‘At Montebello, Last November’ by Jane Callen

Montebello

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

I wouldn’t go out of my way to befriend Virginie, but I’m flattered that she accepts me into her circle. She fascinates me. I wonder what remains when she peels away her public persona. Gallic and elegant. Black Merino pullover and skirt glimpsed under her open Persian fur. Around her neck a single strand of pearls. By Mikimoto, she tells me when I admire them. White lacy stockings and the solid oxford boot popular with the Holt Renfrew crowd. Hair thick, dark and straight. Possibly the result of ritual brush strokes. Hair you’d expect to see on a well-kept child.

I knew only of her by reputation until yesterday, when we both arrived at Le Chateau Montebello, the resort on the Quebec side of the river. It’s a fifty-minute drive from Ottawa if you board the car ferry at Navan. It was an early day in November, so there wasn’t any pack ice yet, no snow. But the ferry runs all winter because of a technological gismo that pipes hot air under the water to break up ice.

Virginie is with William, the senior lobbyist with the firm. He’s also my husband’s closest friend. Do competitive co-workers make friends on the job? Better to say William is my husband’s most trusted ally. Co-opted from the provincial party’s Big Blue Machine, Will orchestrated the present prime minister’s election campaign. He delivered the largest majority in history. Today, Will opens any door he chooses on Parliament Hill.  Appointments with Deputy Ministers litter his calendar. He assures senior management their corporation has the ear of key players in Ottawa.

Will’s been good to me too. Last year I convinced him to join the board of directors of the non-profit where I work. I knew I was asking him to slum it. This wasn’t a position he wanted or needed on his CV, but Will joined the board. He opened doors, sent streams of funding our way, made me a winner by association.

This weekend retreat at Montebello is sponsored by my husband and Will’s employer.  Reward for hours they’ve put in beyond what’s reasonably expected. My husband shares this perk with me to compensate for his emotional abandonment of our marriage.  That would sound harsh if I said it out loud, but it’s true. A brief respite from the stressors tainting our day-to-day life. Still, I hope for time alone, a moment together on neutral ground.

Marketed as the world’s largest log cabin, Montebello is a star shaped mansion nestled among firs beside the Ottawa River. The chateau hosts not only prosperous businessmen like my husband, but also politicians in power and visiting foreign dignitaries. It’s acompete contrast to the venues my employer hires for similar events. Cheap and cheerful: that’s the vibe non-profits embrace. Deadening hours in beige meeting rooms. I attend bland business dinners where I drink modestly and keep the greens out of my front tooth gap. Worse, the after dinner mingles. Ignoring my swollen feet in knock-off designer stilettos, I make small talk with lacklustre companions. They’re bores, but they’ve got complete power over my lowly job. Whether I get to stay or leave.

At work I’m the volunteer co-ordinator. I wrangle the unpaid workers who offer their skills to our cause. At Montebello I’m the wife of a superstar rumoured to be the next executive in boardroom. His promotion may be announced this weekend. A man on his way up, the sort Montebello prefers to serve. Few expectations on me. Assume a self-effacing demeanour, appear supportive, and behave in a manner suitable for the partner of my high-flying spouse. Not difficult to execute, I tell myself in the mirror.  Those circles under my eyes aren’t fading, not even with the faithful application of Clinique Shadow Corrector.

They’re old friends, William and Virginie. In his sixties, William has cycled through several notable careers, and been married three times. Remarkably, his ex-wives remain active in his life. Will’s too charming to forget, but that charm must be a cover.  He can be difficult, I’ll bet. Not dangerous like men who headline the Ottawa Citizen, or men who fell their women with crossbows, or hire police informants to torch their homes while they’re away on business. Not a physical threat. Will’s blue eyes charm merely by staring at you, but when things don’t go his way, he disengages. He’s done that in a board meeting. He simply turns away. You’re left with a feeling of loss, of having failed to live up to his expectations. I imagine that’s why his wives remain in his orbit, to preserve the illusion that they meet Will’s standards.

Virginie’s a media relations consultant, a pretentious title for someone who organizes events like this. She creates themed get-togethers where decision makers get down to business under the guise of being on an adventure. Will opens doors, Virginie sashays through in her Louis Vuitton booties.

Montebello is a staple in Virginie’s portfolio, but it’s her first time here as a guest. The rustic escape accessible from the city. A brilliant choice, Virginie. I’m stating the obvious, but she nods agreeably, and wants to know which of the activities she’s arranged might appeal to me. Education sessions on sipping champagne with the sommelier and shucking oysters with the five-star chef? Perhaps a therapeutic body massage or the tour of an Arabian horse farm? At the open bar, we’re waiting for dinner to be announced. Onto my second pinot noir. It’s delicious and I’m feeling fine, but my stomach rumbles, reminding me that I haven’t eaten for hours. I waive off the bartender’s offer for a refill. Slow down, don’t spoil things.

