The last time I found myself in the Galerie des Glaces, I was in my early twenties. It was the first and the last time. We’d take the train to Versailles years later on a Sunday and have a picnic in a corner of the expanse of the park under the trees. “Et alors?” Janine is amused. The Galerie looks smaller than I remembered. I see a frown forming around her mouth and quickly add that it looks much restored, brighter… “Bling?” she cuts me off. And then she adds, “Le Roi-Soleil a inventé le blingbling, mon cher.” We chuckle together. I bet Roman emperors could have given Louis a run for the money when it came to bling, but since the fall of Constantinople, it was definitely Louis that started the trend we know today, I add. She nods agreement before gazing up and around. I follow her eyes. It is, yes, breathtaking as we just stand here. There are other visitors, but it’s not crowded as I’d feared.
And then while looking up and around, we begin a slow promenade from the entry to the exit, which I think will lead to the chambers, the living quarters, of the king and queen.
My first impression was wrong. It is lofty and magnificent. “They have restored the chandeliers so that they give off a light like the original candles.” She is instructing me in English like a tour guide. I don’t care. I do notice that it is gorgeously radiant inside. The twists and turns of gold and the startling colors of the painted scenes of the ceiling reflecting from the mercury-zinc mirrors: I am feeling more and more dazed and impressed, maybe even blown away as I must have been on first sight at twenty-two or whatever age it was. I could stop and figure it out, calculate, but I don’t feel like bothering. And I am still that person, especially once again as I follow Janine. She is silent now.
And then I realize that what I’m seeing is the original, the template. I’ve been in countless royal palaces all over Europe; it’s one of things one does on first visits. And probably some are bigger and so forth, but nothing quite beats this original. The original. I should have visited again before this: “But then you would not have this great pleasure of rediscovery you feel now.” And she’s right, right once again. Plus, reconnecting to my twenty-year-old self. I say that. She takes a few steps away from me to look me over. “Je peux vous imaginer.” She can picture me? I think I’ll take that as flattering.
The bedroom of the Roi Soleil. There’s a railing from one end of the room to the other. Courtiers could promenade from one end to the other to witness the Rising of the Sun King. I think: breakfast in bed. Surely Louis’s day did not begin with a parade of courtiers. He woke up like we all wake up: alone, or maybe nudged awake by an attendant who served as a human alarm clock. The Levée du Roi would certainly be a ceremony that would take place quite a while later. So, Louis wakes up, sips something, maybe nibbles something, and then gets to watch his courtiers parade before him. I get it. And Janine smiles at my running commentary. “You have quite the imagination.” Do I? Or have I just read a lot about this over time? I’ll let her think I’m imaginative. “Can you picture Bill as the Roi Soleil? He’s changing, you know. By the day.” I’m startled by her saying that, but I know it must be true. It is true. He’s more lord and master here in the Meurice than he was off the Eurostar in Rotterdam. Of course, in Rotterdam, he was my guest. Now, I’m his. But I’m not going to share this thought with Janine. I’ll let her gossip about Bill; I’ll let her do any backbiting that might arise. I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. Do I trust Janine? Do I know Janine. Do I enjoy Janine’s company? No; no; and yes.
The Chamber of the Queen. The Salon of the Guards. The Salon of the Nobles. Finally, the Royal Chapel. With the Royal Chapel, I’ve had enough. The Chapel is austere, with a semi-circle of Corinthian columns. “This if frightfully Jansenist, n’est-ce pas?” Janine is quizzing me. I do know that in old age Louis XIV became pious along with or perhaps at the instigation of Madame de Maintenon, who he secretly married. I agree that his chapel reeks of this. “On s’en va?” Yes, let’s get out of here. We both have Jean-Pierre’s mobile number. Janine now simply pulls out her smartphone and begins texting. I assume it’s Jean-Pierre. She stares at the screen. In less than a minute, she has her answer. She turns to me and smiles. “He’ll drive the car out of the garage and be waiting at the main gate. Shall we?” I nod yes. Delighted. I hope I don’t look too delighted. It was her idea to show me Versailles after the restoration work. And I’m glad I’ve seen it. I would never have bothered on my own.
