"I'm so happy that you have called, Laurent!" Catherine sounded joyful enough when she finally picked my call. Yet, tension tinged her voice, that echoed around her -- and after so many years of telephonic conversations, I had come to enjoy trying to guess where my mother was. Being a consummate writer, though, Catherine always offered the appropriate settings of her background, and I needn't ask."Though I'm at the hallway of my apartment waiting for Vladimir... He's gone to fetch our coats... It's colder than one might have expected for an Autumn evening..." She had hesitated before adding each sentence, as if waiting for my reaction. I chose to remain silent, trying to picture Catherine in her Russian life. St. Petersburg was a lovely city with hundreds of well preserved Baroque and neoclassical buildings, and I was certain my mother would have found something special for herself, like the historical site where some famous author might have lived. "We're going to the theater soon, and I'm afraid we won't speak for long..." Catherine paused. She must have decided it was enough for a preamble, and directed us toward more meaningful matters, without abandoning safe ground. "Do you need anything, darling? How are your finances?"
I knew that it would come. Over the weeks we had remained silent and distant, my mother should have pondered about the best start for the conversation that would renew our contact, which she knew was going to be bumpy. Even after I had received all that money from Celeste's inheritance, and though my mother had given me the whole sum for which she sold the rural house of my teenage years in France -- she still worried about my finances. At that, despite knowing it actually was a sort of emotional blackmail, I felt my disposition of confronting Catherine weakening. Her concern was a poignant reminder of how she had always financially supported me, throughout my life.
"It's alright, Catherine. I'm not starving, haha! And I shall never become the 'Hungerkünstler' you fear! You don't have to worry about that at all!" I tried to laugh at our private joke, that Carlo had reminded me about.
"You know I worry about your well being, mon couer. Is there anything else you need?" Catherine was tactfully trying to sense what my call was about, but I have to confess I did not know it either.
During the last weeks, I had allowed Carlo's painful retelling of my own story and origins to sink deep in me. At first, it had stirred powerfully disturbing emotions, and I had been caught in a voracious whirlpool that dragged me down into a new, devastating spiral of resentment and anger, this time directed at my mother, and at her mother. Carlo hadn't victimized himself, but that's exactly what he had been -- a sacrificial lamb in the mean hands of the Mortinnés, and Monsieur de Montbelle's. But after the emotions had stormed through me, exhausting their own energy in depleting my soul, and finally decanted -- or so I thought -- I was led to believe, in contrast, while experimenting a prostration that was not real peace, to be seeing more clearly. My past laid before me in a brand novel, nearly unrecognizable weave, I was left only with the simple wish to understand my mother's reasons in creating that daunting web of lies that had directly and lifelong affected me, keeping me from my father and from having a family.
Sometimes, I wished I hadn't let Carlo speak so freely, sharing even his intimacy with my mother -- while, on the other hand, hiding his most intimate moments with Armand from me. Was it out of fear, out of discretion, caution or may it be secrecy, I felt my father hadn't been thoroughly sincere with me. There were still some things missing -- but then, that was the feeling I had always had, from as far as I could remember in my life.
It was not just missing my mother when she had left Punaouilo, and then missing Punaouilo, and then missing my father, and then missing Angelo... No, I sensed there was something crucial, at the very beginning of my life that was missing. And Carlo hadn't told me what it was -- and I wasn't very enthusiastic about Catherine's truthfulness either.
Could the piece that I felt was missing in my life have been the family I had secretly belonged to? Extending to centuries of history and tradition, I was now aware that I carried the De Montbelle blood. To try to understand what that meant, I had done some research -- and though I found no references to the judicial battle between Celeste and Armand for Gaston's inheritance, I did learn that my uncle had been able to keep the Château De Montbelle, opening its magnificent art collection to visitation, but only for students, teachers and scholars. And he was currently converting it into an Art School.
I decided to try that approach with Catherine. The De Montbelles now interested me as much as they had always been my mother's main fixation.