She claims to be a champagne connoisseur. The tulip-shaped glass must be one third filled with the wheaten-coloured liquid. If the tiny bubbles fall into a straight line as they travel upwards, Virginie says they have great legs. She likes that kind of disciplinein nature. I giggle, but she isn’t joking. She’s rather wistful.

She knows the owner of the Arabian horses. Resting her lacquered fingertips on my forearm she encourages me to participate in the outing even though I don’t ride. Arabians are housed in stables cleaner than most people’s homes. There’s a Baccarat crystal chandelier in the centre ring. The massage beckons to her. Lowering her voice, Virginie reveals she suffers from tendonitis. Last summer she toured Baden-Baden. In Germany, she adds, in case I’m clueless. Muds, sprays, hot springs. Merveilleux. Her hands flutter like a clutch of pigeons hovering over breadcrumbs, fingers banded in multiple rings of silver. I remind her of the limited number of appointments she’s made available. If she’s serious about a massage, she needs to book a spot. She nods again. When Virginie nods, I feel like she’s taking mental notes for her post-event report. She wishes to tell me more about Baden-Baden, but she wants that massage, so she excuses herself to find a hotel phone. We’re nearing the end of the champagne appreciation. Virginie missed out; the bubbly did have great legs. I’ll remember to tell her. Next up, the oysters. For most of my husband’s colleagues, this is their first try at shucking. Guess they’re a burger crowd when they’re not at Montebello. When the chef inserts his knife into the tip of an oyster, my husband leans forward in the chair beside me. A burst of profanity, followed by the need for Band-Aids accompany the opening Malpeques in our kitchen, but when the chef slips his knife in the point the mollusc, it opens as if with a well-oiled key. My husband’s on his feet, volunteers to try his hand, curious as to why his methodology proves a hazard. I refuse to be the wife trailing in his shadow. I stay put even though I’d like to try my hand at shucking too.

The chef sautés spinach steeped in Pernod, then dollops the garnish over raw oysters on the half shell. The heat cooks the oysters. My husband’s coworkers inch towards the groaning board, nibble more politely than I imagine they scoff back those burgers.  My husband is elbow to elbow with the chef. He’s forgotten that I’m in the room. The cook in our house will commit these recipes to memory, but I scribble down notes in case he needs them.

Slurping back an Oyster Pernod, a colleague discovers a pearl, displays his find between his index finger and thumb. An irregular and swollen oval, not the perfect sphere of Virginie’s Mikimotos. Virginie’s in luck. This is the kind of memorable moment she hopes to create this weekend.

My oyster education is spoiled by a lack of drink. There’s Perrier, but we’re out of champagne. Silver buckets on the sideboard hold upturned empties in melting ice.  Poor planning. I’ll mention this to Virginie too. She’s just entered the room; she can add that to her post-event review.

Virginie chooses the chair vacated by my oyster-shucking husband. She’s wearing a shearling car coat with a russet wool scarf draped about her neck. It’s the same shade as her lipstick. I envy her discipline and her attention to minutiae.

Virginie arranges herself in the straight-backed stacking chair. A sturdy woman, she’s neither fat nor muscular. Her square face and even features could be called attractive, but it’s her attitude which fascinates. A regal aura –– or is it hauteur? How old is she anyway? I suspect that she’s in her forties, although she could be older. She’s wearing sunglasses, so I can’t see the skin around her eyes. Is she hung-over?

Virginie’s ram-rod posture makes for a commanding presence. Feet flat on the floor, her hands folded in a formal way on her lap . . . it’s easy to imagine her as a child. The gleaming hair in braids, perhaps a worsted gray tunic with woolen stockings and oxfords not that much different from the ones she wears now. She’d have been an obedient child; Nuns drilled catechism into her head. My godless childhood required endless recitations of verse. Milton and Yeats, poetry learned by rote to the smack of a wooden ruler.

“I wonder how Will’s faring with curling.” Virginie has arranged the game as an alternative to oyster shucking.

“He always wins.” There’s an edge in her voice as she turns away.

My mention of Will offends her. Shrugging off her hostility, I join the line for Oysters Pernod. When I return, she’s gone.

Sucked, slurped and swallowed. The oyster tasting’s complete and my husband is deep in conversation with a colleague by the table of spent champagne bottles. Slipping my arm through his, I meet his flash of perfect teeth with a tight-lipped glimpse of my MasterCard-financed veneers. He returns to his conversation; I lean into him and feign wifely interest. Fight to keep a connection.

