Been thinking of this story for a while, first posted on Literotica almost nine years ago. Consolidated, revised, tweaked here and there, this is another one of my favorites.
Birdie, rest a little longer,
‘Til little wings are stronger,
So she rests a little longer,
Before she flies away.
Tennyson, Sea Dreams
Not far from the Tower of London, a few hundred yards at most and flanking the old city, there is a small marina, and actually, as marinas go, it’s a decent one. A bit of a chore to get to – fighting mad tides up the Thames and all – but I’d heard it was worth the effort. Anyway, with winter coming on fast I needed to find a place to sit-out the cold, and, not speaking Dutch and my French ludicrously unused for decades, London seemed an interesting, even a safe choice.
I was wrapping up my summer sailing through the Baltic – alone, as had been my choice of late; after crossing the Atlantic in June I spent my first week in Scotland, crossing west to east through the Caledonian Canal, then crossed the North Sea to Denmark. From Copenhagen I sailed up the east coast of Sweden, and near Stockholm entered the Gota Canal, where we (that is, the boat and I) sailed through pine forests and fairy-tale villages for a ten days before emerging on the southwest coast of Sweden north of Gothenburg, and quite near the Norwegian border. We found time to drift westward, to Oslo, but as our days grew shorter and the breezes cooler it was becoming apparent that the time to head south was upon us. I considered Norway but soon knew that was out of the question. Shoveling snow off the deck just to climb down to an ice covered dock, then marching off through knee-deep snow in order to pay two hundred grand for a beer? No; Oslo was nice, but not that nice.
All that needed be done, really, was to make a simple decision: London, Paris, or Amsterdam. So? Flip a coin? Nope. Draw straws? I didn’t like the odds. How about pure self-centered fear of being lost on a subway at three in the morning, and having to rely on language skills last seriously exercised when LBJ was in office?
Fear wins every time. So yeah, three cheers for intestinal fortitude.
With that decision out of the way, I found myself motoring up the Thames in late September and locking up St Katherine’s into a marina that was not yet – thank you, God – full; I signed a six month lease and set about cleaning up the boat. This meant getting her ready for winter, and being in the middle of London without a car promised to make this thrilling endeavor a royal pain in the ass.
You take a lot for granted when you live shore-side. Water, electricity, fuel for heating and cooking – these things are all handy, indeed readily available and right there whenever you need them: you’re either hooked into the grid or these things are delivered right to your door, and you rarely question their availability. Not so when you live on a sailboat. Not so at all, even on a good day.
So, yeah, life is radically different once you cut the industrial umbilical, and just to spice-up your life a bit, once you leave North America you find you can no longer simply plug into the nearest outlet and charge up the batteries. No, the electrical systems overseas are totally and destructively incompatible with our own. Alterations and modifications need to be made, and these take time, and, well, cold weather is always in the back of your mind – and all this time money makes this whooshing sound as it’s sucked out of your jeans. But it’s little things like this that makes cruising such an interesting pain in the ass, and therefore, or so I’ve been told, worth the effort. Everyday is full of unexpected surprises. Some are even more surprising than others.
The marina in old London is almost completely surrounded – and closely so, I have to add – by large buildings, not to mention the aforementioned Tower of London, which is, as I’ve added, literally just a stone’s throw away. Apartments, restaurants, businesses of every kind – all a big city’s amenities just a stone’s throw away, and right there outside your companionway. If you’ve thought of living aboard as an exercise in nomadic isolation, well, no. I suppose it can be once you leave a city behind, but life in a big-city marina is often the exact opposite of isolation. And September marked one full year living aboard, so I was (somewhat) used to this conditional definition of privacy. Let me explain.
While making the boat ready for her Atlantic crossing, I spent a couple of months living right under the patio/deck of a Hooter’s restaurant; and this restaurant was about a quarter of a mile from the end of the local airport’s runway. A typical Friday evening was interesting, to say the least, and in any number of oddly amusing ways – not least of which was the constant noise that accompanies large numbers of drunk men pursuing large-breasted waitresses dressed in shiny spandex leggings. Jet’s are always coming and going too, their whining roar coming in waves every two minutes, typically accompanied by Madonna belting out ‘Like A Virgin’ over and over and over again, and all week long, too. But of Friday evenings there were about fourteen hundred stockbrokers and construction workers up there, all tossing down Budweisers and chicken wings on the terrace – just above my boat. And all of them, each and every one of them, trying to talk their waitress – that cheerfully harrassed girl with the gazangas just marginally smaller than the pointy end of the Hindenburg – into a quick trip to the head…for a quick lesson in sword swallowing.
So, if you would, please, try to play this out in your head: jet approaching, engine noise building to a roar as the aircraft passes just overhead – and, oh yes, for an extra-added thrill, imagine a 757 passing about forty feet above the top of your boat’s mast – then the noise fading, fading, and then – ‘Like a virgin…ooh…for the very first time…ooh…ooh…’; the testosterone on the terrace is sloshing all over the place while reaching critical mass (think: China Syndrome, industrial reactor accidents, etc.), so with beer bottles clinking, chicken wings flying (over the rail and onto the deck of your boat), and all just in time for the next jet to come roaring just overhead, you’re sitting in your bunk at midnight, too pissed off to even think about spanking the monkey, when a half eaten chicken wing makes it’s down the overhead hatch – and lands right on your face.
Say what? You know how you’d feel right about then, right?
Unfortunately, I’d signed a three month lease, and so to this day whenever I hear ‘Like A Virgin,’ I instinctively duck behind the nearest large fixed object or simply run like hell, knowing an incoming barrage of chicken wings can’t be far off.
London, I assumed, is not Florida.
No, London is louder.
And the people talk funny.
And this came as something of a surprise to me. I’d visited before, so thought Londoners (all toughened by the blitz and having watched Margaret Thatcher on television for a decade) were still a rather placid lot. You know, gray-faced men wearing bowlers, carrying umbrellas and briefcases down to The Tube, riding with stoic faces out to anonymous red brick houses in towns with names like Last Farthing and Clinched Buttock, all quiet and orderly and pleasant.
So sorry, Mr Yeats. Things fell apart. The center did not hold.
When I first arrived in London and turned into the marina, I saw a Hooters and instinctively ducked. Fortunately, however, I was assigned a space well away from that august establishment. As I tied off in my slip, I could barely hear Madonna.
I was safe. Or so I thought.
As it turned out, I was now downwind and in the flight-path of a new, rather upscale French bistro. Nice Mediterranean terrace, nice menu, nice tables on a nice stone patio overlooking my nice slip in the nice marina, nice big umbrellas shaded the patio on sunny days while really nice candlelight cast cool shadows on everything at night; an undoubtedly nice string quartet played sumptuously nice music somewhere distantly in the shadows. A very Nice establishment, if you get my drift. You could buy a nice new Volvo for the price of a nice dinner up there, or so I soon heard.
So, my first night in London I was confronted with either Hooters or the Nice Place. The thought of eating wings again weighing heavily on my mind, and being a modestly adventurous sort, I thought the French place was more my kind of place. Perhaps in time I’d be pelted with snails swimming in garlic butter, but so what. Garlic, I assumed, had to be better than Tabasco.
That’s how life goes when you jump out of your routine and into the fire. How do we get used to choosing between bad and the unknown. And how do we grow comfortable with such lousy points of view.
Well, enough philosophy.
No, let’s talk physics for a moment.
Yes, Physics. You remember, of course, that heat rises? Well, odors don’t rise, as a rule, they sink like a stone and spread like lava, and I assume garlic simmering in white wine and butter has a specific gravity somewhat heavier than plutonium. Quail turds in a tartly amusing glaze of delicately expressed panty-liners with pommes et raw sewage? Nope, that’s heavy too, sinks like a real big stone.
And the point I’m trying to make here is…?
Well, the French place I was so innocently close to cooked all night long, and everything coming out of that kitchen smelled divine. Really great, as a matter of fact, and trust me on this. But, ah, physics! All those heavenly smells, all that garlic and wine and butter – and all so delicate and rich and of so immensely heavy – was destined to fall. Fall into whatever lay below. Which in the instant case was right into my boat. And not to labor a point here, but the odors sank right onto my bunk in the forward cabin. And even more directly to the point, right down onto my shiny bald head and up my twice-broken but still imminently functional nose.
Which wasn’t really such a bad thing that first night, and perhaps not even for the first week after my arrival. I got used to flaming goose turds ala orange, and even the linguini in a delicate limburger cheese sauce. No, really; I did. Then one night the garlic, the fennel, the basil – all of it swarmed and attacked like a herd of mad penguins and in pure panic and desperation I sought out some hippie hideaway off Piccadilly Circus and stocked up on incense.
Patchouli, sandalwood, essence of camel crotch – anything, really, to fight the nonstop wave of nouvelle cuisine that was bombarding me all evening, every evening – save Monday. Big sign out front: Closed Monday. Thank God. They were, however, open for lunch weekends. Life here should have been grand, yet here I was, drowning in a white wine and garlic cream sauce. I walked down sidewalks and labrador retrievers started in on my ankles, and when I rode on the tube people started sniffing the air, wondering just who or what the hell had crawled on board.
And you’d think the food, rather the stench of this place, would have been enough torment, but oh no, not on your life. This place had so much more to offer. On the pleasant, rather too warmish Indian summer nights the south of England was enjoying that year, everyone, it seemed, wanted to sit outside on that nice stone patio. And who could blame ‘em, really. Not me, certainly. It was – dare I say it – very Nice out. So all these Nice people have been working all day, go to their Nice homes in the evening and change into Nice clothes, dump on liberal quantities of Penhaligon and Chanel or, for all I know, a little Eau de Muskrat, and head out for a Nice dinner – right over my bunk.
Perfume, cologne, eau de whatever? It sinks. Sinks like the bird-turd in a martini.
Sautéed snails testicles and l’eau de muskrat; from five to midnight — the only reprieve coming from passing thunderstorms and the odd cold front. No way to escape the fumes without shutting down the hatches and port-lights and turning on the a/c, and that was where the incompatible electrical system bugaboo came into play. It was going to take time to get all the pieces of the puzzle sorted out and functional, so come 1700 hours it was either close down and steam in a patchouli-soaked mist – or go for a stroll. A nice, seven hour stroll.
London’s a fun city, especially after a year sailing, for taking a stroll. Let’s just say I enjoyed those little walks a lot and leave it at that, and every time I walked by that bistro I cast little sidelong death-rays as I walked by.
I’d come in early from one such stroll, and though there was a huge party in progress inside the restaurant, a storm was in the offing and the winds were picking up. By the time I made it to my slip all the boats were rolling and the party up above was in high gear. A halyard had worked its way loose on a neighbor’s boat and its shackle was playing “Ina-Gadda-Da-Vida” on it’s metal mast, so I went over and tidied lines up – and then mine came loose. A hard gust shook the marina, and boats rolled and clanged while I dashed back to my boat. I was up by the mast lashing down lines and making fast loose ends when I heard someone on the terrace up above saying something I assumed was cute and sarcastic, and I don’t know why but I looked up, expecting at any moment to have a sherry poured down my shirt, or be pelted with goat’s testicles.
