The maitre d’

« No thanks, I don’t drink, » I say, putting my hand over the top of my glass. It’s a classy joint, so I don’t get the usual stink-eye. The maitre d’ (I told you it was a classy joint) offers me a Virgin Caesar, fizzy water, fruit juice. I settle on San Pellegrino, after he rattles off a bunch of choices. He brings it in a bourbon glass with a slice of lemon and a cherry for colour. My date is not impressed, clearly thinking I failed her.

She whispers, “You didn’t tell me you don’t drink.” I whisper back, “I didn’t think it mattered.” She huffs and puffs. “Well, I’m having a drink.” This simple interaction has become my personal acid test for new relationships. It exposes the insecurities and feelings of self-worth of my counterpart in subtle and obvious ways. At first, I was apologizing for my choice, explaining my motives, pretexting health issues. The truth is, I drink when I feel like it, and that has become less and less often with time.

My vis-à-vis grabs her drink and chugs it back with a vengeance. I attack my appetizer in silence. She seems to be seething. I am curious. I feel I am conducting a social experiment. The asparagus is tender. I love the taste of vegetables in season. And this chef is amazing. I am immersed in the sensations in my mouth. I glance up to ask my date if she’s happy with her choice and find her looking at me, glass in hand. She peers over her glass, “You’re not gay, are you?” (That’s a new one!) “Why would I be gay?” “You seem pretty intent on your food.” (Oh my, wait till I tell Emily about this.)

I thought I’d kept my face neutral, but the maitre d’ quickly appears at her side, concern etched on his features. “Is the appetizer not to madam’s taste?” Olivia has not eaten a bite. She dismisses him with a wave. You can almost hear the wind as she shoos him away. He floats off with a sad look, his eyes riveted to mine, sorrowful beyond words. When mom passed away, her will stipulated her three children must all be married within three years of her death before any of us may enjoy their part of the inheritance. The spouses stand to inherit half. Emily and Burton are already married, but I am stubbornly single. They have been presenting me eligible women to choose from, in the hope they can start benefitting soon from their inheritance. Of course, I can’t just marry anyone. They’d get a say in the way the fortune is spent. So I’ve been going on these dates with random women, some of whom are quite nice, others who are more “interesting.”

I look up at Olivia, fiddling with her Belgian endives, blue cheese and date. “You seem preoccupied, Olivia,” I say kindly. She rubs her toes on my shin, playing footsies under the table. The tablecloth hides the movement, but I still blush at her audacity. (What would Mother do?) I am not quick-witted. I am slow and deliberate. I am not my mother’s son as this fiasco painfully shows. Mother had warned me about vulgar ladies. The shoddily-applied lipstick was a dead giveaway. We’re just grabbing a bite before heading to the opera. I hope she won’t be disappointed. “How about we skip the music tonight?” she says, pressing her toes to make her point clear. I signal the maitre d’. He fills her glass as she smiles broadly. Minutes later, he comes to the table and whispers “An urgent call at the front desk.”

I excuse myself and follow him. The maitre d’, Burton, can tell when I’m distressed. He’s my brother after all. “What’s happening?” I explain my predicament. “I was looking forward to my evening at the opera, but she’s saying she won’t go. She wants to… you know.” I say, mortified. “What time does the opera start?” “In another hour.” “Take my place for the next 30 minutes. Ask to leave in 30. Emily will call in a replacement” It’s Emily’s restaurant, she’ll understand. We exchange uniforms. I am a bit heftier, so the uniform is tight. My suit looks better on him than on me. He’ll have more success with her. Did I mention we are twins? Nobody ever looks at the maitre d’ or sees beyond the uniform. We’ve traded places so many times in our lives, it just feels natural. Burton’s always seeing me out of a pickle. He walks back in and picks up where I left off. I clear away the plates.


