A TRAIN TO CATCH
The foie gras has the texture of very good butter, and I know it is from Les Landes, which, due to a miscalculation of geography on my part, I now realize is as much to the northeast of Biarritz as it is southeast from Bordeaux, extending along the coast of the Bay of Biscay between Bordeaux and Biarritz and then encompassing forests inland, though not to be confused with Périgord, also famous for its geese, ducks, and foie gras and truffles. No truffles with this foie gras and no vin moelleux but instead Clos du Mesnil, again – again tastebuds consorting with the angels. And, what comes next? Ris de veau rôtis? Is that what he says?
Slightly disappointed, because I love my sweetbreads fried crispy, not roasted with a variety of carrots and saté spices as in Indonesian skewered meats? How is that going to work?
Hervé unwraps the casserole, opens the lid with his napkin so as not to burn himself, and – pouf! – a fragrant aromatic cloud envelops us and takes over the dining room. Tchin-tchin! More Clos!
At first, I have no idea where I am and figure – mentally murmuring to myself – that I’m dreaming. It’s only when I close my eyes that I realize that what I was seeing was no dream but the real-life room with my eyes open.
I open them wide. It’s not my hotel room, it’s the bedroom in the suite. I’m alone in the bed.
I have no idea what time it is. I panic. I have to check out of my hotel room and get to Bayonne and catch my train.
I’m stark naked.
And Hervé has left without waking me up.
Yes, I say to myself, you did sleep with Hervé.
And I remember every amazing, gloriously pornographic minute of it. I sink back into the pillow for a second and smell his mysterious scent. I get a teenager’s erection. And then I realize I just need desperately to pee. I get up, my head begins thumping just a bit and then stops. I start to follow the way to the bathroom that I had used to expel the remnants of Clos du Mesnil during Courtenay’s dinner party, only to realize there, right in front of me, is a bathroom off this bedroom.
As I pee, I see Hervé’s toiletries, and on an adjoining basin area I see Courtenay’s. Any erection I might have had is gone on seeing hers.
My bladder empties.
Yes, I did have sex with Hervé. What I don’t know is why.
What time is it?
I panic. I flush and move quickly back into the bedroom. It is neatly shambolic, that is, Courtenay’s things and Hervé’s things are all over the place, but neatly arranged by housekeeping. This kind of housekeeping is an art, I think.
I see my clothes. They are on the floor. There they are like the trail of crumbs out of Hansel and Gretel. I reach down and grab my cargo pants. I fish out my smartphone. Time?
Oh! It’s only ten.
I heave the proverbial sigh of relief.
I go back, cargo pants in hand, and sit on the pale blue settee at the edge of the bed. My head is beginning to thump ever so slightly again. There had been a lot to drink.
In the afterglow of orgasms, Hervé had erupted into wild and exuberant plans. For us. For us, not just for him and Courtenay. And he had suggested I check out of my hotel and move into the suite. It is mine for a week.
Is that right? Did he say that? Yes. Yes, he did.
Does that change my plans?
In the aftermath of Covid, SNCF does allow for last-minute changes in train reservations. I could do it, stay longer, with no financial penalty. Now, the question is: Do I want to say on?
No. It doesn’t take much rumination. No, I don’t want to stay on in Biarritz. I’ve done this trip.
And, as luxurious as this Royal Suite is, I don’t want to stay here in their bed. Not without Hervé in it. And only Hervé, not with the addition of Courtenay. How absurd that I should be considered a filling for their sandwich. Sandwich? No, Hervé never suggested a threesome.
No, he absolutely did not. That would have destroyed, if not upended, the rush of fantasy become real that was our being in bed together. Naked.
Ah, now I remember. Already mentioned in the Bar Napoléon III. Shop for living quarters with them. They would buy a house, a mansion, in Biarritz, and I would – what? – get, be given, become the proprietor of my own luxurious apartment. They would contact Sotheby’s.
Did Hervé repeat all that as part and parcel of me staying on in the Suite?
I don’t remember.
Wait! What? I don’t even know Hervé’s last name. I burst out laughing.
Where’s my underwear?
I hear something.
Sounds like a rap on the door.
I hear a key in the lock and the door open. “Bonjour. Votre petit déjeuner, Monsieur.” I hear the rolling of a trolley in the hall. I jump up and shut the French doors between the dining room and the bedroom. Just in time. I hear the trolley entering the dining room. There’s a clatter as our dinner from last night is cleared. Ensuing sounds are like whispering by comparison. “Bonne journée, Monsieur.”
