The morning after our conversation, that had well advanced into the night, I heard Armand wake up late. But he didn't come down to the beach to greet me. Instead, he went about his things -- I imagined he must have had things to organize, and do his packing, for the boat should come to take him in two days.
Sensing he wanted to be left alone -- risking to be completely wrong and delivering the dangerous message of rejection after his courageous coming out --, I decided to go back to my paintings, and give him time to sort his feelings out.
But after a couple of hours, I understood I'd have to take the initiative upon myself again -- that of going to my friend to start a decisive conversation.
"Buongiorno, fratello mio." I met Armand in his room and softly greeted him, trying to sound as casual as we had always been. "Did you sleep well? Can we talk?"
"Bonjour, mon cher Carlo. And thank you for again coming to me." He smiled serenely, as he apparently had been bracing himself for my approach. "I thought I'd give you all the time and space you needed after my..." And he was embarassed when he said it, "...confession last night." I though I saw him blush.
Despite that being a delicate moment, and I realized we were again disconcerted with our physical proximity, I still had to laugh. "And I thought I was giving you the time and space to sort your feelings out!"
"I'm sorry..." Armand said, sounding rather melancholic. "I have to apologize for the embarrassing situation I've created between us. You are my guest, and as your host I have behaved monstrously..."
"What are you talking about? Armand!" Had my laughter hurt him? For my friend had seemingly retreated back into his princely politeness; only that it now seemed like an imposture. "Do you really feel like that? You have been my host and I've been your guest for five years now! You always made me feel at home! I never saw our relation in such formal terms. We were best friends, we were like brothers... That's what we still are, from my part." Perhaps my first reaction to his coming out hadn't been so reassuring, and now I wanted Armand to feel totally at ease and accepted.
"You know, Laurent... During my walking meditation that morning on the Île du Blanchomme, a memory came into my mind. I recalled how I'd watched an albino baby chamois starve to death because he had been rejected by his mother. How old was I?" Carlo paused, and retreat further back in time, to his childhood in the Apennines. "Nine or ten... perhaps eight, or eleven? Anyways, being an orphan myself, these matters struck me hard. Grandfather agreed I tried to feed the baby, but the poor thing was so afraid of me that it injured itself trying to evade my cares. Maybe I even hastened its death by trying to help. But Armand..." Carlo gulped. "He was my mate! I knew I had to help him. Even if I didn't really know how, one thing I was to be sure... I didn't want my friend to be even close to feeling any rejection from my part..."
Tears came to my eyes, and my heart skipped a beat. I dropped the fork and the plate vanished from view, as I dashed into my own past, recalling Carlo had already told me that story about the albino baby chamois, during our visit to the D'Allegro farm in the Apennines, when I was twelve years old. But apparently he had forgotten that occasion, an excursion to the mountains for just the two of us, when we had left my great-grandfather Tarso at home. It was one of the most intense, dearest memories I had about my father, one that had survived without being contaminated by anger and resentment for his twenty years absence.
"Carlo..." It was a pity I could not bring myself to call him 'dad', just as I had stopped calling Catherine 'mom' almost completely now. "That is the most beautiful thing you could have done for him..." I was touched by my father's sensitivity. And why haven't you been there, I thought, when I came out? Suddenly, memories of my own coming out process overlapped the albino chamois episode, and mingled with Armand's story my father was telling me, made me immediately, deeply empathize with his gay roommate. I could guess how much harder it must have been for my father's friend to come out some 30 or 40 years ago.
"I wasn't sure what I was going to say anymore..." Carlo resumed, going back to that point in the past where my birth was not even to be guessed, making the story the more intriguing, "...since Armand had just apologized for his coming out. But anything I could say or do to help my friend suffer less..."
