The ringing doorbell woke me, and I glanced at the clock: 8:00 a.m. What the fuck?
“Un instant, s’il vous plait,” I called as I crawled off the small daybed looking for my robe. Slowly coming aware, I noticed sounds from the bathroom – a hair dryer this early? – as I belted it and headed to the door. Mary Anne is up already, I thought. Strange.
“Bonjour, monsieur,” the waiter sang to me as he angled the room-service cart in through the door. The tray was crammed with food, enough for three or four of us, several dishes under their metallic covers, a muffin basket, two coffee pots, more dishes than Mary Anne and I could ever eat. She ate like a bird, for Chrissakes. Carefully arranging the table, our garçon, our 50-year-old boy, handed me the check with a flourish and fiddled with the dishes while I tried to do some quick math in my head.
“Oh, sorry,” Mary Anne said from the doorway. We both looked over, the garçon and I, pausing to stare just a little more than was polite. Tall, 5’10” or so, willowy, her blonde mane dried and brushed and her long legs visible below the just-long-enough towel that covered her torso, Mary Anne was just as stunning dripping wet as she was all dressed up and ready to go. I smiled despite my better instincts.
“Harry’s coming by around 10:00, so I wanted to have something in case he’s hungry.” She smiled back at me, and winked before turning back to continue working on herself. Like she needed it.
Harry’s coming by around 10:00 or so, I thought. Dear Uncle Harry, coming by my hotel suite around 10:00 or so for a quickie. Jesus. It was one thing traveling to Paris the same time Harry was there with fellow Appropriations Committee members, shadowing them around the city so I could pick up a check or two, find tickets for the jazz venue they’ve all heard about, and run other errands, but renting a suite for his latest paramour was turning out to be a little over the top. Here we were, on the first morning of a four-day, three-night trip, and I’d have to duck out, leaving our suite open for Harry’s assignation.
That was on top of the fact that the timing for this trip was completely insane, coming between the uneventful House passage of the State/Foreign Ops bill the week before, and the expected Senate Subcommittee action on the bill the week after. It would be a critical mark-up for us, and I somehow had to figure out how to get whatever I succeeded in accomplishing with Sen. Belkin into the bill right away, and I had no idea how I was going to do that. So I was a little more stressed than one might expect, spending a weekend in Paris with lots of time on my hands.
While signing for the outrageous bill, and getting our garçon out of the room, I wondered again about our strange setup. I’d gotten to know Mary Anne pretty well by now, given the breakfast fundraiser, the hours of traveling from Dulles to Paris, and especially over drinks in the hotel bar the night before, after the reception where I’d played chaperone while Harry pretended to be spending time with me, not her. She was obviously a sweetheart, bright, funny, and a perfectly pleasant travel companion. A Senate Transportation Committee staffer, Mary Anne was one of those rare people on Capitol Hill who wasn’t trying to leverage her way up the totem pole. She was a receptionist, and a very good one, seldom if ever taxed in a job that called for a little bit of efficiency, a lot of polite chit-chat, and a bright smile. She was making enough money to live, and meeting enough interesting men to eat, sleep and travel well. On the one hand, most of them were married, but on the other, most of them were Senators, so the dozens of egotistical letches on Congressional staffs and Washington’s lobbying elite knew to keep away – while the rest of us, the small fry, knew she was totally out of our league. She’d found herself a little bubble of a life that seemed to fit her well, and at this point was enjoying it enough to stick with it. After all, not every 28-year-old receptionist can afford a room at the Westin Paris.
