"Oh, Katerina, please let me sleep..." Vlad grunted from bed. Catherine had let him sleep through her not so silent process of getting dressed and applying makeup and perfume, but now she demanded his help.
"Then you shouldn't have messed with my mobile!" Typical as it was for the youthful, Vlad enjoyed playing with technology when he was bored, and had changed not just the ringtone to the kitsch "La Cumparsita" but several other configurations of her mobile, which Catherine tended to regard as mysteriously untouchable. "I want to call my son, Vlad. Now! How do I do it?"
"You just have to press the key where I've stored his phone number, Katerina... Try 1..." The young man groaned, as Catherine walked over to the living room, her high heels hitting the wooden floor intentionally hard like spikes, reverberating against the dark wood panels that covered the bottom half of the walls, yet being softened by the top half, upholstered in a golden and brown damask that had seen nobler days. The floor, alternating patterns of squares and lines between brown and yellow woods, was uneven, and some of the furniture trembled as she walked past -- the sconces fluttered like withered flowers about to fall, as the crystal cabinet emitted a curiously delicate tinkling symphony.
Catherine dialed 1, and Vlad's mobile started ringing from inside his backpack.
"Then your son must be number 2, Katerina!" Vlad was buckling with silent laughter underneath the sheets. "Please let me sleep..." He moaned. Catherine had purposefully left wide open the curtains that divided the bedroom and the living room, doubting the young man would get up from the bed to close them. When she first inspected the apartment, the estate agent had informed her those panels had been removed due to termites, but they would soon be replaced, and the curtains dividing the rooms were temporary. To Catherine, it seemed the damaged panels could have been removed a century or two ago, since the velvet curtains looked a hundred years old at least -- all very temporary still, depending on the point of view. She didn't care, really, once the apartment was well located and properly furnished with exquisite furniture that had belonged to decayed nobles. She intended to use the apartment on her own, and would only close the curtains when she had visitors -- though, somehow, that awkward curtain scheme reminded her of the Île du Blanchomme, and that was a part of her life she simply wished to forsake.
"Don't you always say French sounds like a beautiful lullaby?" She paced a little more, enjoying the sound of her own steps, in the known that they would be enough to keep her young lover awake. Maybe even make him lose his temper, and then he would make a scene and leave. "I hope you can lure yourself into sleep all through my conversation with Laurent!" She challenged him.
But Catherine wasn't in the mood for arguing about the childish joke her young lover had set up on her mobile, putting Laurent in second place. Otherwise, she might have just sent him home, to sleep at the horrible little old apartment without heating nor running water he shared with three other young writers, all very talented -- the new Gogol, the new Tolstoy and the new Chekov -- and equally penniless. But she actually pitied Vladimir -- the new Dostoyevsky --, helplessly struggling in an oppressive scenery of no opportunities, and she wanted to help him -- and the rest of the boys, too -- as much as she could.
She forgot him the next moment, though, and was so exultant when the call did get through, and Laurent's full, silky voice sounded on the other side.
"Catherine!" Upon seeing my mother's name on the screen, I had answered the telephone straight away. She might interpret that prompt answer as me being anxious to talk to her -- and wasn't I? -, an strategy that would reassure her that everything was fine on her front. Since she had called, she was expecting to be the one in control. I guessed if I did not attack her right at the start, she might lower her defenses, becoming more open to my questioning.
"Bonjour, chéri! How are you today?"
"I'm alright, Catherine..." I murmured. Maybe I should go into the bathroom for privacy?
"Why are you whispering, dear? Where are you? You're not in another of those useless meditation retreats, are you?" She snorted, demonstrating her dissatisfaction at the idea. "Can we talk or should I try it again later?" When, still speaking low, I told her I was in my hotel room, she immediately guessed, "So you're not alone, are you? Who is he?"
"It's ok, Catherine. We can talk. We have to talk!'"
Did I hear my mother gulp as I prompted her? Anyway, she was completely silent, and that meant she wasn't facilitating things for me. She was already defensive.
"Why, Catherine?" My voice broke as anger and sadness clashed in me.
"Just because, Laurent." She had answered, still cheerfully. "Of course I cannot give a more appropriate answer to your question, since I don't know what it refers to. You haven't regressed to that age, after having spoken to Carlo, when you were asking 'why' all the time, have you?"