“Merci. Bonne journée à vous,” I spout, showing a sign of life in the suite, why, I don’t really know. I suppose so that they know enough to come back later and clean up? Because… my petit déj est servi!
I hear the door shut behind the clattering of the trolley and the movements of the wait staff. And I burst out laughing.
Hervé has invited me to breakfast.
Somehow, I don’t feel comfortable showering here, so I just put on my clothes and open the door to the dining room.
A white porcelain pot of coffee. A silver beaker of hot milk. A basket of croissants and pains au chocolat. And a glass of juice! Is it the classic orange? I pick it up and sip: No, it’s some mix with passion fruit. A recent favorite of mine. How did Hervé know? Because it’s Hervé who ordered the breakfast for me. No eggs. No cold cuts. No cereal or muesli. I doubt that this is the standard hotel breakfast.
I’m spooked. And then, still standing, I drink down the juice, and only then do I sit down at the table and do the café au lait.
This dining room is really quite sumptuous, but all this red plush, though I’m sure very Third Empire, is not to my taste. I wonder how Courtenay feels? Maybe she needed to get out of here and back to bling-bling in Saint-Tropez for a reason, that reason.
So, this suite is mine for a week? I think not. When it’s time to leave town, it’s time to leave town. I’ve had enough of Biarritz at this point. Not forever, I add to myself. No.
I pull apart a croissant and dip it in the café au lait. There’s some strawberry preserve flavored with tonka bean, I see. Very trendy. I have a taste. Yum.
I’ve got to get out of here. The walk home will take a good twenty minutes. And then I need to shower and pack.
Still, I’m drawn to the salon. Yes, this is a big, gorgeous room. And then I get to the French doors, open them, and step out on the grand terrace. Oh, this is fabulous: the vast arm of casino promenade scaling up to the high cliff that cups the rippling tide of the bay, studded with its pylon of a rock, and then out to sea, on out to the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic, the sun rising to my left sending tiny golden shards off the tips of waves rolling in to catch surfers, and the low crashing of the tide on the beach, perhaps even mingled with yelps from the specks of surfers. Am I crazy not to stay on for a day or so?
I dare to sit and then sprawl out on the chaise longue where Courtenay as odalisque held her court as I was introduced to her.
The sun is warm on my face. I shut my eyes. If it weren’t for the coffee coursing in my blood stream, I could drift off.
I wonder if I could eat here and just have it put on the bill for the suite? Oh, you greedy bastard! I start laughing. No, I don’t think that’s in the cards. If it was, I’m sure Hervé would have sweetened the offer with that. I don’t remember him doing that.
Now, that would be tempting. A whole twenty-four hours just living in this hotel, lying around the pool, drinking cocktails. Fine dining lunch and dinner.
Oh, how easy to be cajoled by the billionaire lifestyle. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I could be easily seduced.
This kind of endless billionaire wealth when it comes to the pleasures of life that I enjoy would be beyond just a dream, it would waft me away to that other planet that is an alternate universe coexisting simultaneously with – what’s that term you used to hear a lot? – wage slavery. Even CEOs of economic empires are paid, are wage slaves. These new billionaires are beholden to no one; they own and they are money itself. And then that is not enough: They must rule, have power. Someone like Courtenay just plays. She is just a child. Like the Eloi, those childlike future-time creatures in H.G. Well’s The Time Machine. Hervé sees her clearly.
I wonder how Courtenay and Hervé have arranged expenses here. I realize I’ve been assuming that Courtenay just pays for everything. I mean, when you’re a billionaire, who cares? And didn’t he say she was like a child about money, had no real sense of it? Or something like that? Does that make Hervé a kind of gigolo? In so many ways, I can see him as a gigolo, he with the title of Monsieur le Marquis?
No, there is a transaction involved, like games played by the gods on Olympus with each other.
I bring my hand up to shade my eyes ahead of opening them. And then I sit up and throw my legs down to the ground. I stand up.
I’ve got to go.
I was wrong or, rather, I was pretty drunk when it took more than twenty minutes to get from the Palais to my hotel. It has taken me barely fifteen.
As I step inside, I’m relieved that there is no one at the desk. I’d have to chat, maybe end up explaining or making up some reason why she just sees me coming in when she never saw me going out this morning.
Anyway. I stride to the elevator, find it waiting, and am upstairs and moving quickly down the hall.
