"Give me back my son!"
Sometime during that same December, in the weeks between Angelo's birthday and Christmas.
Walking to the shelf on the end of the corridor, next to the TV room, I wanted to grab some book. I don't remember which, nor for what reason.
I noticed the door to Catherine and Edoardo's room being ajar, his voice coming from within. The man was clearly drunk -- since I had complained too often about it, he had at least given to drinking in his bedroom.
I couldn't quite understand what he said -- nor, apparently, could my mother. He was speaking in Italian.
"I don't speak that language, Edoardo." She complained. "Nor do I intend to."
It was then that he turned to his awful French. More than the words, it was his begging tone that caught my attention. I stopped to listen.
"Give me back my son. Please, Catherine."
I froze in the corridor, a few steps away from the shelf. My mother must have seen me through the reflex on the wall mirror in her room. I am guessing, here. Because she immediately closed the door, not before eyeing me with a very significant look I could not understand, then. There was anger and there was fear in her look, there was an accusation and an apology in it. It lasted only a second, before she slammed the door, to muffle her voice and scold Edoardo.
It lasted only a second, but lingered with me for my whole life. It would take a few years still to completely understand it -- but the moment I received it, I knew I had done something wrong by listening on the adults conversation. And that my mother liked me even less for that.
I was nevertheless touched. I had heard Edoardo often whine, when he was drunk, inconsolable with our impending departure. I had witnessed another one, a few weeks before.
"Why are you letting them be? Why are you letting our sons leave?" a whimpering Edoardo had asked, between hiccups. "Why are you taking my son away from me?".
"We have to let them grow, mon amour..." Catherine would caress Edoardo's thick black hair, trying to comfort him, and kiss his blue eyes to dry them. And do nothing to try to stop us from traveling.
"This is not right, Catherine. This is too wrong, and you know it."
Edoardo had lost his parents, had lost his first wife. I had lost my father, too, though not to death, and I could relate to his pain of losing Angelo. Knowing he could not stop us, I felt magnanimous -- and in that state of mind I had decided not to quarrel with my boyfriend's father any longer.
The incident about the driving had been a minor thing, I thought. In my self-righteousness, I thought perfectly justifiable to cry for a drunken man to leave the wheel. Even if driving was the sole thing that man would do the whole evening.
Catherine had not simply chosen the restaurant -- she was paying for it, too. She had chosen the full New Year's Celebration menu for us -- an impressive sequence of delicacies in stunning presentation, if rather small portions, from which I can only remember the veal. Even Edoardo was somewhat impressed, though it was not his Italian food.
The red wine he had chosen, of course, was Italian. Again, I complicated things when I kept Catherine from drinking it with him.
"You are driving. You cannot drink." I declared. "Unless we are going to spend the night somewhere around here. Is this place also a guesthouse?"
"Mérde, Laurent. Will you drive, then?" My mother replied, snorting.
Edoardo said something in Italian, in the sense that I was a bad driver. It was his time to stay out of the car if I were driving.
And he was right. I disliked driving, and cars in general. I drove very slowly, sometimes dangerously slowly.
Angelo did enjoy driving, and was our last possibility to save the evening. But he didn't utter a word. Those days he was behaving like a marshal defeated in his most important battle. I guess he couldn't keep out of his mind that he had intended to celebrate New Year's Eve in the US, and not in rural France. He would be happier eating hot dogs and drinking soda than tasting French delicacies and celebrating with champagne.
That was right at the start of dinner, as the entrées were being served. Catherine took one or two sips from her glass of wine, just to tease me, but never again touched it, sullenly drinking sparkling water instead.
My mother was the sole responsible for conversation, that evening. She was the only one talking to everyone else on the table. Edoardo and I wouldn't engage in any conversation, of course, nor even look at one another across the table. Angelo sat before me, but he too pretended I did not exist. He still couldn't understand why I hadn't helped him with the campaign to join the Journalism School in the Spring term still. He thought we were losing it simply because I wanted to celebrate one last birthday in France, like he had just celebrated his.
It was sometime after midnight -- and technically already in the new year of 1994,
that we wouldn't spend as a whole in France --, that it dawned upon me. How mighty my mother was! That evening, she was paying for everything. Not just the restaurant bill. It was Catherine's car, and her fuel. Even the clothes I wore -- and for that matter, Edoardo's new clothes, too. Angelo's fancy blazer, that I had given him for birthday -- Catherine had brought it from Belgium, too, bought with her money.
"Catherine. What was your best-selling title again?" I inquired. To be honest, I could hardly name any of my mother's books correctly. I had just realized to be living on them -- not on her teacher's salary, for sure. Yet, I had never taken real interest in my mother's career.
She was delighted with my question. Seeing her career as my concurrent to her time and affection, I had tried to ignore it. Finally, I realized how my lack of interest had disappointed, saddened her.
But it was not my true intention to suddenly catch up with her.
During that evening, a feeling of enmity against the Vivaces grew in me. Edoardo and Angelo, sitting on the other side of the table, kept conversing in Italian, while my mother and I spoke French. They rudely mocked the maitre d', who was indeed snobbish to the point of seeming foolish.
But that they simply went on exchanging private jokes in Italian, while my mother was talking about her career, made me explode.
