I was the only child born from two only children -- one who had been prevented from having a proper family, and the other who was orphaned --, so that my household had always been rather limited, and further decreased with Carlo's departure. I still recall that, in Punaouilo, I used to include the maid Joanna and her husband Will, whom I called uncle, in our family, trying to extend it.
"Armand... is my uncle!!" I exclaimed in shock. My father's great love... was my uncle... his brother-in-law, though actually not in law... Armand Purlux Drurien... my uncle! The fact that the renowned architect was gay had sounded like gossip, but suddenly it spoke directly to my heart, and I felt I was already bonded to that uncle whom I had never met.
That also meant that Monsieur de Montbelle was... my grandfather! Gaston, the noble, Catherine's father, whose name I had never heard being spoken in our house. Had my parents really kept that secret so well? And why? Or was Carlo lying? I knew Catherine's father had died in early 1983, the same year that we had later moved to France. We had only arrived -- and been asked to come -- after his death, probably -- but why?
And then... I was... de Montbelle?
Laurent D'Allegro et de Montbelle!?!
My grandmother Celeste, the eternal great lady of the French theater, was a fierce flame that had only recently extinguished -- together with Catherine I had visited her just once in Paris, the city she dreaded to leave -- according to her, 'the only civilized place in the world', though she hadn't traveled much to see the world and conclude about anything. I had not seen her since I had moved with Angelo to Vice City in 1994, well until her death. I had been abroad, and I didn't fell like going back to France for her funeral.
"Never call me Grandma!!" She shrieked, right the first time we met, when I was ten years old. "That makes me sound so old! Celeste, my name is Celeste! And Grandma just doesn't match it!" In fact, her name was Cerlestine, exactly like that, with an extra 'r', the error registered in her birth certificate. She had hated her real name, and kept it like a secret, until she finally managed to change all her documents issued under that name.
Celeste -- and I was always tempted to call her Cerleste -- to me, was little more than a bony hand covered in jewels who patted condescendingly on my head and handed me money -- it had never stopped coming in the mail for my birthdays and Christmas, every year. Monsieur de Montbelle's or her own money? I'd never known. With her generosity, she had saved my life -- or Angelo's life, actually. I had always expected her to be like a cash machine to me, more than a grandmother -- and for once, when she acted like family and intruded in my personal life, despite still using her money, I never forgave her.
"Please, Laurent..." Carlo seemed to beg, speaking very low, his voice like a creak. "Let me tell this story to the end, and then you can ask the questions you want. It is not easy for me... still not easy for me, even after all these years..."
As if he was dreading to dive into his suffering again, he diverted. "Have I told you already that once I saw an aerial picture of the Île du Blanchomme... And its shape actually reminded me of a human heart?" Carlo asked dreamily. "A broken heart? Anyway..."
With just a few hours until dawn, there was no point in trying to rest my troubled heart, and that night I neither slept in bed with Catherine nor did I go after Armand.
I didn't just want to be left alone -- I felt lonely. Deeply, essentially lonely. No family -- my grandfather still completely unaware of my tropical adventure -- and no friends, except the one I had betrayed and just hurt. I saw myself completely enveloped by that family intrigue like in a powerful and toxic fog. I felt I was choking, losing Armand's friendship and love, without having conquered Catherine's, having only the promise of a child to cling to, an unwanted baby, threatened by his own mother.
Nevertheless, that was exactly how I was joining Monsieur de Montbelle's family -- I mean, if he would allow me to. Putting myself in his place, I realized how in his point of view I had not only misled his son during college, and used his name and influence to travel for free, then prolonging the suffering of his wife on her deathbed, thus prolonging his own suffering while delaying his freedom that her death would bring him... Finally, I had made his daughter pregnant. Without a roof to offer neither her nor Mounsier's grandson.
I feared how Catherine would react upon the discovery that I was 'persona non grata' at the Château de Montbelle, where she would now be admitted, along with her mother, as the official family... Just her and the baby, however, could live there -- as father and husband, I would be kept away. And unless I'd use a false name -- how to explain that? -- she would probably discover it already when we tried to board for France, because I had also become 'persona non grata' on the fleets of ships belonging to Monsieur's friends.