There was, instead, a well dressed man standing by the railing; looking rather like James Bond, as a matter of fact. One ankle crossed in front of the other, casually leaning on the rail with martini in hand (though probably stirred), by the look of his (unmoving, even in this wind) salt and pepper hair, and he appeared to be about fifty – and I don’t know why but he looked filthy rich. Maybe it was the diamond-encrusted gold Rolex that gave him away. Anyway, he was looking at me.
“Sorry,” I said over the wind. “What was that?”
“Quite a blow tonight,” the man said.
“I’ve heard that rumor. Yes.”
“We’re having a party up here. Come on up.”
I looked down at my mangy boat-shoes and salt-encrusted shorts. “I’m not really dressed for it. Besides, I wasn’t invited.”
“I’m inviting you. Come on up.”
“Pardon me, but who are you?”
“Ted. I own the place. The party’s going to go on hours, so you might as well join us. Besides, there are some fun people here.”
“Right.” Pardon my French, but I’ve heard that one before. “Thanks, I be up in a minute.”
The place was full of all the right people, I’m sure. A cool jazz quartet in a far corner and two open bars, tables of food and the conversation – oddly enough – not too loud. An interesting crowd in a woolen-tweedy way, very academic looking sorts; older men, obviously pretty well off by the looks of things, younger women, obviously well endowed in a physical sense, more than a few single and on the prowl.
Very few older women, very few rings on fingers.
A couple of the women gave me an appraising – and dismissive – glance before turning their attentions back to the assembled men while I wandered around in a fog, and then ‘Ted’ found me.
“Ted Sunderland,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’ve got to introduce you ‘round the place. What’s your story?”
“Lloyd Jones,” I said. “Architect, Chicago, on the run.”
His left eyebrow shot up quizzically: “Really? Smashing! What or who on earth from?”
“Oh, right! Well, you’ve come to the right place. What about the boat?”
“My escape vehicle.”
“Super! This is getting better by the minute! Terrence! Come here!”
Terrence was on older gent accompanied by a woman who might have been his great granddaughter – in other, less amusing circumstances. The girl was dressed in black leather and looked as though she wanted to do nothing more than put Terrence over her knee and spank his ass. She licked her lips when she saw me; I had the distinct impression she was considering whether to have me served rare, or medium-well.
“Terrence, this is Lloyd. Lloyd is a hit man for the mafia and on the run from the FBI.” I put my hand out. “Lloyd, this is Terrence. Terrence is a member of the House of Lords.”
“Shut up, Ted,” Terrence said angrily, for quite obviously he was an MP of some sort.
“Terrence, Lloyd is staying on a yacht out there. I thought you two might have some things in common.” With that, Ted drifted off to another group and Terrence and his Arm Candy went back to their corner. Perhaps they were discussing some sort of anti-terror legislation, or what size dildo she was going to work him over with as soon as he could get her the hell out of here. They were so sweet looking together. Really.
Ted was off with another couple, laughing at some quip and grabbing a tidbit from a passing waitress, so – as I was actually quite hungry — I made my way over to the buffet and took a plate. The food really looked quite impressive, so I grabbed a couple pieces of fish and retired to a dark corner. After a couple of bites I was quite sure the chef out back was some sort of culinary genius and, right on cue, she came out a moment later carrying a plate of sashimi to set out on the table.
She set the plate down and looked my way; I waved, she smiled at me then walked back into the kitchen. I, of course, made my way over to the sashimi. I am not modest when it comes to raw fish, or so I’ve been told.
Ted had looked at the chef as she returned to the kitchen, then wandered over to a dark corner and put his arms around a sweet young thing and kissed her. I mean really kissed her. It was one of those big, lingering, open-mouthed kisses one finds in movies with leading ladies named Dixie or Saber – a real ‘one hand-on-butt the other on-breast’ kind of kiss. Ted seemed to be quite the ladies man. And I suppose he still is, bless his heart.
I watched these goings-on for a while, and saw that Ted was like a hummingbird; buzzing from group to group, hovering with one man, laughing with another girl, making his way back to the far corner where ‘his girl’ waited – and making out for a moment before making his circuit again. I finished on plate of salmon and tuna then went back for another, and picked up some mineral water as well, before retiring to my corner.
The chef came out again, refreshed a platter and made an inventory of what needed to be looked after, then she looked up at me and walked over.
“Good evening,” she said, and she spoke with a heavy French accent. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Ah, well, I suppose so. The food is excellent, at any rate.”
“Oh, thank you. You must be the only one eating. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
“No. That fellow over there,” I said, pointing at Ted — who was now chatting with Terrence and his dominatrix, “invited me up a few minutes ago. I’m on my boat, in the marina.”
“Ooh,” she said. “And what is your name?”
“Lloyd. Lloyd Jones.” I put my hand out and she took it.
“Michelle,” she said. “I am Ted’s wife.”
I turned red while Ted looked our way; he walked over a moment later and kissed his wife lightly on the cheek, then slipped his arm casually around her shoulder. “Darling, this is…”
“Yes, we’ve met,” she said cooly. “How are you doing tonight?”
“Well,” Ted said, “splendid, actually. Did he tell you he lives on a boat in the marina?”
“Yes, he did,” she said as she stepped out of his grasp. “And now, if you will excuse me, I have things to attend in the kitchen.” She said this to me — politely, then turned and walked back into, I had to assume, the kitchen.
“She can be a, well, something of a bitch sometimes,” Ted said as he watched his wife depart. “But, hey, I forgot, you know what I mean, don’t you? Running from your wife, didn’t you say?”
“I did indeed, because I am.”
“Not a chef, I take it?” he said, laughing at the thought.
“Investment banker, lawyer.”
“Sounds more my type!” Ted said as he guffawed, obviously thinking the idea amusing.
“Really? Not mine; at least not in a long time.”
“Ah, well. I hope you’re enjoying yourself this evening. Is the food up to par?”
“Excellent, really. You should be proud…”
“I found her in France a couple of years ago. Avignon. She was famous there, quite popular. I simply had to have her. In fact, I opened this restaurant, just for her.”
“Very considerate of you.”
“Quite. Well, stay as long as you like. If I don’t see you again, do drop in some time.” He turned and fled to the girl in the corner, kissed her fiercely and then left the restaurant with her, tossing off departing goodbyes as he fled.
I stood and watched in a kind of mild shock while all this happened and was getting ready to leave when the chef, Michelle, came out. She looked around the restaurant, then at me, before she walked over to my corner.
“Did he leave?”
“Hm-m? Oh, Ted, you mean? Yes, I believe so.”
It was odd. She was neither angry nor sad, more resigned, really, to a simple fact of life. I couldn’t imagine what she felt. Humiliation, perhaps, but how angry I would feel? There was really no way I could imagine suppressing so much anger, at such a blatantly public and brutal act of betrayal.
But did I see a bit of a tear welling up in her eye? No?
“Well, perhaps I’d best be getting along,” I said somewhat uneasily.
“So, you live on your boat? In the marina?”
“Yes. Yes I do, right below that window,” I said, pointing.
“I have never been on a boat. Is it nice?”
“I, well yes, it can be. And what do you mean, you’ve never been on a boat. Never?”
“No, never. I can not even swim. I grew up away from the sea.”
“Perhaps I could come by some day and you could show me? Your boat?”
“Yes, sure. I’ll be here, ‘til March, as a matter of fact. Drop by any time.”
She held out her hand and I took it: “Well, it was nice to meet you, but I must now settle the kitchen.”
“Good night,” I said. I watched her as she turned, and it was as if I could feel her misery in the air all around the room. It was complete, total, the kind of desolation you feel when you’ve made a wrong choice and know it; when you’ve screwed yourself and you know there’s no way to make things right. It was sad, and as I watched her walk away I felt I was watching a nasty tide turn – and roll in unannounced.
Yet she looked dark, cold, and dangerous, and I was not unhappy to walk out into this dark and stormy night.
An electrician was due to arrive first thing the next morning, but by ten he was a no-show. I had been puttering around the dock cleaning up after the storm, and had a long green garden hose strung out to a tap, and was up on deck filling the water tanks. I heard footsteps, then I heard her voice dockside.
I turned, saw Michelle standing not five feet away. “Hi there.”
“Quite a storm, I think?”
“Ah. Yes, a rough one.”
“Nice looking. This boat.”
“Ah.” I was, as you can plainly tell, giving her my best imitation of an erudite, loquacious imbecile. Comes naturally, or so I’m told. Ask my wife.
“So? Is it alright? I see it now?”
“Ah, yes, indeed.”
If she’d just pardon me while I pulled my head out of my ass.
I climbed over the deck, gave her my hand and helped her up, then led the way back to the cockpit and gave her my hand again while she clambered down to the wheel. Already her eyes were already round as saucers. I was just guessing here, but had I forgot deodorant that morning? Mouthwash? Forgotten underwear that morning, perhaps, and my zipper was down?
“And you have never been on a boat before?”
“Me? No? I think I told you, I cannot even swim.”
“How many people does it takes to sails a boat like thees?”
“Oh, it’s usually just me out there.”
She looked at me like I was mad. Hell, she was probably right on that score.
“Why?” she said. “Not how. Why?”
“When I figure that one out, I’ll let you know.” I gave her my best ‘I’m a tough guy’ grin, sure now that there wasn’t a body odor issue.
She smiled, but she wasn’t buying it. Her eyes were clouded by another, less pleasant thought. “Sounds lonely,” she said quite softly.
“It has moments of that, yes.” I looked at her for an awkward moment, not really sure what to say. “So. Down below, is it?” I led off down the companionway and she followed; when she got below she looked around at all the wood and brass and the rows of instruments and screens over the chart table and she just shook her head.
“It looks complicated,” she said as she crossed to the chart table. “Is all this stuff for finding your way?”
“Ideally, yes. When I remember how it works. I think, however, the main purpose is to impress visitors. How are they doing, by the way?”
She smiled again. “You are something like a — oh, what is this word — like a smart-ass, no?”
“Yes indeed, but only on the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”
“I see,” she said. She had a nice laugh. Honest, sweet. “So I have found you on your day, then, yes?”
It was my turn to laugh, and hell, maybe I did, but I was so nervous I could hardly talk. Beautiful women do that to me.
“So, you will show me around?”
“Ah.” I looked around like I was a stranger here myself. “Yes, well, this is the galley…”
“The what? Isn’t this the keetchen?”
“Yes indeed, my mistake.” I walked forward a bit. “This area is called the saloon . . .”
“You mean, like Dodge City? Cowboy type saloon?”
“Same word, yes, only no cowboys. No room for horses.” Further forward was my part of the boat. Big berth on the right, cabinets all along the left side of the hull, a big head and shower forward. “This is my bunk. Where I sleep.”
Her eyes were wide again. “Not bad. Wow.”
“Wow. Yes. That’s exactly what I said when I first saw it. Wow.”
