I was glad to get back to Rotterdam for New Year’s Eve. Bill and René stayed on in the mansion in Garden City with Maryse until Hany flew back. Bill called me at midnight to wish me a Happy New Year. He didn’t pass me on to any of the others. I’d left the friends and gone into the bathroom to talk, but it was brief. “You can imagine it’s weird being in this house without her. Ahmed and Nadira stayed in Karnak. The renovations will go on as planned. We eat all our meals out, except breakfast. No more foul. I have no idea what Hany has planned for the future of this house. On the other hand, he’s happy to be a billionaire and has taken every opportunity to rub my nose in it.” Bill’s cackle got me laughing. “Money, honey. Happy New Year. Try and keep your February open for me and an excursion to Biarritz. You know: House hunting?” And then he’d hung up.

             I’m surprised at how bereft I feel, not only at losing Madame, whom I barely knew really, but especially at not enjoying tales of her life, even making at least notes for her memoirs. I have my own past, my own memoirs, but to have hers would have connected me to a very lost era, just as gone, if not forgotten, as the wild days Bill and I had as, well, kids in Paris, and those that Bill would occasionally regale me with, starring the mugger and raunchy sex-club days he’d lived in seventies New York. He could make Studio Fifty-four so real that I felt I’d been there. Of course, Janine had. And that added to making that past real and alive.

            I didn’t really want a full-year sabbatical. The first week of January we figured out a six-month one, starting immediately. So, back to work in July, which suited human resources, since this was of course a vacation month when they could be dangerously short-staffed. I’m one of the few people who actually go to the office, not on Fridays, of course. Few people do in the Netherlands, I gather. We sort of already have a three-day weekend. It works, it works very nicely, actually. Productivity has jumped, so HR proclaims in memos.

            Sabbaticals are an odd thing for an American. Here they’re expected; in the US they would evoke paranoia, like, no job when you come back. We did very well without you: Fuck off. Seeing as how the news is always reminding us that we have a labor shortage here in NL, this is not an issue. Still, I guess it’s in my gene pool. I’ve been feeling rudderless and uneasy lately.

            And so, when Bill called and suggested I pop down for Valentine’s Day – ha-ha! – I just hope I didn’t sound too relieved and overjoyed. “Arrive in time for cocktails. How’s 16:00 or so sound?” Sounded good. “Expect the ticket forwarded in an email. I’ll do it right now, before René gets back from class.” What? He didn’t leave me time to ask. He hung up.

            I’ll find out soon enough. Very good to learn that René is not only still in the picture but evidently living with Bill in the Place Saint-Georges. Yet, why does Bill need me to house-hunt in Biarritz, which neither of us have ever been to?

            “Bill doesn’t approve of Valentine’s Day, but I think it’s great.” René leans down and gives Bill a kiss behind his right ear; he’s then off to answer the intercom. We will have a guest, a new classmate of René’s.

Bill grins at me. “When we lived here, there was no such thing. It makes me feel old. The kids have adopted it here. Well, Paris especially. I hope you don’t mind: We’ve invited a girlfriend of René’s from Louis-Lumière.” I repeat the name. “Yeah. He got in. École Nationale Supérieure Louis-Lumière. He’ll graduate with a master’s. I know, I never heard of it myself, but it’s older than we are, founded in 1928 or something, hence the name. Beginning of le cinéma français. It’s way up in Saint-Denis, but it’s only a half hour or so by métro. So far, René loves it. He just started at the beginning of the year. So, we’ll see. He’s already met people. Kids his own age. This girl? I met her last Saturday at Les Puces. I know: You hate flea-markets but René doesn’t, and this place needs more furniture. Anyway, she goes by the name of Émilie as in Emily in Paris. She’s Russian and Israeli. That’s not her real name. Something more Russian.” Like Sergei, I say. That gets a chuckle out of Bill.

            “What’s so funny, Monsieur Bill?” A short, plumpish girl with blue hair enters the room, followed by René, who is beaming. She is holding a small bouquet of red roses. And she is wearing skin-tight blue jeans and a sweatshirt the color of her hair. She goes up to Bill, who stands, and they do the kisses on two cheeks before she hands him the bouquet. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Monsieur.” Bill is flummoxed but takes the bouquet. She turns to me. “Enchantée, Monsieur.” I think, we haven’t been introduced yet. Bill introduces us. She holds out her hand.  I shake it. She seems surprised. Did she think I might kiss it?

            We have been drinking Dry Martinis Straight-up. “Let’s switch to champagne.” Bill is looking at Émilie. Her face brightens in surprise. So, she doesn’t know Bill very well; I bet she’s never been to the apartment before.

            “I never say no to champagne, Monsieur Bill.” She has the faintest of accents, which could be either Russian or Israeli. Bill smiles and heads to the kitchen with the bouquet. All three of us sit down. René and I share the couch. Émilie takes an armchair facing us. She gazes up and around at the vast room. I was right: She’s never been here before. The kid is gobsmacked. “René told me you’re from Holland?” I explain that I’m American but live in Rotterdam. “Rotterdam? Oh, right. Why don’t you live in Amsterdam?” I haven’t heard this in a while; I explain that I like it, have friends there, and that it’s a dynamic growing city – blah-blah. She turns away back to René. “You say something like that about Antwerp, right? But you live in Paris now. So cool.”

            “Okay, but I love Antwerp. I grew up there. Family’s there. But Rotterdam nowadays is way cooler. We’re looking to catch up. The ports are kind of rivals?”

            “Right. Ports. They’re both ports.”

            “Rotterdam is the biggest port in Europe, one of the biggest in the world.” Thank you, René.

            “Oh, right. But it’s not Paris. I just love Paris.” She looks up and around again. “I live in Saint-Denis. It’s okay, but this is, like, so gorgeous, René. Whoa!”

            René and I finish our Dry M’s. She stares at us as we do it. Relax, kid, your drink is… on the way. Bill enters the room with a bucket that is I can see is pearling with water, so full of ice, with an opened bottle in it. Funny, I didn’t hear him pop the cork, but the kitchen is down the hall past the dining room. I love this grand salon, but I can’t wait to sit in that exquisite dining room. It is the room that sold us both on the apartment – sold us being a metaphor, I correct myself. Bill has three flûtes upside-down, a stem between each finger. “Right.” René jumps up and takes the bucket out of Bill’s hand and sets it on the coffee table. Bill puts the glasses down beside it and starts carefully filling. Oh, it’s Perrier-Jouët. I expected Krug. “Variety is the spice of life,” Bill says to me, reading my mind as usual.

            Out of the corner of my eye, I watch Émilie take her first sip. She catches me. “I recognize you from TicToc.” I tell her that’s impossible. She starts giggling: “Oh, no, it’s not. You’re on TicToc. René posted this, like, cute little video of you all in fucking Egypt.” She grimaces in disgust. Is that disgust for me or for Egypt? “Bill, may I just call you Bill?” Bill is allowed a chance to nod before she continues. “This champagne is the best I’ve ever tasted. I mean: Whoa!” She slathers Bill with gratitude and worshipfulness.

