I tell her I’ve stopped drinking coffee after dinner. It gets me awake at two in the morning. “Hervé bought some things yesterday. Scotch, cognac or Armagnac – which, Hervé? – oh, and Chartreuse, which I only thought was a color.”
“Armagnac,” states Hervé.
We get up from the table, the three of us, as one man and leave. I suppose someone has arranged the bill. Of course, it’s billed to the suite. What did I think? Because we’re just “going upstairs” now. The Hôtel du Palais is Courtenay’s house. Part of it, anyway.
The aliens moving among us live in another world, one you only glimpse at moments like this, when we just walk out and get the elevator upstairs.
Hervé moves ahead of us down the hall and opens the door. The lights are on, some, so that it is nicely but dimly lit. It’s like they’re taking me to their boudoir. Scary idea, which reminds me of waking up in the night in Ustaritz due to a tapping on my bedroom door. No. Courtenay has given no sign that she thinks I’m good as a sex toy for the two of them. I have to laugh, to myself, at myself.
“What’s so funny?” she says turning to face me standing a bit behind Hervé in the foyer. Sharp ears.
“Oh, nothing. I was remembering a funny joke on me…” I don’t think what was going on that night at the Ustaritz farm was a joke. It could have been just general paranoia on my part, feeling about to be trapped in a country going into pandemic lockdown.
“If it’s really funny, you should tell all of us.” She turns and heads for the nineteenth-century salon. Hervé follows her, and I follow Hervé. The V-shape of his back revealed by the stunning white shirt is more beautiful than sexy. People can be too beautiful to be sexy, too perfect. I suppose in a way Courtenay is the same, is a match for him, but the cutting edge of her voice and mannerisms have not affected me that way. Hervé is totally smooth, as flawless as his shirt, as his tan.
We pass the dining room and enter the salon. Ah, I see what Courtenay was getting at. The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows is over the bay. It is no black hole looking directly out to sea. You look over the bay of the beach, where I sat during the day, to the promontory where Yvonne has her apartment and where my hotel is located. It is sparkling with lights.
I sit in a corner of the couch; Courtenay sits in the other corner. Hervé is standing or, rather, he’s moving toward the console serving as a dry bar. I see the three bottles. “What will you have, Courtenay?” I half-expected him to have abbreviated her name, like couples do, and call her “Court.”
“I’ll have what Monsieur is having.” She grins across the couch at me. I think she’d like to put her feet up, but she doesn’t. I suppose it would be awkward in that sheath dress. She crosses her legs at the ankles; so, she’s had some kind of finishing school. Do finishing schools still exist?
“Then, I’ll make it three Armagnacs. I haven’t tasted it yet. It ought to be good; it’s from the year I was born.” He bathes us in his grin and searches for snifters in the cabinet area below the marble surface of the console and finds three. They look like cut crystal, but wouldn’t that be asking for a bit of visitor theft? No. No, no doubt there is an inventory conducted after each visitor vacates. Losses are billed. Of course, I’m just surmising. I’ll soon have the snifter in my hand and will know. Something. One thing, and that is that I don’t need a nightcap. Oh well.
Hervé has large hands, and he has splayed them adroitly to carry all three snifters to us. Courtenay first and then me. He stands and holds the snifter up for a toast. “Lovely evening!” I concur and take a sip. Oh, well, am I surprised? This is the best Armagnac I’ve ever tasted, and I love Armagnac. I glance over at the bottle sitting now on the console, but I can’t read the label from where I am.
I could also learn the year he was born. Damn.
Courtenay has taken a bolt of it and starts coughing. “This is strong!” She coughs some more, “I should know better.”
Yes, she should, but no one agrees with her. She’s been caught in her ignorance, because no one who knew Armagnac would have taken a gulp of it as if it were Coke.
“That’s how people learn,” says Hervé. “Are you okay?” He’s not worried and goes to sit down in an armchair facing us. There’s a glass coffee table that is contemporary and understated for our glasses if we want to set them down. I’ll just hold mine, warming it slightly in my hand as they say you should do. Courtenay leans forward and puts the snifter on the coffee table. I think she’s had enough. Hervé sits back happily in his armchair, takes another sip, and smiles. “I’ve been lucky with this. I counted on the suggestion of the clerk. It’s impossible to know all Armagnacs when some of the best are from small artisanal producers whose families have been doing this for centuries.”
And then there is silence. I take a sip. “Memorable,” I say. Hervé concurs with a little grunt. Silence.
We have nothing to say to each other. Or, at least, I have nothing to say to them, do I? Let me think? After this evening of fine dining and fine wines, I should be able to be the perfect guest and do some scintillating conversation. I should, but I can’t. My mind is a blank.
And then I remember how little we’ve spoken the whole evening.
Courtenay is smiling at me, that odd, amused smile she’s directed at me before. It’s the kind of smile where you say, what’s so funny? I don’t need to answer an unasked question. I rest my eyes on Hervé who seems to be analyzing his Armagnac. “What do you think?” he asks me. I take a sip.
“I think it’s pretty amazing. There’s everything there. Even both kinds of chocolate, white and dark.” I take another sip. It’s also quite alcoholic, maybe too alcoholic. “What’s the alcohol percentage?”
