I am amazed that Thalys can put him in another first-class seat on a Saturday, but it’s not the same time of day. He was wrong about that. He will miss lunch in Paris. They will give him a courtesy meal. He won’t starve. He’ll order an Uber to meet him at the Gare du Nord and take him to the Meurice. It’s as if he’s always lived the millionaire life, although might that not entail a limousine? Do billionaires take taxis? I know nothing. Just the movies and TV series. And in many ways, I think that I really don’t know Bill. Not this Bill. He’s changed, I suppose as one does when from one day to the next one is a millionaire. Or more.

         Except that finally on the nine o’clock train back to Rotterdam from Antwerp, he did give me that blow-by-blow description in classic hardcore-porn detail. “Thank you for letting me savor it all over again!” as he finishes his tale.

         That Bill I know very well.

         I insisted on going with him and seeing him off. I was also going to suggest that we could take public transport to the Central Station at that hour as easily as an Uber. But I didn’t. It was already his plan, the Uber. He admitted to me that sometimes there wasn’t an Uber readily available. Well, that was also true of old-timey taxis. Anyway, had his Uber call come up with no-takers, I’d have stepped in with my public-transport solution.

         Calling his Uber was a statement. After all, we’d gone to the Central Station by tram to get to Antwerp, and he’d loved the experience. His statement, I think, was meant to show that he was back in control and leaving my world. I’m probably reading too much into this. When we went to Antwerp, there was also no suitcase involved.

         We stand waiting on the broad but wind-swept platform, the electro-voltaic glass-paned roof high overhead and ringing with chimed announcements of trains arriving and leaving. The Thalys arrives on the dot. He gets in. I watch as he finds his first-class seat. It’s at the window. He sits down. I go over and stand outside, both of us mouthing words to each other like mutes, mainly for fun. A whistle blows, and the train starts moving. I wave in a silly way. He waves back at me like the Queen does. We exchange a laugh, and he’s gone. The Thalys has left the station.

         I take the escalator down from the train platform into the sparkling new station. I still find it impressive, even though I can barely remember the old fifties station. It’s a big city station. Its glitzy. Lots of stone, marble. Lots of shops. And lots of people heading in all directions.

         Oh, if Bill wants to move to Rotterdam, why should I be upset? Silly. Bill, you are welcome to move here. You are even welcome to buy an apartment in my high-rise.

         I think all this as I get the tram home. It eases my guilt. He was more than generous when with me. It isn’t as if moving to Rotterdam he’d be moving in with me, cramping my style. What style? I laugh silently to myself.

         Oops, this is my stop! Almost missed it.

         “You got my WhatsApp that I arrived?” I remind him that I answered it. “Right.” We’re now talking on WhatsApp. I’m holding my iPhone to my ear and already my arm is feeling stressed, tiring fast. “I already had reserved the suite at the Meurice for one night. And then the next night I’d gotten a suite at the Crillon. This way I could compare, not unpacking, and just wheeling my suitcase down the Rue de Rivoli to the Crillon. I’ve never been to Saudi, but I could smell Saudi everywhere in the Crillon. Could be my imagination, all that gold and mauve. I knew once I checked in and was in my suite that I wanted to go back to the Meurice. They’ve fucked that up to – got to please bling people, the Kardashians, and not scare them too much with the signs of old and ancient wealth – but not in the devastating way the Saudis have done to the Crillon. Again, I was never inside the old Crillon, were you?” No. “But you were once in the Meurice, right?” I was. He remembers. It was a big deal. It was 1969. An old uncle I didn’t know very well was staying there on a business trip. He invited me to dinner. “You described it as very Ancien Régime, if I remember. Maybe even a bit vétuste, but you’d loved it.” I did. He remembers right. “Dalí still had his apartment there, I think.” Yes, I think so, not that I’d bumped into him. “Shame you didn’t. You could always tell people you did. I wonder if he had one of those lobster telephones in his place.” I almost blurt out that the museum here has one. “Anyway, the Meurice does this big Dalí number nowadays. I don’t disapprove. Oh, I’m back in the Meurice. They had an even better suite available for me. I called the same day I left, called right from my Crillon suite. They must have thought I was nuts. But then they’re probably used to nuts. Did I just tell you I went back to the Meurice after one night at the Crillon?” I can’t remember; he’s spinning so fast. “So, I’m settled. When can you come down?”

