One night, Catherine, who unlike me was a light sleeper, suddenly woke me up.
"A boat!" She nudged me. '"I heard a boat arriving!"
"It can't be... At this time?" I lazily replied, not willing to wake up at all, after having checked by the light outside that dawn was still far. "Boats never arrive at night here..."
"Can it be pirates then?" Catherine panicked. Not from me, but during the days she had spent at the hospital, she had heard that they not only robbed, but raped and often killed their victims. "Do you have a gun? Why are you taking so long?" She tried pushing me off the bed, but I was immovable like a rock. "You have to go now to check what it is!"
They were no pirates, I knew. Yatchs wouldn't come to the Île du Blanchomme either -- in fact, no boat that couldn't maneuver the treacherous currents was able to approach the island. And the regular boat, that hadn't come to the Île in a week -- I often miscalculated -- was bound to, in a couple or more days. Anytime from sunrise until sunset, but not in the evenings.
Unless it was a De Montbelle yatch.
Finally, I got dressed, very slowly, preparing my heart, and saying goodbye to the bed and the room that I should never have occupied, at least not in Armand's absence, much less take it with someone else.
But I did not dare to ask Catherine to vacate the bed due to the owner's arrival.
"If it's something dangerous, I'll shout." I told her, stimulating her fiction and deceiving her -- or so I thought. "Be prepared..." I couldn't picture Armand entering the room to find Catherine naked on that bed, "...to hide, okay?"
And suddenly I hurried, thinking that maybe in my delay, he could already be climbing the stairs. I ran down to the beach in panic.
Even from a distance, I recognized his elegant posture, the sky and sea behind him like a mantle adorning his noble figure.
The prince, shining brighter than the moonlight and the myriad of stars multiplied on the surface of the water, beaming in his own radiant, pure aura -- while I felt exactly the opposite, plunging into darkness.
Lighter than when he had departed, he was not wearing a single backpack -- having arranged for the next boat to bring his trunks along with the things he had bought in Europe to finish furnishing the house. The boat already in the distance, it seemed like he was an apparition himself, not having disembarked but descend from Heavens, like a ravishing angel.
"Don't you recognize me?" he cried cheerfully, from the other side of the beach. "Won't you come give me a hug?"
But I couldn't move, not daring approach him -- not so much because I did not want to go close to my friend, but because I didn't want the moment of fatally losing him to draw in any closer.
While I remained paralyzed, Armand ran up to me. I felt I could start crying at any moment, but I tried to pretend I was happy to finally see him. And I actually was happy, on one side. Pretty much. Very much, indeed. I just wasn't happy that I would unmistakably disappoint and hurt him.
"What is it, mon cher Carlo? Don't you like my goatee?" He asked humorously, his voice as musical as ever, as I stood still and silent before him. "Haven't you said that The Three Musketeers was your favorite novel during your teens? Don't you think I look just like D'Artagnan?" He laughed, caressing his chin, as if suggesting that I should be the one doing it. Yet, I remained at a polite distance from him.
My beloved friend. He looked older, even more dignified and princely in his musketeer looks. And incredibly handsome. In fact, I had never noticed his physical beauty, not with that fatal intensity, not so pronounced like in that evening of our reunion. His skin was as beautiful and well treated as Catherine's... But why did that skin have to be covered with hair? That mustache, towering over his delicate lips, I wish it hadn't existed... Dio, I thought, why couldn't he have been a woman?
And that immense love, which had not vanished from the gaze Armand poured over me... Why couldn't I requite it? Why would I rather face Catherine's look of disdain and distrust, to beg feelings from her, while the love of my dear friend seemed to flood freely on me through his eyes?
How many months had passed? So much had changed in my life -- and in his?
One thing, however, had remained unchanged. Once again, I was sure I loved Armand, and he loved me, though not in the same way. And I was sure I did not love Catherine, and surely she did not love me. Nor was I in love with her -- but I was delighted with the idea of the life which I could lead with her, and the promise of continuation of the D'Allegros, and the perspective of having a family... for the first time in my life!