So Mary Anne I didn’t mind, but their schedule so far was a little intense. Belinda in Harry’s office had somehow tracked down this Westin suite, probably from some defense contractor constituent or other who’d given up the room in exchange for something I didn’t want to know about. Harry and Mary Anne had spent the prior afternoon, right after our arrival, in Harry’s suite at the Ritz, followed by dinner with others on the CODEL – as any Congressional delegation is always called, boondoggle or not – and the obligatory U.S. Embassy reception for them. That was where I met up with the group. From there, Mary Anne and I headed our own way, coming back for drinks downstairs and the very separate beds in our suite. And now, eight hours later, Harry was planning to come in for a quickie. Why wasn’t she staying with him, and just keeping her clothes in my room, like I’d expected? It wasn’t like the other Senators didn’t know what was up; they all knew Harry. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, I thought.
It suddenly hit me. Aunt Helen was flying in on day 4 of this trip, and Harry didn’t want any of Mary Anne’s things in his room. So he was keeping her at arm’s length. I turned to the breakfast table, and snagged a muffin from one of the baskets.
“You don’t mind?”
Turning, I saw Mary Anne’s head peeking out through the bathroom door. I mumbled through my muffin, a very moist blueberry. “What? All the food?”
She paused. “10:00 o’clock, I mean.” Oh, she was serious.
I finished chewing, thinking carefully. It sucked, let’s face it, but that wouldn’t have made me much of a team player, would it? “Mary Anne, I’m in Paris, just hanging out while occasionally talking to Harry and his buddies. It’s not a tough gig.”
“It’s your suite.” She was almost right – the company was paying for it. In point of fact, it was the need to find an off-the-books room for Mary Anne in Paris that had tipped the scales with Michael on my flying off to Paris with Harry’s CODEL. After Brent Wilkes had pretty much screwed the pooch on renting rooms for Members of Congress with his poker-and-hookers nights at America’s most scandal-plagued hotel, the Watergate, we’d all had to get a lot more creative and a lot more careful with travel favors.
“Look,” I replied, “there’s something terribly high school about having to leave my hotel room so my traveling companion can get … well, you know. And there’s something terribly disturbing about leaving my hotel room so my uncle can.” That part of it was actually profoundly disturbing, but I made it sound light, light enough so that she laughed. “But I think I can find my way to Nôtre Dame, or Saint-Germain, or hell, that sandwich joint at the end of the Île-St.-Louis. It’s no biggie.”
“Thanks.” She was smiling at me. “I mean it.” God, she could stop a train with that smile.
* * *
“Edward, my boy, so good to see you.”
It was five o’clock, and we were gathering at the famed, highly overrated Hemingway Bar in Paris’s Ritz Hotel. Harry seemed smaller somehow, a little lost in the dark, heavy room, less the wise elder statesman I’d trained myself to see and more the grasping, conniving politician I’d pretended not to. It was amazing what hours of walking the streets of Paris, leaving a 67-year-old man to cavort with someone who was becoming a friend, could do to your impressions of him.
Harry had arranged the meeting, asking his travel partner, the Honorable Sen. Joseph Belkin, to join us for that conversation promised in Washington. Belkin was more than the average Defense Appropriations Subcommittee colleague, for he and Harry were partners-in-crime in many of Harry’s more egregious earmarks. Members of Congress see earmarks as a prerogative, but the various scandals spinning out of Duke Cunningham’s outlandish greed had made them more difficult to pursue. Senators, more visible than their House counterparts, seemed to be adapting to increased scrutiny by increased horse trading, each agreeing to pursue some pet project or other in exchange for their colleagues doing the same. It wasn’t a tremendously successful art, but better than getting caught writing your nephew’s client into the State/Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. So here we were, looking to deal.
There was one enormous irony in this meeting, one that I had no intention of mentioning here or anywhere else: while Sen. Belkin was the only opportunity I had for getting the UAE its MNNA status, he was also the Senator most likely to oppose my efforts in support of the Dungan. As the Ranking Republican on his Subcommittee, he was the Administration’s and, from past experience, especially the Vice President’s lapdog on anything and everything related to foreign policy. The FEC website indicated that he also took buckets of money from Shaddock Mills, so he was doubly a problem for that client. But that’s one thing about Washington that most people just don’t get: someone who’s your best friend on one amendment can be your absolute greatest enemy on something else. It’s just the nature of the business.