My childhood. It struck me how I had adored Catherine. Suddenly, I felt touched about how I had struggled for her attention and approval. How I had worshiped her and fought for her love, battling against things that I had barely comprehended -- letters and books. Things I would later bring into my own life in an effort to share my mother's same planet. A fictional planet, it seemed, full of fantasies for her readers -- while lies had been reserved mostly for me.
All the while, she had been cheating on me, lying to me, hiding my own story from me. Pretty much what Gaston, with his second family, had done to Marie Heléne and Armand -- and again, I felt connected to my uncle.
Above all, it seemed an unjust pay off to my desperate, obedient adoration for Catherine all through life.
"Why? Why have you hidden my family from me, Catherine? Actually, why have you deprived me from having a family?"
"Are you again talking about Carlo and the reasons why he left us, Laurent?"
"That too, Catherine. But we will come to it later. I'm talking about my uncle!"
"Uncle!" Catherine gasped. "And you are talking about..." The curiosity in her voice ringed thoroughly fake.
"Armand! Who else?"
"That!" She snorted again, emphasizing her misprize. "He is just your half-uncle."
"Don't play with words, Catherine. Not today, not with me -- not any longer! And what about Gaston? Why have you kept me from meeting him?"
In the brief silence that followed, I could hear Catherine's high heels echoing as she paced her apartment in St. Petersburg -- and that had been the sound setting the rhythm of our conversations for the past decade. Catherine had always been wearing them, as far as I could remember -- at least, since we had reunited in France, when I was eight years old. In her youth, my mother had been famed for her daring and elegant way of walking. Mr. Truffaut had wanted to invite her as an extra on his famous sequence in 'The man who loved women', but in 1977 she had been abroad, on her involuntary exile.
"I did not, Laurent. Your grandmother did. Carlo must have told you. She held us in Punaouilo." She gulped, and her nervousness was not insincere. She dreaded any mention of her tropical exile, as if she could be sent back anytime. "All the while, I wanted to go back to France. Taking you with me, of course!"
"That's not what I mean, Catherine." And that was not what she had done, leaving me behind when finally had had the opportunity to flee. But those were old wounds, and I wanted to concentrate on the most recent. "You were lying to me, when I asked about your father... my grandfather... Gaston..."
"I never lied to you, Laurent. I said you did not have a grandfather, and you didn't. To the same extent that I did not have a father, do you understand that?" She sighed. "Because you were not legally a De Montbelle, and Gaston would never have recognized you, just like he wasn't willing to recognize me... What else should I have told a child? How could I have explained legal problems to you? There are no such meanders to a child, Laurent. Just rejection, believe me. And after all, that's the reason why your grandmother kept us in Punaouilo. She didn't want me to fight for my rights." Or what I have always imagined to be my rights, Catherine thought, but it was too early to talk about that to her son. "She thought I was going to hinder her relationship with Gaston by taking him to court, and she kept me away until he was already in his deathbed, completely senile."
"Carlo has explained that to me, Catherine." Either it was the final truth, or another lie they had put up together. "Still, you lied to me! You used to say my grandfather was dead, when Gaston was still alive..."
"I don't think so, Laurent." She paused. "No, I didn't. I remember it clearly. I only gave you that answer when we were in France, already. And by then, Gaston was dead indeed." Again, what she said confirmed Carlo's retelling of the story. "Are you calling me a liar, Laurent?"
"Didn't you lie to me about my birth? And how you and Carlo had met in Punaouilo and--" I now moved through my own story like in a maze, so many walls to dumbfound me having been added too recently, "Why did you hide the Île du Blanchomme and my uncle Armand from me, Catherine? Or were you actually hiding me from the De Montbelle family?"
"I did not hide you from Gaston -- your grandmother did! And I did not hide you from Armand. He is perfectly aware of your existence, Laurent. Just like he was about mine, after he and his mother discovered about Gaston's double life..." Her breath had become heavy, and I realized Catherine, having never cultivated equanimity, could not talk about the past with detachment like Carlo had. "And yet he never tried to contact me, are you aware of that, too? Actually, what did Carlo tell you?"