Inside, I check the time. In fifteen minutes, it will be eleven. Check-out time is noon, I think. My train from Bayonne is sometime before four: allowing time for a decent lunch, as always. I’ve even planned where.
Shower and shave first. Pack afterwards. Actually, I’ve pretty much been living out of my suitcase. Only a few things hung up.
I really like this funny bus-tram thing I’m on. It’s electric, so soundless and odorless. It has a spacious feel because it bends and is long like connected subway cars. I sit on a comfortable seat and stretch out my legs.
I’m still in shock. I went down to check out with my bag and the nice young lady at the desk was back and smiling. I bantered I was sorry to leave and asked for the bill. “Tout a été réglé, Monsieur.” The bill has been paid? What? She just shrugged and nodded. I was about to ask how and why, but I could see she had no clue. It was just marked paid in the computer. Done.
I immediately thought of Léonie. Didn’t I figure out on my initial visit that she owned the hotel? No, I only suspected she did. It looked like she did. She behaved like she did. But I certainly paid my bill back then. So, what was going on?
I bemoan the fact that I only have time for a reasonably quick lunch, three-course lunch menu, no time to squander the hotel money on a feast of delicacies – as if I’ve been deprived? Laughing to myself. A little taste of the Courtenay life? Alas, not really.
But someone paid my bill. Hervé? Why would he pay my hotel bill? Why would Léonie pay my hotel bill? Why would anyone pay my hotel bill? I’m feeling queasy.
For days I haven’t thought about it or felt it, but now I’m having that trapped feeling again. I’m so glad I’ll be on the train out of here in four hours.
The day I survived on sandwiches: That was the day I escaped, starting in Ustaritz. But that escape was different in that it was based on externals, looming government policies, worse even than restaurants and cafés being shut on a few hours’ notice; the impossibility of getting fed would soon have been made worse by the impossibility of going outside, of leaving, of taking the train. There must have been people trapped in that. What did they do? Why didn’t we hear their stories on the news?
Well, maybe they were on the news, but I didn’t see them.
I get off the bus at the Mairie de Bayonne, the city hall. It’s a vast, beaux-arts style building, somewhat neoclassical but not very ornate. A colonnade but no columns, it’s actually pretty ancient-Roman looking, broad and square, very pale yellowish stone, with none of the baroque flourishes that beaux-arts buildings can have. I think it’s almost a hundred and fifty years old, but it’s in very good shape. That said, I can’t say I’m in love with it or want to do more than use it as a landmark or get up close to it. No reason to set foot in its colonnade, though I can see there are umbrellas and tables and chairs outside the middle of it, which means there must be a café in that colonnade.
Anyway, I know where I’m going for lunch. I’ll get a table outside and from afar the Mairie will be in my face, but so will the river. Sunny morning, balmy breezes. Everything is perfect except that gnawing question of who paid for my hotel stay.
I’m early. No one seated. I get to pick my table. I opt for a table and seat with my back to the restaurant proper, a panoramic view with the Mairie on my far left and the little river Nive, which here joins up with the mighty Adour that runs through Bayonne and cleaves the city, creating still another other shore to the city, the quarter where I had that lunch starring the jambon de Bayonne the other day. In front of me is the long bridge that crosses over to Saint-Esprit, the quarter where the train station is. Now I know something about that area, a bit seedy but just a bit and newly renovated: This is where those Sephardic Jews settled with their recipes for chocolate! It hugs the river bank backed by train tracks and then hills, the shoreline a typical mix of red-and-white Basque and classic cream-colored Beaux-Arts buildings.
My mind is running and playing with all this. I love my seat. I’m handed the menu; I like the menu. I’m now in the full flush of loving the change to come: Time to leave; time for my train home.
I’m going to start with the truffle ravioli. It promises a bath in sheep-milk cream, so there will be a touch of Basque. Ah, Gascogne. Why not? I’ve been discovering such good Gascogne wines. I’ll have a glass of a dry one. Perfect.
The waiter – I now think he’s the owner – wants to know what I want for my main dish. I scramble for the menu. I hadn’t quite made up my mind. Fish or meat? Oh, fish. More of that delicious hake on creamy leeks and a lobster sauce: easy. I order that; he smiles in a complicit way. This is his favorite, I guess. Is he the chef, too. He could be and be up front in his restaurant after arranging everything earlier. But probably not. More likely he’s partners with the chef.
I’m fantasizing. I have no idea. What does it matter?
