Saturday, November 1, 2014

Episode 12 | Starving, cooking, dining out

Somehow, I was not convinced.

Since we had arrived on the Île, Armand was no longer looking me straight in the eyes when we talked. In fact, he was avoiding my stare. Instead, since the moment I had undressed, his glance fell continually on my lap, directed at my worn and stained underwear. Though his expression remained neutral, and I never saw him frown, there was a silent censure implied. I decided to accept his offer and put on the new trunks on the first opportunity, to stop that clumsy comedy of trying to cover my pubic hair to then uncover my buttocks. It had already lasted over twenty four hours, embarrassing me – and worse, annoying my friend and host.

Yet, something else was wrong. Armand trembled and I could sense his tension, as we hugged on the beach, at the end of our conversation. Something had changed – something was missing – in our friendship.

Having sweated profusely, I was willing to go for a long swim. I wanted Armand to come along, so that he could show me the spots for the hazardous currents. He was hungry and declined, retreating to the house to fix a meal for us.

Used to eating not much, after my long meager diet at the factory, I had learned to dominate hunger. Whatever urge I had felt earlier that morning, it was gone. But there was an element of pride in my self-possession, and I felt somewhat superior when my friend was honest about being hungry, and when I again let him go upstairs and prepare the food on his own. That was also new – Armand working for me, ultimately serving me.

He was a prince, born to be served. He would have preferred to dine out every meal during the École. On Saint-German-des-Prés, a constellation of cafés and bistrots was less than a hundred steps away from our door. But to keep me company, since I was too poor to dine out even once a month, he would eat at home with me. He wasn't inviting me to the restaurants just because we had actually been using the money his father sent him for other things we loved better -- like going to the movies, to theater plays, and buying books. Armand had never cooked well, nor enjoyed it. Only because he did not stand my scanty meals, had he started cooking for the two of us. Even if it was something simple like sausages – they were the cheapest kind of meat I could find --, his would have been the best German sausages money could buy.


"That is so like Catherine, I must say... Ha-ha!" My loud laugh thundered across the empty Lounge. Noticing Gabriel had raised his glance in alarm, I blushed.

I had not wanted to interrupt Carlo's story, but I could not help the wicked comment. It was a family joke.

Like he had done that one morning before dawn on the Île du Blanchomme, at the interruption, my father showed no other response but to blink, and blink, repeatedly. Behind the thick lenses of his fancy new glasses, I watched his eyes slowly adjusting to again focus on me. Like someone waking in an unfamiliar room, he looked around, trying to recognize the place. He seemed surprise to find me on his Île. Or to find himself in the Lounge? Or simply to find me before him -- the son he had abandoned for twenty years.

"So you know it, already!" Carlo stared at me, confused. He blinked again, but so slowly that it seemed like he was deliberately closing his eyes. "I thought Catherine had always hidden it from you!" He took the right fist to his lips, to bite on a finger, his eyes wide with bewilderment, fully fixed on me.

"Know what?” It was my turn to blink. I had expected Carlo to join in a joke about Catherine’s ineptitude in the kitchen. “It's no secret that Catherine hates cooking, and that she would rather dine out every meal..." By my father's puzzled look, I realized his comment had aimed something else entirely different. "Know what, Carlo?"

"I thought you knew about Armand..." he murmured.

"What about him?" I insisted.

I was made alert by the shaky tone of his voice. Bending towards him, my eyes flashing, I must have resembled a predator, because Carlo sank further into the leather couch, and nervously changed the subject.

"Which reminds me... Do you remember Joanna?" He asked.

I blinked again. After Paris and the Indian Ocean, he was catapulting us to Punaouilo, the island of my childhood.

"I sure do!" Hadn't I just thought of her, mentioning the candle episode, when I burned myself? Hearing my cry, Joanna had rescued me and comforted me till I'd stop crying... and I had kept it a secret with her. "I might have forgotten other people from my childhood, but how could I ever forget her? We used to call her Queen of the Kitchen." I replied, a bit indignant.

