Joe Weintraub’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in many literary journals–such as The Massachusetts Review, The New Criterion, Prairie Schooner, Cream City Review, and Crab Orchard Review— as well as in regional and specialty publications such as The Chicago Reader, Modern Philology, and Gastronomica. Many of his pieces have been anthologized, and he has received awards for fiction and creative nonfiction from the Illinois Arts Council, the Barrington Arts Council, and Holy Names University. As a member of the Dramatists Guild, he has had one-act plays and staged readings produced throughout the United States and in Australia, New Zealand, India, and Germany. In 2018 his annotated translation of Eugène Briffault’s Paris à table: 1846 was published by Oxford University Press, and his two-act adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s canonical Villeggiatura trilogy, The Summer Season, was recently published in The Mercurian: A Theatrical Translation Review and it can be read online.
More at https://jweintraub.weebly.com/
Yet even Hemingway and Bonnard, it seemed to me, were unlikely to be found lounging on the decks of the audacious megahulks whose shadows we were then passing through. Andrea’s father, on the other hand, would have been quite comfortable on any of those, I thought, as we stopped to watch the multidecked Andromeda maneuver slowly out toward the Mediterranean. Her father had paid for our airline tickets and hotel rooms for what he termed “a premature but very welcome, I’m sure, second honeymoon,” and although we were both grateful for his gift, a whole complex of motives, in my opinion, lay behind it, not the least of which was saving his daughter’s marriage.
“All I see,” I said, as we continued along the quays of Port Vauban toward the Old Port, “is a bunch of ostentatious boats that cost far more money than I’ll ever earn in a lifetime.”
“They’re not boats, David, they’re yachts.”
“Yachts. Now there’s a word that never came up in conversation around our family’s dinner table.”
Of course, many of them were quite beautiful in their own extravagant way, although that was not something I’d ever admit to Andrea. I wasn’t thinking particularly of the looming tridecks with their helipads and Jacuzzis, but rather of the sleek and lowriding schooners and brigantines, their gleaming white and occasionally oaken hulls converging to a sword’s edge at the bow, names like Cheval d’Or, Aphrodite della Mare, and La Primavera emblazoned on their hulls or across their sterns, beasts and deities from another world, foreign to me.
But it was a world Andrea had once known very well, one which I assumed she’d left behind long ago, voluntarily, gladly, and with my full support.
Fortunately, in the Old City, not too far from the quays, there was a traditional French market, and in the plastic sacks hanging from my wrist were two loaves of country bread, a half-pound each of paté and ham, several rounds of chèvre, and two bottles of Côte du Rhone, enough, I’d hoped, to serve as both lunch and dinner for us that day. Andrea’s father had paid for our travel and lodging, but all other expenses were ours to bear.
“We can’t afford it,” I had insisted when the offer was first made. “I don’t care if he’s covering the bulk of the cost. We’ve got to handle all those other ‘sundries,’ as you call them, and a week of ‘sundries’ on the Côte d’Azur won’t be cheap.”
“Come on, David,” she said, as she wound her arms around my neck. “Let’s live a little.”
“We weren’t going to take a vacation this year, remember?” I replied. “That was your idea. ‘I’m sick of all this debt.’ That’s what you said, wasn’t it?”
She let her arms fall. “Well, I guess I was wrong then. I didn’t think I’d have such a brutal caseload this year. I’ll need some time off, and this’ll be one of the few weeks that’s open. Besides, your mother wants to come visit us this summer, and if nothing else, I could use a vacation just to prepare me for that.”
“Screw it,” I said. “Whatever you want,” and I mentally scrapped car maintenance for another year.
“Now don’t get all sulky on me, David. You always do that, and, frankly, it’s not very pleasant. We’ll have a grand time, unless you decide to ruin it for me. Besides, I’ll be looking to go into private practice next year, and then we’ll be able to afford anything we want.”
“But there’s nothing I want, other than to be able to do what I want to do,” I replied, seeing before me a future of limitless expectations and possessions and the need to design a limitless number of retail catalogs and direct-mail brochures to pay for them.
“And someday I’ll make partner somewhere,” she went on, “and we’ll have more cash than we know what to do with, with plenty left over for that studio of yours where you’ll be free to . . . “
“Sure, sure, someday, somewhere.”
