I wake up to find René standing over the bed and smiling. “Bonjour.” I hear his Flemish accent. What is he doing in my room? “You like to sleep.” I chuckle and admit as much. I sit up in bed. “Hany and Bill have gone to the boat. We’ve all had breakfast but you.” I sit up further in alarm. What time is it? “Oh, it’s only nine-thirty. Don’t worry. The boat won’t leave without you.” That’s nice to know. He grins at my retort. So, I need to get up. Is he going to leave me alone so I can do my number. I sleep naked. “I’ll meet you downstairs in the dining room. It’s a bit boring. Everyone has something to do but me. Madame and Maryse are doing last minute packing. Women.” He chuckles. He doesn’t seem in any hurry to leave so I can get up. He moves closer to the bed. And then he sits down on the edge of it close enough so that he could reach out and touch me. “What did you think of the food last night?”

            The food? It was good. The Pacha had several restaurants and bars. We ate dinner at Le Tarbouche, which was classic Egyptian and maybe the best Egyptian food I’ve ever eaten, and then we moved to Johnny’s, which was a bar, with food, entertainment and dancing. The place was modern and quite posh, I thought, with expansive views of twinkly lights on the opposite bank of the Nile, the grand tourist hotels. We had Egyptian red wine. It was much better than I remembered. And then the entertainment. We were six. The family Bentley was large enough to be called a limousine, but too ancient to have that name. I was paired with Madame; I can’t call her Maman. And that was how the evening progressed. Later in the bar with its DJ, I asked her if she wanted to dance. Hany and Maryse were dancing; Bill and René were not exactly dancing together, since Hany had reminded them of the nasty history of the police raids on gay gatherings. I didn’t expect she’d accept, but she did.

            “I know. Did you expect that? I mean, a real Egyptian belly dancer.” And she was very good, I thought. He nods. And her midriff was bare. He looks at me oddly. I explain that Naser was pretty puritanical and made belly dancers cover up their bellies with something gauzy so you couldn’t see flesh. René lets out a hoot. I chuckle with him. Madame drank a glass of wine, but the rest of us got through quite a few bottles. I don’t have a headache, but I don’t feel very clearheaded either. “Oh, me? I feel great. Bill was grumpy, but he warned me that he was not a morning person and not to listen to anything he says before noon.” René giggles, literally, like a schoolgirl, I think. I am tempted to start analyzing their relationship but stop myself. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to think about it. René stands up. “And you were dancing with Madame. Did she whisper family secrets in your ear?” Does he expect me to answer that? No, because he stands up: “Guess you need to do your numéro?” He gives me a campy look. Yes, René. Shower, shave, dress.

            The mirror over the washbowl is a bit too low for me and smallish. The washbowl, on the other hand, is large enough to bathe a baby and is oval and of heavy porcelain. I’m scrunched down a bit to see my face as I shave.

            I asked Madame if she wanted to dance, and she surprised me by standing up in one bound, on her feet before I was. Out onto the dancefloor we went. No foxtrots or waltzes, this was DJ pop with a bit of Egyptian beat thrown in. Anyone could dance, like Bill and René were doing, without drawing homophobic attention. This Madame drew my attention to and she drew close to me so that I could hear what she had to say. “Sisi and his military ruffians have been doing the homophobic thing that dictators always do in conservative, backward societies like this one I’ve lived all my life in. Hany had to get out. Education and a good family, may I say, made it easy for him to set up in New York. What is he like there?” Oops! What kind of question is that? I said: Rich! She burst out laughing. She is dancing more with her hands and arms than with her feet; she is barely moving from her position so close to me that I can smell her Chanel No. 5. She has put this on for this evening. It’s the one woman’s scent I know, and she wasn’t wearing it at other times. “He was homosexual as a student here. He tells me everything, you see. I was from a very open and cosmopolitan family, much higher in the pecking order of the Khedive than my husband. Hany never told him. Just as well. But now there’s Maryse. I adore Maryse, but, really, how are they going to have children. I suppose she has her lesbian side. Most women do. The harem.” I thought she’d blow me off the dancefloor in a gust of her candor, an explosion, really. It felt pent up, like she’d be waiting to get her hands on me alone to let loose. There was a pulse and then a swirl of light over the dancefloor. The DJ was revving up the action. “I was reluctant to spend three days on a dahabiya, cooped up, but Maryse reminded me there was you.” She beamed at me a bit shyly then; her arms fell to her side. “You know you’re that sort of man, the kind people tell things to.” Am I?

