THE BIARRITZ SAGA: HUIS CLOS

CAW

         I oversleep.

         Not really. I’m on no schedule. I won’t be leaving Biarritz for a few more days. No trains to catch. I have no schedule for now.

         Still, I don’t usually sleep this long. Last night for the first time I put on the flat-screen TV in the room and was surprised to find something very good to watch. I stayed up until it was over.

         I never turn on the TV in hotel rooms anymore. I read news on my phone or iPad. I read books on my iPad. My experience in Paris when I’ve put on the TV is that there’s just one junk program or yackety-yack thing after another.

         But I do need to get some kind of breakfast in. Do I? I’ll need a grande crème or a cappuccino. Maybe a croissant. I can get that in any café (well, maybe not the croissant after a certain time). I’m free! I’m free!

         I freeze. And then I sit up in bed.

I’m not free. I’m at the beck and call of perfect strangers. And I can’t call it off. I don’t have any phone numbers for either of them. Oh, wait, maybe Hervé is still in the hotel.

         I look around for a phone to call the desk. There is no phone. No one uses hotel phones anymore. You still find them in older hotel rooms, but not ones that have been recently renovated like this one. I could call the desk with my cellphone.

         And then I think again. Who do I ask for? I talk to the girl downstairs? I ask about some Hervé? That might work if it’s still the same girl, but it won’t be. It’ll be the one, also very nice, who mans the desk in the morning. Still.

         I reach for my phone on the bedside table. I call downstairs.

         “Bonjour, c’est…” I explain. She laughs delightedly. Oh, yes, she knows exactly who I mean. He just checked out five minutes ago. I imagine her running out the door for me, trying to catch him in the street, which of course is so ridiculous I just start laughing and then she’s laughing too. What are we laughing about? Laughter is just contagious, that’s all.

         My next thought is that she must have a phone number for him. Can I ask her for it? Of course I cannot ask her for it. I wouldn’t want her giving anyone my phone number.

         “Merci, quand même,” I say with genuine graciousness. She is nice. She is helpful. It’s just out of her hands and now mine. I hang up.

         Back to square one. They both promised that they would give me plenty of time. I’d say that, given I haven’t heard from them yet and that it’s already 10:30, it will be a late-afternoon rendezvous. I have time for lunch. Of course I have time for lunch. Lunch was the central point for my day. I haven’t made a reservation anywhere, though. There are three Basque restaurants at the Port des Pêcheurs. Not too far away from the hotel. A steep descent and then climb back up to get there, but that’s so Biarritz. It’s on the waterfront. I checked them out from above yesterday during my walk, staring down at them, amused at the various means of access, from stairs to something cars can use.

         Time to get up.

         Where had I seen that look before? Was it La Dolce Vita or some other Fellini when the boys go down to the beach to have a woman with massive hair and tits dance for them? My waitress did not dance, but her hair was formidable. She wore leotards, so she probably does dance in the dead of night somewhere. I had pimientos farcis à la morue, large peppers stuffed with cream of salt-cod, tomato-espelette sauce. Just a starter. And lots of remarkably cheap and good white wine. This was no Clos. This was seaside eating. And then merlu à la plancha. Hake. I looked up the English in the Clos Basque. What did it say? That it’s similar to cod. Merlu is either plentiful or a favorite fish in Basque Country, or both.

         I feel my cellphone vibrating in my pocket. I rush to extract it. Call missed. But I know who it is. Not much of a risk pressing Call Back.

         “Bonjour, Monsieur. Je vous dérange. Je le sais.” Before I can lie, no, no, you’re not bothering me, she rushes on. “Vous ne pouvez pas venir chez moi me prendre vers dix-sept heures. Je serais déjà descendue et assise sur le banc, ce banc d’où vous m’avez adressé quelques mots pour la première fois hier.” What? She sounds jovial and insistent. She knows the answer.

I’m disappointed.

I’m to meet her at five o’clock, not in her apartment, which I was very much looking forward to, very curious about other spaces in that regal old building, but seated on the bench where she first set eyes on me. Shit!

         I of course burble how this is no problem, looking forward to seeing her, see you later then. She hangs up.

Quite an abrupt ending.

         I sit back and start sipping the wine. My hake is only half eaten. I’ve had enough or, really, I’ve lost my appetite.

I analyze.

I had given my number to Hervé. I think I hoped Hervé would call. The pleasure of that baritone voice engaging with me?

But, no, I did expect Tata.

Tata? Part of picking her up in her apartment was the possibility of learning “Auntie’s” real name. That’s scratched.

         And then it hits me: I’m just going to walk her to the gate of the Palais. I won’t even be allowed to go inside with her. I’ll be dismissed and thanked.

         Ah, yes: but then I’ll be rid of all of them, Huis Clos sprung open, free to move on with my life. Exit.

Get out as fast as you can!

         I remember that early morning train to Bayonne from Ustaritz. I relive the relief I felt.

         Stop. I’ve come back to Biarritz to see, to experience the town under better circumstances. I’m not disappointed. I love it here.

         So, I leave Tata at the gate and…

         Where am I going with this? I know this is not the scenario. For some crazy reason I’m supposed to meet this bling girlfriend of Hervé. That was the whole idea. Why didn’t I ask why?

         Because I felt – and still feel – that this would be rude on my part.

         Trapped.

         But why? I could be a no-show. I could just not meet Tata on the bench.

         Right. They have my phone number.

The Wild Conchita waitress arrives and looks down a bit sadly at my half-eaten plate of fish. Not just sadly; she’s worried. I see her face is not young; she could be forty. Worried: as if there might have been something wrong with it? I scramble: It was a big piece. “Délicieux, mais je n’en peux plus.” I flash her my most satisfied, happy eater smile. She doesn’t look convinced, but smiles back and removes the plate, and then she asks me about the dessert.

