I asked the taxi driver to wait while I went in search of one of the night guards on duty. It took some time, because the guard at the main entrance did not know me, but finally managed to locate Ted on another floor. Ted was the oldest guard at Vice's Contemporary Art Museum -- himself an institution and part of the museum's collection. He knew me since I was nineteen years old. Before I even met Dan, the director, I had been chatting to Ted in my frequent visits to the museum during my initial years in town. It explained why I often sounded old-fashioned -- much of my colloquial English I had learned from him, who was some thirty years older than me.
"This is it, Carlo! Vice's Contemporary Art Museum entirely for you!" Even though we would be using a side door, I dropped a curtsy and motioned my father up the stairs. "And without Dan knowing that we are here, of course!" I added, with a laugh. "I would like you to see my exhibition before anyone else."
The idea had suddenly occurred to me at the Nirvana Lounge. Grown old and less patient with visitors, a sleepless widower, Ted was doing the night shifts to make more money before his retirement. I knew I could count on him to sneak inside Dan's fortress with my father -- my proper father, because Ted had been another masculine figure with healing fatherly features in my life. My friend was bewildered when I said my real father was with me, and as he retreated into the building, I could picture him walking swiftly ahead of us, turning the lights on, along the corridors we took to get to 'The Dark Room'.
"Son... It's so many privileges that you're offering me tonight..." Carlo's voice choked with emotion, and he fell silent as we entered the properly illuminated museum. I listened to the echoes of our steps -- both Carlo and I had been using formal shoes that evening, and his toc-toc and my toc-toc sounded harmoniously coordinated. None of us hurried, none us walked slower nor heavier than the other. A perfect pas de deux, I though, and smiled to that revived complicity.
That's how my father came to be the first person to see my exhibition -- which, for me, was a real honor. When Dan had suggested that I invited Carlo for the opening -- because yes, the idea to contact my father had been Dan's --, he must have been thinking of the prestige my father's presence would lend to my exhibition -- and to the museum, too. And only when Carlo had accepted my invitation did I dare to think of him seeing my paintings for the first time in twenty years. My father was an abstractionist, and I feared he would despise my portraits.
Now that the dream had come true, Carlo was also the first person to be exposed to the audacity Dan Charmand had reserved to the general public -- he had chosen to place one of my naked self-portraits right at the landing of the stairs that gave access to the room -- The Dark Room.
Used to practicing walking meditation, Carlo had paid attention to each step of the stairs, maybe even counting them -- and I realized he was shocked, when he lifted his eyes for the first time to be greeted by my erection. A half-erection, actually, but nonetheless vulgar and offensive. I wondered if that was the effect intended by Dan, when the light focused on that painting made it shine and stand off the wall, my turgid organ turned almost three-dimensional. I feared people would simply turn back and walk away, without checking the rest of the exhibition. Maybe with my father I should have used the elevator, that landed on the room where my life-sized naked sculpture was displayed -- at least, I considered my pretty bubble butt less shameful.
It had taken Carlo many seconds to find anything to say, while he stood stiffly gaping at my painting. "Will you name your boyfriends for me, Laurent?" He had finally asked, giggling, indicating the nude.
"This is me, Carlo. All the nudes in the exhibition are self-portraits."
"Wow! I see something you inherited from me, son!" Carlo blushed at his own joke, and I saw him checking my reaction with the corner of his eyes, and I blushed too.
Having decided that joking around my exhibition would not probably be the best way to masquerade our uneasiness with the present situation, Carlo silently walked through the exhibition. As he stopped before each painting, I eagerly sought in his face any evidences of his approval or disapproval, but he just tilted his head and maintained a rather tranquil gaze.
And I clearly remembered doing the same with him and Catherine in Punaouilo, when I was a child.
I would spend a lot of time watching Catherine as she wrote. I tried to guess from her concentrated expression what she might be thinking and feeling, what was it that both absorbed and interested her so much, as she scribbled words in her notebooks for endless hours. Even though I hadn't yet discovered the fascination of reading, my curiosity had been aroused because I felt I was competing with books -- and helplessly losing, against them, the interest and time of my mother.
