All this: the smog-stained sun, the perpetual surf, the salt-and-pepper sand, the ice-plant-moated beach house. He–whoever he was. “Jason est parfait pour toi – you are going to go for him, mon ami.” This, Madelon had already told Céline several times that day.
The two girls, wrapped in towels, their bathing suits still damp from the ocean, climbed the steps of a wooden porch decked out with potted palms, Cortázar chairs and sun-bleached saffron-yellow umbrellas. This sea side of the house was all glass: A face-off of aquariums, mused Céline as Madelon yanked on the braided lanyard of a brass ship’s clock that served both as a doorbell and preamble to the residence’s maritime mien.
There was no immediate answer. Céline considered her metalicized reflection in the copper-tinted glass; blond, tanned, trim, not a trace of those little bulges of fat budding out here and there on her companion. The copper-tinted sliding glass door was a flatterer: “You look nice, Missy. Make good use of what you got – it don’t last forever, you know”.
The voice of an unseen male called down from the balcony above them. “Door’s open, guys – go on in. Be with ya in a sec.”
Gusts of artificially chilled air on a break for freedom slew past their bare arms and legs as Madelon drew open the door and they entered directly into a spacious living room under the surveillance of two stately Great Danes (in bronze) stoically suffering the ignominy of bearing beanies emblematized: BEER and BABES.
“Look at this place. Assez luxueux– n’est pas? What did I tell you, Ça c’est classe, mon amie.” said Madelon triumphantly as their feet sank into spongy, cool, glacier-blue carpeting.
The room’s interior was styled in periwinkle and beige cut with swathes of gold trim and stained wamara wood. Imposingly dimensioned oil paintings filed up along the walls – all, with the exception of a primly orchestrated family portrait, had aquatic or subaquatic motifs. Trophied atop a braque-stoned fireplace was an eight-foot-at-least varnished blue marlin. Model boats and lighthouses encased in glass cabinets or perched on pillared floor stands gave a museal aura to the room. A corner piece Steinway grand would have supplied the crowning touch of cultural gravitas had it not been desecrated as the roost for a flock of porcelain penguins.
To Céline, the house’s interior smelt of unconstrained wealth, but a truer olfactory observation would have discerned the prevailing odor to be that of fast-food left-overs, stale alcohol, kush resin and locker room sweat, for in contrast to the photo-shoot punctiliousness of the decor, cartons, bags and cups representing California’s most ubiquitous fast food chains where everywhere amongst cast-off clothing and enough booze and beer bottles to fill a dumpster.
“Pardon the mess, guys. We’ve been doing some pretty strenuous partying here and Consuela’s mom is sick so she is in Mexico,” said the tall, young man coming down the stairs wearing baggy knee-length shorts and a Homero Simpson T-shirt. “You guys want something to drink before we get going?” Céline had to give Madelon credit, Jason was impressive, with a gymnast’s build and the posture of a dancer, walnut skin, apple-pie eyes, a clean smile and a curiously crooked nose.
“No thanks, we’re all set,” said Madelon, adding in a theatrically ceremonial tone, “Mr Jason Robinson, allow me to present your partner – Ms Céline Destouches.”
Céline and Jason shook hands with correspondingly theatrical solemnity.
Where’s Pete?” asked Madelon.
“He’s already out there,” answered Jason, and, observing their clothing, “You guys swim here or something? Do you even have shoes? There’s bikes in the garage.”
There were at least five of the aforementioned shuffled in amidst an assemblage of water-skis, tennis rackets, golf clubs, rollerblades, balls, mitts and helmets; a deflated punching bag, a kayak, a capsized trampoline; and a Fletcher Chouinard Fark snugly lodged in the passenger seat of a forty-plus-year-old Mercedes convertible.
“I hear you are from Switzerland, Céline,” said Jason, extracting a Bianchi Specialissima out of the rubble. “Lausanne, right? Here take this one. It’s my sister’s. Carbon fiber. Totally rad.”
“No not Lausanne – Leysin,” answered Céline. “It is a little place in the mountains not far from Lausanne. You wouldn’t have ever heard of it.”
“OK, Leysin. But, to be honest, I’d never heard of that other place either,” he laughed. “Madelon told me. And I don’t speak Swiss – in case you wondered.”
Céline smiled hesitantly. She had heard this joke many times, but was he actually joking?
“What are you up to in California?” he asked.
“Working as an au pair – and surfing as much as possible,” she answered.