"Mon cher Armand..." My friend and I had gone into my room, to fetch Zimmer's book from the shelves. "I want you to know how important last night was for me." I intended to requite Armand's sincerity. " I have to say that I had never heard someone express love for me before, in words." And by Armand's glance, and how tears welled up in his eyes, I thought the same was true for him. "Certainly not my grandfather Tarso, who has always been stern..." And probably on Armand's side, not from his parents either, I guessed. "So that your declaration touched my heart deeply..." I felt my throat tightening. "It wasn't an embarrassing occasion at all, and you don't have to apologize for it. I don't think you forced it upon me. It happened, like a night flower blooms when touched by the moonlight..." I smiled, because I knew my references of Nature would always win their way into my friend's heart. "And it gave me the chance to express love for the first time, too!" I blushed, as I recalled my love declaration. "I think I won't ever forget last night, Armand."
"And when I told you that I loved you..." I continued, invested in making him perceive how important his confession had been to me, "It was true. It was earnest... I mean, it is true! But I tell you this..." And what was about to follow was not going to be easy to state without hurting my best friend. "...as a brother. To the brother I'd never had before I met you... I love you, Armand." I paused. Should I continue or not? "But I am not attracted to you." He did not seem hurt, but I thought I should nevertheless soften my statement. "You are a beautiful man. Generous, and kind. So polite, cultured and traveled, bearing a thousand other qualities... It is an unbelievable privilege and honor for me to have your friendship, brotherhood, and now... your love."
I was aware that for the first time since I had arrived on the island, we were missing the sunset and the moon rise, but Armand didn't seem to care about that either.
"Thank you for having confided in me." I went on, trying to be thoughtful. "But I'm afraid I cannot requite the love you feel... Not the way you feel... and want it from me! I have caused you a lot of suffering these past days, and I might bring you more... frustration." I had been pondering the situation over the night, and I had made my decision. "Mon cher Armand, if you want me to, I'll leave this island the day after tomorrow with you in that boat... And I'll leave your life, too. I don't want the be the cause of your suffering anymore." I let out a deep sigh once I ended that sentence. I was aware I was not as skillful with words as my friend, but I had done the best I could to be tactful.
Contrary to what I had expected, the effect of my words was terrible -- it was as if I had punched Armand. He closed his eyes and gasped loud.
"Ha..." Armand gave a sad, soft, very low laugh, after a long and tense silence. "Mon cher Carlo, how could you stop my suffering by leaving the island... and leaving my life?" He sounded at peace, yet sad, and resigned, a bit like Tarso, my grandfather. "No, that has not changed. I've told you before, I don't you to leave the island! And if you would... If my love... or lust... was to kill our friendship... My deepest fears would have come true! No, please!" At his words, I felt Armand's intense and true sadness and desperation, as if they were mine.
"I don't want you to be unhappy, or ashamed, or sorry..." Armand murmured, his voice in a whisper. "I'm thinking of Louis Malle's movie 'Le souffle au couer', that we watched together at the Cinemateque... I'm sure you remember it. How Lea Massari, who plays the mother, reassures her son... Laurent was his name, if I'm not mistaken... by giving him the notion of how solemn, perhaps terrible it is what has happened to them. But still, she wants to preserve the tenderness of the moment, turning it into a loving memory, and she asks the boy to do the same... It's such a beautiful, memorable moment in the movie..." I had difficulty in following Armand's low tone, as my head had began to feel heavy and I struggled with a sudden, inexplicable exhaustion. "I'm asking you to do the same here, Carlo..."
"Because I'd rather suffer with you around than suffer without you, or not suffer at all, Carlo..."
I'm not sure if those were Armand's last words, because I don't remember the moment I feel asleep at his feet, surrendering to an emotional fatigue. I have no idea when did he fall asleep, too, and for how long we slept. But I only woke up when my head bumped into his knee. Or had it been the opposite?
"I want to go for a walk..." I spoke softly, my voice coming from the dreams I had just had and already forgotten. "Do you want to come with me, Armand?" My friend hadn't been outside that whole day, and even if there were no doors in Herr Weismann's house, and a gentle breeze continuously wandered through all rooms, I felt a heaviness in the air that I could no longer bear. "Shall we?" And I smiled, as it sounded more like an invitation to dance.