            “Right. But, Émilie, you haven’t had Krug.” Is René putting her down? “Bill, I told you I made a little video for TicToc?”

            “Something. You mentioned something. What the fuck is TicToc?” He bursts out laughing. And then he stands up, takes the bottle, and refills Émilie’s flûte, which is close to empty already. Bill glances at my half-full glass and tops it up. René is next. Before sitting back down, he tops off his own. “Isn’t that some Chinese app for little kids?”

            Émilie appears to have gone into shock now. Again, my eyes on her trigger her: “You look just like you do in René’s piece. He’s a great photographer. He’s really caught you.” She smiles at me. The smile pretends to be neutral.

            René is quietly listening, sipping his champagne, enjoying it: “It was just for the people at school. I’m taking it down. I’m thinking now: It’s fucking indiscreet of me. You’re right, Bill.”

            “I didn’t say that.”

            “I know, I know. You’re so great about stuff I do, but, you know, it should not be up there on TicToc. It was our private trip. And then, Madame. It’s really super nice views of her. I’ll show you. But I’ll take it down first.” René puts his flûte down on the coffee table and pulls out his smartphone. He starts thumbing furiously. I watch his thumbs, fascinated. Bill is sipping and smiling. “Right! It’s done. Bye-bye.” He slips his phone back in his side-pocket and launches a dazzling smile at me.

            “Where are the roses?” Émilie takes a sip of her champagne and looks around the room as if her bouquet might suddenly appear and she’s missed it.

            Bill jumps up. “Oh, sorry. I’ve left it in a vase in the kitchen.” And then he’s gone. I get the feeling he wants out of the room; I feel he’s left me to the wolves.

            “Egypt is really dirty, right? One of my uncles in Tel Aviv went there with a group. You know, ya gotta see the Pyramids? Did any of you get sick while you were there?” Émilie is talking to me. I tell her, no. “But Cairo is really noisy. All this honking because there are no traffic lights? You cross the street at risk of your life, right?” I chuckle and say, it’s a challenge. René joins in my chuckle. “But it’s a filthy country, really overcrowded. You know, kind of hopeless Third World? I get why my uncle wanted to see the Pyramids.”

            “The Pyramids are fucking amazing! You have no idea how they are until you’ve actually been there, facing them, being near them. They are huge. They’re massive.” René is looking at me as he declares this in clearly inadequate and repetitive language. I nod in agreement. Of course, I didn’t go with them, but I remember perfectly. Being in the presence of the Pyramids is something visceral.

            “Okay. Okay, yeah, right. Way big.” Émilie’s eyes are on me, not on René. I get up. I announce I’m going to go help Bill with dinner in the kitchen.

            “Oh, you don’t have to. He’s ordered in from Le Bon Georges.” René is staring up at me all perky smile. “We eat there a lot. He’s gotten super friendly with the chef. So, he asked if this could, like, happen? It’s kind of like a Valentine’s present for himself and for us all. It’s this amazing pièce de boeuf.”

            “René!” Bill enters the room with a simple glass vase full of the roses. He walks over to the mantel piece. “This was supposed to be a surprise.” He places the vase on the mantel and turns toward me. “Did we have their beef when we were there? Can’t remember. It is amazing. The flavor!”

            “Oh!” Émilie drains her flûte. “You know. Didn’t you know, René? I’m vegetarian, going on vegan.” Her eyes glow with a fierce pride. She dares us; she dares the world.

            “No. When did you tell me that?” I am happy to see that René sounds pissed off at her.

            “Oh, sorry.” She looks down at her empty glass. “But, you know, I’m sure there are other things. Potatoes? I bet there are potatoes.”

            “Au gratin,” snickers and then laughs Bill. “Sorry, darling. But there’s salad. And I’ll soon be serving oysters.” He walks over, grabs the bottle out of the bucket, holds a towel underneath to stop the dripping, and then goes and fills her glass. “You love champagne, though, right?” I watch her expression as Bill is topping up her flûte. She has frozen a smile around her mouth. Her eyes are glazed over, as much as I can see; her eyes are half shut as in pure pleasure. A vegetarian going vegan is not going to eat oysters. Pity. More for the rest of us.

            “Don’t worry. We’ve got some cashews.” She looks up and smiles sweetly at René’s remark. René jumps up. “I’m off to the kitchen to start shucking.” We all laugh except Émilie.

            “So, Émilie, are you going to be comfortable going with us to Biarritz? I mean, there’ll be plenty of meals. Basque cuisine is not vegetarian and certainly not vegan. The Basques are famous for their sheep-milk cheeses.” Oh? Émilie has been invited to come along?

            “Monsieur Bill, I am used to obstacles. I thrive on them. I’ll manage.” Émilie’s face is lit up and glowing. Bill smiles back and nods. To that she adds: “I love a challenge.” I don’t think she expects the reaction he has to this: He winces. I see her panic. I admit to myself that I’m feeling schadenfreude. “I’m so looking forward to seeing Biarritz for the first time. You’re really so kind to include me on this trip with René. He says we’ll be flying.”

            “Yes. They have an airport. I like the idea of the train, but it just takes too long for my taste. I’ve rented a small jet.” I watch her eyes almost literally pop out of her skull. I think: This is so Bill now, this pleasure in renting private planes to get to places. Actually, in this case I thought we’d be taking the train. There’s a super-fast TGV from Paris to Bordeaux that then slows a bit and takes the same amount of time to then reach Biarritz, so maybe four hours in total.  This is not the point, though. He’s like a kid with a toy, that toy being endless funds, flights at a whim. It’s a rush. It’s a rush like waking up one morning and deciding to buy an apartment Place Saint-Georges. Why not?

            I watch her face. Something new beside the surprise of the extravagance: I bet she’s calculating those carbon miles. I can imagine her in a gang of activists storming a private airfield to stop private flying. I wait to see how much self-control she has: Will she blurt out a climate argument?

            And then she sees me studying her. “Have you ever been to Biarritz, Monsieur?” I smile and shake my head, no. No, I haven’t. “Ah, we’ll discover it together then.” What? Is this Émilie calling a truce with me? I smile at her and nod as nicely as I can. She’s not so stupid.

            I think I hear a knock on the door. And then comes a quick ring of the doorbell. I hear keys turning a lock or think I do. I look toward the doorway. I hear the apartment door shut. “Bonsoir, tout le monde!” I stand up. It’s Jean-Pierre. He’s out of uniform and handsomer than ever.

Of course: He has a place upstairs.

He’s wearing a black motorcycle jacket and a keffiyeh scarf wrapped around his neck, white and black checks. “I was walking through République, trying to… There’s a pro-Palestine demonstration going on. I bought this scarf from a vendor. Cool with this jacket you bought me, Monsieur.” He nods and grins at Bill. I’m staring at Émilie staring at Jean-Pierre. I read total confusion on her face. “The manif made me late, so I haven’t been upstairs.” He’s apologizing.

