Jean-Pierre has routed the car to the Quai François Mitterrand. Didn’t this used to be just the Quai du Louvre? I look left and see the massive stone edifice of the ancient, pre-Versailles royal palace. I think fortress. I never thought this before about the grand museum of art. Now he takes a left; I know the street well but not its name. This has always struck me as a funny street. There’s a grand church in the middle: Saint Germain de l’Auxerrois. I’ve never been inside. I know little about it, but I’ve always liked the look of it. It’s a bit squat but quite gothic. At the corner with the Rue de Rivoli is a place where I had my first cocktail in Paris. It might have been the first cocktail bar in Paris. There he takes another left. The traffic is fierce.
And yet Jean-Pierre drives up to the door of Le Meurice and stops. There is an arrangement for hotel traffic. Of course.
Bill is already out of the car and entering the hotel. Janine and I get out, she first because on the sidewalk side with her carpetbag. Jean-Pierre has the trunk open and is there removing my suitcase. He closes the trunk and wheels it on all four wheels towards me, “Voilà, Monsieur. Bon séjour.” He actually tips the visor of his cap. I have a good look at him. He is amazingly handsome. I thank him. Janine is waiting for me on the sidewalk. Together, side by side, we enter Le Meurice. We are saluted on the right and on the left. I think royalty. Janine seems to find it quite normal. Where is Bill? Oh, he’s at a desk, the check-in desk. And now he turns around and looks and finds us. He has a huge smile on his face. We meet halfway toward the elevator bank. “Great news. They have arranged for an adjoining room for you, Janine.”
“Ah, qu’est-ce que ça veut dire? On partage la salle de bains?” She laughs as she says this, but I think she is asking Bill seriously. Do we all share the bathroom?
“Of course not. Every room has its ensuite bathroom. We do share the same living room, if that isn’t too much for you.” She reacts to his barb with a sparkle of the eyes and the crystalline laughter that I first heard from her; it characterizes her like the hook in her slender nose. A bellhop approaches me. I wave him off politely. I can take care of my suitcase on four wheels. He then ushers us towards an elevator. It seems to be waiting just for us. The door shuts, and Bill presses a button. Oh, it’s One, first floor. And then I remember that this is traditionally the étage noble, the floor with the highest ceilings and grands salons. The door opens, and Bill is first out, leading the way, Janine next, and then myself. He stops before a grand double door. No key, it unlocks with a card. “I have cards for you, too, don’t worry.” And in he goes. The salon is huge. Is this the Dalí, I ask him? “It is indeed. Just for you.” It is vast and sumptuous, furnishings Louis XVI.
“Ah, très bien fait, mon grand. C’est Versailles joliment modernisé.” Yes, her point is well taken. It is Versailles without the murkiness. All red and white. Comfortable-looking armchairs, its wood white gold, no bling, and big plump sofas. Marble fireplace. And then I think, Where’s the lobster phone, the crazy Dalí furniture? And out of my mouth it pops. Bill bursts out laughing: “I thought the same thing. There is this chair. He points to a serpentine white chair. All three of us laugh. “I did my research. Dalí lived in this space for a month for thirty years. It was the apartment pied-à-terre of the last king of Spain before Franco. I bet that’s why Dalí just had to live here. It must have looked quite different, much more somber.” And then my mind flashes back to my one visit decades ago. Yes. More somber, older looking, though far from rundown. This is a very different feel. I’m a bit disappointed. Bill crosses the salon to a small door. It is unlocked. He opens it. “This is your room.” I head towards it with my suitcase. Bill has already charged in ahead of me. “Ah! And here’s another door.” As I enter, he goes to that door, opens it, and turns around. “Janine, this is your room. I’m afraid it connects to…”
She’s hovering behind me at the door to my room and waves her hand. “As long as it has its own bath, I find it perfectly charming. For one night?” I turn around. She is staring at me; is she going to wink? No. I just smile. I don’t know how else to react. And then I say, it’s like we’re a family. I’m thinking parents and kids, or some Saudi prince and his harem, which is probably more like it, except now they have the Crillon down the street, which is probably more attuned to Saudi habits. Janine moves back into the salon and throws her carpetbag down next to a sofa and takes a seat. “I’ll investigate my room after dinner. Bill, aren’t you hungry?” she calls out.
