A brief fight ensued when, wanting to change Angelo's stained sheets, I tried to move him to the other bed -- my bed. He resisted me. If he were feeling stronger, he might have simply pushed me away, or punched me. His first reaction was hitting my chest with his fist. I was caught by surprise, and gasped. It hurt, but I guess it hurt him more, and all he could do was then slap me, repeatedly.
I did not react, as I worked on the bed. The succession of slaps resounded in the empty house like lashing. I think we were both surprised at Angelo's violence -- though none of us was surprised that he was acting violently. It was not like when he asked me to smash his butt, as I was inside him, like porn actors would do in the movies. His slaps -- on my arm, on my chest, on my thigh -- were meant to hurt me.
He would slap me five, six times in a row -- until I moved about the room, away from him. When again I came within reach, he would slap me more. Fearing to have seriously injured him, my heart pounded painfully. I took his beating in silence, blushing with shame. After each outburst of anger, Angelo cleaned his hand on the damaged sheets with disgust, as I was sweating cold, and was left gasping breathlessly. He was so weak -- but his frustration was fierce. And my lack of reaction to his anger only left him feeling more frustrated. I accepted that he tried to take revenge on me, though I thought Edoardo deserved a good spanking, too.
Angelo never looked me in the face, while he beat me. Pretending to be concentrated and busy with the bed, as if I not being hit, I avoided his glance, too. At least, I thought, his slaps were reddening my skin, that somehow burned, too. He was crying again when I applied salve on the skin of his left chest, that looked pretty bad -- red, swollen and blistered. I foresaw being condemned by Catherine and Edoardo for my foolish idea of serving coffee to a sick person. By the time I helped him recline against the pillows, Angelo was sobbing, hiding his face under his thinned arm.
I thought I had made the bed nicely, fresh and perfumed as it was, with new sheets I had washed myself. Suddenly, I realized how it must have been for Angelo, instead. He had been confined to the room for weeks now, and to that bed. But worse than that -- he was feeling confined in our house, in France. Life, to him, was on a dead end.
His freedom depended on me, only.
I started crying, too.
I had cried as I stood before the 'white people', on my single visit to the Louvre, during my only stay in Paris.
Catching a brief glance of Mademoiselle Monalisa had been frustrating, like Catherine had said it would. My mother did not allow me to squeeze through the crowd of taller people between me and Mademoiselle. When I tried to push my way, she towed me away.
I had then asked to see the 'white people'.
"What white people, Laurent?" Catherine asked.
"Those mummies, maman".
Catherine took me to the Egyptian collection, but I shook my head at the sarcophagi.
"Not these mummies, maman. The ones who stand."
Catherine was confused, and growing impatient. The Louvre -- a museum that she considered too touristy -- had never been among her favorite places in Paris.
"I don't know what you are talking about, Laurent. Can we leave now?"
“Not these mummies maman. These are dressed…” I blushed and gulped before I found the courage to say, “Please, the white people who are naked, maman.”
I could not explain properly, but when I stood in a pose like one of them, my mother sighed in dismay at my ignorance. How could an intellectual like her have such a little savage from the tropics like me as a son? Still, she took me by the hand to the Greek and Roman antiquities collection.
"These are not mummies, dear. These are sculptures." In her constant struggle against my nature, Catherine straightened my hair. I might have been an obedient child, but my hair had been wild and very curly when I was a boy -- only in my teenage would it become smooth like hers. She straightened my clothes, too, wishing she could ultimately straighten my intelligence. "Statues, like you have seen before, at the parks. Or like the busts in Celeste's apartment."
Yet, I had never seen anything that perfect. Most of them were life size, and I thought they were real people. Catherine allowed me to touch one of the statues that stood in a corner, for a brief moment, when no one was looking.
"See, Laurent. They are not people. They are made of marble. Stone."
Next, I was telling Catherine the story I had read about King Minos, and how he turned people into gold. Perhaps there was someone else around turning them into stone, I said.