         Yes, I already saw Basque cheese on the menu. I order that with great gusto. Now she really does look skeptical. But then she smiles at my enthusiasm for things Basque. Off she goes.

         I turn to get a clear view of the sea. My face is laid bare to the mild wind, a breeze tinged with salt and carrying the scent of the flourishing sea weed the tide mops around the rocks that jut up from the bottom of the cove. Sea moss clings to crags. The hit of iodine clears the mind, my mind. I drift. My mouth relaxes, allowing the lips to go slack to sip the air.

Voilà, Monsieur. Bon appétit.” My eyes jerk up to meet hers. She blesses me from above with a wide-open smile. I see unabashed generosity there. She wishes me joy. Truly she does. Her whole body says this; the wild cascade of black hair shakes free from her shoulders and says enjoy! And her sea-blue, skin-tight top? Isn’t it proclaiming Basque freedom? Basque freedom, or is it just a wild woman’s freedom? Who was that Fellini woman doing her stomping dance on the beach? I don’t remember. One of the amazing characters that Fellini collected.

         “Merci!” My voice is emphatic to match her exuberance. A smile in turn spreads over her face, wrinkles gone, and she’s off.

         I stare down at the generous slices of sheep cheese. There is a small knife and fork. The rind must be pared off. I take a sliver of the end and taste. Salty and nutty. More nutty than salty. And now deeply rich in a way cow’s milk never is. I reach for my glass. It is white wine. Should I order a glass of red? I take a sip. Ah, no. This works well, more subtly coaxing the nutty edge to the cream so it emerges enriched. Nice. Another sip. Oh yes, and it picks up the saltiness, rinsing it clean.

         And then I remember the sweet white from yesterday’s lunch. Yes, that too, and perhaps better, yes, it was better. But this dry white, what is it? I bet it’s a dry Gascogne. I check the menu still lying on the table: only the red is labelled as Bordeaux AOC. It has its mineral quality – no buttery Chardonnay thing – but there is a hint that these grapes could age and grow very sweet. Or is this my imagination? It could be something from the vast Bordeaux region. Whatever. It works.

         A coffee, and I pay Conchita la Merveilleuse, and then I’m up on my feet. I stretch.

         No hurry. It’s barely two-thirty. Which way now? In front is the ramping walk up along the side of the crag that sticks out into the sea. It is wooded. I passed along its ridge yesterday on my walk before I decided on a drink on the Place Clemenceau. That’s it. My nostrils already flare at the smell of evergreen, shrubs, pine? No, not pine. Trees of various kinds; I’ll google up a list later. And my heart readies for the ascent.

         It’s embarrassing to not know the names of trees. I can see the differences among them. Names, I need to know the names here, so, back in my room, I google:

“…Chênes, hêtres, châtaigniers, frênes, buis, aulnes, cornouillers, saules argentés, ormes, houx…”

Google Translate time:

“…oak, beech, chestnut, ash, boxwood, alder, dogwood, silver willow, elm, holly…”

I burst out laughing with delight. I know all these names in English, that is, I’m familiar with all of them. Do I have a picture of them in my mind? Ah! Yes and no.

I also read that the Basque Coast is famous for the lichens on its crags. That, I have definitely noticed. They are quite outstanding. Unique to the region, I’d say. Or, I suppose. They cling to crevices, cracks, crags; I suppose they are slowly devouring the stone, giving it a volcanic texture.

The smartphone also gives me the time.

I’ve got more than an hour to get to my rendezvous. That’s a relief, and then it isn’t. I could go back out and walk around a bit more and further digest my lunch. And then come back to my hotel room. Do I need to change clothes? No. If suit and tie are necessary for the Palais, I’m out of luck.

Anyway, I’ll just deliver Tata to the gate. I’ve decided. I don’t care what their plan is.

I set the alarm on the phone and stretch out on top of the bed. I shut my eyes.

Not looking forward to this.

There she is. She’s leaning forward, her hands clasping the head of her cane, her neck craning up and talking to an elderly man, well, a man around her own age. I’m walking uphill, so taking my good time, hoping the man will have moved on.

I slow down. She is laughing: I can see that but not hear. Suddenly he turns in my direction. Ah, he’s not quite as old as I thought, but he’s sporting one of those old-geezer gray beards that probably mark some kind of male liberation or, rather, age liberation, like women no longer shaving their legs or armpits.

Some aspects of embracing one’s age I’m all in favor of. Grecian Formula must be going out of business. Great. Men really no longer color the gray out of their hair. There are kids now who even bleach their hair white or gray. Will we soon be back to all fashionable youth wearing powdered white wigs?

I am afraid he is going to make eye contact with me, but he doesn’t. He’s already turned back to Tata. She releases one hand from the cane and gives him a little wave goodbye. And then she turns toward me, as if knowing all along that I was approaching, and a smile spreads across her face. I speed up.

Bonjour, Monsieur,” she calls out as I approach. “Vous êtes trop bon.” Abruptly she stands up. Her cane is just a prop. She hasn’t used it at all to get up.

Bonjour, Madame.” And I’m standing not even a meter from her. “C’est mon plaisir,” pops out of me. Fucking politesse. Politeness is mostly elegant lying. Without asking, she sticks her left hand around my elbow and leads me forward. Leads me. This part of the sidewalk is flat, but then ahead it is going downhill. She is picking up speed. I feel silly. Why does she need me to take her to the Palais? I’m sure now she expects to just leave me at the gate. What more use am I? But, in fact, what use am I at all? She’s truly leading me. I’m having to keep up with her.