Bill turns around. He looks surprised. “Oh, yes.” He crosses my bedroom and passes me. “Now that you mention it,” he raises his voice. At the door to the salon, he turns. “And I know someone else who must be starving.” Cued, I echo his words: I’m starving. I move into the middle of the room with my suitcase and just leave it there. Suddenly, I need to pee. Bill is still standing in the doorway. I tell him I’ll be just a minute. “I’ll be sitting next to Janine.” I watch his back retreat into the salon.
The bathroom is all white marble with great black veins. It is luxurious but has a sanitized, almost hospital, feel to it. It’s all the white, I suppose.
I do the deed, flush, and head to the washbasin. Nice toiletries. Interesting scent. Big fluffy towel. And then I think and can’t resist. I pull out my smartphone and google the hotel. This is awful of me. But who makes these rules? Why awful? I’m at the hotel’s site and go to this suite. I then check reservation, throw in a date and… Good gawds! The suite alone is almost nine-thousand euros a night. With the adjoining rooms? My mind races. I almost feel sick. Deep breath. I step back away from the washbasin, click off on the phone, and put it back in my pocket. Get used to it!
As I cross what is my bedroom for some indefinite future, I calculate roughly and stop in the middle of the room. Billionaire. I never had any concept, really, no clue of what that might mean in real terms. I can’t move. I’m paralyzed processing what the numbers mean. I can’t conceive of these numbers as having to do with money as I know money. Salary. Even lottery-millions prizes. What I paid for my apartment. I think about large more abstract numbers. I think about the distance between the Earth and the Sun, which tickles my funny bone for a second. No. No, this number, billions, is a money number. It’s real. It’s not a joke.
Is it real? Has Bill gone insane and is scamming credit cards in a wild spree before dying? Is that what’s at the core of his “death of New York” number, his own death?
Except that he’s really never looked healthier.
He’s quite the sexy specimen for a man his age.
He gets laid; he gets cruised.
No. I can’t imagine he has a terminal disease. And I can’t imagine that he’s like that Anna Sorokin: He’s not trying to carve out any kind of social niche by scamming. He’s no Anna.
I can swallow the idea of Bill inheriting a million or so, funnily enough. Even though I’m far from having a million myself, inflation has seen to deflating that amount of money; I can relate to millionaire I can’t relate to billionaire. A mansion in Biarritz? I know they start at millions. So, it must be billionaire for Bill. And so, I’m facing the actual meaning of billions in terms of money, buying power, general wealth, what that means for how everything is valued…
“On a faim, Monsieur!” I hear Janine barking from the salon. That snaps me out of it. She’s right. I’m starving. Well, of course not literally. Let’s not make obscene comparisons with famine victims on the nightly news. I’m very, very hungry, I say to myself: Shut up and stop thinking. Time for dinner.
I pause in the doorway. My mind takes a snapshot of the two of them side-by-side on the great couch, in this great room.
“Well, did you get lost in the vastness of your bathroom?” I move into the salon, conscious of the proportions of it; the word “billions” is thumping in my head. “You should see mine.” Bill sticks his tongue out at me – a billionaire sticks his tongue out at me? – and laughs. Janine laughs with him. It’s just Bill; it’s not the first time he’s stuck his tongue out at me. Get a grip!
They’re both staring up at me; they’re raring to go. The reality of the Presidential Suite has become inconsequential. They get to their feet in near unison.
Bill heads immediately to the door and opens it: “After you, Messieurs dames.” I chuckle to myself.
At the end of our Paris street, the woman in the crèmerie, a shop we visited many times a week just for a liter of milk – un berlingot, it was called in those days for its geometric shape far removed from a bottle, right? – she would address all, whether you were alone or there were many of you, as plural, as “ladies and gentlemen.” We used to laugh about it.