She poked her way into the head. “A shower!” She almost squealed. It was kinda cute, really, the way she made little noises.
“There’s another one aft – uh, back this way.”
I led her back to the keetchen. Opposite was a door that led into another head and stateroom; I opened the door and now she almost pushed her way past; she went in and I heard her shout: “No way! Font-tast-eek! This is so cool!”
I was – meanwhile – doing what all middle aged men do when confronted by the backside of a cute woman half their age. I was checking out her superstructure and landing gear and, frankly, admiring the view. And of course she turned around right then. I think at that point my eyes were burning holes I her ankles.
I think, too, this was perhaps the moment she began to feel more than a little self-conscious. Alone, on a stranger’s boat, checking out the bedrooms.
Blushing like a fire hydrant, I turned away. “Can I fix you something to drink,” I said.
“Maybe I cause you too much trouble. I should go now. Thanks for the tour.”
I helped her off the boat and she took off.
Didn’t turn back, either.
“Ah,” I said.
The electrician turned up around noon.
My brother-in-law and his wife called and told me they were coming for a visit later that week, just as I was settling into marina life, London-style. Pete had always been close to his sister, too close for comfort, actually, and I think he kept in touch with his anger for her by staying in touch with me. Claire and I weren’t separated, not in a legal sense anyway; we’d finally just gone our separate ways after I’d found out she was enjoying herself with someone else for about the third time in as many months, and that was that. Both our families were having a difficult time with our looming dissolution, but none more so than Pete. I had to be careful, keep an eye on the Jack Daniels when he was around, and an even closer eye on the little Bible that always seemed to be stashed in a coat pocket. When he got to wallowing in bourbon and musing about things of an animal nature, Pete could get out of hand in a hurry. Start baptizing strangers in parking lots, real Elmer Gantry stuff – a one man revival meeting. As a consequence of this endearing behavior, I always looked forward to seeing him, and just the thought of him with Bible in hand still makes my hemorrhoids twitch.
Anyway, I’d planned to take them ‘round to a few museums, maybe on a couple of day trips out to Bath and up to Cambridge, take in a show or two – the usual tourist routine, I suppose. On the day of their arrival I took the Underground over to Paddington and met them when they came-in on the Heathrow Express, and we took a cab back to the marina. I’d wanted them to stay on-board but Thank The Lord they wouldn’t have it, so I’d found them a room in the Tower Hotel overlooking the marina. I dropped them off and told them how to get to the boat, then left to give them time to get over their jet-lag.
They came over for a late lunch; I had promised to make Pete my Vermont cheddar cheese soup, which, for some odd reason he thinks is the best thing in the world, and was just serving soup to them when there came a knock on the hull.
I went up to see which mechanic was showing up late, and there she was. Michelle.
She was holding a couple of flowers in a little bud vase, and she handed it up to me.
“Sorry,” she said, “for being such a prude.” She was looking down, then I guess she heard Pete come up. I suspect when she saw his scowling face she decided to catch the next train to Leeds or something, ‘cause she took right off.
I turned and shrugged; hell, even I wanted to run when I saw the puritanical scowl on his face – like God in one of those Charlton Heston movies. All shaking and red-faced, trembling like a kettle on full boil. I’m not sure about this, you understand, but in my experience when someone shakes like that it has something to do with hemorrhoids and too much red pepper.
“Who was that?” Pete had on his best, most fierce Grand Inquisitor look, and was using his well practiced Chief Prosecutor’s voice to full effect.
“You know, Pete, I don’t have the slightest fucking idea.”
Man, can that son-of-a-bitch scowl.
So. As you might imagine, lunch went well.
Becky or Peggy or whatever this wife’s name was (she is/was, if I remember correctly, number five on what is, let me just say for the record, a rather long and as yet undistinguished list) thought it very odd that I’d accept flowers from a girl — yes, a young girl! — whose name I didn’t even know! That just isn’t done, this airhead told me reprovingly, then they launched into an hour long diatribe about keeping true to my marriage despite circumstances, and how shocking it was for them to learn I was whoring around all over Europe. Did I mention that Pete is a Deacon in his church, one of those Suthren Baptist type institutions so well known for their Christian tolerance and charity?
Can you feel the Love?
I’d had about enough of both of them by this point, and was getting a little annoyed. But would they stop? No. So I jumped in, tried to tell them how I’d met this girl…
“And you don’t even know her name?!” Becky/Peggy asked/scolded after I finished my tale, finishing with showing the poor woman around the boat.
Sinner! The implication hung in the air like a lead balloon.
And I was getting, well, mad.
“Hm-m, you know what, if she’d hung around here a little longer, I think I might have been able get a blow job from her. But the poor thing had the good sense to leave. Sorry.”
I have never been accused of being well-mannered towards the overly religious, at least not knowingly so. And, well, even my dear wife had never been able to tolerate sanctimonious assholes, and she’d long considered Pete to be among the worst.
So, when Pete said: “Now see here!” in his booming, preachy voice, then “How dare you speak to Becky/Peggy in that tone of voice!”…
…I found it ever so easy, in a much kinder, gentler way, to say: “Ya know, Becky/Peggy, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to drill you right up that sweet little ass of yours…”
I’m just guessing here, but I think my words elicited the intended response: “Harumph! Come on Becky/Peggy, let’s get out of here — NOW!”
“What?” I said as they grumbled up the companionway, “You’re not staying for dessert?”
Pete whacked his head on the boom when he stood up. He was still cussing when they disappeared into the hotel. Life is good, ya know.
My week was suddenly wide open, and it felt, I don’t know – nice?
I might even stoop to saying I felt like Martin Luther King: Lawdy, Lawdy! Gawd Almighty! Free At Last!
Oh, Happy Days!
I was up in the cockpit working on a corroded LPG fitting later that afternoon when, of course, Pete came by acting all apologetic, and he told me they had no right to judge me after what I’d been through with his sister, they had no cause to say what they’d said. He seemed awfully sorry.
“You’re right, Pete. You didn’t. As a matter of fact, even if I’d had wet, sloppy sex with that woman, it wouldn’t be anybody’s business but mine, and, well, hers – I guess, but as things stand right now, nothing, nothing at all has happened.”
“I know, I know…”
“But the fact of the matter is, Pete, I’ve been lusting after the poor creature ever since I first laid eyes on her. My wife fucked around on me, not me on her. I didn’t, not once. Is that clear? You’re family, Pete, always will be as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t want to see your face the rest of the day. Alright?”
Perhaps because I’m ten years older than Pete, or perhaps because I could still knock him off his flat feet any day of the week, whatever, he seemed chastened. I gave him tickets to the theater I’d already purchased and bid them a good evening, and he walked off with his tail between his legs.
I felt better, and I felt like shit.
My head and chest were down in the lazarette — my legs and butt sticking straight up toward high noon – when I heard her voice again, maybe an hour later.
“Hello. Are you busy?”
Let’s be clear here: upside down in a dark hole, wrench in one hand, flashlight in the other, screwdriver in mouth, sweat in eyes…does that qualify as busy, or not?
“M-m-g-g-mmmph-nn-ploowee,” I said in my usual, sophisticated manner.
Sound of screwdriver falling from mouth, then: “Oh, Lord no, not at all. What can I do for you?”
“Can we talk?” She sounded quite unsure of herself. Then: “Is that man gone?”
I might have said something witty and dry, but it was rapidly dawning on me that I was seriously stuck. Head down in hole, ass waving around like a flag in the breeze stuck. “Uh. Ah, I. Well, I. Uh, could you give me a hand up here?”
“Uh. I think I’m stuck. Could you give me a hand?”
She was, it turned out, remarkably sure-footed, and quite strong too. I think within fifteen seconds she was beside me and I had yanked me up and out of the hatch. I was gasping in shock, too. From the sunlight, yes, and from the fact I wasn’t going to die with my ass hanging out so everyone in the marina could have a nice laugh while heading out for a curry.
“Now I know what the rabbit feels like,” I managed to say.
“Pardon?” (I just love the way that sounds. Really. When the French say it, it sounds like par-doe, but there’s usually a hint of either real confusion or withering scorn in the mix, too. Fascinating. Really.)
“When the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat. By the ears.”
“Oh, oui, yes. You had me concerned.”
“You were concerned? Really? You should have been down in the hole with me. That was concern…”
She chuckled. “What were youz doing downs in zair?”
“What is this, this clamp?”
I explained what it was, and she understood.
“Where is dees thing?”
I pointed down in the pit with my flashlight. She looked at the offending item, then at me — as if measuring me for a suit: “You are too tall to go down in there. Let me do eet.”
She slipped in the hatch feet first and disappeared before I could say ‘be my guest’. Then: “Where ees dees screwdriver?”
“Can I haves you flashlight, please?”
I passed it down, heard her moving about, then: “I tightened all of dem, but one of dem ees preetty roosty.”
I think some men are threatened by a woman who knows how to use a screwdriver. I might have been, once upon a time, but now I was finding this whole thing sexy as hell.
“If you can, would you take it off?”
She ignored my unintended meaning and passed the rusty clamp up a moment later, and I went down into my spares locker and found a replacement. I passed it down to her and she had it on in about three point four seconds, and I thought I was going to orgasm right there in the cockpit.
She popped up from the hole and climbed into the cockpit.
“Easy!” she said.
“Easy for you to say,” I replied, and she laughed again. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Sure. Yes, please.”
“Coke or Dr Pepper?”
“Pardon? Dr who?” (It’s just too cool how that word sounds…)
“Dr Pepper. National Beverage of Texas. Ever had one?”
She shook her head.
“Right. Two Dr Peppers, comin’ right up.”
She took a sip, smiled. “Pretty good,” she said. “Very sweet, though.”
“You must be from Texas.”
“Every bit of me, except my underwear. I think they’re from Mexico.”
“Who was that man.” She rolled her eyes now. “The man with the mean eyes.”
“Brother in law. Very religious, in an American sort of way.”
“Oh. You are married to his sister?”
“Yes. In a roundabout way.”
“Ah. You were divorced from his sister?”
“Not yet. It’s kind of a work-in-progress.”
“Oh,” she said, “I see.”
“He’s still very conservative about things like marriage and – things like that, I suppose.”
“Yes, yes, I understand.”
I could only imagine. “Do you?”
“Sure. He is visiting, then, to communicate between your wife and you?”
“Yeah, I suppose so. They’ll be here for a week.”
“Oh, do you have to go now.”
“No. I got time off for good behavior. Free as a bird tonight.”
She seemed to drift for a while, thinking of something else to say. Then: “Is that why you got thees boat? You are runnings away?”
“Probably, but don’t tell anyone. It’s supposed to be a secret.”
“You makes a lot of laughs about dees tings. Why?”
“Jokes,” I said. “I make jokes, then you laugh. Hopefully.”
“And you are good at changing subjects, too.”
“Good? Hell, I’m a real pro, lady.”
“So, why do you run so, and make the jokes?”
“Better than crying, don’t you think?”
“Oh? On what?”
“Do you ever want to cry? When your wife causes all dees pains?”
