Friday, December 5, 2014

Episode 54 | A nullity

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nudity and sex

Even without knowing it had been recommended by Armand, Catherine hated the hotel, and only agreed to stay there for a day or two because she was too weak to go in search of a better one. It was more like a plain pension than a hotel, truly, and while I thought it had a certain Parisian flair, holding in its backyard the single rose garden we would see for years around those islands, she was disgusted with the neighborhood. But in fact, there wasn't any neighborhood -- apart from the port and its Authority building just across the street, there were some sparse houses doting a wide stretch of empty lots, and a couple of derelict pensions for budget travelers. Busiest every now and then was the brothel, for sailors from the few ships that actually halted a bit longer at the Elder Sister Islands. 

Our hotel had its front overlooking the foul-smelling docks, and its back to a desolate small town atmosphere, where our room was -- number 8, as suggested by Armand. Catherine was not pleased upon learning that her half-brother used to stay at that same hotel -- although I was not naive to tell her we were in the same room he had usually occupied, too.

But the only other hotel stood on the other side of the island, which would make our access to the port more difficult and costly. I had not taken all of Armand's money, and although I had in my hands a larger amount than I had ever dreamed of, still I had to save it to make sure that we could buy our tickets. Unfortunately, we had lost a ship by three days -- maybe even the one Armand had arrived on? -- and the next one would arrive within ten days or so. It was a freighter, which did not exactly thrill Catherine.

We found nicer accommodation when we went to the hospital to make an international call. Catherine had tried two other public telephones, but she finally agreed to return to the hospital, which to her was linked to bad recollections.

But that other hotel, although more luxurious than our pension by the port, was mainly occupied by relatives of the patients, or even by some patients who were awaiting surgery or in recovery, and it had a mood just as gloomy as the hospital. Depressed with what she saw, I was happy when Catherine gave up staying there, since it was far more expensive.

Again, Catherine wouldn't let me stay by her side when she called Paris. Hadn't I learned everything, already? I just wanted to make sure that she wouldn't tell anything about me to her family, putting our travel plans in danger. Dismissing my concerns, she assured me that she would not announce her pregnancy until we got back to France. Her return -- on her own -- was the only news she wanted to communicate.

By chance, or was it a stroke of luck, or even bad luck as we first thought, the doctor who had first examined Catherine spotted her and wanted to examine her again. Catherine would not obey nor subject herself to many people, but that woman doctor seemed to have power over her.

"What is it, Catherine, for heaven's sake?!" I almost cried when I saw her again leave the hospital looking devastated. "Did something happen to the baby?"

"That woman..."  she grimaced, indicating the hospital we had just left, on our way back to the port area, by foot, "she said I'm not healthy enough as to spend so many days on a boat to France! She... forbid me to travel. Mérde!" 

The only option was to fly back to France, but I hadn't brought enough money to go by boat to a larger island that had an airport, much less to buy two airline tickets to France. We checked the prices at the port, but that was not why we gave up that scheme -- the fact was that Catherine was insanely terrified of flying!

She had flown only once as a child, for a holiday in Tunisia with Celeste. But her despair had been so great on the flight, and she had been so sick in Tunisia just thinking that she would have to fly back to France, that her mother had actually agreed on returning by ship, and then on a train to Paris.

"Flying is for birds! And for fools!" she told me.

Saint-Exupéry, Glenn Miller, Rocky Marciano, Carlos Gardel, Roald Amundsen, Jacques Thibaud, Carole Lombard, Leslie Howard,  and most recently Alexander Onassis, the son of Aristotle Onassis... Catherine's list of famous people who had died on airplane crashes, or went missing,  was extensive and eclectic. And by no means she would fly.

I was pacified because, at least, we wouldn't have to spend money we didn't have. However, she didn't want to give birth in that part of the world.

"No!" she protested, "I don't want to stay here! No, I don't want it!"