I sit back in my rattan armchair. The breeze is light but warm. I’m tempted to sit in the sun, change my table, but then scratch the idea of eating in direct sunlight. That is rarely pleasant.
Léonie. Why would she step into my life and cancel my bill at her hotel? Is this payback for Yvonne coming down to the farm to help her? Is Yvonne in cahoots with Hervé to keep me around? What does keeping me around mean?
All of this would be pure phantasm, the stuff of fiction, fictionalizing my life, except for Hervé. He is real.
Last night I went to bed with Hervé.
My mind races back, hungrily recollecting pure pornographic sights and smells and tastes, so that I feel, not exactly a raging hardon, but the possibility of one. A deep aliveness; the prelude to sex.
But there was more. Yes, there was more to Hervé in bed with me. There was the postcoital joining of our bodies, entangled limbs, his breath against the back of my neck, and his whispering of his wish, his plan.
The ravioli arrives. I bend forward over the plate and breath in the steam, the steam of the sheep milk, rich and sweet, like those cheeses. It goes beyond the olfactories into my brain. Pure pleasure. I sit back a bit and take up my fork. They are smallish raviolis, bite-size. I take up one, blow on it a bit to cool it, and put it into my mouth. Burst of truffle and cream. Oh, great gods of farms and stoves! Delicious. And now for a sip of the Gascogne. Marriage. Enhancement. Heaven.
I chew and swallow, take another sip, and then pick up another ravioli with my fork. I’m starving!
Ravioli, wine. Ravioli, wine. And soon the shallow bowl is empty. I grab a piece of bread, rip off a bit of it, and sop up the cream. In minutes the bowl is clean. I sit back and take a sip of the last of my glass of wine. I’ll need to order another one for my fish.
Courtenay does not mind. What does “not mind” mean? She is mentally if not physically in bed with Hervé and me? “She likes you,” he’d whispered; “she thinks you’re fun.” Fun? How? Because I don’t think there’s that much going on between me and Courtney except some sparring, some banter. Or is she turned on by the fact that Hervé also sleeps with other men? And that I’m a safe bet? The older man is less of a threat, especially one who is not in her economic league, who is very far and remote from her Olympian world where billionaire offspring play on clouds.
Would she ever want to physically be in bed with us?
I’m shocked at how disgusted I am at the idea of that. I mentally recoil. And then, suddenly and perversely, I am excited at the idea of watching him fuck her.
Fortunately, the hake arrives. I ask for another glass of the Gascogne. Big smile from the owner. “C’est bon, non?” Yes, I nod. His eyes gleam: very pleased. So, he has chosen the wine. Which means he is the sommelier of the pair, not the chef. Now, I see this classic partnership. It’s always a good one, just like wine and food is.
The piece of fish sits on a purée of leeks, skin side up. Crisp skin, I bet. I don’t wait for my wine. I take knife and fork and slice off a bit of skin and fish. Yes. Crispy, crispy in the iode essence of the dinner the other night, that rambling adventure through the Basque seaside, it has become a label, an adjective, in my mind. Iode. Intense fish-oil taste, but dry and, again, crisp. It reminds me of lovely bits of fried seaweed I’ve eaten. Crunchy essence of the sea. A delight.
“Voilà, Monsieur!” He bathes me with another complicit smile as he sets the glass of Gascogne down next to my plate. I lift the glass and toast him. He steps back slightly and chuckles. “Bon appétit!”
I sit back in my rattan armchair to savor the moment. It is just past high noon. Not a cloud in the sky. A clean and silent electric bus passes to cross the bridge to Saint-Esprit. There are a few cars, nothing I’d call traffic. Pedestrians moving back and forth: a few, mothers pushing strollers, reminding me once again that lockdown has produced a baby boom in France.
At the confluence of two rivers the air is perforce a bit sweet.
I take up my fork and poke into the hake and watch it flake, flake into the fondue de poireaux. There is such a contrast with this delicious lunch and the fine-dining journey of the other night. Here, before me, is food I recognize and that, with a bit of luck, I could prepare myself, ingredients shop for myself, and food that also brings back memories of other meals and moments. The menu at La Rotonde, Sur le fil de l’iode, was otherworldly. So far beyond my culinary abilities that it was a meal eaten in another dimension. It was a taste of life on billionaire Olympus? In a way, though, that would be denigrating it, soiling it with filthy lucre, because what it was in fact was food as pure art for the palate.
Here I am eating on terra firma, in the real world of generations of good French cuisine. I smile to myself. I can relate to this food. The owner and I are in cahoots.