“Céline is a fantastic athlete, Jason,” Madelon called out from the other side of the garage where she was attempting to untangle a bike from a garden hose. “She is an amazing rock climber and she’s on the Swiss national snowboard team and – “
“Scheiße, Madelon exagère, comme toujours. Don’t listen to her, I made the final round of try-outs – that’s all. But, yes, I climb. Do you, Jason?”
He had – a few times at Joshua Tree – super awesome, and totally rad and he was hoping to do some BASE jumping soon. His friends kept bugging him to join them, but he felt he should have more climbing experience first. Maybe Céline could give him some lessons some day?
“Be careful. BASE jumping is gnarly,” she said, happy to use a word she had learned from some surfers only a few days earlier.
Once all three had bikes, Jason strapped a cooler with drinks to his rack, and they took off on the asphalt path that wove like a serpentine along the top of the beach. Céline looked back at the garage and thought about her siblings and how much any one of those abandoned toys would have meant to them. All that stuff!
Pete with a mesh bag of Wilsons at his side was adjusting the net when Jason and the girls arrived at the courts. The afternoon heat was subsiding. At home we wait for the sun to warm the sand before we play, she thought, here they wait for it to cool down. To be in this sun, on this beach, next to this ocean, with a job and a roof, six thousand miles from home, tout ça – what a life.
After Céline and Pete were introduced and small talk exchanged, the two pairs warmed up on opposite sides of the net. From volleying with Jason, Céline could tell that he was good, if not as good as Pete, who had, according to Madelon, played the AVP circuit with Shawn Simpson. But Jason had style – and for Céline, this was important. There was no separating aesthetics and athletics. A sport should not only be a physical challenge – but also an exercise in rhythm and artistry, to play was to dance to the music of wind, snow, water, sand, granite peaks – the elemental constraints and possibilities that defined her sports and, in extension, a great deal of her young life.
All four participants went at the game intensely. After fiercely contested points, the girls amused their partners by hurling insults at each other in hoarse Italian. Madelon and Pete proved invincible. Five one-sided sets later, all four ran and dived into the ocean waves.
Afterwards they lingered by the courts, drying themselves in the afternoon sun. Pete told stories about the beach circuit and Madelon related how once she had met Kerri Walsh in the ladies room at a club called Calvin Laughs. Pete, having night classes to attend, declined an offer to join them for something to eat and Jason and the girls biked back to the house.
“There are five showers to choose from,” Jason told them when the bikes were reinstated into the confusion of the garage. “You can take your pick.”
“Well just point us to one,” said Madelon.
He laughed. “What I meant was, we can each have our own. No one has to wait.”
“But we like sharing,” said Madelon.
“Okay, in that case you can use my parents’. It’s more of a spa than a shower. You’ll definitely find it amusing.”
He walked them up to a second-floor bathroom walled on three sides by floor-to-ceiling agate-veined mirrors. The fourth wall, facing the ocean, was an atrium of passiflora vines and tolumnia orchids through which the sun, presently recusing itself into the Pacific, gleamed citrus red. A full size replica of Courbet’s L’origine du Monde hung brazenly over a crème-of-ivory bidet. “Oh la la, such courageous taste!” exclaimed Madelon. Jason, apparently embarrassed by this particular display of courageous taste, mumbled something about his father’s strange sense of humor. He provided them with towels and bathrobes and told them to leave their damp things outside the door so he could put them in the dryer.
“C’est génial!” exclaimed Céline, when Jason had left, as she simultaneously opened the marble mermaid faucets of twin Le Bijou washbasins and scanned the abundance of toiletries filling the shelves of an elaborate cedar-wood reredos.
“I have got to try everything. Listen to these labels, ma chérie: Moroccan Mahogany Body Burnisher, Tahitian Vanilla Rejuvenation, Forever Young Carnation-Cinnamon-Pine Body Mist.” She sniffed a bottle of facial spritz, featuring casma, cucumber, almond, and guacamole extract and sprayed her arms with a Sandalwood Damask Seafoam Moisturizer containing fourteen formulaic oils and twelve vital vitamins.
“Can you please stop spraying that shit all over the place,” said Madelon. “It smells like a Wunderbaum orgie in here already.”
Madelon opened the frosted glass spa door. “God, this is incroyable. Come on in and check it out. It’s a walk-in waterpark. Si maman pouvait voir cela.
