I’m really pleased to hold you in my hands, and promise I won’t talk to you in this silly way anymore, except in this paragraph. I have you lain open like a “book”—Xato would call it a book, I would call it a book—a book from the days I somehow don’t remember. I sit at a stylish desk on a funny chair that looks modern to me but was described by Xato as an “antique heirloom of the family” when rolled into the room, an Aeron Chair, he called it. Xato, who had known me for several hours at that point, Xato sensed my reserve and pretended to look around for alternatives, but I was eager to agree and said: “It will do, Xato.”
“Whatever your preferences,” Xato replied.
Whatever-your-preferences…I really ought to call him that way, although it would be impractical as the name of a young guy that shows up at your bedside and introduces himself as your PA (“pee a?”—“Yes, Miss, pee a,”—“You mean it?”—“Oh, excuse me, Miss, that would be ‘personal assistant’”). He then apologizes for the “unscheduled void” of “the family”—and in particular for the “most unfortunate” absence of “The Senator” who had “longed” to be at my side “at this critical juncture” and who had been held back “by the most urgent Business of State,” but who “had not failed to send his greetings in redemption.”
Redemption, yes. I lost my train of thought. I am not very clear still, and certainly wasn’t at that critical juncture when I felt—I’m searching for a word—unredeemed, totally.
My PA (“Could you tell me your name?” (I ask)—“Whatever your preference, Miss” (he answers)—“You don’t have a name?” (I ask)—“I am completely at your disposal,” (he answers)—“My preference would be for you to have a name,” (I say)—“I can tell you my previous name, Miss,”—(yes, great)—“Xato, Miss, they called me Xato”)—so Xato is a bit special. He is somewhat pedantic, he’s unbearably eager, eager to please, but he’s also very handsome. Hot, actually, girls, he’s hot. I haven’t been able to take my eyes away from him. His face is chiseled, framed by high cheeks and wide-set amber-colored eyes (the color of honey, unbelievable). His nose is straight, but expressive (the nostrils). The lips are always ready for a sheepish smile. His bod is perfect, just-so, perfect. And, girls, his butt, round like the moon, his container. He’s beautiful. His smile. He’s beautiful. His dress is a bit off, though. He wears an iridescent, sleeveless shirt of mysterious material that drops down to the knees and is hemmed in a mismatched fabric, also iridescent. If it weren’t for the hues, he would look like some underdressed hero from the history books, from ancient Rome, or Greece. And somehow, I know his face. If only my mind wasn’t so foggy, I’ve seen this face before.
(Let me think.)
Yes. “What is a PA,” I asked right into this face, and his eyes twinkled and his deep voice (a bit too deep for his age) answered: “Personal assistants are versatile agents providing ill-defined services to free agents.”
I thought for a little while (‘provide,’…‘service’…’versatile’) and asked: “That would include tea?”
“Most certainly Miss. The kitchen could offer you white, green and Olong tea, black, herbal and Rooibos tea, not to mention Mate and blooming tea.”
“White tea is the purest and least processed of all teas. This loose leaf tea brews a light color and flavor. Green tea is the most popular type of tea, mainly because it is the beverage of choice in Asia. Some loose green teas are scented…”
(And,—you know what, Diary—Xato got the message.)
He disappeared through a mysterious opening in the wall (I’ll explain later), and reappeared through the same opening only seconds later with a silver tray in his elongated hands, (perhaps I had dozed off in the meantime). He then proceeded to pour Earl-Gray-scented black tea—well, no, he didn’t. He put the tea pot (finest china; iridescent) back down on the tray and asked: “Wouldn’t you prefer to pour the tea yourself?”
I shook my head and expected him to reply: ‘Whatever your preference (Miss).’ Instead he said: “The Lady of the House always insists on pouring the tea herself.”
“The lady of the house,” I echoed and dropped my head back into the downy pillows, of which there were a great many.
“It would cast a spell upon the house, she believes.”
