"You were such a pretty baby, Laurent. What a sweet little boy. Unless you weren't having your basic needs tended, you would never cry. You were a quiet, smiling baby, friendly to everyone in the house, and trusting even with the visitors who--"
Carlo had shared that glancing pensively out of the window. His eyes were vague, and whatever he saw from the city that I had adopted as my hometown for many years, it was clouded by his own memories of distant Punaouilo.
"Shall we make a turn here, sir?" The driver had asked, interrupting my father.
"No, don't. Drive all the way to the end of the avenue, and then come back on the opposite lane, please." I had requested. It was absurd, but I was so impressed with my father's confessional mood, and wanted to give him all the time.
"I'm not driving for free, sir."
I almost shouted at the driver. "Needless to say that", I retorted instead. 2008 was being a great year, and for the first time in life, I felt a bit careless about money. My dream house in Samsara Heights had been completed, I was about to open an exhibition at one of the worlds' most prestigious museums, my paintings were selling well, the money from Celeste's inheritance kept pouring in, and I seemed to chose all the right investments to multiply it. Little did I know what crash expected us just around the corner -- in the financial markets.
I smiled tenderly at Carlo's comments about the time when I was a baby. I had had several experiences, so diverse and so intense, having lived for so long in town -- yet, Vice City had never heard about baby Laurent. It was sweet to listen to my father's tender recollections, as we crossed the city by car.
I did want him to talk, and I tried to encourage him. "I can imagine how difficult it must have been for Catherine... Becoming a mother, I mean."
"Your mother has always wanted to give that impression, right?" Carlo replied, thoughtfully. "You know what I think? Of course, back then I did not have this reasoning, since I was very young, had little experience and was extremely worried and scared trying to put together our little family... But I suspect Catherine was expecting to have with her child the same complicated relationship that she always had herself with Celeste and Gaston. I mean, in her mind, and heart, she was reproducing with you that dreaded relationship she had with her parents. A projection, I guess that's what it's called... But that was before you were born. Because you proved to be a very easy going and loving baby, and I guess she was nicely surprised when you finally disarmed her worst expectations and fears... Does that make sense to you, Laurent?"
"Catherine had a complicated pregnancy," Carlo went on, "and during that period she was indeed very upset. As she used to say, she was 'so annoyed, wanting so much that the baby left her belly' that we think she might have somehow expelled you -- and you were born prematurely."
"One afternoon, she told me she was not feeling quite well. She wanted to go to the hospital to be examined. In she went, but did not leave that same evening -- and the next morning, you were born. I was scared and apprehensive, since she did not let me accompany her inside the hospital. She was hospitalized nearly a week after you were born -- and when she came home, she had started to value Joanna's food, ha-ha!"
"As you know, Laurent, you were born with the sunrise. I remember it so well. Having been prompted to the hospital by a telephone call, I rode my bicycle merrily zigzagging from one pool of light to the next, saluting the lampposts along the road, thanking them for illuminating my way. I clearly recall thinking electricity was something between miraculous and magical -- because I was feeling like that myself, about to become a father. The artificial lights were still on, especially inside the hospital, but we had the glorious tropical sunshine as well, golden and radiant... The sun rose over the ocean, its brilliance multiplied, magnified and turned into movement by a myriad of ripples. You could not have chosen a more poetic time to be born, my son, when all things were illuminated, with all sorts of glow. And when I first saw you at the hospital, my eyes filled with tears and light, with a shudder I recalled the sunrise apparitions on the Île du Blanchomme." Carlo beamed, immersed in memories. "And indeed the baby was a boy, contrary to Catherine's expectations that it would be a girl."
I gently interrupted him. "There is controversy about it! You cannot affirm I'm hundred percent a boy..." I said, laughing, and I made a very effeminate gesture. "But then the right to choose the baby's name was yours, wasn't it, Carlo? I love this anecdote so much... It is true, isn't it?" There were now so many lies around my birth that I was afraid to lose all my references.
