That night at the Nirvana Lounge, I don't know exactly how, I sensed Carlo was lying to me. Maybe it were the pauses in his narration, as if he was pondering his next words, while premeditating what to tell -- or not tell me.
That whole story about the Île du Blanchomme that Catherine had never mentioned... About a great friend, a true love -- that adored ex-roommate whom I had never heard of before. Not the slightest mention about him in our home nor any furtive conversations, not a single surreptitious letter, ever. In Vice City, I had by myself become acquainted with De Montbelle's -- a.k.a. Purlux Drurien -- very original work as an architect. I even smiled when I read he had deservedly won the Pritzker Prize. Without ever guessing he had reunited my father and mother -- and maybe, years later, separated them again?
It seemed unlikely that Catherine, who was always ready to experiment with a good story, making her family and friends a laboratory for her books, had never mentioned that tropical episode... Perhaps because it had never existed?
There was something inaccurate about that whole story, something missing... I was about to find out what it was, I just needed to ask the right question to unmask Carlo... Would he be able to lie so completely to win my sympathy and cool off the affection that I still felt for my mother? During the entire years their relationship lasted, he had begged for her feelings, and he might have never succeeded in obtaining them. I myself had felt this way for quite some time, but I had finally understood that if I did not receive tenderness nor affection from Catherine, it was simply because she had none to give. On the other hand, she would never fail in her support and protection, since she had them in abundance and handed them in overdoses.
"That young god won't stop staring at us..." Carlo had suddenly changed the subject, returning to the Nirvana Lounge. "Actually, he's been watching you, Laurent, the whole evening..." And I recalled how Catherine was angry when my father pointed a finger at the things that he referred to, and I too was ashamed.
Gabriel was indeed looking in our direction at that moment, and instead of looking away or being embarrassed to be caught on spot, he took the chance that he had been noticed to approach our table.
"Gentlemen, our kitchen should be closing soon... Would you care for anything else?" Gabriel was being incredibly polite in my father's presence. I almost expected a bow from him.
"Yes, I want another glass of wine..." Carlo said. Where I to find out that both my parents had given in to drinking after their separation? "...something sweeter for this time of the night..." Catherine, now and then, reached the point of getting drunk, and just like Carlo she never missed the sophistication of intoxicating herself with the best liquor only, and the most appropriate for each occasion. At least, they tried remaining elegant in their decay. "Until what time do you stay open, young man?"
"Do not worry about that, sir." And although the handsome waiter might have been a bit bored and even sleepy, his beautiful smile disguised everything, and he answered accordingly, as he had been briefed about the occasion. "I can serve you wine for as long as you desire, sir."
"Che meraviglia! This Ganymede is making me feel like Zeus on the top of this building! This place should be called Olympus Lounge, instead!" Zeus and Ganymede? I gasped. Was my father making passes on Gabriel? As the waiter did not seem to understand the analogy, nor the allusion to his divine beauty, Carlo simply changed the subject. "Does the bathroom close with the kitchen, haha? Anyway, I need to use it now!" Carlo gave me a meaningful look of complicity, and passing by Gabriel, patted his shoulder. "Behave yourselves, young men..." he said, suggesting that something naughty could happen in his absence, walking away and leaving a trail of embarrassment behind.
"At what time do you close the restaurant, Gabriel?" I asked, to break that awkward silence. But the question sounded more like the old 'At what time do you leave?' Probably because I was actually interested in him, and I blushed.
"I am here at your service, sir, for as long as you need it." Did I see him wink? Despite his being perfectly professional, not yet calling me Laurent, he was still charming and seductive, and even in his working costume, looking so gorgeous. "The instructions were clear... Do not call it a night until the conversation between you and your father doesn't finish."
I wondered who would have given him these instructions, if the Nirvana Lounge's owner or Charmand himself. The only one who knew that I'd be talking to my father was Charmand.
"Please do not call me sir... My name is Laurent!" He was only a few years younger than me, but that formal treatment made me feel so much older. "I am very grateful that you made yourself available and provided us this night, Gabriel." I was sure that he was being handsomely compensated to open the restaurant all on his won, on his night off... and I began to think if I could compensate him myself, somehow. His beauty was stunning, with his blonde long hair, blonde eyes and blonde skin, all about him shining in beautiful shades of golden... Certainly an excellent model for my next painting. "This is an historic night in my life, Gabriel..." I felt I could trust him, after all, he looked like an angel. "I am very grateful for your presence and for your help here, and if I can reciprocate in any way..." Though 'angel' was closer to Angelo as a name, making me wonder if could actually trust any angel.
"I'm glad I could help you with that, Laurent." He smiled charmingly, while elaborating to pronounce my name, which sounded a bit comical, as always when an American tried to imitate the French accent. "I'm sorry if I intrude... I read that you will open an exhibition tomorrow, and I would be delighted to visit it... in the company of the artist himself?"