         I ask him jokingly if he’s in the Dalí suite. “Ah, you’ll see. You’ll see.” Are you talking to me on a lobster phone? “We’re talking on WhatsApp? I know you’re trying to be funny.” Obviously, not succeeding. What about little René? “Funny how you can have a good memory for names when you want to. Haven’t heard. But if I remember, he won’t be in Paris until after tomorrow. Did you think I invited him to stay here?” I say, yes. “I’m not that crazy. I might. Eventually. When he calls, if he calls, I’ll invite him for lunch or dinner, whichever is the next mealtime, I’ll invite him here at the Meurice. And then we’ll venture upstairs?” I’m left contemplating that non-question question. I want to say: And… and? But I don’t. He might launch into some porno description of René and what he’d do with him. I already know enough about the encounter in Antwerp, little more than a rather sleazy blowjob, if truth be told. For some reason now, I think of Stormy Daniels and her description of Trump’s prick. No, Bill has better taste than that. “So? When? Give me a rough idea.” I lie: I have to check with Human Resources again. “What? Are you really some wage slave? I thought the Dutch were better than that.” Of course, they are. I already have unused vacation time. They’ve been badgering me to use it long before Bill called me out of the blue.

         Do I want to go? Do I want to go through with Bill’s scenario for us? And then I laugh at myself. What, do I want to off to Gran Canaria for some – talk about – sleaze? All those Brit beer-guzzlers? Pub food? Actually, I’ve never been to Gran Canaria. It’s just the impression I have from what people have told me. Why am I being so coy? Am I afraid of having my life directed, if not run, by Bill? If I can’t stand being with him anymore, I can make up an excuse and leave and come home. I could risk losing him as a friend then. So be it.

         I tell him I’ll call him tomorrow. “Remember, it’s my treat. I’m buying your Thalys ticket. So, hurry up, dude!” That “dude” again!

         I’m sipping my Welcome bubbly. It’s not champagne. I think the steward said Crémant d’Alsace. On an empty stomach. I’ve gotten the one-o’clock train. Bill wanted me to arrive for lunchtime, but he heard me hesitate and immediately said: “No, you pick the time. I want you to arrive relaxed and happy. I’ll be booking you first class.”

         I usually get the cheapest fare, so this is quite nice. I have plenty of leg room. And here comes the steward and hands me a menu. Starter is leeks vinaigrette: What’s not to like? I chuckle. I make this for myself a lot. But the main course has two choices, so that’s why he’s just standing there waiting. I’ve been speaking French to him, more or less to practice and get in the mood. “Votre choix de plat, Monsieur?” Okay. I get it. Ah! There’s a fucking vegan-oriented possibility. Why, oh why? Are there vegans on this train? But there’s Label Rouge chicken: terrine de volaille Label Rouge. Prepared with beer. Now that’s a Belgian touch. Potatoes. Veggies in season, which could be anything. What veggies are in season in this warm autumn? I’ll be surprised then. I order the chicken. “Et votre choix de vin, Monsieur?” After the bubby, I’m in the mood for red. It’s a Bordeaux. “Très bien, Monsieur.” And he’s gone. I look out the window and see the train whizzing past Dordrecht. First stop is Antwerp. In half an hour. Okay, we could have taken the Thalys to Antwerp, but I didn’t inform Bill of this speedy possibility. Why? Because we would have been locked into specific trains at a specific time. Taking the regular Dutch Rail/Belgian Rail train, and you can take any train at any time. No reserved seating. Not necessary. And it’s cheap. There, I didn’t give Bill any choice. I booked my trip on my smartphone and then showed him how to book his. He didn’t have the chance to treat me. But I caved for the restaurant. Personally, I would never have gone to that one and paid that much for lunch.

         And then it hits. Once I’m in Paris, is Bill going to be paying for everything? I love it and don’t love it. Everyone loves to be treated, but then Bill is in control, right? This is going to be interesting, to see how he handles this, how he makes me feel. This will be a test.

         We, or I should say I, haven’t decided on whether I will in fact go on to Biarritz with him. I have sanctioned ten days with him in Paris, as in I’ve agreed to ten days. I’ve kept open the excuse that I need to get back home to work. Which is a lie. I have the month off, if I want it.

         Ah! Here’s the steward with my leeks vinaigrette on a small plate on a tray with a glass. He sets the tray down on my pull-down seat tray. And produces a bottle of Bordeaux and pours me a glass. “Bon appétit, Monsieur.” I’m surprised. I thought I would just get one of those small bottles of red wine. I have a sip. Oh, quite good and properly oxygenated. It’s been breathing, probably since Amsterdam, but that’s been enough. It’s quite a deep, dark, and fruity Bordeaux. Nothing too complex or subtle. I’d say heavier on the merlot than the cabernet. Not bad. Actually, quite perfect.

