| St. Petersburg, 2008 |
Catherine woke up to the mobile phone ringing and, for a moment, longer than usual, she didn't know where she was -- nor even who she was.
Trying to gain perspective, she averted her gaze from the headboard and its intricacies of dark wood ornately carved and inlaid with motherpearl or covered in gold leaves, a dangerous map of volutes where she could easily get further lost. She let her eyes wander about seeking for references. Heavy velvet curtains, their regal patterns faded under decades of dust, thresholds of a rosy marble that no longer shone, worn carpets that once had been precious and dignifying. Though the ambient her dumbfounded consciousness was confronted with, full of extravagant antiquities and elaborate plaster adorning the high ceiling, reminded her of Celeste's apartment -- the somber austerity and the exaggerated pomposity were unmistakably foreign to her. And instead of a bedroom scenting to Celeste's champagne and eau de roses -- or Catherine's own gin and patchouli, when she had occupied the Parisian apartment after her mother's death --, the smell of vodka and candle wax welcomed her to the Russian reality. And a seagull cry finally located her on the banks of the Neva. The river emitted a constant luminescence, be it a reflection of the sun, the moon, or artificial lights, so that the apartment, located on its margins, was always immersed in a phantasmagorical glow, inducing of nightmares rather than a peaceful sleep.
Again, during those brief moments of blurred confusion, Catherine panicked at the thought that she might be growing senile like Gaston, or demented like Celeste had, in the ends of their lives. Growing old, no matter healthy, slim and wealthy as Catherine was, was dooming enough for her. And then she remembered the investigations about the Rostoff dinasty that had primarily brought her to Russia, and dismissed her worries with a shudder. Her memory was functioning well enough -- she hadn't drunk so much the evening before as to forget who the handsome young man sleeping at her side was, nor how passionate he could be in bed, sometimes -- often enough.
She felt her morning bad humor worsening as "La Cumparsita" went on and on for a whole minute. That melody sounding in Russia was the only actual dementia, and the sole responsible for that was Vladimir -- or simply Vlad, as he seemed to prefer, reasoning it sounded better for global audiences. He had changed the tone of her mobile phone to the song he recalled most from the night they had first met, during an awkward Tango show, in a damp basement turned into a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg.
"It's so sensual, don't you think, Katerina?" The young man who was now snoring next to her, his sweat and breath smelling to vodka, had asked then, shouting above the music.
"This melody? Not at all!" Catherine clapped her hands, and observed Vlad blush at her dismissive, abrupt response. Intending to sound definitive, she spoke loud enough so that the rest of the table in the noisy restaurant could hear her remark -- although she wasn't sure how many people in the group could understand French. The young writer, advertised as a new Dostoyevsky, was too confident about himself, his talents and his good looks contributing in unequal parts to make him besotted, to the point of arrogance, with his own persona. Vlad was a slack Narcissus on the margins of a lake of vodka -- as much in love with his image as with the lake, always ready to drown in alcohol.
"Dancing to it, though, might be a sensual thing to do, don't you--" He tried again, after having capsized a full glass of vodka.
Realizing how he had picked her line and was about to turn his embarrassment into a charming invitation to dance, Catherine again left him breathless replying, "Dancing is something that shouldn't be done in public, especially when it consists of vigorous physical movements like these." Indicating her disgust, she nodded towards the dancers, who swirled on an improvised stage that seemed about to collapse at any moment. "So vulgar, don't you think? To be doing this in public, I mean. Yet, not sensual enough, when it comes to being sensual in private. I really wonder what kind of lovers these dancers would make..." Vlad's jaw dropped at her remark, once he was wondering himself what sort of lover Catherine would be. Her reputation of femme fatale had preceded herself, and though he had mercilessly elbowed someone, Vlad couldn't believe his tremendous luck to be sitting at Miss Mortinné's side.
Once Catherine was sure to have aroused Vlad's interest, she turned to the person next to her in the restaurant, and pretended to ignore him for the rest of the evening. It hadn't been easy, since it was a woman who spoke less French than Vlad did -- but she knew ignoring him was necessary. She wouldn't have to actually conquer him, leaving it to himself to surrender, in his struggle and efforts to win her attention. She did not need to glance sideways to know his eyes would no longer leave her -- they burned on her neck, as the young man went up in flames of desire and revolt.
Catherine was bored when it came to seducing young men. It was too easy to get them into bed, because they always had something to prove to others and to themselves. Especially that they were good lovers -- and with Vlad it had been exactly like that. As poor and cliché as it might seem, he was eager to have the approval of an experienced woman. Having remained beautiful and elegant at nearly sixty, she was a foreign author, famous and wealthy -- he would have to beat quite a line of candidates who were trying to get Catherine Mortinné into a Russian bed. She was playing hard to be the top prize for that season among St. Petersburg's intellectuals.
But because he also had to prove to be an extraordinary writer, Catherine thought of their relationship as conveniently commercial -- she could well use and profit from someone young, handsome, dashing and locally famous, to introduce her to the novelties of the Russian literary world, beyond the Academia that would snob her, or the bookshops where she was treated like a prom queen. Vlad was also happy -- though hurt in his pride -- to be seen as the protégé of an internationally acclaimed writer. Though she was far too much a bestseller, far too big a commercial success, for his pure and prejudiced academic standards -- and even for Catherine's own, sometimes.
As man and woman, their age difference of over thirty years only added in terms of public interest, if in private it created many conflicts -- lust, sleep, vigor, the frequency, everything had to be negotiated.