I tried to summarize the first part of my conversation with Carlo, our tropical years and my parents' torrid affair on the Île du Blanchomme.
I might have been talking too loud, since I had already grown completely oblivious of Gabriel, but when I checked he remained sound asleep. Gabriel's working routine made him very tired, and I always tried to preserve his sleep. I was just glad the carpet on the hotel room must have muffled my barefoot steps, and my voice too.
"I hope you'll understand the reason why I've hidden the De Montbelle family from you. And please don't refer to Armand as your uncle, as if he was family, as if he was..." She hesitated, "dear to you! I'll repeat it... he has always been aware of your existence, and he has never tried to contact you, chéri... Why should I let you suffer from his disdain, when I know exactly how appalling it feels, Laurent? I did not simply lie to you. I have protected you from his scorn!"
"How can you say that, Catherine? How can you shrink my family and say it was for my own sake?"
"Listen to yourself, Laurent! You think I am trying to hurt you. Your own mother! But I was protecting you, don't you see? You are thirty three years old... and for all this time, though aware of your existence, I repeat, Armand has never tried to contact you. That's what is breaking your heart, Laurent, and that's what I've always tried my best to avoid."
It was hard for me to understand Catherine's feelings on that matter. Almost impossible, I should say, since I had learned about Armand just a few days ago. And she had lived under his shadow for fifty eight years now, always comparing herself to him -- and losing, as from birth she had been destined to. How could I understand how being a bastard, an illegitimate child had affected her? She had not been recognized by her father, and never accepted by her brother -- and for thirty three years, on top of that, Armand had ignored me, too, increasing her revolt and suffering. At that point, I still didn't get any of that, and I couldn't sympathize with Catherine.
"You should have given me the choice to decide for myself, Catherine."
"Decide on what? Now that you have the chance to do something about this matter, you're doing it all wrong! You're not begging for that man's attention! I forbid you, Laurent! We only talk to him through lawyers! Do you understand me?" She had raised her voice at me, but at the same time, the sound of her high heels had stopped. She was no longer pacing, frozen in place -- and was that place her own past?
"That's your story with Armand, Catherine." I retorted, unmoved by her suffering. "It's not mine. I want a fresh start with him... I don't care about the money... It's all about the money for you, isn't it, Catherine? This whole mess--"
"It was never about the money for me, Laurent."
"How can you say that, Catherine? Did Carlo lie when he said you've taken Armand to court? Oh, no, even before that, Celeste was already disputing the money--"
"And your grandmother won, to a great extent! It was a just decision. Armand has not even tried to question it further, did you know that? She did help Gaston in making considerable profit and increasing the De Montbelle fortune, and that has been proved. Your grandmother was very influential in the social net of businessmen and politicians she built around herself, and Gaston knew how to take advantage of it. They were a good match, actually." Her voice caught. "And you've benefited from that already, Laurent. Let us be fair. The money you've inherited from Celeste... a lot of it came through Gaston!"
And with that money, I thought, I had built my dream house on a promontory on a secluded beach near Samsara Heights. Pointed towards the Pacific Ocean, from the living room and my bedroom, with windows from floor to ceiling, I could watch storms approaching -- and they came from the direction where Punaouilo used to. A bit like it was happening at that very moment, though that was an emotional storm.
I had never asked about the money's provenance. I had never questioned the humongous amount I had inherited, no matter how implausible it had seemed coming from a theater's ex-diva. My grandmother had always lived so well, her table always topped with imported delicacies and the best wines. Her wardrobe held several unique pieces by the best French couturiers, and more than once we had been contacted by prestigious museums who wanted to house and display her collection. Like if it were a museum itself, she had lived on the Rue de Furstemberg's apartment surrounded by works of art and luxurious furniture -- if Catherine would sell just one or two paintings from Celeste's collection, for instance the Matisse and the Chagall, we would have enough money for the rest of our lives. Catherine and I had agreed about not selling them -- since we had money for the rest of our lives, already. De Montbelle money, apparently.
A money I had very happily used. And the perspective was there was more money for me, now that I was the last De Montbelle heir.