Bill has taken the lead, and the host of Le Dalí approaches him as he enters. It dawns on me that Janine is the only one who has dressed for the occasion. Bill is back in black. I’m still in my traveling outfit, replete with the handy cargo pants. The host is smiling at Bill. Of course. Bill has already eaten here. He’s a hotel guest. The host knows this, knows him. “Bonsoir, Monsieur. Votre table est prête.” He gives Janine a gracious nod and then extends that nod to me. We follow in Bill’s wake.
The room is vast and stunningly cream and beige and brown. There are hints of Dalí, as interpreted by Starck, I presume. It is a grand, high-ceilinged room with the classic eighteenth-century proportions of that palatial age. It is full of light, yet not glaring. It is amazing, as I walk across the room, following Bill, who is following our host, how the subtly modern design of the furnishings blends with Corinthian columns and the floor-to-ceiling windows and doors of the Ancien Régime. It is a great room nestled in the interior of the hotel, a kind of court. Or, you might call it a great fish bowl. As I cross the room, I’m getting the feeling that it’s a bit claustrophobic: There are no windows or doors leading to the outside world.
Janine is seated first, chair held out and then perfectly slipped in toward the table as she sinks down, the perfect definition of aplomb. I’m next. And then Bill is seated as befitting a king at head of table, although there is no head of this square table. Janine is handed a large menu and then myself. I open it. There are no prices. Bill is handed his: I’m sure his does have prices, at least I assume so. Although, a menu with no prices would be quite a proper jolt for a bling billionaire, as in you’re so fucking rich, why do you care how much anything costs? It next dawns on me that there will be no flashing of credit cards, swiping of cards. Bill will probably just initial the bill. This will be a new experience for me.
I flash back on the Palm Court in the old Plaza in New York. At tea time, didn’t they used to have a string quartet playing? What kind of music did they play? Certainly not Shubert or something. Can’t remember. Show tunes? Hello Dolly? The Palm Court was also in the middle of the main floor, but didn’t it have a skylight? How else would the palms survive, because it did have real palms. No palms here. No skylight. I look up and am astounded. It is a Dalí ceiling painting. Off to one side I note a grand mirror tilted so that it reflected the painting so that you didn’t need to crane your neck. Elegant.
“Oh!” Bill has looked up from his menu. “I think we’re going to have to make some choices.” He purses his lips first at Janine and then at me. I’ve noticed too. There’s no tasting menu, that sort of thing. There are starters to share. I say that.
“Très branché,” says Janine looking first to Bill and then to me. “Is this plate-sharing thing still a thing?” She sighs. “I guess it’s some kind of antidote to super-sized American plates of food. But this is France. Or…” she seems truly to have hatched a second thought right before our eyes, “maybe it’s a homage aux Chinois? Don’t Chinese banquets serve great platters of food on a kind of wheel in the center of a great round table?”
“Ah, the Lazy Susan,” quips Bill. I have to laugh. Fifties magazine advertisements pop into my head. I see an elbow macaroni casserole. I see a bobbed-hair housewife in flowered apron gazing down at her appreciative family. I think, if Susan is so lazy, why doesn’t she sit down?
“Do people still say ‘branché’ in France? Sounds a bit eighties to me.”
“That was my point, cher Monsieur.”
Are they going to volley like this all evening? I think so. I think this is their thing. Sit back and enjoy the show. I look down at the menu. Things to share. Padrón peppers? I love these little, faintly spicy green pepper, grilled and salted, but I wouldn’t have expected anything so Basque or Spanish, and pedestrian, here in a relais gastronomique. Of maybe that term is ‘old hat’, like ‘branché’…
“I’m going to order a bottle of Krug. I haven’t been able to afford that in forty years.” He scans us both and then raises his hand. Immediately a waiter appears and he orders the Krug. “Everyone like those peppers? Let’s have some. And then some of the Kermancy oysters. Anyone want to add to this?” We both shake our heads. We are now taking the menu seriously. We will have to compose our own menus next. I love this and I hate this. I never realize how much I liked tasting menus in Michelin-starred places. They are sure things. They are meant to dazzle. “I guess I should apologize.” We look at Bill, equally startled. “I should have booked the Alain Ducasse. This is too informal for this grand occasion.”
