder if he exchanged any info with René. “I got René’s email, and he has WhatsApp but prefers Telegram, he tells me. I don’t use this Telegram. He said that was okay. He’ll be in Paris next week.” I must look startled. “Yes, imagine having a nice Belgian toyboy in by bed at the Meurice.” I think: That lets me off the hook. And then I feel disappointed. Bill has seduced me. As ever.