"Good morning, Carlo!" We were greeted by Janice, the owner. She was a plump blonde with a cordial smile and childish voice who, at that time of the morning, doubled as the cook and the waiter. "And you must be his son..." She patted me on the shoulder. "What a handsome young man you are!" Her immediate familiarity was a bit awkward, and very American too -- I should have grown accustomed to it over the years, but I still felt like an expat in America. Her cordiality probably just meant that Carlo had spend some time talking to her about me, I thought. I still hadn't figured out what that morning was about to bring me. "I'm bringing you today's special, is that right, guys?" She winked, and I felt the more embarrassed. Had she seen me on one of the newspapers articles? No that they were publishing any of my nudes -- not that I knew.
The dining room was a breezy terrace on the third floor, at the back of the building. It opened right onto the waters of a canal giving way to smaller vessels, so they could reach the backyard of the mansions. The guesthouse itself was not located on the fancy margin where the luxury condos were, but it profited from their view. Should I make a compliment, like he had for The Nirvana Lounge, approving my father's choice? Was he expecting it? But what could I say about that tasteless melange of old and new furniture, and the random bric-a-brac misplaced as decor? 'Curious', 'charming', 'cozy'? I was fatigued and I couldn't think clearly.
In an expansive gesture that demonstrated her joy to have me in, Janice had indicated the view at my back and told me to enjoy it, before disappearing into the kitchen. I felt ashamed, when she was only trying to be kind, and I mentally dumped all her tchotchkes. I'd strip the wavy patterns from the walls, too, and... Whatever.
So, I was being expected at the guesthouse, it seemed. That made me again reflect on my father's expectations and intentions for our meeting at the Nirvana Lounge. How he must have carefully pondered on what he was going to tell me -- and what not.
"Why did you call me, Laurent?" Lost in thoughts, I had left Carlo for a moment, and his voice sounding so close to me, like it hadn't happened in the past twenty years, startled me and brought me back to the table. My father was there, again! Grown old, grown into a stranger -- but there, again! "Only now, after all this time?"
Because Dan Charmand had suggested it, that was the clearest reason of all. But I could not mention it to my father. Dan had thought on the prestige my father's presence would bring to my exhibition, and to his museum as well (and in fact, we could foresee how the brief apparition of the 'Hermit of the Brushes' at my show would cause frisson in the Arts World) -- I did not care about that, really. But when Dan had suggested it, he was simply translating a message that had been long sent from my heart but had gotten lost in the mist of my hectic life and had never arrived... back at my heart. I wanted my father to see the celebrated painter I had become.
I had felt lonely, and I had felt lost, without my father. But if that was the reason, I should have called him earlier, much earlier, when I was actually feeling desperate.
It was more honest to say that, with my exhibition about to open in such a prestigious museum, I had felt stronger to dare confront him. What if he would again reject -- but had he ever rejected me? -- or disdain me? What if, like Catherine, he would come up with some excuse to refuse my invitation? I could always hang up the phone with a shudder, and go back to my success -- and the prestige I expected my exhibition would bring. My success as a painter, both commercially and critically, would be the best revenge I could take on my father -- or the best reconnection, as things had turned out.
"I don't know, Carlo. It felt like the right thing to do. Something I wanted to do. After all this time." I wasn't lying. I just wasn't clear about my own intentions. I had dreamed of and hoped for that reunion, as much as I had feared it.
"I'm glad you did it, Laurent." Somehow, Carlo's half smile indicated how he did not seem satisfied with my answer. Probably, just like I sensed his insincerity, he had sensed mine, too.
The specials arrived. In a plate as big as a tray, laid before me were puffy potato pancakes covered with crème fraîche and chives, eggs with cheddar and bangers, black and white puddings topped with tomato jam, sided by brown bread and baked beans with sweet molasses. Crowning Janice's weird aesthetic sense, a leprechaun sat in the middle of the food plate, scowling and smoking a pipe. The tiny creature in a green suit was supposed to bring good luck, a proudly Irish Janice informed us.
It looked rich, even tasty -- but I didn't feel like eating. Not even if a true French croissant and the smoothest cappuccino had materialized. I had too much to digest in my mind, already.
Loads to reevaluate.
And suddenly it occurred me -- I had guessed it right!
I was indeed going to die at thirty three years old. Just like Jesus Christ. I had known it!
But instead of dying on the cross, I had died in a conversation. The Laurent I had known, the anecdotes about my birth, the facts about my family and my ancestors -- but especially the way I had pictured myself as a victim of my father's carelessness and negligence... all of it had died during that night.
And again like Christ, I felt I was resurrecting. But not immediately so. Not confidently so. I needed time. I needed space. I needed distance.
I was fully under the sun, that had made its way into the terrace, and its warmth was making me dizzy and sleepy. I had begun sweating again, and my shirt and underwear were dripping wet as if I had practiced sports -- but not in Armani, would I? When going out in Vice City, I'd usually carry sunglasses, since my intentions were to party the nights away into the mornings, or wake up in someone's bed -- but I had never expected my conversation with Carlo to last that long, and having not brought them, I was starting to get a headache from frowning. Or was it my anxiety for that evening's vernissage finally taking over, mixed with emotional exhaustion?
"Carlo, I need to leave now..." I tried to say it as quietly as possible, afraid I'd hurt my father's expectations for that breakfast he had ordered for us in advance. "I have to get some rest before I face the journalists, the patrons and the rest of the mob tonight... And maybe you should do the same..." In fact, I just wanted to be left on my own. I was pretty sure my mind would spin without letting me rest.