Madelon’s reference to her mother was appropriate, Maman, a plumber by trade, would have surely been awed by the profusion of geysers, gushers and sprinkler jets mounted on every surface of the Robinson’s spa.
“Incroyable,” repeated Madelon, as she studied an instrument panel designed to resemble the bridge telegraph of a steamship, offering in place of engine speeds an assortment of aquaventures: SPRING SHOWERS – PILATES OF THE CARIBBEAN – SHOCK WAVES – NIAGARA FALLS. Madelon chose the equivalent of Full-Speed-Ahead, TORRENTIAL THUNDERSTORM, releasing a deluge of waters of alternating intensity, temperature, and shape from the ceiling, walls and floor of the spa. Ô mon Dieu!” she cried. “Get in here right away, Céline!”
When Jason returned upstairs to pick up the girls’ wet things it troubled him to hear them carrying on in the spa together. Though he certainly didn’t share his ignoramus friend Kevin’s belief that strong women athletes were to be assumed lesbian unless proven otherwise, he found Madelon and Céline’s intimacy somewhat disconcerting. But no, trust your intuition, Jason, she likes you. European girls are just a little different, that’s all.
Madelon and Céline had finished their aquaventure and were busy sampling skin creams and perfumes when Jason again made his way up the stairs, this time accompanied by an Irish Retriever.
“Guys, there’s been a bit of a development. My parents have shown up. They were supposed to be at our house in Holmby, but now they’re here.”
“Jason? Can’t hear what you’re saying. Come on in,” shouted Madelon.
He opened the door a crack and the nose of the dog poked its way into the bathroom, disdainfully sniffing the heavily scented air.
“Heads up, guys,” said Jason. “My folks are here. Everything’s cool – except for the state of the house, of course. Come on down and meet them when you’re ready.”
An anxious middle-aged couple were putting away dishes and sorting trash with Jason when Madelon and Céline wearing this same couple’s monogrammed bathrobes and shepherded by their Irish Retriever, entered the kitchen.
“Sorry to bust in on you,” said Mrs Robinson, “but our decorators, who are more booked up than Yo-Yo Ma, suddenly decided that exactly this afternoon was the only time to start renovating our bedroom. I hope we aren’t spoiling your party. Galveston, leave the girls alone!”
“It is no party, Mom,” said Jason, after introducing Madelon and Céline to his parents. “Like I told you, we just played some volleyball and now we were planning on ordering something to eat.”
“Well,” said Mrs Robinson smiling gamely, “I would love to throw something together for you . . . Galveston, for god’s sake get down . . . and Jason, I can’t believe you would invite people into this house the way it looks. Consuela would have a heart attack if she could see what a mess you’ve made.”
“For christ’s sake, I’m on it mom.”
And while Jason was ‘on it’ his father insisted on showing Céline and Madelon around the premises, a tour which began in his study with a collection of arrowheads, hearths and stone slabs used by the Tongva Indians.
The girls, still in their bathrobes and fending off Galveston’s persistently intimate explorations were given a lecture on the history of the Tongva, who, Mr Robinson explained, had lived “on the very ground we are now standing as early as 8,000 years ago.”
“Wow,” said Madelon.
“Wow,” echoed Céline.
“And here is a portrait of Toypurina, the Tongva medicine woman who led a rebellion against the Spanish missionaries at the time of the French Revolution. I bet you didn’t know that?”
As a matter of fact they didn’t.
He then escorted them over a floor of hand-polished – “you can’t get these here in California” – Florentine Anticato tiles to a William Trotter scale-model of the famous Point Fermin Lighthouse – “worth at least 15,000 dollars before Jason damaged it in indoor basketball practice” – and from there onto pictures of his two girls – “one hell of a cheerleader, wish you could see her in action” – Tiff – “and our very own homecoming queen, only she came down with mono the day before the big parade, so sad” – Ashley.
“And this guy you already know,” said Mr Robinson, pointing to a photograph of Jason in an imperious pose as captain and quarterback of his high school football team.”
“Isn’t that girl Madelon the one that your friend Chris was dating? The European everyone thinks is so wild?” Mrs Robinson asked her son in the kitchen. “And why don’t they have any clothes with them?
“They came in their bathing suits, Mom,” said Jason. “They weren’t planning on staying. They certainly didn’t know you were going to make dinner for them, or that they were going to get the royal tour from Dad. I guess it’s time to rescue them from that!”