"What is it, Carlo? You're frightening me..." His voice trembled, and he drew one step closer to me, while I remained motionless. "Did something happen? Or am I smelling bad from the trip?" Armand laughed nervously. But he must have known he smelled exquisitely -- I could already feel the perfume he was wearing. In new, comfortable cotton clothes, of dashing white and light blue, he was like a piece of a fresh morning opening into the night. Sophisticated despite a bit weary, Armand seemed to embody and bring back the Europe and Paris I missed most -- that I had experienced in his company.
I finally hugged him -- with all my love, and all my pain. Knowing him, there was no fantasizing about a love triangle, where the three of us lived together in harmony on the Île du Blanchomme. That 'free love' talk that was often heard in the seventies was not for any of us. Not even for Catherine, the third part of that impossible triangle.
I embraced Armand also because I could no longer remain under his expectant look, and I kept hugging him for fear that there might be no other hug following that one -- would there still be a goodbye hug, perhaps?
And I kept on hugging him so as not to have to face him again. I feared he would be capable of reading my eyes.
"Oh, how I've missed you..." He whispered in my ear, his goatee rubbing against my cheek. "Did you miss me too?"
"How was it in France?" I asked abruptly, instead of answering his heartfelt question, and he noticed I had changed subjects. "Did you get there... in time?" I pretended to be as happy as he was, but my improvised strategy was to bring up his sad family affairs to gradually decrease Armand's joy. It was like trying to drag him into my darkness, since his light could not illuminate both of us.
He gulped, and stood still for a moment, before letting out a sigh to answer me. "My mother died the day I arrived..." I felt no satisfaction when I noticed that my plan had worked, and Armand was actually saddened. "According to my father, I extended her suffering with my delay... It really seems that she waited upon me... Although she was barely conscious, because of the heavy drugs she was taking to ease her final pain, she became very agitated when I walked into the room. She couldn't have possibly seen me, because she was blinded, and she couldn't move because she had practically rotten to be..." Armand's voice broke. He took a deep breath, and continued, "A living corpse. Yet, she yelled something that sounded like my name... Ahhhaaaannnn..." He imitated her guttural sound, and I felt him shiver. "Nothing more than that. But, according to the nurses, it was her first effort to articulate a sound after a long period of only groaning... She was disfigured, all swollen..." As if seeing his mother in her deathbed again, Armand closed his eyes, and his eyelids nervously flickered. "And even if she emanated a horrendous, putrefied smell, I hugged her... embracing her very decay, and all her suffering, feeling for that rotten flesh and the bones that seemed to break with my hug, the same love, immense love, the greatest love I had ever and always felt for her. She died later, that afternoon."
"I'm so sorry, Armand..." And I again had the opportunity to hug my beloved friend, one last time, regretting all the more because I would tear apart his already shattered heart. "And the conversation with your father?"
Armand was surprised, and tried to catch my eyes to sense my mood and intentions, as I prolonged our conversation, mercilessly jumping onto the heaviest matters. I avoided his gaze, burying myself in his arms.
"I wasn't expecting this conversation to happen on my arrival, but since you are asking..." Armand was very serious and uptight for a moment, to suddenly burst out in laughter. "My father found out about your coming to the Île du Blanchomme, mon cher Carlo!" My surprise made me lift my face towards him. "We were naive to think that we could use his name and his influence for you to travel for free, all the way to these islands, without it arriving at his ears..." Armand laughed again, and gave me some alarming news. "The next time we travel, you will have to use a false name, because he promised to make you "persona non grata" on all his friends' fleets..."
"Mon Dieu..." I groaned, already thinking about my return to Europe with Catherine. "You told your father that you had been just waiting for my arrival, to then return to France?"
"Of course not, Carlo!" My friend laughed. "But he guessed it and..."
Was Armand's gaze filled with so much love that he could not see the consternation stamped on my face? "He blamed me for your delay and for prolonging your mother's suffering... Oh my God!" I immediately understood the consequences of having directly harmed Monsieur de Montbelle by delaying the long-awaited death of his wife... I was the one to blame for the delay in that emancipation he was longing for... Dio mio!