         I attack the leeks. I’m suddenly starving. I break a roll in pieces and dab at the vinaigrette.

         I could get used to this kind of Thalys service. And then I think: Not necessary. I usually make a point of taking the ten o’clock train so I arrive in time for lunch, meeting one friend or another. I opt for a single-person welcome committee. And then we get to catch up.

         So, why didn’t I do it this time? I wanted to sleep late. I wanted to arrive carefree, rested, feeling like a prince. Now, as I finish up my starter and get through half the glass of red, I’m pleased at my choice.

         I glance out the window. We are slowing down. And now we’re in the tunnel leading to Antwerpen Centraal.

         People are getting up to leave. Others will be arriving. My main course is going to be delayed. Ah, here’s the steward to top up my glass. Merci, Monsieur! He smiles down at me.

         I WhatsApp Bill to tell him that my train will be ten minutes late. He answers: “Figures.” I chuckle; once burnt, Bill will not forgive Thalys. I assume he’ll be meeting me at the gate as I get off the train. He’s given me no particular instructions.

         It’s so nice to arrive somewhere and be greeted by a smiling friend, isn’t it? I say to myself. Yes. But if, for instance, I had to race to the nearby Gare de l’Est to catch another train, maybe not so much. But I don’t. My train is a bit late, but it doesn’t matter for me. I dare say some might be stressed out. I would say: C’est la vie. But recently everyone is saying: It is what it is. But maybe not in French. Oddly enough, it’s a bit untranslatable, now that I think of it. C’est comme ça? Doesn’t really do the trick. I’ve overheard Dutch kids just saying it in English, but that’s Dutch kids; all of them seem to be fairly bilingual and careless about it. Careless in that they don’t think it’s much of a big deal if at all. Not at all, actually. It’s just part of their vocabulary… another language. I think: Wow! This really is kind of amazing now that I thrash it out in my mind, waiting to jump up and get my bag down from the overhead rack. We’ve already passed Saint Denis. The mellow I felt after my Welcome bubbles and a couple of glasses of wine is suddenly gone. Arriving always sets me a bit on edge. Although this is silly; this is the terminus, and the train goes no further. I know. But I watch as others are already grabbing their bags, luggage, backpacks, and heading past me towards the exit. I guess I’m not so anxious as I thought. I have no connection to make. I’m in no particular hurry to get off this train. Oh, so that’s why they are streaming, rushing to get off. I stay seated to stay out of their way.

         I sit back, relax.

         And now the train is in the station. It has stopped. A few people have been like me. We gradually get up and get out bags, in my case my one bag. I usually travel fairly light, but I also usually am not away from home for more than two weeks max. I’ve packed accordingly.

         What if it suddenly turns unseasonably cold? Bill will have to buy me a fur coat. I start chuckling. A smartly dressed, very high-heeled young woman passes me as I wait, chuckling to myself, not yet up and on my feet. She notes my chuckle. I guess it’s a bit loud: oh well, bubbles and wine. She examines me quickly, furtively, and then a smile comes to her perfectly painted lips and out she goes, past me. I get up. Maybe in an odd way I’ve made her day? I’d like to be an anecdote she can drop later on. And then I snap back to reality and realize that I’m not that interesting looking, dressed a bit boringly no doubt. I bet she’s a fashionista going from fashion Amsterdam to fashion Paris. Yes, because I know she did not get on in Antwerp, another fashion city, or I would have noticed her.

         I’m up and getting my bag down. I’m the last one in the first-class car. Oh, so what.

         It’s a bitg of a walk into the station. It’s a long train. At first, I’ve been pulling the bag on two wheels and then I decide on a statelier progress on four wheels. I like this. And the crowds are up ahead of me.

         “Well, there you are! Were you the last one off the train?” He leans forward and I see he is going to give me the full Parisian welcome, a kiss on either cheek. I accept. And how are you, I quip back at him. But this is so Bill, greeting me with a bit of an accusation as if I’ve been somehow naughty. “Do you need help with that bag?” He gestures as if he might wrench it away from me but then he laughs. “The car is waiting outside, at least I hope the cops have left my car and driver alone. His name is Jean-Pierre, of course. Aren’t they all? Well, they used to be in our day, remember? This is a young guy from a car hire service. I’ve just hired the car for this trip, but now that I’ve seen him, do you think we could use a car for a little bit of conveying each day?” He’s monologuing. “I guess not. The Métro is always faster here in this day and age. The days of the grande dame with a chauffeured car, are they dead and gone? Well, probably not. I’ll have to think this one over. What do you think?” Oh, I was just being entertained by his babble. He really doesn’t want my opinion, does he? I have no clue, I say to him, because he is looking at me somewhat seriously. In fact, what are we going to be doing in Paris together?

