to read from the FIRST CHAPTER
That night at the Nirvana Lounge, I don't know exactly how I sensed Carlo was lying to me. Maybe it was the pauses in his narration, as if he was pondering what to tell me, and premeditating his next words.
That whole story about the Île du Blanchomme that Catherine had never mentioned... About a great friend, a true love, that Armand guy whom I had never heard of before, not the slightest mention about him in our home nor any news, ever, until publicly I had learned he had won the Pritzker Prize.
It seemed unlikely that Catherine, who was always ready to experiment with a good story, making her family and friends a laboratory for her books, had never mentioned that tropical episode... Perhaps because it had never existed?
There was something so wrong about that whole story, something missing... I was about to find out what it was, I just needed to ask the right question to unmask Carlo... Would he be able to lie so completely to win my sympathy and cool off the affection that I still felt for my mother? He had begged her feelings, and he might have never succeeded in obtaining them -- I myself had felt this way for quite some time, but I had finally understood that if I did not receive Catherine's tenderness or affection, it was simply because she had none to give. On the contrary, her support and protection would never fail me, since she had them in abundance and handed them in overdoses.
'That young god won't stop staring at us...' -- Carlo had suddenly changed the subject, returning to the Nirvana Lounge -- 'Actually, he's been watching you, Laurent, the whole evening...' -- and I recalled how Catherine was angry when my father pointed a finger at the things that he referred to, and I too was ashamed.
Gabriel was indeed looking in our direction at that moment, and instead of looking away or being ashamed to be caught on spot, he took the chance that he had been noticed to approach our table.
'Gentlemen, our kitchen should be closing soon... Would you care for anything else?'
'Yes, I want another glass of wine...' -- Carlo said, and I found out that both my parents had given into drinking after their separation -- '...something sweeter for this time of the night...' -- and while Catherine came to the point of getting drunk, just like Carlo she never missed the sophistication of getting drunk with the best liquor, and the most appropriate for each occasion, remaining elegant in their decay -- 'Until what time do you stay open, young man?'
'Do not worry about that, sir.' -- and although the handsome waiter might have been a bit bored and even sleepy, his beautiful smile disguised everything, and he answered accordingly, as he had been briefed about the occasion -- 'I can serve you wine for as long as you desire, sir.'
'Che meraviglia! This Ganymede is making me feel like Zeus on the top of this building!' -- and as the waiter did not seem to understand Carlo's analogy or allusion to his divine beauty, my father simply changed the subject -- 'Does the bathroom close with the kitchen, haha? Anyway, I need to use it now!' -- Carlo gave me a meaningful look, full of complicity, and passing by Gabriel, patted his shoulder -- 'Behave yourselves, young men...' -- he said, suggesting that something naughty could happen in his absence, leaving a trail of embarrassment behind.
'At what time do you close the restaurant, Gabriel?' -- I asked, to break that awkward silence. But the question sounded more like the old "At what time do you leave?". Probably because I was actually interested in him, and I blushed, all embarrassed.
'I am here at your service, sir, for as long as you need it.' -- did I see him wink? Despite his being perfectly professional, not yet calling me Laurent, he was still charming and seductive, and so gorgeous -- 'The instructions were clear... Do not call it a night until the conversation between you and your father doesn't finish.'
I wondered who would have given him these instructions, if the Nirvana Lounge's owner or Charmand himself. The only one who knew that I'd be talking to my father was Charmand.
'Please do not call me sir... My name is Laurent!' -- he was only a few years younger than me, but that formal treatment made me feel so much older -- 'I am very grateful that you made yourself available and provided us with this night, Gabriel.' -- I was sure that he was being handsomely compensated to open the restaurant all on his won, on his night off... and I began to think if I could compensate him myself, somehow... He was really beautiful, with his blonde long hair, blonde eyes and blonde skin, all about him shining in beautiful shades of golden... Certainly an excellent model for my next painting, haha -- 'This is an historic night in my life, Gabriel...' -- I felt I could trust him, after all, he looked like an angel -- 'I am very grateful for your presence and for your help here, and if I can reciprocate in any way...'
'I'm glad I could help you with that, Laurent.' -- he smiled charmingly while pronouncing my name, which sounded a bit comical as always when an American tried to imitate the French accent -- 'I'm sorry if I intrude... I read that you will open an exhibition tomorrow, and I would be delighted to visit it... in the company of the artist himself?'