“You could have offered them some of your sisters’ clothes you know, or do they intend to eat dinner in our bathrobes?”
When Jason caught up with Mr Robinson’s expedition they had moved on to the living room, where he was explaining to his captive audience the superiority of New York built Steinways over those made in Hamburg .
“Jason,” said Madelon, taking advantage of the interruption, “I just remembered I have a movie date. Do you think you could give me a ride home? It is only a few blocks away, but I’m running late.”
“What? You’re not staying for dinner? My mother’s going to make something quite nice for us. Are you sure?”
“Yup. Gotta go. But this one’s staying.” Madelon put her arm around her friend’s waist and grinned.
Céline acquiesced with a smile, but declined the offer of loaned clothing. And so it was agreed that Jason would drive Madelon to her apartment, at the same time taking Céline home to change.
“Thanks for the tour Mr Robinson,” said Madelon. “I hope I get a chance to see the rest of the house some other time.”
“You’re welcome any time, Madelon,” said Mr Robinson. “Please do come and visit us often.”
The Robinsons’ Tesla was parked on the street outside the house. Madelon gave Jason her address from the backseat and he repeated it to the car’s navigator.
“Jesus, Jason, don’t tell me you don’t know where 14th Street is?” said Madelon.
“Yeah, of course I do, but what is the point of having this stuff if you don’t use it. This guy drives itself.”
Dropped off at her apartment, Madelon gave her friend an exaggerated wink, and Jason accentuated his good-bye with a thumbs-up sign before driving on to the house where Céline both worked and lived.
Two kids playing in the lights of the front porch ran over and recklessly jumped on Céline as she stepped out of the Tesla and she half-carried both of them indoors. Jason, waiting in the car, watched a light go on above the garage – her room, he imagined. Ten minutes later she came out wearing low heels, jeans, and a simple white cotton blouse.
At the Robinsons’ now somewhat tidier beach house, (full order would not be restored until Consuela returned from her leave of absence in Mexico), the dinner, which Jason’s mother presented as a “spontaneous throwing together of some odds and ends”, in a kitchen mercilessly stripped of all essentials by her son, was turning into a rather formal affair promoted by the candle-lit dining table, oversized plates, oversized silverware, and oversized wine glasses.
Or perhaps the formality was merely an extension of Mrs Robinson’s persona. The capturing of her personality by whoever painted the family portrait in the living room was uncanny: the stiffness, the controlled smile, the anxious eyes. It occurred to Céline that the woman in the portrait was not the likeness of Mrs Robinson – but rather the other way around.
Dinner conversation centered a great deal on how expensive everything had become in America: gas, food, magazines, tennis lessons, bottled water – there seemed to be no end to the amount of everyday items that had escalated in price to irritate the Robinsons; nor were they mollified by hearing that Céline could think of none of these items being cheaper back home.
She told them about the family she worked for. She loved the kids, specially the four-year old, Stuart, even if he and his siblings were devilishly spoiled. Mrs Robinson practiced her college French on Céline several times during the meal.
“Vous n’avez pas de tattoo, Céline?” ventured Mrs Robinson.
“Tattoo? I heard that, Mother!” Jason protested.
“Well your other friend, Madelon, seemed to have quite a few,” said Mrs Robinson. “Apparently a lot of girls are getting them now.”
“No, I don’t Mrs Robinson. It would be fun, but I think that so much in life is unalterable already. I see no reason to add to that.”
“Well said! I must say. Did you hear that Jason? I’m sure that makes your parents happy,” said Mrs Robinson.
“They would be happy either way,” said Céline, “and actually my mother had a Javanese sea serpent done on her breast as a teenager. She says it grows longer every year.”
As nobody laughed, Céline cautioned herself to refrain from jokes that could be taken as inaccurate English rather than intentional humor.
“And I do think Jason’s tattoos look awesome,” she added.
Jason, who had embellished his right arm and leg with Maori-style swirling double-spirals smiled triumphantly. “Céline is studying to be a doctor, Mom. Maybe you should tell her about your back problems.”
“You’re a medical student?” asked Mrs Robinson, surprised. “Why on earth are you working as an au pair?”
“I needed a break from my studies and it was a way of getting to be in the States,” she answered.
Mrs Robinson told Céline she wished Jason’s sisters could be there to meet her, because they were so ignorant about any part of the world outside the U.S. “How much did those school bus tours in Europe cost us, Leon? Money down the drain, wasn’t it? They came home and could hardly remember where they’d been. Ashley claimed she had walked to the top of the Arch d’ Triumph in Rome!”