“No problem, Jean-Pierre. Go hang up your jacket and scarf. Cool scarf, by the way. Looks great with the jacket.” Bill punctuates that with a chuckle. He’s taken in Émilie’s reaction. Jean-Pierre goes back into the entry hall.

At the Marché aux Puces only last week, Bill explained to me when I arrived, they’d found this standing bent-wood oak coatrack that he’d put in the entry for visitors. It had been empty when I arrived; it looked like a gnarled fantasy of a tree. Art Nouveau, Bill had added with pride. Of course, and it must have cost him a nice little sum of money. Art Nouveau hasn’t been cheap since we were “kids” in Paris. Back then it was considered a bit dated and grotesque, and anything Twenties or Thirties was considered just junk unless it had a designer’s name attached. No one wanted these things in their homes. And they still were in homes, some homes, apartments that had gone unchanged for decades, inhabited by old retirees who had no money for anything new.

Jean-Pierre re-emerges in a black turtleneck. I wonder if Bill bought that for him too. It looks cashmere and fits him like a glove.  Émilie is now feasting her eyes on him. I think: Good luck, bitch. And smile back at her as she’s caught me looking at her. Bill jumps up: “I’ll get a glass for Jean-Pierre.” So, was he expected or not? I’m confused.

Mais non!” Jean-Pierre is looking as confused as I am. “I just wanted to know when I should have the car ready tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Bill passes him on his way to the kitchen. “I think noon should be good. The plane doesn’t leave until we’re there, of course.” Bill puts his hand on Jean-Pierre’s shoulder as he passes. “You’ll stay for dinner with us, won’t you? Please. There’s too much food. And I hate leftovers.” Bill doesn’t wait for an answer.

“Well, monsieur dames.” Jean-Pierre stands awkwardly surveying us all. There’s a couple of free armchairs. He certainly will avoid the couch. Émilie is grinning up at him. I point out the armchair next to mine, and he takes the hint. “Merci, Monsieur.” He sits down beside me and smiles. I ask him about the demonstration. “Oh, it was huge. I had to make this big detour around… And then I saw the vendor with the scarfs. I’ve always thought they were cool-looking. Did you enjoy your cruise on the Nile, Monsieur?” I start to tell him how nice it was, and then Bill comes into the room with a flûte for Jean-Pierre. He goes to the coffee table and puts the glass down. He takes the champagne carefully out of the bucket, catches the dripping with a towel, and fills the glass; he comes over and hands it to Jean-Pierre, who has jumped up. Bill turns toward the coffee table and goes and finds his glass. He’s back and toasts Jean-Pierre. “Merci, Monsieur, merci. C’est un si bel appartement, grand dieu. Merci.” They both take sips. Bill goes back to the couch. Is Jean-Pierre referring to the apartment upstairs where Bill has installed him?

“Oh, by the way…” I feel Bill eyeing me. “I just got a WhatsApp from Hany. Maryse is pregnant.” He raises his glass. “Let’s toast the baby in the oven!”

René arrives with a great platter of opened oysters on a bed of cracked ice. “I’ll get your cashews next, Émilie.”

“Thanks, René.” She gives him such a sweet smile, and then as he turns to leave, she directs that smile towards Jean-Pierre. She’s caught his attention; she gives him a very small toast gesture with her glass. I see him responding in kind, but, I think, out of politeness. I figure that, now that Jean-Pierre is installed upstairs for at least some of the time (there’s still his mother in Neuilly), that his relationship to Bill and René has altered. Or maybe not. There seems to still be a certain formality. Of course. Because that way Jean-Pierre can keep his distance and remain in control. Faced with Émilie, I suspect that he’s encountering a totally new situation. Émilie not only would like a taste of Jean-Pierre but figures that this can happen: She’s figured like most of us that Jean-Pierre is straight, unlike the other men in the room. As she just told Bill, she likes a challenge.

René is back and places a bowl of cashews in front of Émilie. “Thanks, dude!” René chuckles at that. He sits down next to her on the couch.

Bill leans forward. “What are we waiting for?” He scans me and Jean-Pierre, and leans forward and takes an oyster. There are no oyster forks; that would mean that René has loosened them in their shells. I take one. Yes. The meat almost slips out onto the tray. I tilt the shell and the meat instead slips over my tongue; I chew. Oh, these are unusually delicious. I ask Bill what kind they are. “They’re from Brittany, near Roscoff.” I have no idea where Roscoff is. “It’s not far along the Channel coast from Normandy. They have this nutty flavor to them. They’re also, strangely enough, cheaper.” Cheaper? Is this Bill’s Yankee DNA talking? I give him a laugh; he chuckles back and nods. No one else reacts. No, of course not. No one else has the same relationship that I have with Bill. Nice. But then that feeling of unease returns: Yet, look at this little family he’s collected around him. I think I’m safe. René is smiling at me.

“They’re also easy to open.” René is saying this to me. “When we eat oysters outside in restaurants, they do the number with the stand and they also give you these little oyster forks. Bill likes when I loosen them.”

“Because, René, I always picture Violetta in La Traviata waltzing and tilting up an oyster and letting it slip down her throat!” As if to explain, Bill takes another oyster. We all laugh except Émilie.

“Is a plane that much faster to Biarritz?” Oh, there she goes. I knew she’d be ready to do a carbon-guilt number. She’s addressing Bill, but she has me in her line of fire, out of the corner of her eye.

“Yes. The plane takes less than an hour and a half. We’d be more than four hours in the train. We won’t even have enough time to eat lunch on the plane. Which reminds me… I guess we’ll be in Biarritz too late to have lunch.” René takes an oyster and grins at me. “Jean-Pierre, what if we went earlier. Could you have the car for us by ten? I’ll call the agency and see if we can leave around eleven.” Bill jumps up and leaves the room and walks into the hall. He catches Jean-Pierre off guard.

On peut partir quand vous voulez, Monsieur.” He calls after Bill. I nod to Jean-Pierre. Bill figures that. What else is a chauffeur for? But he also seems to have not thought through this trip. This is unlike him, considering the meals we’ve had on his chartered flights. There is silence in the room. I ask René how easy it was to find a place at Lumière in the middle of the year.

“You’re right. It wasn’t easy. But my teacher in Antwerp went there. He made a few phone calls.” Ah, René, I think, you live a charmed life. He beams at me as if I’ve actually said that to him, which I have not. “So, I think it’s, like, meant to be? I’ve also enrolled in film-making, not just photography.” Hence, TikTok, I say? He grins back and nods. I tell him I’d really like to see that video myself. He pulls out his phone. “What’s your WhatsApp? I mean, give me your phone number and I’ll send it to you.” Now? I give him my phone number. I watch as his thumbs speed over the smartphone. Every other second, he pauses, then starts up again. “You’ve got to accept me…” I feel my smartphone vibrate before it rings. I pull it out. There it is! I burst out laughing and tell him he’s a genius. “Of course.” I accept the contact. I’ll look at it before I go to sleep, I tell him. “It’s short, but, yeah, that’s cool.” I slip the phone back in my pocket. I then see that Jean-Pierre’s glass is empty. I jump up and play Bill. I fill his glass, I top off René’s and then Émilie’s, and finally my own before I sit down.