"Catherine, did you know Armand had already found a new partner when you dumped Carlo?" I had also done some research specifically on my uncle, and though he was very discreet about his personal life, I did find out he had had a partner for nearly twenty years, recently deceased, to whom he had dedicated his Pritzker Prize.
I could not be sure about the dates, but when Carlo had fled France to seek refuge in England, Armand was already living in Morocco with his partner for some years. From the story my father had told me, it seemed like he no longer had value for Catherine when her half brother had found a new love, seemingly having overcome grieving for Carlo -- and she might have liberated my father once she was sure Armand had no longer any romantic interest in him. To my eyes, her perfect revenge on Armand had been plain cruelty towards Carlo.
"Why go into that, darling? Why mess up with the past?" Catherine moaned and sighed. "Yes, I knew it." She replied, calmly, trying to avert the quicksand of the past. "There were lawyers being paid to inform us, your grandmother and me, about his life and all his moves, and whatever mattered to the issues we were discussing at court. But it has nothing to do with Carlo leaving home. It's hard for a child to understand that, but... Carlo and I... our relationship was over."
"Did you denounce him to the Tax Authorities?" I tried to sound curious, but it actually sounded rather accusing.
"Did he say that?" Catherine gasped.
"He didn't. That's why I'm asking you."
"That's so rude of you, Laurent. Accusing me. To dare think I could ever do something like that against Carlo!" She paused. "I did ask him to leave. Several times. I was concerned our fights were affecting you..." The walls of that silent and isolated country home seemed to boost our relationship's death-rattles, Catherine had written once. When I read that excerpt from one of her best-sellers, I realized how she must have hated our house, specially during Carlo's final months in it. "But I never forced him to leave, like the circumstances he forged for himself did." She seemed to reflect. "I never threw him out. On the contrary, I let him stay, though it was over for us. And Carlo only left home when his own irresponsibility led him to."
"But why, Laurent? Why... what would he have returned for? We needed another chance, my darling! You agreed on that, don't you recall it?"
"Let's say I was led to agree, Catherine. But you... you got your new chance!" I snorted, like whenever I talked about Edoardo, Catherine's last and longest love. "I didn't get anything."
My voice had raised since the start of our conversation, and after having stretched midst the white linen like in a nest of clouds, Gabriel emerged out of bed, a male version of Botticelli's Venus, his hair grown almost as long as hers. He sat on top of the kitchen balcony like a Greek god would have occupied his throne on the Olympus, adopting a posture that seemed careless but I knew was rather self-conscious. He was naked, his glorious muscles relaxed from a good night of sleep after an intense session of love making, and I could not help but marvel at his majestic beauty -- even though he was chewing rather noisily on a toast with peanut butter.
"Of course you did, Laurent!" Catherine retorted. "You met Angelo!" I received her words like a punch. "It changed your life!"
For the worse, I thought, but instead I said, "It changed your life even more, Catherine!" Edoardo was Angelo's intractable father, and it had been so awkward and even a bit wicked when Catherine had fallen for the father of my first boyfriend. Our household had turned out impracticable, due to the fact that he was conservative to the point of being homophobic, and couldn't accept my relationship with his son.
"Do you think so? You wouldn't be in Vice City and have an exhibition at its most important museum if it weren't for him, have you reflected about that?" Catherine paused, allowing me time to think. But I could only think that Gabriel looked outrageously sexy with peanut butter oozing down his ripped abdomen. Like in a trance, he simply observed it leave an oily trail as it opened a wet path on the bump of his muscles. "What are you trying to tell me, Laurent?"
"I don't know what I'm trying to say, Catherine." Gabriel had lifted a sly gaze at me, as if inviting me to lick the peanut butter from his body, and I lost my train of thought. At that moment, I just felt nauseated at the possibility fanned by Catherine that Angelo was somehow responsible for my glorious night at one of the most prestigious Art museums in the world. I had tried to forget that I'd met Dan Charmand through him. Unfortunately, Catherine was right; yet, I did not want to bring my ex-boyfriend into the conversation. She was clearly using him to avert us from what really mattered. "I don't know. But there is something missing and something very wrong in this story. And I'm asking you, Catherine... What is it?"
