"I think Catherine instilled that fear in me..." I confessed. Carlo was putting me in a nostalgic mood, which was always dangerous and prejudicial for me, and I could not help -- the memories he stimulated brought intense, troubling emotions along.
My mother had never liked the sea. She 'hated' it -- that was the verb she used, and I assume that being a writer she weighed exactly what she said and how she said it. Treacherous, dirty, dangerous -- those were the adjectives she used for the sea. Catherine attended the public library every day, but she never went to the beach, and hated getting dirty from the sand and the salty water. And she easily got burned from the Sun, too. Having spent part of her life on an island in the Pacific Ocean had not changed that -- it only made her thoroughly unhappy.
But not me. For those had been the best years of my life, my childhood in Punaouilo.
And after we left it, I adopted the pools in France only because I missed the sea so much. And if I came to win several major championships, and was being touted as a likely Olympian, it was because one day I had trusted Carlo, and learned from him how to swim... though not much better than a crab, which was all that he could teach me.
But I don't want to be unfair -- he could swim no better than a crab, but most important is that in the water he made me feel safe, and was able to share his joy and sense of freedom with me.
It was on Passage Beach, next to my father, and through his arms, that all my joys and aquatic glories began... and also... That... which would make me forever retreat from the swimming pools.
"I remember the night we went up on the boat..." I shared with Carlo. Once I had decided to let my father guide me in his maze of ghosts and reciprocally exchanging islands through the story of my own genesis -- like he had put it --, and resentment and anger had subsided, I was filled just with sweet memories.
"When... we went up on the boat?" Carlo looked at me puzzled. "You mean... when we climbed up on that boat?" Carlo shook his head. "We never did that, Laurent! You often requested that we'd do it, but I never allowed it. Your mother had accused me often enough of being inconsequential, for having wanted to raise you in freedom... But I was never irresponsible. We never went up on that boat." He shook his head again, more vehemently, as if wiling to convince himself. "The wood had become hard like stone, and was extremely sharp. And our weight would probably have made the boat collapse..."
"But I remember that night so well, Carlo!" I whined, almost like the boy of my recollections. I was disappointed that my father had forgotten about one of my most cherished memories from my tropical childhood. "I even wanted to climb the mast, which, in fact, you did strictly forbid..."
"Of course I forbid it. And not only that!" Carlo retorted, firmly. "You are mistaken, Laurent. We never really approached the boat, not that close... There was always the danger of the mast breaching and falling upon us. The weight of a single bird could have cracked it, and they seemed to know that, because they never built their nests on that mast. Even the winds and the storms could have broken it, any time..." Carlo shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "No, Laurent, we never got any closer than ten meters of distance from that boat."
"Carlo..." I insisted, taken aghast. "Don't you remember it? It was the night of the shark..."
"Daddy, a shark..." -- I shrieked, and my voice had sounded raggedy and more acute than normally, just like a little girl's.
"I've seen him already, Laurent..." Carlo had answered quietly, almost in a whisper, as if neutralizing my cry. "It's only a baby shark. He will not do anything to us. But even so, we'll get out of here, because he might be accompanied by his family..."
"You swim ahead, Laurent. I'll be following you. Calmly, my son." he had recommended, when he saw me swimming away with desperate, noisy strokes. "I'll keep an eye on the shark. Now go."
"Don't you recall that night, Carlo?" I said softly, feeling fond of my father and fond of my memory. "You said it yourself... that we had invaded the shark's habitat space as we approached the boat... I got really scared but you tranquilized me... and brought us safely to the beach... You were my hero!" I reached across the table for my father's hand, but changing my mind I withdraw, before even touching him.
"That actually happened, Laurent. We did encounter a blacktip reef shark near the shipwreck once. And probably because we had invaded his space, he had to come check on us... But we had not climbed on the boat... That has never happened." Carlo smiled condescendingly. "And it was daylight, when we found that shark... It was no baby, I can now tell you..." He winked at me. "I lied because I wanted to calm you... With more than a meter, it was already an adult shark, and I think we were in real danger there... It was our best kept secret, especially from Catherine, wasn't it?"
I was in dismay, feeling deeply uncomfortable. And hurt, with Carlo's insistence in dismissing my version of that encounter. My main childhood adventure, my most exciting memory...
I recalled clearly having gone up on the shipwreck. Or, at least, swimming among its remains... and more than once! How could this never have happened? Surely, I had never gone there on my own -- I had always been accompanied by Carlo. So how could his recollections be so different from mine? And worse, his memories... were destroying mine.
My childhood in Punaouilo seemed so far away in time and distance, so pure and naive and happy that it was almost improbable I had lived it... and now Carlo was pushing it even farther away. Should I trust him?
"We've been so many times to that wreck," he continued, "but we never got to swim there during the night. Even though that was perhaps your most frequent request, as you grew older... But I never gave in. Sorry, Laurent..." Carlo sighed. And then, after he had gotten lost in a maze of contradictory memories, we arrived to the point why he had mentioned Passage Beach in the first place. "Such was your fascination for that shipwreck that I started wondering if it did not hold a message for me..." Carlo smiled from deep inside his sadness, softly. "Actually, everything and whatever came from you, with intensity... I tended to interpret it like a message. Do you understand? You were yourself a long, slow message, lovingly unfolding into my life. And while your mother was reading her books..." Carlo's voice was filled with melancholy, "I was trying to read you."
"Your usual silence at Passage Beach" he continued, "so unusually deep and consistent coming from a child, intrigued me. And got me wondering often. I myself had had this fascination for decadence and decrepitude, for the theme of my Parisian paintings, but that shipwreck... I began to ponder if it had anything to do with my own life... And it was as if the wreck... had been endlessly happening, unfolding before my eyes... It hadn't just happened in the past. It was still happening."
"For my own life was a wreck in slow motion..." I had never seen Carlo so sad, but he did not seem to fear his darker feelings, and he dug deeper. "My paintings that no one wanted... how much they were irrelevant to the world, and how gradually it became irrelevant to me as well, as I took on the role of the wall painter... which I had so insistently tried to avoid during my time in Paris, rather starving than submitting... But with a family to support, there was no choice... My inner life became dull and poor, although I won a few bucks every now and then. Although I had you, my son... It still felt meaningless."
''But then Drew came into my life, and soon the money followed. My motivation to paint revived as I grew accustomed to being seen and recognized, my work appreciated and desired... And having watched over the years that boat decaying before my eyes, I realized that the wreck in slow motion... which I could observe in all the sordid and sad details... was my relationship with Catherine, itself another wreck... and our little family, which never came to be..."
"That never came to be, Carlo?" I asked, and gulped. It seemed too cruel. "What do you mean by that?"
"Your mother and I have never been in accordance with the education that we wanted to give you, Laurent. She felt I was giddy and overly benevolent, and I thought she was carelessly inattentive, and too rigid towards you. Nor had we ever shared the same values and goals in life... In fact, Catherine and I could not have been more different from each other... How often did we do things as a family? I mean, the three of us together?" Carlo stared at me. "Do you remember any important occasions, Laurent?'
"A birthday party in Punaouilo, perhaps?" It had been the last time I had seen my mother in Punaouilo. "The last one before Catherine left to France, I think..." I replied wryly. I felt bad, because Carlo had just contradicted my memories, and was again daring me.
"That's it! And that's all..." Carlo smiled miserably. "That's what I'm talking about." And next, he fell into a heavy silence. He looked so tired and wasted. Much, much older than Catherine, though they were both just fifty eight years old.