"Would you wait another minute, Laurent? Janice should bring dessert in a moment..."
Dessert for breakfast? The thought of more food was disheartening. For a moment, I felt drained, pushed beyond my mental limits. I couldn't take anything else in. My personal story had just collapsed. My mother had thoroughly lied -- exactly like her father, Gaston de Montbelle -- and consistently hidden things from me. When I had always thought she was my only ally, the only one to stand up and support me ever since Carlo had walked away on us.
"What is this?" I gasped.
But it wasn't so hard to guess what it was about, when I saw Janice coming from the kitchen balancing a seven layered rainbow sponge cake, impressively tall and slender like a thermal bottle. Buttercream, sugar, food coloring, Janice's cake was like a poisonous bomb, and the gayest thing I had seen in a long while -- but I shoved my criticism back where it belonged, and admired her good will and savoir-faire. She hadn't baked it that same morning -- I was indeed being expected at my father's guesthouse.
So my father had known, all the time!
He was aware that my vernissage had been scheduled for the day of my birthday -- a present given to me by Dan Charmand.
But Carlo had offered me the greatest gift of all, flying all the way from Italy and spending the afternoon and night prior to my birthday with me. The way our conversation had unfolded, we had even spent the first hours of my 33th birthday together.
I thought he hadn't known about it.
And now that.
I was trying to hold back my tears.
I hadn't properly celebrated many birthdays in life. We had half skipped them in Punaouilo, because we did not have the money, and the only guests at my discreet parties had been my parents, Will and Joanna, who would bake the cake. And in France, parties had never happened because my parents did not have many friends to invite, and I did not get along with any children from school. And also because, due to their quarrels, there was hardly ever the right mood for celebrating at our home. They had tried once, just after we arrived in France, to compensate the birthday I had spent on the ship -- but Carlo and Catherine bickered about the color of the candle, if sugar was healthy, whether I should be exposed to soft drinks, and it had never happened. Past -- like the tiny plastic dragons and other mythological creatures Janice had displayed around the cake and even escalating it, they were awfully ugly and deserved to be forsaken.
"Happy birthday, Laurent!"
"Happy birthday, my son!"
With an agonizing whine, a crane started at a nearby construction site -- I had once rented an apartment in that same neighborhood which was now under intense real estate speculation -- and Carlo drew me closer to him so that I would hear his wishes, that he made in Italian.
My father's victory had been anticipated -- for I have to confess I had felt jealous of Gabriel, when Carlo had hugged him so warmly, and I thought it quite unjust that on our departure he had even embraced Ted, the guard at the museum -- so that, defenselessly, I fell into his arms.
Un abbraccio è una battaglia?
I guess it's because Carlo had already mentioned Kierkegaard in our conversation during that evening, in his Parisian intellectual exchanges with Armand, but still, it's funny how that passage from "The Diary of a Seducer" popped into my mind -- and in Italian, since I had read the book translated into that language.
The battles that had preceded that hug had been fought internally, for the most part of this war. I had considered myself to be the greatest victim, but I now saw it hadn't been true.
There were many dead. Carlo's parents, and his grandmother, Tarso's wife, that he had never met. Tarso himself, dead for a few years now. Marie Heléne, Armand's mother, had retreated forever into her elegant retirement. And Gaston de Montbelle, grown senile not so many years after her, until he had retrogressed and faded into death. Celeste had lasted longer, though her last years, spent in the agonizing torpor of dementia, shouldn't count as years she had truly lived. Edoardo, too, Angelo's father and Catherine's last partner -- he had been only 53, when he died. And just the night before, I had been informed about Joanna's death.
Oddly, I felt all those people present in the hug I exchanged with my father.
We were just a few survivors left -- but still, overnight my family had grown bigger, if just with the addition of my uncle Armand.
And as a De Montbelle heir, I felt a new empowerment with the intention to mend my family's complex situation. It was still unclear how I should proceed to bring Carlo and Armand together again, or how to promote a fresh start between Armand and Catherine. And for that matter, reconcile Carlo and Catherine, too.
Which was so naïve of me.
As if they hadn't tried before. Through letters and telephone calls, through lawyers, even. As if it hadn't already happened, to a certain extent, without me knowing it.
"Have you told him, Catherine?"
"I haven't, Carlo. Are you going to?"
My parents had spoken a few times before my reunion with Carlo, like they had been speaking to one another over the latter years, at least once, when Catherine would update my father on me. And they hadn't fought the least to arrive to a common decision on what should be revealed during that evening at the Nirvana Lounge, to reconnect me with my father -- and what must be kept hidden.
Over their last telephone call, Carlo had learned from my mother about my upcoming birthday -- and thus, I owed Catherine that ugly beautiful birthday cake for breakfast. After all my dad had told, the best I could do was give Catherine the benefit of doubt, before condemning her for all she had done. Or should I blame my grandmother Celeste, instead?
But blaming and attributing responsibilities -- or taking responsibility -- would have to wait.
That morning in Vice City -- the town I had inhabited the longest, where I had loved and suffered the most, the city where I had built my career while letting everything else around me fall apart --, that morning I was happily led to think that my father, who usually lost track of time, who was always forgetting and mistaking dates, hadn't forgotten the day of my birthday over the years.
"Should I open the champagne?" Janice asked, cheerfully.
I usually don't drink alcohol -- have I mentioned that already?
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.