Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Episode 82 | Between Paris and Punaouilo

"Do you think she would have returned to Punaouilo, Carlo?"

The taxi had taken another of the longest detours, just like I had requested the driver to do. But to be honest, none of us paid much attention to the city parading behind the windows. We were equally oblivious to the fancy neighborhoods that had once impressed and seduced me, the university district from my youthful years of struggle and failure, the lugubrious port area where Angelo hunted for sex. Not even the occasional horn or siren, the shouts and music coming from other cars, were capable of dragging us from the recollections in which we were immersed. The city tour was happening inside us, on an island not just very distant over the oceans, but mainly in time, and so foreign to that frantic metropolitan labyrinth.

Carlo and I had never talked about the period when Catherine had returned to France on her own, leaving us both behind in Punaouilo, without any news for a long while. 

"I was on a slow ship to France, did you forget it, mon trésor?", Catherine had tried to justify her silence and lack of communication. "And when I got to Paris I was so busy for a while that I might have forgotten... You're not mad at me, are you, mon cher?" It had felt so weird to be talking to my mother over the telephone for the first time, and I'm not sure I quite understood what the distance between Paris and Punaouilo was.

"Maman, where is maman? I want to see mommy..." I remember crying for Catherine, and asking Carlo about her every hour, on the first weeks after she left. And then daily, once or twice, as months went by. "I want to talk to mommy..." was all I whined for, having understood I would not be seeing her any time soon. My frustration would only increase when the lack of calls was justified with how expensive international calls were. Unless it was an emergency, we were never supposed to call my mother at Celeste's apartment -- and I guess we never did. But waiting for days between telephone calls to speak to my mother was similar to torturing me. Or was it weeks? Whatever it was, it was too long for a six years old boy.

As a writer, she'd rather send me letters, that I'd soon learn to carefully answer. I still remember how my joy had vanished at the second letter I got from Catherine -- to find in the same envelope the letter I had sent in response to her first, all scribbled in red, where she pointed my thousand mistakes. "You are writing, Laurent, not speaking. Please!" No matter how much Carlo supervised my writing and helped me on the next ones, it was always disheartening to forcibly find my own letters corrected and revised at each post delivery. Even after I asked for teachers's help, unable to find any orthographic errors, Catherine would still rephrase my sentences. But that was not the worst, nor not receiving any toys, books, nor even clothes from my mother in France. I could cope with the fact that my letters were never good enough -- what terrified me was that, apparently, in the distance it was easier to let her down, to finally lose any affection she had ever shown for me. Unless I became a good writer, it seemed, and during my childhood in Punaouilo still, the first step had been given towards the tortuous ways that would take me to Vice City's School of Journalism.   

When, after one year she had been away, I finally realized how saddened Carlo was with helplessly watching me cry, I had started hiding my tears from him, crying on the way to or from school, or alone at the corners of the garden.

I thought I was thus hiding my sadness from him -- except for the fact that, in our little chalet, I started occupying the chair and the desk that had belonged to Catherine. It was unthinkable that I would have used them before, when my mother was there, but in her absence that's where I did my homework and ate my snacks. 

"In the beginning, yes... Because I did not understand her intention of again establishing herself in France. Apparently, she had gone to see Gaston, who was already very sick. Completely sclerotic, he wouldn't even acknowledged Catherine, and Celeste had lifted the exile. She had mentioned she might spend a longer while in France, since she had also wanted to promote her first book, released just over a year before, and to supervise the editing of her second novel. But with Gaston's death, Celeste and Catherine decided to again join forces against the only remaining de Montbelle -- Armand. At this point, I guess, she already wanted to definitely live again in France. But she still spoke about her return to Punaouilo over the phone," Carlo smiled sadly, and I wondered whether he still was in love with Catherine, "though maybe just the thought of her journey back to the Pacific Ocean might have scared her..."

"Upon returning to France, Catherine finally discovered who I was..." Carlo murmured. "And I mean 'persona non grata' for Monsiuer de Montbelle, her father. Celeste had taken a few years to find my true identity, because Jonnhy had kindly kept it a secret. But once Clothilde, who was aware of the hatred Gaston cultivated for me, had learned it from her husband, she had immediately turned me in to Celeste." 

And Celeste had implied that was the main reason to keep Catherine in exile -- her daughter's damned husband, companion, partner or whatever kind of doom Carlo was to Catherine -- and to Armand.


