It wasn't exactly love between Gabriel and me, at first -- nor was there love at last, or at all, in the end of our relationship.
It was mutual attraction. Sex was merrily addictive. We should just have become stable sex buddies. But instead, personal circumstances and the historical moment brought us closer together than we ever planned to be.
"I cannot wait until you come back to Vice City!" Gabriel had been completely sincere and showed his disappointment when I said it might take me two months, or more, to return for another workshop at the Museum.
"And how long can you wait?" Normally, I wouldn't have cared. Not even tried to commit myself to him. But reconnecting with Carlo, learning about Joanna's death, finding out that I had an uncle -- all that had cracked my heart open and made me softer, and for the first time in a long row of one night stands I felt the willingness to be in a relationship. It felt like a weakness and a setback, especially in Vice City where the worst part of my love affair with Angelo had unfolded -- but it was also the dawn of my healing process. It could have been with anyone minimally willing to commit -- and it was with Gabriel, who had witnessed my reunion with father. I was grateful that he had wanted to take the extra job to open the restaurant just for us -- though he must have been thinking just on the money. Or perhaps because he knew who I was, and wanted to meet me.
From the start, Gabriel had opened our relationship -- which was based not just on mutual attraction, but on mutual interests as well.
I hadn't been painting since a few months before the exhibition at Vi/CAM -Vice's Contemporary Art Museum. I was aware the cycle of portraits of ex-lovers was over -- though I wasn't aware that the abundant cycle of ex-lovers was over as well --, and I'd have to find a new theme for a new series.
But what could be as dashing, yet not repetitive? Watching Gabriel growing his hair and a beard, constantly modulating his voice and trying to impersonate different characters he auditioned for -- I was his only spectator in private -- led me to think he might make a good theme. At least, the only one I could think of, at the moment.
I should have learned from Cindy Sherman, whom I had met once in a reception at New York's MoMA, to stick only to my own figure as a motif, and not depend from anyone else to paint. Gabriel, of course, had loved the proposal to be my model and the sole theme of a new series of paintings -- he was always searching for whatever personal promotion he could get to boost his career, and he seemed to strongly believe in my talent both as painter and promoter.
But that 'Gabrielian' series never came to be, though it ignited a common euphoria that perpassed all our conversations, outings and even our love making.
During the first weeks together, I took hundreds of pictures of him -- had I been a photographer, my work was done already. But those pictures were only the basis for my new series, that I kept telling myself I'd start painting as soon as I got back to Samsara Heights and my atelier... Still, it was hard to leave his side -- especially in bed -- and our conceited routine of restaurants, bars, clubs and gym. We were maniacs dedicated to being obsessively charming, and there was hardly a more narcissistic couple at the time in Vice City. Mirroring each other's vanity, we both gleamed, tanning under the sun of hedonism.
But we were at the brink of the free fall of the Empire.
Totally oblivious to the rest of the world from within the self-absorbing bubble of our newborn love, we did not foresee the disaster, the financial tsunami that was heading our -- and almost everyone else's in the country -- direction, though the signs were constantly arriving at our shores.
Often, Gabriel would come to my hotel room saying the clientele at the Nirvana Lounge was acting strange. People were hysterically getting drunk, ordering the finest, most expensive plates, and giving away greater tips, as if burning money -- but often as a form of farewell, since many of the usual customers were not returning to the restaurant. He saw them, day after day, leaving the building in a row, their stuff packed in a box, as they lost their jobs.
One evening, when Gabriel was free but still trying to get over a hangover from the previous night, and we were considering once not going out -- otherwise, we were going to restaurants and clubs every single night, often on invitations I received for my escalating popularity with 'The Dark Room' exhibition, or through Gabriel's many acquaintances --, he received a phone call.
I knew it was something grave from the look of terror in which his face froze, as he listened while babbling a series of yeahs in different intonations -- "Yeah.", "Yeah...", "Yeah?", "Yeah!" Until that evening, observing Gabriel, I had never guessed 'yeah' could be such an expressive word. In his third 'yeah', he had started shivering and breathing heavily -- and that once, he was not impersonating, nor pretending, nor just trying to impress me.
When he put the mobile down by his side, he remained sitting on the balcony, immobile. He would often freeze in a posture he thought was particularly good, and ask to be photographed, or simply let himself be admired. But that was not the case. Gabriel was absent, his golden eyes vague, his whole golden figure shining less than it normally would, even if the apartment was in the dark. Gabriel's figure naturally captured whatever source of light there was, no matter how far, like the moon, or how dim, like a lighter, and his beauty would shine brighter than everything around. Not that evening, though -- it was as if someone had turned him off. I called him but he wasn't listening to me, and I had to leave the bed, where I had been waiting, ready and expectant, that he would ride me.
