Grenouille

Linda calls me into her office as I walk by. “Evan? Word?” She used to be a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, and she has taught me more in two years than all my previous teachers combined. “How would you like to review a debut novel? Up for it?”

“By all means.” Have been reading the diaries of Edmund Wilson. Reviewing a book is new undertaking, but a good chance to show off, and maybe get a byline. Peter Gonella, NewsTime’s literary editor, has taken me out to lunch a few times to shoot the breeze. I am sure he will help. “Tell me more.”

“It’s called ‘Repeater Pencil.’ Coming out in six-months. Gramercy Park’s lead title. Thinking about featuring it. The author looks like Deneuve, a possible cover. The fall book issue. Have Peter write the main review. A profile by Jenkins.”

“Where do I come in?”

“You are her age. I want a peer viewpoint. It’s about going to a school a lot like Barnard, and trying to fit in. Nervous breakdown. Abortion. She’s from Long Island, so I thought of you. But she went to a public high school, not a preppie.”

Glad I never told anyone I was bounced from Sewell. I have never lied except through omission. Deneuve? I’m interested. From Peter I learn that one has to read about ten books to review one. No sweat.

“I’m intrigued, highly intrigued. And flattered.” I sit with my fingertips touching each other. We eyeball each other for a few moments. Linda is always trying to read me, and I never look away. Got that from H.T.

“Her name is Laura Essex.” I close my eyes. Lord it just can’t be. Because that could be a common name. On Long Island.

“Evan? Earth to Evan? Don’t tell me you know her.”

Open my eyes, hoping I look normal. “I think I might. Where is she from again?”

“Why don’t you ask her? The three of us are having lunch tomorrow.” Jesus. No sleep tonight. Homina, homina.

Last time I saw Candy is at Rowan’s, ten years ago. She is with her older boyfriend, and doesn’t wave back. I wouldn’t have either. Hear a few snippets here and there. Barnard, check. Obsession with French culture, check. That’s about it. Locust Valley High School? News to me. We were in the same class, but not at the same time. I lasted about three months between Mill Hill and Sewell. No sleep tonight.

Waste the morning proofreading and smoking clove Bimas on the NewsTime penthouse terrace outside Linda’s office. She is a fiend too.

“Why so glum, chum?” she asks.

“Preoccupied. With work.”

“Ha. Kiss my Brooklyn ass. You do remember her, don’t you? I saw the photo. Nice.” I love Linda’s easy familiarity – she’s had the Kissingers, the Ellingtons and the Queen Elizabeths of the world eat out of her hand too, but at a time like this I wish she was more reserved. Professional. “Grenouille OK? It’s a short walk and a beautiful day.” Beautiful day for me to immolate.

We pass through the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center where the NewsTime offices are located. Linda thanks me again for telling her how they got that name – they are located between the French and British buildings – one of the few times I am grateful for my store of useless knowledge about New York.

Henri, the maître d’, greets Linda effusively and casts a patronizing glance at me, her peon. I get a weak handshake. She has a regular table in the back corner. Have eaten here half-a-dozen times, once with my aunt, and the rest with Linda, and people she needs to impress for some reason. Agents. Jackass writers. The media. It always works. We order Bloody Marys and settle in.

“The usual, Evan?” Linda laughs, as she is well aware of my awkwardness in French. “You know our guest today was a French major at Barnard.”

“Oh course I knew that. She was?”

“Don’t bullshit a bull-shitter, Evan. I bet you were calling around yesterday and this morning. That’s what I pay you for, isn’t it?”

“Yes ma’am,” I say with mock meekness, looking down at the table. When I look up, my smile is as wide as hers, and we both start cracking up. The Bloody sinks in.

Henri again. “Madame, your guest.”

“Hello Laura, I’m Linda. How fun to meet you.” Linda turns on the charm. I rise and turn.

“Evan?” Candy starts to put her hand to her chest. Never cared for that gesture, but I don’t blame her for going to the effort of being surprised.

“The same, Miss Laura. It has been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“NewsTime?”

“NewsTime.”

Candy takes her seat heavily and I push her chair in. Wonder what happened to anything she has rehearsed to say to Linda. She is looking at Linda, making sidelong glances at me.

“Why don’t you two get caught up,” Linda says, hoping for some dirt on her assistant. No such luck.

“No need,” I say. “Tell us about your book, Candy.”

“Candy? Who is that?” asks Linda.

“Oh, an old nickname. The book is, um. Have you got the galleys yet?”

“No.”

“The book grew out of a senior paper I did for Edward Said, the author of Orientalism. Class I took at Columbia. I know he writes for you too. He said that it read like a novel, so I took it from there.”

“Wow. That is a first, at least for me,” says Linda. “What’s the plot of the book then? Is it a good story? Where are the bodies buried and so forth?” Linda goes Joe Franklin on Candy.

I relish the grilling, having endured it myself more than once. Candy squirms.

“Well, it’s not Dickens. We didn’t miss a lot of meals. My goal was to make it ‘suburban picaresque’ if that is such a thing. To show that, cosseted as we may have been, we managed to break out and find ourselves. To break the mold, without breaking ourselves.” I can tell she is improvising, and that her tidy speech went down the drain when she saw me at the table. Of all people, the one who can tell the story of her childhood years, regardless of what she peddles. Savor the moment.

Despite its reputation as a restaurant for ladies who lunch, they never feel present because of the way the tables are arranged. There is a painted screen placed to guarantee our privacy, and flowers everywhere. The atmosphere is quiet and refined, but not cold. Glad that I worked in similar establishments in college and do not feel the intimidation factor.