            I splash lukewarm water on my face. There I am. Is that person in the mirror the kind I want to confess all to? I smile at that face. Maybe.

            Madame has stories. And, frankly, I can’t wait to hear as many as she is willing to tell me. I want her life story.

            I’m finally really looking forward to this voyage down the Nile. Did René read the Agatha Christie? I’ve forgotten to ask him.

René is sitting at the dining room table, his elbows up on it, leaning forward, and reading something, a paperback I see. He looks up. “It’s a murder mystery. I hope our trip is less silly than this.” Death on the Nile. I look at it over his shoulder as I pass to the buffet. I touch the pot of foul: still warm. Do I want some? Yes. And I want to swab it up with some baladi bread. I prepare a plate. I explain to René that the book is from the late 1930s when the Brits colored the globe pink. He didn’t understand the colored pink part, I could tell, but then he never saw an old-fashioned globe either. And when I was a kid, the British Empire was still pink on it, but then the old round globe we had was from before my birth. I tell him, as I sit down, that I thought he’d just download the movie. “I do know how to read, you know.” Oops! I laughed, and then he laughed at me laughing. One is not to make assumptions about René based on the generation he belongs to. I stand corrected.

            Maryse enters the room, her perfume giving warning beforehand. “Bonjour, Monsieur.” Madame follows and echoes Maryse’s greeting to me. There they are now standing side-by-side staring at me having a breakfast so late that it is probably considered lunch. “We were all up at the crack of dawn. You didn’t hear anything? Ahmed and Nadia barking orders. I went to the window. They were having food and linens and crockery loaded into a pickup truck. I’m a light sleeper, but it woke Hany up.” I tell her that I slept soundly. And almost added that I only got up to pee once but then realized that she didn’t need that detail. “Good. Well,” she’s eyeing my plate of foul, “you know that looks good.”

            “Moi aussi,” says Madame. I’m soon sitting at the table with both Madame and Maryse each with their plate of foul, scarfing it up as fast as I was. We are all three starving, it seems. René watches us. He finds us funny but is too polite to laugh. And then I’m hugely thirsty. There’s tea, and I forgot.

            René stands up and moves to the buffet. “None of you has anything to drink. Tea. There’s a pot there. Is it still warm? Yes.” He brings it over to the table. Next, he goes after cups and saucers and spoons. He’s waiting on us. Yes, but he’s also waiting on himself. There’s a cup, saucer, and spoon for him.

            Madame stands suddenly, scraping the chair against the parquet. “Let me play mother.” She’s turned into a lady dowager. Milk, sugar, and then tea: the ritual repeated four times, each time requesting how many sugars. I like two, but Maryse has none, and René has two, like me. Madame also takes two spoonsful of sugar. I take a sip. I’m expecting black Egyptian tea, but it’s Ceylon.

            “Hany and Bill are on the boat, seeing to everything, so Hany said. We’re expected before noon, because that’s around when we should sail. I shouldn’t say…” Maryse is pausing but, I can tell, with no real hesitation; she’s being dramatic. “Hany got a long email from the office. He might have to go back to New York to close this deal we’ve been working on for months now. It’s that triplex penthouse you saw. Abu Dhabi. You know…” Her tone shifted so that I thought she might wink at me, but she doesn’t. “I don’t need to go. I did all the dirty work, oiling up the slide, as it were…” I have no idea what she’s really meaning there. The money chute? Certainly, she did not prostitute herself to some old sheik. Madame is listening to her and now looks as surprised as me, but, no, almost alarmed. So, she can see that Maryse is also capable of anything. And then I see a small smile form around Madame’s mouth. She’s enjoying whatever scurrilous thoughts she’s having. “So, let’s hope Hany can stay with us.” Yes, I exclaim. Madame nods, neither happy nor unhappy. She already knows all this, evidently, and yet still she’s going with us. Maybe she does want a nice talk with me. Lucky me!

            We are walking to the boat. “You only have one suitcase on wheels, right?” It’s René. “I’ll drag that along for you.” What about the others? “All our bags are already on the boat.” I stand up from the table.