As we leave, I glance out the windows into the grand park. The sun is heading toward sunset, but about an hour or so away from that. It still looks sunny. And then we step out. Balmy! I say Indian Summer to Janine, in English. “Arrière-saison. Yes, but this is what we are told to expect. Warmer weather. Do you have air-conditioning?” she asks me with a mixture of seriousness and alarm. I don’t. “Neither do we. Last summer was a hell. I think we will have it installed in the house. Not everywhere. The bedrooms upstairs. The living and dining rooms. You have an apartment, Bill tells me, very high up?” Yes. The building has a kind of ventilation system, not exactly air-conditioning, but only one night was difficult for sleeping. “Lucky you.” We are crossing the crushed white stone courtyard. “Ah, I see the car!” She looks delighted. And then she stops and turns to me. I stop and turn to her. “May I invite you in? I know I have another bottle of champagne in the fridge. I’d like to offer you an apéritif. Who knows when we’ll meet again.” She says the latter is if I’m going off to war. Avec plaisir, I say to her and mean it. I loved her house. I’d like to be shown around, walk out into her garden. And I realize I’m not that keen to get back to the Meurice. I suppose there will be dinner with Bill and René, this René I have met for about three minutes. I’m thinking this will feel awkward. And then I think: so what.
Jean-Pierre is out of the car in a flash as we approach. He has his cap back on. He really is startling handsome, a chauffeur out of a romantic movie. I find it hard to picture him as a doctor of philosophy. This is, of course, kind of sexist on my part. Sexist? No, there’s no ambiguity as to his sex. He’s male alright. I know: I think of him as a sex object.
We get in the backseat. Jean-Pierre appears to know the way. Good memory.
“Has Bill told you when he wants to go to Biarritz?” I shake my head, no. “I suppose the arrival of this René person has changed things?” I nod and then shake my head: I have no idea. Janine laughs. And then I have to laugh too. She was right: No idea when we will meet again. I have no idea what my future holds. I should be home next week. That was the plan. That’s what I told the office. I tell her that. She turns away to look out the window. “Jean-Pierre knows the way to my place. I suppose he googled it while we were visiting the Château.” Oh, I didn’t think of that, funnily enough. But he has to have remembered where her house was. I say that. “Right you are.”
She produces her smartphone. Instead of texting, she taps in a number and puts the phone to her ear. “On arrive. Je t’ai dit. Pas Bill.” She hangs up. She’s annoyed. Who has she called to announce our arrival? I thought the Russian husband was in St. Petersburg.
And then I recognize the street. In minutes, the car is pulling into the drive. I exclaim how gorgeous I think her house is. I mean it. “Thank you. We love it too.” She leans forward to Jean-Pierre: “J’invite pour l’apéritif mais…”
“Ah, merci, Madame. Mais je conduis.”
“Bien sûr. Ça ne vous embête pas trop d’attendre encore?”
“J’ai mes bouquins, Madame,” he chuckles. Of course: he’s driving so no drinking; he has his books, his studies. In fact, this is perfect for him. He gets paid to study. I bet this trip has been a godsend for him, much more so than yesterday when he was driving most of the time.
“Au revoir, Jean-Pierre. Je vous souhaite bonne chance…” she peers over the front seat at something beside him on the seat. I suppose it’s the book he’s been reading. And as he’s starting to thank her, Janine has the door open and is getting out of the car. I open on my side and get out. I turn and look toward the house. There’s a tall red-headed figure in black, turtle-neck and trousers standing where Janine had stood when I’d arrived with Bill. Not red-headed, magenta, clearly meant to startle and not be taken for natural. Is this Sergei? That’s impossible. As I follow Janine and get closer, I see it’s a woman. Her hair is short on the sides and very long and thick on the top. One of the latest male haircut styles, one I thought I might try for myself, but I never got further than short on the sides up as far as the part on the left. I can feel her eyes examining me. She’s sizing me up. What is she seeing? Has she met Bill? Janine told her on the phone that it was not Bill that would be with her.