“Well at least they were getting exercise,” laughed Mr Robinson and then turning to their guest added, “But I would have liked them to hear Céline’s beautiful English, for it might have inspired them to learn a second language. Are you planning on eventually studying medicine here?”
“No, I’m just taking a year off,” answered Céline. “And as for the English, I spent a lot of growing-up time in a resort filled with ski bums. It could be a lot better.”
“But your English is excellent, my dear,” said Mr Robinson.
After dinner Jason helped his mom with the dishes and Mr Robinson, carrying their wine glasses, led Céline up to the house’s rooftop terrace to see the Pacific Ocean stars. He got out some cushions for the deck chairs, which he explained were exact replicas of those on the Titanic, pointing out the engraved five-pointed symbol of the White Star Line. The promised celestial stars, on the other hand, were severely obnubilated by the yellow sheen of the Los Angeles megalopolis.
“Are you politically active, Céline?”
“What? Why do you ask that?”
“Just some of the things you said at dinner. You’re not a socialist are you?”
“I don’t label myself politically, if that’s what you’re asking. Of course I feel for those who suffer, people who lose out or get a bad deal through no fault of their own.”
“Don’t we all?” said Mr Robinson, “The question is what to do about it. Sometimes noble intentions do more harm than good. Karl Marx, as I see it, wasn’t necessarily an evil person, but look what came of his good intentions.”
“So we should just stop trying?”
“We need more Mandelas, Céline.”
“Nelson Mandela? I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.”
“Not only did Mandela have the right intentions and moral courage, Céline, but he also understood how the political world works. He grasped the importance of having the right image. Mandela had the greatest media projection of any politician in modern times, save, perhaps, JFK. Do you know who Yasir Arafat was?”
“I’m not a child, Mr Robinson.”
“Please call me, Leon, Céline. I apologize. I don’t expect young people here to know that name. He was not a success in this country. Arafat also had an opportunity to fix things, but he had a very distorted conception of media projection. He was hideous, with his scraggly beard and that meaningless uniform, besides the stupid scarf. And, of course, it didn’t help being so damn short. He might have appealed to his own people but he turned the rest of the world against him, as did Castro, by the way. The last statesman to successfully smoke cigars in public was Churchill. Castro just didn’t get it either. How was your volleyball game?”
She related the highlights of the match and how much she enjoyed playing with Jason – such a wonderful athlete.
“Jason is good at anything that has to do with fun and games,” said Mr Robinson, “but as for work – well he doesn’t think he has to, so he excels at play instead. He is supposedly taking courses at Coastline, but I can’t remember ever seeing him with a textbook – or any sort of book for that matter. I suppose you think we’ve spoiled him like the kids in the family you work for. I’ll tell you, I had none of this when I grew up. I had to double-shift my way through high school: studying days, working nights. Working hard is the only life I’ve known. I assume eventually Jason will put his nose to the grindstone. He actually has a good head on his shoulders, you know.”
“He has a nice head.” She smiled. “In any case, he plays hard and playing is working – only the rules are different.”
Mr Robinson looked at her inquisitively.
“May I fill your glass?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said, I wondered if you would like some more wine?”
Not waiting for an answer he headed down the stairs for another bottle.
“Is your dad a banker?” he asked upon his return, opening a bottle of Pinot Noir with an elaborate electronic corkscrew.
“My god no, what made you think that?”
“Just a guess. Banker, watchmaker, confectioner, yodeler . . . Switzerland is known for banking among other things.”
“He’s a ski instructor – or he was until he broke his spine.”
“How terrible! I am so sorry.”
“He’s paralyzed from the waist down,” she said. “And he lives in a wheelchair in a mountain village that wasn’t exactly designed for wheelchairs.”
“I am really sorry to hear this. Was it recently?”
“No, and you need not be. He’s not one for pity. My father says that freedom comes from the recognition of necessity. He will never walk again or do many other things, but he accepts that and therefore he is content – at least that is what he tells us.”
“In this country we accept nothing as impossible, Céline. For miracles do happen and one should never accept what you call necessity. Your father could be cured, if not by a miracle – then perhaps by some miraculous drug. Perhaps when you become a doctor . . . “
“But he would never be free waiting around for a miracle.”