"Just imagine if Gaston learned that your partner, Catherine, was the man he hated and despised most in the world!" Celeste narrowed her eyes and groaned dramatically, bringing a hand to her forehead, as if she felt a twinge there. She had stressed the new maid to only use eau de roses on her clothes, for anything else gave her headaches, but the foreign girl had been stone deaf. "The man who misconducted his beloved firstborn son! Gaston surely imagined that man to be the companion for Armand's follies in India... But I'm glad he died without knowing that his son was nasty enough to have had this dreaded guy for boyfriend!" 

Celeste did not hide her disgust. Despite having many gay men gathering at her soirées at the Rue de Furstemberg, Celeste wouldn't tolerate any open displays of affection between them, in respect to Monsieur de Montbelle's conservative opinions. Though he would hardly join her meetings, and only when it were businessmen and politicians -- even among these, all respectable and married men, she was aware who were the closeted gays, and she appreciated them just as much as the openly gay ones, for they all made marvelous admirers. Straight men might gift her jewelry or clothes, but it wasn't in their nature to compliment her hair nor her perfectly fitting dresses, and that's where gays made the best fan club a woman would ever want. Who better to share make-up hints or artfully fold napkins?

"Congratulations, my child, for having snatched Armand's lover!" Celeste sniggered at her daughter's creative way of hurting the half-brother. "But why make a baby with him? Why tie yourself to such an uneducated pauper? You should have investigated this guy much better before going to bed with him, Catherine... It was tremendously foolish!" She was indignant.

"Celeste! You forget that I was at the end of the world? There was nothing to investigate! I just took what Armand held as his sweetest, most precious... toy. At this point..." It was 1982, Laurent was seven years old, and Catherine wondered, "I imagine he must have learned that his ex-lover is the father to his own nephew, and I rejoice thinking that he suffers from this fact every single day of his existence..."

"You deceived me all these years!" Catherine had quarreled with Carlo over the telephone, screams and accusations being exchanged between Paris and Punaouilo, once she had learned through Celeste how Gaston had hated and despised Carlo.

"How could I know that he hated me so much?" Carlo had helplessly lied to her. And their short conversation was over.

"If Armand never said anything to Carlo," Catherine drew her own conclusions, "...if he hid Gaston's wrath, it was because he really wanted... needed... Yeah, I think Armand indeed loved Carlo!" Catherine dissolved into laughter, again pleased with the taste of renewed vengeance. Armand had once gotten the best share of life, ignoring or trampling his half-sister's existence, but now Catherine rejoiced thinking she had hurt him for the rest of his life. A child, and the only heir to the De Montbelle name and fortune. "Sometimes I like to think he goes to bed and, when he closes his eyes, he starts wondering if Carlo is doing it to me..."

"Oh please, Catherine! Are you actually defending this Carlo guy?" Celeste demonstrated her repulse by taking a longer sip of champagne and remaining silent for a few seconds, that seemed like an eternity to her own loquacity standard. "Do you like him at all? How can you, after all the education and culture and refinement I tried to pass on to you--"

"He is a good man, Celeste." Catherine replied abruptly. "Maybe you will like him, when you get to know him--"

Celeste gave a little shriek to interrupt Catherine. "Oh no! God grant it never happens! Why would I want to meet this obnoxious young man, who caused so much suffering to my dear Nanon?" That was how Celeste was calling Gaston, Monsieur de Montbelle, when he was sclerotic. As if he were a two years old child -- though, in fact, he was less capable than a two years old.

"What a shame." Catherine hesitated, waiting to see whether she could continue, not wanting to attract Celeste's wrath upon herself. "I think you'd like him. He is very docile. And being a peasant, very obedient, too. To be honest, I never met a man as easy to handle as Carlo. He is probably the most tractable, subservient man I ever knew. And I think Laurent inherited it from him... thank God!" Catherine smirked. 

"These qualities are excellent for a servant, Catherine!" Celeste commented. "I figured you were talking about your man... I imagine that he... has other talents?" Celeste asked, slyly.

"Of course he has!" Catherine decided to tease her mother. "In fact," she made a circumference with her fingers to indicate how thick Carlo was, realizing she couldn't quite close them if she wanted to pay justice to his erection, "sometimes I think I should respect Armand... If only because he had to be very manly to take Carlo up his--"

"Oh mon Dieu! Please, child! Spare me these hideous details!" Celeste screamed, scowling with disgust, while Catherine laughed. Celeste didn't care about a man's size, since it was his seed to carry the gold. "So... you are determined to bring the boy to France... together with that rude pauper, I understand."

"Of course I'll bring Laurent home! You know..." Catherine tried to sound jokingly, but it was her wounded heart that lead her to her resentful remark. "I don't think I could spend six years away from my own son..." That was the amount of time that Catherine's exile in Punaouilo, imposed by her own mother, had lasted. And it had only been interrupted due to Gaston's irreversible disease.