So he knew who I was! I was flattered. Had he volunteered to work because he had seen pictures of me, perhaps? Nevertheless, that was elegant and charming from him, I thought, to show interest in my art, and invite himself to visit the museum with me. Instead of inviting himself to my studio, or even to my bed, like so many others before him had done. Even though I actually wanted him in my studio -- and in my bed -- and not just at the museum.
"Am I interrupting something, young men?" Carlo asked on his return to the table. The way he said 'young men' sounded like we were two horny adolescents, and I winked at Gabriel, who smiled.
"I'll bring your wine in a moment, sir." Gabriel retreated with light, gracious steps and even a slight bow, but not before having addressed me an inquiring stare. And indeed, he was quick to bring us new drinks, my father's wine and my aromatic water, and I took the opportunity to return his glance, reassuring him that our private conversation would continue.
"Do you want to continue listening to my story tonight, Laurent?" Carlo asked me when Gabriel had left. "Its actually your story... I do not feel tired at this late hour because I usually paint at night, a habit that makes me happy, for it reminds me of the old abandoned factory in Paris... How are you feeling, my son?"
"I'm just fine, Carlo." I had slept so many nights during those two decades of my father's absence, I thought, that I did not mind losing a single night's sleep for his presence. And for his story. Although it was full of lies, or it might be a hoax in its entirety, but I decided to not share my suspicion with him, not yet. "I'm all ears."
"I could only calm down..." Carlo took us back to the Île du Blanchomme on the night of the reunion with his dear friend. "...when we entered Armand's room and I made sure that Catherine was no longer on the bed... but I still feared she was hiding under the bed, from where she would emerge naked, as soon as she realized that we weren't in danger."
"I've missed you so much..." Armand whispered softly in my ear. "I like your shaved face..." I immediately separated from his embrace before it became another kiss, when I finally realized Catherine was sitting on the railing in the veranda in front of Armand's room. She wore a white dress that lit up her whole figure under the moonlight, even more sophisticated in it's simplicity than her everyday fancy dresses, probably another creation by her beloved Yves Saint-Laurent. It wasn't so completely misplaced in that little island because of the new clothes Armand was wearing; despite being crumpled from the trip, they were of impeccable quality and cut. Armand and Catherine matched each other beautifully, I thought, as I made a grotesque contrast in my rags, my coarse skin and my peasant looks.
"I have... something... to tell you..." I didn't know whether to use adjectives like 'serious' or 'important' and warn Armand of what was to come. "We have a guest." I said, simply. Perhaps my difficulty with the French language was revealed in those delicate moments when the subtlety in choosing the right words would have given the right tone to the message.
"A guest!" Armand was surprised. "We haven't yet opened our guesthouse and we have a guest, already!" Contrary to what I had imagined, he seemed happy, even delighted, and not at all worried about this unexpected event. His generosity indeed welcomed and embraced everyone. "And where is he? How did he hear about us?"
"There is no he..." I interrupted him, "It's a she..." Armand's open attitude and interest did not change with this revelation. "I think she's right there on the veranda, waiting for us... She... learned it from other travelers who knew you..."
"Oh, that's wonderful!" Armand was happy to have returned, happy to have met me again, happy to have a surprise guest... I seemed unable to stop the escalation of his happiness, and I wondered how our kiss would have contributed to make him even more elated. "Such good auspices, to have a guest even before we open!" Armand was genuinely pleased with the news, but all his exuberance faded when he ran into Catherine.
"What is she" he hissed it, "doing here?" He asked me in a low voice, having turned in my direction to hide a grimace of distaste.
"She? She is our guest!" I replied, shocked at the disgust he demonstrated.
"This... woman..." his voice began to rise and tremble, "...is not a guest!" I had never seen Armand so angry, nor being openly rude. "It cannot be!" he exclaimed, visibly annoyed.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, in a tone much louder than normal, turning towards Catherine, no longer trying to hide his displeasure. I wasn't sure, but I thought his hands were shaking.
"Good night, Armand." Catherine gave one of her artificial smiles, not the least empathetic, that actually spoiled her beauty, which had been so enhanced by the impeccable cut dress, elegant and sensual, dramatically illuminated by the moonlight and the lantern she had lit on the porch.
I shivered, and suddenly a thought crossed my mind... I thought I understood what was going on... all the time, Catherine had lied to me! Clearly, she and Armand knew each other, and by the apparent intimacy of their enmity, quite well. I searched my memory for the names of his ex-girlfriends.
"You said you didn't know Armand!" My voice was shaky. I was taken aback. One of Armand's ex-girlfriends, one of the turned down, neglected girls... and what a revenge she had prepared, going to bed with me... Dio mio! Although she could not have known Armand's feelings for me... Or had she? What was the name of Max's sister, the diplomat he had had a crush on? The way she had applied make-up and dressed, making herself just as elegant as my princely friend, making in fact a beautiful and sophisticated couple with him, as I stood there, the ragged peasant, to suddenly find myself excluded...