“Through faith, Céline,” said Mr Robinson. ” With real faith we can find freedom.”
“Are you religious, Mr Robinson?”
“We’re all religious, my dear. It’s just that some of us won’t admit it. And please call me Leon.” He smiled and looked at her intently as he poured more wine into her glass. He had Jason’s eyes – only crustier.
“Céline, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you are not only the most intelligent woman I have ever seen my son with, but definitely the most attractive as well. I can’t help wonder what it is like to be so damn beautiful as you are – it seems to me that it can’t be that easy. Men are so . . . “
“I don’t consider myself beautiful. Often I feel quite ugly,” she answered. “As a child I was teased for being effrayante. You should see me in the morning after a night on the town.”
“I’m sure it’s a pleasure few men would forget – or regret,” he answered, as Jason came up the stairs suspiciously eyeing his father.
“Galveston is impatient for his evening walk, Dad.”
“Ah, right, then I will leave you two alone with this glorious California night.”
“I gather he is a Nelson Mandela fan,” said Céline when Jason’s father had left.
“You don’t know the half of it. Dad has a huge collection of Mandela stuff, a library full of books and whatever. He christened our sailboat Madiba, which was Mandela’s nickname. And get this; Dad actually went to Mandela’s funeral in Africa even though he hadn’t gotten the PR contract for it.”
“Public Relations for funerals? They really do that?”
“Yeah, of course. Funerals, weddings, elections, wars. Dad’s one of the masters. Not getting the Mandela contract really pissed him off. Did he tell you his favorite story? Did he tell you what ‘doing a Mandela’ is?”
“No. What is ‘doing a Mandela’?” She drew back another notch in her Titanic deck chair and followed the blinking lights of a plane coming in over the ocean for a landing.
“Well, in the nineties, rugby, which I guess you know is kind of like football, was typical of what was going on in South Africa. There were no integrated teams – blacks were excluded from playing, but when Mandela came to power it was decided that South Africa would host the World Championships nevertheless. Mandela, he was determined to go through with it against the wishes of his party.”
“The ANC,” offered Céline.
“Is that what they’re called? Well anyway it so happened that some of the team were heavy-duty racists. And it was again questioned whether Mandela should even show up at the games.”
“But he did.”
“Yes. South Africa were underdogs in the tournament yet they ended up winning it – one of the great upsets in world sports. Now, here is the thing: Mandela was there and he went down on the field and congratulated this team of white guys and he wasn’t wearing a suit as you would expect of a presidential person – he was wearing the South African team jersey, with the number six on it. Six was the team captain’s number, who was probably a racist himself.
“Remember, essentially these were the same people who had kept him in jail for I don’t know how many years. These were guys who would have hardly let Mandela shine their friggin’ shoes, and now when the tables were turned and he was their president, well he just strolled out there, you know, wearing their jersey, smiling. He kicked ass with those white dudes because he put himself above all their shit. Do you see? It’s my Dad’s favorite story. He tells everybody. And you know what? He owns that number six jersey – not Mandela’s, because that’s in a museum, but the one the team captain wore. It’s hanging in his office in LA. It wasn’t cheap – believe me.”
“So turning the other cheek, acting nobly, and still coming out on top – that’s ‘doin’ a Mandela’?” she asked.
“Yeah, or so I have always believed, but recently I came upon an alternative interpretation: At the age of eighty, Mandela started getting it on with a thirty-year-younger woman.” Jason added with a laugh. “Knowing my dad . . . ”
“I like him,” she said. “You have great parents.”
“Yeah, well watch out for him, kiddo, he is not above trying to muzzle in on my girlfriends.” He caught himself. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you . . . ” He comically self-slapped his cheek. “I meant he is quite capable of hustling my female friends, or anything in a skirt for that matter.”
“I’ve been called a lot worse,” she laughed.
Her candour took him by surprise. From his balcony, he had been blown over by Céline the first moment he saw her coming up the beach with Madelon. “You are gonna go nutty when you see her,” Madelon had warned him. And she was right. Céline was awesome. He leaned over to her deck chair and kissed her.
Her lips responded coolly. He graced her cheek with the tip of his nose. “Jesus, what is that perfume you are wearing?”
“George Washington’s Classic Number Six Cologne, I borrowed it from your mom. Hope she doesn’t mind.”
“Actually I think it’s my dad’s.”
They both laughed.