We pondered that we could dope Catherine with tranquilizers so she could cross the oceans, but at that proposition the doctor looked at us as if we were dangerously mad, and threatened us with the police again. Catherine still feared Armand would have died from inanition, and did not want to risk being accused of another death. Depending on that woman doctor, the baby was going to be born in the Elder Sisters Islands.

"I don't want to stay here, I don't want it!" Catherine helplessly repeated every day, disconsolate and angry. "And I don't understand that woman's insistence that I should have this baby... Isn't this world wronged enough, and overpopulated already?"

The fact is, none of us knew what else to do.

If the baby would be born on the Elder Sisters Islands indeed, I started considering getting a job and probably moving to simpler accommodations, because we could not live off to Armand's money and generosity for seven or eight months.

"Why not?" Catherine was indignant. "The money is not his! That money is coming from my father!"

"Then how about asking for more money from your family?" I suggested. Catherine was going to call Paris again, to announce that she wouldn't be returning to France so soon, though we hadn't yet prepared an excuse for that delay.

"And why not ask your family?" she confronted me.

I was indeed getting ready to write to my grandfather, explaining him the whole situation and informing him about his great-grandson or great-granddaughter to be born. But the money he could send would be little. And it would take a long time to arrive because, unlike Monsieur de Montbelle, he had no chance to wire money to us. There was not even a tiny village close to his farm, and no cities at all on those mountains! Telephones and banks might have been otherworldly for Tarso, who could only cope with the post.

There was no longer how to hide my reality from Catherine. She was completely baffled.

"Are you really that poor?" But she was not expressing disdain, nor sympathy for me, just concern for her own complicated situation that my company seemed to aggravate, putting us on a cul-de-sac.

Finally, Catherine realized whom and what I was. Not an exotic native, as she had thought at first, neither a heir from Armand's millionaire's club, as she had fantasized. A nullity, she would accuse me in the following years. Another lame lower-class European, so uninteresting and bland. 

Slightly worse, perhaps, since I was a peasant simpleton.

For several days, during which we expected and awaited nothing, her grief was so immense that she even lost sexual interest in me. If she had once been excited at the mere sight of my penis, she now averted her eyes at my nakedness, and always looked terribly bored.

"Help yourself next door." She suggested, and I knew she meant the brothel for the sailors. Was she willing to give up on me, already? Like in the chiaroscuro technique I had learned at the Ecóle, I thought my relative value depended on Armand's presence -- and if Catherine could no longer arouse his jealousy, I feared she would soon regard me as useless. But I was being short-sighted -- Catherine was already thinking on the impact when Armand would learn I had given her a child. To be certain that the news would find him, she would even write him herself -- once we reached France safely.

As we started losing our intimacy, when she continuously refused my touch, an almost unbearable tension was created in our small, claustrophobic hotel room that smelled to rust, damp and camphor. 

While Catherine was glad to be back to civilization, having doors to lock and windows to shut, commonly afraid of burglars and insects as she was, those same circumstances made me miserable -- and I missed the freedom and the far flung horizons of the Île du Blanchomme so badly!

How naive I was. I had imagined myself to be a dynamo of pleasure in her life -- but the truth was that Catherine would have been content to just have had sexual experiences with me. She had come to perceive me as Armand's sex toy; except for the fact that I was hung and tireless, she was unable to see any other of my qualities that would keep her aristocratic brother's interest in me. In time, even I came to believe that myself -- name the flowers and predict the weather, who would have cared about that? Hadn't Armand eyed me with desire from the start? What were his true intentions, when he had invited me to share the apartment -- the same room, and sometimes even the same bed -- with him? And I finally realized Catherine would have dumped me at the end of her stay on the Île, if she hadn't gotten pregnant.

Just sex, no love -- but disaster had ensued as she had gotten pregnant, and she was trying to at least profit from that baby against Armand.

I could not imagine a past for Catherine, and probably I was afraid to inquire about it, for fear of feeling even more inferior.