I was still foggy—I have no idea how sharp I am under normal circumstances—so I didn’t say anything for a while, but then sighted: “Whatever my preferences.”
“I need to confer,” he replied, put the tray down, and disappeared through the mysterious opening. He reappeared soon (just giving me the time to think a few self-centered thoughts), and began pouring the tea. We were back to normal.
There was a full range of tea things, all eager to enter the ceremony, a silver sieve for tea leaves, containers for cream and various sugar cubes (white, brown—“or honey, perhaps,”) and a silver spoon to round out the work. There was also a non-tea thing, a square brown little bottle of carved glass labeled Cointreau. Xato handed the cup to me, on its saucer, pointed at the bottle and said: “How about a fortifying little shot, Miss?”
“Whatever your preference,” I answered.
He chuckled, unscrewed the bottle, poured the “shot,” and held the neck of the bottle under my nose.
“It’s orange liqueur,” he said, “Lady Abercrombie’s favorite, the only one tolerated in this household.”
“Liqueur. Alcohol, you mean?”
“Of course,” he answered. “She drinks of it three bottles per day.”
Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier: at that point I didn’t even know my name (Xato didn’t seem know my name either). I had no memories of my past, and didn’t remember anything about alcohol, except that there were some dark clouds hanging over the word—“alcohol,”—if dark clouds are able or willing to hang over words, that is. Well, the deed was done. I started sipping the tea-plus-Cointreau that didn’t taste like Earl Gray at all: it tasted more like electricity, tingeing with my tongue, playing with my palate, burning mildly. Booze. One cup and I was sent into a new state of fogginess. A second cup, and I dropped the saucer and went back to sleep.
I was alone when I woke up. The tea things were gone, but the chamber was still the same. It was empty, except for two night tables, the bedstead, and one funny, antique-looking chair at an odd angle next to the bed, blind, the room, with walls of diffuse, mild whiteness—so diffuse that I couldn’t make out the room’s size (the writing desk and the Aeron Chair would come later). It was the same room, yes. It had rally happened—Xato, the tea, the Cointreau had really happened—but that was all that had happened in my life. Where was I? Should I get up? Cry for help? Try the device lying on the right night table that looked like a remote control for toddlers? I pushed a few buttons. The grayness brightened, the room appeared to expand, the wall on my right disappeared and gave way to the view of a wide, calm, blue expanse under a low-hanging evening sun. Water, a lot of it. A sea, an ocean. Xato reappeared, his handsome features bathing in the setting sunlight.
“You called, Miss,” he said. There was a new, mild sense of irony in his voice which I loved immediately.
“I pushed buttons,” I said.
“An excellent choice,” he replied with a look at the remote.
“I need to pee,” I said.
“Indeed,” he answered, motioned for the remote, and said “Let me show you.” He pushed a button and the eastern side of the room gave way—this assuming that the sun was still setting in the west—gave way to a gleaming bathroom about which I’ll explain later. I got up, entered the bathroom, and didn’t quite know what to do. I would have to sit down on the lavatory in order to pee. Would I have to pee in Xato’s presence? He was still there, a few meters away, his friendly eyes following me like—like people follow the doings of a cherished pet. I sat down on the lavatory, then got up again.
“Xato,” I said.
“Do I have to pee in your presence?”
“No, Miss, you are a free agent.”
“This ‘free-agent’-thing,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Free agents can do whatever they want. Inside the confines of the Planetary Law.”
“So,” I said, “I could pee in your presence, or I could not pee in your presence.”
“Absolutely, Miss. You could choose not to pee, or, to exhaust the binary square of alternatives, you could choose to pee in my absence.”
“You know Xato,” I said. “As much as I like your presence, I really like to pee in your absence.”
“Absolutely, Miss,” he said, and the mysterious wall reappeared and closed the bathroom for a cherished piece of privacy. I peed.
I had peed. Now I had to return to the bedroom, but the wall was still there. Mmhh. There had been books, books I had read (I somehow seemed to remember), where people walked through walls, especially mysterious walls. This wall was mysterious, and I walked right through it.