"If that was so, Catherine, why did it take you two years since you have arrived in France to decide to bring your son over?" Celeste ironized, "If you miss the kid so much..."

"Time flies, doesn't it, Celeste?" Catherine had tried to dismiss her mother's accusations, seeing she would not arouse guilt in Celeste's heart. "But not two full years have passed by, yet! And now they are already packing to come!"

"They? Did you say it in plural? They?" Celeste snorted, exasperated. "I have already said that I will pay only for the boy's ticket!" She carefully picked a loose thread from a cushion, taking control of her rage and she rolled it into a tiny ball.

"Do not worry. Carlo seems to have received some money for those dreary paintings of him, and even a commission for new ones... I still don't quite understand how it suddenly changed for him, but..." In fact, Catherine had not paid much attention nor shown interest in the episode of Davez Drew's stay in Punaouilo, for she had never heard of the rock star before, nor how it had changed Carlo's luck. "He will pay for his own ticket. And you don't want a seven year old boy to travel all alone by ship to France, do you, Celeste?" Unfortunately, Laurent would spend his eightieth birthday on the ship, but at least, Catherine considered it good that he would be on his way to civilization already. 

"Well, if the kid needs a travel companion, then I guess... Je suis d'accord. But don't tell me you're not also interested in getting your sex toy back! And please, Catherine, I'm not going to host this guy here in Paris! Even if--"

"You still don't quite get it, do you Celeste?" Catherine bravely interrupted her mother. "Laurent is the sole heir of the De Montbelle family! That's why I want to go to court for the posthumous recognition of paternity... on behalf of my son! It's no longer about me, Celeste! I want to see Armand legally accepting Laurent in the De Montbelle family, knowing that he is the son of his former boyfriend!" Catherine chuckled. "I'll give Armand the gift of a lovely nephew... and upon looking at his only relative, he will forever see the lover whom he lost... Do you understand it now, Celeste? Father and son together, in this case, become my most powerful blow, the strongest revenge spell I could cast on that... fag."

"If this is good or bad, we shall see..." Celeste replied, hesitantly. "I have to talk to my lawyers again. Your case cannot hinder Gaston's inheritance process. And that little pederast is not making it any easier for us!"

Celeste had decided to contest Monsieur de Montbelle's will, claiming that she had often helped Gaston to contact politicians, business and industry magnates whom she knew, and those maneuvers had benefited his businesses immensely. Despite having obtained large amounts of money and several properties from Gaston when he was still alive, Celeste was not satisfied yet -- and perhaps she never would be, since Monsieur de Montbelle hadn't ever married her.

"Anyway, I do not want this guy here at my home!" With her usual assertiveness, Celeste was peremptory in proclaiming Carlo's final sentence. 

Catherine had received her Parisian death sentence, as well. Celeste no longer wanted her daughter living with her, and Catherine was trying to get mentally prepared to again abandon Paris, the quiet and exclusive Rue de Furstemberg and her beloved 6e arrondessiment. Celeste had bought her a rural property in Southern France, a rather modern house, perfectly comfortable and as good as anything so far from Paris could be, if anything away from Paris could be of any good. Catherine would have to leave soon, to prepare the house to receive Laurent and Carlo. 

"And please give me some time before I meet the boy..." Celeste gulped and grimaced, as if she had sucked on lemon. " I'm not ready yet to be a grandmother!"

Author's note: having been imported from a former version of the story, some of the comments below are dated previous to this post. Once the plot has not been altered, just the pagination, I am keeping them since they are very dear and precious to me.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Episode 81 | Ill-fated kiss

"There is something I wanted to ask you, Carlo. About my childhood..." I hesitated, trying to sense whether my father would be open to it or not. "It is a very intense memory, and a little... upsetting. May I?"

My father was silent for a few moments, watching the metropolitan landscape of high rises violently lightened that paraded behind the windows of the cab. He wouldn't make any comment, but I could imagine how distinct it was for him, coming from our ancestral lands where, instead of buildings, the walls to meet his eyes were the beautiful high mountains.  For years I had lived in Vice City, and never before realized how rudely artificial it was. Having arrived in the town egress from rural France, and having spent my childhood on an island where only public buildings had a second floor or a third floor, the skyscrapers had seemed a portent to me. Like I would later perceive after the blackout, the prodigies of our artificial civilization were based on fragile lies.