By the way she had led me in bed, I could imagine that Catherine had had a lot of sexual experience. But still I could not have known how much freedom she had had during the years at the Université... L'amour libre was not just another theoretical discussion for Catherine. Neither simply a justification that she gave for never marrying me the following years, and the entire time we stayed together -- I am sure it would have been different and 'Free Love' would never have been mentioned to me, had I been a wealthy heir.

Her father's double conduct, foundational of her family and life, had given Catherine the ease to live several lives herself. She behaved with the utmost demure and elegance, but always very seductive, with the dates that her mother would arrange her, usually with rich heirs -- which often led to the same programs that Armand was also going on with his arranged girlfriends. More than once she had seen her half-brother at L'Opéra, as she would later tell me, though Armand still hadn't known about her existence.

A different behavior she reserved to the Université  and its students and teachers ranks, where her studies ran parallel with romances that could boost her academic career. Although she did not feel attracted to older men, among the young students and scholars there was a handsome variety of promising writers, prestigious film-makers, and bold leaders to the student's movement that contented her both intellectually and sensually.

But to the intellectual crowd, although Catherine gave more freedom, she yet held a certain reputation for modesty and being a difficult girl, who could on a fickle change her opinion and favors about her expectant male companions, as rapidly as she changed hairstyles and fashion, often trying to look prettier than Brigitte Bardot and Françoise Dorléac, two actresses to whom  she was often compared and secretly, privately competed with.

Catherine did not intend to be a continuation of her mother's tumultuous love liaisons -- the advice coming from Celeste herself, who did not wish for her daughter a life of being relegated to 'second choice' and conforming to the role of a man's entertainer. She therefore insisted on choosing Catherine's dates among Europe's finest, wealthiest young men, with whom her daughter could engage in 'something serious'. Catherine accepted that game of interests -- was it the lure of money, was it the lure of intellect, she kept her companions of both careers, the economic and the educational, in the narrow confines between thrill and frustration.

It was a great achievement for someone that young, and she was usually self-contented with her life many and varied scenarios, and the glamorous prospects of picking her chosen partner among the richest or the cleverest. 

As to her body, that would not accept to be disdained, she reserved it to strangers, especially immigrants and foreign tourists who abounded in Paris. She was glad to have a renewed stock of them constantly available, because she did not need establish any connection with these men. Her first time was with an immigrant who had been deported shortly after. Catherine hadn't been the least heartbroken when he was arrested and sent back to North Africa, because she hadn't been in love, not even involved with him -- as the guy had found out himself when he pleaded for her help.

In such a transient atmosphere, Catherine pursued her sensuality with freedom. She hungered for the exotic as much as she feared it. With her passion for words, she'd have preferred to understand what her lovers were grunting while they were doing it to her, may it be swearings, or compliments to her body, but that was not mandatory. She had already learned a few of these words, the most common in Arabic, that men expeled in their love making just like sweat and semen. And her skills in English and Dutch were enough for the rather limited repertoire of conversations in bed, that usually took place while undressing, or when putting the clothes back on. Above all, she wanted to stay in control of her feelings as opposed to the other way around -- and in bed, had a few men made her lose control, I wasn't one of them. They made Catherine surrender to them -- while I had always been obedient, perhaps the most obedient of them all. I was too gentle even to bite her, unless she demanded it, and  slapping her flesh never occurred to me during those first years. I never opposed to her domination in bed, and my passivity somehow diminished her pleasure in being the dominant, just because I was too naive to comprehend the subtleties of an intercourse, already enough worried in being technically satisfying. 

How did I discover so many things about Catherine? I learned how to read between her lines -- paying a lot of attention when she was talking to other people, when she revealed herself more than she ever would to me --, carefully reading her books and their heroines' stories to distinguish between her imagination and experiences. That's how I became aware of Catherine's "extra marital" affairs -- through her books. But it's not the case of bringing that up now, since we were never married.

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