Saturday, November 1, 2014

Episode 11 | Her elegant retirement

 During Spring and Summer in the Apennines, I woke up to the morning melody gradually subduing the night noises. As the mist softly lifted, owls, crickets and toads would give way to hungry birds and the busy bees, while at dawn, the distant bark of dogs, and bleating sheep being herded to greener pastures, entered my room in echoes arriving from the facing cliffs. Year-round, on the first floor of the house, when Tarso's snoring turned into heavy footsteps on the wooden boards, I knew it was time to get out of bed.

The massive silence on the Île du Blanchomme startled me. It was as if the night sounds shut down and nothing replaced them in the hour preceding sunrise. Oppressive, the air weighed on my chest like it had condensed into a marble block. Along with the darkness, it reminded me of the only time I had been deep inside a cave, a frightened boy, worried that I would never find the way out from a site I should never have entered in the first place.

For a minute or so, I did not know where I was. First, I recalled the cargo ship, in which womb I had spent so many weeks. But something was missing. There was no reverberation of waves constantly crashing against the hull. Then I recalled having slept on the table at the port, and my sleepless night on the sailboat, with Armand resting his head on my shoulder -- I finally stood up and felt my way along the walls. As I stumbled out of the cave, recognizing Herr Weissmann's house veranda immersed in the night, the compass rose flashed into my mind. My heart banging in my chest, I headed South, to the stair, avoiding my friend's room.

I almost tripped and fell on the way down. Once under the house, a bulky square of blackness parting me from the starry sky, I did not know where to go, nor what to do. The tropical landscape enclosed me in its strangeness. Paralyzed, I just blinked, blinked repeatedly -- and at each blink, the light changed just imperceptibly, mounting, until the horizon was a thin silvery line foretelling the coming day. Just then, my ears met the faint murmur of caressed shores, and suddenly I thought the plants growing was audible, too.  But what plants were those, that I could not name?

Feeling the need to take refuge in something familiar, I decided to meditate. At the beach where the two lounge chairs lay, I sat on the sand facing the sunrise -- setting a morning routine that I was to follow for the biggest part of my stay on the Île.

As if blown by the sun itself, a mild breeze travelling from the horizon increased my awareness as I silently sat there, following my breath. My nostrils awakened, touched by the salty smell coming both from the ocean and myself, I realized even my body no longer took to goats -- but to fish. At least, my first tropical meditation felt the more pleasurable when I recalled how sorely I had gasped, during the coldest days spent at the old abandoned factory in Paris, when an incipient pneumonia had clenched my throat.

Reassured, having found refuge in the island within like recommended by the Buddha, when around me the whole island was foreign, I ended the session praying for the well being of all creatures, and that they may be free from suffering -- Armand especially.


I had been deeply touched by my ex-roommate's tears, the previous evening.

I don't remember falling asleep. But a few minutes later, his crying, that rapidly turned into painful sobs, woke me up. As I recall it, I realize how so less noble than my friend I always was. In my hesitation, I happened to fail him -- he who had always helped me.

I still ask myself -- Why didn't I go to him, who was just a few steps away?

Half-opening my eyes, I saw he was still sitting on the sofa in front of my bed. Bent, his elbows pressing his knees, Armand cried hiding his face with both hands. More than troubled, he seemed deeply ashamed. Probably of his own emotions, was my quick guess. 

I could never, ever have imagined that I was the actual reason for his suffering. I thought it was his mother's eminent death that troubled and lacerated him. She was on her deathbed, while he was on the other side of the world, in my company enjoying the sunset and the moon rise, sun bathing and telling me fantastic stories and laughing along. Instead of relishing our reunion, could he be feeling guilty?

I just sensed it must be something very private, by the way he buried his face in his fingers. So I pretended to be sleeping until he left the room, carrying the gas lamp like it was heavier than his heart, shoulders bent. Audibly crying, I observed his moves as the flickering light delineated the openings at the bottom of the floor, on the wall common to our rooms -- and in a minute or two, I fell asleep again.

Tiring myself swimming in the cold sea against the currents, that in the morning seemed stronger, hadn't brought any relief. My arms left sore, I was still feeling guilty.

It was only partially true that I hadn't wanted to invade Armand's privacy the previous evening. True, I had never seen him crying like that in all those years we had been inseparable, sharing not only the same room but, apart from our classes, almost the same daily routine. Feeling I wasn't prepared to deal with his feelings, nor even sure if I should be there participating by witnessing it, I had kept the parody of the heavy sleeper that I truly was. Maybe he had been crying for many nights in a row, and I had arrived to intrude in his privacy. Armand's unexpected tears had surprised me, and I was not sure how to interact with them. Somehow, he must have felt more miserable than happy -- my presence not quite compensating for his mother's eminent passing. Just like my arrival was not detaining his departure for Europe, in a few days.