         I might have asked, but we’re already out of the station. Ah, it all looks great. All the interminable roadwork is long gone. Very pedestrian friendly, nice smooth cobblestones for those bags on wheels. As forever and a day, the script of the Terminus Nord stretches out along the other side of the street, with smaller Deco letters on the awning inviting à toute heure, at any time. At its corner, the Boulevard de Denain, bowered in trees, their leaves still green, descends gently to the Boulevard de Magenta. I start to say something about how nice everything looks. Sunshine, bright sky, but then I see a young man in chauffeur’s uniform get out of a sleek black car and the trunk of the car pop open. As they say, the guy is from central casting. He’s tall, conventionally trimmed dark brown hair, handsome slight crook to his nose, and a rather elegant smile for such a young guy. “This is the new version of Jean-Pierre,” Bill mutters back at me as he strides toward the car. Jean-Pierre reaches out and takes my bag. Bill opens the backseat door. “Hop in.” I do as told. Jean-Pierre is already there to close the door behind us, my bag in the trunk, before getting in the driver’s seat. He hasn’t said a word. He pulls away slowly, carefully, as I see he really must with all the pedestrians, and heads along the rue de Dunkerque. I peer into the Terminus Nord, a brasserie that’s been there as long as I’ve known Paris. Bill sees me looking: “Is it still any good?” Yes, I say. I ate something there last year before getting my Thalys home, I tell him. “I bet you ordered oysters.” I laugh. “See? I know you. I remember the place, too, you know. Eurostar? Remember? But there was Covid. And then it was closed for renovations when I could finally pop over again. Disappointed, was I. I was only a month back from that ordeal in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My mother would say: Saint Pete. I can’t bear to. Plus, now that Leningrad is now Saint Petersburg, as if the Tsar had risen from the grave, well…” He chuckles. “So, how was your trip? Did they give you anything decent to eat?” I tell him yes and mention the bubbles and wine. “So, you’re a bit tipsy? He laughs at me and gives my thigh a slap. Ouch! I say. He laughs again. We both laugh. “It’s so nice to be here in Paris with you. We are going to have a blast.” A blast? What does that mean? No one says “blast” anymore, do they? “I’ve made a reservation for tonight at Le Dalí. We’ll save Alain Ducasse for maybe the next day? If there’s a table. I peeked in. It’s Philippe Starck. I would have thought it wouldn’t fit with the Meurice, but it looks pretty marvelous. You’ll see.” As if I’m a connoisseur of Philippe Starck’s work. I do know the designer’s name. “I remember when he hit New York in the eighties.” Just what I was thinking, although I wasn’t in New York. Once he seduced New York, I guess he was set for fame and glory. I say that. “You’re totally correct. I have to say that back in the eighties I thought his stuff was a bit weird, funky, but, you know, with that Parisian touch you couldn’t mistake. I mean, dude, he took New York by storm. Park Avenue ate him up.” He was in New York in the transition from rags to riches. I watched from this side of the Atlantic. It must have been really and truly crazy: the birth of bling and your friends dying like flies of AIDS? “You can say that again. Okay, the Pyramid Club was scuzzy and fun. But that was very early eighties. I guess Starck was starting out then, but I think he really hit his stride in the mid-eighties as everyone was dying.” I watch as he physically shudders. He turns away and stares at the back of Jean-Pierre’s perfectly trimmed neck. Gawds, his eyes are looking wet. I look away. I know he lost a lot of friends. Maybe he even lost a lover. Did he have a lover in New York? If he did, I never met him. But then I only visited him once in 1979.

         I look out the window. Where are we going? This is not the way to the Hôtel Meurice. Should I say something? And then I do. “Oh,” he turns to me with a goofy grin, eyes not looking particularly wet any more, “I thought since we had the car, we would take a spin down to our old neighborhood. Think, nostalgia moment?” That question phrasing again. I glance out the window. We are on the Boulevard Beaumarchais. The driver has made really good time. He seems to be very clever in the ways of Paris traffic. Maybe having a car and driver would be the ultimate luxury. Such a thing had never entered my mind. And then I remember that Kardashian woman who was tied up and robbed in her Paris apartment rental; I bet she had a car and driver. Next, I realize that I don’t frequent those parts of Paris where these people might be dropped off in their cars to shop. Avenue Montaigne comes to mind.