“Hello, Uncle Harry.” He looked well, relaxed, happy. I couldn’t help wondering how often Mary Anne had made him happy, or how many Viagra had given their lives that day in Harry’s quest for eternal youth.
Sen. Belkin’s arrival was just in time, as my mind was headed in a direction I seriously didn’t want to go.
“Joseph, you remember my nephew Ed.”
“Indeed,” he lied, “delighted to see you again.” Belkin’s weak smile and troubled look indicated that he still wasn’t sure, still hadn’t made the connection between Raymonda and me. Ever since our break-up I’d avoided his office like the plague – she took her vengeance seriously, so it was somewhere I couldn’t even get a decent cup of coffee, let alone help with my clients. But like any good Senator, Belkin was happy to pretend for now, as was I: if I could get through this meeting and into the next one, with Raymonda, without him figuring out who I was, I might make it through this alive.
Of course, after this trade, I was going to have to find a way to know him, or at least his campaign committee chairman, a little better. I was figuring we’d need to raise about $25K for the guy’s reelection, but that was something I’d work out with Michael later.
“Sit, sit,” Harry waved us both to a table to the left of the door, seemingly the only place with any privacy, the one decent booth in the whole cramped bar. There were photos of Hemingway everywhere, from the framed Life magazine cover on the left as you enter, to the scattered hunter shots around the room. Rich, dark oak, simple in its way, but still decidedly overbearing in its Hemingway-was-here-ness. Climbing the two steps to our table, I looked back around at the few faces in the room. Good, I thought, almost no one here to see Harry’s Ugly American act, and those that were looked to be Ugly Americans themselves.
“Harry tells me you have a problem, son.”
I turned, surprised by Belkin’s quick move to business. The waiter was still on his way, in that excruciating fashion the French have, even here at the Ritz, an undying need to demonstrate their disgust for everything American. I’d been hoping to get a drink or two into Belkin before we got down to the meat of it, but that wasn’t meant to be. “Well,” I started, “we do. We need a provision in State/Foreign Ops Approps, and I don’t have a champion.”
“It’s hard for me,” Harry intoned, reaching out to lightly touch Belkin’s sleeve. “You understand.”
Belkin didn’t look over, staring at me instead. “Give me the story.” He wasn’t living up to his Casper Milquetoast reputation, and I was starting to worry a little – Harry had said this was a lock, but Joey wasn’t making it look that way. A glance at Harry indicated that he was less worried; lifting his hand, he tried flagging down the waiter, in a way more likely add to our wait than shorten it.
“It’s simple – DOD and the intel community want to give the UAE a particular air defense radar system, but they don’t want anyone else to know about it because every Moslem state from Morocco on over to Pakistan will want one. So they need a way to do it quietly, and the only way they can see to do it is to have the UAE declared a Major Non-NATO Ally. It’s a simple one-line amendment, in Foreign Ops.”
I tried to ignore Harry, but he was beginning to get more frantic. I was thinking that in another few seconds his arm-waving would prove so disturbing to the mood of the place that the waiter was certain to stop by. Whatever his impact on the waiter, though, he was terribly distracting to me. “The Israelis don’t care; DOD tells us they actually like the idea. But AIPAC has told DOD that they will oppose any sale of this system to any Arab country – if it’s public.”
“Waiter! Oh waiter!” Harry said, at which point I reached out to stop him. God forbid he yell “Gars-sown!” at the guy, because then we would never get drinks. Turning, I grimaced in mock embarrassment at the waiter. “S’il vous plait, Monsieur. Il ne va pas arrêter,” – he will not stop – “et je ne peut plus, eh…”
The waiter grinned as he ambled our way. I turned back to Belkin.
“So what good does the amendment do you?” Belkin didn’t skip a beat.