“High,” laughs Hervé. “I could get up and get the bottle.” But he doesn’t seem to make a move to do that. I’m not going to learn his birth year. He takes another sip. I take another sip. Yes, it is truly special, this Armagnac. Years ago, a friend gave me a bottle of marc from Gevrey-Chambertin that came from someone’s grandmother who still had a license to produce marc. This Armagnac is on that level: especially artisanal, unique flavors that were even a bit quirky. Gorgeous.
“I’m going to a very special party tomorrow night. In Saint-Tropez.” My eyes are on Hervé as I hear Courtenay say this. No surprise on his face: He knows this. I turn to Courtenay.
“Oh! Just like that!” I laugh. She grins back and nods.
“Actually, you know it’s Pamela’s birthday thing. It will be amazing. I can’t miss that. Hervé doesn’t want to come.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to come,” he adds rather than interjects. “I just can’t go tomorrow.” He looks directly at me then, for some reason. “I don’t know Pamela. She’s a bonne copine de Courtenay. Ça sera plutôt une fête aux femmes…” He’s slipped into French so that Courtenay can’t contradict him. So, he declares it will be a “hen party.” I can’t imagine. It will be one of those bashes you see on Instagram or something. I glance at Courtenay. Has she understood? She’s just grinning at him.
And then she turns to me: “I’m not giving up on Biarritz. I’ll be back. I’ve taken this suite for a month. Hervé would prefer living here in Biarritz than in Saint-Tropez. I can get that. And it’s probably a better place to raise kids.” Hervé nods sagely. It looks like Courtenay is going to sigh, but her expression changes abruptly to dreamy. “Hervé and I want to have kids. They’ll be such great kids.”
“They’ll be beautiful kids,” pops out of my mouth, Armagnac talking.
“Tu parles comme Tata!” grins Hervé. “Tata is always talking about the kids we’ll have.”
“I think that’s sweet of her,” pouts Courtenay and then laughs.
Was Hervé addressing me? That I sound like Yvonne? And he’s used the familiar “tu.” I guess that means that I get to tutoyer him. For me, that’s a giant step in intimacy, almost as if I’m in bed with him. Oh, come on! Let’s not exaggerate! But it will feel…
“Tu me confonds avec Yvonne, Hervé. Je ne suis pour rien dans ce jeu.” There! I’ve used “tu” with him. The feeling of intimacy hits like a rocket; I take a sip of Armagnac to add fireworks. Hervé looks delighted and then conspiratorial. I glance at Courtenay.
“You dudes can speak French with each other all you want. I’m outta her. Well, after lunch tomorrow. Daddy’s sending the copter to pick me up at two. But, hey, don’t worry. I’ll. Be. Back.” She bursts out laughing, a laugh that’s all caw. How does she make a sound like that?
“Oh, my train is on Saturday. I’m leaving, too. Going home.”
“Going home?” echoes Hervé. He looks like this is a betrayal. This is crazy on his part.
“This was my vacation. Time to go home.” I hear myself say this and have the thought that Hervé wants to change all that. No, that wouldn’t make sense. Courtenay will be back.
“When are you coming back, Courtenay?” I ask.
“Oh, Sunday sometime. Maybe Monday. It’s Daddy’s copter, not mine. He has business stuff all the time. He’s building up the company in Europe. That’s why we’re here. He’s bought this house in Paris. Well, not exactly Paris; it’s in Neuilly. Not quite sure where that is. Somewhere out beyond the Arc de Triomphe?” Hervé nods. He knows all about the house. He may even have helped Courtenay’s father find and buy the place, for all I know. Wouldn’t surprise me. It would fit.
“I’ve rented a car for Saturday. It’s not as posh as Tata’s DS,” he’s talking to me now, “but it is a DS, a DS Opéra Première. Do you know it?” I shake my head; I know next to zero about cars, really. “You should see it. You should come with me!” Big grin. “Ah, but you say your vacation is over.” He turns to Courtenay: “I could stay in Saint-Tropez for a week. That’s a possibility.”
“That’s a possibility,” she echoes. And then she lets out a loud yawn. “Guys, I’ve had it. I can’t drink anymore of this Armagnac thing.”
I take a sip and put my snifter on the table. It’s my moment to escape. I stand up. “Thank you, both of you. It’s been a memorable feast.”
“Feast?” she echoes and caws out a laugh, looking up at me as if I’d just jumped out of a box.
I remember being happy I had brought a jacket, otherwise I have almost no memory of my walk home. I’m sure that the Armagnac kept me warmer than the jacket.
Today, it’s Friday. Tomorrow late afternoon I catch my train home. It’s been enough. Summing up, although of course unplanned, it was highly entertaining to have met Yvonne, and then Hervé and Courtenay. How did they spoil my vacation? They did not. My plans were fluid from the outset. That was the point: every day to be a new adventure, of sorts, finally enjoying a Biarritz with cafés and restaurants open, and discovering more than I’d expected. It was a very civilized, foodie adventure, based on memorable menus, starting with the Sunday lunch in the Clos. As planned and dreamed of.