“What do you make of Hervé,” she has turned to ask me, while not slowing down.

What a strange question, as if we’re old friends.

She faces forward again: “He’s very handsome. Too handsome.” Her eyes are on the route ahead. “He always has women around him. Too many women. I don’t know the half of it and don’t want to.” She turns her head toward me. “His parents both died when his father crashed his Piper Cub into the Pyrenees. It was in the news. His father was president of…” She smiles. “You know, I can’t remember off hand. One of the old French companies. He was more figurehead than anything, not that he was uneducated or stupid. He was my brother.” She turns once again to face the goal. We are already moving along the parapet that looks down on the Casino. “Hervé was already eighteen when this happened. He made it plain to me that he was old enough to live on his own. There were servants: a cook and housekeeper. He’d known both of them all his life. So, I suppose to some extent his family was a bit intact. And I was there in the wings.” She glances toward me again. I smile back at her smile. I bet she was. “He passed his bac at Louis-le-Grand. He even enrolled in the Fac de Médecine. Very serious. Despite lots and lots of girls. The family has a nice apartment in Passy. It must have been obvious to you that Hervé is a Parisian.” I think she’ll glance my way again now, but she doesn’t. “And then when he was twenty, he went a bit crazy. I mean, he stopped going to the Fac. He told me he was exploring the gay sex clubs in the Marais.” She bursts out laughing, and then stops abruptly and turns to me. “I mean, that’s quite okay. And I was really so pleased that he was continuing to tell me everything, really everything. Not that he went into detail about his sex life. There are limits. But it was this suddenness. I never suspected that he was interested in men. Because he does tell me everything.” She smiles conspiratorially, “Though obviously not things that are percolating. Only faits accomplis.” She faces forward again; I can’t see, but I think her smile is gone. “I can see that now. I was of course concerned about le SIDA. He reassured me that he was always careful. Safe Sex. That’s such a funny English expression for me. I know there’s nothing funny about it. But sex is never meant to be safe; how boring. It should be crazy and exciting.” I am afraid she’s going to turn for my opinion, but she doesn’t. We’re now only a few minutes from the gate to the Palais. I can’t wait to be dismissed. “Now Hervé is in his thirties and has lost interest in what they call the ‘gay scene,’ so he tells me. He has decided he wants to marry and have kids.” She throws me a glance of mock woe, and then she bursts out laughing. “You know,” her eyes turn serious, “he should first get a job. I’m sure there are companies only too happy to have him on their board. He’s charming, handsome, and there is the family name. Actually, maybe that will be stage two after the marriage. You did understand that he plans to marry this Courtenay from Texas.” She has freed my arm, but now she grabs it again. “I’m so glad to have you by my side when I meet her for this first time. Do guide me.”

And then we’re through the gate and strolling on up to the main entrance. Red brick, white stone trim. Banks of tall windows, each with its crescent trim. A broad, semicircular glass awning over the main entrance. A revolving door. I approach and am welcomed into the Belle Époque. Stunning.

I don’t have a chance.

We are expected. A middle-aged man in a very good black suit and bleu-dauphin silk tie – an outfit that might just as well have been tie and tails but wasn’t – rushes across the vast polished marble of the reception toward the entrance, where we have been eased through the revolving door. “Madame, quel plaisir!” In the next few seconds, he has given her the bisous on both cheeks, now allowed post-Covid, and held out his hand for me to shake. If I am breaking the dress code, he gives no inkling. “J’insiste à vous accompagner. Vous allez voir, Madame, comment on a pu rafraîchir le palais de l’Impératrice.” He says this as if Empress Eugénie just moved out of the palace a while ago, and they’ve spruced it up. Funny, I thought he would be American, but he sounds perfectly French.

The vast lobby area is magnificent, but it has definitely been updated to current high-luxury standards if not today’s bling-bling: It is not Dubai. Sea views dominate from the floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors.

Of course, wasn’t Second Empire totally bling-bling itself, over-the-top ornate, gold-leaf everywhere, no space left untouched, eye-popping clashes of onyx with agate and malachite? Russian oligarch bling owes everything to Czarist bling, and Alexander III must have definitely competed with Napoléon III when it came to bling. None of all that here, though. Time has put a patina on Belle Époque bling. Not that there isn’t plenty of glossy marble and splatterings of gilt. So, is it a let-down for architectural historians? I’d say not. And yet I bet it’s right up there with the expectations of the crowd that think nothing of paying five-thousand euros a night. We’re moving rapidly toward the elevator. Off in an ornate gilded recess, I spot a portrait of Eugénie hanging over an ornate leather and gold settee.

The manager fills the short ride up one floor with lavish insistence that Tata return for a personal showing of all the amenities and restoration carried out at the Palais. “Accompagnée par Monsieur, bien sûr,” a nod towards myself. He assumes I am Tata’s companion? Which means he does not really know Tata. She is decidedly friends with her neighbor Léonie but does not appear to have a consort. I chuckle to myself. On the other hand, if I lived in Biarritz, why not? Tata is far from boring.

We arrive. An elevator to go up one floor – and I see there is a button for a fifth, which would originally have been the floor for the rooms of the servants of guests. I saw a grand staircase as we entered. This would have been the original means of access, no? Our ancestors had no problem with a couple of flights of grand stairs. But when Eugénie’s little palace was converted into a full-fledged hotel, I bet they installed elevators. That would have been around the 1890s, I think. Google mentions visits by Queen Victoria and Empress Sisi of Austria. But maybe they were used only to go up. The stairs would have been a chance to make an entrance. Anyway, the hotel back then didn’t have the height and number of floors it has now. That came after a fire, and a reconstruction and opening in 1905. The Brit king Edward summered here, and Belle Époque aristocracy and millionaires followed.

