"Where to, sir?" The taxi driver had actually addressed Carlo.
"I don't know." It was a bit weird to hear my father speaking fluent English. It made me realize I had missed an important part of his life -- the London years --, as much as he had missed a fundamental part of mine -- the years I had lived in Vice City. "It's my son who seems to be the expert in the night life of this town." By the glance the taxi driver gave us both, he must have thought we were sexual partners engaged in a 'daddy and son' role play.
"I know you know what it is, but please do not mention it... I want to keep it as a secret to my father, OK?" I requested from the driver, after giving him the address we were headed to. My father's British pronunciation was funny indeed, while his Italian accent was definitely charming, but they had given the driver the impression we were both foreigners -- and weren't we? -- and I guessed we were about to be cheated.
"I don't think it is open." The man replied, the car still parked by the sidewalk, as if waiting for another direction. "Not at this time of the evening, sir." His suspicion rose with his eyebrows.
"Never mind. I have the keys." The driver eyed me with distrust, but to that partial truth, we were on our way. "And please take the longest route." I suggested the main avenue along the internal branch of sea where the marina was, and a couple other fancy neighborhoods. "I would like my father to see more of this town at night." The driver was perplexed, but he had gotten what he longed for -- the longest route possible.
I needed that time. I wanted to turn on my mobile phone and call Catherine, at that very moment. What time would it be, in Russia? I wanted to confront her, with my father still at my side. With the revelations made by him, my mother became the main culprit for that web of lies around my birth that had lasted thirty three years!
So I was right. Like Jesus Christ, I would die at the age of thirty three. At least a part of me was dying that night. And my own mother was killing me, while my father gave me a new birth. Or was it the opposite?
The concern she had manifested during that whole day, her repeated international phone calls, hadn't been in consideration to my well-being after all, but probably because she had been wondering how that conversation with Carlo would shatter her already precarious maternal image.
And my father? I oscillated between feeling shame for his weakness -- to be handled by his companion so helplessly like that --, and compassion, to some extent.
I also felt ashamed because he had so cowardly abandoned the love of his life, my uncle Armand -- and it was precisely at that point that my gratitude began.
Even being consistently despised by Catherine, he had decided to stay by her side and give his best to make her happy. And the only reason to do it, out of an astonishing humbleness, was a greater love... and it certainly was not his love for Catherine. Carlo had endured everything for me, his son, that had been announced to him. And to that understanding, my anger again subsided.
"It was no romance on the lush magnificent shores of a tropical paradise, was it?" There was still one thing I wanted to know from Carlo, but it wouldn't be in the backseat of a poorly maintained taxi, with a driver who continually spied on us, that I would ask my father "WHY"? But our silence was getting awkward, and I wanted to manifest my budding understanding of his sacrifice to try to raise a family.
"The setting was exactly like you describe, Laurent. You know very well how beautiful Punaouilo is!" Carlo sounded melancholic. Did we have the same awareness, the fact that there were very few people in the world who had actually lived in Punaouilo? "But that was only the surface of my story with Catherine. She wanted us to keep up the appearances, especially when we first arrived at the house of the friend of her mother, where we would be staying at." Again, my father surprised me with his very particular logic, veering from the main subject. "Exactly like, in that same parasidiac landscape of the South Pacific, the French government was testing the atomic bomb." Carlo sighed. "1974, the year we disembarked in Punaouilo, was the year when the last atmospheric test was held." He paused. "And it was the same between me and Catherine. Mururoa wasn't that close. Not too far, either. It was inside us. On the surface, everything seemed fine, nice, a perfect paradise. But underground, the bombs still exploded, in her case, or imploded, in my case... Not even on this matter would we agree. I had adopted a pacifist position closer to Armand's, who had participated in protests and marches, while Catherine was of the opinion that France needed to have nuclear technology to remain an hegemonic state on the world stage."
"Shut up!" She had told me, once or twice, as the matter of nuclear weapons testing had been raised between us. "You are not even French, to be entitled to have an opinion about it!"
Interestingly enough, I had said the same thing to Armand as a justification, many years earlier, when he had invited me to join him on a protest. "I am not French. I have no right to manifest an opinion contrary to the country which is housing me, and which has thought me all I know about Art."
