The desk clerk is new, a young girl from a small city near Toulouse. Her eyes sparkled when we talked food earlier. She is curious how my lunch was. Or is she just humoring me? No, she is curious. I start off noting what a glorious day it is. Her look is a mixture of pleasure and sadness: She has to work. Well, there will be other days like this when you’re free. Her face lights up.

         There are plenty of other guests in the hotel, but all are off somewhere at this hour, I suppose. Three-thirty in the afternoon on a sun-kissed day? I begin describing the entrée. Her eyes dance.

So, I don’t hear the sound of the wheeled suitcase before I hear a voice: Une chambre pour une nuit? J’ai réservé.

         I step, no, jump back, to leave the way clear for the man to approach the desk and check in.

         I go up to my room, take off my shoes, and lay down. I don’t know what else to do. The man checking in shot me this grin of complicity, amusement, his tone of voice and body language joining in the mood of banter with the girl at the desk, knowing full well he was interrupting it but not wanting to break the spell. He did of course. I left immediately to retreat upstairs.

         I think he was Rawbone.

         I can’t be sure. The Rawbone incident was years ago. The man checking in and announcing to all and sundry that it was for “One Night” was probably in his early thirties. He wasn’t as lean as Rawbone, but back then Rawbone was a kid in his late twenties.

Wasn’t his smile to me and the desk girl was something like, let me join the party. If only.

         What would that scenario be like?

As he checks in, I continue my description of lunch, he shares my enthusiasm, asks about the wines (of course, just as Rawbone from Bordeaux would!), jots the name of the restaurant down in Notes on his smartphone.

         And then I say: Only one night? And he just grins at me.

         I burst out laughing in the silence of my hotel room. What would I be thinking of asking such a personal, intrusive question?

I get up. Time to go for a walk along the coast and get some exercise: nothing like those steep climbs along this craggy shoreline. Breathtaking vegetated cliffs rising out of the roil and lap of the sea, foam spraying up even on a calm, near windless day like today. Although maybe not so windless right at the coast. There were surfers leaping onto waves earlier, lots of them.

Amazing they don’t smash into each other, I thought at the time.

There are people sunbathing on the beach, but only kids venture into the water, splashing. No non-surfer is swimming: too cold still. But I have seen surfers in December, said I to a waitress surfer on my last visit. Oh, yes, but the water is still warm then. It’s cold in June. Ah, I reply, educated.

         This corner of Europe, the inner elbow of France and Spain, which is Basque Country, has what I suppose they call a micro-climate? Do they? I’d just say highly temperate for the Atlantic so far from the Gulf Stream. Heatwaves rarely make it to Biarritz or San Sebastián. I’ve seen that fact highlighted on the news, now that weather is always news.

         I stand looking out to sea and then down into a ravine the primordial sea has carved out of the cliff and watch the incoming tide swirl and splash against the base of it: essence of rocky coast but not barren. Trees, whole little forests, grow on the tops of a crag of cliff jutting up offshore. Only at the base of the crags is there no vegetation. Boulders in the sea are covered with various kinds of seaweed. This coast is rich. Tidal pools are everywhere. I bet there are wild mussels to be picked.

         I’ll never have a conversation with the Rawbone of an hour ago, just as I did not with the original Rawbone and brother in Bordeaux. Yet this Rawbone smiled at me, smiled at us (Bordeaux scowled); he found us fun. Shame then. But I couldn’t just hang out there while he checked in. The very thought has me cringing.

         A missed chance? A chance of what? I don’t even know. But I feel loss.

This feeling of loss is no gouging emptiness like a death. Or a bankruptcy? I’m thinking that, in these days pundits call Late Capitalism, a financial wipe-out is considered serious news. I mean, what has a longer media life, the report of a death or one of those American shootings, or news of a depression, a recession, a stock-market wipe-out?

         Anyway, the loss I feel now is a sour regret for something that never happened, a person never known or enjoyed. It is melancholic.

         I’m leaning against the concrete balustrade. Bending over slightly to look down at the swirling tide foaming around the inlet. I look up at the wide Atlantic, and step back and around, leaving behind the vision of the sea, and continue the uphill walk, which is a pretty steep climb up this sidewalk that follows the coast.

         A sharper colder breeze is coming up off the sea now. I’m breathing it in. It’s clearing my head. The torpor but also the sense of the paradisical remaining from lunch goes.

         It must be nearing five. I check my smartphone. Yup.

Soon it will be time to find a seat at a café and have an apéritif. Or a cocktail. Cocktails have been all the rage for a few years now in France. When they first appeared, they seemed like another stab of Americanization. I’ve liked a Dry Martini straight-up for decades now. Recently, I tried my aunt’s favorite, the Manhattan. Once I got used to that blast of sweet vermouth and Canadian Club (the kind of rye she liked), I was ready to switch. Ah, let’s not forget the Margarita. As long as I’ve loved Mexican food, I’ve loved the Margarita.

         At this point in the climb, my vision now full of tall trees – pines? – and cliff sides studded with ferns, bushes, I’m starting to feel out of breath. I push on. I’m almost at the crest.

         I am at the crest. And that’s when I think that the place to go for that apéritif is back in the city center. The famed Place Georges Clemenceau. Where there is even a Galeries Lafayette. I can there people-watch.