Carlo's silences often prolonged so that I was led to doubt whether he had heard my question. Apart from the air conditioning that hissed like it were having an asthma attack, it was practically silent inside the cab. The driver had lowered the radio to a minimum, to listen in on our conversation, I feared -- and I couldn't care less. But had my father been so engrossed in his memories that my voice had not reached him? 

"I know what you want to ask, Laurent." Carlo sighed. "Your response was startling, both for Catherine and me. It was the first time you were seriously sick, not just a child's flu. You spent days in bed, perhaps even two weeks," My father would make a terrible biographer, I thought, with his inaccuracy for time, "having outbursts of crying while Catherine and I unskillfully quarreled outside of our chalet." He paused. "But after that, she never dated in the house again."

"Who was he, Carlo?" After so many years, it seemed pathetical that my voice trembled in asking that question. But the question had remained stuck in my throat, and it was the voice of the five years old boy speaking through me, at the age of  thirty three.

"Who was the guy my mother was kissing, Carlo?" I choked on the words again. 

I had kept that question to myself for almost thirty years. I probably would have talked to my dad about it before, if he had not left home. But things had not happened that way. Catherine had kept her privacy from me behind a wall of cynicism and practicality, and there had never been space to pose any question about her affairs. The therapist I had tried in Vice City was too lost in his own emotional maze to actually achieve intellectually deconstructing mine. My healing would have to waiting two decades to start, in the back of a taxi.

It was my first year at school, terrifying enough to an only child like me who lived in a world of adults, and was not used to competing with other kids. 

One day, I had come home to walk on my mother kissing another man, on a pavilion at a corner of the pool where the sauna was located, that was rarely used when the house was not full of guests.

No one used to go there, and thus had I chosen that spot as my favorite hideout, where I could play my solitary games without anyone seeing nor hearing me. No one had ever found me there, either. And I would leave it only if I heard someone calling my name. Until that kiss, it had been the safe harbor of my childish fantasies. From then on, I lost it to the blunt reality of the adults' wrongdoings. 

At that pavilion that I considered my refuge, I had seen Catherine and a guy kissing -- although they had not seen me. 

And since I had never seen my mother kissing my father, I was completely confused and perplexed.

Inconspicuously, I sprinted to the back of the property. I was running for my survival, because it seemed that the ground before had turned into quicksand, and I'd be dragged and forever disappear from the world -- I guess I felt I had already disappeared from my mother's life -- if I couldn't reach the safety of home. Home being a rundown cottage we had to once in a while abandon for the kitchen in the main house, during the worst storms, fearing it would collapse.

 Just when I saw myself inside the empty chalet -- Carlo was working in the garden of someone else's house, Catherine entertaining herself with that man -- had I started crying. Then sobbing, and for hours I went on crying, all alone, lying on my little bed jabbed next to the bathroom door, until I had finally slept, exhausted. 

And it took me several days to begin to reveal my suffering.

"Do you kiss Aunt Joanna in the mouth, Dad?" I remember asking Carlo. Joanna, the maid, was the other woman in my life, apart from occasional appearances from Clothilde, and the teachers at school. 

Although I'm sure I did not know what kissing was. Maybe first I had asked him what a kiss was, for I remember having shown him the cover of one of Catherine's books, where a passionate kiss between a man and a woman was depicted.

"Of course not, Laurent!" Carlo had been intrigued with my unexpected question. "Aunt Joanna is married to Uncle Will, and they only kiss between themselves... Do you understand it?" Carlo answered honestly. "Why are you asking me this?" At first, he had thought I had had my first stolen kiss at school.

For days, my parents were trying to understand where my suffering came from. I went on crying, I stopped eating, I even developed a baffling, insistent fever that medicine would not bring down and kept me from going to school for days.

"Then why was mommy kissing that other man?" I asked Carlo, perhaps many days later, when we were just the two of us in the chalet. 

That's when I unleashed the first serious crisis in our small family.

"Mark." Carlo finally replied. "His name was Mark."

"Who was he?" I insisted. Carlo could very well think that by just saying the guy's name, he would be answering my question. Almost thirty years later, my perplexity and my sorrow were the only things I could recall from the episode. That name did not ring any bells.

"He was the only son of Johnny and Clothilde." My father sighed before continuing, his voice drenched with melancholy. "He used to come to Punaouilo when his parents were not there. To feel free. He enjoyed racing fast cars around the island, to drink and to spend the night at the clubs." Carlo was describing what seemed like a spoiled brat, yet he uttered no word of criticism. "I think he was the one who introduced Catherine to heavy drinking, for he would take your mother with him to the best restaurants and the pool bars of the resorts... and pay for everything, of course. All the glamour that Catherine had been missing, she found it again in Mark's company."