“Besides, if I recall correctly, a fellow by the name of Picasso walked the streets of Antibes once upon a time, and perhaps he left something behind for you to pick up.”
I smiled at the thought of Picasso’s spirit inspiring me to create award-winning layouts designed to sell Birkenstocks and leather-fringed jackets. “Well, they say the light over there is something special. Maybe it’ll open my eyes to something.”
“That’s the spirit.” Andrea again wrapped her arms around my neck, and those diverging roads we had been heading down for the last year or so once again began to converge.
She took my hand as we turned from the Old Port down the long promenade that led past the Church of the Immaculate Conception and all the way, it seemed, to Cap d’Antibes. It was shortly after noon, and the Mediterranean stretched out before us, shimmering beneath the sun, its dark blue merging with the clear blue of the sky at the horizon. The yachts were now gleaming slivers of white in the distance, and an occasional sail skimmed across the surface, flapping and swelling as if about to take flight. We had hoped to walk along the promenade until we found a public beach suitable for a picnic, but the busy road and concrete ramparts—both of which extended far into the distance—separated us from the sea.
“I thought I remembered a beach along here somewhere,” said Andrea. “I just don’t remember quite where . . .”
I stopped, halting her as well. “Wait a minute. You’ve been to Antibes before? You never told me.”
“You knew I used to go to the south of France with Mom and Dad before they were divorced. A couple of times. I know I told you . . . “
“Nice and St. Remy, yes, but you never said anything about Antibes.”
Andrea had an annoying habit of revealing her past to me little-by-little, incident-by-incident, and I was sure that even after three years of marriage, there was much about her history she’d never disclosed to me. I suppose it had something to do with her estrangement from her parents after their divorce, and, in fact, I was even ignorant of her family’s great wealth until one Thanksgiving when she invited me to her family home—or, rather, estate—to meet her father and announce our engagement to him.
“Sure I told you,” she said. “You just weren’t listening to me, as usual.”
“I guess not,” and at that moment I wondered if our trip had been planned by her father to strengthen the bond not so much between my wife and me, but between Andrea and him.
“I wonder if it’s still here,” she said, as we resumed our walk.
“What, the beach?” and I took a closer look at the map in my hand. “It’s hard to tell from this map, but the first public beach still looks to be a long way off.”
“No, not the beach. There it is! It’s still here!”
She grabbed my hand, pulling me down the street until we reached an open gate. We then turned up a sloping driveway and walked past a hedge of oleanders up onto the terrace of a restaurant. Several tables, covered with white linen and place settings, were scattered about the space, and although they were all unoccupied, each seemed to have a small white card poised at its center announcing “Réservé.” The terrace stood high enough above the promenade to allow the diners, when facing east, to see nothing but blue surfaces expanding into the distance.
“Oh, look,” said Andrea, drawing me towards the table nearest the building. “There’s no sign on that one. Maybe it’s still free.”
The entrance to La Treille was surrounded by a trellis, covered in thick vines, lavender bundles of wisteria hanging from it like bunches of grapes. A dark corridor led into the restaurant, and I could barely see the reception desk, enshrouded in shadows, at its end. But the corridor then opened into a large room, brilliant with sunlight pouring into it from what must have been a huge skylight above, and bright prisms and flashes of silver gleamed off the glassware and cutlery on the tables and serving carts inside. Small bunches of pink, purple, and yellow—pansies, tulips, and daffodils—radiated splotches of color against the white tablecloths like painted bouquets on an otherwise empty canvas.
A tall, thin woman in a simple black dress emerged from the shadows, strutting towards us like a Chanel model down a runway, although as she approached, I spotted streaks of gray in her hair. She could have been the hostess, but from the chilly authority in her voice, I assumed her to be rather the owner of La Treille. “Monsieur?” she asked.
“Oh, David, please,” said Andrea, again pulling at my arm. “Just for a salad and a glass of wine, maybe.”
In my basic, halting French, I asked if the table nearest to us was still free.
“Oui, monsieur,” replied the woman, “mais nous ne servons que les menus aujourd’hui.”
“I think they’re only offering complete lunches today,” I said, translating for Andrea.
“I’m sure this is where we had lunch, Mom and Dad and I. We can do the cheaper of the prix fixe. We ought to be able to afford 150 francs. We can have the cheese and bread for dinner tonight in our room.”