“Well, DOD has an ‘extra’ system they purchased. I don’t know why, but they don’t need it and they plan to declare it excess and give it to them using a classified reprogramming.” I glanced at the waiter, who’d finally arrived. “Cognacs, gentlemen? Mr. Hemingway’s preferred brand?” To my right, I could sense the waiter straighten up, the way Europeans do when Americans order something indecently expensive. “Oui,” I told him in response to their nods, “ça va.”
“The Israelis won’t claim it?”
“They already have something better,” I replied. “I’m told it’s two or three generations upstream.” I made that part up, but it was an informed lie rather than an outright one: the Americans consistently sell Israeli technology that’s several generations ahead of what they sell the Arab states, lest the Arabs be foolish enough to think they could use American weapons in attacks on Israel. Every once in a while, the Israelis drive the point home: on their way to Tunis in the 1980s to bomb the PLO, they’d shut down Egyptian anti-aircraft systems as they passed by Egypt’s coast. The screens just went black, and the Egyptians went a little loopy trying to figure out what was wrong. It all got lost in the news of the bombing, but the Izzies had made their point.
Belkin turned to Harry. “I’ll need to talk to someone from Israel. And someone out of the SecDef’s office.” I nodded, and Harry nodded too.
“Why do it in the dark?”
Geez, he was a lot smarter than I gave him credit for. “You mean besides the AIPAC problem?” He nodded. “Afghanistan.”
“Well, we spent the last half of the 1980s arming every anti-Russian Afghan we could find to force the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Twenty years later, in the aftermath of 9/11, the same people who sent the weapons are sitting around waiting for just one of the Stingers to take down a civilian aircraft or, God forbid, a troop transport. Nobody wants their fingers on this sale because nobody wants to be in that same position twenty years from today.” He was staring at me, as if waiting for something more. I shifted slightly. He wanted to know how he would escape without blame. “That’s why this one is invisible – many hands in a completely opaque process with no one specific person to blame. You ask the Chairman for the Major Non-NATO Ally provision. It’s in the Subcommittee draft with no name attached. DOD excesses the radar in a classified communication with a million signatures and no one author. It goes to a different Subcommittee – DOD – and they let it go. No muss, no fuss.”
He was still waiting. This time there wasn’t any more. I leaned forward and took a long sip from the cognac that had magically appeared. My God, that was smooth.
“Who would object?”
This question was to Harry, so seemingly his interrogation of me was complete. Harry and I had walked through all these questions before we left D.C., though, so Harry knew this one. “You would, Joseph.” He smiled patronizingly at him. “You’re the biggest pro-Israel Senator on the Committee. You’re the guy everyone looks to on weapons systems like this. That’s why we’ve come to you.”
“What’s my angle? Why would I do this?” Half what’s-in-it-for-me, half how-do-I-explain-to-my-people-why-I’m-doing-this. Smart guy.
“9/11.” The catch-all, the rationale for half the crap that ends up in defense, homeland security and foreign operations bills. Need a post office in East Bumfuck, Arkansas? 9/11, so the mail can be x-rayed right there where the Ozark loonies live. Need some economic aid for starving children in Ethiopia? 9/11, so that they won’t become Al Qaeda recruits. Need more border crossing staff along the Canadian border? 9/11, to keep America safe from the Middle Easterners the Canadians let in willy-nilly. “The UAE’s one of the good guys in the Gulf,” I continued, “and they need air defense. It’s a straight-forward argument, with the added benefit of being true.” At least as much as the other bullshit amendments were.
“And how do I sleep at night when the system gets turned against us?”
“It’s air defense, designed by us for us. We can turn it off from a distance if we want to and drop all the goodies we want all over them. And so can the Israelis.”
His eyes tracked mine, watching me closely to see how much was true, how much wasn’t. It was all true, and I was totally comfortable selling him this idea. The amendment was a tough sell, but only because of the politics and of everyone being chickenshit about getting caught with their pants down, not because of the rationale behind it. It was a good amendment. For once.
