Dinner at La Grenouille

It was a late Thursday afternoon in early fall. I was unemployed and had just walked out of a job interview that I knew I wouldn’t get. That was the course of my life lately, and I had a bad feeling coming on, a sinking apathy that was up to no good, and it had both hands around my neck.

I dodged pedestrians as I walked up Park Avenue. The seamless flow of the city shifted around me like quicksand, leaving me to stumble and find my own way. I crossed the street, misjudged oncoming traffic and stared face to face with the charging grill of a limousine. I froze. The car hit the brakes, slid and stopped inches from my knee.

The wretched details of my life flashed before my eyes. I scrambled for the curb and sat down. The limousine turned the corner, eased up to the curb and parked. I thought: Fuck. I must still owe one hellacious gambling debt.

Bronwyn Whitmore’s perfectly manicured fingers signaled me to the window.

"If I’d known that was you, I would have told the driver to speed up."

"Nice to see you, too," I said.

Her mother Renee and Renee’s date, were also in the car. They were all headed to La Grenouille for dinner.

I knew Bronwyn growing up in the city. We were groomed for the same circles. But after college I let my hair grow, strapped on a backpack and walked a couple of distant continents for fun while Bronwyn strapped on a crocodile Hermes handbag, applied stylish mascara and walked three blocks to LeCirque for 9:00 p.m. dinner reservations.

The world according to Bronwyn was strictly material, and she made no bones about it. You had things or you didn’t. Possessions ruled.

Renee, on the other hand, had grown past all that. Beside, pettiness was time consuming, and who had time? Sure, Renee had the cash flow, probably something close to the GNP of a small European nation, but that idea seemed to bore her. Renee Whitmore had a light heart. It was delicate but carefree and could possibly be lifted off to anywhere in a small breeze. And women with light hearts made me warm inside. With her slight figure and timeless features, Renee had a presence that drew people in. She was a tight little package with a few frayed ribbons on top. There’s something good to be said for wear and tear, and I could only imagine a beautiful gift underneath.

In our corner booth, Renee fingered an elegant scarf draped around her neck. It was a gift from an Ivy League roommate, she told us. The roommate gave it to her on the first night Renee tasted Tequila, and Renee thought, for a few fleeting moments after she and the friend locked lips, that she might by gay. The fun of that moment in her life, she said, was that none of it really seemed to matter. The scarf, the Tequila or the kiss. While everyone at the table laughed, I couldn’t take my eyes off the smooth skin of her arms and neck. I knew if I ever got my act together, I could write poetry about Renee. I knew I could feel the heightened energy and will of that skin and put it all into words. She made me think of Byron’s Don Juan and Henry Miller at his raunchiest. Who couldn’t live with a healthy combination of both? She laughed again, and my mind was instantly made up.

Renee would be my Helen of Troy, complete with pouty lip, knowing eyes and polished marble. I wanted to burn a hole inside her, like a vision from the Second Coming, and lick her clean. I wanted to attach her to my soul, wrap her flesh around my fingers.

I ordered dinner but couldn’t remember looking at the menu. I didn’t remember the taste of my Scotch. A palm closed around my hand and Bronwyn leaned over to me and whispered: "I want you to stay over tonight."

I nodded Yes, and thought to myself: If only you could catch me. I’m already outside.

Without thinking, I am nothing. I am dead, a scatter of wind, a pelt of rain, a fallen oak, the rings of my age eaten away by termites. With Renee, my life would have meaning–something to strive for, something to lose, something to die for. It would be rich with possibilities.

I signaled for another drink, and Renee saw me. Her eyebrows went up. In my mind all hell broke loose. Blood and guts, spark and gamble, the depth of knowledge and the fall of mankind. And beneath the table, on her own erotic mission, Bronwyn placed her hand on my crotch and squeezed.

"What do you think of my mom’s date?" She asked.

I caught the date staring across the restaurant, looking for someone to see him sitting next to Renee. He could’ve been standing in an open field, deciphering constellations. I didn’t care.

"He seems nice," I said. "What’s his name?"

"Ivan."

Renee would be my living canvas, evenly stretched and tenderly smoothed over with a mix of oil and tongue. Magically balanced like Magritte, stripped like Klimt, colored like Matisse, detailed like Canaletto. I’d place those goddammed Monet waterlillies around her like a Venus, and I’d have a masterpiece. I’d be a man driven insane by his own capabilities in a matter of seconds. Suicide wouldn’t be a thought. It would be a necessity.

"What are you thinking about?" Bronwyn asked.

"Nothing," I lied. "Let’s hurry up with dessert and espresso." I grinned and Bronwyn squeezed my crotch again.

I excused myself and made it to the restroom hallway, where I waited. In no time I looked up, and there she was, standing in front of me. She took my hand and opened the door to the women’s restroom.

Clean tile walls closed in on my pathetically sad soul. Oblivious to Renee’s noise, I disappeared into the moment. Someone knocked on the locked door. I labored hard and we had to put that scarf in her mouth to keep things quiet.

Within the hour I am twelve floors above the city with Bronwyn beneath me and I can still feel the pavement below. Cabs move in timely unison. The speed of light ricochets off sleeping skyscrapers and baffles my brain to extinction. I think of your skin, Renee, as I screw your daughter by rote. And when I come, all feeling escapes me and freezes my insides to ice.

The next morning as I quietly walked out of the lobby of Bronwyn and Renee’s Fifth Avenue apartment, Renee walked in. She could have had that fatigued, hungover look about her, but she didn’t. Renee was composure and chaos, insanity and genius, but you’d never know the difference. She was stronger than the pull of the tide, the glow of the moon, the shuffle of the continents. And I let her go. I watched her go. Like me, she was soft in the middle and a rock on the outside. Go ahead and hit me. I’m hard as granite, but pliable as clay.

I stumbled to kiss her and she embraced me like an old friend. Public dictates proper etiquette. She pushed the elevator button and vanished, the doors closing behind her.

But they popped back open and she stepped out.

"Forgot my scarf," she said. In a rush, she flew by me.

Renee darted between two parked Towne Cars, waving at Ivan to stop, never looking behind. The brakes of Ivan’s Mercedes lit her eyes and all that was left was the sound of screeching New York City cab tires. Her body was thrown against another car. I turned away. No way to comprehend the pain.

Ivan jumped out of his car and ran to her, holding that goddamned scarf.

I stood under the awning, leaned against the brick wall. One doorman dashed by me while another picked up the phone. Labor unions and uniforms. There’s an interesting life for you.

A crowd gathered and an ambulance soon came. Ivan in his turtleneck and stoic face held Renee’s head, as if that would bring her back. Bronwyn ran by me in her robe and dropped in front of it all, a dramatic display of worship and whorish appeal that struck me as sacrilegious. I can’t explain why. Medics maneuvered around them. And finally, they were both pulled away.

That night had value and merit and a scathing epilogue. There will always be pockets of emptiness in civilization that will lead to decay, self doubt, and decline. Seize the day. Seize the damned day. Many have died and come up short, never realizing the honesty of courage or the sexiness of being bold.

I disappeared around the corner, my fingers trailed along the stone block of the building, the hard creation of a beginning and an end. Fuck it all, I said. I’ll wander the earth alone.

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