Where the author visits her sister Sophie in Reims.
Sophie invites me to visit her in Reims, the capital of Champagne. From her tone on the phone, she won't take no for an answer. So I take the train to Paris, take the subway from St Lazare terminal to Gare de l'Est terminal, and take the train to Reims.
She welcomes me at the station with lots of smiles, lots of "ma ch‚rie", arms raised to hug me, and when she starts her car classical music comes the radio. She's a lady with refined tastes.
She lives in a duplex, with the bedrooms and bath at the bottom and the living room, kitchen and a toilet at the top. She turns on the TV and the same show I saw last night at my mother's house is playing. It's about astronomy and the presenter is a very good looking man whose disembodied head floats against a night sky. I'd had enough of him already last night, turned off by his seductive smiles and hypnotic diction. I protest that I don't want to see this again and my sister changes channels, showing that she only wants me to be happy.
Her younger daughter Aurore joins us. I ask how's school and she gives me the long answer, brings a photo album and proceeds to give me the skinny on her sports activities, her vacations, her extra-curricular occupations so that a good part of the evening is gone by the time she's finished.
When it's time to go to bed Sophie shows me a room in the lower part of the apartment. It's the junk room where cartons, laundry and little used items are stored. There's a small bed and laundry is hung on a clothesline lengthwise above the bed so that I have to creep into bed. She doesn't remove the laundry although everything is dry.
The bed is a different kind of terrible. The mattress is hard and has a gutter in the middle. My sister is all smiles and wishes me a good night. In the morning I tell her that I slept very badly and ask her for another bed. She says in a concerned tone that she gave me that room so that I wouldn't have to climb the stairs to go to the bathroom. (But I would have had to go upstairs to the toilet anyway). She offers me the convertible sofa for the following nights. She proudly shows me an electronic typewriter that our father bought her (God knows how I asked my father for a typewriter!) and says indifferently that she never uses it.
She proposes to have lunch at a restaurant but, like V‚ro- nique, doesn't ask what I would like. I would have liked a comfortable bistro with soft lights. She chooses the restaurant of the local cooking school. The dining room looks more like a banquet hall than the intimate spot I wished for. Nervous waiters give us a three stars service at a reduced price. They constantly interrupt us with their ministrations and hardly leave us alone, fussing over every detail and performing every gesture with somber concentration as if their life depended on the success of a ludicrous leger-de-main. Their anxiety puts me in a bad mood and I lose my appetite.
Sophie talks about her boyfriend who is a farmer owning lots of land, but she's not crazy about him. She wants money AND class. She has broken the relationship several times, she says, but he always wants to make up. I don't know what it is that keeps men enslaved to her, but it can't be her looks.
I speak of the appalling behavior of our eldest sister AgnŠs towards me when she came to New York in June 1989. I say that she seemed to have a hidden agenda and she terrified me so much that I had to decline her invitation to dinner at a huge, dark apart- ment where she stayed with her second husband, and tell her that I didn't want to see her any more. Sophie answers that that's the way AgnŠs is, she can't help herself and you have to accept it. Sure.
Sophie also chooses what movie we'll watch and the first five minutes of the film are dedicated to the close observation of the actress's perfect legs.
On Sunday morning, while I'm still in bed on the couch, she goes out to shop. While she's out her boyfriend calls. I ask if he wants to leave a message but he's very glad to talk to me and keeps me on the phone for a good twenty minutes.
When my sister returns I tell her that her boyfriend called. She's in no hurry to call him back she says. She puts a roast- beef in the oven and starts a cake. She explains that it's an economy-cake, made with oil, not butter, and that the recipe was given to her by Mother. "How cute!" I say, "The daughter baking a cake from the mother's recipe!" But I wonder what's the point of baking a cake if she cannot afford the price of 125 grams of butter when we are all coming into inheritance money. She asks me to play the piano.
"You know," I say, I haven't played the piano in ages. It's the guitar I'm studying now."
"It doesn't matter," she replies, "you'll figure it out."
I love the piano anyway so I play and sing some slow tunes whose chord progressions I've memorized: Misty, My Funny Valen- tine and a few others. For somebody who hasn't played the piano in many years, I'm rather pleased with myself but Sophie doesn't comment on my performance.
"You can't believe how jealous Mother is of Aurore playing the piano."
"That doesn't surprise me," I answer, "Mother always acted as if she had an exclusive right to play music in the family, although the only interval she can play on the piano is the octave."
Her son who goes to college in another town comes for lunch. He shows me experimental photographs he has made under strobe lights and explains to me the intricate technique he's used with an excitement that is not justified by the results. His mother must have told him to show me these pictures because I'm inter- ested in photography.
When I see the rare roast beef I feel a revulsion, a horror that I can't explain and I eat walnuts instead of meat. During lunch I express doubts about the million francs in cash actually coming into my hands.
In the afternoon my sister wants me to visit the caves of a famous champagne maker. While we wait in the palatial lobby for the guided visit to start, she relates in minute details her operation for an ovarian cyst ten years ago. Then the visitors are called to take the elevators to the caves and in the presence of other visitors in the elevator she continues her nauseating story and she stops only after we have boarded the little train and a recorded voice begins to explain the origins of Champagne and of the House of Roederer.
In the evening she gives me a bottle of fake champagne with as many smiles as if she were giving me the real McCoy. I demur, say that she shouldn't have but she insists as if I'm the guest of honor worthy of a sacrifice. It's not only that the champagne is fake, but the bottle is heavy too. I don't see myself carrying this in my luggage.
The day of my departure she informs me that she's going to E. with me and that she'll drive us there. On the way she asks if I'm orgasmic. I feel she's being a tad intrusive. She's my sister but not my confidante.
At the toll booth she keeps her ticket and takes one that was discarded by a previous motorist. She says that she'll submit both to Mother for reimbursement.
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