I bet Tata will want to take the grand staircase down when we leave, assuming we leave together. I don’t know that. Even without her, I’ll experience that grandeur on my own.

No rush.

I wonder if the manager has called ahead to the suite to announce our imminent arrival. I assume so. He leads us in a grand manner down the royal-blue and gold carpeted hallway, with a runner pattern down the middle edged in gold Napoleonic laurel wreaths and studded with golden bees. Our shoes whisper on the carpet. We are sailing towards a lone ivory-painted door dominating the end in the wake of the director. On either side are numbered doors to rooms, few and far between, but our goal is the door at the end of the hall. The lighting allows for no shadows or darkened recesses but is the opposite of harsh. I think of the French word “tamisé,” which years ago was explained to me as having been derived from the River Thames or Tamise in French. Seems unlikely, but who knows? What strikes me is the feeling of calm, a quietness that contrasts with the glittering and lofty space we encountered the minute we went through the revolving door.

We’re seconds away. Unexpectedly, I hear a voice like the caw of a crow. It’s razor sharp. Painful even. A woman’s voice. The manager, walking ahead of us, slows and nearly comes to a stop. We move in behind him. I can make out the edge of a smile forming on his face as he reaches the door: no word to us, no comment. I make out a drawled word: “entertaining.” Hard to tell whether it’s being said in anger or just with emphasis.

The manager presses the doorbell and steps aside, leaving myself and Tata facing the door. I hear the rustle of footsteps. The door opens wide. Hervé fills the space with a smile of great delight and welcome on his face. “Tata!” She steps forward, and he steps forward. Two kisses. He then holds out his hand to me: “Monsieur!” His grip is firm but also warm, welcoming like for an old friend.

Messieurs dames,” says the manager, so low it’s almost a whisper; there’s the touch of a bow and he leaves us. His footsteps rush against the carpet, back down the hall to the elevator.

“Harvey!” It comes from deep within the suite, but the voice strikes my eardrums just under the threshold of physical pain. Tata winces. And that name. How difficult would it be to say Hervé? This tall elegant man is no Harvey to me. Isn’t Harvey the name for a rabbit? I catch myself: I’m being a snob. To her, he is Harvey. He maybe even introduced himself to her as Harvey. Where did they meet? No idea, let alone how or why.

Hervé moves to one side, beckoning Tata in and then myself with the touch of his fingers on my shoulder. He closes the door behind us, and then he slips forward to be a bit in the lead. Tata leaves her cane upright against the wall at the door. She slips her hand around my arm. We are in a long entryway – I think of the American word foyer, which is French for hearth – with a set of double doors wide open to what looks like a huge room, an extensive space, with ivory-colored wainscotting, boiserie, and columns. My eye is drawn through it to more doors that open onto a vast terrace, bursting with beach scents and ocean sunlight. I catch the tang of salt from the Atlantic.

Into that far doorway to the terrace steps a tall blond woman, hair swept up in a clasp that leaves the remaining in tresses – they are tresses! – falling to just over her shoulders. She’s in a white jumpsuit with a gold chain belt. I bet it’s Ralph Lauren. I’ve been following him since the 1980s. First, he took dowdy preppy clothes and made them Reagan chic, which meant five times more expensive, suitable dress for the neoliberal era that was dawning under the aegis of Wall Street. Greed is Good replaced the Great Society. Ape Old Money WASPS. I’m thinking all this; I can’t help myself. But I plan on keeping my mouth shut. There’s no point.

She strides across the salon of the Suite Royale and comes up next to Hervé as he brings us into this grand room. She is the same height as he is; her bones are as big as his. She has the girlish features of a cheerleader. She throws him a glance and then eyes Tata. “You must be Harvey’s aunt. I’ve heard so, so much about you.” Her voice is a flint arrowhead, the accent pure Texas, a drawl with rock hard r’s. She steps forward and then hesitates before she extends her hand towards Tata. Tata steps forward and extends hers so that Courtenay can take it. I am standing to one side, witnessing choreography worthy of a royal court. I see Tata’s slightly upturned face turn radiant with a grace that stuns in its elegance – stuns me at least – so that I forget how awkwardly I’m being left out. Courtenay repeats, “So much about you. So much.” The cutting edge is gone; she is loud but purring.

What’s Tata to say to this? “I hope not too much.” Her eyes twinkle. Courtenay reacts with confusion, and then she looks me straight in the eye.

“Are you really American?” She’s smiling brightly at me, but this is meant as a challenge. I haven’t opened my mouth yet. Is it something about the way I’m dressed that makes her doubt? Can’t figure out what that could be. The entire world, except for the religiously fanaticized part of it, pretty much dresses the same these days.

“My passport says so,” I answer and laugh. That gets her smiling more broadly at me. What a relief! That wasn’t hard.

She fires back: “You have a funny accent though. I suppose it’s living in Europe that does that.”  My ears recoil from her voice. I flinch, think: No, Courtenay, it’s not coming from Texas that does that. I don’t speak; I give her a shrug of innocence. This gets another smile from her and even a short chuckle. But I can see from her next look at me that she can’t figure out why I am here.  Neither can I.

But Hervé does: “Oh, he’s a very kind man who is a friend of Tata’s neighbor and agreed to accompany her here to the hotel.” Hervé then blesses me with a smile that is pure balm to my irritated self. Does he believe this, that I’m a friend of Léonie? I have no idea what Tata knows or what he knows from her.

