Carlo was never a bad father, actually.
But he abandoned me.
And the fact that he used to be so loving doesn't mitigate his fault, nor the pain he caused me -- maybe it even worsened it.
He was never a bad father, let's put it this way, until he walked out on me. Immediately, he then became the worst.
One night in Punaouilo, I was already asleep when Carlo woke me up to share that we would finally see Catherine. He had just spoken to her over the telephone, and he wanted to let me know it right away.
It was the year of 1983 -- the Catalan painter Joan Miró died that year, but not until more than 10 years later would I get in contact with his works; William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but only 20 years later would I read his haunting novel 'Lord of the Flies'; Red Hot Chilli Peppers launched their first album, but I took music for the few folkloric songs from the Pacific I knew, and had never heard of rock'n'roll before; "Return of the Jedi" opened in theatres, but I had never been to the movies before. Be it the opening of Disneyland in Tokyo -- both places unknown to me -- or Tatcher being re-elected -- I had never heard of her, either -- 1983 was so important to me because it was the year I reunited with my mother.
"When is she coming, Daddy?" I had asked, screaming and bouncing on my bed, filled with joy. Next, I jumped on my father's neck and we swirled around the room.
When my euphoria subsided, Carlo put me on the bed again, where I went on jumping. Catherine would never have allowed me to do that, but I knew Carlo wouldn't complain. "Actually, we're going for her." Carlo stared at me, studying my face, worried about my reaction. "We are going to France, Laurent."
Of course we learned about the history of France in school, but from that night on, I began to ask Carlo all about the country. How big? How far? How do we get there? Are we going to stay in Versailles? Do I have to study in France, too? Who is the King of France, now? How are the French children? Is the school near the sea? Will we visit Mademoiselle Monalisa? What can I bring? He was patient and kind to me, but actually he did not know much about our destination either.
"I've only been to Paris, Laurent." I now imagine that Carlo had then suffered from my frequent questions about Paris -- a city inextricably tied in his memoirs to his beloved Armand. "And, for now, we will not go to Paris. I'm afraid Mademoiselle Monalisa will have to wait. Your mother found a house for us in Southern France, and that's where we'll meet her." Patiently, Carlo clarified me about everything he could, even if the return to France would cause him a bit of anguish mingled with melancholy. "That's where we are going to live!"
Moving to France was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in my eight years of life.
I had never left Punaouilo, and I took it for a very, very large island, since it was impossible to circle it on my bike, not even within one whole day. Actually, I had never tried that -- but I imagined it being thaaaat big!
I had no idea about the size of the country I was headed to, nor how far I would have to travel until reuniting with my mother.
Nor did I perceive the dimension of that farewell to Punaouilo -- I did not realize it would be so definitive, for I had never gone back.
The only goodbyes I knew at that age were those at the end of the school year, when I bid farewell to my classmates -- to meet them again the next semester. I guess I still imagined that we would meet my mother and then together return to the island that I knew as home. France was not yet definitive in my mind -- maybe I simply hadn't learned the meaning of 'definitive', yet.
That's why I was not sorrowful during our last visit to Passage Beach, where Carlo had taught me how to swim in the company of the haunting ship wreck and sharks.
Because I did not know that everything I did was for the last time, I don't remember crying.
I was instead so very happy to meet my mother again. And Carlo mentioned we would celebrate my birthday on a ship, and that seemed so special and exciting to me. All the new things that kept coming made me more expectant and enthusiastic about our moving to France, and just because I had no clear perception of the dimension of how my life would radically change, I felt no fear, no sadness.
The last time I hugged Joanna and Will. The last time I swam at the enormous pool of the mansion. My last day in Punaouilo's school, probably the most beautiful school that has ever existed in the world, with classrooms opening onto the vibrant tropical landscapes, the sea illuminating our lessons, the breeze sometimes carrying away the voices of our teachers and liberating our minds for daydreaming.
I did not know that for the last time I was inhaling the scent of the tropical flowers and picking from the trees mangoes ripened under the sun. Nor that I would never again fall asleep to the sound of the animals in the forest next to our house, glancing through the window at the starry skies.
The hardest part was to get rid of my bike and books.
"Why can't I take it with me, Daddy? You said the ship is huge! Don't you think my bike would fit in?" Carlo must have heard thousands of questions during the days preceding our departure.
And that was my first lesson of letting go and unattachment, when I finally gave my bike to Uncle Will's nephew. That bike had been my greatest wish for a long time, and the first gift that I had ever received from my father. I think for him as well, the bike was like a landmark of the shift in his life that Davez Drew's support had represented for his art.