I looked away, really, because I really didn’t want to go there – with this woman.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to . . .”
“It’s okay. So. You wanted to talk?”
“We are, I think.”
“Ah.” I looked at her now, closely. “Why? Why with me?”
“I think at first I was curious: what makes someone lives on boat. Why do it? A lot of people do, from home, from France, but I never understand. I wanted to see a boat such as this, so I could understand maybe better. I see your boat and I understand. But then I see you and I am curious still.”
“It is beautiful, no? This life you have chosen. You travel, where you want to go, yes, and you take your home with you. So many freedoms. And you use no petrol, correct?”
“See, this is a good thing. I would like to travel someday, maybe not like dees, but when I’ve made some money of my own.”
“Oh? Where would you go first?”
“Tahiti, Polynesia,” she answered quickly.
I smiled, nodded.
“Have you been?” She looked expectant, interested.
“No, not yet.”
“You will go?”
“If I don’t wear out first. Yeah, I’ll go.”
“You see; you are free. That is the best kind of running.”
I nodded. “Running with the wind. Yes, it can be.”
“Exactly. Where will you go next?”
“Probably to the market. I need some things for dinner.”
She slapped my knee. Playfully, almost intimately. “You are the, what did you say, the joker-ass one more time?”
“Smart Ass. Always. Just so.” I looked down at my hands; hell, who knows, maybe I smiled.
“Will you let me cook you dinner?”
“What? After you tightened all my hose-clamps? Doesn’t seem fair to me.”
She took my hand then, and it was an innocent gesture. Nothing intimate about it at all, just friendly — in the best possible sense of the word – and suddenly everything about her felt very familiar, the gesture so natural.
“Come; let’s go ups to zee markets and get somes things, then we weel decide what to do for deenair.” Like we’d done exactly that a thousand times before.
Everything felt like an echo. Feelings once upon a time I’d associated with another life, another woman, another lover’s hands; these feelings washed through me and left me in a numb silence. Her words swirled around us, crowded thoughts pushed through, then pushed all her words aside. In the end all I could feel was her hand on mine.
That moment, when we touch.
Do we ever change? Is that first galvanic-exchange centered with such focused primacy for the rest of our lives? Do we ever get over the intensity of that moment?
Yeah, right. Perhaps that’s why I felt so goddamn guilty.
I came to know Michelle Cluny-Sunderland pretty well over the next few weeks.
We did go up to the market, we did walk around and look at fish and flowers and those hundred other things they always show in floppy rom-com movies (and you know the scene, too; the montage of happy smiling lovers looking over cucumbers accompanied by 10cc singing ‘I’m Not In Love’), but in the end we made our way out to Brick Lane and ate curry so fiery hot we dripped sweat (and I mean sweat, here, not perspire; one does not perspire into two liter buckets – and fill them. One sweats – like a pig) and gasped in shock – that anything even remotely considered ‘food’ could render one so completely speechless, and do so quickly.
She took another line on the Underground home from there, so we said goodbye at the turnstiles.
I spent the rest of that week with Pete and whats-her-name; we did amble out to Bath and take in the Abbey and the Roman ruins, and they opted for Salisbury and Stonehenge over Cambridge (of course), so we did that, too. We ate on-board a couple of times, and they remarked more than once how grand the scents of delicate cooking were in the marina (really, it’s true; I didn’t know what to say). I put them on the Heathrow Express a few days later and heaved a great sigh of relief.
They promised to write, too. And I knew just what that meant.
Michelle had dropped by once or twice on her way to the restaurant that week; she was charming and sweet as she drifted by – but that was it. A couple of days after Pete left, the following Monday, in fact, she came by and rapped on the side of the hull. She had a little canvas shopping bag in hand, a couple of baguettes slanting up among stalks of celery and a bottle of wine.
“Howdy-do, Ma’am,” I said in my best West Texas Rancher accent.
“Pardon?” (Love it, I just love it!)
“Really? Howdy-do means hello?”
“In some parts of the world, yes.”
“Oh. Texas, right?”
“That’s a fact, Ma’am.”
“Have you had lunch yet?”
“Lunch? I haven’t had breakfast yet?” She shook her head, frowned that such an unjust creator would allow such a thing to happen.
“You must take better care of yourself.”
“I’m an American. I don’t know how.”
“Then I will make us lunch. You will see how we eat lunch in France.”
“Shut up and give me a hand.”
I helped her up and she bounded down into the gall, uh, dee keetchin, and there she proceeded to do things with whisks and knives that in other circumstances I would have found truly scary.
“Do you have any beer?” she asked at one point, when it was apparent to me that the performance was drawing to a close.
I opened up the fridge and pulled out a Bud longneck and held it up proudly.
She of course rolled her eyes and made a sweet little noise that sounded a little like someone coughing in a tuberculosis ward. Very endearing, actually. I assumed, too, that it would be best if I kept my secret stash of Tabasco flavored Doritos well hidden, at least until the knives were safely back in their drawers. There’s no telling what a French chef might do when confronted with a bag of Doritos.
And it really was the most amazing sandwich I’d ever eaten. Hell, every single thing about this woman was memorably amazing.
She’d come, she told me that afternoon, to London with Ted from Avignon. He had been looking for a chef ‘of the new French style’ when he found her, and after a brief, exciting affair she’d left Avignon; Ted was delighted to get a wife for himself and a celebrated chef for his new bistro. That had been about a year ago, but it had all gone downhill from the moment she arrived in London.
Within a month Ted fell madly in love with one of the waitresses at the bistro, and a few weeks later he was caught with the wife of a close friend – in a very compromising position. His relationships tended to last about two weeks, yet most just an evening, and she’d come to understand that was simply the way he was wired. She didn’t complain, she said, and neither did she berate him. He couldn’t help it, she knew; he was just addicted to the feeling of falling in love. The high, the rush, the endorphins — whatever. She had instead worked her tail off and made the bistro one of the most popular spots in London. So, there’d been happy endings all ‘round.
Except I could see that she was miserable, homesick, and yearning for home. France, in other words.
I cleared dishes while she talked, and while I washed them and put them away I told her a little about Claire and her infidelities, but really, what was the point. Water under the bridge. Not worth the breath to dwell on the morally inept and the childish.
She was, she finally confided, thinking about going back home. There were a couple of upscale places in and around Avignon that wanted her, she said, and she’d had about enough of London. And Ted.
Have you, I asked her, taken any day trips out into the country? No, she said, not one. You want to? I asked her. Sure, she said. Next Monday? I offered. Sounds good, she countered. Fine, I said. Good, she said. Then: can I have another one of these Budweiser’s? They’re really quite nice. Refreshing. Yes, I know, I said. You ought to try a Lone Star sometime. And some three alarm chili.
The sun was gong down and it was getting cool out, and pretty soon she left, but not before planting a little kiss on my cheek.
I could hardly sleep that night, and I found a playlist with a few old 10cc tracks on it, and slipped on the headphones.
We’d arranged to meet early Monday morning at Paddington and we hopped an express out to Bath, then took a bus to Wells. Amazing village, best cathedral around, and she was as impressed as someone who’d grown up around some of the most beautiful sacred architecture in the world could be, but that’s not why I’d hauled her out to Somerset.
No, we were going on to the Cheddar Gorge, just down a little lane from Wells. They invented the cheese there, once upon a time, like a thousand years ago or something silly like that, and you can still buy some of the best in the world in the village, an unpasteurized variety made at the Gorge Cheese Company. So, as she was a cheese junky I’d thought she might enjoy this little hole in the wall. It had not slipped my mind that one or two people in France still make cheese, it was more that I hated the idea she might take off one day soon and return to Avignon. Surely, I hoped, the simple fact they still made cheese in England would convince her to stay. That seemed a logical assumption at the time, anyway. Selfish motives, I know.
Well, we bought some cheese and walked along the pretty little stream that runs through the village and flat out missed the last bus back to anywhere, so we ate dinner in a little place overlooking the stream then took a cab to Weston-super-something and managed to catch a late nighter to Bristol and thence on to Paddington. It was later than late when we finally rolled into London.
We took a cab to her house; the lights were off and she didn’t want to go inside. I told the cabbie to head for the marina.
“There’s a decent hotel there,” I said.
“I don’t want to sleep in a hotel,” she said.
“Well, I’m open to any and all suggestions.” That was a clever bit, eh?
“Any room on the boat?” she just managed to say. Her voice had, it seems, suddenly grown sort of full and constricted.
“I reckon so,” I said enthusiastically, for my trousers had suddenly grown rather full and constricted.
(The cabbie, poor man, rolled his eyes.)
She decided that night to stay in London a bit longer. France could wait.
It had been, all in all, a good day.
I don’t know if Ted knew about that night, and didn’t really care.
The weather remained unseasonably warm into November and I, in a flash of inspiration, decided to sail across the channel to Honfleur. I took a place along the wall in the old port and a few days later Michelle joined me, and so began what was without a doubt one of the happiest times of my life.
We walked around the village and she taught me a thing or two about cooking that left me feeling clean and healthy. Odd, I know, but their was something in her love of cooking that reminded me of what it had felt like to actually love designing buildings – once upon a time. So it evolved that we embarked on a slow journey across France in a quiet quest for culinary perfection. We found one of those daffy looking Smart Cars on a used car lot and I bought the thing, then I broke down and bought a camera, because I had become interested in beautiful buildings again, and I wanted to take pictures of them. Then I started taking pictures of Michelle, and I found I much preferred doing that.
We cruised across Normandy, stopped in little villages that had little known but impeccably authentic bistros and hideaways and we ate and ate until we felt obnoxious and silly, then we checked into little inns and made love all afternoon, until the light turned just so, then we dashed out and shot cathedrals and cows and doors, and always, Michelle’s face in the evening light. I assume we would have gained a hundred pounds that first week if not for all the exercise we got.
This time with Michelle was not simply fun; indeed, I felt this time a slice of life as it could be, really, as it ought to be. I assume most people would say this sounds a bit trite; be that as it may, I came to understand time was a gift, that all time was worth cherishing. As the days passed, I came to realize this was a life I had never known, and that my soul had suffered in this wanting.
We came to, one foggy evening, a tiny village by the sea. There was an inn just outside the town, an old castle, really, and it looked quite fine. We took a room that overlooked the sea, opened the windows and listened to the surf as it washed against the shore, and we made love to that music. We made our way down to the little dining room as day drifting to the night’s embrace, drawn by magic in the air, perhaps, because whoever was at work in the kitchen was a magician.
The room was small, just a few tables, really, and there was only one other couple there, and they seemed ancient. We asked for wine whatever the chef was working on, and while we waited we talked of fog and the sea and the wonder of life in all it’s most elemental forms, and this line of thought seemed to intrigue the old couple across the room, for once – when I had just made comment about the impossibility of life in general and the chaos of our own lives the past few years – the old fellow turned to me and asked me a question I shall never forget. A trite cliché, perhaps, but not that evening.
“It’s your life, young man,” he said. “Are you happy with the way it’s turned out so far?”