“Well, that’s just perfect, because I was just saying to Harvey that we need to do some entertaining in this suite. Isn’t it quaint?” Quaint is nails-on-a-chalkboard harsh. “My granny had a big house that had rooms that looked a lot like this.” Her eyes grip us in a dreamy nostalgia as if we see what she is seeing. At first sight then, I can see what she might mean. Old Texan manses probably copied much from the French Belle Époque before turning to more filigree, which I think is something purely American even though it’s usually called Victorian. Maybe she is even referring to the great house of a cotton plantation in East Texas. I’m not sure, but I think that before there was oil, there were cotton plantations that made Houston rich. So, Courtenay is descended from slave-owners? I can see that, imagine that. But no. “Granny bought that house after Daddy made his first million, I mean, billion.” The sonar frequency of her chuckle grates, but then, “Granny grew up dirt poor near that old plantation. Owning it made her day.” She ends in a sweet cackle. I’m getting used to her voice’s harshness level.

“Your grandmother is still alive and enjoying it, I hope,” I say. This just pops out of me. I hope it will win Courtenay over. I sense she doesn’t like Americans from the Northeast.

She bursts out laughing. “That would make her a hundred and twenty. I barely remember her. She was very frail.” She looks abruptly around the suite. “Oh, definitely. We need to do something to liven this place up. What about tonight? Harvey? Why not tonight?” She is whining suddenly. “I’m sure room service can handle it. I’ll call them right now. I bet there’s one of those landline phones somewhere that connects to the desk.” She scans the room. Near the bay of floor-to-ceiling windows she sees a Second-Empire desk with what looks like a phone on it. The phone is a non-descript gray piece of plastic, meant to not clash with the period.

Tata?” Hervé looks horrified and cool at the same time as he queries his aunt. Courtenay has caught him off guard. I bet he had a dîner-à-deux in mind, lots of champagne, and a good fucking. On second thought, maybe not. I haven’t sensed that kind of spark between the two of them yet. She does give him dreamy looks, but they are not sexual. I know: She is entranced with his old-money manners, as if he were aristocracy. That’s what it’s all about: bling meets deep-sea pearls, or something like that.

Tata turns to me. “Would you mind humoring me further and be my dinner escort?” This sounds so funny – and is meant to be – that I burst out laughing.

“How could I refuse you?” Truth; is that ever the truth. She shares that ability to cast a spell that Léonie had. My mind is a blank. Did I have plans for dinner?

“I’ll get on the phone right now.” Courtenay bathes Tata with her gratitude. “Harvey talked this place up so much. I left Daddy’s boat in St. Tropez and all our friends and the greatest partying ever, just to join Harvey here in Biarritz. Everyone said Biarritz would be so boring. But how could it be boring with Harvey here?” He wilts under her gaze. I can’t believe my eyes. No, Hervé is acting. I then fantasize Courtenay as some kind of dominatrix. And then it hits me that they are engaged. Hervé is introducing Courtenay to Tata because they are going to be married. He is her toyboy. Nothing to do with age in this case. Her billions will own him. Did he insist on a prenup? What do guys like him do under these circumstances?

And then I remember Tata saying how he should get a job on some board of directors. So, would that represent too much work for Hervé? I don’t understand any of this.

Courtenay is halfway across the room to the desk before stopping to turn to Hervé. “Sweetie, why don’t you call? You know so much more about French food than I do. I have learned one thing,” she turns to me out of the blue, “I love Cristal, but it’s purely for the disco. I have been turned on to Krug.” She pronounces it like dug. Her opinion is back to squawk frequency. I flinch from the aural pain. Okay, so what. I can’t believe she can tell the difference. “So, okay. Send up a bottle of Krug right now and maybe a little caviar?” She again looks at me before getting Tata’s approval. “Caviar. That took me a while, but now I can’t get enough of the stuff.” She bursts into a joyful laugh. Contagious. We all start laughing, including Hervé, who then picks up the phone. “Let’s go sit out on the terrace. It’s such a gorgeous day. And that ocean view! Nothing like that in Saint Tropez. All I can see from Daddy’s yacht is other yachts. He never wants to sail.” And then she adds, to my surprise, “So, eat your heart out, bitches.” The bitches are her crowd in St. Tropez? She turns and heads abruptly to the doors and is outside before Tata and I have recovered from bitches. Tata glances at me and puts both hands to both ears, smiles, and moves toward the wide-open balcony doors. I follow in her wake, glad she hasn’t waited for or expected a response from me. It’s true: My ears are close to tinnitus. Maybe they will get used to the decibels, because it’s not so much that her voice is loud as it is that it is so acidly sharp and continually so. It’s her voice. Courtenay is that sound.

I have watched the Kardashians. It came as a shock first time. And I remember their voices, the women’s voices, hard as nails, nails on chalkboards, I thought at the time. It was my first exposure to the billionaire bling world. I had thought bling was just for rappers. No. And just designer brands. No. This was definitely bling in the sense of an assault on the limits of the material world. Yachts transmogrified into small ocean liners. Private jets had become flying palaces. And then suddenly I was smacked by the remove between these people and me, the rest of us. I was now the rest of us.

The gap is breathtaking, I think, like skydiving is. I’ve never and will never skydive. The gap between my world and the bling world grows harder to avoid by the day.

And yet here – I’m think Kardashians – were these billionaire women screeching about a sudden pimple. Ah, human after all like sitting on the toilet.

And then I zapped the program. I never watched them again. You read about them; they are always in the news. Hard to avoid the headlines, but you can not read further. No clicking.

I feel Tata’s hand clasp my arm; I’m back. We are through the doors and onto the terrace. My free arm jerks up to shield my eyes. The sun is moving down over the bay and, though slightly dimmed from white glare to yellow, is in your eyes now when you look out to sea. The bay of the Grande Plage is dotted with black figures, surfers paddling out to ride a wave in. Courtenay has already seated herself on a chaise longue and put her feet up. She is wearing gold sandals too. I hadn’t noticed that. Her toenails are painted mauve, actually, quite suitable for her skin coloring, I think.