I bring my impersonator the bill, adding a generous tip for fun. I can’t tell whose paying whom with what money. As always, the lines are blurred between identities as well as fortune. We have trouble drawing lines in our family and Mother’s will has made things worse. We’re always discussing, and the family now feels like a gelatinous mass in which everybody wades desperately trying to escape inertia. Burton surprises me by handing me the two opera tickets. Of course, they were in my shirt pocket which Burton ended up wearing. That was a close one. “I hear you enjoy Barber. Tonight, Vanessa is playing. It’s your luck that we are unable to make it. Please have my chauffeur come forward. We’re heading to a nightclub.” We both keep a straight face. My chauffeur has delivered a suitable replacement suit that I will change into for the opera as soon as the couple will have left the scene.

Vanessa is an obscure opera. Those are the ones I enjoy the most. It is perfect in the mood I find myself in, with endless intrigues and reversals. I feel that way about my life. Opera seems to describe me, one aria at a time. I vibrate and buzz, more than any drug could induce in me. The same cannot be said for Burton. Though extremely moral and extremely married, he considers it his duty to right a wrong. He tells me later they did go to a nightclub. Because she was looking around, he concluded she was looking for the ladies. He wanted to show her a good time and directed her to the powder room, in this club, the room with the powder i.e. cocaine. She came back sniffling and in a great mood. He had ordered champagne. “I told her I don’t drink!” “She forgave you. I said “I” didn’t drink… when I ate.” I grunt. “She loved the music, complimented me on my taste and stopped flirting with me. I invited others at the table and found her a suitable companion. I told her I had to leave but she could have my chauffeur drive her back when she was ready. The usual.”

We may be twins, but he’s the other side of the mirror, and my reputation doesn’t concern him as much as it concerns me. I’m seen as the bad boy because of his impersonations, yet I can’t manage without him. It’s Cyrano de Bergerac all over again and we all know how that ended. It wasn’t pretty. I may end up marrying loyal Mabel, whom Mother did not hold in high esteem. We’ve been to all the same schools, our families know each other, our grandfathers had a falling out after they tried to enter in partnership. Marrying her would tie our families closer than ever, which Mother did not want. I think Dad had an affair with Mabel’s mother, which would explain the antagonism. It’s a real soap opera. Maybe I should get both our DNA tested discreetly to ensure we’re not half-siblings. That would explain the attraction and the prohibition. Emily suggested I look into online dating sites. She said it in jest, but she may have a point. I am running out of suitable candidates and I am loathe to submit Mabel to the indignity of a DNA test. What if she were our half-sister? Then she should inherit too. My head spins. We only need to avoid procreating so we don’t inbreed.


I need to get this settled. I feel as out of place as an olive in a glass of beer. I move slowly, with the grace of an ocean liner, dignified and sturdy, ancient, classic. Two years have passed and time is running out. Emily and Burt don’t want to be cheated out of their inheritance. The three of us meet to discuss the issue. We bat around some ideas, a ball – I don’t dance – the Internet, I tried with no success. We’ve gone through our relations, distant cousins, younger women. None of the ideas please me until Emily lobs the tennis idea. I happen to love tennis. Emily will propose a tournament for eligible female bachelors. The cup they are competing for is my hand. At the end of the tournament, I will declare the winner. I fancy myself a good judge of character and sports to me are a great way to reveal character. In my view, mental toughness is what distinguishes the best players from the fray.

The tournament attracts thirty candidates, some unlikely, but I am willing to entertain them all. They know what is at stake and are fighting for my attention and affection. I watch every game, and take notes. The sore losers, the bad-tempered, the mild mannered, the poor players, the whiners, they all get a rating. I decide who makes it to the next round. In a game, sometimes both adversaries advance. Some get eliminated in the first round. It is exhilarating. I now have eight potential mates, all equally interesting. Some of the ladies who have been eliminated have hung around to see who the winner will be. I keep an eye on them as well. Mabel is in the rejects, which shows the high quality of the applicants. Their reactions are still interesting to me. They are all coached by their mothers, and that shows me the family dynamics as well. Every evening, I pour over my notes. It feels like a reality show. I feel omnipotent. We’re down to a quadrille. I decide to have them play double, on a whim.

