"There is a kind of success that is indistinguishable from panic."
It was not the first time I exhibited some of those pictures. From my past exhibitions at commercial galleries and cultural centers, I had brought accolades and won over lovers and new models -- and consequently, more paintings. I liked to seduce my models at the galleries, though an unprofessional attitude it might be. My own paintings aroused me, turning my studio into my main stage and my alcove.
But it was the first time the complete series were shown. The works had been painted over a decade of serial sex, and Dan Charmand had intended that my presentation should be a portrait of gay promiscuity, beyond my own intimacy. But since there were several 'straight' men among those I had portrayed -- like Marlon, who had a girlfriend whom he loved but did not feel physically attracted to; they were men who only had sex with other men, without considering themselves gay, a cop-out as they were returning to their women, their marital lives, their families and homes -- that theme had been dropped.
I was recruiting my models anywhere and everywhere. It was weird to think that when I was seducing I was also working -- and maybe that's what had helped to leave my heart out of those matters. At the gym, running at the park, at the fanciest restaurants or at the supermarket -- both in Samsara Heights, where I was trying to establish myself in my studio, as in my many travels around the world.
To be honest, I approached men first as potential lovers, and just later would they become the models. After sex, I mean.
For some time, I had enjoyed having my rented house in Samsara Heights full of boys -- although often they were competing for my attention and unfriending each other -- and there had been threesomes often ending in disagreement and quarrels.
It was silly, but naked men in my pool made me feel like I was a sort of David Hockney's cover, and it had made me feel more like a painter. I had screened the documentary on Hockney's lifestyle and creative process, "A Bigger Splash", a hundred times in my atelier -- maybe also because it was on Hockney's love life, and the breakup with his most enduring model and lover. Did I see myself mirrored, when Angelo had encouraged me to paint and yet dumped me?
I was young and thought I could be ruthless, and reckless.
I felt I did not need to care. That I did not need to fear.
I was completely lost, but since I was going nowhere, I could not realize how aimlessly wandering I was.
Carlo then watched the video that I had added to the exhibition, while sitting on the couch where there rested a sculpture that was my life-size reproduction -- naked, obviously, and ass up. Carlo did not comment on the sculpture, which would frequently be classified as 'outrageous', and he remained silent at the end of the video, where I appeared nude in several shots at my old studio in Samsara Heights, mixed with scenes from some of my affairs eating, walking, bathing, sleeping -- mostly naked, too. The voices of the narration were both mine and from the guys who had agreed to be filmed. I had edited them so that our lines mingled and no sentence was spoken by a single voice, and several of the sentences made no sense at all. I would later banish the video and the sculpture from my following exhibitions. Seeing it in my father's company, for the first time I realized how infantile it was.
"Pathetic and unnecessary." Dan had also disliked the video, which he thought to be vulgar, and technically problematic. "Your butt appears twelve times, and your smile only seven." Dan had scowled. "You certainly are photogenic. But no video maker, Laurent dear, and certainly no sound technician either. What you classify as raw footage is just badly, carelessly executed, and inferior to most plain TV shows." But he had agreed to show it along with the sculpture, just to shock and possibly attract audience. "If you think you'll be able to handle the criticism..."
Carlo was more shocked by the video than with my nudity in the self-portraits, and his next question was very surprising. He was acting like my father again.
"Have you ever tested, Laurent?" He motioned me to leave the room were the video was continually being screened, as if he couldn't tolerate seeing it one more time. I hadn't immediately understood his question, and he clarified rather bluntly, not without blushing, though. "HIV, I mean?"
"Yes, Carlo. Negative. I always took precaution and had safe sex." After Angelo opened our relationship, I had become almost obsessive about safe sex, to my ex-boyfriend's great frustration. He enjoyed "exchanging body fluids", he said. Naively, to condoms I had added spermicide. "You can't get pregnant, Laurent!" Angelo had made fun of me and laughed for days, after he found it out.
"Grazie a Dio, son!" He had sighed, throwing his hands in the air and rolling his eyes. I smiled, thinking I should try that myself every once in a while to revive my Italian roots. "Yet, accidents happen. I still prefer you wouldn't risk yourself that way... This... need..." His voice caught, "to hurt other men... you can end up hurting yourself, Laurent... Even killing, I mean. Have you thought about it?" He sat at one of the sofas on the main room, and motioned me to sit by his side. I chose the floor at his feet, though. I was starting to feel uncomfortable with our conversation -- how come were we again talking about me, and not about him, nor why he had left home? Was he pretending it was over, long past, and there was no need to talk about it? Was he trying to talk me around? He wouldn't rebuild our relationship so easily over that twenty years gap -- for it had opened an abyss between us.
"Why should I care about them, Carlo?" My voice trembled. "They were not considering me, when they hurt me... when they were having sex with Angelo." My heart dropped at those recollections. What kind of fear ridden love had dominated me for so long, that I had put up with so much filth from my ex-boyfriend? "Some of them even knew me... More than once, I think, Angelo had sex in the bathroom of cinemas and restaurants, while I was waiting for him like an idiot. These men did not care about hurting me." And neither had Angelo. In fact, after I had revealed my secret to him, he had started hurting me as an enactment of his power, and his domination over me increased. Since then, I had decided not to reveal my darkest secret to anyone else. Not even my father. Much less to him. I was aiming to forget it.
"It doesn't matter what others do to us, Laurent! This is their karma. Whatever evil they do to us, it shall return on themselves. This is true to all, including Angelo--"
I snorted, and my father startled. "I don't know if I believe this karma stuff, Carlo." It was very convenient to sit and think that life would be in charge of punishing Angelo. Until then, he had become a celebrity, he held a very successful TV program, a beautiful family and the perfect wife. He was living in a design house often pictured on magazine covers, a house many times larger and more luxurious than mine. Angelo was often appearing in fashion editorials and adds as the embodiment of success and male beauty. How had life punished him, indeed?