And then it hits that I have no choice about whether to click or not. I am walking into the program. I am on the program. This is both horrible and exciting. “Sa voix,” whispers Tata to me. I look to her. She makes a face mimicking excruciating pain. I smile back at her, but we have no time alone together.

“Auntie?” Courtenay’s feet hit the balcony floor; she’s going to get up. “I’ve warmed it up for you. Sit here.” She’s up and patting the cushion.

“Oh no, ma chérie. I prefer this nice armchair.” Tata has just freed her hand from my arm and now has both hands on the arms of the chair and is slowly sinking into its cushions. “Oh, lovely.” She has landed. “Just perfect for me. But thank you, my dear.”

Courtenay is now standing next to the chaise longue looking vexed. Vexed, that’s what that look on her face is. Like a spoilt child that’s been crossed. And then she turns to look out over the bay. “What are all those little black things floating around, trash?” She throws me a glance as if it’s my fault, and then sits back down on the chaise longue and puts her feet up. “Whatever.” The word grinds. I take the armchair next to a small table that will separate Tata from me. We are facing Courtenay displayed like an odalisque on a Recamier for us. The sun is sinking behind the tops of the trees on the promontory cliff beyond the beach. There is another armchair. Hervé should be here any moment. I’m thinking: Please, hurry up.

“They’re surfers, Courtenay. Biarritz has this thriving surfer colony?” There, I’ve ended with a question. She’ll groove to that. She looks back at me as if I’m an idiot.

“Surfers? Like L.A.? Like Australia? Like fucking Hawaii? Whoa! I mean, how can these hippies afford being here?” Her smirk isn’t asking for an answer from me. I don’t even bother to shrug.

I remember then that all these people in front of me now are strangers. Maybe no longer perfect strangers, but why am I here? Of course I know why: I’m a foil. A foil for what?

And then Hervé emerges onto the terrace. Following him is a white-coated, black-trousered man pushing a trolley. I see a bottle of Krug in a silver bucket. There is a silver tray loaded with pintxos. In the middle of it in a crystal bowl on ice sitting in a larger silver bowl is caviar; there are mother-of-pearl spoons, no crackers or toast. Spoons! Mother-of-pearl! We are meant to eat the caviar with a spoon! I think, it’s now all worth it, as I watch Hervé take the armchair and the waiter pop the cork and fill four flûtes, and then Hervé say: “Dinner will be served at seven.” He leans forward and takes a flûte and hands it to Courtenay. Next, he hands one to Tata. I’m next. And then he takes the last for himself and raises his glass. What will he say? Will he pronounce some kind of toast that explains what’s going on? Because it dawns on me that, foil or not, I’m just a bystander. “Tchin-tchin,” and that’s it. We all take a sip.

“I think it’s so funny in French that you talk about chins before the first sip.” Courtenay bursts into a laugh then. Actually, her laugh is not so harsh, a bit coarse but fun. We all laugh with her. I suspect she has no idea why we are all laughing too.

But all pales and is gone with a first sip. Pure heaven on earth. I had forgotten how intensely fine bubbles can be, how champagne can be a cloud on the palate. My memory was that Krug was around 200 euros a bottle. Not my budget. I lean forward to eye the bottle’s label. “Oh!”

Courtenay shoots me a killer look.

“This is Clos du Mesnil.”

“So!” Her eyes are ice.

“No. Courtenay, this is the best champagne money can buy.”

“I hope so. That’s what money is for.”

I’m thinking she might then giggle at least. She does not. Her eyes narrow. She is purring like a cat. She takes a sip. “It is very good. They’re right. It’s better than Cristal.” I have no judgement; I cannot compare at this extravagant level. Is she saying crystal as in crystal meth? I take another sip to sharpen up my mind.

I wonder if she parties and does cocaine? How did Hervé meet her?

“Did you fly in, Courtenay? How is the Biarritz airport?”

“Airport? No, I hitched a ride on Daddy’s helicopter. They let you land here. I guess they’d have to. Didn’t they have that big international meeting here?”

“Ah, the G7.” She looks at me as if to say smartass. This is not going well. Why is she so hostile to me?

“That sounds right. I googled the hotel before I followed Hervé’s advice. Quite a rep. And then that Empress and all.” She stretches her legs and crosses her ankles. “It is gorgeous here, Harvey. You were so right.”

Hervé comes close to blushing. He sits up in his armchair and takes a sip of his Krug. His hair is indeed auburn. They will make stunning kids together. I watch as the taste distracts him; he is a gourmet after my own heart then. I look at Tata. She is holding her glass in her lap. Is she not drinking? I move to toast her. She sees that and toasts back. I take a sip, and she does the same. And then I see the same pleasure on her face that I saw on Hervé’s. So, I’ve gotten something right. Tata and Hervé are the real thing.

And then Tata takes a longer sip. “Ma chérie, this champagne brings back such golden memories.”

Courtenay perks up. “I’m glad you like it. I hope the food will be just as good.”

“Oh, I think so. I think there’s a Michelin star on the premises.”

I look to see if Courtenay understands; she seems to. And then, “Another reason why I knew Harvey was right.” So, Courtenay knows about these gourmet rankings. Now I’m confused. “Give me a good T-bone steak, though, and I’m happy. We have the best beef in Houston.” She waits for someone to agree.

“American beef can be so very good,” says Tata; she rewards herself by taking another sip. Her glass is almost empty. She sees that and takes a final sip and empties it. Hervé jumps up and refills her glass. “Merci, mon petit.” I never heard her call him that before. Sweet. She is his aunt, maybe his maiden aunt. She’s made no illusion to being a widow. But then, aside from talking about Léonie and then Alize and Jordì, she’s said nothing about her life.