            Madame looks up at me. “Surely you’ll have more tea? And there’s toast and marmalade.” I tell her I’m not packed. Her hand reaches up and pulls me back down into my seat. “We have time.” They all smile at me so benignly it’s embarrassing. Maryse gets up and goes to the buffet. She comes back with toast, butter, and a dollop of marmalade on a big plate and sets it in front of me. And then she sits back down. I start laughing. They’re treating me like a child or an invalid. “Bon appétit,” says Madame.

            I try to relax. In truth I haven’t taken much more out of my suitcase than my toiletries bag. Why are they so relaxed? “Hany has some business to attend to with the people that helped him get a safe place to dock the dahabiya. He’ll text me when he’s heading back on board the boat.” Maryse supplies me with the answer. “We’ll cast off before noon.” Yes, I’ve heard that before. I butter my toast and spread some marmalade. I take a few bites. I drink some tea. I’m no longer very hungry. And then Maryse’s smartphone, lying on the table, buzzes and lights up.

I did try and drag my own suitcase; the sidewalk was broad, well-maintained as it circled the front of the Kempinksi Nile Hotel, but René wouldn’t let me. I walk in front with Maryse who knows the way to where the boat is moored. René drags my suitcase along with Madame at his side. I hear she is speaking French to him; she is telling him about her only visit to Antwerp. “You see, it’s really a short walk.” Maryse is leading past the hotel. I can see the Nile. We pass an ice cream stand. Ah, it’s a kind of marina. And I think I see our dahabiya. It looks exotic, quaint docked in an area with small motor yachts, not the bling-bling affairs of Saint Tropez but large and comfortable enough for a small party cruising on the Nile on a hot summer evening. It is public space, but then not. As a marina, it’s very discreet.

            Maryse laughs and starts waving. It’s Bill waving at us from the bow. It’s a day that reminds me of LA, the sky a bit dull with smog but warm and sort of sunny. It’s hard to feel this is a day before Christmas. Of course, there are no Christmas decorations. Maybe there are some in the lobby of the hotel; I’m sure there are. As we passed, hotel guests were getting out of taxis. I can imagine they’ve just come from the airport.

            I have seen dahabiyas sailing on the Nile. They are shaped like two-story ferry boats with a two great sales fore and aft.  Now the sails are slack, but once out on the river, the sails will billow. This is going to be gorgeous. René stops to take out his iPhone and take a pic of us all as we board.

            We are sitting around a great round table waiting to be served our lunch. I have a cabin all to myself as does Madame. I’m the only one bringing a suitcase on board; the others already find their bags in their cabins. The bathroom is small, but there is one, so it has been more than just restored. I have a queen-size bed. I’m going to sleep like a baby after the rather stiff mattress in the mansion in Garden City. It’s simple but luxurious: a modern hotel room on water.

            As we boarded, we were introduced to the captain and is two-man crew. We shook their hands and then went down to our cabins.

We were all back on deck to experience the boat being tugged out onto the Nile and the sails unfurled. The sails snapped a bit and then filled. The ropes to the tugboat were cast off. With only the sound of the wind and murmuring of river traffic, we were soon south of Cairo, its suburban apartment blocks, always half built with iron rods pointing up at the sky, promising higher floors that will never happen. It is a tax dodge. Taxes will only be paid in full when the building is completed, but it never will be. Hany explained that to us. I’d always wondered. Not pretty to look at, but a funny story.

            Now as we sit in the shade of the tented deck, aside from the calls of the boatmen we have drifted into silence. Madame’s face is radiant. I wonder how long it has been since she’s been out on the Nile like this. I wish I could see her memories. The entire deck is honey-brown wood with beautifully carved railings. It is spacious. At one end are lounge chairs; I suppose we’ll sunbathe at some point, doze in the sun, probably after lunch. I realize that I haven’t thought to bring anything to read, but then I do have a few e-books on my phone. Right now, sitting quietly as we are, I can’t imagine I’ll be bored, but I don’t know why I’m so sure.

            “Oh, look.” We follow René’s gaze. Yes, pyramids, but the pyramids at Saqqara. René has his camera out. I remember visiting them in a taxi that first time with Bill; they had seemed a bit of a letdown after Giza and the Great Pyramids. Now they shimmer in the sky over the west bank of the river. We say nothing. We do just look. I can see that neither Madame nor Hany have seen these pyramids like this from the river. No anecdotes from Madame; they are left as speechless as the rest of us.