"Aren't you again in good terms with Carlo?" Catherine asked instead. "Haven't you 'reconnected', like you've put it yourself? Why can't we bury the past and leave it behind, mon cher? What could be so wrong in your life that you have to still try to change it?" It was typical of Catherine to answer with questions -- I had read in an interview how it was essential to her creative process.
"I'm not a damn character from one of your novels, and I'm tired of being a puppet on your strings, Catherine. That's what!" Sometimes, and more often in my teenage years when I had shared the same house with her, I had the impression of being an experiment my mother was conducing. "You've let me down just too often, Catherine." I realized I was no longer mad at her, but just sad, and immensely disappointed. I let out a heavy sigh, realizing I was ready to let her go. "Right now. Why did you have to go to Russia instead of coming to my vernissage?" It had probably been the most important night of my life, and Catherine had never even tried to come. "Is it because Carlo was here?"
"Of course not! I wouldn't mind seeing Carlo. I might have even enjoyed it, after all these years..." I heard my mother startle -- she had seen Vladimir standing in a dark corner of the hallway, glancing at her with curiosity. "I guess I have to go, darling..."
I simply ignored her excuse to drop our conversation. I couldn't have known her boyfriend was there, clearly demonstrating his impatience, specially since she was talking to me, her 'bad son'.
"Then why, Catherine?" I spur on. "Carlo left his hermitage in the mountains and flew all the way to--"
"Careful there!" Since my teenage years, I hadn't heard my mother talking to me in such a menacing tone. "Don't you dare compare me to him!" Suddenly she sounded exasperated, and I wasn't aware she was angry with Vladimir too, who was paying attention to our conversation. When Catherine walked away from him across the hall, I could distinguish the sound of her high heels on the hard wood floor, and how it suddenly muffled when she stepped onto a rug."Carlo is no longer with you in Vice City, is he? He has returned to his retreat in the mountains, hasn't he?" She was talking faster, and I thought she was losing her temper -- when, in fact, she was trying to make it harder for Vlad to understand. He had finally decided to improve his French, sensing the end of his relationship with Catherine might come anytime. "As soon as he could, wasn't it? If Carlo can isolate himself, then why can't I have my own appointments, and still be in contact with you? Don't be unfair, Laurent! It's not because you've reconnected to your father... and I'm happy about that... that you can so easily forgive him. And for things he told you, start blaming me! He's been absent all those years, while I've never abandoned you--"
"Never?" I sneered. " But of course you have, Catherine!" My voice trembled, and I felt the little boy in me wanting, needing to cry. "Have you forgotten Punaouilo, and how you left us... how you left me behind?"
"Mon Dieu, Laurent!" She let out a cry as if she was falling in a hole -- the dark hole of old sorrows that I insisted to cling to. "Those were the circumstances at the time! I was heartbroken because I couldn't bring you with me. But we had no money then, and I had to accept Celeste's conditions! You know that perfectly well. Or should I have tried to smuggle you? But I worked diligently on promoting my first novel and getting the second one published, all the time thinking of you as the main reason why I should succeed. And once things went smoothly for me, and I started making good money to establish myself in France, and when I found a decent house--"
Her earring kept banging against the mobile -- something that had too often annoyed me in our conversations. Other times, I had asked her to take them off, but now it seemed a very small nuisance, in contrast to all that was being discussed. I grew impatient, sensing my mother was subtly diverting from the questions I confronted her with -- and again, I veered the conversation.
"Did you know Celeste was paying the art dealer in Punaouilo to burn Carlo's paintings?" My heart shrank and I had to bite my tongue as I so carelessly revealed what Carlo had kept in secrecy for two decades.
"What?!" Catherine shrieked. "Where did you hear that?!" She gasped.