Merci, Monsieur. So, may I ask what this film is about?” I tell Bill about René taking pictures while we were in Egypt. I hesitate, and then I tell him about Madame. I have to explain who Hany and Maryse are. He listens smiling, surprised, and then not surprised. I think he has heard from Bill about Hany and New York. “C’est bien triste, la mort de cette grande dame.” There is silence. I find I need to swallow. I see René is also affected. He looks down at his glass. Émilie is observing us all, sipping her champagne, nibbling on a cashew. I feel a sudden anger: She is intrusive. Of course, she’s not. She’s just there. But then she is feeling nothing, whereas Jean-Pierre has shared our grief. I look over at René; he is looking at me. He raises his glass to me, and I do the same. We share a brief, small toast to Madame. I am filled with regret at that time in the Cataract Hotel that was not to be. The stories she would have told; the things I would have learned about her and those days.

“That’s settled!” Bill enters the room. “We’ll leave Le Bourget around eleven. They’ve arranged a car to be there. The car will drop us off at Les Rosiers. It’s, like, a ten-minute drive from the airport. Michelin star. It’s not in the center but…” This seems like an afterthought he’s having. “And I’ve made a reservation for us. Émilie, they said something about doing a vegan menu for you.”

“Ah! Merci, Monsieur. That’s so kind of you to think of me.” And right she is to be thankful, I think. I smile warmly at her. She sees it, smiles back quickly, and then turns back to beam up at Bill as he takes his seat.

Bill looks at me. “I wanted to stay at the Hôtel du Palais, but they’re closed in February.” He says this as if I know the hotel; I don’t. “You know, the hotel that used to be the palace of Louis Napoléon and Empress Eugénie?” Sure, Bill. Another thing to google tonight before going to sleep. “So, it’s the Sofitel Thalassa. It’s right next door. Spa hotel. You can take the cure.” We break up laughing. “And you’re open-ended, right? You’re on sabbatical?” I nod. Does that me make “open-ended,” at Bill’s beck-and-call? “That’s good because René has to be back here at the end of the month. We can stay on then at the Hôtel du Palais.” I haven’t thought, haven’t calculated. Bill is planning my life for the next month. René is now in school. I’m hoping Bill will feel the need to go home. Sooner rather than later, I add, in my dialogue with myself. “Hello!” Bill is waiting for an answer. I just grin and take another oyster. I do love Perrier Jouët. Bill is staring at me now. I start in that I know about the Thalassa business, but I’ll be interested to google the history of the Hôtel du Palais. That seems to placate him. He gets up and refreshes all our glasses. He measures. The bottle is empty. He puts it in the bucket upside down. He looks at the bottom of the bottle then. “Is this a sign that we need a second bottle?” He looks at the oysters. There are not too many left now. Jean-Pierre has not been shy, nor have I. He scans us all and stops at Émilie. She is nodding vigorously. “That settles it. Another bottle, coming up.” He leaves for the kitchen.

René reaches forward and takes an oyster. “Oops!” He almost loses the flesh into his lap. “There’s a reason for oyster forks.” We laugh. I urge Jean-Pierre to take the next to last. He hesitates, and then smiles and takes it. He’s careful as I watch him slip the flesh of the oyster into his mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Émilie watching him. She is experiencing the full erotic impact; she’s a voyeur. Jean-Pierre is oblivious.

“I forgot how delicious oysters can be. Ma mère ne les aime pas.” He puts the empty shell on top of the pile we’ve built on one side of the tray. Jean-Pierre is really a total mystery. He is studying for his PhD. He lives in Neuilly, a posh upper-middle-class sort of suburb of Paris (not to be confused with the infamous banlieues), with his mother who, we now know, does not like oysters, so he has been deprived of them. But somehow he has eaten them before and loved them. Of course, now he has his pied-à-terre upstairs. That should change his life, but there’s no way to know how. What was he doing earlier around the Place de la République? I suddenly realize that he must be only three or four years older than René, but while René is, at least so far, perfectly understandable to me – his life, his persona – Jean-Pierre is an enigma. A guy with looks so universally ravishing, appealing to male and female alike, could easily be some kind of monk.

Bill is back holding a bottle of Perrier-Jouët by the neck. “I’m afraid it’s not very cold.” He plunges it into the slushy bucket. “Give it five minutes at least.” He checks everyone’s glasses. “Ah, you all still have some.” He looks at his. His is empty. “Oh, there’s one oyster left. Who’s it for?” I tell him that it’s for him. “No. No. I’ve had my fill. It’s for you, old pal.” I shake my head. “I insist.” I’m not going to play games. I lean forward and take it, remembering at the last minute to be very careful. I balance it and slip the flesh into my mouth. I just love these oysters. I ask Bill where he got them. “Georges. Well, they shared a couple of dozen with me from their supply. Who they get them from is a mystery, not for me to try and solve. As I said, I’m very privileged to be allowed this take-out.” He snickers at the word.

“Of course. We’ve been eating there either for lunch or dinner, like, four times a week?” René laughs at Bill as he sits down beside him. And then he gives Bill a poke. Bill bursts out laughing. “I confess. I’m lazy. I should be cooking more. Spent a fortune on the kitchen. Did you notice?” He’s asking me. Yes. It’s the kitchen of a high-end restaurant, with every gadget you could imagine, and ones that I can’t imagine. I bet you could do molecular cuisine. I say that. And then I tease him that he’s afraid of his own kitchen. René bursts out laughing. Jean-Pierre grins at René.

“You may… you might just be right.” Bill bursts out laughing himself, sitting back into the cushions. And then he’s upright again. “Hey, I bet the champagne is cold enough.” He’s on his feet. He removes the foil, twists the cork, and pops it.

I set my smartphone down beside me on the bed. I’m left feeling depressed and sad. René’s TicToc post was amazingly good. There we were. The lighting was clever. Émilie was right: I’m very recognizable. People can take pics, make videos of you, and you think, okay, that might be me, but it’s not the “me” I know from the mirror when I’m shaving. This was not the case with René’s handiwork. He got me. I chuckle then and feel better. Madame was indeed a beautiful woman even at her advanced age. We learned that she was ninety-six. I had no clue that she was that old. Now I especially regret not having that time at the Cataract Hotel to takes notes, plan, her memoirs. There is no doubt that she was eye-witness to an era that is fading fast in memory: the days of the reign of Farouk, his aristocracy, cosmopolitan Alexandria, Downtown Cairo when it was hailed as the Paris of the Middle East.

