Wednesday, July 31, 2013

chapter Four, continued

to read from the FIRST CHAPTER


“Don't walk behind me; I may not lead.
 Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. 
Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

― Albert Camus

For the first time in our relationship, I think I was really disappointed and mad at my friend.

I turned that strong, uncomfortable energy into very intense strokes -- I got hold of a new canvas and stroked the night away... I painted furiously, uncertain about what I was creating under the moonlight.

I don't know for how long I painted, but when I decided to return to my room -- and after having checked at the fire pit that Armand was no longer helplessly sitting there --, while still going up the very first steps of the stairs, I could clearly hear him crying at the front porch.

He must have heard my footsteps as well, because he swiftly retreated further to the veranda at the end of the corridor, facing his room.

I decided to go after him, even if his attitude of retreating indicated that he preferred to be left alone. But how could I go on praying "May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes... May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes..." and leave my best friend crying?

'I'm sorry if I'm intruding, my friend,' -- I tried to be polite, having learned it from Armand himself, the prince -- 'but I'm not going to bed tonight before you tell me what's going on.' -- I said, as I took seat in one of the chairs next to his room, acting perhaps inconveniently, a bit more like myself, the peasant -- 'I've been watching you crying from the very first day I've arrived, and you often look like a man defeated in the last battle of his life... Are you ill, Armand? Or what is it? I've just told you about that apparition that has impressed and touched me deeply, and you seemed disappointed, even half-hearted.' -- I had to express my own hurting -- 'Do you regret having invited me here?'

Armand had stopped crying, and he took a deep breath before telling me:

'I'm sorry for that, mon cher Carlo. And I'm thankful you've come after me tonight... This is really hard for me. Our friendship is so precious, and I'm afraid, at the thought even, that I could do or say something that would cause our parting... I don't want to lose you. Never. That would be the worst thing that could happen...' -- again, Armand took a deep breath -- 'This is something I've always wanted to ask you... Why haven't you ever had a girlfriend, Carlo?'

I was surprised. That had probably been the most personal question Armand had ever asked me in years. We had spoken about the death of my parents, my quarrels with my grandfather when I had decided to leave our ancestral farm, most of my hurts and fears. But that was something new.

'I don't know...' -- I replied, taken by surprise -- 'I have never thought about that. I guess the answer is of a practical order... I can barely take care of myself... how can I dare to have a girlfriend? And invite her to eat canned soup and sleep with the rats? Not even a hooker would do it, not for free. I guess it will happen one day, but I don't know when nor where...' -- the world out there seemed so vague and empty and distant and timeless  -- 'Can I ask you a question too, Armand? How haven't you married yet?' -- that was again my role... I had asked my friend a question, and he had returned a question to me... now I'd have to extract his sincerity from him -- 'You were the one who had so many girlfriends during the École!'

'I was not dating them, Carlo. I was just doing my duty, my social duty. That's all it was about.' -- Armand exhaled deeply -- 'I was the banker's son, the Baron's grandson, dating the daughters of other businessmen and aristocrats.  All the time I lived under the impression that it were our fathers dating, their money dating and courting, not us, boys and girls... Because all those dates were arranged, and expected from me. Margot, Irene, Veronique, Juliette, they were all daughters of my father's friends or partners in business. In fact, that kind of courting was just another form of business, I'm now inclined to think, and a way of preserving and multiplying fortunes, perhaps...  Exactly like my father and mother had done before me, and you know very well the outcome of a marriage that was more like a contract aiming at a successful joint venture...'

'Do you still remember some of their names, Carlo?' -- Armand had continued, with an ironic tone I hadn't heard before in his voice -- 'Take Juliette, for instance... I "dated" her for almost a year, but you know what I appreciated most about her? The fact that she was always late! Because while I waited for her I spent the time reading in her father's impressively well curated library, full of rare and original editions.  That's what I "loved" about Juliette. Taking her to the Opera, to dine out and then bringing her back home was the obligation, my social duty as the heir of one of France's richest men... I could only stand Juliette's superficial chit chat coming in her nasal voice among a cloud of strong perfumes because I kept in mind the books I wanted to finish.'