         Confusing this Place at first, because it’s actually a broad and long stretch of avenue and not a square. But running through the middle is a wide walking area with benches and rows of trees. So, the Place. People often translate place to mean square. But there’s nothing square, even remotely. It’s an esplanade. There are rows of tall palm trees, maybe Royal Palms? I think Los Angeles boulevards, Miami. But Nice, Cannes, they all have their boulevards of massive palm trees. You can bet these palms are not indigenous to Basque Country. They’ve crept across the Mediterranean from Africa. For millennia, no doubt. Did ancient Rome have its palm trees? It certainly did have its tall pines, the Pines of Rome.

         The music of Respighi pops up in full orchestration in my head. But only those signature bars. I can’t remember the whole thing. I haven’t heard it in years. It’s those bars that do a take on Gregorian Chant, I think. As if Rome was the first Christian capital, which it was not. That was Constantinople. How twisted our history is taught. Oh, but the pope! Forgot the pope. Oh, who gives a fuck.

         Whatever which way, what a disaster for Western civilization and technological advances. It took a thousand years to get started on the right path again. Renaissance. The Christian death cult set aside though not abandoned. Even today. Well, Constantinople, which was the original seat of the Christian god on earth in the form of the emperor, of course. Roman emperors were traditional gods after death. Constantine was going to be no different.

         Oh, did the man with the cane say that? Or was it just his nice rant against vegans?

         Why do I care about any of it?

         Maybe it’s because this climbing up and down is making me a bit out of breath. I’m conscious of my heart beating. You can’t help associating that with mortality. Scary.

         And not. I pause to decide whether it wouldn’t be faster to retrace my steps or continue across the promontory and head for the Place Clemenceau from that angle.

         And then I can see that the euphoric afternoon, the beautiful lunch in the Clos? It’s all gone. My train of thought has become dour, cranky.

         I stop. I stop dead in my tracks. Look. There to my right: the sea, the craggy cliffs and shore, the tidal swirls into inlets. The air. Salty air, clean ozone-rich, intoxicating.

         That’s better.

         Up and off to my left there is a street that must lead back into town. As I get closer, I can read the street sign: Rue du Port-Vieux. I pull out my smartphone and check Google Map. Yup. It leads to Rue Mazagran, which leads directly or meanderingly to Place Clemenceau.


         There it is, standing out like it has since at least 1860, that particular if not peculiar Second Empire revival of architecture from the days of Louis XIII, red brick with beige stone cornices and other bits. Across the bay and beach of Biarritz it sits on its own promontory facing the palace of Empress Eugénie, members of the same family. Would Eugénie have visited people in the building? She might have. The old casino is only a few steps away from here. This had been the era of high-stakes gambling, very enrichissez-vous. Get rich! The rallying cry of the Empire. Until Napoléon III made a few serious faux pas and got involved in a bit of a disastrous show-down with Prussia in 1870. The following year, the royals had been deposed, there had been the bloody Commune, Napoléon up and died, and Eugénie ended up selling her palace, but only in 1880. So, in mourning, she could have visited. Or maybe not. Probably not. Vive la République!

         There’s a bench, two of them, facing the building. There are cafés on either side and around. I’ll choose one for a drink in a minute. Never noticed these benches or the cafés much before. Funny to sit down now on the bench facing the building.

         What if Léonie should just waltz out? I’m a sitting duck.

I don’t feel I have to move.

I’m not hiding.

I don’t care.

Léonie may have taken me under her wing after all restaurants and bars were closed back in 2020, but I mostly remember how trapped I felt when I was whisked off to the farm outside of Ustaritz, with a national shutdown looming, which would in fact include curtailing rail travel. I still feel I escaped. Oh well, Biarritz now does serve food. I’m so happy to be back.

I stretch my legs out in front of me for a minute, making sure not to trip passersby.

         A gorgeous day. Little or no traffic. Is there ever? People strolling by, mostly in twos or groups. Quite a few baby carriages. The famous confinement babies. What do you do when Covid locks you down with spouse or partner? Fuck, I guess. People slipped into a primordial stasis over those months. They adapted. Now France has lots of new babies. Probably not equal to the boomer thing, but… The couples look happy enough.

         Oh, there’s an old, slightly bent, woman slowly coming up from the side of the building; she’s assisted by a cane. She’s not shabbily dressed either. Maybe a bit too flamboyant for someone of her… Oh, what a smile she flashes to all and sundry as she reaches street level. And she’s not bent; it was the way she was using the cane on the slope.

She’s heading toward me. I move aside on the bench for her. She may need to perch. It’s quite a steep walk up from the side of the building.

That’s where the entrance is, I remember. An old-fashioned elevator in a wrought-iron cage. Stairs twining around it to the top floors. How many floors? I look up and count. Three, not counting the ground floor which is stores and some kind of restaurant in the back that is on the incline and so gets another floor down underneath the building. Three floors one can live in. But I only knew one. Léonie lived on the first. No idea now which windows are hers.

The woman is right in front of me, smiling; I have to look up.

         “Merci, Monsieur, c’est trop gentil, mais je n’ai pas besoin de me reposer si vite. J’ai un rendez-vous cinq pas d’ici. Le café que vous voyez…” she uses her cane to point, “juste là.” She’s no cripple, not even close. Her eyes dance a jig; her smile has widened gently showing how carefully she has applied her lipstick. I smile back. Who wouldn’t? She’s quite a flirt. Is she insinuating that, rather than rest up beside me on the bench, I join her in the café? No. No, she’s meeting someone, she says: rendez-vous.