And after what my father had told me that evening, I suddenly thought that it was too bad I had not taken after Catherine and her thirst for revenge. It had taken her to Asia, on a journey she had dreaded, yet she had moved on with the fierce intent of perpetrating revenge against her half brother.
But it suddenly dawned upon me... Maybe... that exhibition was an unique, creative vengeance?
"Still, it doesn't really matter what others do to us." Carlo continued with his newage-ish speech. "We cannot have control over others. Other men have hurt you? Their conscience will hurt, the guilt and shame is all theirs, not yours--"
"Or it is not, Carlo!" I said, scornfully. My dad's speech was starting to annoy me. Or was it the look on some pictures that confirmed what he was saying. Piers stared back at me, and his gaze was saturated with sorrow. Why hadn't we traveled Greece together, like he had proposed? Because I thought having him was like carrying a sandwich around a banquet. And on other corner of the room I could see Matt, Portrait # 213, who had accused me of being "emotionally crippled". Or was he #321? I resumed my defence, though. "I don't think many of the guys who did it to Angelo felt guilty... Most probably felt very satisfied and happy..." I was purposedly contradicting Carlo.
"But what about you, Laurent? How did you feel acting so carelessly? That's all that matters in the end, my son. What we do to others, because this is what our consciousness is made of... Why live with guilt, and risking to--"
"Why not live like that, Carlo?" I spat the words. Suddenly, I felt angry at my father. With what right was he scolding me? What if I had been leading an unbridled and vicious life, especially in the last ten years -- when he had been absent during the last twenty?
He had left me, and a crowd of men, and my endless, sick addiction to the main male figure in my life, Angelo, had not been able to mitigate Carlo's absence. I felt like shouting at Carlo, letting my accumulated anger explode, when he suddenly asked "What is it that you don't want to see, Laurent?" Carlo remained calm, and that he used a teacherly more than a paternal tone increased my irritation. "Is there anything you want to tell me, son?"
And I suddenly remembered it.
"Aren't you seeing well, Laurent?" The question from twenty years ago echoed in my mind.
It had been Carlo, during the painting classes in our rural home in France, who had realized that I was not seeing well.
It had been him to take me to an optician. With him, I had had my first glasses made. He paid them with his own money.
During the last months he had spent in our house, the pool had been finally built, and I felt so happy. But I had never felt so miserable in my life like when I had to start wearing glasses.
It would be another reason for bullying at school -- but as I had learned to fight with all my strength against that, I did not let it affect me. It was no longer the opinion of others what bothered me the most.
But I felt ugly, myself.
Although the muscles that I had acquired during the weeks in the Apennines and from joining the swim team were increasing, I was still horribly skinny. My nose seemed too long, my eyebrows were too thick and dark in contrast to my hair, akwardly white like an old man's, so much that it seemed like a disease at thirteen years old -- and the glasses came to crown all my ugliness and destroy any self-steem I could have cultivated.
Even if I did not accept bullying from others, I knew perfectly well for myself how ugly I was -- made uglier still, from wearing glasses. I felt humiliated. Imperfect.
I started passionately developing and cultivating an inferiority complex, and I became even more shy, quiet, and insecure.
I fought to be left alone, though I often felt lonely. And lonelier, when Carlo left.
It was one of the crippling gifts that Carlo had left behind -- because I tended to blame him for having to wear glasses. He had used them himself, and I had clearly inherited that flaw from him. And after all, it was he who had discovered it, and caused my sadness.
Maybe my father had seen me wearing glasses a couple of weeks, or maybe it had been just two days, before he disappeared from my life, leaving me alone, scared, confused, helpless, sad, and uglier.
But twenty years later, I was able to glance around me, and dotting the black walls with the colors of their beauty, was an army of gorgeous men. Behind them, only I could see the invisible ranks of more men, whose paintings were not displayed at show, either having been already sold or not considered to be among my best. Behind them, another even greater rank of men -- those I had simply had sex with, but not turned into models. Quite a feat, I thought, for the ugly duckling I had been, somehow still was. Had I surrendered to them, or had they surrendered to me? Or is the orgasm surrendering to oneself? Feeling enveloped by that exuberant private army of vigorous warriors, my heart swelled and I was filled with courage.
"Why, Carlo?" I finally got to ask, having my ex-lovers for testimonies. My voice caught, and I felt like crying. But it was from anger, and not from sorrow any longer. Or perhaps it was plain, deep sadness actually, and anger no more. "WHY, Carlo? Why have you forsaken me? And why to never return, nor send any news?" I gulped, and I was trembling, my whole body shaking from expectation and rage. My heart was beating out of its normal rhythm, stronger, wilder, but it might have been just that I was feeling too hot in my suit, streams of sweat running down my back and chest, soaking the waistband of my trousers.
I had expected Carlo's silence. However, he might have been preparing for that question, like me, for twenty years.
His answer was on the tip of his tongue, so ready as if he had rehearsed it -- and I did not have to wait.
"I had to flee, Laurent." I frowned, indicating I hadn't understood. "I was going to be arrested. I intended, however, to return to France." He sighed, and as if in slow motion, I watched his burnt hand fall loosely between his thighs. The hand he had burnt in a bonfire outside an abandoned factory in the suburbs of Paris, when he had burned his paintings, I now knew it. "But if... I never returned to our house... to our family life... it was for another reason."
Author's note: having been imported from a former version of the story, some of the comments below are dated previous to this post. Once the plot has not been altered, just the pagination, I am keeping them since they are very dear and precious to me.