“We were already planning to do that, There’s enough for both . . . “
Another couple had strolled up the sloping driveway and they were reading the menus posted just outside the terrace.
“David!” Andrea said, panic in her voice as she glanced over toward the couple and then back to me.
I shrugged my shoulders and turned back toward the woman who continued to stare at us in silence. “D’accord,” I said. She nodded, went back into the restaurant, and Andrea took possession of our table.
Sitting down across from her, I placed the sacks of groceries in the shade beneath the table, and before I could complain about the likelihood of the chèvre being ruined in the heat of the day, our waiter had arrived. “Désirez-vous un apéritif?” he asked.
“Kir royal,” said Andrea.
I stared at her darkly.
“It was Mom’s favorite,” she explained. “She ordered it all the time when she was in France.”
“Nothing for me,” I told the waiter in English, and when he was gone, I said to Andrea, “You know, just because your mother . . . “
“Mom used to say when you order an apéritif in a French restaurant it signals to the waiter you’re serious, and then they’ll take really good care of you.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get the 150-franc lunch just like I promised.”
When the waiter returned with Andrea’s aperitif, we both ordered our meals, and I asked for a half-bottle of blanc de blancs. I told the waiter we didn’t need any water.
The kir sparkled rosily in its tall, thin flute.
“Taste it,” offered Andrea.
“No, it’s yours.”
“Taste it,” she repeated in her most seductive voice as she pushed the drink toward me.
“A bite of the apple, right?” I took only a small sip, just enough to savor its fruity sparkle against my tongue, and then I sipped again, and after returning the kir to Andrea, I leaned back in the chair, succumbing to the aftermath of its flavor and the soft breeze that seemed to originate not from the air, but the very blue of the Mediterranean itself. The sun, which had felt as if it were going to beat down on us like a hammer when we started our walk that morning, now caressed the terrace in a radiance that was far more light than heat.
The waiter returned with a bucket of ice wrapped in a white towel, and after swirling our half-bottle of wine inside, he left the wine there by the table to chill. By then, family groups had begun to assemble on the terrace and around the larger tables or drift inside the restaurant. Most of the men wore ties and jackets, and the women and children were dressed as if they had just come from an Easter service at the church up the road. By the time the waiter returned with our first course, only one or two tables outside remained unoccupied.
He set the plates on a tray next to our table, wrapped the towel around the bottle as he removed it from the bucket, uncorked it, and graciously offered the first taste to Andrea, who had been watching him closely in anticipation. When she nodded approval, he filled both of our glasses and placed our first courses in front of us. The smoked salmon, covering our plates in paper-thin slices, was speckled with minced onion, which gleamed in the light like diamond chips, and with green-black capers as small as peppercorns.
Andrea raised her glass. “To what should we toast?” she asked, and before I could propose an answer, she said, “To lunch in Antibes,” and after she clicked her glass against mine, we both sipped the cool wine.
A yellowish olive oil oozed from the salmon as I cut into it. “If salmon were butter,” I thought after my first bite, “this is how it would taste,” and I eased back again into my chair, no longer concerned about whether or not I had enough francs and traveler’s checks in my pocket to cover the rest of our visit.
A frantic honking came from the roadway, followed by a huge, black sedan accelerating up the sloping drive. I stiffened for an instant, fearing that an accident was in progress and that we were about to become part of it. But the driver knew where he was going, and the vehicle rolled to a halt just in front of the restaurant. It was a Rolls-Royce, and although I’m no expert on such things, I assumed from its size and boxy frame that it was several decades old, although from the lustrous shine of its black body and tan roof, it could just as easily have been driven directly off the showroom floor.
The driver slipped out from behind the wheel. A black overcoat covered his jacket, which, I’m sure, matched the black of his pants and tie. A young woman—long, straight blond hair flowing down her back—emerged from the passenger seat on the other side, followed by another woman, a generation older, exiting from the seat behind her. It was early spring, and although the overcoats they both wore were not far out-of-season, the black fur around the older woman’s shoulders must have been oppressive in the warmth of midday.
The driver opened the door to the rear seat on his side and leaned inward. When he straightened up, a frail, aged woman was clinging with one hand to him as she stepped uneasily out from the car. Shrinking slightly backwards from the sudden glare, she drew the collar of her fur coat tightly around her neck with her other hand as if she had been struck by a blast of winter air rather than the light of the afternoon sun.