He turned to Harry. “We should discuss this a little.”
Harry looked at me, and I nodded. Time for me to leave them alone, he was saying, so Harry could hear what Belkin wanted in return. This would be a straight trade: Belkin does my amendment, Harry does his. And nobody wanted me around when they cut that deal.
But I still had one problem.
“Senator, one last thing. The bill is going to be marked up very soon – they’re threatening to move it next week.” I looked from Belkin to Harry, who was stonefaced, and back to Belkin. “It would need to be added to the bill very quickly.”
The slightest smile tugged at Belkin’s lips, but it was Harry who spoke first. “It’s already in the bill.”
“I’ve already secured the Chairman’s agreement to put it in the draft bill,” Belkin continued. “This meeting was to determine if we should take it back out.”
Again my look went from Belkin to Harry, and back to Belkin. This was a surprise; Harry had done it again. Saved me a hell of a lot of trouble, but wasn’t Harry’s usual way of operating.
Then again, this was my first time playing at this level. Maybe it was his way of operating.
“Thanks for listening, Senator.” Discretion being the better part, etc., etc., I quickly downed the rest of my cognac, way too fast given how good it was. I rose and turned to walk away, and then turned back. “I appreciate all your help, and your willingness to listen. Have a great rest of the trip.”
On my way out, I snagged the waiter again. I paid him in cash for the brandies consumed so far, along with enough for another round for the Senators just in case, and a nice tip on top of that. It was the only way to be sure that the asshole would treat them well from here on out. It meant leaving without a receipt, but that was okay – given what I’d gotten out of the meeting, I didn’t mind eating the cost. Besides, I really didn’t want any kind of record that this conversation even took place.
* * *
“Mr. Minister, this is a tremendously important request,” I said, “or else we wouldn’t be wasting your time on it.”
From drinks with Harry, I’d headed across to the George V, where our UAE client – the real one, the one who signed the checks, His Excellency Hassan al-Farouk – had agreed to a brief meeting before his next reception with yet another element of the global military-industrial complex. The time of Defense Ministers at the Paris Air Show was like gold, and especially for those from the wealthy emirates in the Persian Gulf. They bought military gear more than anyone else, and could always afford the newest and shiniest. Everyone wanted their time.
Ironically, I hadn’t told the Minister or Col. Fawzi, who was also here, about the meeting with Sen. Belkin I’d just been through. They would have wanted to meet with him, talk to him about the amendment, tell him how important it all was. But given the fact that we were moving this amendment entirely in the background, under the table, they’d just spook Belkin and we might lose the whole thing.
So I just never mentioned it.
This meeting, though, I needed, if not here in Paris than pretty much anywhere as long as it was sometime soon. With Belkin on board, our Major Non-NATO Ally amendment was well on its way, but I still had the problem of Karen Jameson, the unfortunate idiot who’d gotten herself captured in an anti-terrorist police round-up in the local Hilton and was now rotting in some jail. Or, if you believe the police, the young terrorist recruit who’d been captured along with her co-conspirators … and would be rotting in some jail for a very long time.
When Weller had told Fawzi I needed more details on Jameson’s imprisonment, he’d ducked a discussion and instead set up this meeting. That in itself was a bad sign, meaning that the issue was so sensitive Fawzi didn’t want to talk about it.
Me, I wasn’t so much worried about who was telling the truth as I was about when they would release the girl. Disgusting though it might be, I just needed yet another foreign government client to kowtow to Congress. Ever since the end of the Cold War, nations around the globe have bristled at the pressures that America puts on them, to vote a certain way in the United Nations, to support blindly our determination of countries that merit the imposition of economic sanctions, and even to join us in invasions halfway around the world, as El Salvador did in Iraq when CAFTA was pending. Less visible, though, are Congressional interventions, where individual members of the House and Senate hold up legislation in order to get a highway redirected away from the cemetery that holds some constituent’s ancestors, to pressure a government to issue licenses for a new casino financed by a company in the district, or to get some kid or other released from prison. It happened all the time in Washington. It was ugly, but it was a fact of life.
