Saturday, November 1, 2014

Episode 06 | The hospital and the mail box

As I sat there listening to my father, I kept adjusting my glasses. On the fourth or fifth time I did it, I finally realized why. Perfectly fancy, fitting Armani eye-wear, it occurred to me I was having trouble trying to adjust how I regarded my father.

And had to conclude how little did I know about him.

He had been not only distant, absent all those years. He had been a stranger to me. 

His peasant past was no surprise. I had visited the D'Allegro ancestral lands myself. I could recall my own humble childhood, and how he had tried to sustain our family on part-time jobs, hardly achieving it. But that he had starved in Paris? We had been close only during part of my childhood, when my mother had stepped aside. And my early teens. But all the rest of what I knew about him had come from my mother, filtered with resentment and prejudice -- that I could right now recognize rising inside me, maybe as my own.

I tried wholeheartedly to get rid of them, as I listened to Carlo.

Looking at him, grown old, with a saddened expression, I felt my heart softening. Would it have been less shocking, had I seen it happen gradually? He was slim, and had a vigorous, very fit body to be desired and envied. Muscles only, and nearly no fat, with a remarkably tanned and firm skin. I had inherited those features from him, that had me looking healthy even when I caught influenza. Twenty years ago, when he had left home, he had been an Italian hunk. There was an informal fan club constituted of teachers, mothers and even some of their teenage daughters, who had sighed for Carlo when he would pick me up at school, in his fast sports car. 

And that's how I still remembered him. I was trying to adjust to his graying hair and mustache. It had once been thick, coal black -- while I, instead, had my mother's fine blonde hair. A web of wrinkles wore his face down. His shoulders were bent as if under an invisible burden. Were the recollections of a tough past making his hands tremble, too? Or was it another sad sign of ageing?

The lenses of his glasses were much thicker than I remembered them. Had his sight been damaged by the years -- because, like Carlo had just mentioned, he preferred the night time to paint? In our house in rural France, I could recall saying good night to him, before going to bed, knowing he would go on painting. I had seen him in our garden in Punaouilo, painting under the starlight with a flickering, borrowed gas lamp. But all that had started at the abandoned factory, it seemed. Only later, would I learn he had been drawing in the dark as a child, already, by candlelight. Hiding behind his bed, fearing his grandfather would catch and punish him. 

Maybe it would take longer to forgive my father. But it wasn't that hard to feel compassionate towards the person in front of me, who had suffered so much chasing his ideal, trying to fulfill his heart's wishes to make a living as a painter.


"One day I vomited so much--" Carlo had continued with his story without me having to ask for it, "Or not that much actually, since I had had just stale bread for breakfast. And canned soup, probably two evenings ago, for dinner... It was the force with which I expelled the food, not its amount--" Carlo closed his eyes for a moment, maybe recalling his agony, "I fainted."

I woke up many hours later. Enveloped by the wildest of winds,one that forecasted a storm, maybe snow. I was still leaning over the toilet, shivering with cold, and coughing. 

Asphyxiating with the bad smell of my own vomit, I felt I had to throw up again. But there was nothing left in my stomach. Nor on the shelves.

I understood I had to go to the hospital. While I still had the strength to walk.

My days of tranquil hermitage were over. Venturing into the world did not simply mean leaving the outskirts of Paris, to be again engulfed by the boisterous city center. That I had once adored, don't get me wrong, having experienced it in the company of my roommate. But it terrified me, once I was to brave it all on my own. In my mind, leaving the retreat I had built for myself at the abandoned factory meant the contrary in terms of my personal life, and mostly of my art career. I would be abandoning the tranquil center where I dwell in my ideals, to again face the outskirts of a material civilization I dreaded.

In a trance, I roamed through Paris in search of a public hospital. A crisscross route I'll never recall. Factories, houses, shops, all looked like pieces in a civilizatory puzzle I could no longer assemble. Confounded, after having crossed many squares and bridges, I forgot what I was searching for. At the sight of the frozen remains of a dead dog, I again threw up. But also recalled that I was seeking for help. My clothes barely protected me from the severe cold, so I jumped like a madman as I walked, trying to warm myself. Finally, both shoelaces broke, and I had to drag my shoes along for several blocks. Their soles were so thin that the pavement was irreversibly tearing them. But my feet couldn't be wetter nor colder than they had already been, for weeks. As I walked into the hospital, I fainted. A high fever ensued, and sucked me into a limbo that lasted for days. It took nurses and doctors long to realize I could speak French. Semi-conscious, I would babble in Italian, only.

Naively, I thought that at the hospital they would give me some kind of medicine and send me back home straight away. And what was home? But due to food poisoning, and a pneumonia that had not quite developed yet, they kept me in the infirmary for over a week. Even two, or perhaps more, since I completely lost track of time. I can only recall someone from another bed mentioning it had snowed.

All the time I stayed at the infirmary, I worried about the factory. Had it been invaded? What had happened to my easel, and especially to my paintings? I had locked it before leaving, but the windows were so wrecked that a single push would throw them to the floor. And there was even a hole in the ceiling. It wouldn't have been hard to break into my atelier... the factory.

When I was liberated from the hospital, again accustomed to being with other people, I decided to bravely venture the several neighborhoods that separated me from the post office. I wanted to check my postal box, hoping to find a letter from Tarso, my grandfather, who would once in a while send me money in Paris.

There was a letter from him, indeed. With a very modest sum of money in it. And even less words. Writing, he was more laconic than speaking. 'The crops haven't been good', he justified -- and I knew that was his way of asking 'when are you going to come back to help me?'. But I did not consider, ever, going back. Nevertheless, after I exchanged the money, he had sent more than enough to allow me to buy meat, and some fresh bread. And fix new glasses, too, with the updated prescription they had handed me at the hospital. 

It was my first proper meal in perhaps six months!

And there was a letter from my dear ex-roommate from the times at the École des Beaux-Arts,the noblest person I've ever met, Armand de Montbelle. 

I did not open it straight away because I knew it would be long lines of a poetical, intoxicating account of his travelling around the globe. And I wanted to savor it calmly, as my dessert.

He wrote at length about his many adventures in Asia. He spent Spring living in an improvised houseboat, that took him through the backwaters of Southern India. In Summer he had been trekking a valley covered with millions of colorful flowers in the Himalayas. He had survived the monsoon season and constant floods and blackouts in Nepal. He had been chased and had his food stolen by monkeys. Almost run over by a mad elephant, once, that destroyed his hut in Sri Lanka. He had meditated with the forest monks in Thailand, sleeping like them for weeks under a tree. To me, his words tasted to mangoes ripened under the sun. He could have been an accomplished writer, if he hadn't chosen to study Architecture.

But the astonishing news was that he was acquiring an island in the Indian Ocean.

"And I need your help to fix this place! Please say you can come! Will you?" 

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