I sit up. Where am I? Daylight is seeping in around the edges of the curtains. Gorgeous draperies keep the room dusky. Plush double bed that makes me yawn now it’s so comfortable. I listen hard to see if I can make out any sounds of traffic. Those windows look out over the Rue de Rivoli. I hear nothing. Amazing.
And then I hear something. Bill is up. He’s in the living room. He’s put on some music through the TV media business that we played with a bit last night, all three of us, before toddling off to bed. Nightcaps. We agreed that for something totally different we would drink some rare Macallan scotch, rich as cognac but smokey as the single malt it is.
It’s amazing I don’t feel any thumping in the head, but I don’t. We also, separately from the scotch, drank quite a bid of Badoit, my favorite French sparkling water, ever so gentle. Bill had already checked out the media library. I suppose Die Walküre, Live from the Met, from more than thirty years ago, James Levine conducting, was appropriate in that he already had it set up so that we just heard: “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind.” Wotan taking leave of Brünnhilde. Okay, a bit over the top. But we were all so surfeited with fine food, champagne, and Meursault from 1978 that, certainly in my case, it struck us all as fitting. Wotan was Bill. Bill was leaving Janine and I to our devises the next day.
I sit up again. And then I hear Janine’s voice. So, she has tiptoed through my room and is in the living room. I wonder if she was the first one up? I bet she’s that sort of woman.
I get up and pad to the window. I throw wide the drapes; they slip open on whatever hanging rod they have, as smooth as silk, slippery as an eel. I grin. Sunlight floods in. I look out over the Tuileries. Memories of course flood in with the light and the view. I spent an inordinate amount of time cruising in the far promontory where the Musée de l’Orangerie is. What patience I had, strolling to and fro, sitting on a bench, and for hours. Not that I was alone there doing pretty much the same thing. I suppose I was picky. And I was not always rewarded.
I turn around to face the great mess of unmade bed, Egyptian cotton sheets. In the corner next to the entrance to the bathroom is my open suitcase. I haven’t unpacked anything. I go over and pull out a bathrobe. It actually is silk with paisley patterns, a bit camp, but I love it. I put it on. The perfect thing to wear as I make my entrance.
“Bonjour, Janine.” I’m surprised to see only Janine seated on the sofa. I’d expected to find her in some kind of peignoir, but she is fully dressed, in the same clothes she had on for dinner. Her hair looks perfectly brushed and combed. She doesn’t wear any makeup to speak of. I can’t tell if it’s the same as yesterday. Has she showered? Probably not. Women of her generation don’t get up and jump in the shower. They bathe, usually. And not every day.
Ah, yes. I can smell her perfume from yesterday, freshly applied. “Where’s Bill?”
“Right here!” There he is, standing in the wide-open door to his bedroom. He’s in dressing gown, that is, one of those brocaded things, with paisley patterns similar to mine, but heavier. I bet it’s antique. You could easily pick up something like that in London, if you had the money for it, which he does. High Edwardian. I’m relieved that he’s not fully dressed like Janine. That now makes Janine seem like Mummy. “I’ve ordered breakfast. It should be here in a minute.”
I laugh then as there is a knock on the door. Bill crosses the living room and opens. In comes room service. Two trolleys. One for coffee, tea, and juice. The other rolls, croissants, melons, papayas. The trolleys are directed toward the dining table near the banks of window, French doors, overlooking that self-same Tuileries. Sunlight flooding in. We shall wake up in style.
In a minute or two they have set up the dining table, replete with white linen tablecloth and silver dishes of pastries, etc., pitchers of juice – maybe orange and something else, pineapple? – china cups and saucers, small plates: a breakfast table set for three.
I eye Bill: “No kippers?” That gets Janine to her feet from the sofa, laughing.
We sit down.