"Oh no, that's how you called her, Laurent!" My father smiled at my remark. "And of course you should... She was the one feeding you all the time, not your mother. I did not worry about you when I was out working just because I knew Joanna would be taking care of you. While your mother just read, or wrote her novels..." Carlo shrugged, dismissing that subject. "The rest of us used to call her The Pearl, remember?”

Of course I did. Joanna had gotten that nickname because she was beautiful and black like the precious pearls sold in the jewelries across the island. Rare like them, too, a native from Saint Louis in the US, brought to Punaouilo to work on the mansion where we lived, as far as we knew, she was the only black woman on the whole island. Tall, and elegant in her signature very colorful dresses of floral patterns, in our kitchen she stood out, against the pale green tiles and the whitewashed cabinets. But to be honest, as a child I thought 'The Pearl' referred to her teeth, shining impossibly white whenever she smiled -- and she did it hundreds of times a day, especially if it were at me. I was convinced her teeth were actual pearls, what turned her into the richest woman on--

“She was the guardian angel of our small family." Carlo added, with a sigh, interrupting my own recollections.

"Why bring Joanna into this conversation, Carlo?" I was intrigued. Was he introducing the pieces of our common past that bonded us, to again win a way into my heart? I doubted my father was aware of how I cherished the memories of my tropical childhood, though he knew of the love I had devoted for Joanna.

"Just because, like you said, your mother never cooked, even when she had to feed you...” Carlo hesitated, seemingly confused with his own logic. “Well, I guess Joanna has been there from the very beginning, the day your mother and I arrived at the mansion in Punaouilo. And from the day you were born... I'm sorry to tell you this, Laurent," Carlo paused, looking out through the windows for a moment. I followed his glance, and noticed the sun was on its descent. Carlo took a deep breath and then said, looking me in the eye, "Joanna died a few months ago."

"No!" I whined, feeling the tears welling up in my eyes. "It can't be!"

I used to reply the Birthday cards she sent me at Catherine's. Each time, I repeated the promise of one day going back to the island to visit her. Just to cheer her, since I had no intention of actually returning to Punaouilo. In fact, that year I still hadn't received her greetings. But I had guessed it might be sitting inside Catherine's postal box in France, now that she was in Russia, and I did not give it a second thought. With Carlo's news, a door to the past had slammed close. And I was feeling left out.

"No! No..." Tears began to stream down my cheeks. "I didn't know she was ill..." My mother had never told me anything. But then, Catherine had never been close to our maid. In Punaouilo, my mother would only speak to Joanna when strictly necessary. Instead, though Joanna's letters were directed at me, she always asked about my mother and sent greetings to her.

"She wasn't. Joanna had a sudden death. A stroke. Quite unpredictable for such a strong woman. I'm sorry to tell you this now...” Carlo bent in my direction, perhaps thinking of tapping my knees. But just like with Armand, he did not touch me. True, the Nirvana Lounge was luxuriously spacious, and the distance between our chairs was such that he would have to stand up to try to touch me in any comforting way. But what Carlo did not transpose was the abyss remaining between us. He simply added, “I could not help recalling her, when you said Catherine behaved just like Armand..."

"What about them, Carlo?" I inquired again, drying my tears and veering from the subject. Later, I would cry more, and say a prayer for Joanna. I knew it would be more heartfelt than those I had said for Tarso, my great-grandfather, who had raised Carlo, and to Celeste, my grandmother, from Catherine's side.

"We will come to that, in the appropriate time..." Carlo took a sip of his wine. Instead of answering my question, he continued with his story.

"Those days we spent together on the Île du Blanchomme, Armand used to cook every day. I was so surprised! And he had been doing so for quite some time already, since he could not dine out being on a tiny island lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Though I am sure he could have hired a chef to cook for him, ha-ha!"

Seeing how Carlo's recollections, along with the ruby red wine, seemed to put him in a good, light mood, I decided to lower my guard. Instead of throwing my questions burning with resentment at him, I'd just enjoy the recounting of a part of his life that was completely unknown to me.