I think the directness of the stranger’s question stunned me more than anything else, but I looked at him, and it was as if I’d known him all my life, and perhaps that’s the way it is with two ships passing in the night. Simple honestly borne of fleeting acquaintance, and nothing more, rendered meaningless all barriers to our understanding one another.
“There have been times, yes,” I said to the man, “but now they seem few and far between.”
“Are you happy right now?” he asked. “In this very moment?”
“Then why would you change the way you are now?”
And here, you see, was the crux of the matter. Here was the question:
“What could possibly keep a man from finding happiness in life?”
I looked at him for some time.
“Well?” he finally said.
“Life is complicated,” I began, but he cut me off.
“Ah, but no, it isn’t. Not really.” he said, “And that’s the only point I’d like to make. Life is only as complicated as you make it. Once you accept that premise you’ll understand that the only thing keeping you from happiness is yourself. It’s all in the choices you make, but once you compromise your dreams, well, you’ve already lost sight of the truth, and you won’t understand that simple fact of life until the last breath leaves your body.”
“Really? Why do I doubt that you do?”
I didn’t know what to say, but Michelle spoke up now.
“I don’t know how you can say life can be so clear…” she said.
“Oh? Well, because it is.”
The old woman spoke now. “It is most simple, really. The only difficulty is in understanding what most provides you with happiness, and that is difficult only because so few people listen to what their heart has to say.”
“Precisely,” the old man said. “People think too much. They try to objectify the subjective, rationalize the irrational, manipulate the truth within their own soul until there is no way they can recognize happiness anymore, and then they wonder why they are unhappy. That person soon compromises his principles every day of his life, until one day he wonders why he has no more principles? And then he is surprised when he finds he has acted in an unprincipled manner? And this is a good life? This is a philosophy of happiness? How so, exactly?”
“You must excuse us for this interruption,” the old woman said, “but the room is small.” She shrugged and laughed a little, then returned to her food.
The old man returned to his dinner at that point, and I looked at Michelle, but the old fellow apparently had one more thing to say…
“One thing to keep in mind,” he said now, his fork waving away in the air like an orchestra conductor’s baton, “and this is important, so listen, if you please.”
He looked at me, his eyes seemed ancient and wise, most compellingly so.
“You will never find happiness through another person. Not ever. You can not place such a burden on another. Your happiness must always come from within, it must be of yourself, and not be conditional on some other person’s happiness. What is important here is that you are with a person with whom you may share happiness, and who can embrace their own happiness in such a way, as well.”
He looked at Michelle for a moment, then at me.
“Do not burden one another with the upkeep of your own soul. There is no time for such foolishness. Cherish that happiness which is your own, and share that joy with each other.” His eyes seemed to grow distant, and tired – as if he had been surveying a vast, impenetrable landscape for too long. “That is, of course, but one measure of love, but it makes a good place to start.” He smiled, looked at the skin on his hands. “Time is not to be wasted. Not ever. That is the greatest sin. Turn away from anything that would keep you from attaining happiness. To fail in that is to embrace delusion. You will find only madness and bitterness down that road.”
They finished their meal and left a few minutes later, and it was interesting to me that they both seemed oddly content with their lot in life. I’d be hard pressed to say they seemed happy or unhappy, because that had not been, as far as I could tell, the point of this exchange. The point the old man was driving home, that looking for validation in others was to negate the very essence of the self, stayed me as I watched them leave the room. So, my observation of their state of happiness was simply a delusion, one I might force onto my construct of the world for my own benefit. Such observations and delusions would have nothing to do with reality, and was, therefore, simply a waste of time. If only because delusions keep one from gaining true happiness.
“Interesting,” I think I managed to say.
Michelle was looking down at her hands just then, lost in thought. She didn’t look very happy, and I hate to say it, but that bothered me. I felt unhappy too.
Claire would have been so proud.
It was cold out, and a stiff breeze was cutting through the night when we stepped outside after dinner. We wanted to take a walk by the sea and found a path in the scattered moonlight; we walked along the edge of a cliff that rose up before us and disappeared into the darkness; lightning danced along the far horizon. When we reached the summit of this small peak we found a monument, the inscription on its side impossible to make out in the darkness, but in the night a blackened statue rose over us. It looked like an angel to me, its wings spread protectively around a boat on a storm-tossed sea. Perhaps this was a monument to lost mariners? That seemed likely, and hardly surprising, given our location on the Bay of Biscay. In fact, even in the wind from the top of this little peak we could hear the sea, now far below, crashing onto the rocks in spent, hissing fury. Beaches have always fascinated me, and now I walked close to the edge, wanting to feel this spent fury again and again.
I had been so close to the edge, and for so long, I thought, that the thought of falling hundreds of feet onto the rocks below no longer bothered me. It was only in the past few weeks that I had even remotely begun to feel happy again, and at root I had no idea why, really. In this darkness, Michelle felt like a resolution to me, the resolution to another problem, an old problem, and not a new beginning. Just as suddenly I knew in my heart this wasn’t true.
I wasn’t happy now because of Michelle; rather, she had unlocked whatever door was keeping me from whatever happiness I still held inside myself. Whatever the old man said or thought at dinner, however, I knew I could not see my way to happiness in life without her by my side. Standing with her in the fading light of my life these past few days had convinced me of that.
So, what was the resolution? Could there ever be any with such dependence pressing in?
I felt her rejoin me in this darkness, felt her cool arm slipping inside my coat as she worked her way into what warmth I yet harbored. Her hair streamed by my face, held there in the breeze, and my world felt as if it longed to come undone.
There would be no life for me, no love, no happiness, without this woman by my side.
It was, I knew, time to return to London.
There was a storm coming, and it was time to prepare.
Within that last night on the Bay of Biscay, as storm clouds gathered along horizons unknown and distant, I dreamt of two paths in the woods. Perhaps only an affirmation of Frost’s “two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” this was – I knew within my dream — where my life stood now; but ‘perhaps not’ always lingered – a thought just out of reach. In this dream I saw two unrecognizable women standing in that yellow wood, each standing silently, waiting for me, watching me approach those two paths. At first the woods were still, dreadfully so; warm, close air, almost stifling, and time slowed. Heat, unbearable heat gathered around me, and yet, in the distance, those two women stood in cool splendor, their gauzy gowns drifting on unseen breezes, braids of gossamer lace floating on currents born of other days, each alluring, beckoning, and relentlessly commanding my attention – yet in the softest imaginable way.
I came to see that I was, as time drifted so lazily by, inside the eye of a hurricane. Just outside the woods, in raging winds, amid thunderous destruction, the world I had known was being torn asunder by furies easily recognizable as my own creation – yet a fury subtly transformed. People I had known in my life, and loved, were embedded within the raging storm, their faces full of twisted, black malevolence – yet they were the very essence of this storm. Their words lashed the landscape, anger tore homes from their foundations and scattered them as dust, hatred and betrayal spilled from wounded eyes – yet still the two women stood in silent majesty, watching me, waiting, just inside my silence.
If I made as to move toward one woman the furies rose and screamed, winds ate away at the edge of my wood, howls of anguish filled the air and tore at my mind with nauseating power; if I stepped toward the other, from the very heart of the wood I could feel a desolate, wounded moan rise from the very earth upon which I stood, leaves on trees began to wilt and curl, petals fell from dying flowers, the grass beneath my feet turned brown and hard.
There was a choice to be made, yet it seemed so obvious. Why was it so hard to choose? Would the rising storm tear into these woods, would vanquished fury leave a world unrecognizable and in pain, be a world worth living in? Would the trees and the grass and the blooming flowers take root again, and grow — in the desolate emptiness after the storm’s eventual retreat?
I woke to the sounds of wind driven rain lashing ancient windows and growing thunder. Lightning lit the room and frenzied shadows danced across out bed. A tree bent to the storm, naked branches scraped against glass.
I rose, walked to the window and looked into the clouds for the faces of people I had once known, and dared to love.
Michelle flew back to London, I returned to Honfleur and my boat. A day later I sailed north across the channel, back up the Thames and through St Katherine’s lock to the marina. The next morning as I was waking, I felt the boat move and knew someone had boarded. I put on some clothes and walked to the galley and looked through a port-light into the cockpit.
Ted Sunderland was sitting there, a long cigarette dripping from his hand.
I slid the companionway hatch back and stuck my head up. “Coffee?” I asked.
I opened up the boat and let some fresh air in, got coffee going, and Ted stuck his head down and looked around. “Make yourself at home,” I said, and he clambered down the steps.
“Cozy,” he said as he looked around.
“Cream or sugar?”
“Well, what’s on your mind Ted, beside the obvious.”
He smiled. “I’ve done a little checking up on you. While you were away.”
“That was decent of you. How am I doing?”
“You were considered a pretty fair architect. Why did you ditch it all and leave?”
“You want to talk about my . . . architecture?”
“Why not? I’d like to know more about . . .”
“About what you’re up against?”
“No, not at all. You might think me a hypocrite, and I may well be, but I think we both know the outraged husband routine has little pertinence here.” He took some coffee, looked around the boat again. “Yes, I quite like it down here. I can see the attraction.”
“No, well, I could understand, as an architect, if you’d been an abject failure, why you might choose to drop it all. I assume your marriage is over, was over, but you really do seem very highly regarded, and in a city well known for good architecture. It seems strange. A conundrum, and I wanted to know, that’s all. Thought I might get a handle on where things stand.”
I couldn’t decide what to do, what to say. Was he on the level? What was his angle?
“So,” he continued, “you graduated from Northwestern, then the University of Chicago. Take it from there.”
“Alright, Ted, I’ll give you the condensed version.”
“I like condensed. Fire away.”
“I got out, worked for a large firm a few years . . .”
“Yes, yes, I know all that, man. Get on with it, to the meat of the matter!”
“Well, once upon a time I considered myself principled. I know that must sound rather bland and boring to you, but there you have it. I always identified with Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s architect in The Fountainhead. Familiar with it?”
“No. Never my thing, reading fiction.”
“Of course. Well, I used to think Frank Lloyd Wright was the unshelled nuts, uh, the very thing I longed to be as an architect, and I drew fanciful homes and buildings, and all very true to Wright’s vision. Critics soon labeled me Frank Lloyd Wrong, peers thought my work dull and pretentious, yet I continued, true to my ideas, true to what I thought most important as a designer. I made a living; not a great one, but there were enough people around wanting some connection to Wright’s style . . . and well, anyway, I managed to keep us in clothes.”
“Ah, you were married then?”
“Right after graduating from Northwestern. Before architecture school. I met Claire at Northwestern, in the library of all things. She was very studious, quite bright. . .”
“I know. We’ve talked. Your Claire and I.”
I felt a chill of cold anger run down my back.
“Oh do go on, Jones. The excitement is killing me.”
I think I may have been angry at this point; I know I was red-faced and staring at him. Ted looked at me, hastily turned away, and seemed genuinely upset.
“I’m sorry, Jones. Please. Do finish.”