         I have to reply. I have to say something to her. Hurry up! I have no idea… “Bien sûr, Madame, et le temps est toujours magnifique.” Dumb. The usual chat about the nice weather. She short, but she towers over me here on the bench so that I’m looking slightly up at her. Her bolero jacket is moiré silk and a midnight blue. No, not midnight, it’s that cerulean blue that’s still fashionable, though less so. Men have tee-shirts that color or did before Covid. It’s a look-at-me color. She is wearing long pale green slacks. Flowered silk scarf, probably Chanel.

         She sees I’m appreciating her wardrobe. “On se connaît ici à Biarritz, mais je ne vous connais pas. Je vous reconnais peut-être? Ah, les ressemblances. Et souvent, voyez-vous, je confonds les gens. Mais vous êtes de passage…” She adds that with a tone of melancholy that is pure regret and very flattering. She thinks she recognizes me, but isn’t sure. I’m just passing through, she decides. Is this building just full of women like that?

Léonie made friends very easily.

         Is this woman doing that?

She’s still standing here. Oh, maybe she’s just catching her breath. “Bonne soirée, Monsieur. On m’attend.” She’s off. She had been surreptitiously catching her breath, belying her age to the world. Because everyone has noticed her. Her presence has people smiling. She’s gone before I have a chance to answer. Yes, de passage. I’m just passing through. She thinks I’m familiar, but, no, she does not know me. And off she goes to her date at the café – I follow her as she makes her way along the sidewalk between the tables, pausing to crane her neck a bit… Ah, she seems to have spotted the person. Someone way off on the side furthest from me, toward the back, and in front of the glass windows of the café. I try but can’t see the person. And then she’s gone, in among the tables and chairs.

         I’m thinking I should look away, leave the woman in peace. And then I see a tall man stand up in the back. Shit, it looks like the man who just checked in at my hotel. Looks like. I’m way too far away to be sure. He has stood up so that she can see him clearly and to welcome her. Belying her age, though, my grande dame has already spotted him way in the back there and made a beeline for him. Sharp eyes. How old could she be, then? Why isn’t she wearing glasses at her age, which she is not?

         I stop staring. The building, Léonie’s building – that’s the one thing I’m sure of – must house some interesting characters. A characteristic of the old rich is to remain indiscernible, except when one meets them. And then you pick up the startling sense of a life never preoccupied with making money. An inner “cool.” Maybe a piquant sense of humor? As if I’m an authority on the old rich, but they represent the nearest thing we have to nobility, both in the US and in France. You find them at the drop of a hat in the UK. Many must live here in Biarritz, but they would speak flawless French, and you’d never suspect. I’d thought the Irish gentleman (I’m now thinking of him totally as Irish) was of that ilk, but he wasn’t.

         So, what makes me think my grande dame is old money? Well, first, she was so nicely polite and charming, and she was certainly eccentric in her choice of blue. The blue did suit her perfectly, though.

         As I look at the building, I realize it’s become a kind of haunted castle in my imagination. The concept is silly, but the reality is not. Who would be living in such an ancient building? I think someone whose family has always had an apartment in this building going back to when it was built in the heyday of the Empress. The ground floors have been let out to fine boutiques and exclusive clubs or club. I can see this right before my eyes, but I have no idea. Where’s my smartphone?

         Okay, a clothing store, right before me. And along the side? A sign reads Play Boy. Crazy. I thought the Playboy clubs were bankrupt and done for. Heffner is certainly dead, fun pajama guy. He may have started the sexual revolution in the US, but he got left way behind by hardcore porn. Still, I bet he was a model for Trump as a lad. Wonder if the fat oaf wears silk pajamas like Heffner. The website for Play Boy Biarritz infers an independent club for older gents. I bet Léonie visited it, might well have given a nod to it being installed in the building. Oh! Scrolling further, it isn’t just for old coots at all. It’s a thriving club-scene place. Right now! And behind it, and a step down, is a restaurant. I type in the name. Tapas? But what crazy prices. Twice the norm. And other dishes, also way over-priced. I won’t be trying it out.

         So, Léonie and my Grande Dame live over these establishments. I wonder if they don’t pay for the building’s upkeep. How old is the building? Sometimes and typically, buildings have the date of construction on them. I don’t see anything from the Place Clemenceau side, from where I sit on the bench. Maybe I should get up. I could walk down memory lane and check out the entrance.

         Memory lane? I really have no clear memory. What a stupid expression anyway. I was following Léonie to a Sunday lunch in her place and just trying to keep up with her; that’s my memory. We went straight into the building, no time to ogle it from the outside. No commentary from her about it.

         Right! Up and away. I stretch for a second and then head forward downhill on the broad steps running alongside the building to the entrance. It is built as a kind of ramp: a stair and then a stride of a landing, another step, another landing, etc. It was a pretty steep climb for Grande Dame. I’m impressed. I’ll be envying her cane when I head back up. Up a few steps, I stop outside the doorway. I can peer inside. I see the elevator cage. Now, that’s a concrete memory. I step back to look up and over the façade of the building. There it is!


         What? Eugénie was no longer empress. There was no longer a Second Empire. France was a republic.

         Out comes my smartphone. Ah, I see fondation du 3ème République in 1875. Quite a bit of turmoil up until then. But I wonder if Eugénie was still living in her palace. Her husband the emperor had died four years earlier.

         Enough. I feel stupid standing here Googling on my phone. This is something I can look up later sometime.