"Right." Catherine had smiled, condescendingly. "That was Medusa. But they are myths. And this is real, Laurent. This is art. A sculptor made these. With great physical effort, he drew these images from a block of stone. Can you believe it? He was using tools like a hammer to hit the stone! Yet, it look marvelously smooth, doesn't it? Like they had been made by the sculptor's gentle caresses. So fine that it makes you think that these are real people. They are not Laurent. This is Art, my dear."
Before I understood what a sculptor was -- and it did not happened that same day -- I was terrorized to see that many of the 'white people' had been beheaded. Almost all of them had had their arms cut off their bodies. I asked Catherine why.
"Barbarians, Laurent. Invaders damaged them. Arms were cut off at the stroke of swords. And earthquakes, too, made these statues fall, and break into pieces. They have gone through a lot. It's surprising that they have survived so many centuries of destruction and wars and have finally reached us."
"Did it hurt, maman?" I had whined, tears springing to my eyes.
"I've told you already, Laurent! Of course it didn't hurt." I saw her clenching her fist. But unlike other mothers, Catherine had never hit me, and I was not afraid of her rage. If she ever beat me, it was verbally. "These are not real people! Could you learn it once and for all?" Losing her patience, she dragged me away, when she saw that I was crying.
I might have understood it did not hurt the stone. But still, it hurt me to see beauty and perfection damaged. What impressed me most was that many noses were missing -- be it a sword or an earthquake to cut them, I hoped statues did not need to breathe.
Angelo was beautiful like a Greek sculpture -- or Roman, of course, since he was Roman himself. His skin was pale and fine like the white people's, and his muscles displayed the same perfection. Or used to. His body, thinning, no longer resembled that of a Greek athlete. He had dark spots around his eyes, and now I had damaged his beauty and perfection myself. The horrid purple blister on his chest indicated that I could be worse than a barbarian or an earthquake.
Do earthquakes cry, and repent?
"I'll see if Madame is available, and willing to talk to you." Said the maid. "Can you call back in fifteen minutes, please?"
Not just arrogant, the woman had sounded rude, impolite, abusive. I was pissed off, and wondered if it were a sign not to call again and avoid further humiliation and trouble.
But then I had a different understanding.
I had carefully rehearsed the call, having pondered each word. I just hadn't expected being answered by a maid -- though I should have -- and that seemed to make my discourse -- and my courage --evaporate.
Nervously waiting and trying to decide whether to place a second call or not, I at least had the smart idea of taking the cordless phone into my room and letting Angelo listen to the whole conversation. Even if I failed in my request, he would still know that I had at least tried.
At my second call, the maid had again picked the telephone, and hearing my voice, passed it on to my grandmother.
"Celeste." I took a deep breath, "This is Laurent."
"Laurent who?" She had coldly asked.
She knew who I was. I had told the maid, and she must have told Celeste, or she wouldn't even have come on the telephone. I certainly was not Yves Saint-Laurent.
Then I realized she was testing me.
"Catherine's son." She wouldn't ask Catherine who, would she? Or was she friends to Catherine Deneuve? "Laurent." I repeated, aware that I could not complement it saying 'your grandson'. I actually longed to call her grandmére. If, only, she would behave like one.
My neutral answer, not addressing my mother as her daughter, too, seemed to satisfy Celeste. Pretending to recognize me just then, she asked "Is she dead?"
I gasped, disconcerted. "Dead? Who?"
"Catherine. Is she dead? Did anything happen to her?" She feigned concern.
"No." I mumbled. "She is not dead... Why?" Did my mother have some mysterious illness she had hidden from me? Celeste's words dumbfounded me, and by then I had completely forgotten the discourse I had rehearsed.
At least, that crazy introduction woke Angelo up, who had been taking a restoring nap after the coffee tragedy. I noticed he was paying attention to my conversation, and wondering why I was having it in the room, next to his bed. Had he listened when I said my grandmother's name?
