Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Episode 18 | Luxurious lies

For the first time in our friendship, I was really disappointed and vexed with Armand.

If it were Paris, I would probably have stormed out of the apartment, to wonder around the 6e arrondessiment, where we lived not far from the École. Losing and finding myself in the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés never bored me, and another nearby favorite destination to unwind was the Jardin du Luxembourg. But on the Île du Blachomme I could only cross its hundred meter until the other extremity, where I turned that strong, uncomfortable energy into very intense strokes. I got hold of a new canvas and stroked the night away, diluting my exasperation. I painted furiously, uncertain about what I was creating under the moonlight.

I don't know for how long I painted, but when I decided to return to my room 
-- and after having checked at the fire pit that Armand was no longer helplessly sitting there --, while still going up the very first steps of the stairs, I could clearly hear him crying at the front porch.

He must have heard my footsteps as well, because he swiftly retreated further to the veranda at the end of the corridor, facing his room.

I decided to go after him, even if his attitude of retreating indicated that he preferred to be left alone. But how could I go on praying "May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes... May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes..." and leave my best friend crying?

"I'm sorry if I'm intruding, mon ami," I tried to be polite, having learned it from Armand himself, the prince, "but I'm not going to bed tonight before you tell me what's going on." I said, as I took seat in one of the chairs next to his room, acting perhaps inconveniently, a bit more like myself, the peasant. "I've been watching you crying from the day I've arrived, and you often look like a man defeated in the last battle of his life. Are you ill, Armand? Or what is it? I've just told you about that apparition that has impressed and touched me deeply, and you seemed disappointed, even half-hearted." I felt relieved once I expressed my own hurting, and from then on, it was only about my friend's feelings, and caring about him. "Do you regret having invited me here?"

Armand had stopped crying, and he took a deep breath before telling me, "I'm sorry for that, mon cher Carlo. And I'm thankful you've come after me tonight. This is really difficult for me. Our friendship is so precious, and I'm terrified, at the thought even, that I could do or say something that would cause our parting... I don't want to lose you. Never. That would be the worst thing that could happen." Armand took another deep breath. "There is something I've always wanted to ask you... Why haven't you ever had a girlfriend, Carlo?"

I was surprised. That had probably been the most personal question Armand had ever asked me in years. We had spoken about the death of my parents, my quarrels with my grandfather when I had decided to leave our ancestral farm, most of my hurts and fears. But that was something new, and totally unexpected.

"I don't know." I replied, taken aback. "I have never thought about that. I guess the answer is of a practical order. I can barely take care of myself... how can I dare to have a girlfriend? And invite her to eat canned soup and sleep with the rats? Not even a hooker would do it, not for free. I guess it will happen one day, but I don't know when nor where." The world out there seemed so vague and empty and distant and timeless.  "Can I ask you a question too, Armand? How haven't you married yet?" That was again my role. I had asked my friend a question, and he had returned a question to me. Now I'd have to extract his sincerity. "You were the one who had so many girlfriends during the École!"

"I was not dating them, Carlo. I was just doing my duty, my social duty. That's all it was about." Armand exhaled deeply, and was silent for a long moment, probably wondering how -- and if -- to continue. Watching his chest broaden and next his abdomen contract as he fully breathed, waiting for his next words, my attention devoted to him, for the first time I took an appreciative look on Armand's physique, muscled yet slim and uniquely elegant, his effortless beauty enhanced by the tropical tan. Maybe it was that candle light, and the fine, blonde hair that covered his body -- his whole figure shone in shades of golden. 

"I was the banker's son," he started, "the Baron's grandson, dating the daughters of other businessmen and aristocrats.  All the time, I lived under the impression that it were our fathers dating, their money dating and courting, not us, boys and girls... Because all those dates were arranged, and expected from me. Margot, Irene, Veronique, Juliette, they were all daughters of my father's friends or partners in business. In fact, that kind of courting was just another form of business, I'm now inclined to think, and a way of preserving and multiplying fortunes, perhaps...  Exactly like my father and mother had done before me, and you know very well the outcome of a marriage that was more like a contract aiming at a successful joint venture."