            Ahmed appears carrying a great pot. He positions it in the middle of the table and leaves without opening it, saying something under his breath to Madame as he heads back down into the galley. “We are to wait. He will bring up bread and salad and cold Stella.”

            René starts to stand. “I should help him.”

            “Oh no, mon chou, he would take that as an offense, that he is no longer capable of serving. He is used to stairs. He has better balance and stronger legs than any of us. René sits and receives Madame’s smile of admiration. Clever René. He knows how to charm everyone.

            Ahmed is back with a large tray of small plates of different salads, a basket of baladi bread, and two bottles of Stella lying in their sides so they won’t fall off the tray. Ahmed may have great balance, but he’s taking no chances. He salutes Madame with two fingers to his forehead. She thanks him. There is now a large ladle that she takes hold of as she stands and raises the lid of the pot. Steam gushes out and then stops, leaving us in a cloud of stewed vegetables delicately spiced. I think this is the sort of food you can only find in the homes of Egyptians.

            I open my eyes and the fragment of an encounter, a conversation with someone I know, I recognize, but, now as I try to grasp who it is, fades away and then just evaporates. My hand is resting beside me on the chaise longue with my smartphone at its palm. I couldn’t keep my eyes open to read and let it rest by my side and then I must have drifted off. In the lounger next to me is Madame, dozing with her mouth half open. I turn away quickly as if I’ve caught sight of her naked. Or rather what she might look like on her deathbed, though her chest gently, if almost imperceptibly, is drawing breath in and out of her. I think Hany and Maryse have retired to their cabin. Bill and René are on deck in the dining area seated at the table; they seem to be playing cards. Is Bill a cardplayer? I think he may have learned how to play bridge in London. Bill is familiar as a friend of many decades is, but there are great gaps in detail about his life. I watch his relationship with René unfold with a mix of fascination and apprehension, apprehension, of course, because if René exits his life, he will, he might latch onto me. Maybe he was the shadowy person in the now forgotten conversation; I’m feeling he might have been. Still, no details materialize.

            “Hey, you’re awake!” I sit upright to prove Bill’s point. I ask him if he has any clue how far from Cairo we are at this point. “We’re well beyond Helwan. There was industrial stuff to be seen a while back. But I think we’ve left the agglomeration. It’s looking more rural. We might be approaching the branch off into the Fayoum. I think I’d recognize it if I saw it. I’ve never been to Fayoum. Not too much left of that huge Greco-Roman population center. Plus, I know that it’s about half the size it was in antiquity.” I nod. We all know the beautiful Fayoum mummy portraits. Bill seems to have given it all more study. He turns abruptly to the card game and lets out a whoop. “You little fucker!” Bill bursts into laughter. René sits back very pleased with himself. René sits back very pleased with himself. He pulls out his iPhone and starts taking pics of the deck, Bill laughing, and now me on the chaise longue.

            “Mon Dieu!” We all look towards Madame, snap to attention. “Quel bruit! Vous avez détruit une petite sieste si délicieuse…” Delicious nap? She doesn’t elaborate. She is sitting bolt upright and has fingered what whisps of silvery hair that have escaped her chignon back in place. I can imagine she must have made a formidable mother.

            Bill stands. “Mes excuses, Madame.” He looks at René. “I was up at the crack of dawn. I could use a nap myself. Try out the bed in our cabin.” René is hesitating. Maybe it’s because it would be kind of blatant to proclaim: Me too. But I know René started the day at the same time that Bill did. I’m rethinking René waking me up. I wonder if he thought I might grab him and pull him into bed with me. No. Bill probably sent him to get me up. How long had he been watching me sleep before I woke up? Disconcerting thought. Similar to the thought I’d just had when watching Madame sleeping.

            And then René lets out a yawn and stands up. He chuckles at me. “You’re the only one that doesn’t need a nap.” I chuckled back and agree.

            And then they’re both gone.

            “Oh, finally. Mon cher, come over here and lay down on the chaise longue. There’s something about you that makes me want to tell you all my secrets.” She reaches over and strokes the lounge.

            I’m thinking: Her wish is my command. She is used to being obeyed. This is maybe just the moment I’ve been waiting for. I had been wondering when there would be a moment when she could continue her conversation with me. I’m about to sit down when I ask her if she’d like a Stella.

