An Excerpt From Along The Infinite Sea
All you really need to know about the Paris Ritz is this: by the middle of 1937, Coco Chanel was living in a handsome suite on the third floor, and the bartender—an intuitive mixologist named Frank Meier—had invented the Bloody Mary sixteen summers earlier to cure a Hemingway hangover.
Mind you, when I arrived at Nick Greenwald’s farewell party on that hot July night, I wasn’t altogether aware of this history. I didn’t run with the Ritz crowd. Mosquitoes, my husband called them. And maybe I should have listened to my husband. Maybe no good could come from visiting the bar at the Paris Ritz; maybe you were doomed to commit some frivolous and irresponsible act, maybe you were doomed to hover around dangerously until you had drawn the blood from another human being or else had your own blood drawn instead.
But Johann—my husband—wasn’t around that night. I tiptoed in through the unfashionable Place Vendôme entrance on my brother’s arm instead, since Johann had been recalled to Berlin for an assignment of a few months that had stretched into several. In those days, you couldn’t just flit back and forth between Paris and Berlin, any more than you could flit between heaven and hell; and furthermore, why would you want to? Paris had everything I needed, everything I loved, and Berlin in 1937 was no place for a liberal-minded woman nurturing a young child and an impossible rift in her marriage. I stayed defiantly in France, where you could still attend a party for a man named Greenwald, where anyone could dine where he pleased and shop and bank where he pleased, where you could sleep with anyone who suited you, and it wasn’t a crime.
For the sake of everyone’s good time, I suppose it was just as well that my husband remained in Berlin, since Nick Greenwald and Johann von Kleist weren’t what you’d call bosom friends, for all the obvious reasons. But Nick and I were a different story. Nick and I understood each other: first, because we were both Americans living in Paris, and second, because we shared a little secret together, the kind of secret you could never, ever share with anyone else. Of all my brother’s friends, Nick was the only one who didn’t resent me for marrying a general in the German army. Good old Nick. He knew I’d had my reasons.
The salon was hot, and Nick was in his shirtsleeves, though he still retained his waistcoat and a neat white bow tie, the kind you needed a valet to arrange properly. He turned at the sound of my voice. “Annabelle! Here at last.”
“Not so very late, am I?” I said.
We kissed, and he and Charles shook hands. Not that Charles paid the transaction much attention; he was transfixed by the black-haired beauty who lounged at Nick’s side in a shimmering silver-blue dress that matched her eyes. A long cigarette dangled from her fingers. Nick turned to her and placed his hand at the small of her back. “Annabelle, Charlie. I don’t think you’ve met Budgie Byrne. An old college friend.”
We said enchantée. Miss Byrne took little notice. Her handshake was slender and lacked conviction. She slipped her arm through Nick’s and whispered in his ear, and they shimmered off together to the bar inside a haze of expensive perfume. The back of Miss Byrne’s dress swooped down almost to the point of no return, and her naked skin was like a spill of milk, kept from running over the edge by Nick’s large palm.
Charles covered his cheek with his right hand—the same hand that Miss Byrne had just touched with her limp and slender fingers—and said that bastard always got the best-looking women.
I watched Nick’s back disappear into the crowd, and I was about to tell Charles that he didn’t need to worry, that Nick didn’t really look all that happy with his companion and Charles might want to give the delectably disinterested Miss Byrne another try in an hour, but at that exact instant a voice came over my shoulder, the last voice I expected to hear at the Paris Ritz on this night in the smoldering middle of July.
“My God,” it said, a little slurry. “If it isn’t the baroness herself.”
I thought perhaps I was hallucinating, or mistaken. It wouldn’t be the first time. For the past two years, I’d heard this voice everywhere: department stores and elevators and street corners. I’d seen its owner in every possible nook, in every conceivable disguise, only to discover that the supposed encounter was only a false alarm, a collision of deluded molecules inside my own head, and the proximate cause of the leap in my blood proved to be an ordinary citizen after all. Just an everyday fellow who happened to have dark hair or a deep voice or a certain shape to the back of his neck. In the instant of revelation, I never knew whether to be relieved or disappointed. Whether to lament or hallelujah. Either way, the experience wasn’t a pleasant one, at least not in the way we ordinarily experience pleasure, as a benevolent thing that massages the nerves into a sensation of well-being.
Either way, I had committed a kind of adultery of the heart, hadn’t I, and since I couldn’t bear the thought of adultery in any form, I learned to ignore the false alarm when it rang and rang and rang. Like the good wife I was, I learned to maintain my poise during these moments of intense delusion.
So there. Instead of bolting at the slurry word baroness, I took my deluded molecules in hand and said: Surely not.
Instead of spinning like a top, I turned like a figurine on a music box, in such a way that you could almost hear the tinkling Tchaikovsky in my gears.
A man came into view, quite lifelike, quite familiar, tall and just so in his formal blacks and white points, dark hair curling into his forehead the way your lover’s hair does in your wilder dreams. He was holding a lowball glass and a brown Turkish cigarette in his right hand, and he took in everything at a glance: my jewels, my extravagant dress, the exact state of my circulation.
In short, he seemed an awful lot like the genuine article.
“There you are, you old bastard,” said Charles happily, and sacré bleu, I realized then what I already knew, that the man before me was no delusion. That the Paris Ritz was the kind of place that could conjure up anyone it wanted.
“Stefan,” I said. “What a lovely surprise.”
(And the big trouble was, I think I meant it.)