“Is this a grand occasion?” As Janine says this, the waiter arrives with the Krug, ice bucket, and continuing his choreography, pops open the bottle and stands back directing an inquiring look at Bill. Bill gestures towards Janine. Her flûte is filled, perfectly elevating the froth toward the upper middle of the glass. Next comes me. And then Bill is served. The bottle goes back into the bucket on its table-high stand. Will he pop up to serve us as our glasses empty or will Bill take over? Both scenarios are possible: The bucket is easily reachable by Bill.
“Oh…” Bill calls to the waiter who seems to be leaving us. He orders the peppers and oysters. The waiter nods and is gone. Bill raises his glass. “Here’s to the lives we have shared!” I toast. I find this confusing. I have a shared life with Bill but not Janine. Janine toasts with a look of agreement. How has she thought she has shared her life with mine? Oh, Anna.
“This is stunning, Bill. Like you, I haven’t been able to afford this in decades. Nor anyone else I know. Merci, chéri.” She takes another sip and then another, small sips. I start doing the same. Little sips allow the champagne to evaporate in a cloud of fruit and toast, sweetness and dryness, filling my head before swallowing. Bill takes longer sips and put his glass down. It’s almost empty. Another waiter suddenly appears and fills his glass, and then he tops off ours as we set them down in the plush of white linen. He puts the bottle back in the bucket, steps back, and then another waiter appears with the oysters. Three crockery dishes of six each, and sets one before each of us; I’m startled at the speed of the oyster order. In the center of the table come small slices of brown bread and butter and sauce mignonette. Oyster forks are set in each dish, an arrangement of seaweed and slices of lemon: a still-life painting. I lean forward to sniff the brine coming off the iced platter. Super fresh, just opened minutes earlier, it would seem. How do they do this? Normally you have to wait a good fifteen minutes or more. That is, unless they have been opened beforehand. These have not. My nose does know.
I’m also surprised that we each get six. Didn’t this come from the sharing part of the menu?
Bill reaches for an oyster: “I love oysters. It’s one thing I could be sure to enjoy in London. I see lemon but…” he forked the oyster from the shell into his mouth; I could see him chewing. “What’s the name again for that sauce of chopped shallots and red-wine vinegar?”
“Mignonette,” replies Janine as she takes an oyster. Like Bill, she forks it without lemon or sauce. “I think these are from Bretagne, non?” She takes up her menu to check and nods. “I’m glad to hear that you found something to eat in the UK.” Bill grins back at her and takes another oyster. I reach over and take one for myself. I also don’t put anything on them. And, oh, they are delicious, matching the briny perfume I’d sniffed when they’d arrived. I chew. Marine life: from algae to shrimp, even, all in tiny shifts of flavor as I chew. Janine is watching me. “I see you are an oyster lover as well. Can we say,” she turns to Bill, “that this is a unifying factor among the three of us? Bill, how could you stand living in London?”
“After the US, you mean? Don’t be silly, Janine. It was a step up in the availability of good food. Of course, with a bit of effort in New York, you find everything. Same goes for London.”
Janine smiles back at him and turns to me. “How is the food in the Netherlands?” I tell her, getting better all the time. A quizzical look from her spurs me to add that we have our Michelin restaurants in Rotterdam.
Bill interrupts: “I’ll vouch for that.” Again, I’m divided about his sudden boosterism for Rotterdam. “How is the food shopping, though?” Ah, I can then add that it is probably better than London or New York, but that effort is needed. You can’t find everything you want in one place. I’m pleased, in a way, to see Bill look shocked and even saddened. I add that Antwerp is close by and pretty good for shopping. “But nothing beats La France?” interjects Bill. “We’ll discover Biarritz together. You won’t regret it.”