Jean-Pierre is holding the door of the backseat of his marvelous DS car open for us. Bill will sit up front with him. Jean-Pierre is in uniform, dazzling as ever. He’s already packed our luggage into the trunk. We’re not blocking traffic on the Place Saint-Georges, but there is no legal parking there. No dawdling.

As I get in, I imagine I hear the trickle of water from the fountain, but that’s impossible since it no longer functions. Émilie is in the middle. She and René have their phones out. She’s giggling at something. I turn to look back at the passage down which lies Bill’s apartment, lined with still barren trees. I think how gorgeous that alleyway will look in spring. And how beautiful it will look from the paned windows of the dining room, all white and fresh green. Émilie’s elbow digs into my side. “Oh, sorry.” I turn to acknowledge her apology, but she’s not looking at me. They’re both now sharing something on her phone. I assume it’s TicToc. Curious, I glance over and try to see. No, it looks like something pornographic. I think it’s a dick. I turn quickly to look out the window as the car glides into Paris traffic so I won’t laugh.

On the other hand, what is so urgent about this porno pic that they have to share it in the backseat of the car?

“Do you drink champagne every day?” Émilie asks Bill. I don’t know whether she’s being facetious. Bill has brought a bottle of Krug, this time, to celebrate our take-off and trip to Biarritz.

“Only when we need to celebrate, Émilie. And last night was such an occasion and now so is this trip. I’m extending my range from Place Saint-Georges to Biarritz, at least I hope so. I’ll start with the realtor tomorrow.” No flûtes, but there are real glasses, white wine glasses, in the plane’s little galley. “Tchin-tchin!” He raises his glass. We all have ours and toast him back. We’re sitting around a table, but a table as you’d find on a train where two rows face each other. This is no dining room. The plane is way too small for that.

Bill has turned and is looking at me. “Did they show you the pics? Our Jean-Pierre has a very nice dick.” What? They’re all laughing at my surprise. “Our Émilie,” she takes a little bow, “had a little rendezvous with our Jean-Pierre upstairs last night.” I am facing René and Émilie. Like twins they raise their glasses to me and take long sips. Then they start giggling like the kids they are.

I immediately congratulate Émilie, toasting her. She stops giggling and looks at me pokerfaced. “You might have a chance. I didn’t do anything too complicated. I gave him a blowjob. You can do that, right?”

“Oh, come on, Émilie. Truce. Stop being such a fucking bitch.” René has come to my defense. She turns to him in attack mode. He bursts out laughing at her.

“Émilie, you can brag. Whether we admit it or not, we’ve all wanted to do the same thing. We assume he likes women, but we really don’t know,” Bill speaking.

“Oh, don’t take my little adventure last night as proof of that. I don’t think I was at his place for even an hour. It all happened in the living room on his couch. No bed, even.” She pauses, deciding whether to add: “And he thanked me afterwards.” René lets out a hoot.

I know after René’s defense that I should let the subject die, but I don’t. I note that it’s only the picture of a dick. It could be off the internet. There’s no connection with Jean-Pierre that I can discern. “He’s right,” states Bill.

Émilie is now smoldering. I toast her – she ignores me – and says that we should take her word for it. After all, René was part of the plot to get her upstairs to Jean-Pierre’s place. “She definitely did go upstairs,” nods René. I grin at him. “I let her back into the apartment. Bill was asleep.” Bill looks amused. Why would Jean-Pierre let her take a pic of his dick, is my second question? But I decide to let the subject die. I’ve never understood why people, couples, make sex videos of themselves anyway. But I do know they do.

A steward in air-force-type uniform comes to tell us that we’ll be taking off. Fasten our seat belts.

We all have our smartphones out. The plane has Wi-Fi. We’re scrolling through the real-estate sites Bill wants us all to see. “This is going to be a group effort. I’ll want your advice, all of you.” He nods at Émilie to make sure she realizes she’s included. I’m thinking that she will make a good Devil’s Advocate.

Of course, I also wonder why she went on the attack the minute she set eyes on me. Was it something René told her about me when he must have talked about each of the people featured in his video. I’m thinking it may be about things I said to him about my feelings for Egypt and Cairo when we went out walking and visiting the Sakakini Palace that day. She’s made plain her view of Egypt. This must have caught René by surprise. He came to my defense and called her a bitch.

This is going to be a rocky ride of a trip to Biarritz.

The steward announces seat-belt time.

We clamber down the stairs of the plane. It’s a gorgeous, bright winter day that feels more like spring. This is the famous Biarritz temperature anomaly, its Goldilocks weather. It’s 14 C. I have expected a limo to be waiting for us on the tarmac, but that would mean we were more VIP than we are. We seem to be in the countryside. The airport building is surrounded by manicured grass. We have to go through the small terminal I see ahead, which is modular with square panels, a kind of glorified hangar, I suppose, utilitarian – we’re already inside after walking down the short glassed-in jetway planted firmly on the ground, a protective corridor to aircraft. We are passing through a medium-sized arrival-departure area with airline check-in desks mostly unmanned, with Bill in the lead and pulling our wheelie-suitcases behind us. Not your usual busy airport with announcements ringing from the rafters: I bet its heyday was the G7, when Macron put the movers and shakers up in the Hôtel du Palais, and had all of waterfront Biarritz cordoned off for security. Heady days, they must have been.

I wonder if Bill didn’t get his itch for Biarritz from all that.

A uniformed driver is standing at the exit holding a sign with Bill’s name on it. Unlike Jean-Pierre’s car, it is an American-style limo. It might even be an American-make limo. It is. “Hey, Bill, we’re back in New York City.” René gets a grin from Bill.

We’re in. The chauffeur already knows our destination.

Again, I have a window seat. We are on a local highway; the terrain is gently hilly. There are white stucco-houses with bull’s blood red shutters. Ah, the famous Basque style. And it is everywhere. Soon we seem to be in a suburban neighborhood. The limo stops in front of a free-standing Basque house: Les Rosiers.

The dining room is bright. The tabletops are white. The furniture is pale bentwood, making me think Scandinavian. Some walls are layers of pale slate; others are horizontal bright wooden slats. The place is totally unexpected when I think Michelin star. We’re nowhere near the seafront, but I feel the open brightness of the coast. There is our table for four, marked by a plaque Réservé. We sit. The chairs are ergonomically comfortable. We’re handed menus. Bill takes a quick look: “I suggest the Menu Plaisir with accompanying glasses of wine for each of the five courses.” He’s googled the menu; no one could decide so fast. And then I think: What’s Émilie going to eat. Scallops? Fresh fish? Duck? Even the dessert, fromage blanc and fruits is in no way vegan. I decide not to look at her.

Suddenly she stands up. “I need to use the toilet and speak to the kitchen.”

She heads off, making her way among the tables of diners (the restaurant is full) toward the back. “I’m sorry, Bill. I should never have invited her along.”