Janine mounts the four stairs and gives the woman a kiss on the mouth. She turns around to me. “Come on. I want you to meet my Serges. And I’m thirsty for some champagne.” Janine steps aside, standing by this person she has just called Serges, and waits.
I mount the stairs. Serges holds out her hand. “Enchantée, Monsieur.” I take it and say, likewise. I try hard not to look surprised. She is stunning. Or I’m stunned by her. How old is she? I think she may be close to Janine’s age, which means actually around my own age. But she looks younger. Great skin. I can’t make out any sagging or any wrinkles. She turns abruptly and goes into the house. The French doors are still wide open. Janine moves quickly after her and so do I. I wonder if I should close the doors behind me, but maybe they want some fresh air in the house. I remember where the salon is, and that’s where we’re heading. As if in a time lapse, there is a bottle of champagne in a bucket, just as we had left it yesterday. Yesterday. I’ve only known Janine since yesterday, and yet I feel like I’ve always known her somehow.
“Vous parlez le français, Monsieur? But I think it would be good for me to speak English.” Serges is Russian. I can hear the accent both in the French and the English. “Janine, what if we take the champagne outside. The sun is still warm. Let’s enjoy…” She doesn’t wait for an answer and picks up the bucket. We are heading for the other set of French doors that lead out to a terrace and the garden. These doors are also open. I’m thinking there could be quite the draft, but in fact the early evening is very still: no breeze at all.
There’s a round metal table painted white and three metal armchairs with forest-green cushions on the seat. This could be the Côte d’Azur, I think. Serges stops and turns to me. “Ah, Monsieur, j’ai oublié les verres. Pourriez-vous…?” Glasses. Oh, she’s right. I saw three flûtes on the coffee table; I should have said something when she or Janine didn’t pick them up. I head back into the salon. I feel the kind of moment’s recognition that you have entering an old familiar room. Strange. The room is neither old or familiar. It must have made a stronger impression on me than I thought. In fact, the whole house did. I do want a tour, but maybe now that’s not possible with Serges.
I collect the glasses and head back out. They’ve taken their seats, leaving me the one looking out into the garden. There’s a gravel area, part of the front drive, and then a bit of mown lawn, and then shrubbery and trees laid out in what the French like to call an English garden. The trees are tall and healthy looking. Maybe elms? I don’t know my trees. It’s almost a small forest but not. You can easily walk into it. There are footpaths that seem strewn with dead pine needles. I sit down. Maybe it’s looking at this miniature forest, but I can smell the deep green of it. The air is warm and still. Janine jumps up. “I love to pop corks.” In seconds, she’s done just that and begins filling our glasses. She hands me the first one and the one to Serges, and then she sits down and takes up the third. “À nos amours! Tchintchin!” I say nothing but toast her glass, and then Serges leans forward and touches my glass with hers and softly says, Tchintchin.
“You can tell Bill if you like. I don’t care. Serges did not want to meet him yesterday.”
“Why? No. I was out grocery shopping. Why you make this so mystery…?” Her words are angry but not her voice. There is a cat-like tone to her voice. It’s almost funny. “You, Monsieur, you are a surprise. Janine plays games.” She stares at me rudely for a second. “You don’t seem very American. Bill is very American,” she turns to Janine, “that’s the idea of I have from you.” Janine flushes slightly.
“Bill and he were roommates in Paris years ago, right?” Janine turns to me, but I don’t feel this is a serious question. She knows this. But I nod anyway. Serges looks at me and bursts out laughing. And then she raises her glass to me. I have no idea why. I raise mine toward hers. She takes a big sip of hers; I take a big sip of mine. Janine downs hers. And then she’s up and filling all our glasses again.
Toasts. It’s delicious. What is it? Oh, it’s Perrier-Jouet. I haven’t had this brand in years. I used to love it. I love it again, right now.
Now Serges jumps up. “We must eat. I have things made in the kitchen. I’m forgetting.” She moves so fast then she seems to disappear into thin air.