We almost bumped into one another, when Armand was coming out of the kitchen. My eyes fell on the tray of food he was carrying towards the tables on the veranda’s corner.

“That looks delicious!” I exclaimed.

“It does, doesn’t it?” He responded, his eyes falling on the fancy Cardin trunks I had put on. One size smaller than mine, they were a bit too tight, but still, the nicest -- if the smallest -- piece of clothe I had ever worn.

In the trail of steam that smelled so good, I followed Armand to the table, still dazzled with how much his cooking skills had improved in the year he spent travelling around the globe.

"Nothing against French cuisine. Not at all!" He winked, to imply he actually missed it. "But I guess my soul is Asian… or at least my stomach is!” He said, and laughed. “I hope you'll like it, mon cher Carlo... Especially for you, the best dish on this island! " Serving me a generous portion of a thick stew, Armand seemed to be in such good spirits, and enthusiastic about his delicacy – which was more colorful than any of my paintings, with different pieces of vegetables in a yellow sauce that, I learned, was named curry. He went on to explain how and where he had taken classes in many places in Asia, mostly in India.

But he silenced, realizing I had tears in my eyes, and asked worriedly, "What is it, mon ami?" He reached for my hand, almost knocking the small Perrier bottle filled with sand that doubled as a candle-holder. Embarrassed, he retreated his hand, after having slightly squeezed mine. My friend had never been clumsy -- but that, too, seemed to have changed.

Armand had neatly laid the table. His care with the plates and cutlery, even if they were cheap, brought back the bistrots atmosphere of our Parisian neighborhood to that deserted island. It was a flair of sophistication, in the rather rustic house. Another bottle of Perrier displayed a bouquet of palms and other colorful leaves beautifully arranged -- refinements I had never known, until I met Armand in Paris. And there was so much joy in how my ex-roommate had prepared that meal for me, while I had been swimming, that I finally told him how I had almost starved in that abandoned factory, and grown seriously ill.

Not because I wanted him to pity me, but because I felt my life had dramatically changed for the better with his invitation. Wanting him to have the appropriate dimension of how grateful I was, though I did not want to use the word 'miracle' with him, I also shared an insight I had had during the morning meditation -- on the Birth Island, just like I said I had been reborn after my first swim in the ocean, I was sure to begin my life anew!

Armand observed me closely during my sharing, and made almost a minute of silence before saying, "Thank you for sharing this with me, mon cher Carlo." He seemed sincerely touched. "I should have insisted more, from the beginning, that you came to Asia with me... I could picture us backpacking together... But you said you wanted to try life on your own, 'without the De Montbelle's sponsorship', as you put it..." Armand closed his eyes for a second, and breathed out heavily. His lips were trembling when he confessed, "Those words hurt me, somehow. But after all, the money we had been using came from my father, not from myself. Ultimately, I wasn't being generous with you, you were right. My father was." He sighed. "And when you didn't answer my letter, I was convinced you did not want to see me anymore. I'm glad I was wrong." Armand gave a shy smile. "I'm glad I have misinterpreted your silence, as much as I'm sad to learn about your hardship and your illness, all on your own in Paris." He paused. "An abandoned factory, ha? That looks pretty cool, though.” His smile broadened. “I can't be any happier now that we are together again, mon cher Carlo. I'm leaving the pantry full for you--"

"Yes, I'm back to your sponsorship..." I joked. To immediately realize I was again being inconvenient. Armand was no longer smiling. "I'm sorry. I'm very sad if I hurt you by expressing it in those terms, Armand. And yes, I know... This now is not a sponsorship. I'm here to work for you..." Armand raised an eyebrow, looking offended upon hearing I was to be his worker. "No, okay, I'm here to help you..." But Armand seemed still disappointed at my words. I shrugged, feeling that, sometimes, my French would never suffice. "Whatever you are offering me, mon cher Armand, my dearest friend, this time I accept it. Humbly and wholeheartedly."