“Playing volleyball with you today was totally rad,” said Jason. “You never give up – you are amazing. I’m sorry I couldn’t do better for us – Pete and Madelon were just too much.”
“Don’t worry, une autre fois,” she answered, “we’ll trounce ’em next time. We just need practice.” She pantomimed passing a ball into the air. “Jason, I have got to think about getting home. You have been drinking wine – can you still drive me?”
“Hey, c’mon – this is the land of the free,” he laughed. Then after a short pause, “but you said it was your night off, right? We have my sisters’ bedrooms. You are welcome to stay if you’d like.”
“I don’t know. I think I should be getting home.”
“Mom will make you Eggs Benedict for breakfast. It’s her specialty. And I’ll take you surfing first thing in the morning.”
They walked down the stairs to a mahogany-walled den where Jason’s parents were watching an interview with their president on a cinema-sized TV screen.
“Céline is–”, began Jason.
Mr Robinson motioned for him to wait until Pence had fully answered a question before muting the TV.
“Céline is going to sleep over, Mom. Can I pull some of the junk out of Tiff’s room?”
“Absolutely not,” said Mrs Robinson. “I’m in the middle of sorting things for Consuela’s family. I will get it ready for her.”
Ignoring their protests, she rushed off, while Mr Robinson took the opportunity to give his opinion of the state of American politics.
“I know what you Europeans thought about Trump, Céline. You thought he was a vulgar, narcissistic misogynist, but the man was a communications genius, no one can deny that and he whipped the establishment media so badly at their own game they just had to bring him down.”
“Chill, Dad,” said Jason.
“I am afraid Tiff’s room is still sort of junked-out,” said Mrs Robinson upon her return. “There is so much to get rid of. I am sure we would all be much better off living like monks. Look at how Jason has filled our garage with all his toys so that we have to park on the street – and can you believe, Céline, it’s the same thing in Holmby Hills? Anyhow, the bed is clear now. I put out Tiffany’s PJ’s and a new toothbrush and at least there is a chair for you to hang your clothes on. Now let me get us all some ice water.”
The serving of ice water didn’t help ‘chill’ Mr Robinson.
“They couldn’t let him succeed. He was destroying them, rendering them insignificant, and now we’re stuck with this mental midget.” He pointed to the silent TV screen where Mike Pence was mouthing a reply to an interviewer’s question.
Mrs Robinson tried to change subjects by asking Céline if she had been to Mexico. She hadn’t.
“Mike Pence is an idiot,” said Mr Robinson.
Jason tried to change subjects by asking Céline if she had a favorite American baseball team. She didn’t.
“They stabbed Donald Trump in the back,” said Mr Robinson.
“It’s way past our bedtime, Leon,” said Mrs Robinson. “I think we should leave these youngsters to themselves.”
“A creationist running the country,” said Mr Robinson. “How much worse can it get.”
Céline was puzzled:
“Leon,” she asked, surprising both Jason and Mrs Robinson by her use of his first name. “I would have thought you would have appreciated Pence’s Christian beliefs after what you told me up on the terrace.”
“I only said I was religious. I didn’t say anything about Christianity,” answered Mr Robinson.”
“Dad’s a Buddhist, Céline,” said Jason.
Mrs Robinson decided this was an appropriate time to end the evening’s discussion:
“I’ll let Jason show you your room, Céline. If you wake up before us tomorrow, help yourself to anything in the kitchen.”
“Thank you, Mrs Robinson. I feel like such an intruder.”
“On the contrary – today, we are the intruders,” she smiled.
Once the parents had gone, Jason switched on Netflix searching titles for something they could watch together, but Céline was more interested in getting some sleep. She had been woken by her four-year-old dreadfully early that morning – “He loves to come into my room and get into bed with me.”
“Can’t say I blame him. Follow me.”
They walked up a back stairway to Tiffany’s room. He kissed her once again in the doorway. This time she put her arms around him and pressed her body against his, but only briefly. She did not invite him in.
“Will you be alright then?” he asked her. “Do you need anything?”
” No, thank you, it’s been a great day, Jason.”
“Yes, Céline. Awesome.”
“Good night, Jason.”
“See you in the morning. Surfing – right? “
“Yes, good night, Jason.”
“Good night, Céline.”