            “What a lovely idea.” She looks around for service help. None of the crew are visible. I tell her we don’t want to be disturbed: I’ll get two Stellas and two glasses. I turn and head toward the stairs.

            The dahabiya is not large. I remember where the galley is. The door is half open. I don’t see anyone before I push open the door. Ahmed is slumped in a chair, seemingly asleep. I’ve seen Egyptians asleep sitting up. Millenia of this climate seems to have made dozing part of the DNA. Nadra is standing over a great counter stirring something in a great bowl. She looks up at me startled. I think to just say, Essayek. She recognizes me and smiles back and repeats the greeting. I ask her about two Stellas. Her face lights up. She says: Madame. I nod. She turns toward a fridge and pulls out two bottles and puts them on the counter. She finds two glasses on a shelf. She utters the name of her husband. I shake my head and make a gesture toward the cap. She smiles and finds a bottle opener and hands it to me. Yes, better to carry the two bottles along with the glasses up those wooden stairs unopened.

            My eyes sting as the light of the deck hits them. I manage bottles and glasses. “Bravo! We will drink them here on the lounge.” She gets up and brings over a small table and places it between our chaises. She reclines back on hers: I think Madame Recamier even though not that furniture design. “Luxurious and intimate. Just the two of us, mon cher.” I open both bottles and fill both glasses before I get back on my lounge. I hand her a glass and toast her before I sit back. I lay back on my side at an angle so I’m partly facing her. I wonder if she always dresses in a kaftan. This one is also black but with a bit of gold thread around the sleeves and at the neck. I could imagine her always dressing this regally. In fact, I can’t imagine her any other way, although it’s not likely when she is alone with Ahmed and Nadra in the house that she isn’t wearing something less elegant. But I can’t picture what. Does she ever wear Western clothes, dresses, skirts, blouses? She takes a long sip. “Oh, I was thirsty.” I join her. I was thirstier than I’d thought, myself. The Stellas at lunch no doubt put everyone asleep except Bill and René. She puts the glass down on the small table. “I bet you have this idea that this trip on a dahabiya is nostalgic for me. Hany told me that this one is authentic, restored, dates for 1899, I think he said. You can imagine, mon cher, that this is a bit before my time. I’ve never been on a dahabiya in my life. I think they were resurrected for the tourist influx in the 1980s. I’ve been sailing on the Nile, many, many times, but in one of those nice little feluccas. It’s a nice thing to do before it gets too hot to stay on in Cairo, and everyone goes to Alex.   

            “You know Alex, am I correct?” Yes, thirty years ago or so, I pinpoint for her. “Ah, sad. Then you saw nothing. Within five years after the Revolution, everything had already changed. The wealth had fled after Nasser began nationalizing foreign-owned firms. I was raised by nuns, les bonnes sœurs, along with girls from only the best families. Oh, don’t think that we were all Catholics. Far from it. It was the fashionable school for young girls in Alex. So, you see, I grew up in a very cosmopolitan milieu. As you might expect, my father traded in cotton futures on the bourse. He was one of the lucky ones after 1952. He was Egyptian. They left us alone. He cried and waved goodbye to the old friends and families, but he thought Nasser was good. He had friends in the Wafd Party. He was no keen royalist. But politics was never discussed at the dinner table. I only realized something had happened when girlfriends began leaving the school, moving away from Alex. Only the Greek ones stayed. I suppose they all had dual nationality, as you call it now. My graduating class was the last. And then we moved to Cairo. To this house.” She looks around. “Well,” she chuckles, “you know what I mean. I enrolled in the American University. Everything British was frowned upon, as you can probably guess. That was before the Russians bankrolled the High Dam.” I nod. “Ah, you know a bit of the history.” I nod again. “I met Nessim at the university. Although we probably would have met socially in the course of things. His father was Copt, his mother French. We were brought up with very little religion. I think my father was Muslim, but he never prayed in any mosque. He never prayed, period. We were not a religious family. That worked well in the Nasser period and on into Sadat. Then Sadat was murdered by Islamic lunatics. Mubarak was a coward. He gave the Brotherhood a piece of the action: charities. A bit stupid in retrospect. But by then the Russians were gone and the Americans were back. You know, with Sadat. That was the end of Arab Socialism. And then along came Saudi money, and pretty soon the mosques started filling up on a Friday. Next came those hijabs. Hate them,” she shrugs, “but what can you do. I socially declared my Coptic roots and have been spared. Anyway, enough about me. You don’t look surprised.” No, I have surmised that this was her background from the little I learned about her from Bill and Hany.