"Do you still remember some of their names, Carlo?" Armand had continued, with an ironic tone in his voice that I hadn't heard before. "Take Juliette, for instance... I 'dated' her for almost a year, but you know what I appreciated most about her? The fact that she was always late! Because while I waited for her I spent the time reading in her father's impressively well curated library, full of rare and original editions.  That's what I 'loved' about Juliette. Taking her to the Opera, to dine out and then bringing her back home was the obligation, my social duty as the heir of one of France's richest men... I could only stand Juliette's superficial chit chat coming in her nasal voice among a cloud of strong perfumes because I kept in mind the books I wanted to finish."

"They were all like that, spoiled girls that I had to spoil yet another night, pretending to make them court and enhance their vanity. Margot or Veronique -- money from the coal mines or from textile industries -- they were all the same. I was playing with them as much as they were playing with me, because yes, it was a game -- seeing and being seen, and having the right company at the most prestigious places was all that mattered. Perhaps I've hurt just one of them, Irene, whom I think actually fell in love with me."

"I dated her for over a year... She was nice, nicer than the other heiresses... She was beautiful and more cultivated than the others, too." Armand paused and inhaled deeply, holding his breath for a few seconds, before exhaling very slowly, and that technique told me he was trying to deal with strong emotions. "But the nicest thing about her... was her brother, Raymond." Armand looked at me expectantly, before proceeding to his confession. "I had a crush on him. Whenever I went to pick Irene, my true intention and strongest expectation was to meet and talk to Raymond. And he was always there to greet me! Handsome, elegant, with the world at the tip of his tongue, always ready to chat with me. He never missed my visits, as if he too was expecting me." Armand's voice trembled, and he closed his eyes for a moment. "You have no idea, Carlo, how much hypocrisy comes with money. People wear so many masks that, to many of us, it is impossible to drop those masquerades, even when we want to. Raymond was like that, and perhaps a bit more than usual, because he was in the diplomatic career."

"So, when once I tried to open my feelings for him, and I was so sure he felt the same way about me... Nothing was openly said, but the glances we exchanged implied we both knew..." Armand paused, for his confession was leaving him breathless. "That night, when I just suggested that he and I should have a more intimate conversation, was the last occasion I ever saw him! I took Irene out a few more times, but he was never there to greet me any longer, ever again... until I learned from her that Raymond had asked to be transferred to an embassy somewhere in Asia. That was also the last time I saw Irene. Or any other girl. I decided to put an end to my social career of living those 'luxurious lies', to use my mother's words. To my father's dismay and anger too, who enjoyed following my dates just like he might have enjoyed playing chess."

"I regret having broken Irene's heart... but I was heart broken at the very same time. Just like I never had the chance to declare and display my love for her brother Raymond, though I'm sure he must have felt it, Irene never found the courage to express her love for me... It was unthinkable for a girl in her position to beg for love! And all was happening at the same time..." Armand sighed, his lips trembled. "A few weeks before Raymond left for Asia, my mother found out about my father's lover, and his second family. Everything seemed to be falling apart, all around me, but the worst was coming from within..."

"In India, I heard a master say the worst enemy lies within us. I could not agree more! But at the time I'm telling you about, India did not exist in my world. You hadn't saved me yet by lending me that book. I was so desperate! Raymond's rejection had left me feeling dirty, unworthy, sick even. I knew perfectly well where his fear had come from. I felt it myself. Surrendering to a love like that would have been social suicide. Perhaps more to him with his diplomatic career than to me, but nevertheless... It was inadequate, it was improper, it was filthy!"

"And I lied to you, Carlo. I wasn't feeling miserable only because of my family's situation!" He looked at me as if asking for forgiveness, for a brief second, but without waiting for any reply on my part, he resumed his fierce confession. "But then those days I was lying to everyone, about everything... Just like too many people had been lying to me, all the time! Above all, I was lying to myself, essentially. I remember telling you I was dating some other girl after Irene, but I was actually going to the bars to get drunk...  and to try to meet a guy. Any guy. And those bars and clubs, they were filthy, the atmosphere of a heaviness that all the pretense gaiety did not soften, as men used and abused and ate one another, drowning in an ocean of drugs...'