'They were all like that, spoiled girls that I had to spoil yet another night, pretending to make them court and enhance their vanity. Margot or Veronique -- money from the coal mines or from textile industries -- they were all the same. I was playing with them as much as they were playing with me, because yes, it was a game -- seeing and being seen, and having the right company at the most prestigious places was all that mattered. Perhaps I've hurt just one of them, Irene, whom I think actually fell in love with me.'

'I dated her for over a year... She was nice, nicer than the other heirs... She was beautiful and more cultivated than the others, too.' -- Armand paused and inhaled deeply, holding his breath for a few seconds, before exhaling very slowly, and that technique told me he was trying to deal with strong emotions -- 'But the nicest thing about her was her brother, Raymond...' -- Armand looked at me expectantly, before proceeding to his confession -- 'I had a crush on him. Whenever I went to pick Irene, my true intention and strongest expectation was to meet and talk to Raymond... And he was always there! Handsome, elegant, with the world at the tip of his tongue, always ready to chat with me. He never missed my visits, as if he too was expecting me...' -- Armand's voice trembled -- 'You have no idea, Carlo, how much hypocrisy comes with money. People wear so many masks that to many of them it is impossible to take them out, even when they want to... Raymond was like that, and perhaps a bit more than usual, because he was in the diplomatic career.'

'So, when once I tried to open my feelings for him, and I was so sure he felt the same for me... Nothing was openly said, but the glance we exchanged implied we both knew...' -- Armand paused, for his confession was leaving him breathless -- 'That was the last occasion I ever saw him! I took Irene out a few more times, but he was never there to greet me any longer, ever again... until I learned from her that Raymond had asked to be transferred to an embassy somewhere in Asia. That was also the last time I saw Irene. Or any other girl. I decided to put an end to my social career of living those "luxurious lies", to use my mother's words. To my father's dismay and anger too, who enjoyed following my dates just like he might have enjoyed playing chess.'

'I regret having broken Irene's heart... but I was heart broken at the very same time. Just like I never had the chance to open my love for her brother Raymond, though I'm sure he must have felt it, Irene has never found the courage to express her love for me... It was unthinkable for a girl in her position to beg for love! And it all happened at the same time... A few weeks before Raymond left for Asia, my mother found out about my father's lover, and his second family... Everything seemed to be falling apart, all around me, but the worst was coming from within...'

'In India, I heard a master say the worst enemy lies within us... I could not agree more! But at the time I'm telling you about, India did not exist in my world... You hadn't saved me yet by lending me that book... I was so desperate! Raymond's rejection had left me feeling dirty, unworthy, sick even. I knew where his fear had come from... surrendering to a love like that would have been social suicide. Perhaps more to him with his diplomatic career than to me, but nevertheless... It was inadequate, it was improper, it was filthy!'

'And I lied to you, Carlo. I wasn't feeling miserable only because of my family's situation!' -- he looked at me as if asking for forgiveness, for a brief second, and then again he resumed his fierce confession -- 'But then those days I was lying to everyone, about everything, just like too many people had been lying to me, all the time! And I was lying to myself, essentially. I remember telling you I was dating some other girl after Irene, but I was actually going to the bars to get drunk...  and to try to meet a guy, any guy. And those bars and clubs, they were filthy, the atmosphere of a heaviness that all the pretense gayety did not soften, as men used and abused and ate one another, drowning in an ocean of drugs...'

'And then, there came India! I confess that wonderful book on spirituality you've given me was one of the reasons that made me so promptly want to go... The other reason, maybe you can guess for yourself, was Raymond... He had gone to that part of the world, and it wouldn't be hard for me to discover exactly where... You see, I lied to you, and I still hadn't confessed this to anyone, Carlo... I had that secret expectation, when I first went to India, of meeting Raymond. More than meeting a master, I wanted to meet him.... and what I could have never expected, instead of meeting him, my idealized love... I was to meet myself!'

'Because after three very intense months of ashrams, retreats, masters, meditation... and diarrhea, of course... I had purged myself of the worst part of that suffering. So many veils of delusion had been removed with those meditation sessions where I silently and motionlessly sat there, following my breath, watching my tears fall, but not falling apart myself with them... Learning to detach myself from my sorrow and fears, my worries and prejudices, my anger and confusion, and ultimately from my self-image, even.'