Henri appears with our waiter and directs the order taking. Linda was a French minor at Yale, and spent her junior year in the Dordogne. She gets the Dover Sole. Candy starts prattling in French with Henri and the waiter, and I am clueless as to what they are talking about. All I understand is Jacques saying “Un choix excellent.”

“Mr. Charles?” says Linda, one eyebrow arched, looking forward to me blowing it in front of Candy. I don’t hesitate for a moment.

“Je vais avoir le même, monsieur. Mercie.” Hope I sound more like Madame Erenthaler than “The Cat,” but the last time I spoke French was on a weeklong bender in Montreal, which must have squeezed any remaining particles of continental pronunciation out of my brain with finality. Linda gives me the warm smile of approval I live for.

“Well played, Evan. Et?” Again, with the one arched eyebrow. How does she do that?

“Et? Oh, et l’apéritif palourde.”

Ha. Evan loves the clams here. And everywhere, from what I hear. Now that we have ordered, would you two excuse me while I powder my nose? I want you to be prepared to tell me about your past together when I return, so get your stories straight.” She gets a laugh out of that, while Candy looks at me squirming.

“I practically keeled over when I recognized you,” says Candy. “That was mean. Don’t you know me well enough to have warned me?”

“I don’t know how well I know you Laura.” Using her real name straightens her spine. How could I warn you when I don’t have your phone number?”

“B.S. Linda must have it.” I avoid her eyes and look around the room, taking a mental snapshot. Grenouille has been open for about ten years, and gives Lutèce a run for the money. Aunt Pamela knew Andre Soltner when he didn’t have two nickels to rub together, one of her favorite expressions. Suppose that she uses it to remind me that being middle-class is not a handicap in this world.

“I’m nervous as hell, and you aren’t helping. Did you guys have a drink before I got here? I like Linda a lot, she must be fun to work for.”

“You haven’t seen her on deadline. She takes us out for drinks after though. I stumbled into the job, and mentioned Taffy’s dad in passing, but her old man’s name is still the gold standard here.”

“Seen Taffy lately?”

“Feels like I hugged her yesterday. Time plays tricks with the mind. You know better than anyone how Cuz’ sped off into the moonlight one night in Jody’s Whaler.”

“Never forget that night. Being so happy, so thrilled, and then so scared. I get goose bumps thinking about it” She leans forward. “Evan,” she starts to whisper, something I haven’t heard in years. “Vous souvenez-vous comment baiser français?” That much I do understand, and she kisses me in a way that awakens some outstanding memories. I pull back and rub my jaw in shock and appreciation. She has a thin smile, then the teeth. Wow. From ingénue to femme fatale in ten years. She hides her self-knowledge well, but is too educated not to appreciate how attractive, well-attired, and cosmopolitan she has always been.

“Your book just went from jejune to promising, ma chère.”

She leans forward to whisper again in my ear.

“If you do anything to mess this up, I will castrate you with a dull knife.”

“You what?” I pull back a foot, just as Linda returns.

“Having fun catching up? Sounds better than book chat. So, dish.”

Awkward silence as we take turns looking at each other. Candy smiles at Linda and gives me the drowning at sea look.

“Don’t everyone talk at once,” says Linda. “Laura is our guest, why don’t you get the ball rolling. We can get together again after we read the book.”

“OK. I’m game. We met in sixth grade.” Linda whistles. “We went to a country day school on Long Island. Our older brothers are friends too. It’s a small world.”

“So I’ve heard,” says Linda. “So I’ve heard.” She ribs me about the North Shore a lot. Locust Valley lockjaw, gin and tonics, the works.

“We sailed together, skated together, went to dance class at the country club together,” I say.

“Sounds brutal. But, then, I’m from a part of Brooklyn Major Strassner never invaded.” I get the reference, while Candy looks at me and shrugs.

“This is all in your book, Laura?” asks Linda.

“No, none of this is in my book. I start in my senior year at Locust Valley High School, which is called Buckram High in my book. My time with Evan and our friends at Mill Hill is another life.”

“Now I am even more interested in reading your novel,” says Linda.

“Me three” I say, hoping Candy remembers the usage.

“I hope you like it,” says Candy. “It’s funny the things we remember.”

“May memory restore again and again, the smallest color of the smallest day: time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn,” I say, gazing into Candy’s ego-melting cobalt eyes.

“God, I love Delmore,” says Linda, tamping out her ever-present cigarette. “How is it we don’t talk more about him, Evan? Too Brooklyn for your taste?”

“Far from it,” I say. Read ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ in school, then ‘Life of an American Poet.’ Made me want to read everything he wrote, but I couldn’t find that many titles at Gotham. They sell-out quickly.

“Delmore was in another league,” say Candy. “And he taught Lou Reed at one point, so I suppose his legacy lives on. Some of his allusions go over my head though.”

“Me three,” I say again. Have to stop using that Victor Borgean-doggerel.

“Evan, you look like a WASP-y Delmore. Same lips. Did you read Aristotle when you were thirteen?” asks Linda.

“Maybe, but Delmore understood him. I still get lost. Especially all that ethics stuff. Gotta learn ancient Greek. He was a male chauvinist, so why bother? And half of what he said was wrong. Like the bit about the king bee.”

Candy grabs the ball. “In my book I talk about stuff that falls through the cracks when reading translations. Sort of like people in a relationship when they talk.”

“Is that so? Do tell,” says Linda.

“Well, you know, people calibrate what they say about something. Like, say something different about the same thing to a lover than a friend.”

“Why would they do that?” I ask.

“Guess you’ll have to read the book, Evan. Don’t worry, you’re not it in.”

#

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