As the afternoon progressed, I became increasingly aware of the beautiful golden light that illuminated that very special island. How weird it was that Armand and I would meet again in a remote corner of the planet, which existence I had never dreamed of before -- and that Armand, who had been princely brought up, always wearing the best clothes and savoring delicacies, in his tropical version was contentedly spending the days in a swimsuit only, barefoot, eating exotic dishes he had cooked himself.

The prince, turned into a bum -- a hippie and transcendental bum--, hanging around almost naked the whole day… That would have been unthinkable in Paris, just a year ago! And there was a new tension and a new ease about him that I could not quite well understand yet.


"Is Monsieur de Montbelle still mad at me because of India?" I dared to ask, as we moved on to our sunset session at the beach. Facing the horizon, I was lying on my belly, feeling the comforting sensation of having a full stomach, and the warm sand against my chest. Next to me, Armand was reclining on his right elbow like a figure from a Greek cup. Right on the edge of the water, he played with the tiny, gentle waves that tapped his toes.  

Searching for inspiration for my painting classes during the École, I had began to read a fascinating book on spirituality -- 'Philosophies of India', by Heinrich Zimmer. In the Age of Aquarius, in the trail of Woodstock and the Flower Power, books like that one seemed to swarm everywhere. I had been drawn mainly by the beautiful illustrations, but in its pages I was to discover another way of life -- and not only to myself. For, when Armand was most depressed, and lost within his sorrowful, desolate family situation, in a sudden inspiration I handed him that book. Reading its first chapter still, he had already decided to go to travel on his next vacations to check the philosophies of India in loco.

India was the most liberating experience to my friend. It changed his life. Mostly his relationship with his parents -- emotionally, he had been dependent from his mother, and financially, from his father. That's also when he started growing his hair to the actual ponytail he wore on the Île du Blanchomme, and when he had finally left home -- and his was the impressive, majestic Château de Montbelle -- for good.

"Ha-ha, I think he hates you, Carlo!" Armand laughed joyfully, unearthing a perfectly shaped shell that bore the most stunning gradient from deep purple to beige. Then, looking at me, his tone less casual, he said, "As much as I... I appreciate you."

His father would never forgive me for having thus influenced his son, on what he thought had been an irresponsible journey to a wicked, dangerous country. What Monsieur did not know was that Armand came back from India willing to quit the École. He had always wanted to study Architecture elsewhere -- he dreamed of Berlin and the developments of the Bauhaus. Contemporary, and not classical Architecture, was his aim. But his father had imposed the traditional École des Beaux-Arts on him. Having wanted to live in Paris, Armand had agreed on it. And it was me to dissuade Armand from abandoning the École -- but Monsieur had heard none of this, and held firmly to his opinion that I was the worst influence for his son.

Thus I had turned into 'persona non grata' and never been invited to the Château de Montbelle. Though a vain wish, I dreamed of visiting it -- if just for a weekend, profit from its marvelous art collection. My ancestors, I thought, all peasants like me, might have entered a castle only as servants. But I, despite my noble friend -- I was never to enter the Châteu de Montbelle.

But all that seemed so far away -- the École des Beaux-Arts and the apartment we had shared in Paris, the abandoned factory that had become my improvised retreat and atelier, the grand and unreachable Château de Montbelle, Armand's family, my grandfather Tarso and our ancestral lands in the Apennines...

And when alone – Armand had stayed on the beach -- I dived into the sea, I was seeking to set myself farther apart from that world.

A bit over twenty four hours before, I had entered the sea for the first time in my life. Already, I could not conceive living my days without falling into its generous embrace at least once every day. How I loved to swim towards the horizon, almost blinded, my face burning, following the liquid, golden thread towards the sun!




Dio, grazie.

Thank You

for your

Merciful Kindness.

Knowing Armand would call me for the moon rise, I did not distance myself, that time. I counted, already, on the days I would be left on my own on the Île du Blanchomme to swim as much and as far as I wanted – while, at that moment, being with Armand was the most important thing. Feeling our bonds strengthening again, I felt my path was linked, more than to the sun beckoning me to get lost in illumination, to that young man on the beach. Who was already beckoning me, with an urgency I was about to understand.

next episode

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