I can’t even think why I ever felt trapped by Yvonne and, well, family. Courtenay will soon be her niece-in-law.
I know. I felt that it was somehow the long arm of Léonie reaching out from the past, from the first fearful days of Covid and its lockdowns, not to mention the Basque terrorist element. But this is hardly scary stuff.
I laugh at myself.
I turn over and go back to sleep.
I’m woken by a bing, a kind of bing. My smartphone? I open my eyes and reach for it on the bedside table. Text message.
Bonjour! On peut prendre un verre à 19 heure ce soir… Chez L’Empereur? Je voulais te dire au revoir et te remercier.
Ça se peut?
I was reading that sideways. Now I sit up. Actually, I sit bolt upright. Why? Why does Hervé want to meet for a good-bye drink? What does he have to thank me for?
But of course… À tout à l’heure: that’s all I type and send. See you later. He is continuing to use “tu” with me. Yes, intimate with Monsieur le Marquis. That’s a new one for me.
I get up.
As I shave, I think again about what he might want to talk about. Courtenay will have left for Saint-Tropez. I suppose Yvonne is still in Ustaritz. Is he bored? Feeling lonely?
That gets me chortling, at first, and then I wonder how many people he actually knows here in Biarritz. Yvonne called him a Parisian.
In the back of my mind lurks, always, the sort of secret (I mean, he didn’t tell me, and she acted as if it was insider info) that she divulged to me, that Hervé had a gay episode, frequented the clubs in the Marais. Sex clubs? Oh, for sure. A knock-em-dead handsome guy like him? He’d have starred. One of the discos he took Courtenay to here was gay, or partly gay, that is, straight friendly. The club scene has been like that for decades now. I know, cool. But they did do that. Courtenay had made a point of telling me.
Does one have a gay chapter in one’s life? Chapter? Well, if he’s planning to marry and have kids, maybe. Yvonne has a scenario written in her mind for all that.
Did Yvonne tell me all that before she told me Hervé had inherited the family title? I don’t remember now.
This is my last chance for a grand lunch in Biarritz. Tomorrow, I’ll have some kind of lunch in Bayonne in a café before getting on the train.
I have a little list.
I’m looking forward now to that drink with Hervé. He’s a charmer, and it’s always nice to be face-to-face with a handsome dude. I realize that I’m glad I’ve met him. I like him. He is not part of the “trapped” feeling I kept having. No.
It’s a gorgeous morning with the scent of summer in the air, that iode vaunted in the La Rotonde menu. I’m sitting in the sun on a café terrace only a few steps from my hotel on this square, this place before a church, sipping my café au lait. I nibble on my croissant.
I’m not really hungry.
I am still sated. The idea of a grand last lunch in Biarritz today feels awful. It’s not like La Rotonde stuffed me with food. No. But the element of the pleasure of food beyond hunger was still sated. I’m still on the fil de l’iode.
So, what will I do? For lunch?
Well, one thing: I’ve had enough fish. So, what is the Basque meat that…? Of course, txuleta. The richly marbled steak of that very old cow. I laugh to myself, and my appetite has woken up. And then it proceeds to go on hold. I had that at the farm in Ustaritz.
Time to google. There are four places noted for txuleta. All of them are dinner restaurants: no lunch. So maybe I could meet up with Hervé and then drag him along to one of them? No. That’s not the point. Lunch is the point.
Suddenly I’ve lost my appetite again. I manage to finish the croissant by dipping it in the café au lait.
Idea! From my first visit I’ve know about Les Halles de Biarritz, the covered market. I think there are restaurants there. I start googling. Yes. On the mezzanine floor. And all are just for lunch! Because the market closes at two in the afternoon. Is this crazy or what? It’s designed for my visit today. I can just walk in.
I finish my coffee and stare into space.
I’m ready to leave Biarritz. I’ve had enough. If I lived here, had an apartment here, that would be different, but I’ve had enough of being a tourist. I’ll enjoy being back home.
I glance up toward the main street which eventually goes by Yvonne’s building and the brasserie, and watch as a column of black wet-suited figures proceed along it in near single file. Surfers. They’re going from the great beach to the south that continues down the Basque Coast over to the Grande Plage of renown. They’re migrating for the surf. I’ve seen them close up in their migration: as happy as the birds, they are, looks of excitement mixed with bliss on their young faces. Most of them are young, though I have seen older surfers, forty-somethings maybe.
Now, if I was a surfer dude, I would be happy to stay on here forever.
Okay, what else can I do here, my last day? I start googling. And, out of the blue, I fall on the city tourist site and see a place I haven’t even known existed, a restaurant next to the Casino with a full view of Eugénie’s beach and no-doubt beloved plinth of a rock.
That’s where I’ll get something to eat. I’ll spend lunchtime contemplating the beach and the sea. I’ll get my fill of it.
Check the menu. Ah, there are “formules,” set menus for lunch. And at a price that’s meant for ordinary tourists, maybe people with families. Yes. Time to stop the crazy spending. The food served there consists of all the Basque specialties: It is no fucking MacDonalds. It is no fast-food chain.
Time now for a last walk along the coast, along the promontory, maybe even a visit out to the statue of the Virgin on the rock connected to the mainland by a foot bridge. There’ll be families. There’ll be kids. There’ll be romantic couples.