As I’m feeling pressured, Janine takes an oyster and holds her fork ready: “Biarritz? What’s all this about Biarritz?” She glances at me, forks the oyster into her mouth, chews, and turns to Bill. She swallows and takes up her flûte of Krug. “Cheers, Bill.” I’m surprised at her question. She knows about Biarritz; she was already joking about the big mansion and his guestrooms. “I think. I didn’t say this earlier. I think you’ll be bored living in Biarritz. You don’t know anyone there, do you? No, I know you don’t.” She turns to me. “I think our Bill needs to have you living in Biarritz with him. A sort of dog’s body.” I’m between laughing and being shocked at the term. I know “dog’s body” is a Brit term for lackey. “Sorry.” Janine looks apologetic. “I mean, Bill,” she turns towards him. He has just picked up an oyster after downing half his glass. “I think you have to be ready to live in Biarritz on your own, n’est-ce pas?” Bill forks in his oyster as if he hasn’t heard her.
The padrón peppers arrive. They are gorgeous looking; I immediately without thinking or waiting, pick one up by the stem: Ah, they’re extremely hot, sizzling. I reach for my Krug. It soothes, immediate balm. And, I love the way its biscuit touch bounces off the salt and heat of the pepper.
Everything now good, I study Bill. Is he going to react to this? Janine is somewhat of a loose cannon. I love that. Plus, she’s sticking up for me and my wishes. Without really knowing either.
Bill is staring at me. “How are the peppers?” Is he chastising me for going first? He turns and looks over at the large rustic-pottery dish of peppers. He picks one up by the stem and bites into it. Evidently there are already no longer sizzling. “I love these. I think I had them once in Spain. You know, Gran Canaria?” He’s back and now winking at me. So, he’s been on one of those gay slut vacations; am I surprised? I laugh. Actually, I hear myself, and it’s more like a giggle. Bill grins. “I know it’s so slutty. Brits are all over the place, like moths to a flame. Cheap flights and accommodations, too. Plus, there are kinky Germans from Berlin.”
I notice Janine listening attentively. “I rest my case, Bill. You won’t find much gay life in Biarritz.”
“How do you know?” He takes another pepper and bites off the flesh, leaving the stem between his fingers. Janine smirks back.
I hear a funny buzz. Bill reaches into his pocket and pulls out his iPhone. He opens the screen and then a grin spreads over his face. He reads a message and then answers immediately using his thumbs. I’m startled; he’s picked up the thumb dexterity of generations younger than ours. I just hunt and peck, index finger. He seems to send and then waits. There’s an immediate answer. The thumbs fly, he turns the phone off, stuffs it back in his pocket, and then looks at us both. “Voilà! Sorry, Janine, but no lunch tomorrow. I’ll call Jean-Pierre. He’ll take you back to Versailles, say, around 11:30? And,” he turns to me, “why don’t you go with Janine. You can see the Château again? That Hall of Mirrors?”
I haven’t thought much about tomorrow. I’m not averse to this scenario. Bill grins at me: “Remember René?” His face is triumphant. I do and say so.
“Who is René?” Janine sounds annoyed. Out of the corner of my eye I see the mirror reflecting the ceiling. I look up, giving the two of them a private moment, sort of. It’s then that I realize it’s Dalíesque swirls look like a blow-up of the flesh of the oyster – I still have three – in my dish. Vaguely so. Is this canvas really a Dalí or is it a mimic?
“René is a young lad I met when I was in Antwerp.” He briefly goes on to relate our lunch and the bar afterwards. I’m a bystander. I attack one of the remaining three oysters. Where is Kermancy?
Janine bursts into a laugh. “Mon dieu, t’as pas changé, mon pote.” No, Janine; it’s the same old Bill. I wonder how long it’s been since they saw each other last. A silence falls.