"It was Tim, from the Lounge." He startled, when I touched his thigh, seeming genuinely surprised that I was before him, as if I had materialized out of thin air. "A guy has shot himself in the toilet." He silenced, and I had to hug him tight, until he stopped trembling. Gabriel went on, summarizing the news. "When the other costumers heard the shot, they were afraid a mad shooter might be entering the restaurant. Hell broke loose, with people trying to escape towards the elevators. It was a bloody mess. Bloody, really. A woman fell from her high heels and was trampled over smashed cocktail glasses." He tried a sad smile, that came out as a scowl. "The restaurant will be closed for a while."
After he calmed down, having rejected the tea I offered him and taken a couple of beers, we went on the internet to read more news. Gabriel knew the guy who had shot himself -- apparently, one of his best customers, an impeccably well dressed, handsome Asian guy who was chief risk management officer to one of the banks occupying the building. The guy was always laughing at Gabriel's jokes and giving generous tips, smilingly -- he also displayed a very confident smile at the pictures that had remained of him on the internet. He was the first demi-god to fall -- the Angel of the Annunciation of the End of Times. It was September, 2008.
"I might have saved him... if I was there?" Gabriel was sincerely touched with that guy's death, and I seemed unable to comfort him. He never refused sex, never was too tired for it -- but that evening, he did. And he did not want to go out, nor watch a movie nor do anything that would normally have cheered him. He just wanted to lie in bed, cuddling, and I was happy to oblige.
The Nirvana Lounge was to never open its doors again. It had been the haven of financial market professionals -- and as the global crisis exploded, the lounge became doomed, being washed away from the glamour circuit by a tsunami of Pure Love, Angel's Wings and other fancy cocktails, drowning in its own sea of the most expensive champagne.
The day Gabriel learned he had lost his job, just to be sure before I offered to back him up for a while, I decided to check my bank account. Coming from every direction and different sources, the news were alarming, and even though I tried to play it cool, I was frightened too. But even by trying to keep my eyes closed I was no longer avoiding seeing the scenery of desolation and devastation around us.
And I discovered I had lost 30% of the money I had in my bank account, since the last time I had checked it.
The following few days I was to lose more, and it was announced that my bank faced bankruptcy. Yet, my situation wasn't as bad as Gabriel's -- he had never saved any money, spending all his wage and tips to pay the rent of his tiny flat and in clothes and going out. Without a job, he did not have how to pay that month's rent already -- and since I was made afraid by the ever decreasing numbers from my bank account, I decided to leave the hotel, that was no longer being paid by the Museum -- I had come to stay in Vice City for ten days, but because of Gabriel I had stayed almost a month now --, and move in with Gabriel.
His apartment was tinier than the hotel room. At least green was predominant, and being my best loved color, I had many green clothes with me, making me feel a bit at home, like just a chameleon would. It was so small that the bathroom was doorless, which was very embarrassing -- but also nearly a tradition in my family, from what Carlo had told me about the Île du Blanchomme. It consisted of a single room, with the kitchen in one corner, near the entrance door, a small table for two with stools instead of chairs, and a twin bed, that could also be arranged as a lounge area. A mirror covered the wall behind the bed, turning sex into a private show in which we indulged observing ourselves, fueling our narcissistic nature.
The owner had decorated the apartment as if it were a garden -- the wallpaper reproduced hedge, birds and butterflies hanged from the ceiling, swaying among colorful paper lanterns in the form of stars that, when lit, were supposed to bring in the sky. The decor ranged from a life-size plastic pink flamingo in the shower to plaster gnomes grudgingly staring from the corners. Gabriel had at least hidden the plastic flower curtains and put white blinds instead, turned off the neon rainbow, and bought a white duvet to cover the otherwise flowery pattern that matched the carpet. It was funny, if one were humorous, and definitely ugly and kitsch, no matter what mood I was in.
The worst problem was Gabriel's mattress, which was too soft for me. Every morning, I would wake up with my back aching. Not only the pain was horrible, but it also made me feel terribly old. So much that in the middle of the nights I would slip out of bed to sleep on the floor. And because Gabriel enjoyed cuddling during sleep, without even asking me why I had decided to sleep so uncomfortably, he simply started joining me on the floor.
Cuddling to sleep on that cheap carpet is among the loveliest memories I have, from the couple of years we spent together. To Gabriel, it felt somewhat dramatic and he enjoyed pretending that we lived like two homeless men, as around us the world continuously collapsed and shrank in an economic crisis unprecedented in our lives. That reminded me of the many difficulties my father had faced all on his own, in the old abandoned factory in Paris, on the cargo ship to Punaouilo, the night he had slept out at that unknown port in the Indian Ocean, feeling lonely, cold and afraid of the rats, and how he had slept in his car on his escape to England... Sleeping on the floor somehow connected me to Carlo, though I wasn't actually sleeping rough, and I had my gorgeous boyfriend nestled in my embrace.