"It was never about the money, for me." Catherine's voice had again softened. She had just parted one of the curtains in the living room, and seeing the Neva and the array of historical pretty buildings on the other margin always pacified her. Whenever she was entangled with a scene from her book, or legal questions about the Rostoffs, she just had to glance out of the window to remind herself she was living in St. Petersburg, like she had always dreamed. "Maybe Carlo has influenced me more than I would like to admit, and I've learned to live a relatively simple life, ha-ha..." She giggled, as she looked at the room full of antiquities. "It was about dignity for me, Laurent. For us! Do you realize it?"
Catherine's quest for a family name. Though so similar to my own issues, that was something I could not quite grasp yet about my mother -- her quest for acceptance, approval, and validation, sprung from the crib. It was a core hollowness. Even with Gaston dead, the De Montbelle's influence and importance reduced and ever fading -- she still wanted to have his name on her birth certificate. It was about honor, or justice as she understood it.
"I respect that, Catherine." My disposition for fighting had subsided, as I looked out through the windows and realized the sun was already shining. From the heights of my room, the city looked like a game map laid with miniatures, that I could scoop and reorder at my own will. Behind the glasses, it was colorful, silent and unpolluted -- and I was aware it was not. But if I allowed my criticism to be cooled by the air conditioning from the room, instead of fueled by the scorching sun outdoors, I could appreciate that it was going to be another beautiful day in Vice City. And I had a beautiful man in my bed. After making love, we could go to the park, or maybe drive to a beach and spend the day out of town. It was Gabriel's free day, and I had nothing scheduled myself. My present was actually good, and would be better still if I could let go of my past. But could I? I pressed on. "If I may ask... Is it really justice... or simply revenge?" Or vanity, since I have to confess I was also thrilled about adding De Montbelle to my name, for the family name's prestige and pedigree remained.
"I hear another question behind that one." Being a professional writer, Catherine was very perspicacious with words and their meaning. "Is it just or unjust? Fair or not fair? Good or evil? I'm being judged behind that question, isn't it so, Laurent?"
"I'm not being judgmental, I'm just trying to understand all this mess. You've never loved Carlo, Catherine! Yet, you snatched him from Armand, from your half-brother," I avoided saying 'my uncle', no matter how sweet that sounded to my ears, "who truly loved Carlo.'
"What do you know about Armand, Laurent? What do you think you know about him? Anyway, Carlo did not love Armand. And he wasn't pretty much in love with me, either. The whole mess, as you put it, did not involve as much love as you think. You have never dated anyone since..." Catherine silenced before pronouncing Angelo's name, and it was loving from her part that she was still so careful about my old wounds, "but you remain being a romantic. Maybe some things are not clear for you yet, and you are missing the right perspective here." She took a deed breath before adding, "Carlo did not leave Armand because of me... He left Armand... for you!"
I gasped. I had arrived to the same painful conclusion, but coming from Catherine, it sounded the more cruel. "So... I am responsible for separating Armand and Carlo?" One more perspective on which my father and mother seemed to coincide. And yet, it was awkward to me that, just like my father had implied, I had responsibility in keeping him separated from me for the past twenty years. And now my mother telling me I had changed the life of three adults when I was just a fetus yet.
"You are now thirty three years old, Laurent! It's time you understand your own participation in the lives of others. No matter how central, you are not like the Sun and we are not planets evolving around you." I'm sure she wasn't thinking of the song 'The Sunrise Son' when she stated that. "Our lives did not start with your birth, Laurent. Yet, you changed them forever. Your father gave up a few things, while I gave up others, many others..."
"You've always made that so clear, Catherine!" I exclaimed, and in the back of my mind I thought I had yelled at my father more than once. Never yet, not even once, at my mother. Just like Carlo, I remained being submissive and obedient to her? "I now understand how I have destroyed your life. Should I apologize? But in this process you might have doomed Carlo's life as well, not to mention Armand's--"
"Stop it now!" She interrupted me. "Don't be ridiculous, Laurent! That's so melodramatic, and egocentric of you! You have destroyed nothing. Your father is a well known and wealthy painter, just like he wanted to be. He has achieved his dream, which was making a living from this art. Armand won the Pritzker Prize, to say the least. I have had a different career from what I had pictured for myself, but nonetheless fulfilling. And even the trip to Russia, that should have happened after my vacations in the Indian Ocean, three decades ago..." She paused, as if indicating that those three decades implied my birth and upbringing. "It has finally come true, and here I am, in the company of the new Dostoyevsky!" She laughed gently.