I fill the void. I ask Janine where Kermancy is. She leaps at the chance, granting me her full and enthusiastic attention: “It’s on the south coast of Brittany. It’s actually not so far from the Charentes where so many of our oysters come from. I suppose you could call it our Oyster Coast, starting in the Bay of Quiberon.” She picks up her last oyster and forks it into her mouth. “So delicious.” How did she get so far ahead of us in oyster eating? “I know a lovely restaurant for lunch in Versailles. And then, if you wish, we can visit the Château. We can breeze right in. That’s a perk of being a daughter of the former caretaker architect.” It sounds perfect; I say so. “Then that’s settled.” She turns to Bill who has just finished his last oyster. “Does Jean-Pierre know?” She asks this as if Bill is cheating on the chauffeur.
“Thanks for reminding me. I’ll text him right now. He already knows we’ll be needing him tomorrow.” Bill pulls his iPhone back out of his pocket. As I go at my second to last oyster, I see two waiters looking at our table. Of course, we need to order dinner. They see me looking at them. They move towards our table. I fork my oyster, ignoring them. I see them hesitate and then stop. They will wait. Nice.
Bill finishes texting and looks up; he looks bewildered. No, he’s getting his bearings, resetting his schedule: “So, that’s done. You have Jean-Pierre for the day.” He grins at us, a lingering grin. I take a sip of my Krug and attack my last oyster. Let Janine bear the brunt of that grin.
“T’es plus que généreux, chéri. A car with a driver for the day!” A chortle comes out of her. Is that irony? But her stories from New York days, from Studio 54, would lead one to believe that she knows Bill’s priorities. Maybe she’s exasperated that after all these years he’s still the same. I think I’m relieved. I know that Bill, and he’s the Bill that can just vanish in pursuit of sex, which is good and may give me a bit of a break from him, both here in Paris and in Biarritz; Biarritz if I buckle to his command.
Frankly, I don’t know why I’m hesitating. Bill is treating me to Biarritz. Am I crazy?
I must have chuckled, because both Janine and Bill are looking at me. I scramble. Oh, I point out, the waiters are waiting for our dinner order? I end this in a trendy interrogation. This works. They both snap to attention and grab their menus. I’m already ahead of them. I’m going to start with ravioli stuffed with beef and foie gras in a pot-au-feu bouillon. It’s the thing I find most interesting on the menu, but that’s me. Bill gestures towards Janine. The waiter is all attention. “Moi, je prends le gravlax…” She hesitates. I think she wants to order her main course as well. “Et ensuite, le noix de St Jacques.” Gravlax and then scallops? A rather classic choice, I’m thinking. Bill nods to me and I order the ravioli. Main course? I scramble. Ah, sole meunière. I give my order and wait curiously for Bill’s.
“Pour moi les raviolis…” Bill gives me a nod, “et ensuite le noix de St Jacques,” and he nods towards Janine. He places his hand on the thick wine book that is the wine list without opening it. “Et votre meilleure bouteille de Meursault.” The waiter cites a year. Did he say 1978? Bill nods. I look at him. He smiles, “I remember that year oh so well.” He was living in New York. He’s thinking sex. I glance at Janine. Her normally impassive face has broken open with delight. I guess this is quite the famous year for Meursault. The waiter leaves. She bursts out laughing.
“On se gâte, Monsieur!” We’re spoiling ourselves. I’m not surprised that she would have an idea of best vintages. My urge to google the price of a bottle is so strong that I’m almost ready to pretend I have to pee. I don’t; I control myself. It’s probably over a thousand euros. I don’t need to know, not now anyway. Googling earlier was enough: We’re on another planet at the invitation of Bill.