"I never said that!" Catherine replied, dryly. "I said I had never met him, not that I hadn't known him!" Catherine was keen to that accuracy with words; however, she found no counterpart in everyday life, and much less in me and my French that just sufficed. She said this without looking in my direction, haughtily holding Armand's look, who stared at her angrily.
"You're not welcome here!" I shivered as I heard the harsh words Armand directed to my... girlfriend?... lover?... and the future mother of my child.
"Oh, I know that, already!" Catherine laughed affectedly. "Your partner made that very clear from the beginning!" She laughed again, while I froze and started trembling at that 'partner' she had uttered. "It's a tradition of this island and hostel, I suppose, that guests are unwelcome..." she added, wryly.
"Partner? Which partner?" And perhaps imagining a different connotation to the word, Armand glanced tenderly in my direction. "Carlo?..." He pronounced my name with so much sweetness in his voice that Catherine was intrigued. She was even more surprised when my friend made a gesture of affection towards me, which I however dodged.
Dio mio! I would be the father to a son of an ex-girlfriend of Armand's... The blow that was about to be unleashed on my friend was even heavier than I had foreseen. And Catherine seemed to enjoy every second of her revenge, although she had not yet realized the true depth and nature of my relationship with Armand, I thought...
She had dressed for the occasion, and for the first time I saw her wearing makeup, looking even more beautiful, and cosmopolitan, sophisticated, wealthy -- typically, one of those Parisian women I had classified as unattainable, one of the heiresses to whom Armand had made the court. Dio mio, who is this woman?
"Didn't you say you were partners?" Catherine looked at me with indignation, full of suspicion. "Aren't you... partners?" She confronted me, giving the word a different tone and meaning.
"Yes, of course we are!" Armand replied with a tender smile, imagining perhaps that I had confided her about the love that existed between him and me. "Although no one has to know about that in France..." Armand suddenly looked worried. "I forbid you to..."
"'It's not what you're thinking, Catherine..." And when, at my first mention of her name Armand did not react, I realized that at least she hadn't used a false name. But what was the name of that girl whom he had endured just because of the great library and readings with which she provided him? I was so nervous that my memory did not help me. Paris and the École seemed so far away from the Île du Blanchomme!
Catherine's inquiring, acute gaze flew back and forth between Armand and me, and I realized that she was beginning to understand the intensity of the connection I had with my friend, and even imagining beyond...
"You lied to me!" she accused me.
I gasped as I heard it. "I... lied to you, Catherine?!" The nerve she had to state that I was the liar stunned me. "Wasn't you who spoke first about our 'society'? And I wouldn't know how to describe any better my... relationship with Armand... we are like brothers, but we are not brothers, so..."
At that moment, Catherine seemed to be the most surprised of us all.
"Then that's why you did not attend my mother's funeral!" Armand exclaimed suddenly, interrupting my explanation. "How long has she been here? What are you ultimately doing here?" Armand had directed the first question to me, and the second at Catherine, but I was worried about the indistinct harshness with which he had addressed us both.
"I came here to discuss business! I'm entitled to half of this island!" Catherine uttered, as she continued peering back and forth between Armand and me, for more clues about our relationship.
"Oh, so that's what you came for!?" Armand laughed. "You're crazy!" He shouted angrily. "I do not own this island. I do not own this house, I do not own anything! Therefore, you are entitled to half of nothing!"
On that instant, I realized that perhaps I hadn't understood everything that was happening -- or had happened -- between Armand and Catherine. Because they seemed to have a partnership. Had Armand ever... married?
"Excuse me, Armand... I did not know she was a former girlfriend of yours..." I aimed at least to erase a part of my guilt in the disaster that stream of events was leading to. It was not enough having betrayed my best friend, I was to be father to a son of an ex-girlfriend... or ex-wife... of his! An heiress, who had taken me for a wealthy heir myself... Dio mio!
"She is what?" My friend looked at me stunned. "Didn't you tell him?" Armand challenged Catherine. "Oh, of course not!" He exploded. "You have been continuously living in a lie... how could you not be a liar yourself..."
"I won't tolerate that from you!" Catherine cried, advancing towards Armand. "You were living in a lie!"
"What is going on here, anyway?" I asked with a shudder, and I had to talk louder to be heard in their quarrel. I was still following the clue that Armand, before leaving France for his one year trip, and without my knowledge, would have married some heiress, like his social duty required. But such a marriage for him would have been a lie... And for her, too, like she was now accusing him. Would he have abandoned his wife, fled to the Indian Ocean -- where he had tried to pair with me?
For a moment, they stood silently staring at each other, gasping loudly. And when Armand was about to speak, without even looking at me, holding back Armand's enraged gaze, Catherine mouthed:
"He is my brother."