“Fabulous, Miss,” Xato greeted me on the other side, “my heart-felt compliments.”
I was still too foggy to ask for an explanation and went straight back to bed.
“You want to sleep, Miss,” he asked.
“Dunno,” I said.
“Would you mind if I take an update?” he asked.
“It’s easy,” he said, “would you agree?”
“Whether it’s easy?”
“Whether I take the update.”
He took hold of my left wrist. I didn’t resist. It wasn’t anything romantic of course (not on his side, at least), it felt like a family doctor taking your pulse. “You’ll be fine,” he said, “CAHI of 93 percent. Very good, under the circumstances. You should be hungry.”
“I am,” I said, letting slip the ‘CAHI’ and the ‘circumstances.’
“The Senator has not yet returned and the Lady of the House is indisposed. The family dinner is in jeopardy,” he answered. “But we will—we can—arrange for a bedside mealtime. The kitchen could offer you Pad Thai made with hand-ground tamarind pork, yellow curry lamb and organic Sag Paneer, succulent rolls of rice with firewood-braised Columbian plantains, Korean-Mexican fusion beef tacos....”
“Chicken,” I said.
“These are just suggestions,” he replied.
“Chicken.” I repeated.
“And as to accompaniment. The kitchen could offer…”
“Indeed,” he replied and turned on his left heel to make five steps toward the mysterious opening on—what was it, west, east—on the southern wall. He then stopped. His mid-sized, held ears seemed to stir as he listened to the noises beyond the “door,” footfalls approaching, laughter, high cheers of several people passing and rapidly withering away.
“Chicken it is,” he said as if commenting on the commotion outside, resumed his steps, and disappeared.
I was alone with the setting sun. Perhaps you’ve never paid attention to this before, it takes roughly two minutes for the sun to set. It took a few minutes more and dust appeared, descended, darkened. The first stars twinkled. Venus was shining brightly when my personal assistant reappeared, silver tray in hand decked with a set of large chicken things, the tray, plus bottle things (two smaller bottles with fancy labels in RSVP font, two large water bottles), thick napkins of starched whiteness, implements, side-dishes, complications, silver on china, china on china.
The tray unfolded on side legs and was positioned at the level of my abdomen. “Don’t hesitate to use your hands, Miss,” he said, “Lady Abercrombie practically insists on bare hands when it comes to bones. And it’s proficient. The Senator is a great fan of proficiency. The entire household obliges. Unless you want me to feed you.”
“You’re so kind,” Xato, I said—no idea where I picked up expressions like ‘that will do,’ or ‘you’re so kind,’ no idea.
I didn’t hesitate to use my hands. The chicken was done Southern-fried in a crunchy, spicy coating. I knew the recipe, somehow, eggs beaten with water, lots of red pepper sauce added, chicken pieces pre-seasoned with pepper, salt and garlic powder, dipped in the egg, coated in self-rising flower, cooked in peanut oil at 170° centigrade; white meat takes eight minutes, dark meat takes a bit longer. I had done this myself, or learned it from my mother, provided I had ever had one. A mother. Or a father.
“Xato,” I said, “what is my name?”
For some reason or other I had expected Xato to hesitate, if only for show, but he didn’t. “I don’t know Miss,” he said.
“What do you know about me?”
“I am your PA.”
“That’s all you know?”
“It means a lot…no, let me correct myself, it implies a lot.”
“How come I’m here?”
“You have been taken into the custody of the family.”
“I am not privy to that information.”
“You really don’t know.”
“The Senator may know. And the Lady.”
“I don’t know. I’m not allowed to read their thoughts.”
“You’re not allowed?”
“Not allowed, Miss.”
“How about my thoughts?”
“Ditto,” he said, “you are free agent.”
Looking back now—it was a terrible mistake not to follow up on his “ditto,” a mistake that may will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I was hungry, and he had handed me another piece of chicken. I used my hands.
“How about a glass of wine, Miss?” he asked.