“So, now you have my little secret.” What, that you are lesbian? “Yes and no. In fact… Serges is my husband. Serges was a man.” My face must have dropped to the table, because Janine bursts out laughing so loudly that she starts coughing and her eyes tear up. She catches her breath, “You didn’t suspect?” No, I did not suspect. I still find it hard to believe. It’s her skin. I’m about to say that, but Janine says it for me. “Serges was always hairless. Imberbe. I mean, maybe a bit of a moustache. And…” she looks downwards. Oh, pubic hair. Right. I shut my mind down: I don’t want to think about what Serges has down there. Or, rather, what she no longer has. “Here!” she raises her glass to force me to raise mine. “Let’s drink to the new world order.” She giggles at that, nods toward my glass, and we both drink, one, two, three sips. It’s almost time for our third glass of champagne.
Serges is there silently, again cat-like. She has a great silver tray with slices of smoked salmon on black bread. And there are small white squashes. I’ve seen them before; they’re Russian pickles. Serges sits down. “Oh, I see you two have been busy.” She takes up her flûte and downs the champagne. Janine is up on her feet again. I think: Thank the gawds this is not vodka we’re drinking. That’s how it strikes me that we’re drink this, my old favorite champagne. I want to slow down. I want to savor it. To change the pace, and without asking, I reach forward and take a salmon canapé. Oh, it’s very, very good. I wonder how it compares with the one from last night. I ask Janine. “You forget. Last night was gravid lax. So, there is really no comparison. Serges has expensive taste. This is the best Scotland has to offer.”
Serges reaches forward and takes one. “I am so happy you like… I looked for caviar yesterday, but no Russian. Only Iran. So, I didn’t buy. What is this? Boycott?”
“Sanctions. There’s a war. Your friend Putin?” Janine is grinning. I sense a little numéro, a rehearsed routine, is in the offing.
“Ha. He’s no friend.” Serges looks directly at me and repeats. “He’s no friend. KGB. I have a dead grandfather. I mean, from my grandfather I know KGB only very well. He was too old to go to Perm. Gulag. Stupid. And then Gorbachev. But too late. This is true. I’m not telling you stories.” I nod that I believe her. I believe him. Her voice has lowered to a gravely male timbre. Her or his hair is magenta. It’s magenta. That’s the name of the color.
I’m feeling the champagne. I take another smoked salmon. What weather! I loll back in the chair a bit. Before me are two lesbians keen on amusing and delighting me with food and drink. And beyond them, before the English garden takes hold, are hydrangeas in their last gasp of blooming, pink and blue. Funny: I bet they are their children, pink for little girls, blue for little boys.
I take a final sip of champagne. Shouldn’t I think of leaving? What time is it? Janine is up and filling my glass again. “We would like to invite you for dinner, but I suppose that’s not possible. Jean-Pierre is waiting and…” Yes, and I think, I know, Bill expects me back. “Serges is a great cook. Quel dommage.” Serges nods and smiles seriously. Janine opens her mouth to add more information but then shuts it. After a sharp look from Serges. Perhaps he was a chef? I think: in a past life? They are obviously both retired.
I ask her if she was a professional chef. She frowns. “Yes.” The frown slowly lightens and is gone. She now smiles: “Meilleur Ouvrier de France. Vous êtes au Meurice? Là, dans l’époque de… je créais des plats qui faisaient sourire Monsieur Dalí. Eh oui. C’est comme ça. Le temps passe. Vous devez le savoir.” I stare. Is it possible? Why not? A young chef. Le Meurice. Dalí. Forty years ago? No, fifty. How old could Serges be then. Bravo! I say. She bursts out laughing. “Brava, mon cher Monsieur, s’il vous plaît.” Brava, I repeat after her. By all means the feminine as in for a Diva like La Callas. Maybe something in Serges’ jaw is not quite right for a woman? I’m searching. Ah, her wrists. Yes, maybe just a wee bit too thick. Oh, give up. Why do I care?
I toast Serges. Serges toasts me back. And then… there it is: the grin. It’s masculine.
