"Miss Mortinné has called, Mr. D'Allegro." Eyeing the clerk, as he fumbled the hotel's reception desk for a note, I wondered if I had ever seen him before. His facial features were fine, yet, it was his mouth to be exceptionally beautiful, full lips that he kept biting and licking to make them redder and lasciviously moist. Exactly like Angelo had -- or so I thought. "She has called... eleven times." I raised my eyebrows, because I did not expect someone would be counting how many times my mother had called -- she could be obsessive, I knew it very well. Did I see the clerk smirk, or was I already too fixated on his mouth, daring picture it wrapped on my shaft? "She requested us to inform you about that. We are terribly sorry, but the device in your room won't accept more than five messages." The clerk apologized profusely, and I wondered whether Catherine had created problems with her insistent calls, during the evening of my meeting with Carlo, due to the impossibility to record all eleven messages. "And Mr. Charmand called, too. Once. But there was no space for him to leave a message, so here it is." He handed me another note. "We hope you'll understand, sir." The clerk had briefly smiled, and I discovered his lips were nearly not big enough to accommodate an awful lot of crooked teeth. Reconsidering how being serviced by him might have been frightening, on my never ending quest for beauty I abandoned the clerk forever at the reception, after having thanked for the messages.
I called Dan straight away -- he just wanted to check that I was not freaking out about my opening that evening. "No dying your hair blue nor having a nervous breakdown, please!" He had seen artists panic before, but he just laughed when I confessed I was bringing along a new companion for the evening. "And let me guess... He is extraordinarily handsome, masculine, he has a body cultivated to perfection, a great smile and even greater pecs... Ha-ha! Whatever you need to validate yourself, Laurent. Just bring your pretty boy walking stick along, but be sure he won't divert the crowd's attention... You're the queen, tonight. See you later!" I wondered why Dan hadn't asked about my conversation with my father.
But I had decided not to return Catherine's several calls. She did reach me later, on my mobile, as I was on my way to the Museum, to briefly wish me "Joyeux anniversaire, mon chéri!" I was thankful that she had reminded my father about my birthday -- Catherine had never skipped it --, and was thus responsible for the lovely celebration I had had with him, but still... I was no longer so sure how I felt about my mother.
As much as I was angry with her for having hidden that much from me, I still feared any confrontation with Catherine. Could thirty three years of adoration and begging for her love come to an end because of her lies?
She had been all my family for the past twenty years -- for Celeste, who had never assumed her role as grandmother except monetarily, did not count.
Not a very loving mother, and often not protective -- after Carlo had left, Catherine never took upon her the homely tasks, and I had to learn to prepare myself some simple food and wash my clothes and care for my own transportation between my errands -- yet surely she was, and had always been, supportive. I had wanted to follow Angelo into that adventure of studying Journalism abroad, which had taken us to Vice City? She had paid everything without questioning my choice. Generous as she was, she had sent me double as much, knowing I would be paying for Angelo's expenses as well for a while -- when Edoardo had been unwilling to aid his own son.
And she hadn't been shocked nor shown any disappointment when I decided to quit the Journalism School. She never demanded me to continue with my studies nor choose an alternative academic career, though she valued education above all. She simply kept sending the money, allowing me to rent a studio, buy an easel and loads of art supplies to start my art career. With the "Hungerkünstler" haunting me at that beginning -- over time, instead of Kafka's story, it had become the code to my father's ghost --, I wasn't really sure if there would be a career in that at all, but I had to try it anyway. I only could do it with Catherine's support. Ultimately, I owed her having become a painter.
"As long as you don't do drugs, Laurent, you can count on me to aid you. Always." She had said, during one of our conversations, that I recall happening on a dark afternoon. I was feeling low after giving up university, and Angelo was out, probably hunting for anonymous sex -- not at the port or the park, since it was raining, but at the gay sauna or some mall. Her offer to back me, in a moment when I felt I was unmistakably losing my boyfriend, no matter how much I submitted myself to his will, had brought tears to my eyes.
But other times, her rather distant monitoring seemed like plain lack of interest, while sometimes it felt like she had a deep trust in me, a confidence much bigger than I had in myself, and that's why, without too much questioning, she allowed me to roam freely through life.