“Kippers. I have had kippers, of course. And what they call the Full English. But never at home. You get invited for country weekends in great houses.” Oh, do you? He’s never bragged about that to me before. “And then there’s the full buffet in the dining room in the morning.” I ask him if this is the sort of Brit country weekend where you play musical bedrooms. Both of them laugh. “Well, not in my experience. And I wouldn’t have wanted any of them, considering the old geezers that invited me. Maybe there was some of that going on, though. There was this one gay couple, your typical older gent and young Thai, who would invite at least twenty people. Lots of eye candy. I’m sure stuff went on. But always abstained. Keep your sex life to yourself, was my motto in those London circles.” I ask him why. “Gossip. I don’t mind gossiping about others, but I didn’t want to be the subject of gossip. I always played the mystery man.” Oh? Janine chuckles and pours herself some tea, pours the water, because it’s a teabag of Earl Grey tea.
Without asking me, Bill pours me a café au lait and one for himself. “I know what you like in the morning. But the sugar is for you to decide.” At home, I make a cappuccino for two, sugar already added. I suppose it’s still fresh in his mind. Not enough or too much sugar for his taste?
Janine has taken a sip of her tea. It’s too hot for her. “I shouldn’t…” she reaches for some milk. Bill puts on a horrified face as she cools her tea with “un nuage de lait”: “Un nuage de lait,” he states, reading my thoughts like a script. The expression lolls in the back of my mind from the first time I heard it forty or so years ago: a cloud of milk. Back then I thought Verlaine had coined the expression. Of course, not. “I love the look on your face, Bill.”
“I do my best.”
“You don’t care, do you?”
“It’s your tea. I wouldn’t have chosen Earl Grey. I would have chosen that thing called English Breakfast, which is just plain old tea like Brits drink all day long. Ceylon, I guess. You have to drink tea in London some of the time. Mostly the coffee is awful. People expect that you want tea. And there’s always milk. Sometimes they even put in the sugar without asking you. You know the ritual: first in goes the milk, and then some sugar, and then on top of that goes the tea. That is, if it’s tea from a pot of tea.”
“I used to be quite the anglophile,” says Janine. “But since Brexit.” She sighs. I know what she means, and so does Bill. Silence. It’s as if we are observing a moment of silence for a dead relative. She turns abruptly to me. “I’ve reserved us something else. Alain Ducasse has set up this restaurant in the Château itself. I’ve reserved lunch for us at twelve-thirty.” She looks then at Bill. “Will Jean-Pierre manage that?”
“He’s all yours. For the day, anyway.” He almost winks at her but doesn’t. She pretends not to notice.
“I was surprised that I could just reserve like that. It’s all on internet. I just hope it works. I’m afraid the restaurant I had in mind has changed hands. They serve nachos as an entrée, if you know what I mean. One must feed the tourist masses.”
I smile at her. “I like nachos, but I know what you mean.” Ducasse. Is this going to be a small fortune?
“It’s quite reasonable, too. I suppose that’s to spread French cuisine among the foreign tourists who visit.”
“Very patriotic of Ducasse,” says Bill. We all laugh.
And then I glance around me. Here we are, gabbing like we were in my kitchen, but we are in the suite named after Dalí. At least I think so. The sun is pouring in from over the Tuileries. Full of antiques and classical paneling. Palatial. For the first time, it all seems really crazy, just like my first view of my bedroom yesterday. Funny, last night we all seemed quite at home in this grand salon as if we were used to palaces. Well, Bill probably will be from now on. I guess it’s because we’d had a nice amount to drink last night. The world was our oyster, so to speak. But actually, the world is now Bill’s oyster. We are just along for one day’s ride. Janine, that is.
And then, what if Bill really takes a liking to young René? Doesn’t that get me off the hook? Bill can take him to Biarritz.
Nice. But I feel oddly disappointed, like a baby offered candy, but who doesn’t get it when someone carps it will spoil their appetite.
Janine finishes her tea. She does that hastily. “That was a mistake. Bill, can you please make me a café au lait?”