The woman who had greeted us rushed out to meet them. The expression on her face, which had been just short of glacial when we arrived, was now softened by a wide smile.
“Oh, Monsieur, Madame Jamieson, it is so good to see you here today,” she said in heavily accented English. “So good to see you back. . . . And Emily, too,” she added as she took the blond woman’s outstretched hands and pecked her once, twice, three times on her cheeks. She then gave a similar three-kiss greeting to the older woman behind her. “We’ve held your table open each Sunday all last month, up to the very last minute.”
“Thank you so much for that, Irène,” said the woman, who spoke with a British accent. “We finally managed to coax Mother out of the house. I’m very much surprised we’re here even now.”
Irène then shifted her attention to the other side of the car. The man had wrapped one arm around the elderly woman, but he now dropped it to accept Irène’s greeting with both hands. Afterwards, Irène took the elderly woman by the shoulders and said simply, “Ah, Madame Jeanne, quel plaisir!” The woman looked at Irène as if she hadn’t the slightest idea who she might be, and when Irène leaned forward to kiss her cheeks, she flinched as if afraid she were about to be bitten.
Irène shook her head as if to say “No matter,” then led the group into the restaurant. “You give the keys to Charles,” she said, turning back to address the man. “He will park the car for you. I am so glad to see you today. We have an exquisite rascasse!”
“And langoustine, too, I hope,” said Emily, the younger woman. “I’ve been tasting it in my dreams for a month, and now I’m so hungry . . . “
“Bien sûr, Madamoiselle, just for you. With the taste of the sea still . . .”
“No!” cried the elderly woman. She and the man had been walking slowly behind the others, but when they reached the threshold of the restaurant, she stopped him. “No!” she cried out again, and despite her frailty, it was clear from the tension in her body that she was not going to take another step forward, that she would not enter the restaurant unless the man picked her up and carried her inside against her will.
“Mother,” said the older woman, walking back out from the shadows of the entranceway to confront her. “We’ve taken so much trouble to get you here, and now you’re finally here after all these weeks. If not for you, think of us! Please, look at me!”
But Madame Jeanne continued to stare down in terror as if she were being asked to cross not the threshold of La Treille but rather an impossibly wide crevice, an abyss whose fathomless depths led down to nothing.
“No!” she insisted, still refusing to meet the gaze of the woman standing directly in front of her.
“Mama, please,” said the man by her side, but when he tried again to press her forward, she began to tremble, repeating in a voice increasingly louder and more piercing, “No! No!”
“It’s no use,” he said to the woman in front of him, and then he dropped his hand from Madame Jeanne’s back and took her by the arm. “Come on, Mama,” he said, turning her around, “We’ll go back home.” She smiled weakly at him, clinging tightly to his arm as if it were a lifeline drawing her away from the edge of the emptiness into which she had almost fallen.
The other two women stood silent for a moment, stricken expressions across both their faces, although the pain on the younger one’s face could scarcely conceal her anger as they watched the man and the old woman move slowly and cautiously back to the car. Not until the man had settled her down and was again behind the wheel did the pair return to their places inside the car.
As the Rolls reversed down the driveway, Irène appeared outside her restaurant. One hand she held in front of her mouth, and the other she waved slowly back and forth until the car turned into the street and was gone. She then wiped the tips of her fingers softly across both of her eyes and disappeared back into La Treille.
“Oh, that was so sad,” said Andrea, as entranced by the scene played out before us as I had been. She then leaned towards me, lowering her voice slightly. “It reminded me so much of Grandmom. We would go out for a special lunch on Sundays, too, until she just became too old. The Tarrytown Inn. That was the name of the place, I think. The owner treated us all like royalty. Nothing was too good for us. Sometimes privilege can be a priceless thing.”
“Really?” I said, also moved profoundly by what we had just seen. “I would’ve thought just the opposite.”
“Oh, right, you would,” Andrea said, falling back again into her chair and shifting her attention from me out to the blue horizon speckled with its white sails, and it was at that moment, I think, that she decided for sure down which road she would be traveling. I wasn’t certain then about my own direction, but I knew it wasn’t the same as hers, and once again our paths began to diverge, until, before long, we lost sight of each other altogether.
Previously published in Oyez Review, Spring 2014
Prose in this post: © Joe Weintraub
Published with the permission of Joe Weintraub