Thin clouds traveled fast above us, the weather changing rapid and constantly. One moment, I felt caressed by the sun -- the next, it was gone, and the wind made its entrance in the bay to blow ripples on the water, and on my skin. In seconds, it would change from being comfortably warm to surprisingly cold. I guessed I would have to at least put a shirt on, if I were to be high jacked to Paris in the 70s, a time in Armand's past that probably coincided with my birth. Still, I could not move, for an immense tiredness had descended upon me.
Being almost naked on a beach of cold currents was only the most visible sign of my own foolishness. The vain desire to belong to the aristocratic De Montbelle family line had trapped me on that faraway island. For a while, I had dared to dream of being their lost heir. But as I resignedly listened to my ex-uncle Armand, our differences heightened.
I recalled Carlo praising Armand's voice -- and his dictation, too. His French demonstrated the impeccable upbringing in the best schools of Europe -- while I still sounded like the uneducated islander I had first been, learning French from natives that spoke it as a foreign, second language.
Armand sat only steps away from me -- but he actually existed in the parallel world where he came from. The castle of his childhood and adolescence, that was no fairy tale, still stood tall around him, and the subsequent array of private islands to take refuge in, that most of us could only dream of, was a path that he alone as an adult had followed. Suddenly, I was so aware of having been brought up in a borrowed, derelict hut, in the far back of someone else's mansion.
Mustn't my father, the peasant, have felt exactly the same in his best friend's presence? Armand was neither snobbish nor distant, or condescending. But his manners, even his physical posture, denounced nobility. His hands would move lightly and agile like butterflies, yet with the certainty and determination of hawks, knowing they could grab anything desired. For they could easily come to own anything they desired.
But Armand's hands never moved -- already owning everything desired.
Except, perhaps, my father. Not much must have remained unattainable for a man like Armand de Montbelle during his life -- but my father had, I thought, when I saw Armand's eyes land on my body. He had never really owned Carlo's body, no matter how much he had longed for it.
What if he could own my father now? Finally own my father, nearly forty years later, in my body -- through my body?
I wondered how much of that hung Italian hunk Armand had loved was before his eyes now, recognizable to him, as I nonchalantly flexed my muscles, and tightened my abs. Through the corner of my eyes I watched as my ex-uncle's eyes followed the path of blonde hair leading from my bellybutton into my crotch, the bulge on which his eyes rested for a moment, before diverting to a past he seemed to meet again, lying between my open thighs.
It would be the last sunny day in weeks. Though he couldn't have known nor guessed, Armand decided to fully enjoy it by taking the longest way to his father's apartment on the Rue de Furstemberg.
Sunlight shone illuminating all things, equally and beautifully. Man could believe in, or at least be tempted to dream of égalité, on such a bright day. Yet, Armand felt comfortably warm only because he had indulged in buying a new sweater, at the prestigious Pierre Cardin boutique next to his hotel. He tried to think of that nice and expensive piece of clothing, from one of the avant-garde couturiers he had admired most, as one last luxury before he became a monk -- as much as a necessity against the chilly day that had made him wake up early that morning to his own loud sneezing.
Autumn was a might ruler to Paris. Ice cream parlors, puppet theaters and other outdoor venues were closing for the season. Green chairs that had lied scattered on the parks alleys were now being piled, and would remain so for the next months. When he thought he had left France in definitive after his mother's death, all things around seemed merry to be having yet another chance to greet him Welcome to his country, while bidding Farewell to the fair season.
Strolling along the alleys of the Champ de Mars, where tourists still abounded, Armand thought of the lines from Rilke's poem 'He who is alone shall long remain so; shall stay awake, read, write endless letters, and wander restlessly in the alleys, where the leaves drift.' Despite his broken heart, and the burdening melancholy of being back to the city where he had last been to bury his mother, Armand relished on the beautiful day. The warm sun and the cool breeze both gently hit his face and shaved scalp, from different sides, as he wandered about the naked flower beds -- some of them, too, being put behind fences.
Having already decided not to visit the cemetery, his mother having remained alive in him, for he felt to be her continuation, Armand felt instead like dancing -- despite it all.
Paris remained impregnated with Carlo's presence, Armand soon found out. All the small bookshops where as a student he had bought piles of books to supply their 'Church', were painful reminders of the lovely hours they had spent together, and he avoided entering them -- trying to convince himself he wouldn't need French books in his monastic life in Asia. Streets he had once walked arm in arm with Carlo, turned ghostly, he now ventured melancholically alone.
Strength to be all on his own in such a haunted Paris came only when he thought of the noble mission that had brought him to town. But was it noble at all, when it included engaging in anonymous hook ups?
Armand had been sitting on a bench just outside the boutique, enjoying both the new sweater and the sun, when he thought to have spotted him, walking down the street. Armand had completely lost track of Carlo -- and Catherine --, when they left the Île du Blanchomme. Only now it occurred to him that Paris had been their most probable destination. As much as it was the only address to resolve his family issues, the Rue de Furstemberg might also be the best place for Armand to try to meet Carlo again.
But did he want to?
Armand's heart jumped at the unexpected marvel, the familiar sight of broad shoulders, strong arms and powerful thighs. The guy confidently striding had Carlo's beautiful dark complexion, and the same admirable tightly packed muscles that no clothes could ever quite hide -- and on the contrary, tight jeans quite enhanced --, which Armand had so often admired with lustful, secret adoration. The curly, short hair, and the exuberant classical nose, spoke of strong Roman ancestry. In a glance, Armand knew the hunk that now passed his bench without noticing him was Italian -- and though equally handsome and sexy, he wasn't Carlo, after all.