"Why should she be dead, Celeste?" I asked, deciding it was better to repeat her name, saying it clearly for Angelo to hear. Instantly, he grew alert, but did not glance in my direction, remaining with his back turned onto me.
"She shouldn't be dead." If not a good actress, Celeste must have been a very convincing one. As to leave no doubt about her intentions, she used words sensing their power. Her intonation was clear -- my comment had been dumb, and I felt like an idiot. "But why else should you be calling?" Suddenly, she changed to a softer tone, still not like a grandmother's, but mild enough, like a priest who wanted to end her scolding sermon on a conciliatory note. "You have never called me, have you, darling? That's why I thought something must have happened to Catherine.
She is not getting married, is she?"
"No!" I cried. This time, Angelo glanced in my direction. Once Celeste was conducting the conversation, he was hearing just my short interjections, and they might have seemed more stupid to him than they truly were as replies to my grandmother.
"Oh! I see don't like that man, either." She laughed contentedly at the aversion and disgust I had manifested in my cry.
I didn't know it then, but Celeste had been very disappointed in Catherine. She had raised her daughter not as a child but as an investment, hoping that my mother would tie her knots with one of the best, noblest, richest families in France. But to Catherine, that family was the De Montbelle, to which she thought she should rightfully -- and would forcefully -- belong. That's when she had become Celete's enemy, insisting in a paternity process against Gaston. And then Catherine had gotten pregnant -- from a penniless Italian painter. And to Celeste, her daughter was incurring in the same mistake twice, falling for Edoardo -- a penniless Italian chef. I couldn't see any of that, not even the fact that I had chosen my own share of penniless Italian lovers -- falling in love with Tarso's employee, Fabio, and now Angelo.
"I'm glad to hear she isn't. And we know you are not get married either, right, darling?" She giggled.
"Do we?" I was confused. Why was Celeste talking about my marriage? What did she know about me? "Well, I'm too young for marriage--"
"No, darling. You're too gay for marriage, that's what I mean." My grandmother let out a laugh that was not far from being evil.
I gasped, and felt again like crying. "So you know..." When and why would Catherine have outed me for Celeste? "Did Catherine--"
"I knew it, darling. Right away, the day I laid eyes on you."
How could it have been possible? I was just a ten years old boy then, at the only time my grandmother had 'laid eyes on me'. She answered it next.
"There is something about gay men that is so easily recognizable. Even when they pretend to be straight. They might even look straight. And you -- you were too sweet a boy. The way you sat. And walked. And talked. You were also too pretty for a boy, and delicate. I wondered how Catherine wouldn't spot it, when it was so clear." Celeste giggled." But I wasn't going to be the one to give her the shocking news about her own son, would I?"
When Celeste again laughed, I was impressed that she was amusing herself so very much conversing with me. I recalled her being a cold, distant, inaccessible woman. I had foreseen a very different course for our conversation, trying to figure out how I would place my request to her. Not only did she take upon herself the task of setting the agenda -- she excelled in doing so, foreseeing my steps.
"If it is not death, not marriage, then it must be money." Hearing her, I sucked in my breath, and my grandmother laughed at that, too. "I see, I should have started by it. How much is it that you want? And what is it for? Try to be convincing, darling child."
"I want to move to the USA!" I mouthed.
"This is simply outrageous. Why that country?" Celeste inquired, not hiding her despise.
Having already spoken to Catherine, I knew I had to make the subject sound like a major thing, and not just vacations. Thinking I had made a brilliant start, I was paralyzed at Celeste's response.
"I want to study there. Journalism." Angelo had tilted his head, looking in my direction. He knew who I was speaking to, and he knew what I was going to talk about, too.
"Oh!" She feigned surprise. "I suppose you can speak English very well, then. And write with excellence in their language, of course." She left her comment hanging like a question.
"I think so..." I was studying hard for the proficiency test I would have to take. But I was confident. I had quickly learned enough of the dialect of the mountains to have conversations with Fabio, understanding the overall meaning. English was easier and much more neat than that.