And immediately, Catherine must have known it must have been true! As she heard my explanations, and the reason why Carlo had hidden it from her, my mother intuited how a disaster starting in a previous generation of our family was still reverberating on our lives. "Mon cher--" She started saying, but I wouldn't let her go on.
"You have lied to me, Catherine! About too many things. Too important things. I'm sorry, mother" I knew using the word 'mother', that I rarely pronounced, added effect to my statement, "but I'm tired of your intrigues and your lies."
In fact, I was more tired of begging for her approval, her recognition -- and they hadn't come, neither for the stories I had written, trying to pair with her, nor for my paintings, about which she couldn't care less -- all through my life. And why did I have to feel sorry once I was finally giving up on her estranged love?
"Darling child, you have to understand that your grandmother lied to me, too! I am trying to untie her knots, that are strangling your life... and mine as well! What I'm doing here in Russia is for both of us, but--"
Suddenly, I glanced over at Gabriel, about whom I had completely forgotten for the last ten minutes or so that I had been talking to my mother.
He had moved around the room, waiting for me to go into the shower. The peanut butter had oozed until the silky bush of his pubic hair, when he gave up counting on my lips to clean him up. Instead of pleasing my partner, I had drowned in the murky waters of my old sorrows. And I then realized the phantasmagoria my life had become -- Gabriel was there, but hidden behind a thick veil, since I was more concerned with ghosts from the past.
Gaston and Celeste were dead. I had never met my grandfather, and I hadn't really known my grandmother, though I had visited her once in Paris. Armand I hadn't yet met, and it would take me still a couple of years to. I hadn't seen Carlo for twenty years, and even now that we had reconnected, I couldn't be sure when I was going too see him again. I would probably have to climb the Apennines for another reunion. And Angelo -- other than the occasional advertisement or photo in gossip magazines, I hadn't seen him for ten years now. Yet, they all materialized and rose like a wall between me and my present, between me and my new boyfriend.
It was dangerously melancholic, and it was a terrible waste of life, I finally realized it.
"This is between only you and me, Catherine. Don't try to bring my grandmother into this..." I sighed, emotionally exhausted, feeling the last threads of the bonds that tied me to Catherine breaking loose. "I'm tired of all this mess." I had been trying to understand it, to explain it to myself, but more and more I was convinced that I should meet my uncle Armand to rescue that part of my family's story. "I really have to go now, Catherine." Gabriel was already in the shower, turning the water on, whistling a rhumba and starting a sexy and funny dance to his own tune. No matter what, and I had left him waiting for so long, he never seemed to abdicate from his good humor. "Bye, mother."
I hadn't seen my mother -- well, just over the internet -- for many years, already. She had never visited me either, in Vice City nor at Samsara Heights, and I hadn't been so willing to travel to France. I hadn't returned for Celeste's funeral, but I did go back when Catherine decided to sell our rural house, once she started occupying the apartment on the Rue de Furstemberg. At first, I had said I didn't care about anything in the house, and that she could sell or dump whatever she wanted. But then I changed my mind and flew to France, where we spent two weeks emptying the house together. I rescued from oblivion some childhood drawings, the long-play collection from my teenage years, and our living room furniture that was vintage fifties. But that last live meeting had been nearly six years ago, already.
And as things turned out, because I had promised myself to never return to Russia -- unless, of course, I was offered an exhibition at Moscow's Museum of Modern Art -- I would meet my mother again only in four more years -- and during that whole time I would speak briefly to her on festive occasions only, disciplined and stubbornly keeping my distance and a forced formality with her, after one more disastrous call that was yet to happen.
It had taken decades, and I was aware I was no longer a teenager, but at last I was rebelling against her tyranny, and that of the entire Mortinné legacy. It didn't hurt as much as I thought it would -- it wasn't actually hard to take the leap of faith into a life without Catherine. It was a life devoid of a core, but with time I'd settle to the feeling that being motherless or having Catherine as a mother were almost the same -- the first option being much less troubled.
Would I have acted more compassionately, towards her and myself -- would I have forgiven her, had I known my life could end in a fraction of seconds on a dark night in Iceland?