“Avec plaisir, Madame.” He stands up to do it. The silk belt has loosened, his robe almost opens up, well does for a second; he’s naked underneath as am I. He quickly draws it together. So, it is an antique, though in remarkable condition. My robe has a string inside that you tie so that even if the bathrobe flops open like his did, one flap is held tight and conceals the nakedness underneath. Did Janine see? She’s smiling, so, yes. Bill performs the ceremony for her and then places it in front of her beside her teacup. “As I said, I won’t miss all the tea in my life…” he grins and she grins back. I decide to take a croissant. I’ll have a pain au chocolat after that. And then I take both.
“Don’t get too full, mon cher. Leave a little room for Ducasse later.” I look down at my plate. She must be joking. I just smile at her and rip the croissant apart and dunk one end in my café au lait. “Oh, and I made a reservation for three. We’re not going to leave poor Jean-Pierre to fend for himself for lunch. And I thought we’d also invite him to see the Hall of Mirrors. Is that what it’s called in English? I don’t remember.” I’m startled at first and then think, why not? I wonder, though, whether he’ll agree to it. In my limited experience – once with a driver who took us to Edfu temple in Egypt – driver’s prefer to meet up with other drivers. They have a fraternity we don’t know about. I say as much. “You’re right. It will be up to him.”
Bill clears his throat. “He’s my driver, you know. You could consult with me.”
“Are you afraid we’ll spoil the help on you? Don’t be such a slavemaster.” I see Bill blanch slightly. Janine would keep him on his toes. Unfortunately, she won’t be around after today. I don’t seem to be up to that. She plays a bit the dominatrix for Bill; I can see it’s another element of their relationship. I have nothing remotely like that working in my years of knowing Bill. He listens to me but doesn’t obey, and vice versa. But I step in and say, chuckling at him, “slavedriver.” At that, he glares at me. I don’t glare back, but I don’t flinch from him either. I see that Billionaire Bill needs boundaries.
So now the baby who had second thoughts about Biarritz candy is back. I can live without that trip in my life. I decide to just grin at him then. He looks away. “Jean-Pierre is no permanent employee. It’s all up to you. I lend him to you both for the day.” I bet he wants to add something like, return him in one piece, unspoiled, but he stops there. Janine’s eye is on him. She picks up her cup and takes a sip of her café au lait.
“Don’t think we don’t appreciate it, Bill.” I nod to second what she’s said. It gets us out Bill’s way so he can do what he wants when René shows up. But I don’t care. Janine no doubt expected that she’d be driven home. Somehow, I can’t picture her with that carpetbag taking the Métro and then the train to Versailles. You used to get the train to Versailles at the Gare d’Orsay, but that’s a museum now. I ask her how she usually comes into Paris. “Oh, I take the RER.” She looks at me, “Does that surprise you? You look surprised. I think you haven’t been to the Château in quite a long time. Before the advent of the RER?” I laugh. Of course, she’s right. I remember taking the RER, this urban train line that crisscrosses Paris mostly underground, to the airport at Roissy. No one I knew at that point wanted to say Charles de Gaulle. I suppose no one cares anymore. I know there are a lot of lines now, not just that one from north to south. “I think you’re a regular time machine. I know you don’t predate the Métro, though.” She took another sip of her coffee and played with me with her eyes over the rim. I laughed for her. And then I made a point of greedily eating my pain au chocolat. “Tu es un grand enfant, mon cher.” Yes, I’m a big kid. If you want.
“Janine is excellent at taking the measure of people.” Bill looks at her and then at me. “But the men need to get showered and shaved and dressed, Janine.” She nods. “You’ll excuse us. Do you want me to turn on the TV?”
She bursts out laughing. “I always bring something to read, just for such occasions.”
We’re alone in the elevator going down to the lobby. I offer to take her carpetbag. “Oh, don’t be silly. There’s hardly anything in it. It’s just an oversized handbag. You wouldn’t take a lady’s handbag, would you?” I laugh and shrug not.
Is she going to keep on teasing like this all day? I’m starting to wish I’d told them I had errands to run in Paris.
