It was typical of Grant Mayo. He had sent an email telling me he would arrive in New York to see his cardiologist and asking if we could meet up. He then recapped the message by leaving it on my land line. There was no excuse for saying I didn’t receive it unless I was on the road. But I was at home and available.
“I arranged for dinner at Daniel on 65th Street for Wednesday at 8:30 PM. Let me know if the day and hour work. I have a surprise.”
I noted the choice in restaurants. Daniel was super expensive. It boasted French cuisine from the celebrity chef, Daniel Boulud. Though the restaurant had earned three stars, I was familiar with the menu and knew it was not to my liking. I saw an oversized plate arrive with nuggets of food arranged artfully at the center and decorating the outer rim. Rivulets of colored sauce streamed in between. The whole presentation was at odds with my preference for full portions. When I dine out I want to eat food, not art. Against my better judgment, I emailed Grant to confirm.
“I’ll be there.” Then I asked: “Why the choice of the priciest restaurant in town?”
“On my first try,” he replied, “I passed my clinical boards to be certified as a psychologist. I was in the top one percentile. Still, that’s not the primary reason. Come and see.”
At 8:25 PM I arrived at the restaurant and checked my coat. Grant, who was sitting at the bar, saw me enter. Together we walked to the cocktail lounge where we waited to be seated. I had not seen him for over a year, so the physical change was startling. He did not look well. He was blousy with weight, bloated in the face, with a florid complexion. When he spoke of his checkup and the need to change drugs, I got the feeling medications were at fault.
The hostess escorted us to a corner of the spacious dining room where we were sheltered from all conversation but our own. Once we were seated, I asked him:
“How did it go with the doctor?”
“He says I’m too heavy and need to lose several pounds. I already do some walking. But I have to add aerobics three times a week. I’m supposed to stay away from rich, fatty foods.”
“And will you?”
“Not tonight. My surprise won’t let me.”
“Grant, why so mysterious?”
“Lately I’ve been doing some thinking. I turned thirty-four in December. You and I have known each other since I was nineteen, when I attended your Fordham lectures.”
“As I recall, you took all my courses and got straight A’s. You earned them. You wrote strong essays and tested well. You were an ideal student.”
“And you were my ideal teacher. You could have vanished, but you kept in touch for more than a decade. You never gave up. You were not just a guide, but a friend. I wouldn’t now be where I am without you. Most of all, you gave me a taste for wine.”
He reached over and handed me a cork retrieved from his breast pocket. I held it as I looked at him.
“What am I to do with this?”
“Read what’s on it.”
I rolled the cork while registering the blurred letters.
“Where did you get this? It says Romanée-Conti. The cork belongs to the most expensive Burgundy in the world. It costs a king’s ransom.”
Grant did not answer but signaled over the waiter who had been waiting in the wings. He set before us an uncorked bottle of 1985 Romanée-Conti and two glasses. He then decanted the bottle while I sat there astonished. Grant smiled.
“You’re the only one I could drink this with and in the right setting. I thought it might be our only chance to do it. When I left the cardiologist’s office, I got to thinking: who knows how long I’ll be around. I may not make it through the decade. My pacemaker needs replacing soon in another long operation. My valves are not the best. I’m living on borrowed time. It’s now or never.” He smiled and added:
“It’s rare to see you speechless.”
“Being in the presence of this wine is like an audience with the pope or meeting the president. The bottle is an exercise in exorbitance. How could you afford it?”
“I cashed in some Exxon stock. Let’s check the menu while the wine’s being decanted.”
The waiter took our orders and then poured wine into two glasses. I lifted mine and held it ceremoniously to the light. I swirled and sniffed then tasted. I was in awe, like the feeling I had when I made my First Communion. This, too, was like something in time and space, but beyond it. It seemed sacramental; in brief, it was out of this world. I recalled the tasting notes for the ’80s Romanée-Conti: “The greatest wine in the world and the most perfect with a forceful bouquet of violet and roses mixed with the quintessence of cherry; a profound ruby red with a suavity of exceptional finesse. It is elegant, supple, intense in the mouth, the nectar by which to judge all Burgundies.”
The arrival of our dinners interrupted my mental wine notes. I had a terrine of duck followed by a breast of chicken doled out in morsels on a large plate. Grant forgot his doctor’s cautionary advice and had foie gras followed by aged sirloin. My food was eminently forgettable. It didn’t matter. The wine stood there, stage center, and dispelled all culinary petulance. Meanwhile, Grant spoke wistfully of his girlfriend, Julie; of a short family life and career. Against his transient words, the wine held its own: constant, unique, pre-eminent. It was the ne plus ultra of the vintner’s art: a finite absolute. I thought of the words from Albert Camus’ play, Caligula, when the crazed emperor declaims:“Qui me donnera la lune? Je veux quelque chose qui ne soit pas du monde” (Who will give me the moon? I want something which is not of this world). Grant and I met the mad emperor’s demand as we finished the wine. The last glass proved incomparable.
Was it a thirst for the infinite Grant sought to assuage in the race against time? Was dinner at Daniel meant to be his God-moment? Yes, he was celebrating our friendship, but he had also found transcendence in a bottle.
Grant saw me to a cab while I thanked him profusely for a memorable time. While taxiing to my building, I replayed the evening in the back seat. I was feeling euphoria tinged by sadness and hearing muted hallelujahs. Once in my apartment, I went immediately to my computer and Googled the 1985 bottle of Romanée-Conti. It cost $12,000.