         But wasn’t this the beginning of the famed Belle Époque? When was Proust born? I can look this up quickly.

         Ah: 10 July 1871.

         So, this building was built when he was four years old.

         What does that tell me?

         I’m smiling, grinning, and feeling like I’ve been chasing my tail. Time for that drink, the whole reason why I’m standing around here in this part of town right now.

         Wasn’t the idea people watching too? Interesting start then.

         I stride up to the Place Clemenceau. I’m not out of breath, but I was right: this is quite the climb for a woman as ancient as Grande Dame. And yet she arrived, standing before all of us (the twin bench was occupied by a woman pushing a baby carriage back and forth and talking on her smartphone) with a twinkle in her eye and spoke to me almost immediately without a trace of breathlessness. She was super thin, wiry: how ancient really?

         She could of course be truly ancient, which I’m thinking is anything ninety and above. With old money, Biarritz is the place where one could live in great shape past 100. If that were the case, she could remember the so-fashionable fashion shows along the tables set up before the brand-new casino, in cutting-edge deco style, when it opened in 1929. Well, as a little girl. It’s when Biarritz was reborn after the Great War and its bloodbath that decimated even the youth of the grande bourgeoisie. Did the Twenties roar in France? Maybe not quite, considering the amount of death and destruction, the impoverishment, the creaky finances of the State. War is calamitously expensive, even for the victors, or at least used to be. The US never seems to pay up for its wars, though. It just borrows more.

         Back on the Place Clemenceau.

Café to the left; café to the right?

The one to the left does look nicer. It’s quite large, too. It won’t be as if I’m following in Grande Dame’s footsteps, would it? Who cares?

         I approach.

Do I want to sit right at the front? Front-row to the sidewalk? That’s where the free tables are, unfortunately. No surprise. One doesn’t like to feel totally exposed to passersby, right? So, my choice is nil.

And then a couple stands up further back and moves swiftly away. Whoosh. I pounce. There’re only two chairs at the table. I just need one. I take the one facing towards the Place, its back towards the café and move the other chair aside, as if just maybe I’m waiting to be joined?

Monsieur, s’il vous plait?”

That is quick service. So, what do I want? What else: “Un pastis, s’il vous plait.”

Ricard vous convient, Monsieur?” I nod. It’s not my favorite brand, but I’m in no mood to ask what else they might have. I feel lucky to have this table all to myself. I lean back in the rattan armchair and stretch my legs out a bit under the table. There’s a stiffer breeze off the Atlantic, stiffer by far than at lunch in the Clos. But after all this is no Clos. I check my smartphone. It’s 22 C. Nice. Fresh but not chilly. The warmth of mid-afternoon still lingers.

         The pastis appears. The waiter suggests I pay immediately. Ah, are they used to people dashing off without paying? Maybe. Anyway, I’m only planning on having this one. They do the proper setup: two fingers of pastis in a tall thin glass, a small steel bucket of ice with tongs, and a carafe of water.

         I pay and the waiter is off. Immediately I’m thinking maybe I want something salty to nibble on? No, I don’t. I still feel satisfied from lunch. And then he’s back and places a white dish of potato chips on the table and is gone, wordlessly. I try one. Oh, it’s the good kind, or sort of. Tastes like the kind claimed to be cooked in vats or something.

         I put one ice cube in the glass. I swish it around. I take one sip. Ah! A hit of cold pastis, unadulterated. I do like to do that, have a real taste of it. Ricard is not bad at all. This is the more expensive Ricard. The color is a rusty gold. Now for a dash of water. Another sip. Yes. A bit more water. Now the pastis can be considered an apéritif. A third sip. I was thirstier than I thought.

One chip.

         Which leads to another sip. Stop. It’s the salt.

I’m not hungry at all.

         I take another sip.


I survey my domain.

         There is nothing particularly interesting about the people passing, except, once again, I note the number of baby carriages. Do these couples with kids live in this neighborhood? They do not. They could not. Too expensive. There must be an underground parking garage somewhere nearby. They’ve come to shop. They’ve come for the same reason as I have: atmosphere. Place Clemenceau is quite beautiful with all its shade trees. Was it always so?

         I pull out my smartphone. “Histoire de la Place Clemenceau Biarritz” … I figure I’ll get right to the matter. I do. No. No. No. There are no trees at all. Oh, but that’s a very early pic. It’s 1900. It was called Place de la Liberté. Figures, since Clemenceau was only a national hero after the Great War. And there was a train station right here! That’s crazy! And here’s another Place de la Liberté with trees.

Next, here’s one with a “motor car”: there’s a row of trees, probably twenty years old already? But nothing like now. Old postcards. Which means tourists. It also looks busier and noisier, more traffic. There’s very little now. Hard to compare these old postcard pics with the present day I’m sitting in and at.

And I don’t care.

         I click off and put the phone back in my pocket.

         Here come some Spanish tourists. I can hear the language approaching.

         I take a sip. Okay, another chip.

         What was I thinking when I thought “people watching”? The parade at the moment is really not very interesting. Boring even. Nothing that even comes close to the apparition of Grande Dame.

         I look back and around.

         There she! And she is with my current version of Rawbone. Oh, no, she is meeting my eye.

In fact, I’m not sure she hasn’t been watching me all along. Watched me approach the terrace, wait, and then pounce on the table as it was freed up?

         I didn’t want any of this to happen.

Too late.

I have to smile to her now. She smiles back and then turns to say something to Rawbone.