Idiot! What the hell is a masculine grin?
“So, mon cher, what is your plan for Bill?” My plan for Bill? “Are you going to let him take over your life? Would you marry him? I don’t think he would care if it were a mariage blanc.” What? Where do I start. Certainly sex is out of the question. We never had sex. We were always just friends. She looks amusingly incredulous. No, Janine, we don’t all fuck each other. And then I realize she’s teasing me. She bursts out laughing. “C’est triste et c’est drôle. I can understand why he’s gone after you. He has gone after you. You can see that.” Do I? I’m not so sure of that, I tell her. She looks at me as if I’m a fool. So, I point out that René changes the equation.
Jean-Pierre looks surprised when I get in the passenger’s seat next to him. I laugh and tell him I’m not going to sit alone in the backseat like some dowager Empress. He grins. I tell him he can take his cap off, too. “Mais non. Je suis toujours en service, Monsieur.” Ah, and right he is: keeping a distance from the passenger who is surrogate for the client, who is Bill. I wonder if Bill had tried something yesterday when he’d sat where I’m sitting now. I bet he didn’t dare. Oh, but I bet he so wanted to put his hand on that thigh. I laugh and agree with Jean-Pierre about the significance of his cap. I put on the seat belt. That’s his signal to start the car and move down the driveway.
What are we going to talk about? We can’t just sit here in dead silence for half an hour. Maybe this is why I should have sat in the back?
And then I start noticing the dashboard of this car. Between us is what looks like a Google Maps screen. I ask him if he installed that for work. “Mais non. C’est plus ou moins standard. Vous n’êtes pas amateur des automobiles, Monsieur?” No, I confess not. I’ve never owned a car. I do have a driver’s license, an American one, kept going over the years. I’m glad I’m not driving, I quip to him. He grins. But as I watch him maneuver this vehicle, I think, how great it might be to drive such a car. It’s silent; it’s electric. I ask him. “Hybride.” Ah, so you also can fill it up with gas. I suppose that’s for long trips. I don’t ask him that. Instead, I ask him about what his customers are like. “Ce n’est pas très discret, Monsieur.” Oops! I suppose he’s right, but I’m not asking him to name the names of his famous clients, for instance, just what they’re like. First of all, I suppose they have to be pretty rich. “Ah, oui, ils sont fortunés, sans doute. Je ne conduis pas un taxi ici.” He grins at me. No, he’s no taxi driver. And then I think: What the hell! And I ask him if they try to put the make on him. He bursts out laughing. “Les femmes d’un certain age? C’est pire.” Older women are the worst? And gays? “Pas autant.” Less. Okay. I can see that. Gay men have an easier time at finding sex. It must be more difficult for rich older women. I now assume that he’s no gigolo. Did I think he might be? Yes. With his looks? I’m tempted to ask him if anyone ever tried to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and then I think better of it.
I’m really edging into dangerous territory. And I’m close to being insulting with him. Bad.
I wonder if Bill has hired him for a period of time. Should I ask him? Why not. “Oui, Monsieur. Votre ami est très généreux. Je suis à sa disposition pour la semaine sans que je conduise.” At Bill’s disposal for a week? And what’s going to happen after that? Is this the Biarritz time then? I have been afraid to ask. I have been afraid to nail Bill down, period. I was thinking I could just hang out with him in Paris, enjoy his company, and enjoy the billionaire ride. He’s kind of pointed that out: Enjoy all this with me.
I look out the window and am startled. Is this already the Bois de Boulogne. I glance at the screen in the middle of the dashboard. No. I look closer. Something called the forest of Fausses-Reposes. Odd name. False Rest? I ask him. “Ah, oui,” he chuckles. “I looked that up. It is a hunting term where the hunted animal finds a place to hide out from the hunters.” He’s switched to English; I wonder why? I don’t ask why. I like when he speaks English. The accent coupled with his baritone is nice on the ears. So, the kings of France hunted here? “I suppose yes. I don’t know so much. But I have taken tourists to Versailles from Paris, and this is the usual route, so I looked it up.” I tell him I didn’t notice it before, and this is the fourth time. “If you don’t pay attention, you think it’s the Bois. And then we’re in Versailles. That’s my job. I make the trip easy.” Indeed.