"Yes, Laurent!" My father laughed too. He reached for my hand, that was lying next to his on the seat, and caressed it. I did not refuse his touch. "Catherine had chosen the name Sophie for the baby, but when it was my turn to choose your name... Well, at the time there were so many things happening at once that I could not foresee them all... And I found myself having to think quickly on your name, at the door of Punaouilo Register's Office!" Carlo smiled sweetly. "By then, Celeste was already regretting the cruelty with which she had treated Catherine, I guess. She had ruthlessly exiled her own daughter, something straight out of a Greek tragedy. But since she did not want to seem to have abandoned her too, Celeste regularly sent shipments of books and clothes and perfumes for Catherine. Just a few days before your birth, more gifts had arrived. Among them, a new summer dress by Yves Saint-Laurent, your mother's favorite French couturier at the time..."
"She had asked me to take that new dress to her. She wanted to walk out of the hospital carrying you, dressed in it. Holding that beautiful dress in my hands, its silk so exquisite to the touch, reminding me of the tenderness of your baby skin that I had touched for the very first time, I had a sudden inspiration... I made a connection to the Louis Malle movie that I had watched with Armand in Paris, at the Cinémathèque Française. The one that he had mentioned to me at least twice on the Île du Blanchomme, whose main character was a boy named Laurent. I thought by naming you Laurent I would in a way be pleasing Catherine... And your mother did approve my choice, "You actually have good taste", was what she told me upon leaving the hospital, dressed in her Saint-Laurent and carrying her Laurent baby..."
"I love that anecdote so much!" I murmured, as my voice caught. I was so glad it was not just another lie. And I was happy learning I was somehow connected to my movie lover uncle Armand by that name, too. "It was a lovely choice, Carlo!" My name had never sounded sweeter.
But I don't think Carlo heard me, for he was back again in Punaouilo.
Though premature, you were perfectly healthy, and that was a great relief to us! All went well after your condition stabilized and you were able to breathe and feed without medical aid, and you came home, sooner than expected." Carlo sighed. "I think the correct word to describe Catherine as a mother is 'intrigued'. As you well know, she was unable to take care of all things basic and trivial -- like to bathe you, or change your diapers. And for those, we were glad to have Joanna. Of course I always did everything I could to help, whenever I was at home -- but at that time I had already started working on painting houses around the island.
Johnny gave me my first job -- painting the mansion where we were living at. It was the oldest and most important colonial house on the island, and it turned out to be my greeting card to my all my future painting and gardening works in Punaouilo. It was a huge, time consuming job because they wanted both the indoors and the outdoors newly painted, and just once in a while Will, Joanna's husband, would have helped me.
During that period, Johnny and Clothilde were absent from Punaouilo, and without them Catherine confessed she felt truly isolated from the 'civilized world'. But we also had the privilege of Joanna dedicated exclusively to our little family, and that was such an immense luck and joy.
Johnny and Clothilde were to see you only when you were a little over one year old, already -- and they also marveled on your beauty and your sweetness, Laurent.
You did melt Clothilde's heart, my son. Not even that mutual antipathy between her and Catherine could wear out your baby charms, and Clothilde used to send or bring herself clothes and toys for you, from the United States and from France, too. Your first toys were given by her, because in our first years in Punaouilo we had no money to buy them.
Celeste would not send us any money. Justifying it was too complicated and expensive to wire money overseas, she paid our lodging and food directly to Johnny and Clothilde. Of course, her intention was to keep us away from any sum, so that we could not buy our tickets back to France. Later, through Clothilde, she would send more books and summer clothes for Catherine, and toys and clothes for you.
Despite having known of my existence, Celeste simply ignored me. Personally, I never regretted not receiving anything from her. As far as I was concerned, her silence was a good thing, since it probably indicated that Monsieur de Montbelle was unaware of my relationship with his daughter. And secrecy was all that I ever needed from Celeste!
"Catherine's main grievance in Punaouilo, Laurent, was her distance from the 'civilized world', her involuntary exile from Paris, and not your birth." Carlo clarified, as if wanting to console me. "But she came up with this anecdote about being surprised by her pregnancy and your premature birth as the cause of her exile in the tropics... when, in fact, you might have already understood that the culprit was your grandmother Celeste."