“Well, as you know, it was the police who arrested this girl, not the military,” the Minister replied. He looked over to Fawzi, who was smiling down us, wreathed in smoke, having gotten an unplanned trip to Paris out of this problem when Weller had convinced the Minister to meet with me. Fawzi was in a good mood – he liked Paris, and being here during the Air Show meant a whole lot of defense companies were pursuing him around town, trying to get the Minister to visit their displays. “My cousin Moustafa” – Minister of the Interior, someone we had absolutely no connection with – “is the person you need to speak with.”
“Yes, sir, I understand,” I replied with the slightest smile on my lips. Nice try, I thought, but you can’t get off that easily. “But this is an issue that will primarily affect you and the Ministry of Defense, not the Interior Ministry. We are deeply concerned that we will not be able to get the Major Non-NATO Ally status approved if she remains in jail.”
The Minister stiffened, and his face flushed just a touch. My God, I thought, this guy’s charismatic. He was built like a bull, thinning brown hair crowning his round olive-skinned face, dressed in a leather bomber jacket that showed just enough wear to be fashionable, an open-collared shirt, and dark blue slacks. No insignias, nothing that would indicate he was in the military, but a bearing and air that demanded respect. Watching him walk through the hotel lobby, or at the receptions where I’d seen him in Washington, you could tell at a glance that he was someone important. Sitting here alone in front of him, seeing him beginning to anger over something I’d said, was significantly more intimidating.
“This is very important to our country, and to our relationship with the United States,” he said, looking again over at Fawzi and then back at me. “There is no comparison between these two issues.”
I raised my hands, a sign of supplication, and my voice caught for a moment before I responded. “You are absolutely correct, Mr. Minister, this is a much less important matter.” I paused, trying to decide how to go back at it. “It is not something that anyone sensible would compare, or would link together. But I fear that our Congress is seldom very sensible.” I shrugged, and smiled just slightly.
He leaned forward to me, his face stern at first, but as he paused I could see the slightest twinkle in his eyes. Jabbing a finger at me, he said, “You are right, my friend. They are not sensible at all.” Turning to Fawzi, he laughed, and, with a shrug of regret, slid back in his seat.
Fawzi laughed too, beginning just after the Minister, but he laughed. Reaching into his pocket for a fresh cancer stick, he coughed through his laughter, and said to me, nodding as he did, “Perhaps if the Minister could ask his cousin about this girl’s case?”
That was all I was going to get, but it was a whole lot better than nothing. “That would be excellent,” I said.
* * *
At 10:00 the following morning, I sat in the outer room of my suite, the day bed made up, coffee on the table, the International Herald Tribune in hand, catching up on some news. The room was cold, the way I like it for sleeping, so I had a robe wrapped around me and was crouched on an end of the sofa. I was most of the way through a basket of pastries and looking forward to a nice quiet morning when the door to Mary Anne’s room opened. As I looked up, my heart skipped.
Raw male lust has always been such a curious animal. I’d spent three days with Mary Anne so far, three days ducking in and out of the room and traveling with her and Harry to various meetings, receptions, lunches and dinners. She’s been resplendent every time, stunning in her ability to dress the part, the casual but perfectly tailored skirt and jacket, the formal evening dress, the Dior pantsuit. I’d been checking her out a lot, sure, but there’d not been a moment when I’d been thinking, ‘I want her’; never a flicker. And now here she was, in the top half of some oversized Victoria’s Secret pajamas and unrecognizably fluffy slippers, hair in shambles and the sleep still being rubbed from her eyes. I couldn’t look away.
“Good morning,” I said, just to say something.
“Hi,” she replied, smiling. She stopped, and stared back. She’d caught me.
“So where’s Harry?”