"You'd better know, child. Suppose you become a journalist." Celeste was not scolding me. She sounded teacher like, and explanatory. "Who do you suppose is going to read your articles? Cowboys? Basketball players?"
I sighed. I did not want to argue with Celeste. She could keep her prejudice about the US to herself. My motivation was not to change her -- I just needed her to help me.
Suddenly, I recalled the days spent in her apartment in Paris, and how she used to listen to music while dressing. Like a puppet waiting for his master, I would sometimes sit at her door, that she kept always closed, and listen to her humming to what Catherine had informed me were old American jazz songs. A few years later, I was with my mother when she bought a very expensive box of CDs to send to Celeste.
"Frank Sinatra." I said, recalling the name of who I guessed was her favorite singer. "He might read my texts in English."
Celeste laughed and clapped her hands in delight. I was then certain she was talking on the cordless telephone that Catherine had bought for her. She had hated it at first, because the antenna would get entangled in her earrings, or damage her hair. But when she discovered the speakerphone option, she had been conquered. I had won her too, though she preferred Bing Crosby.
"So what is your proposal if I am to help you write for Sinatra?" She laughed, a crystalline and genuine laugh like a little girl's. Suddenly I realized Celeste had once been young, a girl, a child, a baby even -- and I no longer feared her. "Do you want me to pay for the university? Or..." She hesitated. "And support you through those years, too?"
I whistled. Her offer was far better than I ever dare ask her.
"But I'll have to talk to Catherine, first." She added. "I suppose if you're asking me it's because she has said no--"
I interrupted my grandmother to explain what had happened -- how Catherine had agreed to help me, but Angelo's father could not help him. I went on to explain I was asking money for Angelo, to pay for all the bureaucracy until he got his scholarship, which he was certain to obtain. We needed money to pay for tests and documents that would have to be translated. And for his airplane ticket, too, in the future, though we did not have a date set yet. I spoke and spoke, trying to leave far behind in the conversation the part where I had mentioned Edoardo could not help Angelo, instead of would not. A minor lie. What I feared is that she would ask whether his father agreed with Angelo going to the US. At the same time, I sensed she would gladly stand against his will, since she seemed to dislike Edoardo, too.
"And Angelo is...?" She asked, instead.
I realized I had been asking Celeste a favor for a person about which existence she ignored completely. He could have been a neighbor, a friend, a teacher.
"He is... l'homme de ma vie!" I declared, sound and clear, for Celeste and Angelo to hear.
She was immediately suspicious. Or maybe she had just sounded so. She started walking about her room, her voice fading a little bit in the distance every once in a while -- but she was using on me the technique she had learned to impose her voice to audiences, and I marveled at all my grandmother's talents.
I heard a champagne bottle being opened, as she gave orders to her maid. Announcing she would soon start getting dressed for the Opera, she still wanted to know everything about Angelo -- his age, where I had met him. She had pictured him older, and someone who might be taking advantage of me.
"Sweet sixteen..." She commented, in English, with the funniest accent I had ever heard -- and that I might have had myself.
I was surprised that my grandmother could speak English. But instead of complimenting her, I retorted instead, "I am... We are eighteen, already!"
"So sweet, nevertheless." She had come close to the speaker again, and I could even hear her sipping the champagne, while she gave instructed the maid about which new dresses she wanted taken out of the closet and placed on her bed for her to pick one for that evening.
"Do you love this boy?" She asked.
"Do you love this boy?" She asked.
"Yes, I love..." I was about to say 'him', but since it could refer to any man, I knew I had to be more specific, when he was going to listen to it himself, "Angelo!" I pronounced his name like if I was letting a butterfly come out of my mouth.
"Oh, he is by your side then!" Celeste had guessed it. "Are we on the speakerphone, Laurent?" She sounded annoyed, but again calmed down when I assured her we won't. "Good. You know, it's okay to love this boy. And I am not saying it is okay to be gay. That shouldn't be a problem at all. But no matter how much you love this Angelo boy... An Italian, is he? I wonder why is it that you and your mother have to have this fixation down there..."