Wasn’t that Virgin set up there to welcome Basque whalers home after their danger-filled forays? Moby Dick. Good grief! A Basque-New England connection.
I didn’t change out of my cargo pants. I spent two hours at the lunchtime place and then set off randomly walking. I got back to my room and put my feet up. I dozed off. It was nearly six-thirty when I woke up.
So, no, I was not going to change. My cargo pants were quite acceptable to the Emperor when accompanied by Yvonne. I’ll risk it again.
The way to the Hôtel du Palais is now so familiar that it makes me smile as I walk it. I have become a local. But walking up the drive to the entrance of the Palais turns out to be a new experience. It is a process where I freshly savor and then am awed all over again by the grandeur of the building with its elegant red-brick and pale stone cornices, and ornamental columns, and window and door frames: It is the building where Léonie and Yvonne live to the umpteenth level, the template of all that is Imperial Quarter Biarritz.
I go through the revolving door with no ceremonial welcome: Did Yvonne alert the management that she would be visiting? Of course, she must have. Which makes me conscious of how little I know about her and her status in Biarritz.
I do know my way through the palatial lobby to the bar.
This is Friday, a very different cocktail hour: quite a few people, and likely not all guests of the hotel. I pause a moment at the door. You could almost say the place is packed. I can’t see a free table. And then I see Hervé at a nice table for two in the far corner. He has seen me and half stands up. I make my way toward that table; there are people standing, drinking, near the bar. So, looks like this has become a popular end-of-the-week watering hole. Great, because it integrates Eugénie’s palace into the life of Biarritz.
Hervé reaches up with his hand, and I shake it as I pull out the chair and sit down, no waiter doing this for me this time.
“I got here a bit early,” he is apologizing, “because they told me that the bar fills up on Fridays after the work week. You can’t reserve a table here,” he is grinning at me as he sits back down in his armchair. “So, what did you do with your day?” He actually looks keenly interested, which makes me embarrassed.
“Lunch at the place next to the Casino.”
“Yes, right, but I am a tourist, remember?”
“And then,” he gives me a smile meant to add complicity, “so am I. Yvonne loves living here, but so far I’m still a Parisian.” This is the first time he’s used her actual name, not called her Tata.
“But you will, you and Courtenay. Isn’t that the plan?”
He chuckles. “It is my aunt’s plan. And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to make her happy. Tu comprends?” I nod, but I don’t really understand much more than the business of general family ties.
I turn to look behind me, look toward the bust of the Emperor, and then throw him a grin: “The Emperor would understand.” He grins back. “And you have the family title.”
He bursts out laughing. “She told you my, well, title?”
“Oui, Monsieur le Marquis.” We have been speaking English all this time. So, now I am faced with the tiny dilemma of whether to continue in French and use the “tu” that he used with me last night. I want to say “tu” to him. I open my mouth to speak…
He beats me to it. “What is the English for that? Marquess? As in the bastard of a boxer Queensbury? I really quite loathe these Brit titles.” I realize that his English is in fact not Brit, but it’s not American either. I suppose it’s the sort of English they’re taught in those international Swiss schools. His use of the word “loathe” has triggered how I surmise this past. Did Yvonne tell me about his growing up, his education before university? No.
“I do like the sound of marquis, though.”
“So does Courtenay. Very much. You Americans!” A waiter comes up behind me and hands me a menu. I realize then that Hervé already has one. I say, Merci, and take the menu. I think I kind of know it by heart… “I think you like Courtenay, after all.”
“Of course,” I fire back. He shoots me a conspiratorial look before laughing. Is he laughing at me? Yes, because he knows about the general American thing about Texans. Or maybe there’s some other reason he’s laughing?
“What did you have when you were here with my aunt. Something with tequila. Shall we both have that and toast Aunt Yvonne?”
I can see him catch the waiter with his eye before he has time to get too far away after slipping me the menu. The waiter is back in a flash. Hervé then just orders.
“It was a good drink. Strong. She had two.” I say this, not knowing whether I really want another one today. Too late. “Okay, and I had two with her.”
He bursts out laughing at me. “You are so gallant!” I can feel that he’s got me close to blushing. What a devil? A guy like him can wrap anyone around his finger. I used to find it difficult to look at beautiful people, because I found it disconcerting, I mean, how do you look at them? How do you look at them without giving away that you are hungry for them and devouring them with your eyes? Because, unlike a painting, a statue, there is a sexual element: the fantasy of having sex with this beautiful other human. It was a problem when I was a kid; I pretended to ignore them, to the point of faking disdain. In turn, they would think I didn’t like them.
I’ve grown out of that.
I’m quite at ease examining the handsome face of Hervé, the perfect space between his eyes, which I see are actually hazel, and the slope of his cheekbones, his perfect jaw with a chin that has the hint of a dimple. Movie idol stuff, but not. Hervé has a look all unto himself. Fortunately, today he is not wearing that white shirt. If he was, I would be embarrassed as to where to look, face or chest. Yesterday I was looking at those pecs from afar, distanced, forced to see him as a whole package, head to toe. Here, sitting across from him, that would not be possible.