Since Gabriel was completely broke, I started paying everything for the two of us. It was gloomy when I had to cut eating out and our nightly clubbing. Though I still had money in my bank account, I had discovered it was not actual money, but just a number. A number that had been ever and steadily increasing over the years, was suddenly and quite dramatically plunging. I did some calculations -- and I was bad at Mathematics -- and realized that it was as if I had never sold any paintings during my entire career -- that money I had thus earned, had simply evaporated. And now, it seemed, Celeste's money was being taken away from me, too, and that left me angry, perplexed and fearful. Hadn't my grandmother's money been legally handed over to me? Hadn't I paid all the heavy taxes? How could I no longer own that money, how could someone else take it away from me? But then... who was this 'someone else', actually?
And it got worse, when Gabriel's brother lost his job in a construction site and went to live in a tent in Florida. Gabriel asked me to lend money to his brother, and of course I couldn't refuse it, though I might never see that sum again. And it got worse -- not only were my boyfriend and his brother broke -- apparently, my bank was broke too, and that's the first time I heard terms in English like bailout, foreclosure, derivatives.
And the worse it got -- the building where The Nirvana Lounge used to be had many of its floors empty now --, the closer Gabriel and I became, our budding love the only antidote possible to the ruins that surrounded us. Our bonds seemed to tighten and strengthen as everything else around us declined and decreased.
And it got even worse, when my marchand said he was closing shop, too. It was then that I realized I had myself been part of that so called 'housing bubble' -- people needed to decorate their recently acquired houses, and among these people, some wanted to decorate their houses with art instaed of junk, and for the coolest among those, I was an emerging artist considered to be an excelent investment, rated triple A by the art market and endoserd by some major museums and cultural centers. But just like everything else, it seemed I had been under speculation as well, and when these incipient art investors weren't able to to pay their mortgages -- or my marchand --, my paintings were plainly abandoned to dust on the walls of their judicially foreclosed houses. Heinrich, Patrick, Craig, Jhun -- my ex-lovers had become specters in emptied houses all over the country, and I wondered if I would ever see them again -- or the money I had not received for some of them --, if they would go to auction or be incorporated into the collection of some bank that would take back the fully furnished houses. It was not a good moment for art, and consequently, not for my career, and ultimately not for me. My rapid ascension had been brief, it seemed.
And the worse it got, the more Gabriel and I tried to cling onto each other and to our fragile love, as we try to build it in opposition to the mass destruction of the American dream -- and the fall of our own personal projects, of becoming a renowned painter in a world that collapsed into stagnation and scarcity, or a famous actor in theaters that were silently and melancholically being closed.
But I realized that, no matter how things went from bad to worse economically for people all around me -- my friend Darren had also lost his job and position as a prestigious chef in one of the best restaurants in Samsara Heights and was currently occupying my house --, all around the world, they weren't so bad for me personally. I still had in my bank account (actually, it still 'luckily' enough belonged to a bank, that had been bailed out) a figure that could carry me on through many years. And thanking both Celeste and Catherine, I let go of my worries about the immediate future -- and to be honest, I couldn't quite keep out of my mind I was the latest De Montbelle heir, too, and I fantasized about owning the famed Château one day.
On the other hand, as I have already shared, because Vice's Museum had lost many of its sponsors and the exhibition's schedule was suddenly put on hold, Dan asked me to extend my exhibition indefinitely, and my series of workshops, that were fun and brought people to the museum, especially the young crowd, were to be prolonged too.
And I had a new, stunningly handsome and utterly sexy boyfriend.
Gabriel was luminous. Even his dark side had a tinge of irresponsible rapture that made him shine like a star. I confess I was insecure by his side, and I paid his rent and gave him money just because I feared he might become a rent boy once he run short of money -- just like Angelo had. Gabriel loved wearing new fancy clothes that adorned his gorgeous body, carefully sculpted at the best gym in town. His beautiful hair demanded a lot of care too, and his golden skin was not tanned at the polluted city beaches nor any public swimming pools, but with dosed weekly tanning sessions at a luxury spa -- that would soon close its doors, too. Since my needs where comparatively meager, I tried to spoil Gabriel by maintaining some of his privileges. He seemed grateful and I indulged in being generous -- evading the shadowy overall mood of those days was all that mattered to us.
But when I was about to return to Samsara Heights, I realized there was nothing I could actually do about him becoming a call boy, if he really and stealthily wanted to, no way to possibly control him -- and I finally let go of that when I saw how awfully judgmental and unfair I was being, with Gabriel and rent boys in general. The reason being in the past -- namely, my ex-boyfriend Angelo.