'I started cultivating acceptance towards myself, and towards Raymond, forgiving his "cowardliness" as I had labeled it, and towards my parents and their web of lies and deception... To see more clearly that the way I could love...' -- Armand swallowed with difficulty -- 'that I loved men... was not filthy, not unworthy, not improper, but simply... love!' -- he exhaled deeply, and finally fell silent.

I was touched by my friend's deep sharing, and yet I did not really know what to say. No one talked yet about "coming out" in those days, and I don't think it was clear to me what Armand had been talking about. Somehow, I thought, it did not affect me. I just had to embrace his lifelong suffering and welcome his secret, that was all -- and that was the easiest thing to do to my best friend. 

'I can still recall how deeply changed you were upon your return from India, mon cher Armand... And I was so happy to have lend you that book... A book I somehow stole, I have to confess...' -- as little as it were, I wanted to requite my friend by telling him something that I had kept as a secret as well -- 'I found that book in an abandoned corner of a café on the Rive Gauche where I was painting the walls... I first liked it because of the images it contained, but the text about Indian philosophies was equally interesting, and so new to me... The owner of the cafe said I could take the book and after having finished it, return it to him... which I... we never did.' -- and I giggled.

'Mon Dieu, Carlo! The book was not yours!' -- Armand seemed more amused than disturbed -- 'You never said a word when I decided to take it with me to India...'

'Of course I wouldn't!' -- I replied, blushing -- 'I saw how it had become kind of an amulet to you...'

'Haha, an amulet indeed! The book, you know, is in the shelves in your room, among my own books and those that belonged to Herr Weismann... Maybe I should take it back with me to France, this time...' -- Armand pondered -- 'And try to return it to the café owner. Would you remember the address?'

Silence again fell among us. More peaceful than in the past days, but I still sensed some tension in the air -- and no angel rustling his wings in the space between us. What would a tropical angel have looked like? I remember was the awkward thought that crossed my mind in that moment, and the image of a very colorful, carnivalesque type of angel. Armand had spoken at length about his first trip to India, that had lasted only three months, but what about this last one, I felt inclined to ask -- and so I did.

'Thank you for asking, mon cher Carlo.' -- was the start of his reply -- 'Have you heard the saying "kill the tiger before chasing it"? I have imagined this conversation with you, but because I have experienced rejection quite a few times in the past, it is always present in me, in my expectations... And I was expecting it from you, that you'd reject me... I was so afraid...'

Armand's voice had trembled at his last words, and I heard him take yet another deep breath, trying to brace himself.

'I have never opened to anyone about this before, and you have been so... gentle. I'm thankful for the relief I'm feeling... But... I had a long conversation once with a master in Nepal... They have a certain difficulty in understanding our idea and experience of romantic love and all the suffering we add to it, since it is so differently experienced here in Asia... But as I spoke to him about you, mon cher Carlo... I still remember the words I heard from that master: You have found true love. Too close, and you don't see it.'

I could never have expected Armand's next sentence, son.

'I love you, Carlo.'

And immediately I mouthed:

'I love you too, Armand.' 

 Because it was true. Armand was my best friend, like a brother to me; he had always been my greatest supporter, and what I felt towards him was stronger than the fearful respect and the due gratefulness I had always felt towards my grandfather, who'd brought me up. Little did I remember about my parents, and what I felt towards them was a longing mingled with a curiosity of what could have been if they hadn't died when I was a child. I didn't know much about love, but what I felt towards Armand was certainly my deepest and longest experience of... love.

'Mon cher Carlo... Thank you... But maybe we are talking about different feelings here...' -- Armand seemed calm, but his heavy breathing denounced otherwise -- 'I can say I loved Irene too, just like you are now saying you love me.' -- he smiled sweetly, as if kindly correcting a child's mistake -- 'She was a lovely girl whom I admired and respected, whose company I truly enjoyed. But it was with her brother that I fell in love with...' -- Armand took another deep breath -- 'I am in love with you, Carlo.'