On the train once, I was seated across from a young woman wearing a Turkish-style hijab but a décolleté so open and deep that her breasts might as well have been in my face. I could not ignore them. She scowled at me in disapproval. How I laughed to myself.
Today Hervé is wearing a designer – some kind of designer – black sweatshirt. I suppose he’s also wearing jeans? But the curve of his bare muscular neck is revealed as it goes off down under the sweatshirt to his shoulders and chest. His neck is neither too long nor to short, nor too muscular; Hervé is impossibly perfect.
The word “gallant” is still hanging in the air.
“Yvonne could drink me under the table.” I eye him and give him a little smirk. “She is marvelous, your aunt.”
“Yes. But what about Courtenay? How do you feel about her? Really.”
The Montijos arrive.
I lean back to make it easier for the waiter to set down our drinks. I can pretend I haven’t heard his question. I peer down at my cocktail, “I forgot how good these look.” I raise it up, “Tchin-tchin!” Our eyes meet or, rather, his eyes are still drilling that question at me, but he takes up his drink, and we clink. I take a sip. Strong! Delicious! I can’t believe I drank two of those and walked home. “I guess they don’t have any pintxos here.” The waiter arrives with a nice plate of nuts. I chuckle at the synchronicity and grab a cashew: It has a bit of truffle taste added. I start to giggle at this but stifle it. I take another cashew.
Hervé is waiting for my answer. I stare at the nuts.
Okay. “I’ve never met anyone that rich.” I look up at him. Hervé’s cheekbones seem to rise to create the start of a smile. He wants more. “Texans are different from most Americans. If you’re from the East Coast, they are usually pretty, well, competitive.”
His eyes light up with mirth. “Knives drawn?” he says and takes a sip of the Montijos. He looks startled. And then he takes a second. He smiles then; he must be thinking of Yvonne drinking these.
“You saw it…” He nods that he did. “But Courtenay didn’t pursue that. So, she’s different. I suppose when money has no meaning you are different. Don’t you find that?” I’ve got him.
“Oh, we never talk about money. We don’t need to.”
“Right. How nice.”
He stares down into his glass for a second before taking another sip. My remark was catty; I can hear it echo in my head. I should apologize, but I don’t. And then he takes another sip. “This is delicious.” He is speeding along just like his Aunt Yvonne. And then he focuses totally on me. I’m caught, useless to squirm. I smile back and nod; I succumb. His eyes begin to sparkle. “You know, we have upstairs for a month. She likes it and she doesn’t like it. She likes waking up and pretending she’s the Empress.”
I laugh. “How does she do that?”
“Ah, ça serait indiscret…” he pouts. Pouts! His lips are reprimanding me. His eyes are toying with me. Are we going to speak French now? “Courtenay loves to play fantasy games. We have similar imaginations. We are quite compatible.”
“Well, that’s good, since you’re set to get married.”
He nods. He nods as if I’d said today is Friday. “You’re right. And it’s the most important thing. She also likes the idea that she will become Madame la Marquise.” My face must have betrayed my shock at the mental image that pops up: Courtenay as French nobility, dressed like Marie-Antoinette playing shepherdess? Bo Peep. He grins. “She speaks more French than she’s let on with you. She parties with an international set in Saint-Tropez. Everyone speaks a couple of languages. She’s picked up some French. Of course, she will forever sound like an American.”
“Her voice.” I said it.
“Ah, yes. But in Saint-Tropez it doesn’t sound so out of place. It’s a party crowd. Lots of fun.” His eyes sparkle for me, as if I’m invited too. “I’m going there tomorrow.”
“Oh?” Did I know that? Why didn’t he leave this morning with Courtenay then?
Hervé is grinning at me: He is the cat, and I am the mouse. “This is a great cocktail.” He raises his glass and finishes it. “Shall we have another one?” He stares at my half-full glass. “Or, should we pick something else?” Instead of taking a sip to catch up with him, I reach for a cashew. Hervé picks up the menu and starts scanning it. He hasn’t touched the nuts.
“Courtenay would love this cocktail.” This just pops out of my mouth; I take two cashews.
He looks up from the menu at me, “She did,” and looks back down.
When was this? And then I realize how absurd that is: Courtenay and Hervé have no doubt explored every nook and cranny of this hotel, including the spa.
Hervé abandons the menu to look me in the eye, that is, I feel him suddenly staring at me and look up at him and am gripped by my first view of him troubled. “She became suddenly very depressed. It made her think of Mexican food, she said. Not Tex-Mex, she made a point of that. She looked so unhappy.”
“You’ll need to spend time in Houston.”
“You know that I realize that. Board meetings are held in Houston. Her father pointed that out to me. Maybe he thought I would give up on Courtenay because of that, not that he said anything like that. He’s an amazingly nice man. He tells how he put himself through school. But then as the story goes, they found oil on the little family property.”
“We’ve all seen that movie.”
“Yes, we have. But I think it is the story of a lot of people like him in Houston. In Texas.”
“And other places in that part of the US. Did you know they used to pump oil in Pennsylvania? That’s about as close as I get.” He laughs at that. The troubled look is gone.