         Of course, they’re exchanging the information that he has seen me at the hotel desk, and she saw and spoke to me sitting on the bench. In fact, they both have spoken to me. Funny.

Are they deciphering who I am from my voice, from my French?

         I would like to not be here.

I’d like to get out of here.

Too late. I’m trapped.

         And then I have to laugh: Huis Clos. My own little Sartre moment? Oh, come on… Don’t be silly.

         Just look away. Look fucking away!

         I can’t. Too late.

She’s fixed me with that jovial ancient eye and gestures towards an empty chair at their table.

         Deer in headlights. Me.

         The joviality in her glance is strengthened now by command.

Grande Dame is used to being obeyed.

         Quick calculation. I’ve paid. Nothing holds me to this seat, this table. I smile back now, I nod, I smile again. And I’m hers. Her wish is my command.

         Why not?

         I get up, grab my glass. I’ll leave the pastis paraphernalia behind; I’ve watered it enough… Nope. Not quite. I spoon one ice cube into my tall cone of a pastis glass as I stand over the table. Chips? No, not really. I’d feel like a child bringing chips with me.

         “Asseyez-vous, Monsieur.” She gestures toward the empty rattan chair, and it moves! Startling! I laugh. She’s moved it with her foot under the table.

She laughs back, acknowledging her little trick.

It’s the first time I hear her laugh: tinkling, pure silver bells. I’ve never actually heard anything quite like it, but you read about such laughs. They usually come from… well, grandes dames, who have been schooled, bred, for studied legerity. BCBG. Bonne classe; bon goût.

Oh, no, she’s years beyond that nonsensical modern Parisian bourgeois aphorism; she vastly outdates it. She is the original template. She defines “good family.”

No doubt.

As for “good taste”? I think of Cocteau’s lady friends. Another era, yes, but again definition thereof. That blue she’s wearing would wake the dead.

In the processing of doing as told, sitting down in that chair that she’s moved back from the table with her foot, she says, “I believe you may know my neighbor Léonie.” The sudden English startles; I just manage to catch my glass from spilling as I move to set it down on the table, before I, in turn, take my proffered seat.

         I now reposition the glass.   Her eyes are on me. She’s waiting. Am I going to lie?

“I do.” No point pussyfooting around. Candor is my strength.

Why has she switched so abruptly to English?

Rawbone chuckles. It’s a nice chuckle: friendly. He’s gazing upon me fondly as a friend does. An old friend. Very disconcerting. I want to say: Do I know you? But I don’t. I do sort of know him. Not just from my fantasies. From the hotel.

He’s way too handsome and he knows it.

Men like this charm both sexes and probably cobras too. They know you want to look at them because they are so beautiful to look at.

It’s devoid of sex.

         I notice now that Rawbone’s hair is not chestnut but auburn. He must tan golden. I can’t tell from his wrists or his face; it’s not summertime yet.

         “I’m sure Léonie would love to see you again.” Grande Dame pauses, cat toying with mouse. “Mais hélas elle n’est plus là pour le moment. Elle est à Ustaritz.” Bombshell, and she knows it. I try to appear cool. I would like to appear as if I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. I would love to say: Who the fuck is Léonie? Of course I cannot.

         “Ustaritz.” I just repeat the name after her. She smiles. The smile comes first, and then there’s that twinkle in her eyes again. I don’t know what to say. I suppose I’m expected to ask why? The farm. Alize.

         “Pauvre Alize…” she states both in a matter-of-fact voice and with a look of limited dismay. She has seized the word Alize from my mind, or perhaps not the word, because I had pictured her: rivetingly handsome woman. “Elle est… comment dirai-je? Elle est en tôle!” She bursts into a laugh at the crude slang word tôle. The slammer? Is that a Brit or American expression? Alize. Is. In. Jail? “So, my good neighbor has gone to Ustaritz to look after the farm. I’ve never seen the farm. I know there are sheep. Léonie loves animals. More than people, I can tell you.” Grande Dame bursts into another tinkle of laughter. Bells. They could be Eucharistic bells. A sacrifice is about to be made.

         “You perhaps do not read the French news?” I’m startled to hear Rawbone’s English, almost Long Island lockjaw. His voice is baritone. What would you expect? He’s the full package.

         “I watch the French TV news more than I read newspapers.” I want to but don’t ask him how come he speaks this English. We – we are a trio, a rather intimate one all of a sudden – are also slipping from French to English to French without any particular reason. Like old friends, I’m startled to think. And yet it has just happened; it seems the most normal and natural thing in the world.

         Suddenly it hits me that they know a lot about me. A lot. I know nothing about them. I feel like I’m on a Petry dish.

         He smiles so nicely at me then: “Understandably. It was during lockdown. Perfect timing. The police just swooped down.” His eyes twinkle much like Grande Dame’s as he says “swooped down.” My mind races. He senses that. “Basque separatist? What was his name?” He glances at Grande Dame, seizes the name from her mind, and says: “Jordí.” Now he smiles broadly at me; we’re in cahoots, says the smile. “You met him, I think?” The sudden inflection of a question makes him sound French again. His look of conspiracy between us goes full throttle. Did Rawbone fuck with Jordí? It would be perfect porno. I’m tongue-tied. I then realize Rawbone expects an answer.


         “I was introduced to him once at a dinner Léonie gave. He appeared after the meal. The chef receiving our accolades. Even his merci sounded like une vache espagnole. Quite the stud.”

