Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Episode 16-II | Not what you think

"Laurent, I am not what you think I am." Armand said to me, in a whisper. 

Despite his gentleness, I felt the blow of his words. My knees suddenly unable to sustain me, I had to drop immediately onto them, following my blood pressure, or risk falling towards the other side, again into the sea.


But first I had to get into the sea, an hour or so before.

Having woken well after midday, I had looked for my uncle in his house. I did not dare enter it, when it was clearly empty. And though the island seemed small enough to find Armand on a short yelling expedition, I preferred going back to the cottage to eat everything he had stuffed in the mini fridge for me.

Risking a congestion, I then tried the beach before the cottage. Skies were blue, though clouds had already started gathering, and the sun shone like I had experienced only in California. The air was almost warm, when it stood still.

Advancing in short, reluctant steps into the cold water, I knew diving into the North Sea was not an option for the tropical boy I would always be. So I just walked about aimlessly, listening to the silence that included gushes of wind, the cry of sea gulls and the timid murmur of the tide. An unsettling silence, that excluded the whole human race. In that placid bay reminding me of the Punaouilo waters of my childhood, I took one step at a time, watching the dangerous approach of ripples, careful to keep my short trunks dry, afraid my balls would freeze if touched by the water, and fall to join the pebbles under my feet.

I wondered where Armand could be, and what was he thinking of me. Heavy sleeper? Lazy? Sick?

Watching the sun start to descend, I was thinking of Samsara Heights, too. How I had made that journey towards West myself. Where Angelo still was, where Fabrizio would also be. America, and the West Coast, had become home -- where I would return, soon -- to the past, to my future?

Unconsciously, much deeper within than the waters I was grazing, I must have been thinking of the final scene from that movie. Before my uncle even mentioned it, having seen the book that originated it in the small library of the cottage. Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. But I was not clearly thinking of it when I halted, for the first time feeling I could trust the slippery ground below me. Lifting one arm, I pointed towards the sun. A deliberately slow, delicate gesture, not without theatricality, for I was emulating a gracious teenage actor. But I am sure that it was my other hand, brought to gently lie on my waist, that must have given Armand the hint. 

"I am not planning to die on the beach this afternoon!" Armand's voice came with the breeze, loud enough for me to hear it, yet soft like a murmur, and full of good humor. 

I looked around the broken ring of rocks encircling the bay, and slowly turned on my feet to face him, before answering, "You shouldn't. I'm far too old to play a convincing Tadzio." I cried back. "And you are not old enough to play Von Aschenbach." I said, immediately abandoning the pose, feeling embarrassed enough to even blush. 

"We are always younger today, than we shall be tomorrow, Laurent." 

We are also older today than we were yesterday, I wanted to tell uncle Armand, but he went on without having heard my thoughts.

"Anyway, I am impressed that someone your age has watched such a film. Paying enough attention to recreate it." He exclaimed, leaving the ridge where I could outline him against the sun. Taking mindful steps, he started descending towards the beach, not the least hurrying.

"Maybe you are miscalculating my age, Armand." I said, taking careful steps too, towards the beach to meet him.

He stopped, as if he couldn't walk and talk at the same time. Had my presence disrupted his walking meditation? If that was the case, he could have avoided the bay, or talking to me. "I know exactly the year you were born, Laurent." His voice, sounding brisk but not harsh, made me realize my mistake -- leading him back to the past, to think of my birth.

"I could have tried to strike a pose from Titanic." I was trying to divert his attention. "But I never watched it." I stopped walking, trying to calculate where Armand should reach the beach, so that I wouldn't leave the water too far from him. "And I don't know if I would take Leo or Kate's pose, for at least that scene of their embrace I have seen around the internet." I gave a short laugh. "Probably I'd take Kate's. To be in Leonardo de Caprio's arms" I laughed again.

Armand laughed too. "You seem to choose the poses of the young, the blonde and the beautiful, all of them." And a gesture he made had me thinking he was beckoning me. Maybe, like me, he was just using his hands to keep his balance. Nevertheless, I resumed walking in his direction. "Very appropriate for you, Laurent." He added.

I wondered if, with that, my uncle was complimenting me. Or simply being ironic? Even if he were, it would be a private joke between us, from now on. I was happy to have forged a connection to him through cinema, remembering how Carlo and him had been habitués of the Cinematéque Française, during their years as roommates in Paris. 