I feel something funny on the side of my left thigh. It’s the smartphone vibrating in the pocket of my cargo pants. I should let it sit there and look at it later. I’m halfway through my fish.
But I can’t. The fish has become tasteless.
I pull it out of my pocket and open it. An SMS message. I can see already that it’s from Hervé.
I stop. I take a long sip of wine. I look at my fish. I should finish it. I put the smartphone down on the table. Knife and fork at work, the nice long sip of the wine has revived my tastebuds. This is delicious.
Triumph over the smartphone. That’s what I’m doing. Now I understand the chatter about its tyranny.
I pat my lips with the cotton napkin. Okay. Now.
I pick up the phone and press the Messages icon.
Bonjour! J’espère te trouver dans la Suite Royale! He has followed this with an emoji: 🤓. Isn’t this the “nerd” pic? Hardly Hervé.
Please see this as a vacation within your vacation. Stay as long as you like. Make a reservation for yourself at La Rotonde tonight and order the other menu. Everything is billed to the suite. We want you to enjoy yourself.
The suite is yours for the week. We will land back there in Daddy’s helicopter next Monday. 🎉
Je t’embrasse très fort. Hervé de Mourre.
I note he hasn’t put the kiss emoji after the French equivalent of “Love, Hervé.”
I imagine him kissing me long and hard. Actually, I remember it; I don’t imagine it. This is the literal French: I kiss you very hard. Hard? No, with passion, with feeling.
I think – no, I don’t just think – I know he means it. Why?
I don’t know why.
I also now know his last name. Oh, I don’t even know their last names, his last name! That “excuse” – why the need for any kind of excuse anyway? – is now null and void.
I realize I have been slowly distancing myself from last night, letting it fade into memory. Amazing event fading into my past. A moment more delicious than Sur le fil de l’iode. Oh, yes. Certainly.
I notice the time on the smartphone. I’m early. My train doesn’t leave for another hour and a half.
What is the cancellation time allowed by SNCF? Is it right up until the moment of departure? I don’t remember. It is something that would require me going to the train station, to the ticket window, surely. Surely on such short notice. I don’t think I can just cancel my trip on my smartphone. On second thought, I bet you can. Still. It would be better to be sure and to go to the ticket window, I would think. It’s a ten-minute walk. That’s why I chose this restaurant.
The bus to Biarritz also leaves from there.
“Ça a été, Monsieur?” I look up at the big smile of the owner, his eyes are pointedly noting my empty plate, and time is suspended for an instant as he waits for my corroboration. I smile, I make my eyes sparkle at him, and then assure him, with a quick laugh, that it was obviously delicious. “Vous prenez un dessert, bien sûr. Je vous signale le pastis Landais. Son beurre au caramel salé…” his eyes rise to heaven for a second and then settle on me. Of course. A kind of bread pudding, it says, with salted caramel. Yes, I’d seen that. But I’d also seen the chocolate… No, I must accept. I nod and agree. And he’s off smiling with my empty plate, knife and fork in parallel on top.
I’m left with the glass of white wine, a third full. I deal with that. Done. Delicious. And maybe a sweet version with the dessert? Am I crazy? I’m so feeling the wine already.
Dragging my suitcase behind me as I cross the Pont Saint-Esprit, the combination of the espresso with the sweet Gascogne – perfect with the salty caramel on the dessert – I feel lightheaded in a good way. I could fly to the moon. Open blue sky overhead as the waters of the Adour course gently toward the sea under the bridge – I pause and look over the balustrade and down into the water – I love this crazy idea I concocted.
It has me euphoric.
It has set my life, at least for this moment, on the level of billionaires, gods who can act on a whim.
Electric bus back to the Hôtel du Palais or train home. Ha!
I look down into the current seeking a sign, a murky movement of water, a glint of light off a surface ripple.
A stork? A stork skims over the water and flies under the arch of the bridge right under me.
I straighten and turn to watch it fly up and continue toward the sea like the river itself.
What could that portend?
This stork is carrying no baby. I start laughing out loud.
A young woman pushing a stroller with a toddler sucking away at his or her pacifier looks at me with alarm.
I don’t care.
Of course! She’s having a baby, Hervé’s baby.
I look up at the vast sky over the river between the two contrasting different shores of Bayonne and begin to understand. A bit.
And time to move on, but this time at a processional pace, not dragging my bag but letting its four wheels roll it along at my side.
When I arrive in Saint-Esprit, I will decide.