“Courtenay has no understanding of money.” His eyes are dancing at me. “She is like a child in that respect.”
“I was thinking that she was beyond spoiled.” He grins at me and nods. And then I wonder where I’m going with that. And so does he. He looks, waits patiently for me to add something. But that was it. I don’t have any deeper insights for him. Is that why he invited me here? Is he getting cold feet?
“She is generous like a child can be. If you admire something she has, she’ll give it to you.”
“Well, that’s food for thought! Very pasha of her, very sheik.” I laugh at myself, my silly wisecrack. Nerves: I take a big sip of my Montijos. He grins back. Out of me pops: “Maybe I should go house shopping with you. I’ve thought about an apartment here.” Not really, my look immediately says to him. I shake my head to make sure he knows I’m joking. I shrug. Jokester.
“Oh? I think that could be arranged.” He’s dead serious.
I dive back into the menu, pretending I didn’t hear him. And then I say to the menu, “I love Mexican cuisine too. Courtenay and I have that in common. Hey, what about this? Héritage. A cocktail with an Armagnac base. It has tonka. Very trendy.”
I look up to find him staring at me. “I was serious. You love Biarritz, am I right?”
He is staring me down. He won’t let me go. He is demanding an answer. I feel trapped until it hits me that I don’t have to give him any definitive truth. And I’m not feeling guilty about that, because I have no idea. The idea – and I did have it in the first days I was back here with everything open and normal – was quickly preposterous. I looked in a few windows of real estate offices. “All year round? I don’t know. All the time?”
“No one lives anywhere all the time, do they?” He means that.
“Well, aside from a trip for a week, like this one, I do. Most people I know do.” Okay, Hervé, see? I’m out of your league. Deal with it. I feel pretty brave suddenly; I don’t need to pretend in order to please him. Like Courtenay, he, in his way, is from another planet, though without the cloud of billions she sits on. “Doesn’t your Aunt Yvonne?”
He’s staring at something behind me all of a sudden. I turn. What is he looking at? I thought a celebrity has entered the bar or a skirmish silently erupted. No. And then – could he really be staring at the bust of Napoléon III like Yvonne had? – his line of vision could be directed at nothing but the bust. I take my time turning back to him. I take a sip of my Montijos, the next to last sip, and the alcohol hits again, not unpleasantly. “My aunt keeps the family torch lit.”
He’s looking at me now. But there’s something on his mind that I can’t figure out. “She got me doing some research. This is the Empress’s palace, of course, and I’d have to agree with Yvonne that Eugénie brought about the downfall of your ancestor and his empire.”
He grinned. “My ancestor? Not exactly. But, yes, she can wax bitter about Eugénie. By happenstance she is involved in this building. She helped convince the municipality to take it over and prevent it being turned into apartments. She believed in the place as a hotel.”
“Ah, because maybe she loves the Biarritz of Coco Chanel and the Roaring Twenties?”
“I think you’ve nailed it.” He has looked over and caught the eye of the waiter. I hear him order the Armagnac cocktail, two of them. Did I agree to this? I guess in a way I did. I pointed it out, and so he’s assumed it’s my choice. Okay, why not?
“There’s a newsreel clip on YouTube that shows a fashion show taking place on the terrace in front of the Casino. The Casino would have been brand new then. Have you seen it?”
“I have.” He starts laughing. “You know, I think you’re meant to live here. You definitely should join us in our apartment search. Oh, and, by the way, do you have dinner plans?” He’s looking worried all of a sudden.
“No, not really.” Not really? I have zero plans. I guess I thought I could always hit the Basque pintxos place near my hotel, say goodbye to the charming surfer waitress.
“Oh, that’s good. I’ve been presumptuous. I’ve ordered a few things from room service. Nothing quite as elaborate as what I set up for Courtenay the day she arrived. That was a special arrangement I made with the chef.”
Hervé knows the chef? He reads my mind. I suppose my face is questioning.
“I stood in for Yvonne.” Where’s he going with this? “My aunt asked me to come down and do the special tour and reception for the local people.” I do remember the manager mentioning she’d missed that. I’m getting filled in now. “So, you know she didn’t come. She was involved in Léonie’s problems with Alize at that point. So, she asked me to stand in for her. I took the train down from Paris. It was before Covid. Fun, because the new high-speed line to Bordeaux had just started. Anyway, I met the chef then. He’s a young guy. Around my age.” Hervé has bonded with the chef. That’s a nice thing to know about Hervé.
“Have you spent a lot of time here in Biarritz? In the region?”
His surprise at my question turns into a short laugh. “Yes, however did you guess? You’re quite the Sherlock.” He’s making fun of me. “I did some growing up here. With Aunt Yvonne. After my dad died.” A quick cloud, the somber memory of that time, passes across his face, so fleeting I could have missed it, because his eyes are now bursting with pleasure. “I love it here. It’s the Basques. I’m not Basque, of course, but they welcomed me onto the team.” What team, what sport, I’m thinking? Is Hervé a surfer? “So, I think this would be a great place to raise kids. We’d have to spend time in the States, in Houston, but Courtenay agrees it would be perfect to spend time here. I’m hoping more time than in Houston.” He gives me this conspiratorial wink. “She likes the idea of her kids being more little Frenchies than Texans.”