“Yes, Miss, here, with chicken, both red and white are most suitable. He pointed at the two smaller bottles mentioned earlier. I had heard of “red wine,” and “white wine,” somehow, but the liquid in one of the bottles, the transparent one, was more amber than white, and the other bottle was dark and wouldn’t give away the color of its content. “This,” he said, pointing at the first bottle, is a Meursault, Les Charmes, eleven years old, the ideal age for this appellation, we have been informed.”
“So, you mean this is tasty stuff.”
“That’s what the Senator thinks.”
“It’s not red.”
“No, it’s a white wine.”
“It’s not white.”
“I believe it’s just a way of speaking, the way wines are classified. There are only three colors, broadly speaking, save for some fancy exceptions. Portugal has a “green” wine, and there’s a “gray” pinot in Italy. ”
“So, the dark bottle would be the red stuff.”
“Yes, Miss, if you choose to call it ‘stuff.’”
“It’s not stuff?”
“Miss, it’s entirely up to you to call it stuff.”
“Please.” (I said).
“You want me to call it ‘stuff’?”
“You don’t have to.”
“You could order me to call it ‘stuff’.”
And now, because of the vibes all around us, and despite him being ten years older, and despite the toned definition of his triceps, and his strong shoulders, and the twinkle in his eyes, and so on, I said: “I want you to call it ‘stuff’.”
“Stuff it is, Miss,” he answered.
“What is it then?”
“Well, it’s red wine, as I indicated already, a Beaune Grèves, Domaine des Bollène. Relatively light, from 203, a very good year, we’ve been informed.”
“Alcohol,” I said.
“Okay, you won.” (I said).
“Not sure I can handle more booze today.”
“These are just suggestions, Miss, the cellar offers an expansive spectrum of choices.”
For one reason or another I caught on to this expression, expansive spectrum. “You mean the stuff is expensive.”
“I wouldn’t know about the prices, but I could inquire,” he replied. “Expansive, I mean, there’s a lot of it. To please the most discriminating pallet.”
“Expansive spectrum,”—I sort-of put things back together again.
“Yes, Miss.” And now he went into—how would you call this, lecture is not the right word—he gave me a run-down of this cellar, or its content, how it would relate to chicken, or the taste of chicken, an in particular the Southern fried one having already been served and now getting cold on my plate.
I felt kind of naughty, and asked him to open the red wine and pour a glass. Which he did. Or not. He poured less than a finger of the stuff into the most oversized tumbler on the tray, an oblong bowl sitting on a long, fragile stem, and handed it to me. I was somehow surprised by the—weren’t we supposedly dwelling in a household of efficiency—by the inefficient ratio of liquid to tumbler size. I didn’t say anything though, because my chicken was getting colder, and so I took a quick gulp.
I choked. The stuff hit my throat like a bat hits a baseball. I choked and coughed and coughed. Xato padded my back, vigorously yet softly, until the spasms were gone, and then offered—you guessed right—his heartfelt excuses. He didn’t use the word heartfelt, but he meant it. “It is all my fault, Miss, I should have warned you. This, this stuff, you have to sip it. Each sip—one sip might be enough, two or three are recommended—will then activate your taste buds and lead to a decision regarding the acceptance or rejection of the wine in question.”
“Well, show me,” I said.
“Well, Miss, I can’t, obviously,” he replied. I didn’t follow up on this—my second grave mistake that day—and also because the mysterious opening opened onto wheelchair in motion, holding an elderly person and being pushed by a child. Xato turned around and bowed while stepping backwards, his attention now fully absorbed by the intruders.
The child pushed the wheelchair right up to my bed. ON closer inspection, the person in the chair was female, and infinitely old. I had never seen a human being as elderly as her—shrunk, formless, hunched into the seat of her chair, with a sheen of parchment on her creased, lipless face, her only visible body part. Her eyes swerved slowly about the room, then settled on me. Her countenance remained completely still, though, she just stared.
“Lady Abercrombie, the second dowager,” Xato whispered into my ear.