I take another sip. My glass is almost empty now, and Hervé sees that and refills mine while he’s still standing. He checks Courtenay’s glass. She’s hardly touched her champagne. Their eyes meet. He signals that he’s worried. She understands and empties her glass, bottoms up. He gives her a broad grin and refills her flûte. Ah, l’amour, I think. But I can’t picture the two of them having sex together, and I pride myself on my dirty mind. I think it must be something kinkier than I am used to. People have called me plain vanilla. And then. And then she seems to toast his crotch? I look to see if Tata has seen this. She has. She looks amused. So, Tata is no prude. Not at all in fact. I’m beginning to understand more about the situation, but I still don’t really understand why I’ve been included. Why the need for a foil?

“Have you ever been to Texas?” Courtenay asks me out of the blue. Tata perks up at that. I know I’ve already told her no and in no uncertain terms.

“Never.” I attempt to say this in the most neutral way possible.

“Why not?” accuses Courtenay. She’s looking for a fight. I knew this was inevitable.

“No one has ever invited me?” I can hardly believe it, but that has cut her off at the pass, so to speak. I’m thinking she’s so John Wayne. Of course, she’s not. She’s a character out of Dallas. I remember that from TV. Those were the Reagan years. People thought it was just funny, exaggerated. Little did they know.

“Someone should. I should.” Courtenay had come back swinging.

“That would be a pleasure.” I smile as warmly as I can. Do I see a moment of confusion in her eyes? No.

“The next time we’re both in the States. Time you saw Houston.” This sounds like an order. I give her a nod that’s meant to look like gratitude. “But I so love it here in Europe and in France. So much fun to shop. And then there’s Harvey.” He has regained his armchair. Just as well. Her look is now lascivious. Would she have unzipped him if he were still within reach? I am enjoying thinking so, all of a sudden. I expect now that Hervé will blush, but he does not. Is he preening? He’s preening. I look away. This is getting embarrassing. I sip more of the froth of heavenly bubbles and get lost in that for a minute. I then think to look at Tata. She looks exasperated, and then her face lights up. She has spied the caviar. And then the pintxos. In fact, we’ve all forgotten them. And that’s not a good thing. The champagne is going to our heads; that’s obvious. I see that Tata is about to half get up and so I reach out and lift the tray up to her. She takes a spoon and digs into the caviar. Pure pleasure spreads across her face. And then she takes another spoonful.

Ah, merci, Monsieur. Trop gentil.” Next, she goes straight for a pintxos with smoked salmon and pops it whole in her mouth. And she is so right. Taking a bite out of a pintxo is a bit of a disaster usually. I keep holding the tray. She smiles beautifully at me and shakes her head. I put the tray down and take a spoon. I can’t help thinking pure decadence, but it is really pure gourmet pleasure. The tiny eggs burst: a nutty brine. This is very, very good caviar. I take a sip of champagne. Good gods! And then I do like Tata and take a second spoonful. I want to burst out laughing. This is so gorgeous. Another sip of champagne. And then I take a pintxo with two shrimp curled up together on top of it. In it goes. Oh, an explosion of shrimp goodness and then a bit of espelette fire, I think, and maybe something mayonnaise-like? Now a bit of caper? Onion? The Basques are such devils with their pintxos.

“What about me?” Courtenay slashes at me with her question. And she’s right. I’ve been horrifically rude. I pick up the tray and offer it to her. She rolls over on one side like a Roman on a banquet couch and takes a shrimp one like I have. “Thanks.” She pops it whole in her mouth. Her eyes light up. Courtenay likes shrimp. Of course she does. Americans love their shrimp cocktail. Who doesn’t? She chews and swallows. “Oh, these are good. I hope they won’t spoil our appetite.” And then she shoots me a piercing look. “I bet you speak French. Haven’t I heard you speaking French? Maybe not. But didn’t Auntie just speak to you in French?”

Damned if I do; damned if I don’t. “Yes, I do.” And I receive the full thrashing from her eyes that I expected. I’m a traitor; I’m un-American just as she suspected, her eyes inform me.

“Harvey speaks such great English. I can’t see the point. Everybody speaks English, right? I mean, why bother?”

“You’re probably right.” I almost said: you’re obviously so right. But that would be aping her. Would she pick up on that? She might.

And then I notice that Tata is suppressing her laughter. So, am I here as entertainment, to get Courtenay going, to be prey for her?

“Harvey? How’s that bottle doing?” I see Courtenay’s glass is empty. “I think we should order another bottle.” Hervé jumps up and pulls the bottle out of the bucket. She’s not far off. There’s only a third left at best from where I’m sitting.

I take a sip. My glass is still half full.

And then I realize, urgently, that I need to pee. How embarrassing to have to pee in someone’s hotel room. But then I remember this is a suite. “Hervé, on peut utiliser votre petit coin?” The minute I use that term, I feel ridiculous. “Little corner” like “little boy’s room.” But he opens his face to me in the greatest of grins. What a prince!

“I need to go inside to call room service. Follow me.” He’s suddenly on his feet, towering over me. I get up and follow him. I don’t look back at the women. I don’t care, or I don’t want to care.

I hear Courtenay let out a sharp yelp. “Oh, no! I forgot the caviar!”

In fact, there is a WC, a simple toilet in the entry, much like there might be in an apartment.

I go in and shut the door behind me. No need to search for the light; it has gone on immediately with a sensor. Is that scent lavender? No, it’s more complex than that.