"Celeste never, ever visited us at Punaouilo..." My father had again fallen silent, and I was trying to reminisce myself. "And when I asked Catherine about 'grandma', she justified Celeste loathed leaving Paris, 'the only civilized town in the world', she quoted her. Though of course she loved visiting the Chateau de Montbelle, where she would actually never reside. And I happen to know that once or twice Celeste visited Paul Bowles in Tangier and Yves Saint-Laurent at his Marrakesh home -- but I once heard Catherine saying that Celeste was too snobish to be welcome more than once by any host. You might have heard that yourself, Carlo." I laughed. "But what I do not remember is what she used to tell me about Gaston... I mean, "grandpa', I used to ask simply about ' my grandpa', since until a few hours ago I did not know who he was.... In adolescence, Catherine told me that he had already died, which I believe was true..."
"Yes, Gaston was dead when you and I were finally able to go to France. Maybe that is why, even, we were able to go to France! And if I remember correctly, Catherine replied to your child question simply saying 'there is no grandpa'. Though sometimes you mistook Tarso for your grandfather, from my side they had both actually died, and Catherine wanted to imply that she had also already lost her father. I'm sorry, Laurent, but I never understood her complicated relationship with Gaston, nor with Celeste. Rather unexpectedly, I'd say, Catherine overcame her own difficulties to become a good mother--"
I interrupted my father. "Catherine, a good mother?" It sounded so incongruous, and I laughed at it.
"Don't you think so, Laurent?" I was surprised that Carlo would actually take Catherine's defence. "I would never have imagined that she could put such an immense patience and dedication in teaching you how to walk. But of course you don't remember that, do you? And how she took interest in teaching you to speak properly. Everything that had to do with your intellectual growth and progress fascinated her. She just was not very interested in the more mundane parts of your upbringing, like food and baths and diseases... Those she delivered to me and to Joanna..." I was perplexed with Carlo's justification, and then even more at his next surprising comment. "You received loads of love in your childhood, Laurent."
I groaned. "Funny, but that's not how I remember it!", I replied promptly. "I recall Joanna's affection, of course, and also at some extent having it from her husband Will, whom I'd call uncle. But in regard to Catherine, I just remember being a beggar, all the time, and not very successfully trying to divert her from the books she read or wrote..."
Purposely, I did not mention my father, because I was not willing to make peace with him yet.
"This was later, Laurent!" Carlo was becoming an expert in contradicting my memories. "Because you cannot remember the very beginning. Just when you started to stand on your own legs, did Catherine decide to do the same." I was puzzled, and my father had to clarify. "Stand on her own legs, I mean. I guess it was the amount of books sent by Celeste that inspired your mother to become a writer, since she would no longer be teaching at the Université. My best bet is that she was trying to build herself a new bridge with France, and in reverse, sending back to her country novels written by her. I had started myself walking by my own legs, and making a bit of money with the painting and gardening jobs, just enough to buy your diapers and, later on, the school supplies."
Carlo's constant mentions of his humble jobs in Punaouilo actually hurt me. It was cruel that a celebrated painter like Carlo had to do gardening services to make a living -- nothing against gardening, but it had kept my father from painting.
"Really, Carlo?" I still doubted him. "I just remember gravitating around my mother, trying to get her attention... I don't even think affection was something I expected from her, just her attention. It was you who helped me with my homework, wasn't it?" Would he deny being the present parent -- until, when I was thirteen, he became the absent one?
"Most of the time... yes." Carlo answered, carefully picking the words. "But Catherine was the one who corrected your exercises before you went to school... because she did not trust my French... nor my Italian, ha-ha!" I wondered when my father had grown immune to Catherine's disdain. "Too bad we don't have many pictures of that period. Johnny had given me an old camera, but we rarely bought a roll of film, and of course we never had the money to develop the photographs... If I'm not mistaken, Catherine sent them to Paris, but your grandmother never sent them back for us to see."
"I have never heard about the existence of such photographs, Carlo!" I gasped.
No longer having any doubt that I would have a very long telephone conversation with Catherine in Russia, I had already began to mentally assemble the extensive questionnaire that I would ask her.