"You knew about it, Carlo?" To be honest, what I wanted was to ask how Carlo could have accepted Catherine's infidelity. It seemed shocking that she was already unfaithful to Carlo in such an early stage of their relationship.

But anyhow, it was enough to think about my own reasons for having stayed with Angelo for eight years, during which he had constantly cheated on me -- "I'm exercising my freedom", he used to say, which meant having sex with other guys whenever he felt like it -- and he always felt like it! Angelo had 'opened' our relationship, although I had never agreed to it.

"We have had a child together. We're not married, Carlo! Catherine had stated the conditions of our relationship very clearly." Carlo sighed. "To stay in a relationship with me, she had to remain feeling free, and act according to her own desire. Ultimately, for us to be a family, to remain being a family, she had to feel free... Even when she wasn't so free... Do you understand me, Laurent?"

I closed my eyes, inhaling and exhaling deeply -- and almost choked on the mixed scent of damp leather and lousy air freshener. A cab was no place to tentatively practice mindfulness, I guessed.

Carlo's response that he had accepted Catherine cheating on him so that we could remain a family, implied and reiterated not only the love he felt for her, but above all, the love he felt for me.

"Catherine did not want to give up her practice of free love. I guess she saw in Punaouilo the same flow of transient foreigners that had constituted the river of her sex life in Paris. But after all, Punaouilo was not Paris. There was a small local society, who had never heard about l'amour libre, watching and judging her, all the time." Carlo reflected in silence, before resuming. "Actually, I think that Mark was Catherine's only boyfriend in Punaouilo. Even so, she was unpopular and poorly spoken of on the island, and it led her to further isolate herself from the local society, which she considered old fashioned, primitive and stuck."

"How long did it last, Carlo?" I tried to encourage my father's unusual openness on that subject, and watched as we progressed along the avenues of Vice City. Maybe I would need to ask the driver to stop at an ATM, if I wanted him to keep on driving. I'd do anything, pay whatever needed, to keep the words coming from my father. Compared to a therapist, it was still considerably cheaper. 

"A couple of years. When Mark met Catherine, he started coming twice or three times a year, to his own family's surprise, until their affair finally came to an end. 'They are so rude', Catherine had said one day, returning home almost in the middle of the morning, after a night out with Mark. Sometimes, the couple would spend the night at a hotel, since you had caught on them. Your mother was experiencing an unusual freedom with you spending your mornings at school, Laurent, and the affair had reached a peak. That day, I was home in between jobs, as usual worrying about not having enough money. I had never seen Catherine so scared and saddened. Apparently, Mark had 'recommended' her for his American friends visiting the island. 'They think l'amour libre is just an easy fuck. Fuck them all!' she had yelled. It was one of the very few times I saw Catherine crying." 

You might have heard the gossip about your grandmother Celeste, and I suppose Catherine was specially offended for being considered herself a first rate hooker, the only European and top of her class in Puanouilo, according to Mark. It was the end of the line for them -- and we both feared we would be thrown out of the house after that. But that fear existed only in our fantasies -- Mark wasn't a resentful man, nor did he like Catherine that much to mention her to his parents. He simply never came back to Punaouilo.

Anyway, after that, I think she never got involved with another man in Punaouilo, except perhaps for an occasional sailor or a tourist.

I had stomach cramps, and I knew it was not the impeccable food from the Nirvana Lounge. But even if I developed diarrhea,  I could not have hopped off my own emotional roller coaster, and I kept on questioning Carlo. "I imagine she wouldn't tell her lovers that she had a son..." With that, I implied not only the years in Punaouilo, but Catherine's love life in France, too. 

I had a clear memory of our bedroom, or 'the chalet' as my parents preferred to romantically -- or had it been ironically -- refer to. Quite small and cramped. Even on the sunniest days, it was dark inside, and always damp. I remember the perfect silence that Catherine demanded of me when I was in there, or even nearby, and that obligation had always made me tense and apprehensive. I tried to never displease her, and trying to get her affection, I was possibly the most obedient boy that has ever lived. Sometimes I think my mother realized it, and my silent begging that kept me under strict obedience was quite to her liking. Yes, I mean it -- maybe Catherine was never very affectionate so that I would remain obedient and docile. And she might have handled my father just the same.

But suddenly I realized that the strain I felt in that room was not only my struggle to be a good boy. There was a constant tension between Carlo and Catherine, and to that the horror with which I anticipated their quarrels. But even their silence was stressed and uncomfortable.