            “Now, tell me about my son. Just how rich is he?” I burst out laughing. She takes a nice sip of her beer. “He keeps inviting me to New York. I don’t want to go. I don’t like to leave Garden City.” I think: You don’t even want to leave the mansion. “But here I am. Maryse says I must come to New York. She would come to Cairo and take me there. We would fly first class, of course. Do Hany and Maryse live together?” I must look startled; she chuckles. I tell her that I really don’t know. “I thought as much. Maryse also likes women. Mainly, she prefers women, am I right?” I tell her I don’t know. She gives me an exasperated look. But really, I know nothing about Maryse except that night at the House of Yes. “Her father is a handsome man, you know. But he is very rigid. I know he thought I should cover my hair.” She chuckles again. “Men are such babies.” I’m surprised. I’d thought a wealthy man from Istanbul would be different from the Erdogan gang. I say that. “You’re right. Maybe I was imagining it. I pay too much attention to the news. Turks used to be so secular.” I remind her of the Nasser era. She lets out a sigh. “You’re right again. The world is going backwards.” She finishes her glass. I refill it. I take a few sips of my own Stella; I’m not going to catch up with her.

            “I grew up in a cosmopolitan world. In Alex, we spoke French at home. Times have changed indeed.” She takes a sip of her refreshed glass. I can see she is getting great pleasure out of her reminiscences. “Part of the family in Alexandria had come from Constantinople, you now, Istanbul. A great-great-great grandmother is said to have been born Jewish. Mon cher, je suis un cocktail!” The laugh that follows this comes from deep in her throat and ends up in a spate of coughing. She takes a sip. “Aren’t we all cocktails? Surely as an American you are hardly likely to be anything but a mixture.” I nod. “Exactly. Maryse certainly has the blood of Circassian slaves in her. But, you know, slavery was an odd thing back in those days. The Mamluks ruled Egypt before the Albanian Muhammed Ali was sent from Constantinople to subdue them. They were a slave army made up of non-Arabs, and a total mishmash. Imagine a slave army ruling a country for three centuries?” I note that if they were rulers, they were also independent and hardly slaves any more. She shrugs. She may know a lot more about this history, but I can see she’s not interested in going further in that direction. What’s her point? Where is she going? Frankly, I don’t care. I’m happy to let her ramble. Her voice is a contralto; her accent is slightly French with a Levantine twist to it that I remember from encountering bejeweled rich women from Beirut on Mediterranean ferries before the civil wars and ensuing calamities. Madame, however, has none of their insolence; they would envy her elegance.

            “You know that I have already met your friend Bill. It was decades ago. He was introduced to me as Hany’s lover.” I must look surprised, because she’s smiling coyly; I am. I had no idea. “That was when they both were at the UN.” She’s toying with me, feeding me a tidbit of information. And then she lets out a long sigh: “So long ago. I would never have expected Hany to introduce me to a woman – have I said how much I like Maryse? – and marry her in our home. I would have called you insane, a liar, had you even suggested that. Why, do you think, this is happening? I assume they’re in their stateroom trying to make me a grandchild.” She is reading the discomfort on my face which I can feel shows there. She looks at my glass of beer, half full. It’s a cue for me to drink up.

            “I am told that Bill is a dollar billionaire now.” She’s reading me for corroboration. “Has he always known this would befall him?” I smile back. I’m happy to say something: I have no idea myself. I tell her that there was no hint of it. I knew he was from an old Boston Yankee family. He grew up in Pride’s Crossing. Always a joke between us: I’d call him the prude in disguise, which he loved. He would bark back: Beverly. We both knew it was just the name of a neighborhood. Did he really grow up in Pride’s Crossing, now that I think of it? “And now Hany has made so much money in real estate. I don’t think he’s a billionaire though.” She’s looking for me to agree; I can’t; I don’t know. I give her my old Gallic shrug. She smiles. “You are far too discreet. Don’t you ever gossip?” That gets a laugh out of me. Do I? Who doesn’t? “Hany seems to know people in the government, important people. I’m going to say to you, but don’t breathe a word, that I think they have a corrupt relationship. That would be normal for…” She purses her lips. The sudden change that makes in her face reveals the ravishing beauty of a woman she was when younger, regal. How wealthy was her husband, Hany’s father, Nessim? Where did that wealth come from really? You don’t just up and start trading on any stock exchange. No mention of a brokerage firm. I don’t dare ask her. I have to wait. I don’t think he had the mansion built. On the other hand, it could have been his family mansion. I know that Garden City was only developed beginning before the First World War: Thanks, Google.