He had a different, broader perception about the matter, though. "Well, you live on this planet, don't you?" Armand had replied, while putting on a coat to venture the rain and join a meeting of the anti-nuclear movement that, in 1972, had just emerged. I never thought Armand would engage such a controversial movement in its early start, but I guess he needed something to distract him from the crisis in his family. "We are all being affected by those explosions." Unlike his discreet nature, he had started preaching. "Yes, you do have the right to opine. If you want to. Do you?" He had confronted me with kindness, and in the end he had towed me to the meeting and later to participate in a protest.
"Catherine was very sick when we got to Punaouilo." Carlo recalled. "To the morning sickness that she was feeling in early pregnancy, the nausea of those weeks traveling on the ship had only worsened her state. We were afraid..." Carlo's voice broke, "that she would lose the baby..." Carlo shook his head, as if dismissing his bad memories, that seemed to suffocate him -- he had lowered the window a little bit, despite the air conditioning being on, and took an audibly deep breath.
"And of course, above all, we had to hide that pregnancy from everyone we met. Maybe that's why Catherine antagonized Joanna from the outset. Even without any physical sign of pregnancy, because Catherine would remain slim until almost the very day of your birth, Laurent, from the beginning Joanna was suspicious."
"The little madam is pregnant?" with a smile that displayed empathy and showed great joy about that possibility, she had inquired me bout your mother's health. Catherine had collapsed on the sofa by the pool right after our arrival at the mansion. "I have a remedy against nausea--"
I waved a no, to interrupt her. "That would be really lovely," Approaching her, I could almost speak in a whisper, "if you could give it to her..." Joanna looked me deep in the eyes, and I stared back at her with an honesty and sincerity so that she could understand my plead. "But please do not mention any pregnancy... si'l vous plait!"
Joanna was the maid, brought from the USA to take care of the house by its owners. Even though having lived for so long in Punaouilo, where she had married Will, a native, she couldn't speak much French. I spoke almost no English at the time. Our first conversation had depended on a lot of mimicry, and I was so glad that Catherine was sleeping on the couch, and did not see when Joanna inflated her belly and made a gesture of holding it, pretending she was pregnant. Catherine would have screamed, maybe even slapped Joanna, and probably fled the mansion. Nevertheless, despite our difficulties of communication, not more than five minutes after our arrival, Joanna had become our ally, or at least mine, and so had her husband.
When the owners of the house, Clothilde, Celeste's friend, and her husband Johnny, both from the USA, came back from lunch at a friend's house on the other side of the island, Catherine was still resting on the couch, exhausted from feeling sick for weeks on the ship. The single fact that the ground beneath her was no longer moving nor oscillating seemed to relax and finally give Catherine the chance to rest. Sometimes I wonder... Did your mother ever learn to swim, Laurent? Because she was terrified of the sea... But well, she was terrified of flying, and of course, she never learned how to fly. Anyway...
All I knew about the owners of the mansion was that they had bought an apartment in Celeste's building in Paris, and had thus become friends. Johnny was a mighty movie producer from Hollywood, and Clothilde was an ex-actress-to-be who had married before ever actually performing in any movie. First of all, they asked whether I knew Celeste, and were a bit disappointed when I plainly answered no -- they were trying to make conversation.
"I have lived in Paris, but I only met Catherine here, on a cruise ship..." I lied to them, according to the story that Catherine had invented about us. When they wanted to know about our cruise, I smiled blandly. We had not rehearsed that part, for Catherine was supposed to give all the details.
And although I had been aware about many of the lies that Catherine was going to tell about me, I was still unable to lie about many aspects of my life -- I confessed that I had never been to that part of the world before, and when Johnny said he thought he recognized me from a vacation that they had spent in the Caribbean, I confessed that I had never been there, either.
And not on the Riviera, nor in any of the other fancy places that Clothilde and Jonhhy mentioned -- that first conversation, polite and neutral, was a complete disaster. They seemed to ask all the wrong questions, leaving me puzzled, and I just muttered my negative replies. For someone who should belong to the international jet set like Catherine had wished, I was the least traveled person, and just completely unaware of too many places and all the people they mentioned.