'I guess I've always been in love with you, Carlo.' -- Armand continued, not allowing me time to react nor respond -- 'It was love at first sight. And it has survived my own internal struggles, my doubts, my fears, and all the rejection and guilt I have cultivated during these five years, almost six now, that we have known each other... I didn't know my feeling for you was so strong until I saw you again a few days ago, at the port! Now that I'm not burdened with my own prejudice, I could see it so distinctly... My love for you... Pure and sincere as it is, it has carried me through the years, bringing me faith and hope where there would only have been suffering and instability... But to express it clearly in words, like I'm doing now... Honestly, I still don't know if I am capable of doing it, or if I should be doing it, Carlo...'

'I've experienced a turmoil of feelings since you've arrived, Carlo, and I know you've been sensing it... And I'm aware it has hindered our communication... You know, I've been sitting by your side all this time, secretly wishing you were in my arms... actually, more like I was in your arms... And then over and over I've been feeling aggravated, and I reacted in ways you probably didn't quite well understand, even if I was trying to hide my frustration. Yes, there has been tension and discomfort these past few days, and I apologize for that.'

'I've been questioning myself since your arrival, the moment I laid eyes on you and love started revolving in me... How can it be love, when it can destroy friendship? How can it be nurturing, when it makes me discontent, longing for more than I've always had, that has always been so satisfying before? I was always happy in your presence, but suddenly... I found myself longing for more... Why can't I be content anymore... with sharing all meals, all moments, all day long, like it has always been? When I'm standing close to you... I'm willing to hold you, or to be held by you, to be nestled in your strong arms... And I've lived in fear, these past days... Fearing you'd sense it and reject me, fearing I'd never find the courage to tell you, and if I ever did... Right now... fearing your reaction.' 

And my reaction was springing up to my feet -- it had been overwhelming, actually, too much and too intense in just one gush. I don't know why I did it -- I suddenly felt like I was suffocating in that corner of the house, too close to Armand and to his bedroom. Trapped in that corner of the world, and submitted to a treacherous test.

Startled, Armand sprang to his feet as well, and we bumped our heads. It was funny, and for a moment we laughed. But it was also embarrassing, when we stood with just a few inches separating our bodies, yet already joined in the heat and tension that emanated from them. For the first time to me, our proximity, that had always been part and played an important role in our brotherhood, felt disconcerting. For now, I knew Armand was longing for more than just embrancing or cuddling with me.

'I have to go to bed.' -- I mumbled. I suddenly felt so tired, drained of energy, with no courage nor any discernment left.

'You mean... you want to go to bed with me?' -- Armand giggled, as he brushed his forearm against my stomach, and a gesture that before would have been left unnoticed was now an invasion, when it sent shivers up and down my spine, that I felt as deep as into my bowels -- 'Do you want to try it, mon cher Carlo?' 

Having for days believed my friend was crying over his dying mother, over his disintegrating family, over some mysterious disease he might have acquired in Asia, I was now starting to realize my own responsibility in Armand's recent -- and past -- suffering.

Now I could not fool myself anymore. Just like he wasn't fooling himself anymore, nor was he deceiving me any longer. His love, and lust, were open and on offer. And so weren't I to deceive nor fool him anymore. His presence and proximity demanded a response.

Falling again silent, Carlo once more concentrated on eating his food, that by now must have been cold. His eyes were vague, his gaze distant, and I realized he was absorbed by the past, lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean -- and it was as if he had again abandoned me, this time at the restaurant, to be once more in Armand's company. Wasn't that the same reason why he had left home twenty years, I now wondered.

I was feeling a bit calmer and contented, since the story had now started making sense to me. I was thrilled with the possibility that my father had had a male lover in the past. It seemed so... redeeming to me!

Yet, I observed my mind as it was running fast, and jumping at conclusions as I envisioned one justifiable hypothesis after the other. When had all that happened, exactly? Carlo had said some 30 to 40 years ago -- that was typical of him, his inexactitude with time.  Since I was 33 years old, his affair with Armand -- if there had been an affair -- could not have lasted long, because he must have met Catherine shortly after that. It felt like I was being told a big secret, something that turned the "Hermit of the Brushes", a nickname given to Carlo by the art critics, into an improbable Don Juan... Haha, that was rather unexpected -- I never thought I'd be thrilled about my own father's love life!