“You didn’t know, right? But last night she said she could handle it all. So, there she goes. I’m sure she’s not the first vegan or vegetarian they’ve had to deal with. I don’t see it, but I’m sure they told me they had a vegan-friendly menu.” Bill smiles. “And I don’t think that was Jean-Pierre’s dick. I think she’s a liar. This is going to be fun, people.”

With the Menu Plaisir we have no choices to make. One after the other, we will be served and fed these five courses with glasses of wine to match. I’m starving. I love not having to make any decisions. The chefs will show us what they can do. I say as much. “I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s why I decided to play dictator and…” The waiter arrives. Bill orders. “Trois ‘Menu Plaisir’… et je crois que Mademoiselle est en train de s’arranger avec la cuisine. Elle est végane.” You can see the look of horror pass over the waiter’s face. I want to burst out laughing, but don’t of course. I wait: Is Bill going to order champagne? “Une bouteille de votre meilleur champagne, s’il vous plaît.” Can one have too much champagne? I think not. “I know, I know. But I bet they have something quite special from a vignoble they know, a small one. Stay tuned. I was reading last night: they specialize in local products. This is our introduction to Basque Country, mes amis.” I can’t wait. The waiter arrives with flûtes and the ice bucket; he’s already popped the cork. He shows Bill the label. Bill smiles and nods. We are served. Émilie is suddenly standing looking down at us. “Won’t you have a seat, Émilie, before I fill your glass? It’s from a small vineyard. Hurry. I can’t wait. She pulls out her chair and slips in, all smiles. She is served. And then Bill toasts: “To success in Biarritz.”

Oh, frothy and round: biscuit. I moan with pleasure for Bill. He chortles back. “Don’t you think this could give Krug a run for money?” says René. I can see that Émilie has no idea what Krug is.

“You are the king of champagne, Monsieur Bill,” announces Émilie, raising her glass to him. He nods back. The waiter serves us little amuses-bouches, little foretastes of the treat to come. “By the way, the kitchen says they can give me something to eat.” She is pouting. Are we supposed to laugh? Bill smiles back at her.

“Oh, great. Maybe they’ll whip us some Basque frites for ya…” For a minute I think René is going to punctuate that by sticking his tongue out at her. “But, hey, it’s five courses. I’m sure they’re scratching their heads.”

“Oh, no. They were very, very cool about it.” She gives him a wounded look. “Don’t be so mean.”

Every room has a large terrace balcony. Bill and René share a suite. Émilie and I have rooms with a big double-bed. We’re all facing the sea. The hotel is totally 1980s, Le Corbusier modern, not postmodern, and is like a multi-story layer-cake, all white and s-curved so that every room has a balcony and a slightly different view. I wasn’t expecting this. What I was expecting was something more like the Hôtel du Palais, the former palace of the Empress Eugénie, a grand red brick and white-trim summer place built for her by her doting husband Louis Napoléon in the 1850s. I look down on it from my window. I know this is not Eugénie’s original palace: It was expanded and turned into a hotel after she sold it to raise cash in the 1880s, with her husband dead and herself living in exile in the UK. It was Bill’s first choice. When it reopens in another ten days, we’ll move there, with the “kids” back in school. He’s already reserved, all of which means a longer stay in Biarritz than I imagined.

I’m looking down on it. The contrast between the two hotels couldn’t be more extreme. On the other hand, maybe it’s more of a pleasure to look over at the Palais than to stay within its precincts. I don’t know; I’ll find out.

I turn to look out to the bay and further to the Atlantic. The weather may be too chilly to lounge on the terrace, but the view of the ocean and the Plage du Miramar is breathtaking and the sun sparkles off the water. I’m a sucker for ocean views. And then I see little specks of surfers in wetsuits paddling out on boards. The surf looks impressive, a bit rough to me, but I know nothing about surfing. I wish it was warm enough to sit out on the balcony and watch them.

There’s a knock on my door. No surprise, Bill and René are coming to pick me up for a walk around town. Émilie has opted for a full spa treatment that will take a few hours. I put on my jacket.

The city is a lot hillier than I’d imagined. We first go down to the ocean front and walk around to the promontory where there’s this statue of the Virgin at the end of a footbridge sticking out to sea. This is the tourist brochure thing. Halfway up the climb from the beach level I see a bench. It looks out over the Bay of Biscay. I suggest a respite and some calm sea viewing. René laughs at old-man me, but I see that Bill is very glad to sit. I guess he can mostly keep up with René in most things, but he is certainly no longer as fit as a twenty-year-old. We bend over the gnarled stone parapet and watch the tide swirl in and out among the rocks and the base of the cliff that is the parapet we are climbing. Seaweed sloshes from side to side. Every crevice of cliff is ripe with vegetation. Pines, all kinds of trees, either cling to crevices or stand tall on the tops of slopes. The combination of sea and greenery does to our vision what the sea breeze is doing to our lungs. It’s heady. “I’m thinking the coast of Maine, but even better.” It has none of the savagery of that New England – the Biarritz coast has been developed for hundreds of years – but it does have cliffs and sea. And I know that down below there are fishermen on the other side of our precipice with boats nestled in a man-made harbor with concrete jetties. Googling brought up fish restaurants down there. “But look at that Deco casino.” We all turn around. “Where on the Maine coast would you find that? Biarritz may have a wild rugged coast, but that casino far outdates Vegas. I can just picture Coco Chanel at the roulette table.” We’re standing looking back at the casino lording over the Plage de Biarritz.

I hear someone’s phone. It’s not mine. Bill pulls his out of the leg pocket of his cargo pants. “Hany. The gang’s all here.” I see Bill turning on the camera. Bill does a selfie of the three of us for Hany. “Right.” I can’t hear what Hany is saying. “I’ve made an appointment for tomorrow with someone from Sotheby’s, but…” Bill looks at me and rolls his eyes. “You don’t have to.” More eye rolling. “Okay. I know, I’d never been here either. You’re going to leave your pregnant wife running the enterprise alone?” Bill sticks out his tongue at me. “I know. The airport here is international.” Bill turns away so I can only hear him going through the usual niceties when signing off.

Bill slips his smartphone back in his pocket and turns back toward us at the same time. “Let’s sit down on that bench. Hany is going to pop over here.” I tell him that I’ve gathered that. “He says that he knows of a place from connections in the business. Not yet on the market. Quartier Impérial, he says, so he’s already very familiar with the city. The Hôtel du Palais is of course the epitome of all that.” I note that its architecture is like the Place des Vosges. “Yes, but it’s the style favored by Louis Napoléon, this Henry IV brick and limestone business. You’ve seen that lots of apartment buildings have been built to look just like that, right?” I have on the earlier part of our walk. “I think Hany’s claiming that he can get me one of those huge old flats… apartments.” Bill shrugs. “I’m not complaining. If I buy, he’ll get a bit of the cash. Keeping the money in the family, sort of.” Bill chuckles. Interesting phrasing but not unexpected: Since Egypt, haven’t we become this little family? That’s another reason why Émilie’s presence is so jarring.