Hey mate, what's the problem?, I now pictured myself saying. Had I stretched my arm, I would have touched Armand's knees without leaving my bed. But there was something I could not quite cope with. It was not just the fact that, in his red tennis shorts, my friend was undressed like I had never seen him before. His emotional nudity was the more shocking and puzzling to me. That's why, though in the morning I could imagine myself walking over to him and patting him on the shoulder, I hadn't done it. Had I been justifiably too tired and sleepy to force myself out of bed? Or had I been just lazy, or ill-at-ease, that was the shameful truth that was suddenly troubling me.

Though famished, I decided to stay at the beach, laying on the sand, sunbathing, waiting for Armand's call for breakfast. No matter how unfair it was to leave the preparations all to him, I could still compensate by washing the dishes -- those from the previous lunch, too.

With the shade of a single palm trunk covering my face, I closed my eyes, trying to get rid of the haunting image of my friend's body shaken by sobs. His dark feelings seemed to contrast with his beautiful suntan, and the golden ponytail lost its emblematic quality of freedom and revolt, as it pathetically bounced with his sobs, too. Once or twice, he had even let out a longer, loud lament, and I wondered what could be so painful as to make him lose his customary composure.


 I knew his family was going through a very difficult period.

During our final years at the École, Armand's mother, the noble Madame Marie Heléne Purlux Drurien et de Montbelle, found out that her husband, the preeminent Monsieur de Montbelle, had skillfully hidden a second life. He had had a lover for almost the length of their marriage, and with this other woman, he had a daughter, who was only 3 years younger than Armand.

Confronted, Monsieur had demanded to divorce Madame, who had denied it, then flipped, and afterwards grown increasingly ill. And now she was about to retreat -- forever.

I had dozed, and startled when I heard Armand's steps calmly descending the stair. As he approached, smiling, I noticed his glance falling on my worn underwear. I checked if all my parts were inside the loose cloth, though my hirsute, thick pubic hair would not submit. The white was less transparent when dry, and despite the outrageously outlined volume, I was decent enough for a deserted island. Just then did I blush, realizing Armand's reason to be eyeing me -- wondering if I was really going to refuse the fine trunks he had given me. Leaving the room in the dark, I had thoroughly forgotten to change into them, that morning.

Rehearsing my excuses, I decided to jump, instead, into the heart of the matter. "How is your mother, Armand?" I asked, feeling a bit remorseful, though, since my question seemed to arrive too late.

I knew how hard it was for my friend to talk about his own feelings. I could understand it in relation to having a father that had thorough and consistently lied to the family all his life. A life of deceit and pretending, of daily falsehood and deception. How could it have impacted the De Montbelle household, and what kind of behavior could have Armand learned from his father, even if subconsciously, when the man had been lying to him all the time? I mean, maybe Mounsieur de Montbelle wasn't faking affection for his son like he was for his wife, but how to measure what was sincere and what was staged under the perspective of his lifelong deception? This in a way explained, to me, why my friend had always been reticent in the expression of his own feelings and emotions, so diplomatic and tactful. And it was my role in our friendship to be uncomfortably direct and bring out his sincerity, though at the expense of my own diffidence.

"How are you feeling about it?" I asked, jumping the Good Mornings, when he joined me at the beach. Sunbathing had been a pretext, since I was actually ashamed of going back into the house. I should but could not apologize to Armand for my callousness, without revealing the fact that I had actually seen him crying.

"Thank you for asking, Carlo." Armand sat by my side on the sand, facing the direction of a sunrise long past, while I remained laying down, looking into a sky of the utmost blue, perfectly devoid of clouds. He seemed relieved at my question, that  would finally give him the opportunity to talk. Listening to him, I decided to consider it as my belated apologies for not having inquired about his mother the previous evening.

"I'm not happy about her death, of course, but I cannot be so sad either." He paused. Having scooped a fistful of sand, he slowly tilted the palm of his hand and watched the fine grains fall in a gentle cascading. Just when he started doing the same with a second fistful, did he resume talking. "She wrote me a rather moving letter, while I was in Rishikesh, in India. She said something like 'I have always been something in relation to someone. First, I was a daughter, then a wife, and finally mother. I am an orphan now, and your father practically doesn't live here any longer. I'm still your mother, and that seems to be the sole thing left for me to be. But since you've gone to Asia, I've turned into a mother that writes or reads letters about her son, who is experimenting a different existence in faraway lands... A mother at distance, that's what I have ultimately become, which is not much. Sometimes I have to think... Do I still know who my son is? What he is doing? Who his companions are? What are his interests? Now, my husband wants to divorce me for some plain actress. I'd rather die and become nothing... than become a divorcée!'" Armand paused, as if mentally folding his mother's letter and putting it back in the envelope, before adding, "Though I had been meditating twelve hours a day, and trying not to judge was central to the process of detaching myself from my afflictions, my mother's words had still sounded a bit like a melodramatic, cheap blackmail. They nevertheless afflicted me, and made me feel guilty when I read it. She was subtly accusing me of having abandoned her, and I had no defense to present. When the silent retreat  was over, I phoned my mother in France. I tried to reason her into becoming many new things, according to her eccentric logic. But she dismissed me, saying she was 'too old to start again'. So now it is going to happen as she wishes." Armand seemed quite serene about his mother's tragic decision, able to observe her parting from life just like he watched the grains of sand slip through his fingers . "She never refers to death. She calls it her 'elegant retirement'."