         There’s a whole level of life going on in Paris that I am totally ignorant of and don’t even notice. In New York City, I noticed waiting limos but never in Paris. Odd.

         We have just gone past the Place de la Bastille and are heading down the Boulevard Henri IV. I’d forgotten how leafy it was, one tall plane tree after another on either side. Platanes. I think that’s plane trees, but I’m bad at tree names. Memories are flooding in. I walked these sidewalks routinely. It all looks exactly the same. Maybe they’re chestnut trees; do I remember nuts on the ground?

         I had found a furnished apartment in the Marais in 1968, right after the Évènements. Furnished, because landlords preferred putting some furniture in so that legally they could kick you out at will. Renters had extensive rights in those days, and I think regular rents for unfurnished apartments were controlled. A signed leased on an apartment was gold; the place was yours, till death do you part, more permanent than a marriage. The Marais was still pretty much ungentrified at that point, though it was steadily in the process thereof. The general strike in May and all that upheaval had temporarily brought that activity to a standstill. I understood that the owner of the floor of the seventeenth-century hôtel particulier was experiencing an embarrassment of funds, as in not enough to renovate. I would, however, have the apartment for a couple of years. Two years turned into four. Parts of the building were still pretty ramshackle. When I moved in, there was a printing press that pounded out fliers or some such rubbish and shook the building. Amazing it didn’t collapse. I mean, it was more than three hundred years old. I guess the owners thought so too. With difficulty – that lease thing – they got the printing company to finally move out.

         You read about buildings in France not nearly that old collapsing these days. We were lucky in retrospect.

         “Memory bank getting jostled?” He pokes my knee. What’s this sudden physical contact thing he’s doing with me? He never did this before his reappearance in my life as a rich bastard. Yes, I concede; it is jostled. “Before I went to the Gare du Nord, I had Jean-Pierre drive over this way. I was curious myself to see what the old neighborhood looked like. Memories flooded back. I know we led pretty separate lives back then. I mean I was either at the Fac or at the Bibliothèque Nationale. You were cruising all the time when you weren’t working.” I nod. I remember that person. Yes, I confess, that was me he’s talking about. So, what’s his point? “You cooked. I guess I cleaned,” he snickers. I don’t remember much cleaning going on. “So, I guess I learned to cook from you.” Ah, nice compliment. “I remember how you would cut up a clove of garlic with these little incisions with a paring knife.” Really? I don’t do it that way anymore. I say that. “I can imagine. We all have these cheffy knives. But not back then.” True.

         Jean-Pierre takes a right. I know exactly what’s going on. We’re going to drive down the street where I had the apartment. Not been there in a while, but about ten years ago I took a woman friend from Rotterdam there when we happened to be in Paris at the same time to show her the “scene of the crime.” I do talk about the Paris days.

         This is weird. Jean-Pierre is slowing down. Are we going to stop and get out? Because I know that the door is kept locked with a digicode, like most French apartment buildings nowadays. Unless he’s contacted the owner, the Monsieur who did assemble the funds for renovation, whereupon I moved out. “There’s the door. Arrêtez deux seconds, Jean-Pierre.” The car stops before the door. I stare out the right-side window at the simply carved brown door. I don’t think the door was ever shut in those old days, but I’m not sure. The busybody concierge was probably good for something; I never heard of break-ins back then. Anyway. I turn to look at Bill. He’s craning his neck to see the door beyond me. “Memories.” He sighs. A bit theatrical if not silly. I would be curious to see the results of the renovation, but I’ve never gotten up the nerve to contact the owner. The time I showed the woman where I lived, someone came out the door. I asked if I could step inside the courtyard with my friend to show her, explaining why. Very graciously, she let us in. It was quite a “blast from the past,” to quote Bill. I lived there for four years, a lifetime at our age back then. I tell Bill that I have been inside, in the courtyard, and describe the circumstances. “Oh? Lucky bastard. I suppose it was meant to be. How did your girlfriend react?” Girlfriend? I let that go. I tell him that it didn’t seem to have the same effect on her as it did on me. And then I laughed, of course. Hedy showed curiosity, commented on the monumental seventeenth-century facades, joked about my Versailles period as we stood there in courtyard looking up the three floors on the main wing facing east. There was a narrower back wing, a third of which was the monumental staircase. We peeked in but didn’t dare go up. Bill bursts out laughing. “Right. Our Versailles period. Love it. Jean-Pierre? Ça nous suffit.” My memory bank shuts down the sketchy voyage into the past. Jean-Pierre has never turned off the motor. This luxury vehicle just begins smoothly moving forward, gradually increasing speed until it reaches the corner. Rue St. Paul. I would traipse up this street daily to the fruit and veg store, the butcher, the crèmerie. The landlord had supplied us with a little fridge, but everyone bought fresh back then. There was no supermarket until the last year I lived there, a grungy Monoprix, hardly inviting. How times have changed. Monoprix is now one of the better supermarkets in France. We stop at the Rue St. Antoine. Is he taking us to the Meurice finally? He should take a left then. I see it’s one way. I wonder when that happened. We wait for the light. It’s still the same grungy street it always was, although further down to the right is a baroque church with stairs going right to the sidewalk, its grandeur out of place now and probably for the last two hundred years. Most of the Marais was a Jewish ghetto before the Nazis more or less put an end to that. The grand hôtels particuliers had been probably abandoned and subdivided into tiny apartments and ateliers, which was pretty much the state of the neighborhood when I moved in.