It turns out to be an excellent idea. I rotate them to see how they interact. I can’t decide between Mia and Madison. They are both rated equally high tied in the top spot. We regroup and discuss strategy. At this point, Burt says to go to the one I am most physically attracted to. Emily counters that I’m looking for a life partner and that physical beauty fades, where internal beauty improves with age. I agree with Emily, but I don’t know how to proceed. I turn to her for more ideas, since she’s the one who came up with the tennis tournament. “Now you need to interview them separately. You know their temperament. They are both steadfast, tough, impassive, and display impressive sportsmanship. Now you need to know what they expect from you.” It is sound advice, as always. My twin is out of his depth, as am I. I decide not to meet them over a meal, seeing that I had so many disastrous experiences. I decide to go on a walk with Mia. We stroll on the compound and sit in the shade. We talk. I decide on Madison, almost instantly. We announce the winner.

I am asked by the mothers to explain what made the difference. I am ashamed to tell anyone, even my wife-to-be. I make up explanations. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s because Maddy is just like Mother. Strong-willed, righteous, tenacious, and so I love her and she, in turn, will love me. Both Emily and Burt rejoice. The inheritance is ours to share. Mother smiles in her grave. She will live on, through Madison’s spirit if we don’t have children. It is the perfect choice.

Curtain

The artist had stipulated in his will that he wanted to be cremated, alongside his paintings. Thierry was 50 at the time, very much in demand, but very picky as to who his art would go to. He started getting very concerned that his art would end up in the wrong hands, little bits of his soul scattered around the globe. His views on death were tinged by his upbringing. He rejected the doctrine he was inculcated purgatory, heaven and hell and conceived his own rendition, as unique as his art. He felt that what he created should die with him, and to that effect, he started buying back his art, pushing the prices up.

Unwittingly, by creating scarcity, Thierry became unable to afford what he created, yet could not help creating more. His agent begged him to let him place his paintings, so that he could still generate revenue and keep on living. He arranged for the art pieces to be on long-term loans, with a proviso that they should be burned within 50 years of his death. Privately, he saw a bonfire, the patrons creating a mega-event by choosing to all act on the same day. He would have liked to choreograph up to the last details, ascribe meaning to the proceedings, crunch numbers to make them relevant and help his soul find the rest he aspired to. In that period, his art was minimalist. Thierry spent hours staring at a carefully prepared canvas on which he had dutifully applied a thick coat of white. In his mind’s eye, he view carnage on the snow, a battle between forces, a broken tension. After hours, nay, days of staring, he dotted the landscape with large swaths of blood. He made it snow to cover them up, their unsettling presence made known by the pinkish hue, a half-blanketed empty cartridge barely visible, fat vultures sitting on forlorn branches.

They were a hit, of course. The art critics had a field day, analyzing the deleterious effects of modernity on Mother Nature. He was haunted, and it matched the day’s zeitgeist. He went into fits of sleep, interspersed with bursts of activities, the white canvas giving way to monochromes. He painted horrific scenes from the nightmares his mind brought to life. And then he covered the whole thing with thick black paint and called the piece “Night.” The piece was to be seen under a special light that revealed the gruesome shapes beneath. Again, collectors all wanted a piece of him, and it tore at him when he relented. Even at the outrageous prices he charged, Thierry still felt robbed, as though no money could soothe the pain he felt.

He died, of course, as we all do. Everyone knew of the will and art critics took his demands seriously. By that time, he had asked that his body be preserved and burned at the same time as his oeuvre. He had painstakingly catalogued all the pieces, with owner and known addresses so that his wishes could be carried out. He wrote that his soul would know no peace until all of him was together again and disappeared on the same day. Before the time came, however, war broke out. It was a long war, and very damaging, as wars tend to be. Rich houses were not protected, art was looted and defaced, his body abandoned when its protectors flee or were killed. The coffin in which his body lay had been forced to see if it contained treasures and left open when the looters saw there was nothing but a corpse. Bombardments shred the roof and from the box he could finally see the sky. Buzzards came to feed. There was no blood. Snow fell. Night fell. Curtain.

