September 15, 1994, one more day in my bachelor life, a so-so day for bare bodies, including my own.
I spread the hotel’s fancy comforter on the floor; French floors are cold from September through June. Lying flat, I pull my knees to my chest, extend one leg, then the other and lower them slowly, all this for a cranky backbone. My disks are wearing out, as are other parts—nothing wrong that being sixty again wouldn’t fix. I shower, sedulously avoiding looking down. I know my upper arms are wrinkled, the rest of my body, withering. My legs are strong. Jon, the only son who still speaks to me, says that when I die my legs will keep walking. My stomach’s flat but so is my backside, not to mention my front side. Last month I had my tailor take in the seats of my leftover suits. Nothing ages a man faster than trousers that flap as he walks. Unless it’s stiff fingers. Ablutions accomplished, I drop the pesky hand-held shower and it slithers over the floor before I can turn off the water.
Shaving requires that I look at myself. The heat of the shower has turned my cheeks and nose pink. My ears have grown large with age but the jaw line is still good. I give thanks that, unlike Mother, deep runnels do not cut down from nostrils to chin. Wrinkles slashing my forehead add gravitas. Mine is a face properly proportioned for a homburg.
Next comes breakfast by the window. This morning, the most attractive young female across the small courtyard forgets to close the draperies before she enters the shower. I read my usual papers—Le Monde, New York Times, and Harold Tribune—glancing up now and then to check my neighbor. She’s gained weight since she moved in three weeks ago. No mystery in that. Every morning by her window on the courtyard she eats two croissants with jam, two petit pains with butter and hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.
The sun brightens, warming the miniature garden four stories down, witty, tightly hedged with box and classically French. Today, however, a white wooden lamb such as one might see in front of a Chicago bungalow mars its symmetry.
I chose the Bourgogne for my final expatriate years because of its address behind the Palais Bourbon. The hotel is small and very French. Pale pink faux marble pillars adorn the small sitting room beyond the marble lobby. Most bedchambers have millefleurs wall paper and bedspreads. In my room, garnet red silk cord that matches the cover for my single bed and the heavy tapestry draperies edges window frames, moldings and baseboards. The Bourgogne owners work day and night to make the rooms more charming. I keep telling the manager that if only he’d install real showers, the hotel would be a perfect retirement home.
Eleven’s my time to set about the business of the day. On my way out, I touch the manager’s shoulder to detain him and speak about the abominable lamb. “Should I have a visitor,” I say with a deliberate twinkle, “I would not like her…or him…to consider that a painted wooden lamb represents the Hotel Bourgogne.”
He stiffens as if I’d impugned his life-long devotion to hotel management. “Our younger guests find the little animal amusing.”
The fancy young black at the desk does not turn from her computer when I inquire about mail.
I hate talking to people’s backs. More sharply than I intended, I say, “The papers arrive later each morning.” She turns and gives me her drop-dead look.
I can’t drop dead on command. I hope that when I do I’ll be properly dressed, by the window at my desk, pen in hand, writing my memoirs, but not in the presence of that deplorable lamb. My lawyer has the complete plan for memorial services at the American Cathedral, guest lists in triplicate, monies set aside for a reception with cheeses and wine, premier cru from Burgundy, and altar flowers once a year in my name. Mother would have approved.
Spring, 1969, Mother’s apartment in Evanston.
Mother and I had been discussing money, a subject drearier than most. I’d accepted that she could not give up her crowded, eight-room apartment.
“Trapped in luxury.” Her charm flowed around me, warm as melted gold. Mother’s doctors had confirmed that she could not live alone. Ella, our quondam maid who had a twisted foot and could barely walk, must stay. Mother and Ella were of an age. They lived in benevolent symbiosis.
Sitting straight, spine not touching the chair, close to the fire, Mother said, “Michael Ebenezer, you must find it difficult to pay my rental.”
“I want you to live well.”
The peach shawl across her thin shoulders mimicked the color of her dress in the portrait above the hearth. Mother never left her bedroom until her makeup was fit for tea at the Drake Hotel; that day she’d colored her full lips one hue richer than the faded peach of her hair. Deep lines cut down from her nose to her tight little chin. Years ago the lace of that same dressing gown tickled my nose when she leaned down to kiss my forehead and say good night. Lace fringing the sleeves does not hide the tremor in her hands.
She said, “I tell everyone about your successes.”