And that's what the ups and downs in our relationship were all about. If I was feeling well and my self-esteem was high, Catherine -- and how she had brought me up to be independent in several aspects -- seemed like the brightest, smartest mother of all. But if I was feeling low, having been rejected by a guy or an art gallery, what seemed a cool and mature behavior of a well resolved mother would turn into cold and cruel detachment -- not far from the consistent disconnection to the guys I hooked up with, and always dumped.
And having understood how I oscillated, in my worst period, after Angelo had dumped me, Catherine would continuously -- like never before -- check on me.
"It will pass, Laurent. Just don't do anything silly or extreme when you're suffering. Do you understand me?" It was as if my mother could read the suicidal thoughts that crossed my mind then. "Call me instead, oui? Anytime!" And for the few months that my desperation was underlying our conversations, she had been constantly calling. "I don't have to fear the worse, do I, mon cher?" Her concern was sincere and she had sounded unusually motherly.
Since my breakup with Angelo hadn't happened long after her companion and great love Edoardo passed away, too, we had tried a common recovery strategy.
"How many times did you get laid last week, chéri?" I would choke and blush at my mother's daring questions. It was Catherine who, a bit hysterically, gave me the idea to put as many men as possible between me and Angelo. "A talent like yours is not to be wasted, mon trésor!" She had always been proud of the fact that I was hung like Carlo, and I don't know of any other mother who would talk so openly to her son about his sex life. "You shouldn't be thinking about the dead, Laurent!" Of course, that worked for her as well, and though she was talking about Angelo, she might be thinking of Edoardo. I knew how Catherine had desperately loved Edoardo, and how his premature death must have been hard on her. "I'm not clinging to the dead, either!" She reassured me, and confronted with something as gravely important as death, crying for Angelo would appear rather trivial and vain. In the chiaroscuro of our suffering, I set myself on the lighter side against Catherine's grievance. But also because her loss had been definitive, she had overcome it -- while I, aware that Angelo was married and progressing in his life, torn between resentment and envy, never did quite overcome him.
But after having learned from Carlo about her farse, my feeling was that I needed time to reevaluate Catherine -- yet, I was also aware that I was under the push and pull forces of the tactics that divorced parents use on their children to gain their sympathy and preference.
Though, in my case, with a twenty years delay.
Not that Carlo had accused Catherine -- on the contrary, during our conversation he had always defended her against my rising tide of doubts and accusations, in which I had let my grandmother Celeste drown and sink to the bottom, already. But from the things he had told, if not by the way he had told them, my mother wasn't in her best shape before me, at that moment.
For that process of re-positioning Catherine in my life, certainly no longer at its core, I needed time, and time on my own -- but time on my own was something I absolutely dreaded.
I had never taken drugs, and alcohol just for a brief period -- sex was my addiction. Hooking up with a variety of men, and seducing them into my bed and on to the atelier -- though sometimes I feared painting them was just my social excuse, and a financial justification for having sex. Sex, not love, since I needed to keep my freedom at all costs, even to the cost of my own freedom, paradoxical as it seemed. How Carlo had put it himself? "I was enslaved by my freedom" -- his insightful words were well worth for me, but at last the insight was his and not mine, and I wouldn't live up to it, not yet.
Mitigating my loneliness might have been the true ground for my promiscuity, and I was aware of its emotional quick sand -- as much unable as unwilling to deal with the trap I had set for myself.
For the past few days, I had been trying to sleep with Gabriel in my hotel room -- but sharing a bed had always been a problem to me, even with Angelo, whose body and warm presence I had truly adored.
After finishing work, Gabriel came from the Nirvana Lounge straight to my hotel room -- or so I believed. He would wake me up, we would have sex and then fall asleep. But he would sleep well into noon, while I woke up sometimes before sunrise, if he tossed and turned in the bed too often.