“Yeah. Well, I guess after a time I got tired of all the Frank Lloyd Wrong stuff, sometimes the out and out scorn of my fellows around Chicago. I went out on my own then, too; started my own firm. Anyway, a client came to me, oh, about ten years ago, and asked me to design a new office building for his company up in Madison. Wisconsin. I listened to this man, a moron, really, to his ideas about design, life, all of it, and I hated myself but took the commission. I vowed to myself that I was going to design the most hideous, atrocious building man had ever laid eyes on, and of course he loved it.
“It was built, and critics labeled the design a work of genius. Somehow I wasn’t shocked. We live in a world that accepts mediocrity as the norm, so why shouldn’t that be the case, right? But this design was conceived as a blatant affront to everything I loved about design, and people loved it. New clients came, quietly at first, then in a rush. Some begged, threw obscene numbers my way, offered any amount of money, and I forced myself to design the ugliest houses, the most terrifyingly gaudy structures I could imagine, and each new design was praised as the work of an inspired über-architect. Kids fresh out of school came to me, wanted to join me, wanted to become a disciple to this new movement I had come to represent, hell, that I had created. The New Prairie School, they called it. I called it Fugly.
“I see. And what of Claire?”
“She went to work for a large firm after law school, corporate mergers principally, but you already know that, right?”
“She got pregnant, miscarried, and that was the end of that. Got her tubes tied. A few years later, well, I’m not sure when, really, but I began to hear rumors she was sleeping around. A lot.”
“Curious. Do you think she was sleeping around before you abandoned your principles?”
His words hit like a hammer blow.
“I mean, Jones, did she fall out of love with you about the same time you fell out of love with yourself? When you abandoned the ideas she had always known you stood for? The ideas you had embraced as your own when the two of you met, when the two of you fell in love?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should ask your wife that question some day. Really, you might do that. Well, good coffee and all, but I must dash.”
“Is that what she told you?” I felt hollow inside, like I had betrayed a friend.
“Sorry. Must go. Appointments and all that.” He put his cup on the counter and held out his hand.
I took it. His skin was cool, dry, alien.
“I’m sure you’ll do the right thing, old boy. But you always have, haven’t you?”
He climbed up into the gray morning, and left me standing in a pool of doubt.
Michelle came that evening. She looked unnerved, her eyes were lined with dark circles and seemed dull, almost lifeless.
“How have you been,” I asked. I doubted I looked any better.
“Difficult. Ted is being difficult. Playing the reformed, possessive, all attentive husband. And you? I wanted to come earlier, but could not.”
“He came by this morning. Ted did. We talked.”
“I think he’s taking a different tack on me. Trying to appeal to my sense of obligation to my wife, to Claire. He wants to say, or implies, I think, that she still loves me.”
“How on earth would he know that?”
“Well, it seems he’s talked with her, so perhaps he thinks he’s done his homework.”
“So, what would you like to do? What would make you happy?”
“Me? Now? If I could do anything, anything at all, to be happy again?”
“Ah, well, there is a lane, a road, in the hills outside Avignon. I would walk with you down this lane, to my grandfather’s house. He is very old, my grandfather, but I would talk to him, with you. And I would listen to what he had to say.”
“That sounds like a good thing.”
“Yes. He is a wise old man. And a smart-ass. You would love him.”
“Ah, well. Shall we go?”
“Is it always so easy?”
“Isn’t that what the old man said? In the dining room?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore?”
She was crying now, and I held her.
“Is there one thing you know?” she asked me then. “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s the one thing that seems clear to me.”
“Does anything else matter right now?”
“No, not to me.”
She looked at me, into my eyes. “Then we should go. To Avignon. Now, tonight.”
“Yes,” I said. This was a simple choice, to walk down a country lane in France. To be with the woman I loved, to hold her in my arms.
So simple. Such an easy choice.
And so, we went.
As the little jet rolled down the runway, fat drops of rain streaked across the windows as our speed increased; they vanished into the night as we climbed into the sky. Michelle sat beside me, her hand in mine, while the jet bounced and rolled into heavy gray clouds. Clouds that had brought sleeting rain to London that afternoon, clouds that seemed to chase us wherever we ran. Lightning lit the insides of clouds, cast oblique shadows through the cabin, then the entire aircraft seemed to lurch upward, slowly upward, then slam down several hundred feet. Michelle squeezed my hand, the woman across the aisle from us screamed, and within a moment we saw her reaching for the “sick-sack”. She almost got the thing out in time, too.
A few more bounces and rolls, a mild climbing turn to the left, then fragments of starlight just glimpsed, the moon overhead now casting a milky glow through the cloud, then we were up and out of the cloud completely, bursting free into a clear, starry night. I looked out the window; huge towers of cloud rose beside and ahead of us, their pale interiors glowing with lightning that occasionally ripped from somewhere deep inside and jumped from cloud to cloud, or down to an unseen earth, now far below.
The pilots steered between clouds as one late for work might drive through slow traffic. That is to say, they were weaving and dodging between roiling towers, the jet still lurching and dropping from time to time, and all the while the woman across the aisle sat miserably, waiting to make her way to the head. The flight attendant, sitting on her fold-down seat by the cockpit door, looked mildly bored and amused until one downdraft shook the jet and cast us down once again, but this time violently, and the left wing rolled down sickeningly. Now even she looked terrified, and the woman across the aisle was openly weeping.
And as suddenly as it had come on, the violent weather receded; we resumed climbing, and soon Calais and the French coast slid below, little amber lights twinkling on a vast plain of black velvet. Bright cabin lights came on a minute later, the flight attendant began readying her cart and the woman across the aisle dashed for the head when the seatbelt light winked out.
Such is the order of our universe.
Michelle snuggled into my side and I pulled up the little blanket she had draped over herself when we’d boarded. She was fast asleep within moments, while I looked up at the stars.
We made our way from the airport in Lyon to the station downtown and managed to get on a late night TGV that stopped in Avignon, and so of course arrived there in the wee hours. Perhaps arriving at four in the morning, in mid-November no less, was a mildly stupid thing to do, but travel on impulse often presents you with such confounding realities. There wasn’t a taxi to be found, of course, and the station’s lobby was preposterously small and almost empty: a couple of men loading sacks of mail onto a cart, a man collecting garbage, a woman dozing on a bench beside a wire rack of light blue rail schedules. The white terrazzo floor was all echoes and dull wax, which is to say I felt like it looked.
But of course, Michelle had a friend in mind. What else are friends for if not to call from the train station at four in the morning and, as if everything’s fine and dandy, ask if they might not mind a trip into town.
And of course, friends being friends and all, she came.
Her name, it turned out, was Leslie Dufour, and I saw she was seriously tired when she pulled into the broad circular drive in front of the station and opened her door. She bounded around and hugged Michelle, and then, with her shoulders scrunched up and giggling shyly, slipped over and hugged me too. It all felt very good, this friend thing, and we piled into Leslie’s tinier than tiny blue Renault and drove for a half hour until we arrived at her equally tiny house. The sun was coming up over the alps, the air was cool and full of promise, and I was about to pass out I was so tired. The girls wanted to talk, of course, and I assume they were more than understanding when I stretched out on the little beige sofa and closed my eyes, because when I awoke it was past noon. They were, however, still at it, merrily talking away while drinking black coffee and munching dark chocolate; but food was on their mind.
We drove down a narrow, tree-lined lane east of town and made our way to a tiny bistro that sat next to a modest square in the center of an impossibly small village. A stone-walled stream passed through the heart of the village, and though it lay on the far side of the square from the bistro, we could still hear the water as it slipped through on its way to the Rhone.
It was perfect.
The owner of the place came out of his kitchen when he heard us enter, and the man rubbed his eyes when he saw Michelle, then burst into tears and ran to her. This is, of course, not the behavior I typically associate with the proprietors of small country bistros. Ms Dufour stood by, beaming, while Michelle and the man hugged and cried; he stood back more than once, holding her face in his outstretched hands, then was hugging her again and again.
He was, it turned out and not unexpectedly, himself a celebrated chef.
And of course, as he had to be, this was Michelle’s father.
Life is full of awkward moments, strained first meetings, uncomfortable silences. This was not to be, however, one of those occasions.
I suppose you could say that for some people life has passed them by. Such souls are often lonely, weather-beaten and lost, and perhaps ready for another life somewhere, somehow, if only, and then they might add: “I could have had this or that in life – if only…” Then you might, and not unreasonably, expect to find there are others in the world who have embraced life on their own terms, found no small measure of happiness along the way, and indeed, perhaps even some success. No so satisfied that a valid working dichotomy had been established, you might be content to leave your examination of life among the living then and there and be done with it.
But there is another group, certainly less well known and consequently understood not at all. These people have at some point in their lives embraced life and succeeded, even flourished, but even then found something was missing from life. Or perhaps they found there was too much ‘noise’ in their life, too much money, too many insincere people, too much frivolity, or too little, and these people set out down a different path, a somewhat less conventional path, and, I suspect, what often turns out to be a very enjoyable path. Amongst this last group, along this other path, you would most certainly find Henri Ricard .
There are celebrated chefs, then there was Henri Ricard. He began working at a beachfront hotel in Cannes and developed a reputation in the seventies. Movie producers and other literati dined under Henri’s care and word spread; one Hollywood mogul bankrolled construction of a restaurant in the hills above Cannes, then someone asked Henri to open up a place in Beverly Hills. Why not? Sounds like fun! Then a small place in St Moritz, because I like to ski! San Francisco, New York, Positano. It turned out to be quite a ride, and Henri Ricard loved every minute of it.
But it wasn’t enough. Or perhaps it was too much.
He sold out one day. No warning, no mounting dissatisfaction, no agonizing second thoughts, and no doubts. He’d long ago bought this little hole in the wall in a forgotten corner of France and the time was right. He wanted a wife and a family, and he did not want to create one within the chaos of the glitterati.
In point of fact, the man flat disappeared. Nobody knew where he’d gone, or what had happened to him, but as it is among certain walks of life, within a few months nobody even remembered his name. Henri Ricard disappeared into blissful obscurity, and he loved every minute of it.
He was a happy man.
Then he cooked our lunch, and I was a happy man. Michelle and Leslie were happy, but Henri was happiest. Such is life with wine and food and love to keep you company. So many smiles.
And do you know what was funniest about that afternoon? Even odd, you might say?
He never questioned why I was there, what I was doing with his daughter, or what his daughter was doing with me. It seemed, for a fleeting moment, as if our presence that afternoon had somehow been predicted. Perhaps it’s simply life; we were just living life and all was unfolding according to some vast impenetrable plan, and as we appeared to be happy that was all that mattered to him. By the time we rose to leave — when sharp, black shadows had fallen across the little square – I felt like I’d known the man all my life, and was the better for the knowing.
I guess it was around five or so that afternoon when Leslie dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and drove away with a wave and a smile. A small dirt lane cut away from the main road, stretched off into the distance and seemed to drift away into hazy blue shadows under a soft shouldered valley. I could see a village steeple well ahead in the smoky distance, autumn trees overhanging long stretches of the road ahead, cows standing on the other side of a stone wall, their heads hanging over, reaching for that last perfect bit of grass.