"Thank you for paying for this evening Catherine!" I burst, suddenly. My mother gave a start. She had just spoken about her forthcoming book, and I guess she expected me to further question her. "How expensive must this restaurant be!" I said louder, to catch the attention of the other side of the table. "Thank you for paying everything for all of us." I clarified, pronouncing it very clearly, so that Edoardo wouldn't miss a word. Whenever I did this I sounded a bit dumb -- being it a tone of voice I reserved for Edoardo only, everybody at the table knew I was aiming at him. "Thank you for my nice clothes. And for his, and his clothes too" I continued, pointing at the father and son across us, who stared at me in disbelief. "I propose a toast!" I raised my glass. Though feeling ruthlessly powerful -- with the power of my family's money --, I considered standing up, too, but thought it might be excessive. "Let's congratulate Catherine for her successful career! And let's cheer Celeste, too," I said, looking Angelo straight in the eye, "for we owe her a lot!"
I never looked in Edoardo's direction as I spoke, all the time watching Angelo blush, growing purple of anger.
With the corner of my eye, I watched my mother, as she raised her hand and calmly landed it on mine, putting my glass of champagne down.
But in the next second, Angelo was raising his own glass, responding with cheers and praise for Catherine and Celeste. The whole time averting his gaze from mine, he concentrated on my mother while uttering truly beautiful words of gratitude -- so much that Catherine even took a hand to her heart, and next to her eyes, to dry a tear.
Angelo made use of his best discoursing skills, and though left envious of his unparalleled ease with words, I won't recall any. Because what I do recall came next.
"And I want to express my gratitude to my deceased mother, too." His voice caught. "I never forget you!" He said, looking straight into the champagne glass, as if the tiny bubbles that could be seen rising against the glass were giving rise to his mother's spirit. "I want to thank my father, too." He continued, turning momentarily towards Edoardo, to finally stare at me. "For always having stayed with me." He paused, and I predicted what he was going to say next. "For having never abandoned me."
I gasped. Suddenly, Carlo was among us, his heavy absence turned into a tangible silence. It lasted a few seconds, while Angelo paused -- maybe six or seven, and each second equaled a stab in my heart.
"I should thank you also, Laurent." He touched my glass slightly with his glass, but enough to make it clink. "Maybe tomorrow I will. But not today." Taking a sip of his champagne, he concluded "Cheers!"
When dessert arrived, it was left untouched. The maitre was already apologizing for anything that had happened with the food and the restaurant. Catherine left instead a generous tip to prove everything was alright -- just not with our family.
I recall Edoardo's little impersonation saying he would like to share the bill with my mother. He wasn't man enough to pay for the whole dinner. Nor was I, actually, now that I think of it. My only thought, then, is that probably Edoardo did not have enough money in his wallet to pay for a drink -- if he had brought any.
We left the restaurant in a funeral procession -- Catherine in Edoardo's arm ahead, followed by Angelo a few steps back, and finally me, way behind. I watched my mother whisper something to Edoardo and leave his arm, let Angelo walk past her murmuring something like "Go with your father, darling" -- and I stopped.
I panicked, certain to get slain.
Or what else could she do? Forbid me from going to the US? She was paying everything for me -- I was in her hands indeed. Maybe expel me? Make me get a job? Ask Celeste to withdraw her help to Angelo... Or worse, and I trembled when I thought what her best option was... My mother was a writer, she knew how to plot -- and plot well, otherwise she wouldn't be a bestselling author.
Catherine could keep me in France, if she wanted to -- and let Angelo leave!
The two Italian men had halted, too, and were expectantly looking in our direction, each creating their own scenery for what was about to happen.
I knew I had gone too far, stretching to the abhorrent limit the bonds of affection between Catherine and I, that were already not too consistent.
My mother had never been physically violent with me. She never beat me, never slap me -- just her eyes, and her calculated words did. And I doubted she would start now, in front of the other men.
Calmly walking in my direction, apparently self-possessed, I expected her at her cruelest.
And I tried to look my coolest. Defiantly, I pretended to peruse a corner of the garden.
"I am sorry, Laurent." Her voice at its gravest, she sounded very serious. Having halted just before her breasts touched my arm, I could still feel them vibrate as she spoke. "I wish we could have worked this out differently. I wish we would have made this happen. And I do wish you had tried harder." She paused. I felt her breath on my neck. Her proximity wasn't threatening; yet, my heart was racing as if I were in great danger. Danger of losing her. "You disappointed me, greatly." My heart skipped a beat when she again paused. I held my breath until her next sentence finally came. "But I do understand you. More than you think. More than you understand it yourself. Because, darling, I know the reasons why you act like this." At her other pause, I looked over my shoulder and peered right into her eyes, trying to scrutinize her expression. I shivered, when I saw piety in her glance. Sorrow. Compassion. Understanding. In fact, her glance on me was drenched in sympathy. I gasped. "I forgive you, now. If only you'll forgive me too, when you have the chance."
Crickets, a distant truck, the power generator of the restaurant, her breath and my mine -- and loudest than all, my heart banging in my chest -- could be distinctly heard in the long silence that followed her last word. Because that was it. It was no soft introduction for a scolding. And like the patron saint of fashionable souls, in her beautiful gown that reminded me of a moving flower bed, she took three or four steps backwards, softly retreating to join the rest of the family, leaving me behind with the remains of her newly discovered piety and forgiveness.
I had just received a beating. A whispering lashing. The humiliation I had inflicted on others had just been returned on me. It had been me against then, and I was left alone.
I felt my strength leaving me, my intention to behave like an adult, and was about to start to cry when she turned back, holding out her hand.
"Come, darling. Let's go home." She shivered. It might have been the cold, and the dew that infused the night air. Or, like me, she must have thought that 'home' wouldn't last much longer for me. Urging me, she added, "Come. There is a whole new year ahead of us."