            Madame is eyeing her glass. It needs topping up. But I don’t get the feeling that this is why she is looking at it; she is somewhere else in her mind, in her past. I suppose she’s thinking that it’s right and normal for Hany to cultivate these connections. Her allusions to money have the ring of the casino to them. She would think the actual sums superfluous. She would never have had to think about money, sort of like Bill right now.

            “You know, before Nessim died, the family lost nearly everything. Luckily, we still had connections. Hany got that UN job. And now that has saved the family. Hany’s job at the UN saved our home.” The look in her eyes as she focuses on me with this twist of information is cool, if not exactly icy: a turn of events best left unexplained. “My husband Nessim did not have a corrupt bone in his body.” She is almost laughing as she states that.

            I fill her glass. There’s a bit left for me; I empty the bottle.

            There is a snap of the front sail that makes me jump. We both burst into a laugh. “That, I think, is not a good sign. I think that’s the last of the wind. I have no idea where we are.” She reaches for her glass and takes two sips. “Do they have tug boats at the ready? You know, mon cher, you might think I should know but I don’t. But I’m repeating myself. I’ve already told you this is my first voyage on a dahabiya.” I remember from my first trip – the one with Bill when we were Paris roommates – that before sunset the wind dies over the Nile leaving feluccas coasting or still. There would be this thing about getting to shore before sunset. That was Luxor. I suppose it’s a Nile thing.

            “Early next year Hany has arranged for some restauration work to be done on the house. He and Maryse think that would be the perfect time for me to visit them in New York. But New York is very cold in winter, n’est-ce pas?” She parodies a shudder. I laugh: Yes, New York can get very, very cold in winter. “So, I suggested that he put me up at the Cataract Hotel. They still have grand suites. I think that would be very nice, don’t you?” Her eyes are dancing for me. “You could fly down from… Amsterdam? No, Rotterdam. And join me for a week in Aswan. Would you do that for an old lady?” She’s got me. She is fixing me with a grip of the eyes that is demanding I bow to her wish. “I can regale you with stories that will make your imagination spin. I can see you’re the type that takes an interest in our history in this corner of the world where we have lived for seven thousand years. You can help me begin my memoirs.” I nod. “Oh, good. I take that as a promise.” Oh, shit! And yet I was prepared to go off with Bill to help him buy property in Biarritz, wasn’t I? But then I would have to trigger a full year’s sabbatical. “And then in the spring Maryse can come and fetch me and bring me to New York.” She takes her beer and indulges in two long sips that mean case closed.

            She gazes out over the river. Again, she isn’t focusing on the opposite bank, which now does look quite rural, but is lost in thought. “Do you like young René? I don’t feel that he’s with Bill for the money. I think he likes older gentlemen. I can see him eyeing Hany. How about you?” What do you mean, how about me? She breaks into a chuckle. “He was very eager to go exploring with you yesterday.”

            How does she know that?

            I top up my glass and hers. There’s very little left in the half-liter bottle. What’s the alcohol content? 4.46%. No wonder I’m feeling a bit lightheaded. But it’s also the softness of the air on the Nile, the stillness as it sits almost immobile now with the wind back up a bit but hardly enough to fight the flow of the river back to Cairo, the Delta, and the Mediterranean. We are going nowhere.

            I hear a shout from one of the boatmen and then a long series of orders. I ask Madame what they’re saying. “He is directing the sailor to tie up the tugboat. Darling, we are now just a barge on the Nile. Think Cleopatra.” She erupts in a growl of a chuckle. “I don’t like the look of that bottle. Don’t you think you should go back down and fetch us another, mon cher?” No, I don’t, but I don’t say that. I don’t have to keep up with her. This is setting me up for a nice nap before dinner. She takes a large sip of her glass. “Now. Now there’s room for what’s left in the bottle. Chop-chop!” She’s now revealing her grin to me: not very elegant. I do as told and get up off the lounge.