“That was quite some year.” Bill looks up and seems to suddenly notice the ceiling. “Do you think Dalí painted that? No. Anyway the summer of 1978 was my first summer spent on Fire Island Pines. I did three summers. And then started the Gay Cancer talk. We rented this house on the beach. It was next door to the one rented by Calvin Klein. These neighbors of ours” – he pauses to let CK as neighbor sink in – “had put a bench press out on their beach-front deck. He and his business partner – can’t remember his name – would, you know, work out for all to see. I mean…” he starts actually cackling. Have I heard him make that noise before? No, because I’m startled. Maybe it’s a kind of laugh popular in 1978 and he’s channeling it. “We, our house, did not do that. We all went to the gym. That was de rigueur at that point. But none of us were what they called gym rats. And our weekends were gym-free. The others hated me because I could take three weeks off and stay there. UN perks. I never thought of the gym once.”
Do I remember Bill ever having a gym body? Did I ever see him without his shirt in New York? In Paris, yes, but those were different times. Oh, those pre-gym days. Blissful. Natural. I say that.
“I suppose you’re right. It became all about porn and pornstars. There were suddenly these porn movies showing in movie theaters. Remember Boys in the Sand?” I shake my head. On second thought, maybe I saw it on a visit to New York? I ask him if it was showing when I visited him. “Could be. Maybe 1971?” Neither of us can remember anymore.
Janine looks at her glass and takes a pepper. “Is there any more champagne, my darling?” Bill snaps back from what must be an interesting memory bank, grabs the bottle, and reaches across the table to fill Janine’s glass, and then he fills mine. When he goes to fill his, there is only a centimeter or two to add. He looks surprised at his glass; a stroke of disappointment comes and goes. And then he looks at the bottle and looks at the ice bucket, and he inserts the bottle in the bucket, neck down. I look to see if any waiter has noticed: not yet. I know in the Belle Époque this would be a signal for a fresh bottle. “You were too generous. Have some of mine.” She picks up her flûte, but he shakes his head and raises his glass to toast, toast the end of the bottle, I suppose. Krug. I stare for a minute at the light topping of foam midway up the glass. I should savor this, but then I realize that this will not be the last Krug as long as I’m in Bill’s company. I take a sip, and then I take a pepper. There are only a few left. The earthy goodness of this salty pepper is in such contrast to the elegance of the Krug. And yet they work together. There’s probably a lesson in this, but I can’t think what it might be right now. Ah, could it be me and the New Bill? He’s not elegant, at least no more elegant than ever. No. Bad example.
A waiter arrives; he’s seen the upside down bottled. “On vous débarrasse, Monsieur? Ou voulez-vous une autre bouteille peut-être?” Bill looks startled. So, he forgot the ancient ritual. He waves his hand dismissively at the bottle in the bucket. The waiter removes it all in one smooth gesture. Almost ballet. He’s across the room as another waiter approaches, also with a pedestal bucket and a bottle upright in it. Ah, the Meursault.
The Meursault from 1978.
We are all three silent. We watch as the sommelier (because this is no waiter, and the bottle is rare) dries the bottle with a white linen napkin and presents the bottle to Bill. Bill nods his approval, in the manner of the grand seigneur that I suppose he now is. He looks so serious. I realize that we all must do; Janine is certainly attentive. The sommelier dexterously and with great care pulls the cork out. He sniffs. I think I see a look of relief on his face. Have others been corked or worse? I wonder if he will offer Bill a sniff of the cork, but no. He now pours a splash into Bill’s glass, a splash to loosen it up, give it air; it is a pale gold. Bill reaches forward. His arm trembles slightly. Gawds, Bill knows the price of everything we are eating and drinking: This Meursault must be in the four figures. He brings the glass to his nose. He inhales, and his face lights up. He races to take a sip. “Oh, my!” And he bursts into a giggle. “You won’t believe this.” The sommelier straightens with pride, his expression beneficent. Bill looks up: “Très bon.” The sommelier bows slightly and then fills Janine’s glass, and then my glass, and then tops up Bill’s. The sommelier places the bottle back in the bucket and leaves with another small bow, duty accomplished.
We sit. No one moves. “Well, come on!” Bill raises his glass. Janine and I take up ours.