I said, “Monetary gains are not paramount at State.” Now, almost thirty years later, living alone in Paris in my retirement, I find this truism more painful than my sense of having lost all utility.
“You travel everywhere. Bernard B’s house party. William Full’s hot balloon celebration at his chateau….”
“I’m a good guest.”
“Escorting Mrs. Just-made-a-million or Ms. She’s up-for-an-Oscar. Surely, accommodations are free.”
“Dear one, transportation to these parties is expensive.” I gave her the Wainwright grin. “There are certain inescapable expenditures.”
“Roses. Long-stemmed red roses.”
We laughed together.
Under my feet was my father’s gift for their tenth anniversary, a Royal Bokhara rug with a tree of life in mulberry red, dark blue, vermilion and ivory so dazzling that when I was five, I lifted a corner to see if it were lighted from below. At our last annual budget meeting, I had suggested that Mother sell the Bokhara.
Mother said, “You know I can’t bear to part with anything. How can you ask that I do such a terrible thing?”
In Mother’s spare bedroom stretched rack after rack of dresses, each prepared for a special occasion—among them the white satin wedding gown she’d copied from a Gody print (1913), the knee-length green chiffon dress from Paris, each bead separately hand-sewn (l928) and last year’s long slim black skirt worn at a Gold Coast reception for a young, newly ordained priest. At her death I was to deliver “her costumes,” as she called them, to the Historical Society.
That day, nearly thirty years ago, I said, “You’ve spent most of the last bond. I’ll do what I can to help.”
She said, “I live with leftovers.”
I patted her hand. “I may be a sub-sub-sub secretary, but the Embassy can’t hold an international meeting without me.”
She sighed. “You always could charm the skin off a snake.”
Wainwright charm is hereditary. Mother and I could call it up on demand. I said, “Only in the spring.”
“Trust my son to know that snakes shed their skins in the spring.”
I don’t know a thing about snakes but my supposedly encyclopedic knowledge always pleased Mother. That day, the last time I saw her alive, Mother summed up her situation. “Ella and I will continue to pig it.”
“And if Ella dies?” I did not say, “We both know that when Father died bankrupt, Ella began to buy groceries with her social security checks.”
Mother’s lips tightened as if she’d pulled drawstrings.
“When Ella dies, I shall stop taking my pills.”
Today, the third Thursday in September, is mail day. I cross the Concorde Bridge, pausing a moment midway to view the gray buildings along the Seine, shining now like molten gold. The vast sunlit sky vaults the happy symmetry of the square and, once again, I know that I made a better choice than colleagues who fled home to Bethesda. I walk briskly to the Hotel Crillon, my residence for many years. Someone may have remembered that address. Molly, my youngest, might need me. She’s careless about addresses.
The young female at the marble mail desk looks bulimic and dresses like a Chanel model, black hair down her back in a braid heavy as a hawser. We have a little thing going. I quirk an eyebrow, saying, “Anything good to report?”
She sighs and answers, “No.”
That’s my cue to say, “You can sit in my lap any time.”
Badinage brightens a morning.
Today she’s sliding mail in slots and when I call her name, she doesn’t answer.
A new babe—blond and brassy, young, but too sturdy for my taste—knows my name. She says, “No mail today, Mr. Wainwright.”
“You realize, of course, that we’d forward any mail you might receive.”
I say, “Welcome to my favorite hotel. Welcome to the lap club.”
“The joke evades me.” If my recollection is correct, my son-in-law would have described her voice as cold enough to freeze an Eskimo’s balls.
On the way out I give Pierre, a bellhop I’ve known for twenty years, a wink. “Who’s the uppity clerk?”
“New assistant manager.” He’s grinning. “Top honors, Hotel Management. Cornell University.”
I refrain from lashing out with a four-letter word, but I’m muttering it as I skirt the cement blockades at the Embassy next door and nod to the guards. I look forward to the pleasure of presenting my pass and chatting with one or another of the young beauties at the reception desk. Today a new one, the officious sort, cuts me short with an ungracious no mail.
It’s been too long since I’ve received a small scented note, a row of x-kisses across the top, from one of my little duchesses: “Dear Eb, I’m lonely.” Like State Department widows, they’ve grown fond of toy poodles, hairdressers, masseurs and checkbooks. They grow old, my little duchesses. They do not paint their eyelids gold and skip from party to party. They sip their evening martinis alone by the TV and no longer bare their bodies. Women of an uncertain age now have so-called careers, writing for Vogue. Young women do not approve of me.