         I was not prepared for that last remark. Fortunately, Rawbone does not look like he expects me to agree or disagree.

         “Jordí was on the run, I think you say. Of course, not literally. But he was wanted in Spain. It was only a matter of time.” Grande Dame sounds like the narrator of a documentary. “Un très bon cuisinier. Et un étalon, comme Hervé disait, au lit, paraît-il. Il basait toutes les deux. Un baiseur!” She chuckles then. No tinkle of bells. Surprisingly gross, earthy. Well, the subject matter, after all. I suspected he was a supreme fuck. Did I suspect he might be a Basque Separatist? Yes, of course I did. And so Alize? “Since Alize was hiding him, you can imagine that she was also put on trial. Six mois mais sans sursis. A bit harsh, we thought. She was only doing it for love, n’est-ce pas?” Again, Grande Dame laughs the tinkle of bells. We are all suckers for love, right? Six months in jail. But I remember Alize as being quite fiery about the Basque thing. Wasn’t she some kind of Basque nobility? Un personnage Basque? I thought this, but I just nodded. Finally, though, I know a name, that of Rawbone: Hervé. I’ve only known one Hervé in my life. He too was a handsome devil and famously so. Life and its templates. Funny.

         Only then does it hit: Alize is doing jail time as an accomplice? Léonie is taking care of the farm?

         A wave of fear hits me. Why fear? I’m no accomplice. The last thing I wanted this time in Biarritz in fact was to meet up with Léonie and Alize. Is that why I feel the fear? That what I did not want to happen has happened? No, I’m just learning about Léonie. But isn’t that the same as meeting up with her again?

         Hervé points to my pastis. “Tu veux un autre. J’en prends aussi.” He’s using the familiar tu. If this is supposed to make me relax, it does just the opposite. I realize now that there are only two small and empty coffee cups on the table. They have not been drinking. They are caffeinated; I’m inebriated, sort of. By comparison. I pick up my pastis. It’s mostly water now; the ice has long melted. I down it. “Je prends ça comme un oui!” I down it; he takes that as a yes. What a nice laugh comes out of him! I nod. A glance at Grande Dame reveals that she is thinking, that she is far off. But my looks brings her back abruptly.

         “Et la vieille? Qu’est-ce qu’elle prend? Elle prend un demi panache, messieurs. Je préfèrerais un Picon bière, mais je sais qu’on ne l’a pas.” She’ll have a shandy beer, if you don’t mind, even though she’d prefer something called Picard? No, that’s the Star Trek guy. Picon. No idea what that is. She’s referring to herself as the Old Lady. Not so different from me calling her Grande Dame.

         Already I feel it’s too late to ask her what her name is. Embarrassing. Though why, I have no idea. Stupid really. They haven’t asked my name, but I think they know what it is. Both of them seem to know all there is to know about me when it comes to Biarritz, at least. I made no contact with Léonie after I, basically, got the fuck out of here last time before lockdown struck.

         I should never have come back to Biarritz.

         Ha! But I have. Why? Because Biarritz now does serve food.

         Hervé has summoned the waiter. He gives him our three orders. He even inquires about the Picard or Picon thing. Grande Dame was right of course. The waiter shakes his head. A bit sadly, it looks like. Perhaps this kind of mix with beer is a favorite of his, too? Or maybe there’s some kind of nostalgia attached to it. If I were alone, I’d whip out my smartphone and google “Picon,” but I’m not alone.

         The waiter is gone.

         “Few people seem to know Picon anymore. Do you know it? Don’t bother answering; I can see that you don’t. It’s old-fashioned. Like me.” She pauses, expecting me to say the opposite: Oh, non, Madame. Nope, she’s no fisher for compliments. That’s not why she’s pausing. She’s assembling the information in her mind before speaking. Picon was an apéritif à l’orange invented in – she has an exact date! – 1837 in Philippeville in Algeria. Back in France, Monsieur Picon began selling it as a digestif in 1870. Next came the use as an additive to beer: a shandy.

         “That year, 1870, it seems to come up here in Biarritz all the time.” I meant this to be clever, and they do both chuckle. Well, it’s true. I know that Napoléon III built the palace for Eugénie earlier than that, sometime in the 1850s, after he’d married the poor little Spanish princess, but 1870 was the year the Second Empire ended along with the Emperor himself a year later: dead. End of Eugénie’s palace; she needed cash. But Biarritz remained on the map. “The building you live in, Madame, isn’t it from 1875?” I’m playing coy. She looks startled. Good.

         “You’ve been spying on my building.” I start to laugh. “It is one of the oldest in Biarritz. What did Léonie tell you about it?” I can’t quite remember now and I say so. “Merci, Monsieur.” She is not addressing me; she’s looking up. The waiter has arrived with our drinks. There’s a drop of pastis left in my early glass; I drink it down and hand the glass to the waiter. Will he ask us all to pay now, up front, like he did me?

         No. He turns and leaves. Grande Dame is no doubt a regular; she lives next door. Somehow that makes me feel deflated, personally. For a second. How stupid of me; I’m just a tourist.

         Grande Dame raises her shandy beer. We raise our glasses, not yet prepared, and we clink. She takes a sip. “Ah, comme toujours. They do a nice demi panaché here.” Hervé quickly drops one ice cube in his glass and then fills it with water, more than half way. It goes milky white. He takes a sip. He notices me watching him and toasts me. I quickly do my mix, almost in my idiosyncratic way, and then don’t. But I don’t add as much water as he has. I toast him back. Nice: It still has a kick from the Ricard. Oh? Is this Ricard?