And then, the silence.
Complete and total – silence. Embracing, penetrating, so foreign.
And we walked. Inside the silence – though perhaps it was that silence walked with us, for there was nothing else. There was no need now. No need for words. No need for time.
Just soft footsteps on an old road, two people walking hand in hand, and very happy to be alive.
Perhaps a mile up the road we came to a little stone cottage; it was well away from the old dirt lane and hiding in deepest shadow, for twilight sat well on this forgotten valley. Little windows full of glowing amber held back the night, pale blue smoke drifted from an unseen chimney, filling the air with gauzy memories of distant evenings, the warmth of my mother’s comforting smile lingering through time to hold me once again.
We turned up a winding, narrow path that led to the house, the dirt ahead lined with proud round stones, and we made our way past sleeping gardens to an ancient door. A little board adorned the passage, faded wood painted slate blue like the door, the name ‘Ricard’ carved by a steady hand long ago; the small lamp above the board gold and warm, and Michelle knocked on the door.
A single voice speaks, the rustling of feet across the floor whisper as dry leaves might through an autumn forest. The door opening, kind eyes settle on the woman by my side, flurries of recognition fall from the stars and the coming of love fills eyes that have waited far too long in the twilight. A tear, a sigh, skin seeking skin in the only immortality we will ever know, this passing on of ourselves, a small laugh passes in the still air, small because the joy is so big.
She is ancient, this woman, and beyond her, in the small light of the warm room, I see her husband, Michelle’s grandfather, sitting in a pool of firelight, a blanket over his legs. He did not, could not stand, but his eyes were sharp and clear and his surprise seemed complete; his granddaughter ran to his side and they held one another as though it had been far too long in coming. I was welcomed and asked in, taken to a favored chair by the fireplace, and I listened to a language I had once so incompletely known and I understood almost nothing that was said, but really, words were unnecessary, indeed, they seemed out of place in this here and now.
Michelle and her grandmother slipped into the little alcove off this room, into what was their kitchen, and soon the room filled with the sound of pots rattling against pans and the subtle scent of a love others might call food. Michelle’s grandfather sat with his hands on his lap, the fingers of his hands pointed up, forming a line of slender steeples, and his eyes sparkled with firelight.
“She tells me you sailed by yourself, from America to London,” he said out of the blue. “What did you learn?”
It took a moment, just a moment, to catch what he’d said, so heavy was his accent, but even so the question caught me unawares.
“Perhaps what most impressed me was how bright the stars are, so far from land, and how dark the night can be.”
“An interesting observation, certainly, but was this truly something you learned?”
His eyes smiled, he flexed his fingers, pressed them together.
“Perhaps not,” I said. “I guess I learned the validity of certain assumptions, namely that you can’t run away from yourself, from your problems.”
“Yes. I remain unconvinced, despite overwhelming evidence of the contrary.”
He laughed. “Good for you. Go down fighting.” Then: “What do you think of Ted Sunderland?”
“Ted?” What could I say? The truth? “I think he plays the gentleman very well.”
“I would have to say he’s clever, very clever, and vicious.”
“The two often walk hand in hand, do they not?”
“Too often,” I said.
“Do you play chess?” He seemed to consider his next move closely.
“Indeed? Well, perhaps it is time you learned a few new moves.”
He cautiously pulled a pipe and pouch of tobacco from his vest, looked over his shoulder at the kitchen, then he looked back at me, shook his head conspiratorially and smiled while he quietly turned his attention to the ancient pipe in his spotted hands. He prepared the pipe slowly, methodically, then lit a match, his leathered skin glowing in the flare of light. When the pipe was drawing as he liked it, he tossed the match into the fireplace with practiced ease. He looked at me again, his eyes full of dancing mischief, then he laughed a long time.
“He’s a character,” I said to Michelle while she helped me tuck a sheet onto an old bed on the sleeping porch out back.
“He never talks to people anymore, but there was a time, well, when he did.”
“Oh? He didn’t say much about himself.”
“Yes. That is his way. He was a philosopher, no; that is the right word? Yes, he studied at the École Normale Supérieure, right after Sartre, then joined them for several years, he and Simone de Beauvoir, until the war. Grandfather joined the resistance, but after the war he fell apart from all the intellectuals. He came here with Gran-Mama, to this valley, to the house of his grandparents, and here he has remained. When my father was still a young man, Grandfather began to cook . I mean seriously to cook, and he worked in a place, a small inn, near the palace in Avignon. He became somewhat famous, and one day Sartre came. No one knows, eh, what happened, but the next day he came back to this cottage in a great anger, then he fell sick. He was sick for a long time, and then he could not walk afterwards.”
“My God, a man like that. To be cut down. Like that.”
“Perhaps. But he began writing. In the early fifties. His oldest friends never abandoned him. Camus, Thomas Mann, they all came to see him, and I think they envied him. You have not seen this valley in the spring.”
“Is it so lovely?”
“It is, yes, I think so, but it is impossible for me to separate him from this place now. Perhaps it is that I have always considered him to be so pure, the essence of what is human. And to love this place, this valley, the villages just a few minutes walk from here, for me, this is my humanity.”
“So your father learned to cook? From him?”
“Oui. And from Gran-Mama, but there is not so much to teach, or to learn. It is just that you must find the best, the most fresh food, combine this and that, but always in moderation. That is the secret.”
“Sounds like a decent recipe for living . . .”
“No, not sounds like. Moderation is the only concept worth holding to. There is never goodness in excess. Never.”
“Ah, so you are a philosopher as well.”
“One cannot prepare food for a living and not become so.”
I had to laugh at that. Michelle did too.
“I wonder if I could ever love you too much.”
She pretended to stop and think for a moment, a smile working its way slowly across her face. “Hm-m, I do not know, but I am prepared to let you try. For a little while, anyway.”
“Would it be against the rules, uh, tonight, out here?”
“If we do not, Grandfather will become angry. And I will be very sad.”
“Ah, wretched excess. I love it. Anyway, I’m glad it’s cool out.”
“Might work up a sweat out here, ya know.”
Henri and Michelle’s mother Didi arrived long before the dawn; long before we woke up, anyway, and this proved to be a surprise for me, for Didi was a California girl. Born and raised in Beverly Hills and the daughter of a hard driving studio boss, she was as unassuming and pleasant as another human being could be. She still had that easy-going California thing about her, right down to the way she dressed, but I could see a real strength and elegance about her, too. Anyway, we hit it off and were off to the races in a hurry. She didn’t miss America but liked to hear about things.
Henri disappeared into the kitchen and went to work, leaving the rest of us at loose ends. Michelle led Didi and I through the gardens and up a trail behind the house that wound up a ravine and, eventually, to a bluff that looked out over Avignon and the Rhone. The view was worth the walk, particularly as the sun was just slipping up over distant Alps. Venus was still just visible, and how appropriate, I thought, to be out with two such staggeringly dynamic women with her ancient light still in the gracing the sky.
Leslie Dufour arrived, and we had some kind of monumental breakfast that would have made the masters in New Orleans sit up and take note of the error of their ways. We talked about London and sailing, and at one point — right out of left field — Henri mentioned wanting to buy a Smart Car, and I told him about the one we’d bought just a few weeks ago. It was, in fact, sitting in a garage in Honfleur, and I mentioned how fun it had been be to drive across France in the thing. And there was so much more to see…
“You want to drive? I do this drive with you!” he implored, and Michelle looked at me, gave me a little, indecipherable shrug of the shoulders that seemed to imply: “Go for it, if you’re brave enough.”
Didi chimed in: “Lloyd, dear, don’t you do it. In his next life Henri wants to be a race car driver.”
Henri took ready offense at this: “In my next life! You think I’m finished with this one!”
“I’d hate to think of racing anywhere in that car, Henry,” I said, “but a mad dash across France with you sounds like a blast and a half. Maybe next week, okay?”
“Sure, name the day.”
Didi and Michelle rolled their eyes.
There was, of course, the indelicate matter of two rather less than faithful spouses to attend. An ugly business, true, but I felt better now. Better, you see, because I’d just been shown a few new moves.
Leslie and her microscopic Renault carried us in a blue streak back to the station in Avignon; she wished us the best luck and hoped to see us soon, then a sleek, orange TGV slid silently along the platform and doors hissed open. Michelle and Leslie hugged again and we sat, watched her fall away as the train pulled away from the station.
“So, now you have met everybody. They were, until a year ago, all I held of importance in my life. Then there came Ted…”
“I doubt there was anything you could have done to prepare for that encounter. He’s world class.”
“Yes. Did Henri have much to say about him?”
“Oh, not much. Detests him, didn’t at first, though. I think it was your Grandfather who first saw through him. That’s what I gathered, anyway.”
“Yes. He would.”
“I suppose there’s not much that man’s eye misses. He’s the real deal, isn’t he?”
“What does this mean — this ‘real deal’?”
“There are a lot of pretenders out there. Lot’s of academics and politicians who claim to know so and so, and use that to press some thin agenda down your throat. It’s an altogether different thing to have been a part of something grand, to take those memories with you and hold on to them in silence. Not try to use them, or sell them. I could talk to him for days, or for the rest of my life.”
“Why don’t you? He’d love that.”
Night was falling, and as if on cue rain began smacking along the windows, smearing the blue glow of evening into streaky trails as the lights of cars and houses streaked by. The train seemed to be moving with incredible speed, but it was still smooth, silent, belonging to a world apart from the gathering darkness.
“What do you think of driving down with Henri?”
“You’re insane if you do, but you’d have fun. Both of you.”
“Would you rather make the drive? The two of us?”
She seemed to gather her thoughts for a moment. “No, no. If you must drive the car, better you make the trip with him. He would love the excuse to drive such a distance once again, and you would learn something of each other. He’ll drive you crazy, though, so you are warned, okay?”
“Yes, alright.” She was looking out the window, seemed almost agitated. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t say why, but I’m hungry.”
“Want to try the dining car?”
“Could we? Yes. I think so.”
“Yes, why not. After the past few days, it’s probably a good idea to have some truly dreadful food. You know. Re-acclimate to the real world.”
“You’re kidding, right? This is a French train. The food will be wonderful.”
And she was right. Again.
Why was I not surprised?
We just managed to catch the last flight to Gatwick, and crawled bleary-eyed through the terminal and down to the express into London, then grabbed a taxi to the marina. There was, of course, a note taped to the companionway door.
A note from Ted. He was most courteous, I must say, given the circumstances. He asked that Michelle call as soon as we got in, and she took out her cell phone and retreated to a far corner of the marina and called. I wanted to crawl through the boat, look for booby trapped doors and trip wires set to detonate huge bombs, but in the end restrained myself. I knew that, in the end, Ted was a gentleman of sorts and would refuse to blow up any vessel moored right outside his restaurant. Insurance would never cover the damages after even the most cursory investigation.
“He wants to meet with us. He said something about your wife wanting to be here, as well.”
“What?” she exclaimed, and she looked worried now.
And I looked at my watch, then took the sat-phone from its cradle at the Nav Station and dialed my home number.