“They’re meeting with the Mayor this morning.” She came closer to the table, still smiling. “You know Harry, he loves meeting celebrities in those magnificent old palaces. He’s even staying for the lunch.”
“Yes, that’s Harry. A sucker for a good show.”
“Hmmmmmmm,” she said, playing with a croissant she’d picked up. I was trying not to stare, but losing that battle, and she was looking playful. “You know, Harry’s 64 years old this month.”
“Well, 67, actually,” I replied.
Laughing, she came around the table and fed me one end of the croissant. Jesus Christ Almighty, I thought, chewing, you’re screwing my uncle, I’m a married man, and you’re a stunningly beautiful woman, and I’m tired of running out of this room so that my old fuck of an uncle can get laid. By the time I’d gotten that convoluted sentence through my head, I’d gulped down the bit of croissant, she’d brought her lips to mine and was kissing me, and I was kissing her back.
The first time moved quickly, very quickly, as suddenly her nightshirt was gone, and we were on the floor, my robe open, my pajama pants off somewhere, and our two bodies entwined. I could feel a need in her, a need for what I couldn’t tell, perhaps someone younger than a Senator, perhaps someone who didn’t expect anything from her, perhaps just some fun. And the need in me was palpable, as undefined as hers, but palpable. Her body shimmered in the morning light, above me, her long hair trailing across her arms and breast, her narrow waist and hips rotating on me before I realized I was inside her. And then it was over.
The second time was slower, much slower, from the very start as she led me by the hand across into the bedroom through the playing and toying with each other as we waited for me to recover. We took the time to enjoy ourselves, I to luxuriate in the feel of her skin against mine, in the softness hiding in the lithe tightness of her belly, her thighs, the delicate curve of her ass. We were so much more careful this time to enjoy the pleasure of it, to run my fingers along her legs, to taste the salt in the budding sweat along her shoulder, to feel the lightness of her touch as she played with my cock. And there was time for thinking, time for the guilt, for the power of the betrayal to be driven home much as I was driving into her, betrayal, betrayal, be-TRAY-ALLLLLL. It wasn’t enough to stop me, only enough to make it hurt as I came, hurt, deep, buried inside me, a pain that I did not recognize other than as hurt.
As I lay in her arms, sweat rolling off me, I thought, why am I here and what am I doing?
Feeling her fingers sliding aimlessly along my spine, my eyes drifted open for a moment to the lingering slope of her belly as it wound down toward her crotch. But then again, I thought, it’s not so terribly bad a place to be.
* * *
Charles de Gaulle is a lousy airport to get in and out of, even if you’re just out there picking someone up. It’s that much worse in a blinding Paris rainstorm.
I’d arrived an hour early for Aunt Helen’s 8:20 a.m. scheduled arrival from Dulles, if for no other reason than a driving need to be up and out before Mary Anne woke up. The headwinds are unpredictable over long distances, I’d told myself, so sometimes the flights are early, sometimes hours late. I was eager to end this trip, eager to get away from Harry and Mary Anne. And this was the most delicate part of the journey, with Helen arriving today and Mary Anne not headed back to Washington until the next morning.
Helen surfaced out of Customs by around 9:15, shortly after my fourth café au lait. She had that haggard look of overnight flights, too few hours to get a reasonable amount of sleep, and stared at me as if not recognizing my face at first. After a few seconds, she managed a wan smile.
“Welcome to Paris, Aunt Helen.” I leaned in to kiss her lightly, and reached to take her carry-on. Stepping around her, I took the handle of the suitcase rolling behind her as well, but she held on, resisting for a moment, seemingly unwilling to give it up. “I got it,” I told her. As I took it from her, she straightened, relieved of the weight, regal again in her bearing, the Senator’s wife redux. But looking askance at me, she continued on without comment in the general direction of the cabs. She must be very tired, I thought to myself; she usually travels better than this.