"J'adore that you can be so vulgar in private, Katerina!" Vlad had probably intended to compliment her love making, but perhaps mistaking 'vulgar' for 'sensual', to Catherine he had sounded plainly rude. Growing old, she was becoming increasingly sensitive about compliments, if, on the other hand, less and less did she care about external validations of her values and preferences. Whatever issues they had as a couple, broken French being the only common language between them didn't help, either.
"What else could I be, in your company?" She threw words meant to be icy, but that hit him like hot coals. And by his confounded look, Catherine realized he hadn't quite understood her disdainful irony.
"Don't you love me, Katerina?" Vlad was continuously asking that, during the couple of months their relationship had already lasted.
"As much as you love me, Vladimir." More than wry, Catherine had wanted to sound practical. She didn't expect the young man to madly fall in love for her, and she surely wouldn't divert from her personal investigations because of his sparkling, pensive green eyes.
"Katerina, your phone is ringing!" Vlad had finally woken up, when the "La Cumparsita" ringtone started its third loop. He snorted. "Someone is trying to reach you... Why won't you answer, Katerina?"
"Because I know who is calling, and I don't want to talk to him now." She was fully awake. Having sat on the edge of the bed, she wondered how to start another day in Russia. She had been wondering just the same, every morning she had spent on that dreaded tropical island, and on her French rural house, too, even when Edoardo had been by her side, and she would wake up to his kisses, or to his hands submitting her to his manly needs. A perfectly happy start for her days, she thought, was possible only at the 6e arrondessiment. She missed the apartment on the Rue de Furstemberg, though her rented home in St. Petersburg was fancy enough, and she missed Paris, no matter if sometimes St. Petersburg looked like a fake, plastered version of the city where she was born. She was in Russia on a mission, and determined as she was to discover the Russian branch of her family, she dismissed her longing.
"Do you think it's your gay son, Katerina?" Vlad did not hide his disgust at even having to use the word 'gay'.
"You know very well that I have only one son, Vladimir."
"And it's your gay son, isn't it?"
Catherine could not quite understand the medieval aversion Russians, and Russian men specially, above all Vladimir, seemed to have to homosexuality. She was inclined to think it was a way of life set out with too much freedom, diversity and liberation for a country which had been used to centuries of various totalitarian regimes. Too much food for a tight, tiny mouth to take -- and yet, that abusively opinionated mouth found it justifiable to scream and yell in prejudice, as if vomiting.
"Laurent is extremely handsome, elegant, charming, well educated and cultured." She paused. She could have been describing one of her best characters, but she was proud it was her son. "He is cosmopolitan and well traveled. He speaks and understands several languages ... in fact, any one with which he might have contact for over three months." Catherine looked at Vladimir, and wondered if one day he would be a bit like Laurent. Not that he was trying, speaking that wrecked French. The boy did not even hold a valid passport, did he? Vladimir had a long way to go, before he reached Laurent's shores, she thought. "He is very talented and imaginative, incredibly resourceful too, and able to create beauty all the time. The world seems far better and more beautiful in his company. Do you understand what I'm saying, Vlad?" She often wondered how much he understood from their conversations. She only hoped he did, because she wanted to shock him. "And I know he is good in bed, too, and has a legion of lovers. Oh, yeah, that's my gay son." She yawned discreetly as she stretched her arms.
Vlad was fully awake too, though still trying to create a nest of pillows and soft linens around him to go back to sleep. He slept in his underwear only, that resembling beachwear from the twenties, made his not so heavily Slavic beauty look old fashioned. His appearance, down to his sideburns and goatee, was that of a 19th century British dandy, though he behaved more like a gangster out of some black and white movie, and held opinions dating back to the Neanderthals. "If he is so wonderful and you love him so much," It was Vlad's turn to try to be ironic, "why, then, won't you talk to him?" He punched a pillow, perhaps to soften it, perhaps to look threatening, perhaps just to give way to his anger and frustration. He could be horny too, by the way he was humping the bed -- but weren't men in his age always?
"Because he is my son." She paused. That was a pretty good answer, and she mentally took note to use it in a future book. "And I'm still educating him. Yes, like all young people," Catherine had raised an eyebrow as she glanced at Vlad, indicating the message was addressed at him, too, "he still has a thing or two hundred to learn from me." She sighed, aware that some among the young learned faster than others, wondering what was her lover's speed. He was impetuous and fast in sex, though he could hold himself back when she ordered him to -- but intellectually, he was sluggish. He had plenty natural talents, but oblivious to how aging and decaying were implacable, left them uncultivated. "And of course, I cannot speak to him dressed only in my négligée..." Though her son held no Oedipus complex and would only demonstrate interest for Vlad's butt, if Laurent could lay eyes on him. Catherine had laughed at the possibility of the two young men meeting -- what a clash it would be --, and finally jumped off the bed towards the bathroom door. Pausing at the door knob, she braced herself for the burst of gold and old that was about to swallow her. Though it had the basic modern comforts, she wouldn't miss that golden bathroom, once she had left Russia. What would she miss, in fact? Not Vlad -- well, maybe his delicate, clumsy hands of villager boy turned poet, but certainly not their debates.
Catherine guessed Laurent would probably ask her to turn the computer's darn camera on. She would have to be prepared for his questions. She wondered if the proper attire and makeup were to aid her in a conversation she knew would be very difficult.