We leave the elevator and cross the small lobby towards the door. We are observed. There are looks of deference that meet our eye when we look around. We’re outside. There are four steps. I note their presence to Janine. “I’m not blind, mon cher.” She is going to be insufferable. But it’s too late. I’m trapped. I’m relieved to see Jean-Pierre step out of the car and come around to open the back door for us. Once again, he’s in uniform. Isn’t that going to look funny in the restaurant? But I keep my mouth shut. It’s up to Janine to broach his having lunch with us.
He touches the visor of his cap. “Bonjour, Monsieur dames.” There it is again. Why not Monsieur et Madame? There are just Janine and myself.
“Bonjour, Jean-Pierre. Ça va?” Janine is being super casual. Is she going to ask him to lunch now? But she gets in the car. She’s said nothing. I mutter a bonjour and smile at him. I don’t address him by name like she did or ask him how’s it going. I slide into the backseat beside her. Jean-Pierre shuts the door behind me and strides around to get in behind the wheel.
“On va à Versailles, n’est-ce pas?” He’s asking or making sure that Versailles is our destination. This is Janine’s chance to invite him.
“C’est ça.” That’s right. And she stops at that. He starts the car and in minutes has skillfully made his way into the left lane on the Rue de Rivoli, setting us up for a left through the Place de la Concorde. As we approach, I see the Hôtel du Crillon. I’ll have to go in and have a look. Bill nixed it. I’d like to see why. Of course, from the outside nothing looks changed. And there across the Boissy d’Anglas is the American Embassy, as ever. I remember once going in there to vote for president. What year was that? Can’t remember. It was the only time I went inside. Nowadays, you can vote by email. I chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” I tell Janine about my reminiscence. “Oh, so you still vote?” I tell her I do. “So, they don’t disenfranchise you for living abroad like the Brits did for Brexit?” I simply answer no. I don’t want to talk about Brexit. She seems disappointed. So, I note that Brexit is one of the reasons Bill is moving out of London. She smiles at that. “I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did in London. I’ve always thought he was a Francophile.” I mention that he was there for work. “Ah, yes. Work.” She smiles at me. “You still work?” I nod yes. No legacies in my future. “And you are about the same age. Has Bill just up and quit the UN?” I tell her I don’t know what he has arranged. Maybe he took early retirement. These international bureaucrats have their own systems. She nods at that. So, now I realize she is retired, but from what? Do I dare ask? I don’t. She’ll tell me if it’s important. Right now, I’m waiting for how and when she’s going to invite Jean-Pierre to lunch and a tour of the Hall of Mirrors. She’s looking out her window. “They’ve done a very good job restructuring the Place de la Concorde. It used to be a nightmare to cross on foot, remember?” I do indeed. “I think gay men used to cruise on the Tuileries. Is that right.” I find myself gulping. Yes, it’s true. They probably still do. “Oh, I doubt that. There are all these other venues. Times have changed. And then there’s les applis and meeting up on the internet, n’est-ce pas?” I tell her I suppose so. I’m waiting for her to ask me if I do that, but she seems to think better of that. Maybe she doesn’t want to know about my sex life. I think she finds it bad enough that she has been exposed to Bill and René. I suppose she wasn’t counting on all that. I wonder if she wasn’t expecting to stay at the Meurice for a couple of days and enjoy Bill’s company. I’m tempted to say that I think my Biarritz future is scratched, now that there’s René, but I don’t.
Both of us, then, have things left unsaid.
Silence reigns in the backseat.
Which alarms Jean-Pierre: “Tout va bien, Monsieur dames?”
“Mais oui. On est ravi d’avoir le plaisir de voir Paris avec vous au volant.” I want to laugh at Janine’s over-the-top explanation that we’re spellbound looking at Paris with him at the wheel, but I stifle it. I do smile broadly at Janine; she glances toward me and grins back. So, is she going to invite Jean-Pierre for lunch and a tour of the Château now? She looks pensive. Why is she hesitating?