“Hello?” That voice, so gratingly familiar. I wondered if she was alone, but found I really didn’t care.
“Claire. How are you?”
“Well, the Flying Dutchman, as he lives and breathes. Where are you? Paris? Honfleur? A bordello in Hamburg?”
“No. London. On the boat.”
“I’ve talked to this Sunderland fellow. He seems a nice man.”
“Yes, he is. Did he like the idea? Us meeting, perhaps for dinner, over here this week?”
Michelle’s eyes went round, and she appeared a trifle angry.
“Yes. Yes he did. I’ve booked a flight Friday evening on British Airways. Get in Saturday morning about seven.”
“Alright Claire. Now it’s a bit difficult, but you clear customs first, then pick up your bag and go through another checkpoint. Pack light, and I’ll meet you just outside that second checkpoint.”
“Oh, Lloyd, you don’t have to go to that . . .”
“Nonsense. Claire, I mean it, pack light, but bring something nice for dinner, and perhaps a play. I’ll get you a room here in the marina.”
“Why can’t I stay with you on the boat?”
“She’s a mess, Claire. Stinks to high hell.”
“Oh, alright, but you could stay with me, you know?”
“We’ll see. Lot’s of workmen scheduled the next few weeks. Anyway, I’ll see you Saturday morning.”
“Lloyd, thanks for understanding. I think we can work this out, patch things up, if you still want to.”
“Yes, we’ve got a lot to talk about. Saturday morning then?”
“Alright Lloyd. Goodnight.”
I pressed the ‘end’ button and, expecting the worst, turned to Michelle.
“What was that all about?” she asked, a mixture of anger and perplexed amusement rolling across her face.
“Ah. Just a new move. One your Grandfather taught me.”
“Oh, my. Indeed. So tell me. What kind of woman is Ted attracted to? Other than French chefs?”
Claire arrived, as promised, Saturday morning, and I was waiting for her outside customs in the main lobby. She was, as I’d assumed she would be, dressed to kill. Men passing by turned and cast appraising glances at her legs, possessive wives whacked errant husbands’ attentions back to more acceptable focal points, and I even cast an approving look at her once or twice. She was still aggressively sexy, at least when she wanted to be, and she knew it, too. In any duel, a dark, sultry look was still her weapon of choice, and I found this predictability comforting, indeed, most reassuring.
I wanted her off balance, of course. She was in a defensive posture, trying to protect her king, most comfortable on her part of the board. I assumed the best way to do this was to come on to her, appear contrite and apologetic, fawn over her a bit and so draw her out; she would think, hopefully, to have gained the upper hand and try to turn the tables on me. Her ego would take care of the rest.
There was no better way to do this than to take her shopping, and to spend an outrageous sum on making her irresistibly sexy. This, of course, was something she knew how to do; indeed, Claire had this sort of assault down to a well-honed art. I had simply to supply the American Express card and get out of the way. Sparks would surely fly.
Of course we started at Harrod’s, then we walked among the better shops in Knightsbridge. And I had never been so slavishly simpering toward her in all my life; to say that I fawned over her would be to insult all deer everywhere. I was a slut, a whimpering, tremulous slut, and after an hour she was beginning to regard herself as something of a dominatrix, and enjoying her public humiliation of me in a most English way.
I’ve never had so much fun with my clothes on.
We went to the Savoy and had a late lunch, then I took her back to the hotel.
By that point she wouldn’t even think of sleeping on the boat, and when I asked if she wanted me to stay the night with her, she said she’d have to think about it. I retreated, tail between my legs, to the elevator. After the door closed I started to laugh so hard I began to cry.
So this was what it had all come down to. Almost thirty years of marriage, dashed on the rocks of a practical joke. There was a mirror in the elevator, and a quick look revealed the face of a stranger that in some ways resembled me. But he was no doppelganger. No, not at all. That man’s eyes were empty, devoid of charity.
I looked at the stranger in the mirror.
“About goddamn time,” I said to him, “you fucking wimp.”
The walk to the boat was lonely, and frightening. I smiled all the way.
There is a certain measure of comfort in predictability, and until one finds oneself in that yellow wood at the fork in the road, I suspect more than a few of us are really quite dreadfully predictable. I detest manipulative people, always have, which was why I was in such a peculiar state that day. It’s fair to say that as I moved around the boat that afternoon I hated myself completely, and yet I was loving every minute of it. C’est la vie, eh?
But, I was there, now. That fork in the road was staring me in the face, taunting me, daring me. But who was moving the pieces on this board?
Well? You know, don’t you?
We were to meet in the hotel bar for a drink, then head out for dinner at an allegedly quite upper crust club that Ted belonged to. I walked up to the hotel a few minutes early and found ‘the Sunderland’s’ already visibly ensconced inside the comfortable gloom of a nice, dark corner table. I stopped by the bar and ordered one for myself and one for Claire, though if she remained true to form she’d be late. Quite late.
Well, actually, predictably late.
And she was…but it time well spent.
She had made a full court press this time. I’d never seen her so gloriously over the top before. A vision in black, even Michelle seemed taken aback; Claire walked into the room and men simply stopped what they were doing and stared. No, they drooled, as she walked by, and more than one woman did too. I’ve never seen a more sophisticated combination of elegance and pure out-and-out whorishness. She looked like Cartier’s version of a steely eyed dominatrix: black strapless dress replete with over the elbow gloves, glittery black stockings and outrageously high heels, dripping a dozen years worth of Christmas presents from Harry Winston, and all crowned by a slim black mink casually draped over her shoulders.
And poor Ted Sunderland. His eyes were about half way out of their sockets. I could see veins pulsing in his temple, his nostrils flaring, and could only imagine what was going on under the table. Pocket billiards, perhaps?
I introduced Claire to the Sunderlands and for a moment, just a moment now, I was afraid the evening would soon be going tragically wrong, for Ted seemed tongue-tied and — dare I say it — twisted? He was smitten, and Claire could hardly stand it. But of course I remembered that no response would more thoroughly arouse her, and while he stammered and fawned and made a complete ass of himself I felt almost overcome be a kind of wild glee. Tragic, but wild.
Yes, everyone was being so predictable. Except, of course, yours truly.
Even Michelle. I’ve never seen such manifest jealousy in my life. I couldn’t ignore Claire; no, that would have given the game away. So, I had to lavish attention on Claire as well, and soon Michelle was chafing under the collar from a miserable lack of attention. She tossed down her first drink, ordered another, and rifled that one down too. I wasn’t paying enough attention, obviously, but soon she had quite a stack of swizzle-sticks in front of her, and was decidedly glassy-eyed. So too, for that matter, was Ted.
This could get out of hand. In a hurry.
Predictably, it did.
I had no way of knowing what everyone’s real expectations for this evening were. Michelle and I, well, I assume our objectives were clear, at least to each of us, but I had no real clue what Ted and Claire wanted from the evening.
Claire? A reconciliation? A chance to rub my face in it before filing for divorce? Perhaps one last fling for old time’s sake?
And Ted? He had indeed begun to act the possessive, addled husband, and just in time, too. The poor man was wallowing in hypocrisy, playing the straight and narrow for all it was worth, bathing Michelle in guilt, tossing recriminations about like stale croutons on a wilted Caesar salad. Only now, whatever his intentions for the evening might have been, he was smitten and completely off-balance.
Testosterone. Don’t leave home without.
And Claire was smitten too, I could easily see. Sunderland had charm, real charm, ready and on tap; the man could turn it on and he was a marvel to watch.
And that’s when I felt a hand under the table, slipping up my thigh.
It wasn’t Claire’s. She was too far away, her attentions too focused on Ted. I turned, looked at Michelle, and was stunned by what I saw.
Chin in hand, a fantastic leering smile on her face, she was looking at me the way, I suspect, one might look over a nice, fresh Dover sole. So, thank goodness for long tablecloths!
Her hand drifted to its intended target and she began a little, well, a little massage. Her eyes took on a dreamy, faraway look, as if she was feeling everything I was and enjoying the hell out of herself. And it had been a week since France, a week without seeing her, being with her, and… and…
Yes. Predictable always has the, well, the upper hand. Every goddamn time.
Claire was, thankfully, on her third gin and tonic by this time, and poor Ted was off to the races, and was that his hand under the table, drawing cucumbers on Claire’s silky leg?
Oops, yes, she was biting her lower lip ‘just that way…’ carefully, oh so carefully trying to hide her sharp intakes of breath, but oh my, the signs were all there. The flush on her face, the growing fullness of her lips, ah, there, did you see that little tremble, I wanted to shout. She always does that when she’s getting close. Come to think of it, so do I, and I had just experienced a little tremble all my own.
Ah, ah, ah…and oopsy-daisy. Right over the edge. Michelle took me right over the edge, and she sat there like the Cheshire Cat. This big, self-satisfied grin floating in the air, a minor triumph for the night etched on her face. Thanks for black trousers. That’s what Bill Clinton used to say, right?
“Your little friend,” Claire said at that point, “seems to have had a little too much to drink.”
“I haven’t had enough, you cunt.” This from Michelle. Sweet, petite Michelle. Right on cue.
“Ted? Perhaps you’d see me to my room?”
“Delighted,” Ted said. I don’t know how he managed to speak so well and drool at the same time. Must take a lot of practice.
They were up and gone before you could say ‘simultaneous orgasms’ twice, leaving me with a very drunk French woman by my side.
It was fun walking back to the boat that night. Michelle tucked into my side, barely able to put one foot in front on the other, speaking in French and saying, I’m sure, the most dreadful things about American women and English men. I got her down below and carried her to my bunk, well, our bunk, and covered her with a blanket and kissed her on the forehead.
I went to the galley and pulled a Dr Pepper from the fridge and stepped up into the cockpit. I could see the hotel across the marina, and above a forest of masts I could see the back-lighted silhouette of two people kissing madly, passionately in what I thought must surely be her room.
I held up my Dr Pepper in salute.
“Thanks, old girl,” I said to the full moon. “Thanks for coming through for me, one last time.”
I tossed off the soda while I watched the two of them go at it for a while, then the light in her, uh, no, their room winked out, and I smiled.
Michelle and I sailed to Honfleur a few weeks later, a few days before for Christmas, actually, and we jumped on a train and made it to Avignon for Christmas Eve. We all went to Henri’s place, even Michelle’s grandfather, and we had a time of it. Two days later Henri and I retraced our way to Honfleur and picked up the little silver Smart Car and, as promised, made a mad dash across France together. We managed to talk a little too, and it turned out he knew one or two places to go for some good food along the way.
New Year’s Eve, and all of us were packed in the old stone cottage. Henri and Michelle talked about going in together, opening a new place, and they asked me to draw them something interesting. Didi and I talked about the differences between Christmas in America and France, and the old philosopher sat in his chair, pipe in hand, contemplating his next move.
Everyone had been so predictable, I’m sure he said to himself. Thank God, too, eh?
The old man lit his pipe, then sat back and watched his smoke curl up to the ceiling. He smiled, laughed a little, then flicked his match into the fireplace.
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