And then I realize Émilie is going to soon be face to face with an actual Egyptian.

I glance at René; he’s had the same thought. He’s smiling to himself. Or maybe he’s smiling at something else: the “elephant in the room” thing? Except that, if anybody sees any elephant in the room, no one seems to care about it but me.

We continue our climb. As the road crests, it turns to the left. There on a lone promontory smaller than this promontory we’ve climbed is a multi-gabled, multi-storied house.

I’m about to say it, but René beats me to it: “How about this place, Bill?” Bill lets out a hoot. We all laugh. It’s a mini-castle on the edge of a cliff looking out to sea. I’d say it’s an early twentieth-century fantasy replete with turrets and wings in differing styles so that it’s hard to calculate the total number of stories it has. As we move closer, we see it’s an amalgam of very different houses cemented together.

“As a mansion, it certainly makes a statement.” We continue up towards it and stop. “Something for a Russian oligarch?” Because, Bill, your money is not to be showy; that’s why we’re here in Biarritz looking for property: that thing about old money. But at some point, in time, a very rich individual has no qualms about showing off both his imagination and wealth, I dare think. I stop and whip out my smartphone. Bill and René watch me. I find where we are on Google Maps. Villa Belza. I announce that it’s been divided into seven apartments. Bill perks up. I was wrong, though, about when it was built: 1882. Igor Stravinsky’s brother-in-law bought it and opened a Russian restaurant and, what we would call, a nightclub. There were wild parties. Very Roaring Twenties, I announce. Both Bill and René pull out their phones. All three of us are standing there reading.

“Still,” Bill looks up at Villa Belza, “maybe this is where Hany has this apartment up his sleeve? I’ve just crossed my fingers.” I think we’re all crossing our fingers with him right then. This would be beyond the wildest dreams I’ve had of Bill in residence in Biarritz. “Haunted, ghosts… I love it. You can see why people have built up fantasies around this place.”

If we continue on, we will be in another part of Biarritz called Côte des Basques. It’s the big surfer beach. René’s phone rings while he’s back reading about Villa Belza: He fumbles with the phone and almost drops it. “Émilie?” René eyes both of us. “Yes. Okay. Well, we’ve walked pretty far. Maybe if we turn around, we can be back in half an hour?” He is interrogating us both; Bill and I nod. It’s past five-thirty. When does the sun set here? I check my weather app. Oh, funny, it’s like Egypt: around six-thirty. I say this to Bill while he’s trying to follow what René is saying to Émilie. I’m annoying him. “À tout à l’heure.” René hangs up. She wants us to meet at the bar when we get back. She wants to introduce us to someone, a woman.”

Phones back in pockets, we turn around.

And I’m smiling: It’s all downhill from here.

René got a WhatsApp that Émilie was to be found in the bar. The bar was part of the restaurant, a modern space that’s now shot through with light from the sun setting into the Bay of Biscay; there are tealights on the tables. We spot her immediately as we enter this open space. She is sitting opposite a slender woman who looks like she is right off a catwalk. We cross the room. The woman’s hair is brunette with blond streaks, straight, and falling on her shoulders. She watches us with narrow foxy eyes that seem familiar.

Oh, gawds, she looks like Trump’s current wife!

Émilie turns and gives a little wave as we come closer. But then she looks only at Bill: “Je vous présente Olga. My new best friend…” Émilie giggles for a second after she says this and then turns serious. “Olga lives with her husband here in Biarritz. They have been living here, I mean. They are moving, unfortunately.” Olga is also focused on Bill and raises her hand up towards him; she expects Bill to kiss it. He does. “Olga and I are both Russian, you see.” Which explains why they both have small bowls of caviar on beds of ice and empty shot glasses? Émilie, the vegan? Off to one side of the table is an ice bucket. I bet it’s vodka they’re drinking. It’s not until we take our seats around the table that Émilie introduces René and myself to Olga. No last names, but Émilie hasn’t used anyone’s last name, so does this imply that we are all in the same social circle? If Olga is embarrassed to hear herself referred to as “new best friend,” she’s shown no sign of it; her expression is placid, so placid I think Botox. She has yet to utter a word and gives no sign that she is about to. Does she understand English? Émilie did begin in French with Bill.

I don’t care and am just enjoying sitting back in this chair after our hike. I’m also lucky. I’m sitting facing the windows overlooking the pool and the bay beyond as the sun leaves slashes of vermillion and orange and then a strange purple in the sky. The sea and coast here are spectacular. For the first time on all of Bill’s house-hunting junkets, I’m hoping, almost desperately, that he will find something he loves here. I not only will be happy to visit, I might even drive him crazy and visit too often and stay too long.

“We have become unhappy here in Biarritz.” Olga has suddenly opened her mouth. Her accent is strong and undeniably Russian; her voice is fluid and in a low register implying that life is either tiresome or secretive.

“Oh? Why?” She has addressed Bill; Bill has taken up the gauntlet.

“Politics. Biarritz…” she pronounces the city’s name carefully in quite a good French accent and pauses, “is so very beautiful. Ocean. Coast. Élégant et un peu snob.” A small sigh. “We look out to sea every day.”

“Villa Belza?” Bill’s eyes sparkle. I hold my breath as does René. Émilie smiles like a sphinx.

“However did you guess?” Olga’s voice tinkles with surprise as if to laugh; she doesn’t. Bill smiles back almost shily.

“We just walked past your home less than an hour ago. If only we had already met you, we would have rung your bell.” I see he wants to laugh but is waiting for a reaction from Olga first. There is none. Bill grows solemn.

“We are not happy there.” Her words are fierce, and then she lets out a long sigh. The only thing that keeps this from sounding absurdly melodramatic is her Russian accent. She is repeating herself. Is she going to explain why?

C’est triste ça.” Bill is sympathizing with a look of sadness that is out of proportion. Of course, it’s Madame, a pain, loss, that is still raw for us all. “I think I could be very happy here. Why exactly are you so unhappy?” Thanks, Bill. I await her reply. But she just gives him a languid smile and turns to Émilie. Okay, we can surmise her husband is a Russian oligarch. They exchange a few words in Russian. I see Bill perk up slightly. I think he learned some Russian back in his UN days. “I’m afraid Mr. Putin is not very popular here in France or just about anywhere in the West these days. It’s a shame you’ve been dragged into this.” Olga turns abruptly to Bill and smiles in a way that I find rather gross in an erotic sense. Bill purses his lips at that and then grins at her. “Is the caviar any good here?”

“It is quite good,” replies Émilie instantly, recklessly leaving us slack jawed. “It is French.” She ignores our reactions and gives Olga a look. Olga smiles back and reaches for the carafe in the ice bucket. I’d say it contains vodka. She fills Émilie’s shot glass and then her own. Carafe empty, she puts it back in the bucket upside down as if it were champagne. I wonder if this is meant to be a signal for more vodka. They raise glasses to each other, take a last spoonful of caviar each, and then into their mouths goes the caviar, followed by the vodka. A waiter appears with bar menus for the three of us new arrivals, distracting us from watching this atavistic ritual played out by two Russians. There is an element of the conspiratorial about it. Or is this my imagination? “I recommend the spa, Bill, but I guess you men don’t do spas.” Émilie has become so brazen that we’ve become speechless.