And then when I’m done, I think to pull out my smartphone. I goggle Krug Clos du Mesnil. I’m shocked but not surprised. There it is for over fifteen-hundred euros a bottle. And that would be retail. I can’t believe I have this in my body, and that maybe I have already pissed some of it out. I feel that my body has been gilded within. More even than when people eat gold leaf on a dessert.

I flush. What a down-to-earth sound that is. So, I am still on this planet.

But then I step out of the WC and see that I am not. Not the planet I know.

I cross the grand salon and step out onto the terrace. Tata, Hervé, and Courtenay have moved in around the bowl of caviar. They are spooning it in, one at a time. The mound of tiny black eggs is now gone. The bottom of the crystal bowl is now visible as I step forward. Tata turns, “There is a bit left for you, Monsieur. Hurry up!” She punctuates this by licking her spoon.

This abruptly turns my stomach. I’m left with caviar tainted by their saliva? “Oh, please go ahead. I’ve had enough,” which is absolutely not true. I could have eaten the whole bowl by myself.

Courtenay eyes me and then turns her undivided attention to the bowl in a race with the others to scoop it clean. She then picks up her flûte and drains it. She holds it out towards Hervé. He jumps up and grabs the bottle out of the ice bucket and fills her glass, emptying the bottle.

I am halfway out onto the terrace, but I can hear the bell of the suite ringing. I turn. I make out a service guy letting himself in. He is approaching with another bucket of Krug. “Monsieur,” he passes me and is at the table on the terrace. Hervé has put the empty bottle back into the bucket upside down, a tradition I read somewhere that began with those legendary Belle Époque soupers where this was a sign to the waiter for a new bottle. Our waiter now deftly grabs the bucket with the empty bottle and, whisking it aside (there is theater in this), places the new bucket and bottle in the empty spot on the table. I stand stock still watching. Is he going to pop the cork for us? Yes. He puts the bucket with the empty bottle down on the wooden decking of the terrace and then pulls the bottle out, cosseting the wet bottom of the bottle in a linen towel and, with a twist and a movement of the thumb, pops the cork. All three hold out their glasses to him to fill. My glass is on the table. He sees it and looks over to me with a questioning smile. I nod. He fills mine for me. I move in and take my old armchair. I lift my glass, “Tchin-tchin.” I take a sip. I’m waiting for Courtenay to repeat her quip, but she doesn’t. She gestures her flûte towards mine and takes a great sip, half-emptying her glass. And then she gives me and Tata a beneficent smile meant to bathe us both in her friendship and love. Love. Is that love on her face or just a surfeit of pleasure? No, she’s getting drunk. Well, we all are to some extent. We have to be. There are four of us, and we’ve just finished off one bottle of champagne and are starting in on a second. But I think she’s way ahead of us. Before I went for a pee, she was finishing off a glass in a couple of big sips and getting refilled by Hervé.

We are in Hervé’s hands. Only he knows what kind of a drunk Courtenay is: munificent and happy, or mean. I bet she’s a happy drunk. I bet he’s counting on that, with an eye to Tata’s good graces. Tata needs to approve of Courtenay. Somehow, that’s why I’m here. I think.

As I reach that conclusion, I abandon it. Why? What would be my function then?

Clos du Mesnil. A fresh bottle. Sip. There goes a hundred euros down my throat. Oh, sublime, just sublime. The caviar is only dregs now. I’m tempted to chase after each little egg with my spoon, but don’t. I look to the pintxos. There’s one no one has tried: It looks like something with quail eggs. It is. But not just. Is that only espelette in the mayonnaise? And then it’s gone, chewed and swallowed.

Sip.

“What are these little bits of food called? Tapas, I know. Tapas. They’re everywhere these days.” Courtenay grinds this out, her voice back to harsh. I know it’s harsh, but I can take it now. I don’t care. A glance at Tata shows she’s not as anesthetized as I am, but is smiling, stalwart, keeping up the all-around good cheer.

I look out over the bay. Why am I doing this suddenly? Because the breeze has picked up. Down there on the horizon that is the waters off Spain, there is a very low bank of dark clouds. They may just sit there. Are they doing that? I watch for a minute. No, they are not. They are growing in size, which means they are moving up the coast. “I think we have rain in our future,” I say. Courtenay snaps around to look in the direction I’m looking in. Tata, I realize, has been looking out over the bay all the time. She smiles at what I’m saying but adds nothing to it. She would be an authority on Biarritz weather. She acknowledges that I’m staring at her, but just with a little smile. Hervé stands up.

“I wonder…” He’s looking towards the interior of the suite. “Ah, looks like two waiters preparing the dining room.” He sits down and smiles at us all. “Oh!” He’s up on his feet again. “A bit more champagne everyone?” He takes hold of the neck of the bottle, hoists it out of the bucket, fumbles for the napkin, and gestures towards his aunt’s glass. She smiles but shakes her head. Next is me. I smile and nod. I hold out the glass. It almost overflows. Wow, those are bubbles! And then he puts the bottle back in the bucket and sits down.

I look at Courtenay. She is staring at Hervé. Her glass is half-full. Of course, she’d expected a top-up after I got mine. Hervé does not meet her eye. He is looking down at his own glass and is lost in thought, or appears lost in thought.

Courtenay downs her champagne and then lurches up off the chaise longue. She reaches out, grabs the bottle by its neck, pulls it out. Water goes dripping everywhere. She up-ends the bottle, and a gush of champagne fills her glass. She stops just in time. I’ve been holding my breath. It would be just horrific if the whole contents of the bottle went all over the table and the deck. She knows she has an audience but keeps her eye now on the bottle and, very smoothly, she drops the bottle back in the ice bucket, and then she sits back in a gesture worthy of Swan Lake and puts her feet back up. “Cheers!”

Do they say “cheers” now in Houston? And then I remember the TV series.