And what if Catherine decided, after all, to tell her father about the 'secret preferences' of her half-brother, committed as she was in destroying Armand... but I thought she wouldn't, since it implied destroying me too, and she would not, now that our future was bonded... Otherwise, I'd become 'persona non grata' in all aspects of Monsieur de Montbelle's life.
Penniless, and now disgraced. Without the best friend I had ever had in my whole life, my spiritual brother, master, my true love, that I hadn't honored nor respected. And running the risk of losing the mother of my yet to be born child, too -- unless I'd skillfully keep my lies.
I cried so much that I finally dozed off, exhausted, on one of the veranda tables, where I had once exchanged confidences with Armand, where once I had engaged in seducing Catherine.
The worst pain I felt upon waking up was not in my body, tense, twisted and abused from a sleepless night. Nor was it in my heart, made hollow overnight, since I was losing Armand without having replaced him with Catherine... No, that feeling hollow, that pain seemed to be myself, my whole self, my entire existence. I saw my whole life as one continuous mistake, especially since I'd left my grandfather's house in the Apennines, willing to cultivate a talent I had imagined I possessed. But I should have kept on growing vegetables, now that I realized how completely unprepared for the subtleties of love and life I was.
I had to recognize that I was no romantic hero out of the Scott Fitzgerald's books that Armand loved so much, nor like any of the Nouvelle Vague anti-heroes that made Catherine sigh -- just a plain orphaned peasant with little, unremarkable past. Neither glamorously decadent like Dick Diver nor ruthlessly handsome as Belmondo's Michel Poiccard, I was more like a helpless, clumsy Mr. Hulot, naive at best.
Awakening that morning was waking up to a nightmare. I did not want to meet neither Catherine nor Armand, since I owed explanations to both -- and I wished I could have taken a road and just walked away without stopping, without looking back.
On the Île du Blanhomme, however, I was left with the possibility of swimming until I drowned, engulfed by the treacherous currents -- but in fact, escaping was not an option for me, when I thought about my future son, who had already announced himself to me! And the recollection of his apparition reminded me that I hadn't sat to meditate in the mornings for a long time now, having felt too lazy after so many long nights of sex.
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.
I prayed, more for myself than for all beings, that once, and my heart found some peace while I descended the stairs and walked towards the beach.
But instead of redemption or enlightenment, a worse nightmare awaited me at the beach.
Standing before the sunrise, there was not an apparition, but my transfigured -- or disfigured -- friend.
"Nooooooo!" I cried, as I ran towards Armand.
His beautiful blonde hair, the ponytail he had started growing during his first trip to India, the long hair that had represented the rebellion against his family, while he had kept on moving towards a truer and happier Armand, that had culminated with his coming out and revealing his deep feelings for me, his love and longing... that beautiful, soft golden hair that I had caressed just the night before, as I had kissed him...
"Why have you done this to yourself, Armand?!" I cried, as I saw my friend looking more like a fasting Gandhi than a gallant D'Artagnan.
But Armand remained silent, quietly breathing and glancing over at the rising sun. I guessed that not talking was his way of punishing me, for he remained silent for several minutes.
He had started crying when I touched his shoulder. For a second and very gently, he tried to escape from my grasp, but I held him tighter, and he surrendered to my grip. The realization of how easily he submitted to my demanding touch triggered something in me.
"The sunrise is so beautiful here..." He finally whispered, very slowly, without taking his eyes from the horizon. "If the soul exists, it rises with this light... Ascesis..."
I wondered from what source he could still pull so much sweetness and peace into his words and tone of voice. "Why, Armand?!? Why did you do that?!?" I whispered too, though I could not disguise my anguish, and another violent feeling, yet unnamed, that had started rising inside me just a few seconds ago. "You... you were so... beautiful last night..."
"There is no more reason for beauty." he stated, and again he fell into silence.
I stood beside him, listening with attention, peering at his face, searching for a clue of how his feelings towards me were. What was I looking for? What emotional breach or glimpse of weakness was I hunting for? His countenance was placid, and once again, if it were not for the abundant tears that rolled down his cheeks, I would not have known that he was sad.
"I've decided to become what I am..." he said, and again fell into a concentrated state.
"What do you mean, Armand?" I was puzzled, and frightened. My heart was already beating faster, my whole body had started shaking.