Carlo was different.
While my mom just ignored me, my father made sure to address my presence and always tried to include me in his painting sessions, when I approached him. First he asked if I wanted something, and if it were not the case, he invited me to tell my opinion about what he was painting, as a means of inviting me to participate. With patience and interest, he listened to the imaginative stories I told about his works.
But from some point on, he too just focused and lost himself in his own painting -- and at those moments I also lost my father to himself.
That reverent attitude of absorption from both my father and my mother with their respective forms of Art, had intrigued and fascinated me profoundly. Probably trying to understand it, and experience it in myself, is one of the reasons why I became a painter -- and later, a writer. As a child, I began by emulating them.
I started painting prior to being literate. And I did it in secret, spontaneously -- to my father's sincere delight and my mother's disappointment and surprise.
"Oh no, please don't tell me you intend to become another 'Hungerkünstler', Laurent!" She would often call Carlo after Kafka's short story 'A Hunger Artist'. Perhaps, that was already a reference to my father's starvation period at the abandoned factory in Paris -- but I had not understood it then --, while addressing our own precarious economic situation in Punaouilo.
Since Johnny and Clothilde would come just once or twice a year and they did not lend the house often, it was usually only five of us occupying the mansion -- Joanna and her husband Will, and our little family. Joanna would let me wander through the mansion with her, while she did the housekeeping, with the condition that I did not touch anything -- except the books, for she had already noticed the great care I handled them with. And it's not that I would help her somehow -- she simply let me turn on the TV and watch cartoons while she worked.
But what had fascinated me most was to find another easel in one of the mansion's many guestrooms. Joanna let me use it because it had been abandoned long ago by an artist, a friend of Clothilde, who had never returned to Punaouilo. There was a blank canvas, and although the ink tubes and the brushes were dry, I had cleaned them and mixed the colours with water and started to paint.
That was how I lost interest in television, too soon, upon discovering that, with canvas, brushes and ink, I could tell my own stories -- rather than just watch them.
And the joy with which Carlo received my first finished painting that, I had executed in secret, is unforgettable.
"It's so beautiful, Laurent! It is our home, isn't it? And the forest next to it... And the animals of the forest, too... Oh, that parrot is so colorful! And you portrayed rain and sun in the same day, as it often happens here on the island..." Never again my art was so thoroughly understood and respected as my first childish painting, under Carlo's considerations.
From then on, I painted regularly.
With time, he was teaching me how to prepare the canvas and wield the brush in different ways -- and in France, he proceeded to give me regular classes, and I could even use his expensive oils. Until the day he left us.
Just like in my childhood, Carlo begun commenting 'Portraying Dorian G' by the quality of my painting, some particularly good strokes and effects, the expression of the portraits, the variety of moods I had been able to evoke.
He was complimentary, but I could sense he was being cautious, too.
It was not until he moistened his lips and took a deep breath before he pronounced, "It's so heartbreaking, Laurent." He looked me in the eye, granting his total sincerity. "This exhibition is such a painful experience, my son."
And when I heard this from my father, a tightness in my throat made me feel like crying. The portraits that were being exhibited had been painted over the last ten years. As far as they were depicting my various affairs, they also portrayed my travels around the world. To me, they meant recollections of the many islands I had visited, from the Baleares to the Maldives and Fernando de Noronha, reminding me of hotels and hostels, cheap and expensive rooms and the beds where I had laid with those men, hunks and twinks of several ages and nationalities. Those pictures reminded me of intense and fleeting pleasures, and an unfailing underlying pain.
Years and years of confusion and perdition, years and years of sex with the only compromise to avoid love, to avoid pain. And yet, there had been just pain in my heart, all those years. But I thought I had hidden my feelings with some expertise under the mainly materic quality of my paintings. Had I failed, then? Was my crude nudity leaving me subtly exposed, after all?