One of the greatest insights I had about myself, and on love and relationships, was at the very beginning with Gabriel.
We couldn't have been any more different. We both enjoyed going to the movies -- but while he thought the European and Asian movies I loved were boring and too complex, I had no interest in whatever Hollywood movies and stars he seemed to adore, and especially the blockbusters. And while Gabriel did not enjoy books, I was an avid reader -- though he did take interest and started reading Catherine's books. But I wasn't really fond of my mother's literature.
"You don't love me, do you, Laurent?" Gabriel wasn't sad when he said that. "You don't appreciate my company, do you? No, you don't have to answer. You think I'm foolish and superficial..." Gabriel shrugged and dismissed those feelings with the extravagant flourish he had rehearsed for the musketeer role. "Maybe I am vain and futile. Well, I guess that's exactly how I am! And I don't care! Shall we dance?" And when he spun on his heels, his blond hair spinning with him, grown so long that he could braid it, I realized what I thought might have been sincere was just another impersonation.
I tried to deny, even to myself, that I didn't and couldn't truly fall for the dream hunk -- but unfortunately, it was true. I enjoyed Gabriel's company a lot, but I did not love him.
I loved his cheerfulness, and since he was allergic to dreary dispositions, to prolonged silence and inactivity -- specially mine, it seemed, and I never sat to meditate in his company, for it seemed to make him either more agitated or depressed --, he was always looking for the positive and bright side of things.
The global economy was crumbling. My own personal world was disintegrating, the more I reflected about all the things my father had shared with me. But with Gabriel, life was still a party -- entertainingly funny, contagiously exciting. Not much more than that, though. Sharing life with him was like experiencing a constant detonation of fireworks -- but once the noisy spectacle was over, there was only the maze of intoxicating smoke and darkness left.
I finally arrived at the understanding that I did not love him simply because I did not love myself.
I was still looking for approval and recognition in my partner -- and that's why I needed Gabriel to be equally cultured and intellectually well prepared, so that he could be a proper judge of my own skills and qualities. But because he was not into literature, and the cinema he enjoyed was crap and his culture was that of gossip magazines -- 'Of course I know Picasso and Monet!' was as far as he would go in art, and I shivered at his horrible pronunciation of those names as in 'Pikes + Ass + Soul' and 'Moon + net' -- did not enable Gabriel to fully appreciate and approve of me, I thought.
Prince Charming was then, for me, the mirror. It would take someone who could read me in all the several languages I was written in, to recognize my sophistication and highly elaborated culture and refined tastes -- and that's how I realized that, considering Gabriel not good enough for me, happened just because I was too insecure about myself, and I couldn't truly appreciate his qualities either.
I couldn't really love another person until I developed love for myself. Until then, I would need my partner to serve as my best judge, as an expert and a virtuoso in Laurent's intricacies.
When I finally realized how unjust that was with Gabriel -- or anyone else --, it was a bit too late to save our relationship. I made him suffer by silently humiliating him and despising his many qualities, other than the culture or intelect I valued.
If he never managed to mirror me, I was actually unable to even see him beyond the firm bubble butt.
Gabriel never cheated on me, I think -- for he screwed around with other guys openly. I don't know when he started dating the theater producer, and for how long he carried on both affairs in parallel. But I know that, once he tried to mingle us in a ménage à trois, and I asked him to choose between me and the producer, when he dumped me, I was about ready to end our two years relationship, thinking it had extended long enough. Longer than we ever thought it would have lasted.
It still hurt, but much less than the end of my love affair with Angelo.
But that was later.
At the beginning, it was the opposite -- Gabriel feared I was going to leave him.
"Are you going to Russia to be with your mother?" I hadn't told him what my issues with Catherine were, nor anything about the conversation with my father -- though I was immensely grateful to Gabriel for having silently supported and participated in that reunion with his graceful presence. Still, he sensed something crucial was going on between me and my mother.
"Why don't you call her again?" Gabriel was truly fascinated by Catherine's fame, I guess, and he was often impersonating any one among her male characters -- and even, sometimes, her female characters, that were much stronger and more fascinating than the men. And he wanted me to shed light on them, as if by being the author's son I had privileged information.
Gabriel was letting his beautiful hair grow not because of any movie part -- but because he wanted to sell it. He did look more feminine at the time, but his body and manners were too masculine for him to succeed in being feminine. But every book of Catherine's he finished, he seemed to be intoxicated with her heroines for days. "Ask her if she thinks Valentina from such and such book or Amanda from... " And even though I did call my mother after all, I never asked his questions about her characters.