There’s an unscheduled and urgent meeting which threatens to take up the afternoon, possibly most of the evening. No time together this weekend. Foolish to imagine there would be. He’s distracted, already thinking ahead. No apology for leaving me high and dry; instead, he makes clear his expectation that I participate in the social events without him, to make a good impression. Then he disappears. No backward glance or show of affection. Even an insincere embrace would be welcome. Virginie’s charging up the hallway, her dark brows threaten to knit, then she disappears too. I’m off the radar. I remind myself that at a corporate retreat, business requirements take precedence. Even at here five-star Montebello.

I’m not in the mood to tour a horse stable no matter how dazzling the chandelier. A chilled bottle of champagne with great legs is more to my liking. And silence. I’ve had my fill of small talk. I don’t know how my husband does it. I guard against blurting my incendiary interior monologue. It’s too early for champagne, so I return to our room, grab my pea-coat and duck out the west door. Just in time. The equine aficionados are gathering on the far side of the star-shaped lobby.

It’s colder than I anticipated. The sun’s lost behind a bank of dirty clouds. Pulling my collar close, I rearrange my viscose scarf around my neck for maximum warmth, not fashion like Virginie. I plunge my hands into my pockets. The wind off the water stings my skin, and I forgot my gloves. The grass breaks crisp underfoot. Ice crystals gloss the stones on the path. Behind me, the dark firs and the red-cedar resort overshadow the land. Eastward, where the Ottawa River laps alongside the property, I can’t make out where the grey sky ends, and the icy waterline begins. November isn’t the best time to visit Montebello. The canoes are stacked in the boathouse. The worn wood docks lie slippery with damp. I pick my way along the shoreline, keep the log hotel at my back and feel freer with every step.

I want out. That’s what I need to say to my high-flying husband if he ever stoops to listen. I want out.

There’s a man up ahead, gazing towards the river. Has he escaped the retreat too? Moving closer, I recognize Will. An inky reed in a black overcoat, set against the grey. His blond forelock whips in the wind. A gregarious wave of his leather glove in my direction. Why’s he here? Shouldn’t he be involved in whatever strategic plan is under discussion?

When I reach him I’m shivering. I reveal my bare hands. Unbuttoning his coat, he pulls my blanched knuckles close. Without thought, I extend my arms. His heat burns my skin. He wraps his coat around me, and we stand like this until I break the silence.

“I found you.”

Adultery is an unseemly word to describe choosing love when you need it. Will unlocks the cedar-plank door of the corner suite. It’s secluded on the top floor, removed from the block of the rooms Virginie booked for employees. At the bedside table, he turns on the radio, lowers the volume. The mournful trumpet of Chet Baker accompanies me as I step out of my panties and jeans, then abandon them on the moss coloured carpet. I’m still wearing my t-shirt and bra.

Will folds me in his arms again. This time we dance tentative steps to the jazz on the radio. My body relaxes with each stroke of his gentle hand on my bare ass. Chet finishes his song. Will’s hands run up my torso. Cool and playful. Lifting my arms above my head, he removes my bra and shirt. Nina Simone’s raspy words take over from Chet, but the mood is broken. We can’t dance to her. Will unbuttons his blue plaid flannel shirt. The one he wore curling earlier. Reveals a thicket of golden hair trailing down his chest. Unlike my husband, a hairless breed of man. Aroused by Will’s nakedness, I find myself reaching for his belt buckle. I want more of this.

Three wives. Will understands what pleases a woman. He enjoys discovering the idiosyncrasies of our lovemaking. He’s amused by my confession that I’ve never been with an uncircumcised man. Invites me to feel the pleasure of this act. The last time my husband and I had sex he was keen to be done in time to catch the eleven o’clock news.

“He’s a son of bitch. Don’t know how you put up with him for so long.” Filling the Jacuzzi under the bay window, Will blesses it with the complimentary bottle of Mumm’s from the gift basket. I’d rather drink it, but he finds this gesture romantic. Lighting a thick ivory candle, he dims the overhead fixtures. Candles are a fire hazard in the red cedar hotel, but Will isn’t much given to playing it safe. The jets tumble the water and when it’s warm enough he lifts his lean legs over the side, offers me his hand. We stretch out, limb to limb. His arms, the golden hairs flat and wet, enfold me. “You deserve better.”

I reach to kiss his cheek, content to forgo the Arabian stable with its Baccarat crystal chandelier. When my husband demands to know why I didn’t follow his instructions, I’ll tell him it’s because I deserve better.

 


JANE CALLEN, an emerging writer of short fiction, received a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing, Humber University (2010) and the Krehm Mentorship, Ryerson University (2017). Her stories are published in GRAIN (Finter Street), Exile Editions (Grace), The White Wall Review (Stel) and shortlisted by the Malahat Review (Red Scare).

Copyright © 2019 by Jane Callen. All rights reserved.