“Oh? That’s a surprise. I’d never have…”
“Courtenay is full of surprises.” The Armagnac cocktails arrive. More nuts, olives, and some little amuse-bouche.
“Are you a surfer?” He has the body of one, that’s for sure.
He starts laughing. “You like that idea? Yeah, back in the day, when I was living with my aunt. I told you: Basques are friendly people. They helped me learn the tricks pretty fast. Those were great days.”
“So, you don’t surf anymore?”
“Courtenay asked me that. I could. If she surfed, we could surf. She doesn’t. It’s no fun watching from the beach.” And I’m thinking Courtenay gets plenty of surfer eye-candy just being with Hervé. Hervé is like her candy shop. I laugh at watching from the beach. “Why are you laughing?”
“She doesn’t have to watch from the beach to get an eyeful of a surfer.” He picks up the new drink and toasts me. “Cheers!” do I. A sip. Oh, powerful. Armagnac. I’d never have thought cocktail. “This is really good.” I hear myself; I sound sloshy. He moves in closer to me over the table. His eyes are laughing at me, but in a nice way. I give up. “I think we’re going to need more than nuts and amuse-gueules. You are a man of foresight. I thank you for it. Ahead of time.” I start laughing, not sure why. His face is inches from mine. I can feel his breath, and then he slowly sits back. “You’re going to help me to the elevator, right? Just joking.” But maybe I’m not. This Armagnac cocktail was not a wise choice – as delicious as it is – after the Montijos.
“That’s one of the perks of living upstairs.” His grin is wide. American teeth again. He pops an amuse-bouche into his mouth. I’ve never seen anything quite so erotic. He’s doing it all deliberately. He’s toying with me. He looks at his wristwatch; it’s the first time I noticed he was wearing one. It must have been inside his sleeve before. It looks discretely very expensive. It’s not a Rolex; they are big and unmistakable. “I arranged for them to deliver everything at around eight-thirty. I want to just go up and find the table set. I don’t want wait staff around. So, thank you for agreeing to eat a little dinner with me. Otherwise, what a waste of food!”
Right. I’m doing him a favor. And he’s saying this in such a sincere voice. Only people with the kind of education and breeding he has had, Monsieur le Marquis, could pull this off. He is defining noblesse oblige. He’s treating me to a private show. This is certainly part of what has Courtenay mesmerized; she could never even come close to pulling something like this off. And then I think: She did try, didn’t she? Something like thanking me for making last night’s dinner possible? “The pleasure is all mine,” I finally say. “And you can explain to me how all these surfer dudes manage here. Biarritz is not cheap. I don’t see hippy hotels around.”
“First, it’s a lot of locals. Second, yeah, I think the guys and some of the girls on the surfing circuit have family money, you know, unless they can teach surfing. There’s some of that, I think. But I don’t know how it works nowadays. Biarritz wasn’t so expensive when I was a kid. There’s a hostel. And there are surf camps. I’m no expert.” He leans forward. “I’m out of the loop.” His mouth widens in a grin, and he sits back, pleased with himself. “Cheers,” he raises his cocktail toward me and takes a huge sip.
I burst out laughing: “You and Yvonne can drink me under the table.” I take a small sip to punctuate my remark.
His eyes widen. “Really?” He bursts into another laugh and grabs a cashew this time and pops it in his mouth. Another look at his watch: “You’ve got time. Relax. And… je n’ai commandé que des entrées… starters can be served room temperature. The Clos du Mesnil will keep nice and cool in the ice bucket. So, take your time. I don’t want to have to pick you up from under the table.” His eyes narrow as he eyes me. So – I never noticed before – he has those foxy eyes that I’ve always thought of as Germanic. But then that look is gone. How astounding! It’s as if he’s two different people.
Or am I just getting drunk? I take an amuse-bouche and eat it. And then I take another one. I am fantasizing that I’m putting food in my stomach with the alcohol. What a joke! I start laughing.
He gives me a questioning look and then just starts laughing with me. “Ah!” I look up and around me, taking in the magnificence of this, the Emperor’s, old office. Well, of course, it’s unlikely that the Emperor had a bar in it. I chuckle. “This is just an amazing room.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“And I might just say it again. I think it’s the great triumph of this hotel.”
He goes serious: “It is the grand connection between this hotel and Biarritz, I think.”
“I thought you didn’t think of yourself as a Biarrot?”
He puts on this look of surprise. “Oh, I guess you’ve caught me.” He takes a small sip of the cocktail. “We used to have a house. When I stayed with my aunt, we lived in that house. Where she lives now? This is because of Léonie. Léonie convinced her to sell the house and move in next to her. So, when I come to Biarritz, I stay in your hotel. My aunt has a small guestroom, but I’m more comfortable on my own. Anyway, I’m not here anymore that often. But I guess that’s gonna change.” He grins. “Gonna,” is that a little joke on me? He sounds odd aping an American.
I take a sip – I’m many sips behind Hervé – and give him a little laugh. “I guess so. And Houston. You know, I can’t picture you in Houston.”
“Oh? Then you know Houston.”