         I glance at my watch. It’s four-thirty. In ten minutes or so Jean-Pierre will be dropping us off at Le Meurice. Bill will be taking me upstairs to his suite. The guessing game of which suite it is will be over.

         I remember when Dalí lived at Le Meurice. A month every year, I think? I knew a Dutch guy who was doing an internship at Le Meurice. Once I met him there. Very stuffy atmosphere, I thought at the time. Dark. Not threadbare but very old. You felt it was very old. From another era. He wanted me to see it. He showed me around a bit; I remember a grand dining room overlooking the Tuileries. But it was all very quick. I was not a guest, after all, and felt I really shouldn’t be there at all. After ten minutes or so he apologized and told me I had to leave. “Now, you’ve seen the Hôtel Meurice!” he beamed at me. I was not impressed. He was nervous; I got the hell out of there.

         I’m sure that Meurice is long gone. But hopefully they would have left Dalí’s apartment suite intact. I mean: Dalí! But of course, they’ve “tarted” it up, modernized it. I think of the plumbing.

         And then Jean-Pierre, from going west on the Rue Saint Antoine, takes a left at Métro Saint Paul. I look at Bill. We’ve both been lost in our thoughts. “We’re off to Versailles.” I start laughing. He’s joking. It was too late now to visit Versailles. I ask him if that’s where he really has his suite. He chuckles but out of politeness. “I thought since I had the car that we’d go and pick up a very old friend of mine. You’ve never met her. Or maybe you have. She was in one of my classes at the Fac, I met her there, but we didn’t socialize. She popped up again, years later, in New York. She was détachée to my department at the UN. French government. Ministère de l’Intérieur. She retired last year, early. Quite a pension. But that’s not why she lives in this little mansion in Versailles. It was the family home. So, we joke about how she gets to live in splendeur, while I had a tacky condo in Saint Pete I was left to live in.

         I feel let down. I was looking forward to the Meurice suite.

         “I would go to Studio 54 with her. Sometimes. You’ll like her stories.” That’s supposed to get my mouth watering? What this is doing is giving me a taste of life with Bill. He will be calling the shots, doing the planning. Do I want that? What do they call that guy in Westerns, a sidekick?

         I’m looking at Bill, waiting for him to go on, to explain a bit more about this “mystery woman” in his life. He’s again staring at the back of Jean-Pierre’s head. “Of course, I’m picking her up, because she’s joining us for dinner.” He turns to me. “Don’t worry, I’ve gotten her a room, hopefully adjacent to our suite. Not sure. They were going to see ‘what they can do.’ Anyway, it doesn’t matter. She’ll be spending the evening with us, in other words. Don’t look so worried. You’ll love her. She likes gay men. All her male friends are antique dealers.” He bursts out laughing. I smile. I don’t know why this is supposed to be so funny. “Except for one man. Her husband. She married this Russian refugee after she returned to Paris. You’ll be surprised to know I only half met him. How do you half-meet someone, you might ask? Well, Janine had picked me up at the train station – this was maybe ten years ago or more? – and as she pulled the car into the drive, he, a man, was getting in a small red car. He tooted the horn and sped down the driveway. I was here for lunch; he never came back, never showed up. Janine did not seem upset. She explained that he didn’t like to meet new people. But we will, both of us. And for the first time. It’s a twelve-room house in the Saint Louis district of Versailles. I’ve been there once soon after her parents died, well, her mother. Her father died two decades ago. He was a retired officer of some sort, navy, I think. He was at sea a lot while she was growing up. She says she barely knew him. Her mother was a different story. She spent the last ten years in that house as an invalid, at least she lived as an invalid. Never left the house. Spent most of her time in her bedroom suite, arranged on the ground floor to avoid stairs. Nerves, Janine would say, was the only thing wrong with Maman. Oh, her name is Janine.” He pats my thigh. “You’ll love her.”