Back in 1974, Catherine had been trying to obtain money from Monsieur de Montbelle to live in Russia. Her purpose was to track down a seventeenth century mystic writer who she believed had been a woman disguised as a monk. And Catherine had been right -- her professor had carried on her research, and gotten all the praise and recognition for that amazing discovery. Without ever mentioning it was Catherine's discovery. For the French academic world, she might have as well drowned in the Indian Ocean.
"There is nothing to blame yourself for, Laurent." Catherine was trying to reassure me by lessening the damage of my birth in her own life, as well as in Carlo's and Armand's. Why did she bother to even try to be motherly sometimes?
"I understand what you're saying, Catherine. You have carried on with your professional lives and everything worked out very fine for all of you... But still--" I stopped. Suddenly, the thought strike me that, had Carlo chosen to stay with Armand to live their love, I would have been left like Catherine with a blank space in my birth certificate. If she hadn't snatched her half-brother's man, what kind of fatherless life would have I led? In a way, I could now understand why Carlo had always defended Catherine.
Had Catherine been a feminist, she would have carried Carlo's seed in herself and raised a child on her own. But because she had been a bastard child, she had made sure to bring my father along with her -- and since Carlo had been willing to follow her, it hadn't been that hard.
In fact, in a period when feminists were agitating to pass the law that would ban paternity tests in France, Catherine's extremely long, posthumous process of recognition against Gaston de Montbelle led her to be demonized in several intellectual circles -- and that extended torment coming from her peers, that was again exiling her in her own country, had been another reason that influenced her in going to Russia, and that led her to accept the invitation to teach at the Faculty of Philology in St. Petersburg State University, where she would remain for almost five years.
"Let me get this straight!" Catherine snorted. "Are you defending Armand? Who never wanted to have any contact with you? Listen to me again, Laurent. He has been aware of your existence for thirty three years and--"
"No, Catherine." Armand had to be sacrificed, I suddenly understood it, for my own sake. It was bad and sad that it had happened that way, but it could have been worse... for me! Perhaps I owed him apologies? "I'm just considering whether you have done with him what you have done to Carlo... Saying that he shouldn't come looking for me if I did not look for him in the first place... That was so selfish of you, Catherine..." I finally blurted my biggest resentment in the whole story. That she had mercilessly kept my father and I separated
"Mon Dieu! You are going after Armand!" Catherine's strategy of concentrating on Armand actually helped her avoiding the issues involving my father. "You are not going to humiliate yourself before that man, Laurent! Just a few hours in Carlo's company and you are again humble and submissive like him?" She paused, all of a sudden. "Oh no, I can't believe it!"
"You should believe it, Catherine!" I was determined to meet Armand, and my mother's opposition only strengthened my convictions that it was the right thing to do. I was going to look for my uncle Armand, and talk to him. I wanted to locate the Île du Blanchomme, too -- a quick search on the internet had brought no results, none whatsoever -- and visit the place of my conception.
"No, it's not that! I mean, it's not about Armand! Didn't you hear that beep? My mobile is running off its battery... Someone tried to call me the whole morning and now..."
"Don't lie to me Catherine!" I was closer than ever to yelling at my mother. Instead, I just hissed my dissatisfaction. Such a cheap trick she wanted to use on me, as an excuse to end our discussion.
"Stop accusing me, Laurent. Do you think I want to interrupt this conversation on purpose? If you want to, we can turn our computers on--"
But Gabriel had just opened his eyes, and was addressing his gorgeous smile at me. Since I wasn't ready yet to let Catherine see my new lover's butt on the cam, and I was very nervous and exasperated already, I simply sighed as the call ended with one last beep from my mother's phone.
And just because Catherine had so vehemently forbidden me, my impulse was to turn on my laptop and try to find my uncle Armand on the internet -- he was well known and it shouldn't be hard to find his architectural firm contacts -- and phone him right away.
But instead, I heard Gabriel asking from the bed "Is everything alright, Lau?" -- and just because I hated that nickname, I decided to punish him with a long, vigorous session of love making and just drown myself into forgetfulness again.