“Lady Abercrombie,” I repeated dutifully, but she didn’t react. Complete stillness prevailed.
There is something about holding the regard of deep-sunk, watery eyes of an undefinably color (she was wearing special contact lenses, I learned later). I soon gave up and looked at Xato for help.
“Yes, Miss,” he said, “you can continue.”
“Continue with what?”
“With your dinner, Miss. Lady Abercrombie will not require any input at this time.” He handed me another piece of the fowls, or, more precisely, he almost did, since another rolling chair was wheeled into the room by another child, holding yet another geriatric person. This apparition I can’t really describe to you, not at the moment, at least, because its overwhelming, eye-catching feature (pun not intended) were glassy spheres set into the sockets in the place where other humans have eyeballs. Not set, exactly, the spheres, they were mounted there, but led a life of their own, mildly responding to the vibrations of the wheelchair as it was being pushed up to my bed. It made me think of a mad professor in a comic strip.
Xato bowed again. “His Congressional Highness,” he whispered to me, “the senior senator, Lady Abercrombie’s grandfather.”
I didn’t react. “Your Congressional Highness,” Xato repeated, encouragingly, wink-wink.
“Your Congressional Highness,” I echoed, my eyes averting the poppy expression of his eyeball-balls. Did they dart to the left, the spheres, or to the right? Did they look at me? I wasn’t able to tell. There was life in these things, though—or there had to be, since their owner was connected to a bunch of IV-tubes spiraling from a box affixed to the wheelchair.
Never mind, the congressional highness followed the example of his geriatric in-law and kept his own counsel.
“Will it always be like this?” I whispered to Xato.
“Not always,” Xato answered, and got hold of a chicken wing that had apparently dropped onto my blanket. He wrapped the wing into one of the high-starch napkins, and then—abracadabra—the wing was gone when Xato unfolded the napkin again to take care of the Southern-fried grease stain left on the downy duvet, as if Xato had been performing a little magic trick of his own.
In the meantime, the Second Dowager’s breezing had turned into zestful snoring. Her wheelchair assistant, twenty years younger than Xato but garbed in similar livery, gazed around the room, seeking eye contact with nobody in particular, and then proceeded to remove his charge from the scene.
The eyeball-balls refused to fall asleep however. His Representational Highness followed my every single move during the remaining mealtime—every single move—until I could no longer handle it. I asked Xato to wrap it up, and dove under the duvet for cover, finally.
He was gone, the old man, when I woke up.
It took only a minute for Xato to reappear—hadn’t he denied being able to read my thoughts—but there he was, right on cue, handsomer than ever. An ancient book came to my mind, a novel about adolescents, or vampires, or both, with a girl falling for this handsome boy, and whenever the boy appeared in her line of sight she stopped breathing. And when she resumed breathing she would talk for pages about nothing else but Edward’s otherworldly beauty. That’s what was happening to me, somehow. Right, Edward was his name.
“A pleasant and fruitful morning, Miss,” Xato said, and a flip of his handsome hand lifted the magic curtain for a morning view of the sea. “This,” I asked, pointing at the panorama, “you know the name?”
“Certainly Miss, this is the Pacific Ocean. With 166 million square kilometers it is the largest ocean of this planet. Significantly larger than the planet’s entire land mass. You’ve heard of the Pacific Ocean?”
I somehow knew about the Pacific Ocean. But I also knew, somehow, that I had never seen an ocean before, not with my own eyes. I had never been in the presence of a pure horizon, of this perfect line separating sea and sky out there in the untouchable, infinite distance. I knew.
“Xato?” I said.
“You’re still my PA?”
“Why, most certainly, Miss.”
“You assist me, you help me?”
“Assisting you is the reason of my being as a dependent agent.”
“Today you assist me with one thing.”
I expected him to fawn about a bit more (“Most certainly…”), but he didn’t.
“Today you’ll help me find out my name,” I said.
His dynamic ears stirred. “There’s a time for everything,” he replied. “Now there’s a time for The Senator.”