But I remember. When days and nights grow long, I close my eyes, turn on the movies in my head and see their bodies again.
Business completed, I walk through the Tuilleries, saying bon jour to each nude. In Paris queens or females who symbolize Truth and Justice are lightly draped. The anonymous go bare. My favorites are buxom babes who stand foursquare around a patch of grass, frontal nudity as they say in movie reviews. In the center a demure young female, fully dressed in the Watteau manner, eyes downcast, simpers.
On a bench by a lavish stone female, a man, more middle-aged than young, leans into a young female. Obviously, he is trying to talk her into bed. Further on are the kid lovers, a new breed. One female, pressing close, is grooming her lover’s ear. Another sits in the boy’s lap atop a low balustrade. His eyes are closed, hers, open, wide and blue under high blond curls. I salute her with my umbrella. She winks.
I never cease to be surprised at what even so small a response from an underage female can do for a man. I straighten my tie. The sky is darkening, closing down on the city but my feet feel lighter as I circle the nudes in the Louvre’s Cour Carree. I’m standing in front of “Narcisse,” another simperer, when rain hits like a fire hose. Wind threatens to capsize my umbrella. The gutters flood.
I’ve outgrown the charm of walking in the rain; and so, I lunch at the Louvre, dawdling over onion soup and a glass of Puligny Montrachet. My usual waitress, old but friendly, touches my hand as she brings a second glass of wine and points to a story in Paris Match about the exquisite Catherine Deneuve.
After lunch, rain still cuts obliquely across the Louvre’s glass pyramid. Water from the fountains sweeps the courtyard. I wait half an hour for a cab to take me to Bercy.
I’ve always avoided Bercy but my buddy, Jacob, has been plaguing me with faint carbon copies warning that sun on the glass towers of the new national library will destroy the world’s best books. He’s written dozens of newspapers, Mitterand, the President of the Senate and National Assembly, the International Congress of Architects.
Jacob’s a southerner, turned Chicagoan, but a good guy, able as hell. We bunked together on the Queen Lizzie after that trouble with Hitler and his crowd, sharing bottles of cognac and lies about how we won the Battle of the Bulge. He snored. Every Southerner I’ve bunked with snored.
His last letter urged me to go to Bercy and see the library. Why not? A useful errand and there’s Bill Viola’s free nudie show at the new American Center just across the Seine. Jacob has his hobby. I have mine.
Bercy in the rain is morne, as the French say, more fit for a cemetery than the rebuilding of an arrondissement. Amid puddles and mud and rain, the half-built glass towers of the library stand like skeletons but could well prove handsome should the sun ever shine again in Bercy. The new, heavy Socialist modern Ministry of Finance, ankle-deep in mud, stretches for miles. I’m hoping the bare bodies at the Center prove worth the cab fare.
Lashed by torrents, the pale limestone American Center sways slightly, a full-breasted woman ready to soften in an undulating dance. Inside, the lobby rises like a teepee with red exit signs. (Jacob would love it.) A black-box space downstairs proves so suffocatingly dark I lean on my umbrella to keep from falling. On one wall, three naked bodies, one male, two females appear to float in water and are reflected on a slab of granite at my feet. Shoulder bones, hip bones and breasts are small knobs. The male’s genitals dangle. The gaunt images drift, turn languidly as if in a void, front to back, then back to front, head up, head down, never touching. Impossibly thin and beautiful, real yet unreal, they swirl in slow motion until light and sound explode and in a rush of water they rise out of sight. I hold my breath until they float down anew from emptiness.
Again and again, moved by the water, the pale specters repeat their aimless quests: up and down and around, then up once more into nothingness.
It’s a nonstop show. Halfway through my third viewing, someone I judge by his smell to be a man blocks the screen. Fingers seek my groin. I cough loudly and he slips away.
Back in my room, I check out the lamb—still there—and open my wet umbrella in the bathroom. I put shoetrees in my soggy shoes and shower again to drive the chill from my bones. A quick Scotch would warm me more than that puny shower but I learned the second week into retirement not to keep spirits in my room. I read Will Durant’s The Life of Greece, glancing now and then across the court to see if my young neighbor is dressing for dinner. It’s still only seven, too early for dinner; and so, I write Jacob.
