Just back from a lightning visit to Paris, which happily led to two pieces now in progress. In the interim, here is something I’m posting for a friend who is having a rough time of it. I am astonished to find that the original of the piece below is twelve years old. So much of what it describes no longer exists: the restaurant from which it takes its title, the two relationships it mentions. At the time, I thought I would be trapped forever in that faded room, drowning in memory with no discernible exit. On a recent visit to DC, I walked past to find its outdated gloom replaced with sunny Mediterranean fusion: white walls with dark terra cotta accents, French doors leading onto an outside terrace. The writerly resonance was not lost on me, and I found myself smiling…as I do now, while I rotate through my fingers the cork from that extraordinary bottle of wine.
At approximately nine-thirty last night, I raised a glass of 1983 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape to you, in the silence between the cheese course and the dessert. JB was making his drunken way to the men’s room, leaving me, briefly, by myself. The brightly colored walls of the tiny dining room were discreetly peeling, scattered with stylish black and white photographs which turned out to be magazine illustrations in cheap wooden frames. Service which may have approached amiable in the late eighties was now erratic and surly. Our waiter took it personally that I didn’t like my duck; he kept reminding me about it throughout the cheese course. But I took this to mean that he hadn’t noticed exactly why it was that I didn’t eat it. Said duck, which had arrived underdone and a bit tasteless to begin with, had languished on my plate while I tried to keep JB from crying over his rack of lamb, crying over a teenaged girl from Dublin who died of leukemia ten years ago, who is beyond any hurt or pain but whom he still holds onto as some kind of tragic working-class torch of sensuality and freedom blighted by fate. She is yet another of the hordes of dead, dying, or indifferent women who curl up in the space between him and me when we share a bed, and, for some reason, she decided to make an appearance during my duck. So whatever flavour there was in that poor bird seeped out into its surrounding pool of delicate mint and apricot sauce. I scooped the sauce up with the pureed potatoes beside it, and that was my dinner.
As I sat there, holding the back of JB’s neck in my hand, talking quietly to him as if to a fretful child, I was thankful that the few other people in the dining room were as absorbed in their own lives as we were. The older man with the red-haired girl whom I mistook for his daughter until they flirted over the dessert. The grey-haired woman who made her way anxiously through the dining room, carrying an enormous brown purse and a few garden flowers wrapped in aluminum foil, and disappeared into some private room, never to be seen again. On the opposite side of the room, a young woman in a black dress and a guy in what looked like his father’s Armani suit sat over their champagne. She and I were dressed almost exactly alike: little black dresses, spiky impractical heels, a single strand of pearls, hair slicked back over the left ear. Her date smiled at her toothily, laughed at his own jokes, didn’t watch her walk to the bathroom, slowly, for his benefit. When they left the restaurant and hailed a cab, he got in ahead of her and slammed the door, leaving her to walk around the back of the car, out into the street. There we were, in our Audrey Hepburn best, missing only the impossibly long cigarette holder, and yet the promise had not been fulfilled for us. Women of a certain age, no longer thirty but not yet forty, how had we found ourselves in this shabby ground floor restaurant with its dyed green acoustical tiles and the musty smell of last week’s flood waters seeping out from the carpet?
JB nodded off over his coffee, and further insulted the waiter by finishing only half of his chocolate tart. I bundled him into a cab, and smiled, as I always do, when we passed the arboretum on New York Avenue, its incongruous fog waiting patiently for me in the darkness.
— amrh, 23 August 2001, Washington DC / 15 March 2013, Mougins