"C'est terrible, Armand!" Honestly moved, I watched myself pondering whether it was appropriate or not to touch Armand's arm, maybe squeeze it, as a sign of empathy. But I could not bring myself to do it, like formerly I surely would. My lack of spontaneity -- or was it sincerity? -- and a corresponding guilt, made me blush, and to hide my confusion I asked, "What about you father?"

Armand stopped scooping the sand. He was silent for a while, intently shaking his hand to clean them. I waited, in the known that he had never been in good terms with his father. But now things seemed to have grown even more unpleasant. Talking about his mother, Armand had fixed his gaze on the distant horizon, but keeping his face turned towards me, so that I had the pleasure of listening to his smooth voice and seeing his beautiful profile, too. To talk about Monsieur de Montbelle, he almost turned away from me, pretending to scrutinize the floor.

"At the same time that my mother started spending more time in bed, getting worse and worse, he started spending more and more time with his other family." He said something I did not hear, and just when I stood up on my elbows did Armand turn towards me again, changing to a nasal tone to quote his father's threats.  "'I'm not going to feel miserable, nor be held hostage of your mother's blackmail', my father declared, when I came to pay my last visit to them, just before leaving on my one year trip." Armand shrugged. "Surely, he pays her the best nurses and buys the latest in terms of drugs, and sedatives. But I sense he wants her to die, too. That is the final thing they agree on. Their love has long died... if it ever existed." Armand paused, stretching the arm to catch a tiny broken shell, that he observed with surprising concentration, before adding, "And when my mother, finally, could no longer leave her bed, he wouldn't leave his lover's home anymore. They never divorced, though. My mother calls this legal impediment her 'last victory'. But they are irreversibly separated, and my mother's death will finally and gracefully untie this knot." With a flick, he sent the broken shell flying back into the ocean, where it would grind until it became sand.

While Armand, updating me on his family matters, distracted himself with sand and shells, I had observed him closely. He did not shed a tear. His voice was sweet and serene, as usual. I was confused, and disappointed. I had heard him sobbing, the previous evening! But despite my sincere offer of listening to him, he was again hiding his feelings.

Armand shook his ponytail -- and there was something so astonishingly new to me in that movement, in the simple fact that he had grown his hair that long, that in a flash I understood it all. He had written his letter to me many months ago. Under different, more joyous circumstances. His invitation must have been sincere then. It was solely my fault that it had sat in my Parisian post box for so long. And even if it was not my fault that the cargo ship had been delayed, and that Armand’s mother had entered the terminal phase of her illness, I knew I had to liberate my friend from his social strait jacket, that had compelled him to still invite me to join him, when his urge was to depart.    

"Fratello mio, I don't want to hold you here." I was being sincere, and my voice trembled with emotion. "Please go whenever you need to go, to be by your mother. I'll leave when you leave, I'll manage to find another place..." Though, if you gave me a map I could not point where on the planet the Île du Blanchomme was, so lost was I. And afraid – I was afraid of that new step I had taken in life, that led me to foreign lands. But recalling Paris, a sense of courage invaded me. And maybe like Gauguin, hopefully I would find my Art in the tropics.

Armand cut me short, though very delicately. "Please, Carlo!" He turned his body to face me, and his expression was more somber and serious than it had been when he spoke about his parents. "Please, understand this...” He lay his hand lightly on my thigh, and it was trembling. “I am leaving. No sooner, though, than the day when there is a boat for the continent, which is within a week. And you are staying. This is your house as much as it is mine, and I need you here to keep it lively and cozy until my return. In a week you'll be all on your own,” Armand smiled, since he knew me so well, “and I know you gonna love it. So I'm not troubled with leaving you behind on these tropical shores.” He was absent minded patting my thigh, and it felt like a shy caress. “As for now, I wish we would...  be together..." He gulped, slowing retreating his hand from my thigh, with one last caress, "Be really together... really." Finally, like I had been expecting, there was deep emotion in my friend’s voice.

No need to repeat that 'really', I thought, since I wanted the same thing.

But I was wrong, and I hadn't really understood all implications in Armand's invitation.


  1. Okay I am officially sweating balls. Well, as official as that can get as I don't have any balls. Hahahaha.

    1. I cannot properly reply, since slang is beyond my skills in English... What do you mean with "sweating balls?"

    2. I must confess it is a very prosaic way of saying I'm very nervous about what will come next. The slang originally means you are sweating very heavily (you are sweating so much, you are sweating balls) even using the slang in it's original context it sound prosaic. But since you can also use "sweating" to imply you are nervous, the slang "sweating balls" can be used to imply you were so nervous with expectation that you sweat balls.
      It all sounds very rude, but then again slang often is. Sorry about that.

    3. Thank you for the clarification.

      I don't want to be rude, but I think you'll be "sweating balls" worse than this, until the end of this novel. This was just a starter, and like I've said earlier, Laurent is going down a path of thorns, barefoot, and I will be constantly throwing stones at him.

      If you like him, brace yourself.


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