"And then, there came India!" For the first time since he had started talking, a smile appeared on my friend's lips, though not enough to erase the darkness shadowing his glance. "I confess that the wonderful book on spirituality you gave me was one of the reasons that made me so promptly want to travel to India... The other reason, maybe you can guess for yourself, was Raymond. He had gone to that part of the world, and it wouldn't be hard for me to discover exactly where... You see, I lied to you, and I still hadn't confessed this to anyone, Carlo. I had that secret expectation, when I first went to India, of meeting Raymond. More than meeting a master, I wanted to meet him. But what I could have never expected, instead of meeting him, my idealized love... I was to meet myself!"

"I have told you plenty about those vacations, but now you have another perspective... that of my true sufferings and torments, back then. Because, after three very intense months of ashrams, retreats, masters, meditation -- and diarrhea, of course -- I had purged myself of the worst part of that suffering. So many veils of delusion had been removed with those meditation sessions where I silently and motionlessly sat there, following my breath, watching my tears fall, but not falling apart myself with them. Learning to detach myself from my sorrow and fears, my worries and prejudices, my anger and confusion. And, ultimately, from my self-image, even."

"I started cultivating acceptance towards myself. And towards Raymond, forgiving his 'cowardliness' as I had unjustly labeled it. Towards my parents, too, and their web of lies and deception. To see more clearly that the way I could love..." Armand swallowed with difficulty, "that I loved men... was not filthy. Not unworthy, not improper, but simply... love!" He exhaled deeply, and finally fell silent.

I was touched by my friend's deep sharing. And yet, I did not really know what to say. No one talked yet about 'coming out', in those days, and I don't think it was clear to me what Armand had been talking about. Somehow, I thought, it did not affect me. I just had to embrace his lifelong suffering and welcome his secret, that was all -- and that was the easiest thing to do for my best friend. 

"I can still recall how deeply changed you were upon your return from India, mon cher Armand. And I was so happy to have lend you that book. A book I somehow stole, I have to confess..." As little as it were, I wanted to requite my friend by telling him something that I had kept a secret as well. "I found that book in an abandoned corner of a café on the Rive Gauche, where I was painting the walls... I first liked it because of the images it contained, but Zimmer's text about Indian philosophies was equally to my liking, its content so novel to me... The first couple of days, I stayed longer at the café to read it. Then, the owner of the place said I could take the book and after having finished it, return it to him. Which I... we... never did." I giggled.

"Mon Dieu, Carlo! The book was not yours!" Armand seemed more amused than disturbed. In other times, according to his high principles, it would have been a scandal. "Why, you never said a word, when I decided to take it with me to India..."

"Of course I wouldn't!" I replied, blushing. "I saw how it had become kind of an amulet to you..."

"Haha, an amulet indeed!" Armand smiled, and I relaxed. "The book, you know, is in the shelves in your room, among my own books and those that belonged to Herr Weismann. Maybe I should take it back with me to France, this time..." Armand pondered. "And try to return it to the café owner. Would you remember the address?"

We both laughed after the episode. Then, silence again fell between us. More peaceful than in the past days, but I still sensed some tension in the air -- and no angel rustling his wings in the space between us. What would a tropical angel have looked like? I remember was the awkward thought that crossed my mind in that moment. Armand could have played that ideal role in the past, but thinking that my friend had had sex with other men made his fit, strong body seem more masculine than ever before, not the least angelic.

Under that fresh perspective, Armand had spoken at length about his first trip to India, that had happened during our vacations and therefore lasted only three months. But what about the latest one, his yearlong round of the globe, I felt inclined to ask -- and so I did.

"Thank you for asking, mon cher Carlo." Was the rather formal start of his reply, and I sensed his confession was over. "Have you heard the saying 'kill the tiger before chasing it'? I have imagined this conversation with you, but because I have experienced rejection quite a few times in the past, it is always present in me, in my expectations... And I was expecting it from you, that you'd reject me... I was so afraid..."

Armand's voice had trembled at his last words, and I heard him take yet another deep breath, trying to brace himself.

"I have never opened to anyone about this before, and you have been so... gentle. I'm thankful for the relief I'm feeling. But... I had a long conversation once, with a Buddhist master in Nepal... They have a certain difficulty in understanding our idea and experience of romantic love and all the suffering we add to it, since it is so differently lived here in Asia. But as I spoke to him about you, mon cher Carlo... I still remember the words I heard from him 'You have found true love. Too close, and you don't see it.', he said."

I could never have expected Armand's next sentence, son.

"I love you, Carlo."

next episode

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