Jacob and I were typical guys with a chest full of worthwhile ribbons, young bloods who’d jumped into the war with an impelling drive to self-destruct with military honors, an urge quickly vitiated by our first exposure to death-dealing instruments. We’d both been assigned semi-safety in the Inspector General Corps, but days before we headed home after doing our bit for democracy, Jacob had an argument with a tank. A fool medic shaved his head to the bone and Jacob worried his way across the Atlantic. There are few times in a man’s life that impress themselves more deeply on whatever he has for a soul than leaving and retrieving a bride. Last spring he and Loolie celebrated their fifty-sixth wedding anniversary.
“Jacob, old buddy, your protests have not been in vain. The Socialist government is excavating an immense hole half a mile up stream for a second library. Should delegates to the meetings planned in the underground sections of Library Number One happen to desire a book, they will be conveyed by barge to Library Number Two.”
Jacob and Loolie (A Cliffie who still quotes, “And he whose soul is flat—the sky/Will cave in on him by and by.”) want me to visit. I see no reason to accept.
Finally it’s 7:45 and time to speak to the manager again about the lamb (I skip the friendly twinkle), time for dinner Aux Petits Choux-fleurs, Rue Bellechasse.
The owners, Miriam and Louise, are not partial to men. Nor do they presume. Louise serves me a double Glenfiddich with ice and a splash of soda before I’ve spread my big green napkin over my knees. With dinner, Filet de canard au jus de truffes. Miriam brings a Beaujolais Blanc. Bon soir and we’ve concluded our conversation.
Choux-fleurs is a small place, twenty settings. Banquettes line one wall. Beyond are three vacant tables under a sign that says Fumeurs Plutot, which Louise translates “For smokers, more or less.” By the open door to the kitchen a circular, wrought iron stair mounts to what I imagine to be the habitat of Miriam and Louise—a jumble of female clothing, a plain iron bed, rumpled sheets smelling of garlic and olive oil. Opposite me is a bar with a mirror and a bundle of sunflowers so crammed together it can’t be called a bouquet.
The banquette shakes as a woman, sixty, sixty-five slides in beside me. Her foot jostles my table. I steady my wineglass. “Pardon,” she says. I do not answer. She glances at me. I choose to concentrate on the sunflowers and let her study my profile—like a Roman senator, my son Jon says. I feel a rush of sympathy, breathe the scent of Chanel again and pull into myself, concentrating on my hiding place, behind my eyes, deep in my head. By the end of the day I need to be alone.
I know what she’s thinking. It’s happened before. A tourist, overwrought by venturing through the Choux-fleur’s green door, decides that because I’m alone I’m lonely. Should this happen often, I’ll change restaurants.
The interloper is studying my frayed cuffs. Of course they’re frayed. J. Press makes good stuff. I’ve worn that jacket for years, college patch on the pocket: a spear piercing a sun. In my hotel closet are a dozen unfrayed suits, six with the double vented jacket I favor leftover from spangled days when my name, along with Kissinger’s, appeared on engraved guest lists.
Pivoting toward me, the woman admires the bridge of my nose. I tighten my invisible shield and watch her in the bar-mirror. Bulldog jaws. Thick, drooping lips like Yale’s Handsome Dan. Heavy, silvery hair drawn back with a red velvet bow. Skin, crackled and translucent as an antique bowl, with the burnished look of frequent professional intervention. Her rust-brown eyes are deep and radiant. She should wear a nose veil.
Deliberately, she reaches a gloved hand across my table and returns the menu to Louise. As she orders dinner, her nasals are more New York-bray than French. Leaning back to savor an aperitif, she displays good breasts under her tight black suit. We sip in silence. Without turning her head she says, “You look as if you feel sorry for yourself.”
How can I tell her I banter only with those who serve me? I’ve made some poor investments, over-spent keeping up with the truly rich, not to expatiate on my happy evenings at Crazy Horse. In younger years, I acquired three wives and each took her cut. I provided for my mother as befitted a woman of her charm. Now I must be thrifty.
My worst investment? Marrying my mistress the morning we flew out of Saigon. I hoped she’d warm my backbone in my old age but once settled in a garden apartment in Washington, she found a lawyer. I could not afford another messy court divorce.
Slowly removing her gloves (Mother had the same spotted hands), the woman beside me describes the fashion show she attended that afternoon as if she were continuing a conversation I don’t remember. She says, “I’m alone. My family’s grown. Do you have family?”