Another sip and more of a belly laugh. “Nope. You got me. Never. I’ve never set foot in Texas.”
“And yet all the knowledge…”
Another sip, “Yes, preconceptions. But Texans do advertise themselves. And Houston especially. Remember, we had a president who played the Texan.”
He smiled: “The Bush one.”
“You nailed it. I think he was enough Texas and Houston for a lifetime.” I’m smirking and chortling. Crazy sounds are coming out of me. Embarrassing. But I’m not embarrassed. Hervé is enjoying our little drunken romp; I see it.
“He was not popular in France.”
“Freedom fries.” And that triggers him: I hear Hervé’s equivalent of the belly laugh. It’s rich, deep, sonorous. It’s somehow total sex. Oh, he’s a match for Courtenay alright. Forget the Monsieur le Marquis. “Of course, this is nothing compared to recent White House occupants.”
He turns somber looking. Yes, Trump was a hideous embarrassment and, in the end, very scary. Is he going to talk politics? I could get into that with him. “Courtenay is absolutely oblivious to politics, any kind. She told me she is not interested. She finds politics and all the crazy anger surrounding it boring. Boring. ‘Don’t be like Daddy’ she said to me.”
“Courtenay lives in a world so removed from politics.” I’m nodding to him. “Her father has to pay attention. He’s a Republican, of course.”
Hervé brightens: “I don’t think so. At least he’s never said that to me. We have never discussed the US. He’s interested in French politics.”
“Really. And that’s a shame, because I’m not much good at that. I’m sort of a fan of Macron.”
I burst out laughing: “You identify.” He gives me a confused look, which makes me realize that what I said was a bit stupid. “Well, I sort of identify…”
“Yes and no.” And then I finish my Armagnac cocktail. He smiles at my empty glass. His has been empty for a while now. I see the wheels turning in his head as he glances at his watch. I pre-empt and raise my hand, “Basta!” He grins. “I’m speaking for myself, you understand.”
“You speak wisdom, mon ami.” He stands up. He’s now looking down at me. The smile is broadening to its full extent. I see he’s dressed all in black. And he’s wearing black cargo pants! I am about to say something but then don’t. They look great on him. But I don’t think he’s ever put anything in the pockets; they look perfectly flat and untouched. He looms over me and then looks behind me for a second, and then he nods to someone. I turn. It’s the waiter. So, I guess he’s gotten the bill; it’s like dinner last night.
It’s my turn. I slip the armchair back and hoist myself up. I’m standing. I’m feeling silly. Is the next move to see how unsteady I am? Hervé is out from behind the table and next to me. He grins and nudges my elbow. I laugh. Yes, I’m fine. I think. He moves off to cross the room. I step away from table and armchair and follow. It’s good. I’m fine. To make sure, I pull myself up to my full height as I walk after him. He seemed suddenly so tall when he’d stood up; now I realize again that we’re about the same height. I’m watching his back. He’s pretty magnificent in that black sweatshirt, not to mention the way the cargo pants hug his hips and thighs. A woman in a vermillion silk blouse has turned to watch him pass. She glances at me then and turns back to the balding man in a suit seated opposite her and smiles at him.
Hervé is already at the exit and has turned. I hurry up. Carefully. I feel that I could very well stumble in my sneakers. “I’m starving. How about you?” I smile and nod. And then I’m following him out down the hall.
Hervé has a look of curiosity on his face as he moves into the suite. He’s ahead of me and reaches the door to the dining room. “Ah, they’ve set everything up in the dining room. Well, why not. I thought we’d just sit around in the salon… but that would be awkward. You know, balancing food on plates on your knee.” He goes into the dining room. There a bottle of champagne – I suppose more Clos du Mesnil – in a bucket. He pulls it out and dries the bottom on the towel draped over it. It is Clos du Mesnil. And then he gathers up two flutes from the table and passes me and heads to the salon. I notice that foie gras has already been set out on two plates as our starter. “Let’s sit and have a toast for a minute on the canapé.” He’s already left the dining room when he says this. Frankly, I don’t see the point. The sight of the foie gras has my stomach growling. My body needs food, not more to drink. Hervé has not asked for my opinion, though; he’s moving fast, and I have to catch up with him.
He’s already set the glasses and the champagne down on the coffee table as I enter the salon. And now I see why. The sun is going to set. The atmosphere of the room has turned a honey gold. I move toward the double-doors to the balcony to look out over the bay. The sun is inching down into the sea, but I have to hold my hand up to shelter my eyes from its blinding rays in order to look out. The view is, well, breathtaking. I feel dizzy for a second and set my feet apart to keep my balance. “This is so amazing. I don’t think you can see the sunset like this from anywhere else in Biarritz.” I hear him before I feel him nudge my elbow from behind. He moves to my side and hands me a flûte of Clos du Mesnil.
What planet am I on? I take the glass. He is inches from me. I can smell is cologne. It’s slightly floral but very masculine. I don’t know what it is. His breath is on my cheek and in my ear: “À nos amours!”
He touches the rim of his glass to mine so that there’s a brief tinkle of crystal. And then he is first to take a sip. His eyes are laughing at me in a conspiratorial way. What is he talking about, nos amours?