"A monk." His answer came more than a minute later, and only after I gripped his shoulder tighter, making him gasp. "I'm going back to Thailand, to that Buddhist monastery I really enjoyed there. You can stay on the island... with her."
"No, Armand!! You don't need to go away! This island is your dream... Your home, your garden..." I was heartbroken upon hearing his decision, but strangely I also felt humiliated. "How can you leave it all behind?"
"This island was my illusion... But I awoke from my attachments..." He gave a subtle and sorrowful smile, which however did not hold back his tears. "You two will take care of it... I could not take care of the island... alone. You can both stay. I am leaving."
"Armand..." I had to tell him the truth. "Catherine does not want to stay on the island. She wants to return to France..."
My friend did not help my sincerity, asking me what I wanted to do next, with whom would I stay. Perhaps he had already understood, and did not bother to ask. I guess that was the precise moment when I was able to recognize the violent feeling that had been building in me -- rage. I had hurt him, Catherine had humiliated him, but still he acted as if he were superior to both of us and whatever we could inflict on him.
But he couldn't have foreseen the request that I threw at him next.
"I need money, Armand!" I spoke quickly, and harshly. "To return... to France."
For a moment, I considered telling him that Catherine was expecting my child -- partially because I wanted to be nice and give him something to bargain against Catherine who, through me, had discovered the secret about his sexuality. On the other hand, it was also to justify the need to go with her, because the baby was the only thing that actually bonded her to me.
I wonder why my loyalty was to Catherine on such a moment, and I can only guess it was the tremendous peace and calm Armand was able to maintain in contrast to my feeling so lacerated, that enraged me. How he magnanimously wanted to hand us the island. I think it was that superiority, even when dealing with strong and difficult emotions, that estranged me from my friend, then and there. And I empathized with Catherine's rage, understanding how she must have suffered constantly feeling inferior to her half-brother, all through her life, and even on the Île. Because I made the decision not to confide to Armand the truth, allowing him plenty of space to imagine reasons for my sudden departure with his half-sister.
"So... do you love her?" he asked, and started to sob.
In an impulse, I hugged him. Immediately, he began to shiver, while trying to get rid of me. I was surprised with that reaction, and I felt rejected. That was his mistake, I guess, pushing me and challenging my love and loyalty for him, because it suddenly turned into repulsion. With my arms that were much stronger than his, I held him tighter -- I held him hostage of my embrace. What else did he want from me? What impossible else did he fucking want from me?!?! And of course I knew what it was that he was longing for. Could I give -- or should I give -- it to him?
"No, it's not her whom I love..." I confessed. Had I been feeling so much love to my unborn son as to follow a woman I felt no more than plain lust and desire for? Or I simply wanted to protect the baby from his own mother?
Anyway, I did not have the heart to tell Armand it was him whom I loved, because I was no longer sure. I might as well have hated him, that very moment. Why was he still crying, when he finally was in my arms, my body tightly pressed against his body like he had always wanted?
I had loved Armand like a brother, I had loved Armand from the distance, I had loved the memory of him, but having him again in my arms, his body pressed against mine, feeling his tight muscles and aspiring his manly smell, I no longer felt the urge to kiss him like the previous night.
"I will give you the money..." He struggled to get rid of my arms, and aggressively I held him even tighter, squeezing him. I was aware that I was hurting my friend, and to my horror and desperation I realized my own violence in my intent to dominate and immobilize him. Yet, that aggressive dominance over him struck me as a strange, wicked form of sensuality, and I felt that familiar tingle in my groins and the blood rushing to that area, being pumped into my organ. I was almost lifting Armand from the ground, and his feet trampled the sand trying to escape, as I tried to twist him and have his back against my chest. "No..." As I pressed my erection at his side, I guess he must have sensed the thought that had invaded my mind, as I saw myself ripping off his clothes and throwing him against the sand to give him what he had been longing for all those years, right there on the beach. "No! Let me go!" We had never measured our physical strength before, but once he was totally under control and at my mercy, with a quick gesture I lowered the back of his shorts and exposed his white, boyish buttocks. "Please..." The more desperate his struggle grew, the more my excitement escalated. "No! Please, Carlo... No!" He whined, as he had started to lose his breath and finally submit to my force. But just before we transformed into opponents and entangled in a fight, by the way Armand had cried my name in his plea, making my embrace sound like a kidnapping crime -- as I if I was already raping him --, I immediately released his body and pushed him away. He looked at me with terrorized eyes, tears streaming down his cheeks, as he regained balance and recomposed himself from my assault, lifting his briefs.