To my surprise, I answer, “No family.” No need to say that Bitsy, wife number one, and I accumulated four children before she divorced me. (At an embassy party, she heard me describe her father as an arriviste who’d married her mother for her money.) Bitsy got child support. “Not anymore,” I say. My voice is rusty from not talking.
Jacob used to talk about having “a good confession.” I’ve never been to one. I never hope to, but this anonymous voice, saying, “Yes?” lures me on.
I omit the worst injury in the first divorce: Yale Club, lights low, the smell of cigars and Beefeaters’ gin, my lawyer, raising his second martini in a toast, saying, “I have tapes. Bitsy and a woman in bed.”
I continue as if I’d omitted nothing. “When my children were young, I had visitation rights.”
“And?” She’s watching me as if I mattered.
I wave to Louise to refill my wineglass. “One son thinks I spent years at State in the map room looking for countries to invade. A daughter married a tacky democrat.”
“And?” Her eyes are not saying drop dead.
“Molly, my last, is interested only in herself.”
“Any other children you don’t see anymore?”
I concentrate on slicing my Filet. “Jon, my eldest, writes twice a year. Maybe he’s bored. He inherited his maternal grandmother’s money on his twenty-fifth birthday and hasn’t held a job since.”
I do not mention my second wife, Inky; I am not proud that I divorced her before she was certified clinically mad.
My inadvertent dinner partner says, “So, that’s why you freeze everyone out?” Her eyes warm as she talks. Leaning close, as if to tell me a secret, she says, “You are a man who receives many invitations which you turn down rather than go alone.” Her perfume grows stronger. “Tell about the parties.”
“I was a valuable commodity. A tall single man with a Bond Street dinner jacket.”
“More than that.” Her voice is like honey. “Surely more than that.”
“As long as I was moderately young.”
She’s waiting for me to charm her; and so, I tell about the Tercentennial party aboard Bill Fall’s yacht, Cutting Edge: New York Harbor. Tall ships. Fireworks and flags. Six women in identical Pucci dresses, different colors. Three of them in needle heels. Four Texas oilmen in snakeskin boots.
We groan together. I name the guests who were invited to stay overnight, who moved from one state room to another, which males changed into designer gowns
She sighs in malicious satisfaction. “You must miss the parties.”
Over Bloody Marys the next morning, one of the Puccis asked, “So you’re Jane, Lady Dover’s companion?” She laughed when I answered, “I am Michael Ebenezer Wainwright, State Department.”
“And the invitations? Surely they still come.”
I refuse to answer.
“I’m sure you’re aware I’m interviewing you.”
“My pleasure.” In my wildest imagination I cannot believe she’s from National Inquirer or Paris Match.
“Interviews with possible clients are important to my enterprise. Making sure my first impressions match the facts is my job.”
“Why not? Everyone needs a job. Not just for money. For happiness. I make people happy.”
“My professional judgment is that many women would be happy to go to such parties.”
I haven’t roared in years. All seven people in the Petits Choux-fleurs turn to us. “Are you suggesting that I be an escort? A paid escort?”
“Dear sir, no. You need someone to attend parties with you. I represent many fine women. Mature, not so young as to attract undue comment. Proper widows. Exquisitely dressed. Versed in society’s ways.”
Slender fingers draw an engraved card from her purse and place it by my plate. I read:
FOR ANY OCCASION
Telephone: 45. 51. 09. 84
She says, “My service brings back the sparkle. Day and night.”
For one flashing moment I think this is my day to drop dead. Blood rushes to my head to be met by a sharp pain in the cerebellum, followed by a chorus of little duchesses crying, “Eb, Eb.” This importunate woman thinks I need her service. And that I can afford it. Before I can summon the vast arrogance I command, she continues, “We are expensive but I know you are accustomed to the best.” I tuck my umbrella under my arm and bow. She slips her card in my pocket.
Back at the hotel, lights glare from my neighbor’s room—no curtains, no furniture, its only occupant a painter on a ladder. The lamb is still in the courtyard. I had not thought to be so alone. It’s too early for sleep but I need to lie down. I close the heavy draperies and, in the semi-dark, settle my haunches into the hard mattress, stretch and groan for the pleasure of bed. The woman’s card is on my night table. I pull the blanket tight to my chin and say to the silent dark, “That woman needs me.” And then, at last, I sleep.