I wondered, too, whether Armand knew my name had been inspired by a character in a movie he quoted several to my father on the Île du Blanchomme. But I could simply not remember what movie it was, nor the quote, realizing it was best to leave that part of the past to the past. It was still hard for me to think the island of my conception no longer existed.

"It's good to find you so inspired this morning, Laurent. Seems like you had a lot of things to sleep off."

"I'm sorry, Armand." I wished, but I could not bring myself to call him uncle, not yet. "I had some trouble sleeping last night. The silence, you see. I'm not used to it." I lied. My house in Samsara Heights was pretty much isolated too, and not far from the ocean and its sounds either. 

"Sorry about that. I guess that cannot be changed." Armand halted again, staring in my direction. The reflections of the sun on the water illuminated my face, and I was afraid he could read the lie stamped on it. "Are you hungry?"

I had missed dinner with him. And breakfast. And lunch.

"Not really. I went looking for you." I waved my shoulder, indicating where his house lied. The building could not be seen behind the rocks, not even its bright red metallic roof. Now I was glad I did not succumb to idea of swimming naked, in the presumed privacy of the little bay. I might have, had it been summer, and then Armand would have seen a naked Tadzio. "But I did empty the fridge in the cottage, I'm sorry."

"It's OK. I left the food there for you." I saw him smile. "This is the time of the day I usually go for a walk."

Armand had finally reached the beach, and I started taking surer steps towards the point where he was. Our conversation was going well, I thought, but it was also going nowhere. 

"So, what are your plans for today, Laurent? What are your plans for the island?"

It sounded more like he wanted to know how long I was planning to stay, or my purpose to have come, and I wanted to chose my words carefully. Closer to the beach, the pebbles were slippery, and concentrating on not falling, I remained silent until I actually being before Armand. He were exactly the same clothes from the previous afternoon, but they looked fresh on him. Not the least wrinkled, as if he had just put them on. 

He might have missed my intention of approaching him to then speak, though, and sounding impatient he again asked, "Why did you come, Laurent? Why now?"

Because you haven't come for me, I thought. Knowing I couldn't say that, I took a deep breath. I had rehearsed many answers. In fact, during the couple of years I spent trying to reach Armand, I had rehearsed a thousand imaginary conversations I'd be having with my uncle.

"Because, not until two years ago, did I learn that I had an uncle." Feeling very emotional, I tried to smile, when it was easier to start crying. "Can I call you uncle?"

To adjust his canvas shoes, Armand had knelt on the beach. I did the same, even if just for hierarchy, just a few feet away from him. 

"Laurent, I am not what you think." He lowered his voice, but his astonishment was clear. "I am not your uncle! Who told you that?"

"What do you mean, Armand? Carlo told me everything. How the three of you... confronted. On the Île du Blanchomme. How Catherine went to check on the property... Entitled to half of it as she was, being your... sister." I gulped. "Is she not?"

"Did she tell you this? Did she send you here?"

"No she didn't. Nor did Carlo. Send me here, I mean."

"Did she tell you that or not? I can't believe your parents have sustained that... version of the story." He was being very careful with the words. I thought he was going to say "lie", for that was the word revolving in my mind.

"My parents are no longer together." It was my turn to surprise Armand, who suddenly tensed. "Carlo left home over twenty years ago..." I saw my ex-uncle knew nothing about that, and told him briefly how I hadn't spoken to my father for twenty years, until in 2008 he had told me the whole story. "Maybe Catherine didn't have the chance to tell him... the news..." I wanted to believe that. It was the only way to save my father from being a traitor and a liar. "... that she is not your sister? Half sister, even?"

I was trying to control myself, and to behave and be as polite as the man before me. But I was exploding within, not quite sure who the lies were coming from... Or was it Armand that was lying?

"I am sorry, Laurent. But why did Catherine hide it from you? She is in Russia right now, isn't she? You know about that, don't you? Or... don't you speak to your mother either?"

I noticed the look of concern on Armand's face. He must have been trying to figure out the situation of my broken family.