And since I could not think of anything else to tell nor ask from him, I simply made my way back to the house. I was panting, and I tried to avert my eyes, but my gaze did follow him for a moment, when he walked swiftly towards the other side of the island. It was fine with me if he felt like isolating and hiding himself from me, I thought.
Exhausted and confused, my body all sweaty and still shaking, no longer able to think nor feel anything, I lay down and immediately fell asleep on the couch in the hallway.
I would have probably spent the entire morning there, but Catherine had woken up to go to the bathroom, and she nudged and urged me to go back to bed with her.
"Our bed." She emphasized. In my mental confusion, I thought it was 'our bed' twice for me, because in that same bed I had also slept with Armand.
In fact, as I would find out many years later, Catherine was awakened by my scream when I rushed towards Armand on the beach. From the balcony she had watched the whole scene between me and my friend unfold, confirming her suspicions and adding another triumph over her half-brother when, seen from the distance, our struggle had looked more like foreplay.
I followed Catherine into bed, and although sleepy, it suddenly occurred to me that the boat should come to the island within a day or two. Armand had rented another boat to return quicker, and thus the normal boat continued on its regular schedule. It saddened me to think that I had only a day or two left at the Île du Blanchomme, which I'd leave forever.
I also realized that, from that moment on, I would have to lie constantly to Catherine. And with greater skill, trying to avoid at all costs that Monsieur de Montbelle discovered that I was now in the company of his daughter, and no longer in the likings of his son.
For now I was covered, since Catherine also wanted to hide the pregnancy from her family. And to think that, all the time, as she spoke on the phone from the hospital in the Elder Sisters Islands... with her mother... it was Monsieur de Montbelle's second family that I was getting involved with!
In my sleep I was again tormented by erotic dreams drenched in ambiguity. Now that they had almost become reality, they seemed more real and struck me like nightmares, in which I made love with both Catherine and Armand at the same time, as if the siblings were one and the same person.
I kissed Armand, who corresponded with love, and so it was that Catherine did no longer refuse my kisses. Catherine did not complain on the harshness of my hands over her soft skin, because Armand loved the almost rude strength with which I grabbed him. I penetrated Catherine, who was soft and moist to welcome me, and Armand was equally willing to open himself up to me. At my thrusts, I heard one indistinct voice moaning in pleasure, begging for more. And in my dream I could not distinguish which of the siblings I gave myself to, now him, and then her, and to both I gave pleasure in an escalation that culminated with their orgasms as they were being flooded by my seed.
I woke up feeling tormented, my underwear all sticky, but still unwilling to make love to Catherine, because I could strongly sense Armand's presence on the island. I even lift my head from the pillow to check if he was not spying on us, but there was nobody in the room, and the Île was perfectly silent.
I considered whether Armand would enforce certain conditions to hand me the money. What if? I was now in his hands, and the time factor and my despair helped him and conferred power over me. If he demanded it, I would have sex with him -- I don't know if I thought about it a bit before falling asleep, or if I actually dreamed it, and within minutes I was sleeping again, and in my dreams I had indeed to assault and beat him, and steal the money from him.
That renovated burst of violence against Armand made me wake up again, around midday, and I felt the urge to hug Catherine tighter. It was already a miracle that she did not dump me, when she had found out that I had no partnership with her brother. My greatest fear now was losing her, and separating myself from my son. Or daughter. It might indeed be a girl, as Catherine sensed, and I was delighted with Sophie already.
Having little time left on the Île, I felt no desire to paint -- not a canvas, and much less the walls. I would have again to roll my paintings, and take them to an unknown destination -- where would we actually live, Catherine, the baby and I? I had no idea whatsoever... I could not plan ahead nor foresee anything. First, we'd have to leave the Île -- and that gave me a heavy heart --, so that I could remember how the world outside functioned. But even before that, there were a few things to pack.
"I'm always ready to leave this hole, darling..." Catherine had said, ironically, when I asked her to prepare for the next boat. "Do these things have any value? Will they give us money?" she had inquired, when she saw me rolling my paintings. "Aren't they... useless?"