The Lilliputians

He’d fallen in love with a dog walker. Actually, he now knew the four dogs were her own, crowding her tiny apartment. When he first came in, the little dogs swarmed his feet, interacting with them as though with their own kind, sniffing and prodding and nipping. She stopped them in time when Jacko made as though to urinate on his socked foot. “Jacko, not in the house,” Lorena said sternly. He would have preferred “Not on Regan’s foot” but he supposed general rules were easier to enforce. He recognized he had a lot to learn, starting with avoiding stomping on dogs. They always seemed to be underfoot, and he bobbed and weaved his way to the kitchen, Bordeaux in hand.

It wasn’t the grand entrance he’d rehearsed, the effortless funky walk that would make her swoon. He pretty much stumbled into the apartment and into her arms. She made a joke of it, a little alarmed that he would crunch one of dogs underfoot. They laughed uneasily; the setting was not what he expected. He sat down on the sofa while she arranged in a vase the flowers he’d brought. The dogs snuggled against him, one unnervingly laying down on the back of the sofa where he had thought he’d rest his head. He ended up leaning forward, which he reasoned made him looked interested. He’d read about posture for interviews. Leaning forward was good. He relaxed into it, tried to stop his Turbo-charged mind running from him. Lorena brought him some Orangina, a very tame drink that he thankfully held. He didn’t want to pet the dogs. He didn’t like the smell of them.

She took place beside him, shooed the dogs away to be close to him. His magnetic charm was working. They clinked glasses and chatted about the book that had brought them together. It was on the table, a grand epic set in Hong Kong. The book was turned upside down, open at the page where she was at. He winced. Seeing the book pinned down on the table, quartered almost, was painful. He retrieved a business card from his pocket, slid it between the pages and righted the book apologetically. It was her turn to blush and stumble, and they stayed in an awkward silence, looking at each other over the rim of their glasses. He started a joke, got into it, started talking excitedly waving his hands about. Jacko growled. “Jacko, no. Regan is a Friend. Friend.” She sat closer, her face almost touching his, looking intently at the dog. He turned, intending to give her a friendly peck on the cheek, but she was turning to apologize, and they kissed on the lips. Jacko got the message. Regan was in.

After that, dinner was a blur, and they made their way to bed. He hadn’t intended to be sharing those moments with all those eyes staring at him, the dogs jumping up, nestling in the crook of her arm, on his feet, on the side where he intended to lie down. It was awkward for him, but Lorena was quite used to sharing and moved them about lovingly. They talked into the night, that time that is so favourable to confidences. They couldn’t snuggle easily. He felt like the book, the sheets stretched taut by the weight of the dogs. He was pinned in place and feeling a little claustrophobic. He hardly slept at all. She was up early. “Did you sleep well?” “Hardly a wink.” “Nap a bit while I walk them. I’ll take my time and then we’ll have breakfast.” She got up to prepare and the dogs started following her around, like the sweep of a long dress swooshing all around her feet. He could hear the patter of their nails on the floor and feel their excitement growing until the door thankfully shut and the lock bolted.

He fell into a deep slumber, peopled with fantastical dreams taking place on a barge. He felt the motion of the boat, heard the seagulls, woke up to the smell of coffee. He tried to sneak up on her, to see her vulnerable in the naked light, but he stepped on a dog, who started them all yapping and circling him, the intruder. “Hello, Sleepyhead,” she said with a kiss. “I’m warming up some croissants. It’s a lovely day. I thought we could eat out on the balcony?” She had cleared the small table from the plants that usually lived there. He felt he was displacing everything, taking up more room than he ought to, but that was only his perception. He could tell Lorena welcomed him easily in her space, the awkwardness of the previous evening replaced by a new complicity. He gave Jacko a piece of croissant to seal the deal.