"We'll buy you a new one in France, Laurent, I promise! A fancier one, even!"
"But it is this one that I love, Daddy..."
And indeed, just a few weeks after landing on French soil, I had my new bike, even better and more modern than the Punaouilo version had been. And a lot of toys, books, and a whole new room -- all just for me.
"Are you coming from the Carnival of Venice?" -- Catherine had laughed the moment she saw us arriving at our modern, beautiful and tranquil house on the French countryside, with no neighbors in sight -- nor the sea to be seen anywhere. She was talking about the new and colorful clothes that Carlo had bought for us in Marseille still, just after we had disembarked. A last minute change of plans when Catherine couldn't have met us at the port -- and I had boarded the first train in my life to get to my new home.
My adaptation would be difficult. All the novelty of my life as a wealthy boy did not compensate the loss of the proximity to the ocean and the freedom of going about dressed only in my swimsuit, had I wanted it -- Catherine had always hated to see me "dressed like a savage, and smelling to salt like cod", as she put it. But I had taken advantage that Carlo allowed it, in the couple years she had been absent from Punaouilo, to be exactly that 'little savage' she dreaded. But in France, Catherine's territory, she had definitely won -- and I had to be the neatest boy she made of me.
I was constantly questioning my parents about the sea. How I could reach the sea. "The sea is far away, Laurent!" Catherine had already explained it, "One day we will visit it, Laurent!", my father kept promising. "When?", was the only thing I wanted to know.
And while that excursion did not happen, Catherine had changed my room's decor into nautical and marine patterns, while Carlo gave me boats and submarines for toys, instead of cars and trains.
In France, I was to discover I was afraid of sleeping alone -- for I had never slept alone before in my entire life.
I missed both Carlo's snoring and my mother's grumbling noises, as much as I missed the mysterious forest noises to fall asleep -- and when Catherine started leaving the door of my room open to the balcony, so that the nocturnal country sounds could enter my room, I was terribly scared. The mysterious owls had replaced the familiar, more exuberant and gleeful parrots, and I cried to the lowing of cows and the neighing of horses, so melancholic and doleful if compared to the boisterous monkeys that lived in the grove behind our chalet.
I started peeing on the bed, to my great embarrassment.
"What is happening, Laurent?" Catherine had asked, half amused and half annoyed. "Are you too excited about your new life or are you marking your territory, just like a puppy?"
But I was too young to understand my own feelings, and the reasons giving rise to them -- I just felt very confused and plainly ashamed.
I used to cry when I was all on my own, almost every day. Probably because I missed Punaouilo, really hard. I missed my home, our little damp, cramped cottage by the forest, even though in France I had a very spacious bedroom all to myself, full of toys and books, and even my own bathroom. I missed the vast landscapes I had known so well, the far horizon where sea and sky were of one indistinct blue -- while in France, everything was fenced within ungenerous limits. Hills brought the horizon just too close and narrowed it, giving me the sensation that I had been imprisoned -- not to mention the fences and walls I was not used to seeing everywhere.
There were too many rules, too many things were forbidden, and a whole new social code to learn.
I missed my school, where we happily sang songs and recited poems that got carried away by the breeze that roamed freely through the classrooms. The school in Punaouilo had been less than a hundred steps from the sea -- and just too often before returning home, we would swim after class, leaving our books and uniforms in the mango grove nearby.
The happy days of going to and returning from school on a shadowy path under enormous, leafy mango trees, with the white sand and blue sea shining just on the other side of the road, were foreby. The path would go across the backyard of some friend's houses, and as they would join me, until we got to school we would be a bunch of six or seven happy kids. In France, I had to walk down a desolate road, along boring cultivated fields, to wait for the bus -- where I used to sit all on my own. I was the weird, funny kind in France, and no one would dare join me.
Though bullying would only start a little later, the school in France was a true horror for me, with all the kids aggressively competitive and dressed to impress, talking in slang and revolting against things that seemed quite orderly and reasonable to me.
I now realize how I put myself into that submissive position that led to bullying, fearfully retracting and isolating myself rather than expanding. And somehow refusing to adapt -- I never dressed like any of the groups I could have belonged to in my survival struggle, and by the way how I dressed the mockery had begun. I was a tiny bit more exuberant than most of my French colleagues, and when I realized that, I was made shy. I also refused to play their games, and ultimately refused their friendships, too. During the class breaks, I would stick to my books, clearly enjoying Phileas Fogg and D'Artagnan's company better than my colleagues' useless chit chat. I considered Edmond Dantés, the Count of Monte Cristo, to be my best friend in my initial years in France.