Vestiges of teenage girlhood held sway over Tiff’s room despite the abundance of packing cartons and unsorted clothing. Posters of Justin Bieber, 5 Seconds of Summer, and (somewhat incongruously) Bob Marley, covered the walls. A lineup of improbable trophies for inconsequential achievements topped a bookshelf filled with knowledge: How To Survive Break-ups, The Real Rules For Girls, Ask the Passengers, and Makeup: The Ultimate Guide. On the floor were a stack of American Cheerleader magazines which Céline could not resist thumbing through. It’s all about scrambled legs, she laughed to herself.
The large, soft bed was hidden beneath a mound of giant pillows patterned with sailboats and endless repetitions of the text, ‘Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse‘. Celéne undressed, decided against Tiff’s pajamas, rolled into bed, and fell asleep chasing volleyballs across the sand.
Tap, tap, tap.
Someone was knocking on her door. The LEDs on Tiffany’s antique clock radio were blinking an unreliable 00:00. God, she thought, may it be the son and not the father.
“Céline, are you awake? Can I come in?” It was the former.
She murmured assent and when he had entered the room and walked over to her, silently, his apprehension profiled in the venetian blind-striped pacific moonlight, she lifted up her covers inviting him to join her in bed. He took off his t-shirt, lay down beside her and kissed her shoulder.
“Jason, I am so tired. I would rather we just went to sleep – if that’s OK with you?”
“No problem. That’s fine. It’s just that . . . well I have been lying awake for hours thinking about you, Céline. You have to stop me if I’m . . . I know we just met, but christ almighty, you are the most awesome, totally rad person I have ever . . . It’s like fate brought us together – well not quite, Madelon did set us up, but we have so much in common, even if you come from the other side of the world. I just sense that you and I are two of a kind and that you feel it as much as I do.”
“Sure, but I am pretty tired, Jason. We’ll talk more in the morning. OK?”
“I can live with that,” he said. “I just wanted to be close to you.” He traced his finger around the nipple on her breast.
“Think about it: there are so many things we can do together, we can go surfing everyday. And you can give me climbing lessons. We can play volleyball. We can rollerskate. I get invited to all the cool parties down here. You’re not going back to Lausanne soon are you?”
“Leysin. No, not soon. It all sounds great. Go to sleep, Jason.”
Which, somewhat surprisingly, he did – not straight off, but after a bit of caressing, making sure she meant what she said, he lay back on one of the many pillows and the hard-on he had had since entering the room wilted. He actually did seem content just to be lying by her side.
She watched him fall asleep. All this: This forehead without cares. This broken-nosed countenance. This sleek, muscular neck. Her mind traversed the day’s events – this voyage au bout de la nuit. She thought about Leon Robinson, the PR-master, and his strange mix of opinions and heroes, and Mrs Robinson’s hairdo and the paintings and the gilded furniture and the mermaid faucets and the ludicrous spa and the car that drove itself and the over-sized TV, the over-sized everything else, and Jason’s limited vocabulary and taste in films. Jason – this beautiful platitude of a man lying here beside her.
And as she studied this beautiful platitude of a man’s face his eyelids twitched and his breathing momentarily shortened. Ha ha. He’s he’s BASE jumping in his dreams. She blew softly into the curls of his hair: “Fly safely, mon chevalier.”
All this. All this you can embrace, consume, internalize. All this you can squeeze between your legs and pump the seed out of. She laughed at the thought of trying to explain to Jason that she was considering internalizing him, his home, his family – his California. Madelon was always accusing her of trying to be a philosopher. Philosophizing about things is a coward’s excuse for not doing them, said Madelon.
Jason murmured in his sleep and his mouth fell slightly open. Céline gently closed it again. Don’t want him to start snoring now, do I?
She hadn’t told Leon that her father too was an admirer of Nelson Mandela. That when she was a child he had taken her to stand on a street corner in Geneva for hours just to wave at Mandela speeding by in the backseat of a limousine. Mamman et Pappa in Leysin. She felt a jab of homesickness – she longed for a breath of thin, sharp, alpine air.
All this . . . On peut baiser tout ça. She tapped the tip of his crooked nose with her finger. No reaction. She pinched his nostrils between her thumb and forefinger, gently at first and then more firmly until he began to stir.
“Céline? What is it?”
“Réveilles–toi, mon chéri. C’est l’heure.”
“What? You’re not speaking English, Céline? I don’t understand,” he looked somewhat frightened.
“La vie est courte, mon cher. il n’y a rien à attendre. L’attente est pour après. Viens à moi. Viens à moi maintenant. Demain je suis ailleurs. Et toi aussi.“