That was elegant and charming from him, I thought, to show interest in my art, and invite himself to visit the museum with me, instead of inviting himself to my studio, or even to my bed, like so many others before him had done. Even though I actually wanted him in my studio - and in my bed -- instead at the museum.
'Am I interrupting something, young men?' -- Carlo asked on his return to the table. The way he said "young men" sounded like we were two horny adolescents, and I winked at Gabriel, who smiled.
'I'll bring your wine in a moment, sir.' -- Gabriel retreated lightly, but not before having addressed me an inquiring stare. And indeed, he was quick to bring us new drinks, my father's wine and my aromatic water, and I returned his glance reassuring him that our private conversation would continue.
'Do you want to continue listening to my story tonight, Laurent?' -- Carlo asked me when Gabriel had left -- 'Its actually your story... I do not feel tired at this late hour because I usually paint at night, a habit that makes me happy, for it reminds me of the old abandoned factory in Paris... How are you feeling, my son?'
'I'm just fine, Carlo.' -- I had slept so many nights during those two decades of my father's absence, I thought, that I did not mind losing a single night's sleep for his presence and for his story, although it was full of lies, or it was all a hoax, but this I did not tell him -- 'I'm all ears.'
'I could only calm down...' -- Carlo took us back to the Île du Blanchomme on the night of the reunion with his dear friend -- '...when we entered Armand's room and I made sure that Catherine was no longer on the bed... but I still feared she was hiding under the bed, from where she would emerge naked, as soon as she realized that we weren't in danger.'
'I've missed you so much...' -- Armand whispered softly in my ear -- 'I like your shaved face...' -- I immediately separated from his embrace before it became another kiss, when I finally realized Catherine was sitting on the railing in the veranda in front of Armand's room. She wore a white dress that lit up her whole figure under the moonlight, a yet more sophisticated creation by Yves Saint-Laurent, and that wasn't so completely misplaced in that little island because of the new clothes Armand was wearing; despite being crumpled from the trip, his clothes were of impeccable quality and cut. Armand and Catherine matched each other beautifully, I thought, as I made a grotesque contrast in my rags, my coarse skin and my peasant looks.
'I have... something... to tell you...' -- I didn't know whether to use adjectives like "serious" or "important" and warn Armand of what was to come -- 'We have a guest.' -- I said, simply. Perhaps my difficulty with the French language was revealed in those delicate moments when the subtlety in choosing the right words would have given the right tone to the message.
'A guest!' -- Armand was surprised -- 'We haven't yet opened our guesthouse and we have a guest, already!' -- contrary to what I had imagined, he seemed happy, even delighted, and not at all worried about this unexpected event. His generosity indeed welcomed and embraced everyone -- 'And where is he? How did he hear about us?'
'There is no he...' -- I interrupted him -- 'it's a she...' -- Armand's open attitude and interest did not change with this revelation -- 'I think she's right there on the veranda, waiting for us... She... learned it from other travelers who knew you...'
'Oh, that's wonderful!' -- Armand was happy to have returned, happy to have met me again, happy to have a surprise guest... I seemed unable to stop the escalation of his happiness, and I wondered how our kiss would have contributed to make him even more elated -- 'Such good auspices, to have a guest even before we open!' -- Armand was genuinely pleased with the news, but all his exuberance faded when he ran into Catherine -- 'What is she' -- he hissed it-- 'doing here?' -- he asked me in a low voice, having turned in my direction to hide a grimace of distaste.
'She? She is our guest!' -- I replied, shocked at the disgust he showed.
'This... woman...' -- his voice began to rise and tremble -- '...is not a guest!' -- I had never seen Armand so angry, nor being openly rude -- 'It cannot be!' -- he exclaimed, visibly annoyed -- 'What are you doing here?' -- he asked, in a tone much louder than normal, turning towards Catherine, no longer trying to hide his displeasure.
'Good night, Armand.' -- Catherine gave one of her artificial smiles, not the least empathetic, that actually spoiled her beauty, which had been so enhanced by the impeccable cut dress, elegant and sensual, dramatically illuminated by the moonlight and the lantern she had lit on the porch.
I shivered, and suddenly a thought crossed my mind... I thought I understood what was going on... all the time, Catherine had lied to me! Clearly, she and Armand knew each other, and by the apparent intimacy of their enmity, quite well. I searched my memory for the names of my friend's ex-girlfriends.