         We’ve been driving along the riverbank of the Seine, but now suddenly Jean-Pierre turns right and we are in a tunnel under the river. I’ve never done this. A bit exciting to discover this part of Paris I don’t know. Oh, now we’re on the Périphérique, which I know only too well. It’s a concrete gash of highway circling Paris. Bill turns: “I think this highway was designed in the heyday of Brutalism.” He’s taken the words out of my mouth. It is ugly. Trucks. Even inside this luxury car, you can smell the stench of diesel. “Oh, by the way, the husband is not coming for dinner. As I said, I’ve never even met him. I don’t think he’s included in her social life. I’ve never said it to her, but Janine would have been better off getting a dog than a husband. I mean, do they even have sex? I wouldn’t have sex with Janine.” Yes, but you’re gay. “No, I mean I can’t imagine she gets too many men turned on. But what do I know about heterosexual men?” I laugh. He’s making a face and rambling. “I initially thought she was lesbian. We’ve never discussed that possibility except in theory, that is, she does know lesbian women. I guess that’s one of Janine’s mysteries that I will never know.” Bill lets out a sigh. And here we are talking about sex. Bill should have been a sexologist.

         I think we’re in luck. The car is speeding along. Here we are at another tunnel. Oh, signs are reading Port de Saint Cloud, so we’re still in Paris but on the far west side: Boulogne Billancourt. This used to be Paris’s Hollywood and maybe still is. Looks like warehouses, at first, but now that’s changing.

         To our right now is the Bois de Boulogne. Crazy. We’ve looped south around Paris. I should know: Versailles is to the southwest of Paris. I’ve often wondered how that army of women with pitchforks made it out here to arrest poor Louis and his Austrian wife. Quite a trek. “Did you ever cruise in the Bois de Boulogne in the old days?” What? I know I look startled. “Just joking. It’s famous for Nigerian hookers now, isn’t it? Or is that outside of Rome? I know you mostly cruised the Tuileries.” I nod. What’s his point? He’s gazing once again at the back of Jean-Pierre’s neck. He’s in an odd mood; he looks lost in thought. I look back out the window as we leave the Bois behind.

         The Paris we all lived in back then never was too far from the Seine. I spent hours in the Tuileries. He’s gotten that right. And what did Bill do? Oh, I remember. He went to Bains Poncelet on a regular basis. Was it Friday afternoons? It had two admissions. The cheapest one relegated one to the basement floor, and it was full of les arabes, as they were called with barefaced racism. A “gentleman” was expected to pay the higher admission, which gave you access to the nicer upper floors with rooms and couches, as well as the basement steam room where les arabes were relegated, if I remember. I went a couple of times, never on a Friday, usually when it was too cold to cruise outdoors. I tried both formulas. The cheap admission left me feeling trapped. On the other hand, it had its kinky side: I felt more like a whore, since the “gentlemen” would come down to inspect la marchandise.

         We’re on the highway. I’m finding it all boring. Of course, I have no choice. Bill already made this arrangement with this Janine woman. But why? It’s annoying. I’d rather be walking around in Paris. And then I chuckle: I’ll be “living” right across the Rue de Rivoli from the Tuileries where I spent all those horny hours. I wonder if it’s still active? Instead of being in this car, I could be finding out. “Janine thinks that she knows you?” What? “Yes. Didn’t you know a Dutch woman named Anna?” Yes. Totally lost track of her. I suspect she’s still living in Paris, but when I moved, she seemed to lose interest in keeping up our relationship. And then she met this woman who lived in Fontainebleau. Maybe she’s moved in with her. I tell Bill this. “Janine would never live in Fontainebleau.” I never inferred… “I think I might have met your friend Anna once. Didn’t she work in some museum bookstore?” The Louvre, no less. “Right. Janine knew Anna at one point. I think she’s also lost touch with her. See? Already you have something in common.” He looks like he’s going to slap my knee again. I move it away just in time. He sees that and bursts out laughing. “You don’t really know Versailles, do you? So, you’re in for a treat. Janine’s family mansion is quite something. She tells me she’s rearranged things, but basically all the furniture and furnishings are family stuff. She redid the bathroom and the kitchen. I told her that was very American of her. She found that remark stupid and told me so. She’s an excellent cook. There. Another thing you have in common.” My body language must have given away my doubts about this whole foray out to Versailles. Actually, had it been earlier in the day, I would love to see the galerie des Glaces again. I know there’s been restoration work since last I visited. When was that now? Maybe twenty years ago. I took someone there. Who? “I think Janine is going to give us high tea. That’s what she mentioned. She knows I’m no big fan of tea. She seemed to remember and switch that to champagne.” I’m no big fan of tea either. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. “What is it with lesbians and tea? Oh, there I go. I don’t really know if Janine is lesbian, do I? There’s the Russian. Maybe he’s not very good looking. Frankly, I don’t really understand their relationship. Maybe she married him so that he could stay in France. But why bother if she didn’t want him around. There must be some attraction. See? You can use your Miss Marple proclivities, and try and figure it all out.” Miss Marple? Is Versailles the scene of some crime? He laughs when I say that.