My room, located on the corner of the building, had two walls of glasses from floor to ceiling. One of them opened onto the metropolitan landscape of the Northern half of the city, and would have been perfect for an exhibitionist, who could have thought of it as a display. Gabriel and I had already more than once made love against the huge windows, being protect by the heights but knowing such privacy was not quite complete. The glasses right in front of my bed gave to the Atlantic Ocean, where the sun would rise, and the eyes could wander freely and get lost in the endless openness -- sky and sea intensely flat and blue on some days, made more interesting when windy or rainy, as clouds moved across the sky in shifting masses of white and silver and plumbeous grey, the awakened waves rolling by in peaks, their whitewater spraying the air and telling of the impermanence of all things. That view felt pretty much like home to me, with the difference that from my house in Samsara Heights I could observe the Pacific Ocean instead, and there were no airplanes crossing the skies. In the evenings, it was as if Vice City had a landing for falling stars, I thought, as I observed their blinking lights approaching, sometimes coming directly towards my room. I loved the airport neighborhood for fueling my Wanderlust.
One morning, after some consideration and feeling I was ready, I decided to call Catherine. The days following the vernissage I had gotten busily involved with interviews, the first workshops, and a budding romance with Gabriel -- but time had come to finally confront my mother.
Much of our relationship had happened over the telephone during the last twenty years, since I had moved to Vice City, and then to Samsara Heights. Catherine still loved writing letters, but I always loathed her criticism, present even in our later epistolary exchange -- that I had simply quit when, like in my childhood, she had returned one of my letters full of corrections and suggestions for improving my style. Hadn't I developed the flawless grammar she had strained me to? She might have intended to help me with the Journalism School, but the effect was soul-crushing.
And that's how we picked up the telephone, and later the computer. I still recall how thrilled we were when we had our first video conference over the internet. I had to be very patient with Catherine, first convincing her to buy a new computer, and helping her to set it up with a camera. At that time, she was no longer living at our house on the French countryside, though she hadn't decided to sell it yet, and occupying the Parisian apartment on the Rue de Furstemberg, made vacant with my grandmother's death.
Because it was a wicked game to which I had co-created the rules, I called Catherine's number and let the phone ring and ring and ring several times, insistent and inconveniently. I knew she would pick it only when she considered I had more than enough begged to talk to her. And then, she might decide to go online -- or not.
I could have checked the hour in Russia, yet, I was aware it actually didn't matter. Catherine would talk to me whenever and only if she wanted to. After I had left her waiting for so long, keeping my mobile off since the moment Carlo had finally shown up at the Nirvana Lounge, and not returning her insistent phone calls, I knew she wouldn't be so easily willing to talk to me.
I had made the choice to ignore her -- now she would make me pay for it.
The practical reasons why Catherine never visited me abroad are well known already -- though she could have one day caught a cruise ship that would bring her straight to Vice City, since it was a port town --, but my own reasons for having returned just once to France in so many years were obscure even to myself.
Atonement. It was not by coincidence that Ian McEwan's beautiful novel was open on my side table that very moment. I had bought it the previous year, because I loved the author and was curious about whatever he released -- but also because the title had sounded so personal to me.
Not until I had found the courage to call Carlo and invite him to meet me in Vice City, did I open the book to read it. In my mind, and heart, the book had thus been intertwined with the reunion with my father -- but suddenly, atonement had much more to do with Catherine than with Carlo, who had been a toy in her hands pretty much like me.
I called her a dozen times that morning, as many as she had called me during the evening of my reunion with Carlo, to let her think I was desperate to talk to her. Yet, I wasn't sure whether she would return my calls, or if she had been counting the days I hadn't called her, so that now I would have to wait as many.
And so I waited, for my mother. What else could I do -- except, perhaps, get in bed again and poke Gabriel with my hard-on? The first night we had gone to bed was after the dinner given by Charmand to celebrate my opening -- Carlo, of course, had skipped it.
"Wow!" Gabriel had exclaimed, like so many guys before him, when he first took my shirt off and my wide shoulders were revealed. "Were you a swimmer, Lau?" My body was doomed to be a reminder of that which I wanted to forget most, especially before sex. His next 'wow' came after a whistle, when he knelt to take my underwear off. And I punished Gabriel, like the other guys before him who had mentioned the size of my shoulders, reminding me of my swimmer's days -- punished him with a seriously intense session of love making.
And since then, his Conan looks, along with his pretty bubble butt, that to me seemed to create a center of gravity in the hotel room, constantly capturing my stare and attracting my desire, had been getting me high and wild -- and at least sexually, Gabriel and I were getting along really fine.