The cab ride was no better. The rain was worse, if anything, and the traffic out of Charles de Gaulle crawling in toward the city. Looking left out my window, there was little to see beyond the sheets of rain, the cars in shadow flinging more water our way, their headlights wasted in the dismal day. Mary Anne’s smile glimmered back at me in the glass, the long slow curve of her back mirrored in the stream of water blown down and across the window by the wind and rain. Shaking myself to break the image, I looked over to Helen, but she seemed similarly lost in thought: she stared ahead without seeing, eyes open but glazed, her face long and drawn.
“Are you all right?” I asked. “You look like it was a tough flight.”
She stirred, her left eyebrow rising ever so slightly, her body, slouched down in the seat, shifting from one uncomfortable-looking position to another. “The flight was fine.” She turned away, looking out the window now, or perhaps at it.
I turned back to my own window, and watched again the cars, the rain, the backwash flying up at us. I was troubled, but there seemed nothing to do.
Rain, cars, backwash, cars, rain, backwash. The minutes ticked by.
“You don’t have to do everything he asks for, Eddie.”
I roused, surprised. “What? Sorry, I …”
“The girl.” She continued staring out her window, and my breath caught. “In your suite. I called yesterday to check about this morning, she answered. The girl he brought.”
Oh good God almighty.
“He’s your uncle, Eddie, and he’s a Senator. But I’m your aunt, your mother’s sister.” She paused, looking down at the floor of the cab. “This isn’t an easy life, and I get through it knowing that my secrets are my own.” She looked over at me. “But that doesn’t work with you, Eddie, when you’re one of the secrets. That doesn’t work at all.”
Oh good holy Christ almighty. She knew. “Helen, I …”
“Please. Don’t try to explain.” She turned, just her head this time, her body still facing away from me toward the window. “And don’t say you’re sorry.” She looked away again. “I just wanted to say, you don’t have to do everything he asks you to.”
Rain, cars, backwash, cars, rain, backwash, and the unending sound of the wiper blades. We said nothing more on the way into town.
* * *
At 6:45 the next morning, I stood alone on the Pont St.-Louis, watching the Seine flow by at its glacial pace. I’d hardly slept, slipping out of Mary Anne’s bed – my bed, dammit, just with Mary Anne in it – and wandering back to the couch, where I spent most of the night staring out the window, thoughts of Helen’s comments keeping me from sleep.
What am I doing? I asked myself. I’d gotten what I needed from this trip, but at what cost?
Between Harry, Helen and especially Charlotte, I’d betrayed everyone I cared about on this trip. With Mary Anne I’d found a couple of days of mindless physical pleasure, entirely tainted by the betrayal and by my imminent return home to my wife. There were still so many options for things to go even worse: while Helen knew about Mary Anne’s presence in Paris, Charlotte did not, and I didn’t need her finding out that I’d shared a suite with Mary Anne, let alone that I’d helped Harry get a little on the side. And God forbid Helen or Charlotte ever figured out that I was getting a little of my own as well.
With a shiver that came from more than the chill off the water, I looked down into the slow, lumbering river, and it was Belkin’s face I saw looking back at me. The whole trip was built around that drink with Belkin, that chance to talk him into whatever trade he made with Harry. From there on, I supposed, the rest of it was easy, so easy that it had come naturally to me, slipping over from my professional life into the narrow, walled-in social life that living in Washington permitted. My personal life was merging into the professional, becoming a part of the cheap and tawdry games that made up the everyday life of being a lobbyist. Lying was so natural now, I thought, that the biggest surprise of the trip was when Helen caught me with my pants down – only even she didn’t realize that my pants were off, not just down, and I’d been cheating in more ways than she knew.
Watching a single branch weave its way down the river, I thought about all the games I had going, how suddenly they were me and I was turning into them. I was using everyone I knew, just like Eleanor had told me I needed to so very long ago, just like I always thought I never would. Worst of all, standing on that bridge I could tell that I scarcely even felt it any more. At some point, I thought, some of this has got to start rolling back in my direction.