'I do, I do, but...' -- the truth was I hadn't spoken much to Catherine since our conversations over the telephone, when we had quarreled about Armand and almost everything else Carlo had told me. I hadn't completely stopped talking to her, but I had limited our communication to formal occasions only -- birthday, Christmas and New Year's Eve. It was rather unsatisfactory and tense, but I had finally wanted my distance from Catherine. I was sick of running after her approval and affection. In my own terms, I wanted to be a mother to myself, and a better mother than Catherine had ever been.

"Your mother is in Russia, isn't she? Certainly researching about the Rostoffs and... her father, who was Russian. A Russian aristocrat. Something like an exiled prince in Paris. I gave her all the information when I finally got hold of my father's dossiers... I thought we were settled. The judicial process was halted by your mother's own demand. Your mother knows we are not siblings... How could she..."

"She doesn't know I'm here." A Russian noble? Instead of De Montbelle blood, I descended from a Russian prince? My head spun. 

"I am sorry Laurent."

As I slowly rose to my feet, I was fighting against  the impulse of running away. But I was dizzy, an easy prey to my ex-uncle Armand's undesirable words.

"But then..." He gasped, standing up to face me. "Until this very moment, you still believed it! That I was you uncle!" He looked me straight into the eye, and must have realized I was trying no to cry. "You came here..."

All of a sudden, I understood what Armand was thinking. Like my mother almost 40 years ago, I had come to his island to check on him. Maybe to demand something from him, like my mother had... 40 years later, I was standing before him, mirroring my mother. What an awful feeling!

"That is not why I came here. I don't want anything from you. Not even to be recognized..."

"But you came here thinking we were family! You came here..."

I interrupted him. "Yes, I came here to visit my uncle." My voice broke.

"Laurent, do you really believe..." Armand shook his head, and searched another approach to the matter. "If I had known I had a nephew, do you think I would have avoided him? For more than three decades? Stay away from you?"

Lies. I was again being confronted with lies. Lies that made my family again shrink, just like the world had shrunk when the Île had been washed away. Suddenly, I recalled how Armand had avoided my mother, upon uncovering he had a sister. His reaction had been ignoring her. I closed my eyes. 

"I see." He continued. "I did that to your mother, and I am terribly sorry for having treated her that way. I have made that mistake once, Laurent. I ignored your mother. I am ashamed of what I have done when I thought she was my half-sister. I have apologized with her. But I would never do that again in my life. You are not my nephew, and that is why I never went after you, Laurent."

"How can you be so sure?" My voice trembled.

"I heard it from my father."

"Monsieur de Montbelle?" I had wished to call Gaston my grandfather, but that seemed no longer possible.

"Yes." Armand was trying to smile, but there was concern in his eyes. I probably knew more than he had thought I'd know. "I spoke to him. In Paris. In person, I mean."

"When was that?" As if following a lug trail, I was trying to confront all the versions I had heard. But sensing that, the more I asked, the deeper I would dwell in lies. Still, like some eager masochist, I couldn't stop myself from listening to yet another tale of the intangible past.

"Right after I left the Île. Why?"

Armand was being so straightforward, and calm, that it was hard not to believe him. "Carlo told me you left for Thailand, to become a monk... Son of a bitch of a liar!"

"Please calm down, Laurent. I am not lying to you..."

"Not you." I was surprised Armand should think I was swearing at him, and take it so lightly. Had his training as a Buddhist monk been that powerful? "My father... He is..."

"He did not lie to you." Armand seemed surprised with himself, for defending Carlo so promptly. He blushed as he said, "He probably doesn't know I went to Paris before I went back to Thailand... It doesn't seem logic, when I was in that corner of the world already, to return to Europe." Armand shook his head. Closing his eyes, he exhaled deeply. He was not happy to be again dealing with that part of the past. But what else could he do, when I stood before him? Dismiss me, and all that I represented? He seemed braver and calmer and wiser than that. "Do you want to go sit somewhere so we can talk?" He asked, gently.

"Let's stay right here." I said, allowing my knees to finally bend under the weight of a burden greater than I could ever handle -- that of losing my uncle, a mirage created by my father's lies, evaporating forever in a second. 

The sand was just a thin layer, and my butt hit the rock hard.

** The wonderful novel 'Death in Venice' by Thomas Mann was adapted to cinema (not simply nowadays movies, and more like art) by the great Luchino Visconti, and this is the scene mentioned in this episode.