"Nor even mention that she had a..." Carlo thought for a moment before answering me. What had he been for Catherine? Not her husband, for they never had married. Companion, partner? Hardly ever. In fact, since my father had told me that Catherine had tried to treat him as an employee from the very beginning at the Île du Blanchomme, I was considering whether she hadn't succeeded, after all. "I suppose she wouldn't mention it, no..." Carlo replied simply, and then he quit talking. 

Cheating on her own child might not have been very appealing to Catherine, but it seemed like she had enjoyed cheating on Carlo... "It's so sexy, babe!" Angelo had thus justified his constant cheating on me, in the final years of our relationship. I wondered if she had felt the same. He seemed to delight from sharing with me other men's fluids, that he would come home drenched with -- and howl from pleasure when I'd penetrate to find him already lubricated.

For the first time, I thought that maybe I had found and taken 'my own Catherine' for my first love affair -- and that thought seemed so depressing and wicked. I had never developed an Oedipus complex, but now that I was associating Angelo to Catherine's updated image -- I felt sick. 

I hadn't been a victim, it is what dawned upon me during that taxi ride through Vice City -- I had volunteered to suffer in Angelo's hands. Was it because I might have been used to suffering in Catherine's hands? Or because I had gotten used to seeing my father suffering in my mother's hands? My head was spinning, and I knew I couldn't blame it on the driver's sharp turns.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Episode 80 | A child is born

"You were such a pretty baby, Laurent. What a sweet little boy. Unless you weren't having your basic needs tended, you would never cry. You were a quiet, smiling baby, friendly to everyone in the house, and trusting even with the visitors who--"

Carlo had shared that glancing pensively out of the window. His eyes were vague, and whatever he saw from the city that I had adopted as my hometown for many years, it was clouded by his own memories of distant Punaouilo. 

"Shall we make a turn here, sir?" The driver had asked, interrupting my father.

"No, don't. Drive all the way to the end of the avenue, and then come back on the opposite lane, please." I had requested. It was absurd, but I was so impressed with my father's confessional mood, and wanted to give him all the time. 

"I'm not driving for free, sir." 

I almost shouted at the driver. "Needless to say that", I retorted instead. 2008 was being a great year, and for the first time in life, I felt a bit careless about money. My dream house in Samsara Heights had been completed, I was about to open an exhibition at one of the worlds' most prestigious museums, my paintings were selling well, the money from Celeste's inheritance kept pouring in, and I seemed to chose all the right investments to multiply it. Little did I know what crash expected us just around the corner -- in the financial markets.

I smiled tenderly at Carlo's comments about the time when I was a baby. I had had several experiences, so diverse and so intense, having lived for so long in town -- yet, Vice City had never heard about baby Laurent. It was sweet to listen to my father's tender recollections, as we crossed the city by car.

I did want him to talk, and I tried to encourage him. "I can imagine how difficult it must have been for Catherine... Becoming a mother, I mean."

"Your mother has always wanted to give that impression, right?" Carlo replied, thoughtfully. "You know what I think? Of course, back then I did not have this reasoning, since I was very young, had little experience and was extremely worried and scared trying to put together our little family... But I suspect Catherine was expecting to have with her child the same complicated relationship that she always had herself with Celeste and Gaston. I mean, in her mind, and heart, she was reproducing with you that dreaded relationship she had with her parents. A projection, I guess that's what it's called... But that was before you were born. Because you proved to be a very easy going and loving baby, and I guess she was nicely surprised when you finally disarmed her worst expectations and fears... Does that make sense to you, Laurent?"

"Catherine had a complicated pregnancy," Carlo went on, "and during that period she was indeed very upset. As she used to say, she was 'so annoyed, wanting so much that the baby left her belly' that we think she might have somehow expelled you -- and you were born prematurely." 

"One afternoon, she told me she was not feeling quite well. She wanted to go to the hospital to be examined. In she went, but did not leave that same evening -- and the next morning, you were born. I was scared and apprehensive, since she did not let me accompany her inside the hospital. She was hospitalized nearly a week after you were born -- and when she came home, she had started to value Joanna's food, ha-ha!"

"As you know, Laurent, you were born with the sunrise. I remember it so well. Having been prompted to the hospital by a telephone call, I rode my bicycle merrily zigzagging from one pool of light to the next, saluting the lampposts along the road, thanking them for illuminating my way. I clearly recall thinking electricity was something between miraculous and magical -- because I was feeling like that myself, about to become a father. The artificial lights were still on, especially inside the hospital, but we had the glorious tropical sunshine as well, golden and radiant... The sun rose over the ocean, its brilliance multiplied, magnified and turned into movement by a myriad of ripples. You could not have chosen a more poetic time to be born, my son, when all things were illuminated, with all sorts of glow. And when I first saw you at the hospital, my eyes filled with tears and  light, with a shudder I recalled the sunrise apparitions on the Île du Blanchomme." Carlo beamed, immersed in memories. "And indeed the baby was a boy, contrary to Catherine's expectations that it would be a girl."