'You said you didn't know Armand!' -- my voice was shaky. I was astonished. One of Armand's ex-girlfriends, one of the turned down, neglected girls... and what a revenge she had prepared, going to bed with me... Dio mio! Although she could not have known Armand's feelings for me... Or had she? What was the name of Max's sister, the diplomat he had had a crush on? The way she had applied make-up and dressed, making herself just as elegant as my princely friend, making in fact a beautiful and sophisticated couple with him, as I stood there, the ragged peasant, to suddenly find myself excluded...
'I never said that!' -- Catherine replied -- 'I said I had never met him, not that I hadn't known him!' -- Catherine was keen to that accuracy with words; however, she found no counterpart in everyday life, and much less in me and my French that just sufficed. She said this without looking in my direction, haughtily holding Armand's look, who stared at her angrily.
'You're not welcome here!' -- I shivered as I heard the harsh words Armand directed to my... girlfriend?... lover?... and the future mother of my child.
'Oh, I know that, already!' -- Catherine laughed affectedly -- 'Your partner made that very clear from the beginning!' -- she laughed again, while I froze and started trembling at that "partner" she had uttered -- 'It's a tradition of this island and hostel, I suppose, that guests are unwelcomed...' -- she added, wryly.
'Partner? Which partner?' -- and perhaps imagining a different connotation to the word, Armand glanced tenderly in my direction -- 'Carlo?...' -- and he pronounced my name with so much sweetness in his voice that Catherine was intrigued. She was even more surprised when my friend made a gesture of affection towards me, which I however dodged.
Dio mio! I would be the father to a son of an ex-girlfriend of Armand's... The blow that was about to be unleashed on my friend was even heavier than I had foreseen. And Catherine seemed to enjoy every second of her revenge, although she had not yet realized the true depth and nature of my relationship with Armand, I thought...
She had dressed for the occasion, and for the first time I saw her wearing makeup, looking even more beautiful, and cosmopolitan, sophisticated, wealthy -- typically, one of those Parisian women I had classified as unattainable, one of the heiresses to whom Armand had made the court. Dio mio, who is this woman?
'Didn't you say you were partners?' -- Catherine looked at me with anger, full of suspicion -- 'Aren't you... partners?' -- she confronted me, giving the word a different tone and meaning.
'Yes, of course we are!' -- Armand replied with a tender smile, imagining perhaps that I had confided her about the love that existed between him and me -- 'Although no one has to know about that in France...' -- Armand suddenly looked worried -- 'I forbid you to...'
'It's not what you're thinking, Catherine...' -- and when at the first mention of her name Armand did not react, I realized that at least she hadn't used a false name. But what was the name of that girl whom he had endured just because of the great library and readings with which she provided him? I was so nervous that my memory did not help me. Paris and the École seemed so far away from the Île du Blanchomme!
Catherine's inquiring, acute gaze flew back and forth between Armand and me, and I realized that she was beginning to understand the intensity of the connection I had with my friend, and even imagining beyond...
'You lied to me!' -- she accused me, and I gasped as I heard it.
'I... lied to you, Catherine?!' -- the nerve she had to state that I was the liar stunned me -- 'Wasn't you who spoke first about our "society"? And I wouldn't know how to describe any better my... relationship with Armand... we are like brothers, but we are not brothers, so...'
At that moment, Catherine seemed to be the most surprised of all of us!
'Then that's why you did not attend my mother's funeral!' -- Armand exclaimed suddenly, interrupting my explanation -- 'How long has she been here? What are you ultimately doing here?' -- Armand had directed the first question to me, and the second to Catherine, but I was worried about the indistinct harshness with which he had addressed us both.
'I came here to discuss business! I'm entitled to half of this island!' -- Catherine uttered, as she continued peering back and forth between Armand and me, for more clues about our relationship.
'Oh, so that's what you came for!?' -- Armand laughed -- 'You're crazy!' -- he shouted angrily -- 'I do not own this island. I do not own this house, I do not own anything! Therefore, you are entitled to half of nothing!'
On that instant, I realized that perhaps I hadn't understood everything that was happening -- or had happened -- between Armand and Catherine. Had Armand ever... married?
'Excuse me, Armand... I did not know she was a former girlfriend of yours...' -- I aimed at least on erasing a part of my guilt in the disaster that story seemed to lead to. It was not enough having betrayed my best friend, I was to be father to a son of an ex-girlfriend... or ex-wife... of his! An heiress, who had taken me for a wealthy heir myself... Dio mio!