Silence. We don’t need to talk all the time. I enjoyed the luxurious ride in this car before, but sitting next to the driver, with lots of leg room, was even nicer. And I paid attention more, even if I got it a bit wrong like that bit of woods. I never knew this area west of Paris much. Once I went for work to Boulogne-Billancourt. It was an area of warehouses and stuff. Now, no longer. It’s actually inhabited, new apartment buildings, and they don’t look cheap. And then I wonder and ask where Jean-Pierre lives. He can’t have this car in Paris, can he? “J’habite à Neuilly.” That’s a bit posh, I think. “We have a big apartment. I live with my mother. My father died when I was ten. His brother bought us the apartment. On habitait toujours l’appart, mais mon père l’a acheté avec un prêt de la banque. Mon tonton l’a remboursé. On n’avait à payer que les charges. Enfin…” At first he looks pleased to tell me where he lives, but then as I look at him from the side, his eyes always on the road ahead, he seems ill at ease. He stops talking. Father dead when he was ten. Living with his mother in a big apartment. His uncle had paid off the mortgage for them. Nice uncle. And this car, inherited. So, our supercilious joke about the “uncle” was garbage: It was a real uncle. “Mon oncle travaillait dans la finance.” Ah, uncle in finance. What about his father? “Ma mère est institutrice.” Mom a schoolteacher. Okay: Dad? I wait. Nothing. He seems to slightly frowning. Maybe he feels he’s told me too much, that my questions violate his privacy. I shut up.
I start up after five-minutes silence. I tell him how much this part of Paris has changed since I lived here. “Oh, you lived in Paris?” Yes. I tell him I was even a student in ’68. He starts laughing. I know. Kids always laugh at that here in France. The generation of May ’68 is notorious, for good and bad. To him it’s history, if not ancient history. For me, it’s just my life, my past. Funny. I say that. “J’imagine,” he replies soberly. “Et vous habitez à New-York maintenant?” Where did he get that idea, that I live in New York. I tell him Rotterdam. He looks confused. Or, from the side, he looks confused. Hard to tell. “Ah, c’est bien.” He thinks that’s good? Or is he just saying something to be pleasant? The latter probably. Parisians know about Amsterdam. Their eyes go all funny, like, people are stoned all the time. Rotterdam? They know it’s the biggest port in the EU. Which reminds me of how inward-looking France is. I suppose it’s the language. Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia? They all dip into English easily, and so they connect to the larger world. For the French, this is not so often the case. Although, look at Jean-Pierre! His English is great. So, I ask him how he learned such great English. “Merci, Monsieur. C’est gentil. I was an exchange student when I was seventeen. I lived with a family in Des Moines.” And he does not pronounce it like it was French: The Monks or whatever. I say, the explains it all and I start laughing. He glances at me. “Why are you laughing?” Yes, why am I laughing? And then I say he must have gone to lots of high-school basketball games. He’s back watching the road, but I see his eyes light up. That’s nice. So, he liked Iowa. And why not? For a French kid, with his looks, girls chasing him and sighing and panting over him? Must have been paradise. “Les Américaines? Un peu puritaines, non?” I thought all that had changed. “I had lots of girlfriends but…” So, he didn’t get laid in Des Moines? Odd. “The family was very Christian.” Ah. Bingo. Poor guy. And I say so. He laughs again. What a nice laugh he has.
And then I ask it. I don’t know why. Stupid. “Ah, mais non, Monsieur, désolé, mais je préfère la France.” He had a nice time in Des Moines, but he’s glad he lives here. I mention guns and shootings in schools. “Yes. Why are Americans so crazy?” I have no answer; I tell him I have no answer. And that serves as a conversation stopper. Silence.
Traffic is getting intense. It’s rush hour, I realize. I have to leave him alone. No distractions.