"Don't worry, mon cher Carlo..." Armand had finally noticed my state of despair before Monsieur de Montbelle's renewed hatred. He held my head in his hands and made me face him. "My father is not a violent man, nor is he spiteful... And we're together in all this..." It was touching to realize my friend's effort to improve my mood and reassure me, and I tried to pretend that same happiness he seemed to radiate. But how long would he remain my friend? "He won't do anything against you, since it would be against me, his own son... No, don't you worry, he will not harm us..."
He stayed silent for a moment, perhaps giving me the chance to finally say that I had missed him too. I let him hold my head in his hands, but I still avoid his eyes. I was embracing him, but nevertheless I felt we had already parted.
"How silent and vast the night on the island is..." Armand finally said, with a sigh, as I remained quiet. "I'd almost forgotten how beautiful it was... I'm glad to have rented a boat to come immediately, instead of waiting there for the next scheduled one... I'm so happy to be here... with you, mon cher Carlo... But let's go... upstairs?" He looked at me expectantly. "Let's go... to the bedroom?"
With Armand in my arms, tenderly embracing him, I could not help but think of Catherine naked on his bed, and all the things I had done to her in that room, on that bed -- Armand's bed.
Would she have understood my message, and would she have put clothes on? At least she had not appeared on the veranda yet.
"Shall we?" Armand had gone ahead, but while I remained motionless, he reached out for me, inviting me to go hand in hand with him. Why did he have to be so soft and polite even upon manifesting his lust?, I thought. I wish he would have jumped on me, ripped my clothes off and... I would not have failed him.
"Armand..." I said his name in a whisper, remaining motionless.
The pain in my heart was so acute.
"What is it, Carlo?" The way he pronounced my name... It had never sounded any more beautiful, sweet... and sexy. My friend returned to where I stood, puzzled and paralyzed.
"Armand ..." I repeated his name like a mantra, trying to evoke through it all our lovely past history.
And I did not premeditate what followed.
I did not measure the consequences.
I did not think the importance and significance that it would take, in view of what happened later.
I did not think -- I just gave in to the despairing and hopeless love I felt at that moment.
I took Armand's face in my hands, the face that for the first time I noticed to be so beautiful -- and closing my eyes, because if I kept them open I might not have done it -- I kissed him.
Perhaps the clouds had moved away and the moonlight lit up with greater intensity, or perhaps Armand's light had engulfed us both, his immense love dissolving my fears and my darkness...
Will this kiss last?, I wondered, as I embraced Armand passionately, kissing him not just with my tongue and lips but with all my soul. Though not being able to naturally respond with my body, I rubbed mine against his, without requiting his excitement but still with the same intensity and strength that he applied to his arms and hips. I tried to surrender to the cadence of the lust with which he enveloped me -- I tried my best.
Will this kiss last a whole life? Will it survive tonight?
He took the initiative to interrupt that kiss, probably thinking others would ensue, during the night of redemptive love making we had ahead of us. "Let's go upstairs..." He murmured his invitation as if it were the line of a poem, and I realized I might have made a mistake when I saw Armand beaming. He dragged me along, sprinting towards the stairs, and I still did not resist him. Oh my God, I thought, as I realized I had given him the wrong clue to what was going to happen next.
I should better have punched or slapped him -- but how could I?
We were both breathless, from kissing and running, and I had him stop for a moment at the top of the stairs, imagining that our noise and voices would warn Catherine, giving her time to prepare and to dress, if she hadn't yet.
"I haven't painted the entire house..." I said, apologetically, as we stood before the walls. "You know..." And I wanted to introduce the subject of having a guest, which had kept me from taking better care of the island, from finishing painting the house and tending the garden...
"No problem at all!" Armand said cheerfully, interrupting my apologies. "Now that I'm here to stay, let's paint it together! We have never painted anything together, have we?" He was truly elated, and I could no longer detain him, as he pulled me by the hand into the house, dashing through the bathroom, towards that which used to be his bedroom.
Author's note: having been imported from a former version of the story, some of the comments below are dated previous to this post. Once the plot has not been altered, just the pagination, I am keeping them since they are very dear and precious to me.