            Steady! I wobble a bit. I go around the lounge and grab the empty bottle. “What a beautiful evening is ahead of us.” I look up at the slack sail and then around the beautifully restored carved balustrades around the deck. I’m reminded that the Khedive state that ended with Farouk gloried in the Arabesque, in that orientalism that so beguiled and seduced Europeans to come and invest and make the monarchy rich. You could imagine the dahabiya being constructed of sandal wood so that its voyage was perfumed. It isn’t. I don’t know what kind of wood it is, but it is not cedar or sandalwood. It is a rich but light brown and the non-foot surfaces are highly polished. The deck is dotted, spread with Egyptian carpets, more for the flash of color and opulence than for comfort. Still, I watch my step as I head off to the stairs down into the hold. Orders continue to be barked. And then as I near the stairs there is a shudder and a tug. I reach for the railing just in time. I could have fallen down the stairs. But then I feel it: movement. We are once again moving south against the current of the Nile. We will no doubt tie up somewhere after the sun sets. It can’t be very safer for a dahabiya to continue sailing the Nile in the dark. I wonder where that will be.

            I find both Ahmed and Nadra dozing. I know where the bottles of Stella are stored.

“Ah, there you are! We will moor the boat near Minya. Or I should say, our boat will be moored at Minya. None of us are in control. Tomorrow is the 25th of December. Christmas. Are you excited? Do you still believe in Santa?” I can’t help grinning as I approach our dual chaises longues. I don’t answer her question. “There! You are such a darling, really. You know, normally, we’d be served bits of carrot and cucumber. And white beans. Are you still hungry? No. But come, sit.” She reaches over and pats my chaise right before I enter the space between our lounges and place the unopened bottle of cool Stella down on the little table. I grab the bottle opener: The deed is done. My glass is still half-full. Madame’s glass is empty so I reach over and fill it. I top off mine for a bit of cold. “Cheers!” She raises her glass towards mine and takes a great sip. She has leaned slightly forward off the lounge to do this and then sinks back, a courtesan preparing for her portrait. Put down your violin, Monsieur Ingres. Or is it Manet? Oh, nothing that lewd. “Where was I? Oh, maybe you’d like to know about my family, my mother and father?” I nod in a slightly overexcited way. I am eager to hear her go on. “You see? There is a Santa. And tomorrow we will have something quite special for our feast. Wait to be surprised.”

            My imagination runs wild. At first it goes French – I think foie gras; ancient Egyptians did invent foie gras, right? – but then move toward the Levant where I come to a dead end. A goose? A duck? I bet that’s what we’ll get and I can’t wait to see how Nadra will prepare this. It must be a rarity. I’ve never come across an Egyptian recipe for duck or goose. I’m about to bark out “goose,” but don’t. If I’m right, it will just spoil the surprise for tomorrow. “I don’t think Minya is very interesting. We could disembark or we could stay on board.” I tell her about the ruins of Akhenaton’s capital. “I know, mon cher. But it’s really nothing to see. Not when we have Karnak before us. We should be in Luxor the day after Boxing Day. It all depends on the wind in our sails.” She looks up at the slack sail and bursts out laughing. “I can’t imagine that in days of yore the dahabiya was ever a serious method of travel on the Nile, can you?” I note that people were in less of a hurry back then. She laughs. And then I say that I bet Cleopatra’s barge had rowers for just such occasions. “Ah, yes, the Eternal Nile.”

            “Well, look at the two of you!” I turn to see Hany mount the stairs with Maryse not far behind him. He’s wearing an Adidas track suit; she’s wearing a kaftan of a pale blue material, which, as she comes closer, looks like raw silk. Where would she have found something like that? I ask.

            “Ah, tu l’aimes? Je l’ai trouvé dans une boutique à Zamalek que Maman m’a signalée.” Zamalek, I don’t really know Zamalek well. We had that nice dinner on the moored ship the other night, but that’s about it for me. I know it has always been posh since turned residential in the late nineteenth century. Expat country. I remember spurning it, considering it less than Egyptian. I find I don’t care now.

            “Maryse, I’ve twisted his arm. He will stay with me at the Cataract before you come and transport me to springtime in New York.” Maryse stares at me in surprise. I don’t know what to say.