I think: I guess we don’t.

But I for one wouldn’t mind that caviar and vodka.

Bill is now studying the menu. The waiter is waiting patiently off at the side of the room, watching us and waiting. I notice they have Dom Perignon and Cristal. Will Bill order champagne as is his wont these days? I start reading the different cocktails. I think that might be more interesting. “They have some good champagne, but we’ve been drinking champagne since we arrived here. Cocktails?” He looks first at me and then René. We both grin and nod. Émilie looks disappointed. I suppose they would prefer champagne after their vodka and caviar. “But maybe a bottle of champagne too. I think that would suit you ladies better, am I right?” Olga looks at Émilie and smiles at her. Émilie turns to Bill and smiles. “That settles it.” He turns around to summon the waiter. Which will he order, I wonder? “Une bouteille de Dom, s’il vous plait. Et quand vous revenez, nous trois on aura choisi nos cocktails.” The young waiter is unusually tall for a French guy. His hair is black, cropped short: nothing too trendy. He has a long nose with a bit of a hook to it, which might be Basque, is my thought. Otherwise, his white jacket and black trousers are standard garb. He nods and smiles as graciously as he has no doubt been trained. Émilie doesn’t take her eyes off him; Olga sees this and turns to inspect the waiter too. Her eyes are laughing as she turns back to Émilie. So, the ladies seem to have bonded in discussions of men. I can well imagine Émilie has shown her the dick pic.

“Olga, are you staying in this hotel? What I mean is, have you already moved out?”

“Ah, non. I come here for the spa. The villa in Cannes is not ready.” She pronounces Cannes matter-of-factly, as if it is the obvious alternative. “We stay in France. But we may go back to Limassol. There we have nice country place, dacha.” Bill nods. Of course, they have Cypriot passports. Olga and husband would be illustrative of one of the ongoing scandals in the EU: Cyprus and its Russian oligarchs. Bill turns back to the menu. He seems to have lost interest in Olga.

“I think we need that planche de charcuteries Basques.” Bill looks up at Émilie. She smiles back. What can she say? I see René staring at her as she smiles at Bill. Not hard to read René’s mind. There is a struggle in those eyes of his suddenly, something between anger and fear. Is it anger at how brazenly Émilie lies? Which then leads to fear as to who this person really is that he’s invited into our little circle?

I study the list of cocktails, waiting for René to say something.  Nothing. Neither he nor Bill are going to call Émilie’s bluff.

Okay, cocktails: They all look interesting. “I’m going for the Carré des Pyrénées.” Because it’s a Basque variation on the Vieux Carré. Why not? Biarritz meets New Orleans.

“Me too,” grins Bill at me. René seconds it.

The waiter arrives. Émilie continues her examination of him where she left off, this time honing in on the area below the belt. Does she think we don’t see this or that we just don’t care? We don’t care, of course, though I can’t help feeling a bit embarrassed for the waiter. Silly me; he’s no doubt used to this. And then I note that Olga has followed Émilie’s example. So, Olga’s husband is old and fat, like a kind of Trump? Can’t begrudge Olga a bit of eye-candy.

Only then do I realize that the waiter is holding five flûtes. I don’t think I want any champagne. “Vous n’avez qu’à servir les dames. The waiter snaps to attention as if apologizing for his mistake: Oui, Monsieur. “Nous, on commande trois Carré des Pyrénées.” Oui Monsieur. Et une planche de vos charcuteries.” Oui, Monsieur. He does a quick bow of the head each time.

Émilie and Olga are watching the waiter leave, as Bill stares at our empty flûtes. “Well, maybe we should help you out with the champagne, ladies.” He glances at me and then René. We smile back of course. Our waiter has placed a standing ice bucket containing the champagne on the floor in the space between Bill and Émilie. But he has forgotten to take away the ladies’ small ice bucket. He hasn’t removed their empty caviar bowls either. And then he returns to do just that. Émilie and Olga brighten up. I watch as the kid flaunts his eye-candy looks. And to think I was stupidly embarrassed for him.

The waiter is gone. Silence falls over the table. I can see Bill trying to think of something to say. “Google tells us that all of Villa Belza used to be owned by a Russian émigré in the 1920s. He first opened a very popular Russian restaurant. You know, things Russian were all the rage then. Think Diaghilev.” I look at Olga, and she plainly has no idea what he’s talking about. “I mean Petrushka.” Still no reaction. “And then he would give wild parties. We might wonder how wild…” Olga’s eyes glimmer then.

“Oh, my husband and I love giving parties. But those days? They are over.” We wait for her to continue, but she doesn’t. She takes a sip of champagne and looks dour. She then brightens slightly: “You are going to get me tipsy, Monsieur.” Tipsy? What an odd word for a Russian with such a thick accent to know. And then I think she’s probably spent a lot of time in London, partying in that rollicking Russian oligarch scene there where they throw grand balls where they’re Tsarist nobility. I wonder how that’s going these days? Probably those days are long gone. No wonder poor Olga is depressed.

Except that, far from depressed, she’s being flirtatious with Bill. And there goes Bill winking back at her.

“My pleasure, Olga. May I call you Olga?” True, he did kiss her hand in greeting. But then he doesn’t know her last name. Didn’t Émilie introduce as all that way? Now, it’s as if last names are a secret.

A smartphone rings. Olga reaches down to pick up a Louis Vuitton purse and takes out a very large iPhone. It’s an iPhone 13 or something: bigger than the one Bill bought René. “Zdravstvuy dorogoy…” I see Bill perk up. An intense conversation ensues with her voice hitting new highs and new lows, ending in a near whisper. She hangs up. “I must return home soon. We have been invited to dinner by colleagues of my husband who are in Biarritz unexpectedly. I hope you will excuse me. She rises from her chair like a swan in Swan Lake. So, she was not on a catwalk; she was a ballerina. She is now looming tall over us, willowy, in a black jumpsuit with a wide gold-mesh belt. Olga is both a cliché and a revelation. She gives Émilie an air-kiss and then one for each of us men. “Please don’t get up. My husband says that my car should be here in a few minutes.” She then blows us all kisses and is gone. Bill is the only one situated at the table who can watch Olga leave aside from Émilie. They both are. Bill is following her carefully; he looks bewitched.

Olga must be out of sight; he turns: “Well, Émilie, what other tricks do you have up your sleeve?” She looks at Bill, startled. He grins at her. She looks down at her glass and takes a sip. The waiter is back with the charcuterie and our three cocktails balanced on a large tray. “Oh, Monsieur, et des chips pour Mademoiselle. Elle est végane.” The waiter tries but fails to hide his confusion, nodding, Oui Monsieur.