I gently interrupted him. "There is controversy about it! You cannot affirm I'm hundred percent a boy..." I said, laughing, and I made a very effeminate gesture. "But then the right to choose the baby's name was yours, wasn't it, Carlo? I love this anecdote so much... It is true, isn't it?" There were now so many lies around my birth that I was afraid to lose all my references.

"Yes, Laurent!" My father laughed too. He reached for my hand, that was lying next to his on the seat, and caressed it. I did not refuse his touch. "Catherine had chosen the name Sophie for the baby, but when it was my turn to choose your name... Well, at the time there were so many things happening at once that I could not foresee them all... And I found myself having to think quickly on your name, at the door of Punaouilo Register's Office!" Carlo smiled sweetly. "By then, Celeste was already regretting the cruelty with which she had treated Catherine, I guess. She had ruthlessly exiled her own daughter, something straight out of a Greek tragedy. But since she did not want to seem to have abandoned her too, Celeste regularly sent shipments of books and clothes and perfumes for Catherine. Just a few days before your birth, more gifts had arrived. Among them, a new summer dress by Yves Saint-Laurent, your mother's favorite French couturier at the time..."

"She had asked me to take that new dress to her. She wanted to walk out of the hospital carrying you, dressed in it. Holding that beautiful dress in my hands, its silk so exquisite to the touch, reminding me of the tenderness of your baby skin that I had touched for the very first time, I had a sudden inspiration... I made a connection to the Louis Malle movie that I had watched with Armand in Paris, at the Cinémathèque Française. The one that he had mentioned to me at least twice on the Île du Blanchomme, whose main character was a boy named Laurent. I thought by naming you Laurent I would in a way be pleasing Catherine... And your mother did approve my choice, "You actually have good taste", was what she told me upon leaving the hospital, dressed in her Saint-Laurent and carrying her Laurent baby..."

"I love that anecdote so much!" I murmured, as my voice caught. I was so glad it was not just another lie. And I was happy learning I was somehow connected to my movie lover uncle Armand by that name, too. "It was a lovely choice, Carlo!" My name had never sounded sweeter. 

But I don't think Carlo heard me, for he was back again in Punaouilo.

Though premature, you were perfectly healthy, and that was a great relief to us! All went well after your condition stabilized and you were able to breathe and feed without medical aid, and you came home, sooner than expected." Carlo sighed. "I think the correct word to describe Catherine as a mother is 'intrigued'. As you well know, she was unable to take care of all things basic and trivial -- like to bathe you, or change your diapers. And for those, we were glad to have Joanna. Of course I always did everything I could to help, whenever I was at home -- but at that time I had already started working on painting houses around the island.

Johnny gave me my first job -- painting the mansion where we were living at. It was the oldest and most important colonial house on the island, and it turned out to be my greeting card to my all my future painting and gardening works in Punaouilo. It was a huge, time consuming job because they wanted both the indoors and the outdoors newly painted, and just once in a while Will, Joanna's husband, would have helped me.

During that period, Johnny and Clothilde were absent from Punaouilo, and without them Catherine confessed she felt truly isolated from the 'civilized world'. But we also had the privilege of Joanna dedicated exclusively to our little family, and that was such an immense luck and joy.

  Johnny and Clothilde were to see you only when you were a little over one year old, already -- and they also marveled on your beauty and your sweetness, Laurent.

You did melt Clothilde's heart, my son. Not even that mutual antipathy between her and Catherine could wear out your baby charms, and Clothilde used to send or bring herself clothes and toys for you, from the United States and from France, too. Your first toys were given by her, because in our first years in Punaouilo we had no money to buy them.

Celeste would not send us any money. Justifying it was too complicated and expensive to wire money overseas, she paid our lodging and food directly to Johnny and Clothilde. Of course, her intention was to keep us away from any sum, so that we could not buy our tickets back to France. Later, through Clothilde, she would send more books and summer clothes for Catherine, and toys and clothes for you. 

Despite having known of my existence, Celeste simply ignored me. Personally, I never regretted not receiving anything from her. As far as I was concerned, her silence was a good thing, since it probably indicated that Monsieur de Montbelle was unaware of my relationship with his daughter. And secrecy was all that I ever needed from Celeste!