But from that harrowing period, there stands the most striking incident of all. One summer afternoon, a few months after we had arrived, my father came home driving a fancy sports car. Carlo seemed to be enjoying himself in France, now that he had his own money.
"What foulness is this, Carlo?" Catherine accusingly questioned him, as he walked out of the car.
"No need not be worried, Catherine!" Carlo was so happy with his acquisition, something inimaginable in his former life, and could not understand Catherine's wrathful irony. "I bought it with my own money! I got a new comission from an art gallery in Los Angeles and they have paid me in advance..."
"Oh, I don't care what you do with your money!" There had started a financial unrest between my parents, as Carlo seemed to be making more money with his paintings than Catherine with her books. It was not only her third book that she became an unstoppable bestsellers writing machine. "But I imagine that this car is a gift to me... and Laurent!" She exaggerated in her irony.
"Of course it is, Catherine!" Carlo was starting to feel weary. Catherine tapping her high heels indicated something was terribly wrong, but he could not fathom what. "You can use the car whenever you want! And--"
Catherine clapped her hands to interrupt him. "For God's sake, what is it that you don't yet understand, Carlo?", she continued to protest, "This car has only two seats, isn't it?"
"Like any fast sports car, Catherine!" Carlo had replied, a bit indignant once he had started feeling hurt by my mother.
"Great! But I think you forgot that we are a family, Carlo! Who do you want to leave out?" Catherine's voice rose. "Laurent?"
"Of course I won't leave Laurent out! Never! I'll be taking him to school in this car... Why do you want to bring up his education right now, Catherine?" Carlo was convinced that she was overreacting.
"But I'm not bringing his education up!" Catherine shouted. "His education is perfectly fine, the proper education a refined French boy should get--"
It was Carlo's turn to interrupt her. "You know I don't agree on that, Catherine, and I don't see the point--"
"That's so foolish of you, Carlo!" She cut him short. "To think that Laurent would still be better in Punaouilo, learning native songs and walking barefoot like the little Indian he is not! But don't try to change the subject!"
"It's not about being better, Catherine, it's about being happier! And I'm not changing subjects... I'm actually corcerned with him and no, I don't want to leave him out of anything... He is home, isn't he? I wanted to take him for a ride..." My father went on naively, trying to demonstrate his good will, feeling increasingly uncomfortable under her glare.
"So it's me you want to leave out, Carlo?" my mother exploded, stomping her feet on the floor. For once, Carlo was reminded of Catherine's arrival on the Île du Blanchomme, and the subsequent daily explosions when she had gained dominance over him.
"That's not what I said, Catherine... I can take you later on a ride too, if you want..." Carlo was perplexed with her anger, not quite yet understanding the reasons giving rise to it, but he decided to nevertheless apologize. "Sorry, sometimes I guess my French is still not so good to express what I'm thinking..." What have I done wrong?, my father must have thought. Just then did Carlo guess what the problem was -- Catherine must have been thinking a sports car was dangerous. But before he could reassure her, she was attacking him again.
"Your French is very good, Carlo. It's just your accent that is awful! And you're not as stupid as you appear to be! But let me translate what you are demonstrating when you buy a two-seater for a family of three members." My father blushed when he finally realized Catherine's point. "Unless you yourself stand away, Carlo, you will be leaving Laurent or me behind, whenever the other one is riding with you. God, that is so mean of you! And that's what your private toy means to our family, Carlo. The cruelty of exclusion. And you still say you are worried about Laurent's adaptation... Thus a family begins to disintegrate... It's really sad."
"Please forgive me, Catherine..." Carlo groaned, not hiding how embarrassed he was. "I never thought you could look at it that way--"
"A clear demonstration of your lack of consideration for our family, that's what it is! Shame on you!" Catherine had turned her back, puffing, and returned to the house, her high heels hitting the stone paved path and echoing in the hills next to our house.
In the immensely boring silence of our rural neighborhood, I had heard the powerful roar of a car engine approaching the house. Thrilled, I had come out of my room to the balcony, and watched the whole scene from the first floor, unnoticed.
To the grief and anger of my mother, to the grief and shame of my father, I added my own sorrow and perplexity, when I returned to my room to cry.
Carlo's sports car was my parent's first major fight in France, and I never got to ride it without feeling sadness and guilt, no matter how cool and fancy that car might have been -- and I think Carlo felt the same shame, and a few years later, he changed it for another sports car. But only after giving Catherine a family station wagon. And the period of endless bickering between them started, to only end when my father walked away on us.
"Laurent!" I suddenly heard my father calling my name, when he gently touched my thigh to wake me from my reverie. "We have arrived, son. But it really seems to be closed, already."