I go nose first: Very ripe mango with a tart apple touch? I breath it in a bit longer. Luscious. I continue breathing in the aroma. My head becomes full of it. I almost don’t want to stop, but then l take a sip. As I knew from the nose and from the reputation of Meursault, it’s buttery, which in this case seems silly, because it is ripe fruits from peaches to lychees to… I stop with the fruit comparisons. It is beyond these fruits. And it is not sweet but round in the mouth, full, and a touch of acidity as I swallow it. And then comes the aroma on the palate that speaks to its age: This white wine is not fresh; it has the intensity of age. It is a revelation. “So, what do you think?” Bill is staring at me. I blurt out that I’ve never had anything so marvelous in my life. I’m not lying. He shifts to Janine.
“C’est sublime, mon chéri. Vraiment. Tu me donnes un souvenir pour toujours.” Her eyes moisten at this declaration that it is a memory she will always treasure. She raises her glass to Bill. “I think we are in heaven, n’est-ce pas?” She includes me. “Was this year 1978 so beautiful in your life?”
I would never have thought to ask Bill that.
“Yes. Yes and no.” His vision flashes away from us, not to the room we sit in but into memory. I should look away, but I don’t. I am invading his privacy by watching his eyes, the expressions roiling his face. I see I’m not alone; Janine is staring, but of course she asked him the question. And then he’s back with us and grinning. “But I’m not telling.”
“Because you met someone. You fell in love.” There is a softness to her voice; she is not accusing him, but she is baiting him. Bill laughs. And then she laughs. They are a match. Checkmate. I feel removed from them, a spectator. I have always known about Janine, but I never expected her importance. Is she more important in Bill’s life than I am? At this very moment, I’m thinking she is. I take a sip of the Meursault; it jars me back to this extraordinary here and now. I am tasting the past. I see first Janine and then Bill take sips.
Janine is raising her glass. She’s going to offer a toast. The evening is just beginning, and I think she’s a bit drunk: “À nos amours.” She turns to me, “To the seventies.” I raise my glass out of politeness. Bill has wandered off in thought, but her toast has jarred him back to us. He raises his glass and toasts and then sips. I do the same. Janine seals her toast with a sip. “I am thinking that this wine is telling us something about age. It is not telling us much about the year.” And then she changes her mind, “No, of course it tells us something about the vendange, the weather.” She laughs; actually, it’s a chuckle. She’s mocking herself a bit. “A bit pretentious.” No, I say to her. Because I have the same reaction. “Merci, Monsieur.” She reaches over and touches my hand as it holds the stem of the glass against the linen. I jump, my body startled. I try and hide my reaction by giving her my silliest grin. She laughs. It’s worked. Tomorrow will be a very interesting day, alone with Janine; I’m looking forward to it now.
Suddenly, we are surrounded. Gravlax is set down before Janine. I am served my ravioli, and then Bill receives his. “Bon appétit, Messieurs dames.” The waiter who has served Bill his ravioli pronounces this. He has moved to the empty side of the table. His expression is gracious but solemn. And then he’s gone.
This form of address from the lady in the crèmerie more than forty years ago, is this now standard? We thought it very Parigot, working-class, back then. How else should he have addressed us? I don’t know; I can’t think.
And then my eyes are off gawking around the room. Such high ceilings. Such an expanse of classical details and modern Starck, and an intriguing pale lighting that takes the sharpness off the room. It is, I admit, gorgeous.
Where am I? I’m sitting in a billionaire’s fucking womb! I stifle a chuckle at my own thought. And then the aroma from my plate is in my nose. I lean down slightly to breath in the steam coming up from the bouillon broth, in which the raviolis stuffed with beef and foie sit. Bill does the same; he’s aping me. “Ah, yes, lovely aroma.” He picks up his fork but then looks toward Janine. Of course, her entrée is cold, but she leans down and smells, most likely she smells more dill than anything fishy from the gravlax, and then she takes her fork.
“Bon appétit, Messieurs.”
The dinner has begun.