She paused, and while she spoke to the maid in a harsher tone, I wondered. By 'down there' did Celeste mean Italy, or male genitals? And she might not have made the connection yet, that Catherine's and my boyfriend were father and son. Every time I thought of that, it seemed to be some sort of perversion. I heard Celeste grunt.
"These immigrants are impossible!" She seemed to throw something, as I heard a thump in the distance. Maybe a cushion on the maid, or against the wall. "Anyway, c'est beau l'amour. Love is beautiful, but it is also a foolishness. Don't let yourself be fooled by anyone, Laurent. Don't hand your happiness to anyone, ever. It is really nice of Angelo that he wants to accompany you to the United States..." I suddenly felt dizzy. I had to close my eyes and lean against the window, when I heard my grandmother stating that. What would she say instead, if she knew it was the exact opposite? "But don't trust him. I don't mean him, specifically. Don't ever trust anyone you fall in love with. The people we love are the first ones to betray or fail us. I am sure Angelo will betray and fail you. I am sure you will fail him." I couldn't say exactly how her voice and discourse had changed, but it sounded rather melancholic. Bitter, even. I loathed her trying to be nice and advise me more than I disliked her scolding or being arrogant. In the end, being nice did not suit Celeste well.
"One way or another, you will fail me, Laurent." She continued. "And I have failed you, already, haven't I? Your mother, too, she has failed me. And I have failed and betrayed her many times, oh, how many times..." Was she acting sentimental? Or was she really getting emotional, I asked myself.
Suddenly, Celeste shouted.
I startled, and Angelo gave a start in response, too. He tried to stand on his elbow, put the pain was too bad and he again collapsed on the bed. He lay on his side, panting. I could see sweat streaming down his back and dripping on the fresh sheets. There was a big wet circle on the waistband of his underwear, accompanying the lovely curve of his buttocks. No matter how much he had thinned, his butt had remained perfectly round -- fat but muscled. A real turn on, and after so many weeks, the longing to be inside Angelo awoke my groin.
"Laurent, I have to go now!" I heard the glass of champagne being laid on a table or a tray with a tinkle, and the sound of Celeste standing up and walking away from the telephone. "This is a tragedy!" She was clearly upset, and I was worried something really awful was happening. What if a burglar had broken into her apartment? "This is an original Balmain! Not one of those ridiculous, fake dresses you use yourself, young woman!" I understood it was a problem with the maid and her dresses. "And they don't understand French, these awful people!" She had turned in the direction of the phone, and then again towards the maid "I am scolding you, you foolish creature! Do you have anything else to wear on your face other than that stupid look?" I could hear the maid babbling her excuses in a shrill. 'Madame' was the only word I could distinguish.
"Laurent, are you still there?"
"I am..." I almost said 'grandmére', for I had lost my concentration watching Angelo, but stopped just in time.
"We are all set, then. I'll talk to Catherine about the practicalities. I suppose you still don't have a bank account, and you are not opening one now that you are deserting your country..." She paused, and I did not know if it was for effect, to make me feel bad for being a defector, or if the maid had caught her attention again. "That is not blood red, for God's sake!" She shouted. "That is brown! That is the color of gore... How can you not see it?" Celeste snored. "I'll send the money to your mother, as usual." She was referring to my birthdays and Christmas. "How much do you think you need?"
I did not know, in fact. I said Catherine would tell her. And then I started crying again.
"Thank you, Celeste. Thank you a thousand times!" I wanted to say more than that, but telling her that I loved her sounded false. And she was not with me anymore -- just wanting to close our conversation to jump on the maid's neck.
"Oui, oui." She kept saying, listening to my thanks. "It's all good. Fine. O-K-A-Y Laurent!" She raised her voice a little, to finally dismiss me. "Call me again. To tell me how everything is going. Or if you need anything else. I have enjoyed talking to you, young man. Now I r-e-a-l-l-y-h-a-v-e-t-o-g-o!"
And she hang up.