The Wine-Dark Sea
The man at the reception gave them the worst room in the hotel. Remy surveyed the general gloom -- the low ceiling, the light bulb without a shade, the stained carpet. If he were in a charitable mood, he would have hoped it was the worst.
The twins had been shrieking and whooping all day. His wife Francine had been on Xanax since breakfast. She either didn’t hear the kids shrieking or she pretended they were a figment of his imagination, like her drinking and whoring.
Francine opened the window and a cold March rain blasted into the room. Sam had his shirt off and raced around the kitchenette table, inspired by the frayed Daytona 500 poster clinging to the wall. Jenny worried that Barbie's hair was getting split ends. She took out her pink scissors and had a go at the copper curls.
Remy was exhausted. But not Francine. She was at the tale end of her vacation in the land of Xanax. The sun was about to set over the Montmartre Cemetery, yet she was still flying as high as a kite by then. In her mind, she was Rocket Woman in love with a duke, opening the bay window of her garret on Rue Lepic. She was wearing a crimson gown, with ruby sequins. Ewan McGregor was telling her about a feeling he could no longer hide. Francine was Nicole Kidman, and was about to submit to her tragic fate on the stage of the Moulin Rouge.
Remy laid down on the bed and asked himself, How did I end up in this dump, in a freak cold snap, less than an hour from Disney World?
Ten years ago he graduated summa cum laude from Columbia Law. He was so smart that no member of Alpha Omicron Pi could get her hooks into him. They called him Odysseus. They circled seductively, yet none of them was agile enough to swoop down and peck through the ropes that kept him safely tied to the mast.
The sorority sisters didn't care about the other sailors who dove overboard and floundered on the rocks, baring their meagre cheque-books to the salty wind. They only cared about Remy, who was from an old wealthy family, the Bullions of Park Avenue, and who was about to take his starring role in the family firm, Gold, Bullion, and Sun.
Three sisters had what they considered verbal contracts, promising them two-story penthouses in the Waldorf Astoria, and yacht races on the Hudson. Susan McFarlan even considered their weekend in Bermuda a sort of pre-nuptual honeymoon. Yet when it came to an actual signature on a piece of paper, they all came up empty-handed. There wasn’t even a speck of gold beneath their crimson nails.
Among them, they traded love letters they were afraid to send, signed Calypso and Circe. Bitterly, they suspected that only some foreign woman, with the unfair advantage of a Mediterranean culture and a second language, would be able to close the deal. Some bewitching star like Penelope Cuz, with dark eyes and heartless guile. Some woman well-versed in the Greek classics and in how to transform men into the domestic swine they believed them to be.
Then, just as Susan McFarlan prophesied, along came a foreign beauty with swirls of glistening black hair. Susan figured that she must be Spanish or Italian. Her purple-tinted hair was cropped delicately around her ears, in a way that escaped the gay hairdressers of the Upper East Side.
Remy met Francine at a Joshua Bell concert, a tribute to the great violinist, Pablo de Sarasate. She was seated next to him, and about five minutes into the concert he noticed her perfume. It was as if something in the music had set it off. It was barely perceptible -- the intimation of a wave, a modulation, coming from some sweet garden of notes and nuances. The scent danced along the edges of a fine arpeggio. All of a sudden he felt her lips on the edge of his ear. She whispered, La musique, c’est ravissante!
Despite his Quebec ancestry, he had no idea what she said. Yet the R sound, rolled from the well-trained organ of her throat in a way he'd never felt before, sent a shiver down his neck. The sound ruffled through his thighs, then joined a jagged trajectory of clarinets and violins climbing to the stars.
Three weeks later, Susan McFarlan petitioned the New York State Bar Association, accusing the foreigner of practicing without a license.
Sam and Jenny decided that, contrary to the fantasies of their parents, it wasn’t in fact bed-time. Instead, it was midday beneath the Baghdadi sun, which was as harsh as the 100-watt bulb dangling above the kitchenette table. Jenny took the pillows from the double beds and puffed them up into lumpy sand dunes. Together they descended from the peak of Mount Sign-Eye to the templed lakes of Raja Stan.
Sam tore off the grey sheets and used his red plastic light-sabre to pitch a tent. Jasmine and Al Addin were being visited by a caravan of trading Chinamen. Echoing his father’s courtroom voice, Sam convened an on-camera powwow. The question to be decided was whether they should massacre the visiting Chinamen (Al Addin’s prosecution) or serve them peppermint tea (Jasmine's defence). She was sure they merited the tea, which was sweetened with sugar from their plantation on the delta of the Tigers and Pilates.
The chemicals that lead to Francine’s tragic demise on the Montmartre stage had left her system completely. She was now staring, without remedy, into the abyss of real life. Yet she was determined to suffer the reality, and not lapse into some Californian version of New Age mysticism. Nor was she going to take any sort of Better-to-bet-on-God offer dealt by that toady Blaise Pascal. Il faut parier, mon cul! she shouted at the olive-coloured drapes.
Francine looked out over the asphalt. She looked past the parking lot, across the road, and all the way to the next parking lot, which was in front of the motel across the highway. It had the same drab curtains and the same rectangular windows. It wouldn't have surprised her to see a woman with her same dead eyes staring out the window, looking straight at her. But there was no other woman, just a bare grey landscape, from the watery corridor in front of the buildings to the watery sky. There wasn't even a nauseating reflection of herself. Augustine's empty soul made more sense to her at that moment than Sartre's ubiquitous reflection.