         “I think this is another kind of pastis.” My question is for Hervé. He almost blushes.

         “Oh, I’m sorry. You prefer Ricard? This café is one of the few in Biarritz that offers Henri Bardouin. You didn’t hear me order that?”

         I take another sip. I recognize it. Much more herbaceous. I know it. Hard to find, just like Hervé says. “No. I’ve given up trying myself. It’s a favorite of mine.” He gives me a startlingly handsome grin, one with a tinge of studied relief. Glad I’m pleased. Glad he has pleased me. This is the definition of noblesse oblige. “I suppose you’re both related.”

         Grande Dame throws a twinkling eye at Hervé and turns to me. “Hervé is my lover.” I can feel my face freeze. She loves that; she bursts out laughing. “Hervé is my nephew.” She reaches for his forearm and gives it a squeeze. “My sister died five years ago. Breast cancer, this women’s nightmare. She was almost twenty years younger than me. I was the oldest; she was the youngest. I could but I don’t have Hervé call me maman, but I do feel that. This is why he has come to Biarritz this time.” Yes, I know he doesn’t live here. He’s staying in my hotel. I wonder why he doesn’t stay with her. I can’t ask. “Tomorrow I will meet Hervé’s American girl friend. She arrives tomorrow and has taken a suite at the Palais. I was invited last year to see the renovations done by the American owners of the Hôtel du Palais but was sadly indisposed. I’m curious. I’m curious about the young lady.” She sets her eyes on Hervé and waits.

         “I know you are, Tata.” Oh, is this Grande Dame’s name? No, it’s the babyish name like auntie. I can play stupid and ask her if her name is Tata, but I decide against it. “Tu es déjà jalouse.” In reply, she taps his forearm again. Of course, she’s jealous. She adores Hervé. Hervé turns to me and laughs. “See?”

         “I think they spent quite a few years and probably a lot of money restoring it. I have checked the website…” I’m addressing Hervé.

         “But they’re Americans.” He pauses and looks me over. Was I being appraised on nationality? “But not all Americans are the same. Very big country.” I get his award-winning smile. I must have turned red in the face. He turns away, back to Tata. “The suites are interesting. I talked her into a Suite Royale, mainly because it supposedly has a magnificent terrace overlooking the sea. She figured that the Suite Impériale would be better, since didn’t an Emperor rank higher than a king? She had a point. But no. Not in this case.”

         “Americans are so fascinated by nobility.” She turns sharply toward me, “Are you?”

         “Not really.” So, what did I mean? Of course, one can’t help but be fascinated by something your country doesn’t have. Plus, the lineage, the stories. Only the Brits take it seriously. I’m not interested in their royal family at all. So, I wasn’t lying when I said: Not really. “Léonie and Alize had some thoughts on the subject.”

         Tata chuckles: “They do indeed.”

         “There’s no legal nobility in France,” states Hervé. I know that, but I just nod as if he’s taught me something. He acknowledges my nod. He is smiling at me. I could sunbathe in that smile forever. But then, “Courtenay was surprised when I told her that.” One tiny corner of his mouth curled, almost imperceptibly. Only because I am bathing in his smile, do I notice it. Pure contempt. It is a twitch of pure contempt. Out of the corner of my eye I see Tata smile faintly. But, but she hasn’t met this Courtenay. Ah, it’s a tiny smile of triumph, her jealousy appeased for a minute. And then I crash out of my revery of being in the presence, surely, of Old Money: Noblesse oblige is the epitome of arrogance.

         Courtenay. She isn’t a Kardashian, is she? That would be breath-takingly wild. I’m feeling revolted and hugely excited at the same time. I like to think I’m indifferent to the ubiquitous cult of celebrity that pollutes our age, but how can anyone really be? It’s like climate change, now that it’s right in your face with scalding heatwaves. So, Hervé is the toyboy of a Kardashian? “Courtenay’s family is from Texas.” He’s questioning me or is going to: “Do you know Texas? I mean, of course we all know about Texas, but have you ever been?”

         “No.” I see him smile at my abrupt answer.

“I have yet to visit, but I will.” He’s now grinning.

“I’d just as soon visit Afghanistan myself.” And they both burst out laughing just as I’d hoped. I grin at them.

The Kardashians are Beverly Hills. So, Courtenay is no Kardashian. I feel disappointed, let down. It would have been amazing to actually meet one of these creatures. Face to face. Breathe the same air.

         I realize that for some reason I think I’ve been included, that I’ve been invited to meet said Courtenay, visit the Hyatt Palais. I have not. Not at all. Where did I get this crazy idea? I don’t know either of these people.

         What am I doing sitting at this table with them? How the hell did this all happen?

         “Tata, don’t you think it would be trop drôle if Léonie’s American friend here met Courtenay? He could pick you up tomorrow and walk you to the Palais.” Tata begins to laugh, those tinkling bells again. They really are delightful. They are the perfect accompaniment to my astonishment. Do these people inhabit my mind? No, no, they don’t. It’s just that all the ducks can easily be placed in this row.

         So, I’m Léonie’s American friend? How did that happen? Well, I know the historical circumstances but not how this conclusion was arrived at. I had zero contact with Léonie since Ustaritz. I didn’t want to, and I couldn’t. No e-mail or postal address. Nothing that might have forced me to renew contact. I may, well, I did feel some lingering sense of guilt for having so rudely gotten myself out of Ustaritz without even a word of thanks. After all, they had all welcomed me, feasted me, taken care of me, as it were.