“C’est mon plaisir,” says Jean-Pierre, glancing at us in the rearview mirror. My pleasure: I bet; I bet he’s being paid handsomely for his chauffeuring. What would it be like to have a bottomless bank account? I can’t even begin to wrap my head around it. I wonder if Janine is thinking the same? She still is looking pensively at the back of Jean-Pierre’s head, but then, as if to do what she said we were doing, she turns her head toward the window and gazes out.
We are driving along the Seine. Janine has a full view of the river. And here comes the Eiffel Tower. I’m half-expecting Jean-Pierre to announce this, like a tour guide, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even glance at it. The traffic has his full and undivided attention.
And then the Eiffel Tower is gone. I’ve missed the Palais de Chaillot which was right at my right window. Now, I haven’t seen that in years. I know they’ve renovated. Damn.
I have to look out past her, which I find tiresome after a while. I instead now switch to looking at Jean-Pierre. He’s in three-quarter view, from the back. He’s quite perfect, even from such an angle. My guess is that he is at best bisexual. Yesterday, sitting in the front seat, Bill didn’t seem to get too far with him. And Bill always tries his utmost, if for no other reason than a sense of sport, competition.
“Jean-Pierre,” pipes up Janine. Oh, finally. “Est-ce que ça vous ferait plaisir de déjeuner avec nous? On a déjà réservé pour trois personnes dans l’attente que…” Nice. Would you enjoy having lunch with us? How can he say no? No, I would not like to have lunch, sit through lunch with you? She has him cornered. I can see his reaction clearly from my special three-quarter view. He has gone from shock to consideration. “Et on vous invite de voir la Salle des Glaces avec nous et les boudoirs…” Ah, she’s added the Hall of Mirrors, and coyly included royal bedrooms. I watch him reassess. I basically can only see his right cheek and his nose. How much emotion can they show? More than I would have thought.
“Merci, Madame.” He pauses. Oh, he needs to take a right. Out Janine’s window I see the replica of the Statue of Liberty. What crazy timing. He negotiates the maneuver with his usual aplomb. He’s a masterful driver. “En effet, ça me ferait un grand plaisir…”
“J’ai oublié un détail. On mange chez Ducasse. Vous êtes gourmand, Jean-Pierre?” She’s topping off the invite by dropping the name of Ducasse. She’s asked him whether he’s a gourmet, but most French people know who Ducasse is. He’s part of the patrimoine, a point of French national pride.
“Gourmand? J’aime bien manger, Madame.” Oh, that silky baritone. Of course, he loves to eat well; what Frenchman doesn’t? “Mais…” He has another right turn to make. We are entering the hallowed depths of Auteuil. I think Proust’s uncle had a house there when it was a village. Upper crust. Bill would say that, but so would I. I think the expression is used on both sides of the Atlantic. But of course, the route we’re taking is less up-market, due to the traffic. “Si vous voulez bien, je préfère de rester avec la voiture.” He prefers staying with the car after lunch? That does sound odd. It looks like he realizes that. He turns a bit so that I can partly see his right eye. “J’ai la lecture. Je fais des études de doctorat.” Whoa! He’s studying for his doctorate? What’s that silly expression: I’m not just a pretty face?
“Ah, dans ce cas-là…” Janine is at a loss for words. This is fascinating. She’s completely taken off guard. Like myself, I bet she thought he was an aspiring actor or something of the kind. “Si vous permettez… vous faîtes des études dans quel domaine?”
Now I’m just as startled as Janine. He’s going for his doctorate in philosophy? What is he going to do with that? I suppose teach. Or maybe he’s absolutely brilliant and will be the Jean-Paul Sartre of our future. I’m waiting now to see what Janine will say next. “Mes félicitations.” Congratulations? Janine, he is studying for his doctorate; he hasn’t gotten it yet. But what would I have said. Something like bon courage, which sounds like good luck? “Merci, Madame.” Jean-Pierre’s baritone thankyou works. I can see the displeasure at her own awkwardness evaporate. She looks delightedly at the back of his head and then she looks at me and winks. Winks! Earlier, I thought she was about to throw me a wink, but now she’s gone and done it. I grin back at her.