To make things even more awkward, they kept calling me Gian Paolo, the fake name Catherine had picked for me, and I realized I blushed every time they uttered it.
When Catherine woke and joined the conversation, she tried to convey the idea that we were a well-traveled couple -- in fact, I was supposed to be the great traveler that had infected her with the fever of globetrotting. Catherine did not notice it, but the suspicious looks Clothilde and Johnny exchanged during her speech left me really worried -- in fact, terrified. What were the possibilities that we'd get busted?
What if they knew Monsieur de Montbelle, too? I had delivered my farce to them on a plate. And thus Catherine sounded also like a great liar, gleefully talking about the character she had invented for me, the impossible Gian Paolo playboy I would never be.
That first afternoon, we split in two pairs. While Johnny showed me around the property, Clothilde showed Catherine the small chalet in the back of the garden that we would occupy. Not really a proper home when we first moved in, because it did not have a kitchen. Not even the small gas cooker we later added to fix tea or coffee. It was more like a hotel room, with a living room and a double bed in one corner, and an empty space next to the bathroom door where we would put your crib, Laurent. Do you remember our little chalet, son?
"Very romantic... and discreet... for a couple in love, don't you think, darling?" Clothilde commented wryly with Catherine. "Here you can have all the privacy young lovers need." Was she mocking, too?
Catherine did not like the room since it was small and rather simple, with old furniture that probably were remains from the main house. It also sat at the very back of the property, on the farthest corner and separate from the main house -- on rainy days, it was not pleasant at all to have to use umbrellas to go to the kitchen, some 100 meters far from the chalet. But if it were to grab your nipple bottles, Laurent, that Joanna heated for us, I would sprint over the mud and happily return with your meals.
Yet, there was a two stores, very pretty guest house beside the main house. But we would not be occupying it since Clothilde wanted to keep it vacant for "her own guests" -- as if the two of us were not. We were puzzled, since the house was not taken at that moment, and we would only be staying for a couple of weeks.
"Wouldn't it be rather Giancarlo than Gian Paolo?" Johnny confronted me, two days after our arrival. At least he was discreet and did it far from the two women. "Why are you using a false name, boy?"
When we arrived at the port of Punaouilo, Catherine and I had left our records with the police, using our real names in the passports, and Johnny had begun his investigation there.
"Because I'm of humble origins." I confessed at once. I dreaded lying, and somehow I was relieved that Johnny had discovered my real name.
"And what's wrong with that, boy?" Johnny was clearly displeased. He was a self-made man, himself of humble origin, who had opened his own ways in Hollywood working very hard, and so proud of his career.
"Catherine thinks that it's not appropriate... for someone in her companion."
Johnny laughed, wholeheartedly. He was a good, simple and straightforward man. He had also been a farmer in his youth, and only after he had married Clothilde, who was perhaps two decades younger than him and had been born in a wealthy family, had he come to belong to the international jet-set. And he himself knew what was like trying to be someone else, to dress differently, trying to impress and to behave in another way, to try to please his wife. He instantly sympathized with me.
"The idea was yours or was it hers, Carlo?" He called me by my real name, and instead of blushing like before, I was able to smile. "Anyway, you're clean. I checked it, son. No record under any of those names, the false and the true. But can I make a suggestion? If you are going to use a false name, more like a fantasy name, why not partially include the true one? How about Giancarlo? It sounds fancy enough to me! Although this is not a very good start to your stay in Punaouilo!"
'Start' of our 'stay'? I was puzzled with the words he had chosen.
We were just passing through. That's why my fake ID did not seem that important -- just a romantic travel anecdote, as Catherine had pictured it. Sometimes I think I might have been the very first character she created in the tropics... And I have to confess that, despite being a lie, I was actually enjoying myself as Gian Paolo, the international playboy. Though not ours, we had money, and we enjoyed ourselves going to the fancy restaurants and bars where Catherine delighted in the presence of the very sophisticated crowd that frequented Punaouilo then. Whatever made Catherine happy, made me happy too!