         It’s a relief now that my paranoia was well grounded after all. Jordí and Alize in jail. But that sort of Basque connection had never entered my mind at the time. I can’t lie to myself. It was the hideous thought of my being in some sort of sexual partouse with them… I can’t even call it fear of rape. But I can feel vividly the same mix of fear and disgust that propelled me out of Ustaritz at the crack of dawn.

         Did Hervé see me flinch when he referred to me as Léonie’s friend? No. His entire attention was focused on Tata. I could now correct him and so end this whole whatever it was.

         I don’t. I give him my phone number.

         Huis Clos? No, I can still get out of this.

         I become conscious of the pastis sitting in front of me. I’ve hardly touched it. The ice cube has melted. I see there’s still plenty of ice left in the bucket. I take the tong and drop a cube in. And then I drink, I drink almost a third of it, drink, taste, swallow, drink, taste, swallow. Feeling very thirsty at first and then, and then, I feel a mellow rush, and my thirst is quenched.

         Hervé turns to me. “What say you?” I notice the color of his eyes. I hadn’t noticed before because I guess I found nothing unusual about their color. Now I do, and they are strange, actually a kind of hazel that is slightly iridescent. I think of cat’s eyes: similar but not like that. That would be truly weird. Why I notice now is because of the intensity with which they are gripping me. I’m also dumbfounded at this quasi-literary question. And then, at the same time, I wonder how we all got to speaking English. The way he looks at me as he says this is so earnest I wince. He really does want me to do this. Why? My mind scrambles for an answer. Again, I don’t want to be involved in any of this. I don’t know how I’ve gotten to this café table except through the misunderstanding that I’m a friend of Léonie. Shouldn’t Tata call Léonie in Ustaritz to check me out? Maybe she has no cellphone, let alone a smartphone. But Hervé must. Why didn’t he call Léonie before they invited me over to their table? Could be that he doesn’t have her number. Could be that Tata doesn’t know the number by heart.

         I’m scrambling. Hervé is just starting to look impatient and perhaps also veering toward being offended. After all, he is honoring me, they both are honoring me, with this suggestion. “I’d be honored.” The word in my head just popped out.

         And what a great and magnanimous smile spreads over Hervé’s belle gueule. Good gods, that face! Talk about launching a thousand ships! I grab for my pastis, gesture a toast to him, and drink much too much of it at once. I’m almost finishing it. And I feel it’s gone right to my head. I’m a mess.

         “Rien n’est fixé encore. Je veux dire qu’on ne sait pas encore l’heure. Vous avez un portable? Je peux vous téléphoner pour arranger tout ça. C’est trop gentil de votre part de vouloir accompagner une vielle dame comme moi.” They don’t know her arrival time; so kind to accompany an old woman. She shoots a look at Hervé. “Hervé me donnera au moins quatre heures pour me préparer.” He nods as if admonished. He’ll give her four-hour’s notice. “Et je vous contacte dès que j’aie l’heure du rendez-vous. Ça ne vous dérange pas trop? On monopolise votre journée. On est atroce.” They are inconveniencing me terribly, monopolizing my day. Another glance at Hervé. “We’re showing our friend terrible manners, mon petit.” Hervé now does look seriously admonished. He is mon petit; he’s a little boy.

         “It’s true. It’s true, but it’s totally out of my hands. It all depends on when Courtenay arrives.” I think: There are schedules, trains. “She’s flying in to our little airport here. Her father’s yacht is in Saint Tropez. Actually, maybe she’s coming by the helicopter. There may even be a landing facility at the hotel.” The Helicopter: As if he knows it intimately.

         I am overwhelmed at all these details. “Sounds like you are the ones that are being inconvenienced. Don’t think twice. I’m at the ready. I had no special plans for tomorrow.”

         And that is true. None. I’d planned to just wander around town. So many corners of Biarritz I haven’t explored yet. Just the way I’d come to the Place Clemenceau had been a revelation.

         I could still do that, some of that, except that I’m on call. Do they think I’m a doctor? My mind is making jokes, but not for long. I’m hit by the overwhelming feeling again of being trapped. And I did it myself. I could have said no. Why didn’t I say no?

         Huis Clos. I have no memory even of the plot of that play. I should google it. There might be some existential explanation contained in it.

         Hervé has suddenly stood up. Tata, his hand at her elbow to steady her, does the same. I realize that their glasses are empty. I still have a bit left. “So, it’s all agreed. Very nice of you.” Tata nods her agreement at me along with a lovely smile, which makes one feel honored without knowing why. He is tall. He shines his smile down on me. “À demain, Monsieur. Bonne soirée.”

         “Bonne soirée, Monsieur. Vous êtes trop gentil. Et alors, à demain. Je vous donne un coup de fil. Je ferais mon mieux.”

         Hervé interrupts. “Non, c’est moi qui ferais mon mieux.” He will take full responsibility in making it as easy as possible for me. He engages then in a quite marvelous little bow, more than a nod of the head, something quite gracious. I move to stand up, but both of them shake their heads. “Au revoir,” they say in unison. And then they slip out along the back of the terrace and disappear around the corner of the café.

         Oh! Have they left me with the bill? I want out of here. I raise my hand and get the waiter’s attention. I ask to pay. “Non, Monsieur. Tout est réglé.”

When did Hervé or Tata pay?