"Catherine's main grievance in Punaouilo, Laurent, was her distance from the 'civilized world', her involuntary exile from Paris, and not your birth." Carlo clarified, as if wanting to console me. "But she came up with this anecdote about being surprised by her pregnancy and your premature birth as the cause of her exile in the tropics... when, in fact, you might have already understood that the culprit was your grandmother Celeste."

"Celeste never, ever visited us at Punaouilo..." My father had again fallen silent, and I was trying to reminisce myself. "And when I asked Catherine about 'grandma', she justified Celeste loathed leaving Paris, 'the only civilized town in the world', she quoted her. Though of course she loved visiting the Chateau de Montbelle, where she would actually never reside. And I happen to know that once or twice Celeste visited Paul Bowles in Tangier and Yves Saint-Laurent at his Marrakesh home -- but I once heard Catherine saying that Celeste was too snobish to be welcome more than once by any host. You might have heard that yourself, Carlo." I laughed. "But what I do not remember is what she used to tell me about Gaston... I mean,  "grandpa', I used to ask simply about ' my grandpa', since until a few hours ago I did not know who he was.... In adolescence, Catherine told me that he had already died, which I believe was true..."

"Yes, Gaston was dead when you and I were finally able to go to France. Maybe that is why, even, we were able to go to France! And if I remember correctly, Catherine replied to your child question simply saying 'there is no grandpa'. Though sometimes you mistook Tarso for your grandfather, from my side they had both actually died, and Catherine wanted to imply that she had also already lost her father. I'm sorry, Laurent, but I never understood her complicated relationship with Gaston, nor with Celeste. Rather unexpectedly, I'd say, Catherine overcame her own difficulties to become a good mother--"

I interrupted my father. "Catherine, a good mother?" It sounded so incongruous, and I laughed at it.

"Don't you think so, Laurent?" I was surprised that Carlo would actually take Catherine's defence. "I would never have imagined that she could put such an immense patience and dedication in teaching you how to walk. But of course you don't remember that, do you? And how she took interest in teaching you to speak properly. Everything that had to do with your intellectual growth and progress fascinated her. She just was not very interested in the more mundane parts of your upbringing, like food and baths and diseases... Those she delivered to me and to Joanna..." I was perplexed with Carlo's justification, and then even more at his next surprising comment. "You received loads of love in your childhood, Laurent."

I groaned. "Funny, but that's not how I remember it!", I replied promptly. "I recall Joanna's affection, of course, and also at some extent having it from her husband Will, whom I'd call uncle. But in regard to Catherine, I just remember being a beggar, all the time, and not very successfully trying to divert her from the books she read or wrote..." 

Purposely, I did not mention my father, because I was not willing to make peace with him yet.

"This was later, Laurent!" Carlo was becoming an expert in contradicting my memories. "Because you cannot remember the very beginning. Just when you started to stand on your own legs, did Catherine decide to do the same." I was puzzled, and my father had to clarify. "Stand on her own legs, I mean. I guess it was the amount of books sent by Celeste that inspired your mother to become a writer, since she would no longer be teaching at the Université. My best bet is that she was trying to build herself a new bridge with France, and in reverse, sending back to her country novels written by her. I had started  myself walking by my own legs, and making a bit of money with the painting and gardening jobs, just enough to buy your diapers and, later on, the school supplies."

Carlo's constant mentions of his humble jobs in Punaouilo actually hurt me. It was cruel that a celebrated painter like Carlo had to do gardening services to make a living -- nothing against gardening, but it had kept my father from painting.

"Really, Carlo?" I still doubted him. "I just remember gravitating around my mother, trying to get her attention... I don't even think affection was something I expected from her, just her attention. It was you who helped me with my homework, wasn't it?" Would he deny being the present parent -- until, when I was thirteen, he became the absent one?

"Most of the time... yes." Carlo answered, carefully picking the words. "But Catherine was the one who corrected your exercises before you went to school... because she did not trust my French... nor my Italian, ha-ha!" I wondered when my father had grown immune to Catherine's disdain. "Too bad we don't have many pictures of that period. Johnny had given me an old camera, but we rarely bought a roll of film, and of course we never had the money to develop the photographs... If I'm not mistaken, Catherine sent them to Paris, but your grandmother never sent them back for us to see."

"I have never heard about the existence of such photographs, Carlo!" I gasped.

 No longer having any doubt that I would have a very long telephone conversation with Catherine in Russia, I had already began to mentally assemble the extensive questionnaire that I would ask her.