'She is what?' -- my friend looked at me stunned -- 'Didn't you tell him?' -- Armand challenged Catherine -- 'Oh, of course not!' -- he exploded -- 'You have been continuously living in a lie... how could you not be a liar yourself...'
'I won't tolerate that from you!' -- Catherine cried, advancing towards Armand.
'What is going on here, anyway?' -- I asked with a shudder, and I had to talk louder to be heard in their quarrel.
For a moment they stood silent, staring at each other. And when Armand was about to speak, without even looking at me, holding back Armand's enraged gaze, Catherine mouthed:
'He is my brother.'
'Armand is...?' -- tears filled my eyes when I finally caught a glimpse of the terrible truth.
'Half-brother!' -- Armand replied, stressing the "half" with a disdainful tone. And as I faced him absolutely shocked, he confirmed it -- 'This is my father's daughter with that... "actress".' -- and he made it sound like "whore" -- 'My half-sister.' -- he turned towards Catherine -- 'It seems that you lost your trip, darling!' -- I had never before heard Armand talk with that acid tone, full of irony -- 'This island does not belong to me, and you are not entitled to a half of it! But how did you know about this island, for God's sake?' -- he snorted -- 'Your mother, of course! It was that... woman... who sent you here, wasn't it? To spy on my life...'
'Your life?' -- Catherine reacted with greater disdain -- 'We don't care the least about your life! Although... it seems to be far more interesting than I had imagined, and full of dirty little secrets...' -- Catherine glanced in my direction, and then at my groin -- 'or big and thick ones, haha! I think Gaston doesn't know about your... preferences, does he? Haha!' -- Catherine laughed with malice, patting Armand on the shoulder, who jumped back as if he'd been punched.
'Gaston?! You call him simply that, Gaston?!?' -- I knew Monsieur de Montbelle's name, but I had never heard Armand call his father that intimately nor so affectionately -- 'You have no right to intrude in my family's life like that!' -- Armand yelled. He sounded alarmed when he realized that Catherine had unveiled his secret in just a few minutes -- 'I forbid you to...'
'Stop bossing me!' -- Catherine interrupted him with a cry -- 'You think of yourself as superior, but let me tell you... in fact, you are not! What about your family life? It's over! Over, don't you realize it, along with your superiority! Haven't you noticed it yet?' -- Catherine was screaming, and her cries of rage echoed on the walls just like before her moans of pleasure had been amplified by the immense silence of the Île du Blanchomme -- 'With the death of that old owl...'
'You have no right to call my mother...' -- Armand seemed to calm down, saddened upon recollecting his mother -- 'Please respect the memory of my mother.' -- he gently asked Catherine -- 'If you were not able to respect her during her life...'
'I'm sorry.' -- she replied, unwillingly -- 'You know...' -- Catherine's aggressiveness had not subsided -- '...your attitude will have to change! A new era begins! Now, we are the official family! Just like you were able to see for yourself, my mother was the woman next to your father at the funeral of...' -- Catherine paused -- 'oh, we have always called her... I don't even know the name of the deceased... she was simply "the old owl"!' -- Catherine laughed like a teenager -- 'Yes, your attitude will have to change...'
'Why?' -- Armand looked alarmed, yet he gave no indication on cooling that exchange of resentments -- 'I don't know of any intention from my father's in marrying your mother... nor taking on you...' -- Armand completed, with disdain.
That was Catherine's deepest wound, as I would later understand. The rejected child. The illegitimate daughter. That 'father unknown' on her birth certificate. Daughter to a missing father all throughout her life -- though Monsieur de Montbelle did attend her home, and had already turned it into his primary address in Paris, he had never been present on official dates like Christmas or New Year's Eve, that he officially spent at the Chateau de Montbelle. Although she had Monsieur de Montbelle's affection, Catherine had never had his public recognition. Neither his surname.
I looked away, because I didn't want to see Armand's reaction to that kiss -- he was so shocked at the ease with which Catherine took possession of me, demonstrating our intimacy. And she had realized how devastated he was.