         Okay, relax. Bill has his heart set on this trip, obviously. And it’s true; I know nothing about the town or city of Versailles. I’m going to learn something.

         There are stretches of forest on Bill’s side of the highway. He seems to be enjoying the late fall greenery. There’s a bit of yellow here and there, but mostly the leaves show no signs of turning. I watch him gazing out. And suddenly it strikes me: Bill is very lonely.

         Suddenly we are in Versailles. I catch the sign on the edge of the highway.

         I see Jean-Pierre fiddling with the screen on the dashboard with his right-hand index finger. Bill has given him Janine’s address, and now he’s getting the route. Wonder of wonders. I’ve never owned a car myself, but I know they come with all these computer devices now. I do have a driver’s license. A Dutch one. I wonder if Bill drives. I really have no clue.

         We are on a broad avenue flanked by large mansions. Tree lined, much like the Boulevard Henri IV. I look over and see Bill sending a texto from his smartphone. “She’ll open the gate for the car,” he turns to me, switching off the phone. Jean-Pierre has slowed down. Up ahead on the right, I see an iron-paneled gate slowly opening, no fancy wrought-iron folderol, security uppermost. Of course, those old fancy gates would come with a gatehouse and a gatekeeper.

The car turns in and begins crunching gravel.

         The house looks like it’s a pale yellow with white shutters, but the light is changing fast as the sun moves west, and now I think it might be painted a cream color. The roof has two dormer windows. I think that’s a give-away. It wants to look eighteenth century, but it’s probably twentieth, early. I ask. “Janine says the house was built in 1900. I asked her. I was curious, too. The architecture is very nostalgic. If you think that Art Nouveau was breaking at the same time.” Yes, interesting. I’m thinking that it sort of looks like what you might call a French house, what you might imagine to be a French house. I think at the same period there were big houses built in the US in the same style. “Beaux Arts.” Bill has taken the words out of my mouth. Did Janine’s family build this house? “No. Her father bought it after the war. She says, for next to nothing. She grew up in this house, played in the garden. Her father worked as some kind of superintendent in the Palais de Versailles. I think he had a degree in architecture. I never met her parents. She’ll tell you stories about me in New York. She loves to do that. She tends to exaggerate. I only saw her in France, in Paris, after she’d gone back and I’d moved to London. She had a one-bedroom flat in Passy, you know, the Seizième. She would get angry if you said it, but she’s a bit of a snob. Staunch social democrat, though. We only ever talked about politics during the four shameful years when con-artist Trump was in the White House. Her zinger would be that now the lid is off in the US: This is the America that Vladimir Putin copied.” I chortle. I guess that’s how you would describe the sound I’m making. Bill does his belly laugh. He always had that laugh, but it’s now taken on ampler, more dramatic proportions. He can get away with it: He’s so thin. He’s always been skinny. I suppose that’s the Yankee DNA, though I wouldn’t call him rawboned.          I wonder if this Janine is going to come out of the house to greet us. I watch as one of the floor-to-ceiling French doors opens onto a landing. Five broad stairs lead up to it. A female figure – female because in a long dress – emerges. Her hair is bobbed, a gray helmet. “Voilà!” She gives a little wave. “She says that little-wave thing is not like the Brit Queen, but you could fool me. She’s a bit of an anglophile. You’ll hear it. Oxford accent. She did some kind of stint in London as a girl; she insists she was never an au pair. Janine tells you what she wants you to know and no more.”