Francine muttered something about the wine-dark sea, le cauchemar americain, and a black powder that could end it all in a moment.
Remy used to indulge her dark moods. But lately he paid more attention to the twins. He was worried that if she ever forced him to choose between her and them, the choice would be an easy one. He thought of simple Suzy McFarlane and how she used to quote passages from The Little Mermaid.
Sam and Jenny got along whatever they did. They created chaos all around them, yet while sheets and scimitars whirled across the room, they romped in its centre, in a strange sort of protected space. Dynamic, unpredictable, in the eye of their own twister. One minute they were drifting on the high seas, and the next they were swirling like water babies beneath the tether of a fairy godmother.
Remy loved their playful debates and their collective adventures -- although they could be dangerous at times. This afternoon, while they were driving on the I-295 around Jacksonville, they decided to make a complete scenery change. For twenty minutes the backseat underwent a transformation -- from the pirate deck of the Black Pearl to the floating deck of a magic carpet, complete with hookahs and a vizier named Jafar.
Jenny was changing into her Jasmine outfit in plain view of the passing cars. Sam was defending her honour at the point of his scimitar (which looked alot like a red plastic light-sabre). He still had his eye-patch on, and looked more like Jack Sparrow than Al Addin -- which may have had something to do with why the confused drivers were swerving dangerously around them. Remy urged them to put up a “fashion-screen” with their sleeping bags. This gave the half-naked scions of Agrabad some privacy. It also meant that Remy had no way of seeing the trucks and campers that were menacing his bumper. Just as he was about to shift over to a slower lane, Francine told him that this would be their last trip together. She was going back to Paris to live with the only man she ever loved, Jean-François. She had heard Dennis Miller call her a surrender monkey for the last time. She had eaten her last order of freedom fries. She would be leaving as soon as they got back to Manhattan.
Remy swerved the car back into his lane just in time, almost glancing a low-flying Corvette that had decided to use the lane on the far right. All he could see was the double barrel of its exhaust pipe as the mother of his children took off from JFK.
Remy thought back to the woman sitting next to him in Carnegie Hall. By the time Bell neared the end of Saint Saens’ Rondo Capriccioso, she had crossed her legs, dropped a stiletto, and raised the edge of her right foot up his Achilles’ tendon, taking with it the cuff of his pants. She slid her smooth Carmen-red toenails along his calf, gently rubbing upward and inward.
He looked across at the golden valley studded with a necklace of small diamonds, and saw that her breathing was steady. Calm as the waters of the wide Sargasso Sea. All he could make out was a rondo of perfume emanating from her body in synchronous waves.
During the intermission she darted her eyes upward to the exit on the left. He followed. She lead him into a handicap washroom, where she proceeded to turn upside-down everything he thought he knew about female sexuality. He had never met such an aficionada of nymphomania.
When they got back, Remy was too discombobulated to think about the man sitting on her far side. This was her husband, a retired gentleman whose family name was the only thing more lucrative than his six thousand Berkshire-Hathaway shares. He was now worth about 3.8 billion dollars.
Before he met Francine, Jason Stradivari had a strict rule of only dating beautiful Italian women. From the Old Country, he told his Juilliard friends over scotch and a cigar in the club library. Yet he made an exception for Francine, on account of her diplomatic skills, the perfection of her olive skin, and the way she played his ancient rare piccolo — which he reminded his friends was called an ottavino in Italy, and was at least ten inches long.
After a drink or two, he admitted that his instrument was more difficult to play than ever. Yet Francine knows all the stops; she doesn't even need a fingering guide. Two or three more drinks in, praise gave way to caution. She has the body of a Greek goddess -- and more drama in her than Clytemnestra!
Half way down the bottle of 1926 Macallan — at which point the true alcoholic parts with the delusions of Jekyll and enters the truth of Hyde — he went into details: the drugs she took, the violent temper, the virulent anti-Americanism. Last night she hurled our dog off the balcony!
But his friends couldn’t believe it. The old man must be exaggerating. She was too beautiful, too sophisticated. She knew everyone in Europe. They tried to change the subject, but by that point Jason had launched into an oratorio on the dangers of staying too long abroad, where the solid reality of American life is only a new-fangled trinket. The Old Country has evolved over the millennia its own forms of iniquity and fraud. There, across the wine-dark sea, contracts are made in the imagination of French diplomats, who are themselves liable to the persuasions of Genevan bankers. He lowered his voice and whispered to his friends, There are dealings under the table, crimson toenail negotiations... at which point his friends started to excuse themselves, wobbling toward the door, early morning meetings, the kids must be getting up by now, etc. Jason signalled the waiter to hover close to his ear: There, beneath the crimson waves, they take winking instructions from a pair of dark eyes. Clauses of silky eye-shadow. Addenda of bold mascara.
At the end of the night, the porter eased Jason into a cab, the old billionaire ranting about golden fleece, Medea of Colchis, and the transmigration of souls. Old Tipperton just shook his head. He didn't even try of make sense of Jason's final warning: Tip, old buddy, beware of Greeks wearing French perfume!
Several weeks later Remy found himself at Tray’s Coffee on Fifth Avenue, consoling the grief-stricken widow. She was in a black mourning dress with small silver studs along the collar. Her hair was pinned behind her ears, from which hung perfectly-shaped pearl ear-rings. She said they were Jason’s parting gift. She said she'd been traumatized by his sudden passing, and begged Remy to take her somewhere — Athens, Rome, anywhere she could take her mind off the tragedy she'd been through.