'Oh, it's so easy to destroy you now...' -- she laughed triumphantly, seeing Armand's suffering -- 'Easier than I had pictured before...' -- she laughed and kissed me again, this time a wet, passionate kiss like she didn't enjoy them to be, while caressing my body too intimately, at the oddity of the moment arousing that tingle in my groin -- 'Oh, you're getting excited, babe?' -- she teased me. I hadn't known Catherine could be so vulgar, nor so cruel, and I was ashamed to have stayed by her side in that discussion -- '...But right now I'm too tired for this... I just want to go back to sleep...' -- she faked a yawn.
Catherine turned away, freeing me from her embarrassing embrace. But to my understanding, she had walked in the wrong direction, back into Armand's room, toward his bed. I ran after her.
'Catherine! For Heaven's sake! This is Armand's room... Please!' -- and as she continued to challenge me, pretending not to hear me, I clarified -- 'We need to return the room to him, please!' -- And then I realized I had used the pronoun "we". On that instant, I dared not look towards Armand, but I could see he was shaken by a tremor at the "we". He had begun to understand.
'Do you want us to leave this comfortable bed just because he came back?' -- Catherine replied -- 'Why would we do that?' -- and she stressed the "us" in each sentence, every time she pronounced it, echoing my own "we" -- 'We are two, and he is alone... He may well sleep in the room you have left vacant.' -- she pronounced the words carefully and clearly, especially the pronouns, and she spoke turning towards Armand, making sure that she was heard -- 'He said it himself that he doesn't own anything here!'
At that moment, I realized Armand was crying, and I ran up to him. He had remained motionless since the discussion with Catherine had ended.
'Armand...' -- I did not know what else to say. I think I still hadn't quite well understood the situation in which I had gotten myself into. That complex family situation, aggravated by our gentle loving relationship... Siblings!! -- 'Armand...' -- I repeated his name over and over again just like half an hour ago on the beach, invoking it as a powerful mantra that would rescue all our wonderful past and help alleviate the terrible, present darkness.
He remained silently crying.
'Why?' -- he asked, not staring at me. And the question seemed not addressed at me, neither at Catherine nor at himself, nor anyone else.
'I think you have private things to talk to your... little buddy...' -- I heard Catherine talking at my back -- 'but don't you think that because of his return, you shall have a choice on which bed to sleep, babe, haha!' -- Catherine laughed again. She seemed to rejoice in humiliating Armand.
'Catherine!' -- I ran up to her -- 'Be quiet, for God's sake!' -- I begged.
'Quiet? I was quiet for a whole lifetime! Now it is his turn to be quiet! And listen as I speak! And it will be so, from now on, are you listening to me?' -- Catherine cried towards her brother, as if Armand was on the other side of the house, on the other side of the island, across the world, and not there, just outside his own room -- 'Now we will talk and you will just listen... Silently. And obey, too! Your family has ended, my darling... but mine, it restarts and continues here, renovated, stronger!' -- with a gesture that dismissed me, Catherine moved away towards the bathroom.
'Armand...' -- like the fool I actually was, I ran back to Armand's side, when I thought I heard him sobbing, and I could finally see why Catherine had spoken to him in screams. I had her same impression, that Armand was so distant.
His eyes were hollow, and his body seemed to have less substance than a few minutes ago, and his presence was very faint, though he was inhaling my very outbreath, for we were that close.
Yet, I could not hug him on that moment, so distant and untouchable he seemed to me. Pure by nature, more beautiful than ever, gracious as always -- and in contrast, I felt dirty, dark and nasty.
'Armand...' -- I could just moan and whimper while my friend walked away from me.
He walked slowly down the porch, towards that which had been my first room in the house. He walked quietly, still glancing at me, astonished, as if not recognizing me more anymore...
Armand cried softly, quietly. Just like his sexual desire was discreet and without any eagerness, his grief too was subtle and calm. His countenance was placid, and if it had not been for his tears, I wouldn't have guessed his sorrow. Apparently, I was more desperate than he was.
If he had been incapable of grabbing me to make love to him, he showed himself incapable of accusing me of his immense unhappiness also, and simply took distance from me, silently crying, so diaphanous and delicate in his grieving.
'Armand...' -- I whispered one last time.
But instead of listening to my call, he seemed to hear the sea, towards which he turned his head, staring at it for a moment, with a gentle smile, wet with tears, and then he entered the room with the single bed that I had previously occupied.
I did not find the courage to go after him.
But on that cold and lonely afternoon
Will you fade or will you bloom?
from the song 'lies, lies, lies' by Mr. Perry Blake