Still, Armand followed him, taking the opposite direction of his father's address. He had bought the expensive sweater knowing it was his last chance to use something so fine and fancy before putting on the monastic robe. Likewise, he knew this might be his last chance to undress, and caress, such a gorgeous male body. His lustful determination lasted for half a block, until the guy abruptly turned around to face him, and rather rudely ask,
"Do you follow me? Ma che cazzo vuoi? What you want?"
The hunk's French was tainted with an accent heavier than Carlo's, as much as the hands he waved while speaking were bigger and rougher. Armand could not help as his eyes fell on the man's bulge, seeking to compare it to Carlo's. The guy, who was unmistakably proud of his good looks, living to enjoy the feeling of superiority his masculine appearance exuded, noticed Armand's inquisitive look between his thighs.
"My hotel is near here. Can I invite you to drink something with me?" Armand finally asked.
"You want to drink my piss, eh?" The arrogant Italian hunk shouted, grabbing his crotch, and laughing with cruelty. "Want my horse dick in your ass, eh? Go fuck yourself, queer!" He made an obscene gesture with his fist, and leaving behind a stray of Italian swearing words from which Armand could only understand 'cazzo', the guy noisily moved away.
Tormented, Armand lost his way a few times, through expensive neighborhoods that were too familiar to him, until finally arriving at Monsieur de Montbelle's pied-à-terre on the Rue de Furstemberg. He was aware that his father's lover, Celeste Mortinné, Catherine's mother, lived directly below him, as he passed her door on the way up to the last floor. It was said that spiral stairs located in a secret corner, known only by the two lovers, connected both apartments.
Armand tried not to think of the theater's ex-diva -- whom he had never met, but who had caused his mother so much suffering --, while holding in his heart the justness of his purpose in coming to Paris. His noble mission. Even if, when he pictured his half-sister -- who was the aim of that mission --, he pictured her all the time in Carlo's arms.
Being almost half an hour late, Armand wasn't surprised to learn through Monsieur de Montbelle's secretary that his father would make him wait.
Armand had met the secretary before, upon Madame de Montbelle's death, but for the first time he actually glanced at the guy. A fine young man of Arabic ascendance, Monsiuer de Montbelle's employee was clearly, maybe dangerously trying to compensate the father's lack of understanding, or excess of rigueur towards the son, with a kindness that exceeded in charms. But not exactly in manners, as his next comment gave in.
"Who would say beauty could be enhanced by loss?" were the secretary's words as he led Armand into Monsieur de Montbelle's sumptuous home office, smelling to noble woods, cork and dust. That single room displayed enough works of art to probably triple the size of the collections of most small Parisian museums, such as the neighboring Musée Eugène Delacroix. Beauty on display in the room took distinct forms -- elegant Greek vases, Renaissance masterful paintings, the finest dynastic Chinese porcelains, intricate Egyptian figurines -- all of them attested originals, even if their acquisition might have not come through the uttermost honest means. Still, the secretary was clearly addressing Armand, and what was supposedly his beauty, that should beat all the preciosities in the room.
"I beg your pardon?" He asked in dismay. "My... loss?!" He could only guess the secretary was referring to Madame de Montbelle's death, which was the occasion they had first and last seen each other. But Armand could not picture his father having a man so rudely indiscreet and cruel as his most qualified helper -- though he could not picture, either, his homophobic father having taken a gay man under his service, which was obviously the case.
"No, please..." Taking a manicured hand to his own chest, the secretary pressed it against his velvety, old fashioned waistcoat, rather theatrically beating his heart. The last remains of blood had rushed out of the young man's pale skin, that beautifully contrasted with his raven black hair, as the secretary realized the misunderstanding. "Not that loss! No!" He whined.
Because the works of art only were under pools of light in Monsieur de Montbelle's office, Armand drew closer to gaze into the other man's sparkling green eyes, shining with intelligence under thick lenses. While waiting for a justification, and an excuse, Armand wondered whether they both would be so daring as to start an affair on the very grounds of the enemy. Though far from the hunky types he preferred -- his father's employee being a thin man --, still he brimmed with enough elegance and initiative as to have Armand wondering what kind of lover the Arab man would make. The frail frame seemed to disappear under the young man's every purposeful word and movement, and Armand hinted of a dominant, rough lover, that could recite poems of love, though never really capable himself of loving. A dangerous, fascinating charade of a man, Armand thought.
"Not that loss!" The young man repeated. "That fine cascade of hair, the color of wheat, that adorned your face the last time we..." The man stuttered, loosing his thread of thought once he me Armand's eyes. "Like a frame to the most beautiful work of art..." He rejoined, "Who could guess that the painting would glow to its fullest once the frame was removed?"
Armand acquiesced. Such a nice compliment should have been enough for him, in a terminal state of desperation and humiliation, to gratefully kiss the lips that had proffered it. They were only half a step away, his owner ready and willing as much as Armand could perceive it.
But something in the secretary's tone made Armand think that the fairly handsome man was well aware of his other and most recent loss, and being referring to that -- instead of Armand's hair, elusively used only to cover the secretary's lack of discreetness. A subject he must have overheard whispered, or perhaps even heard openly discussed in that apartment, and the apartment below.
Carlo -- and how Armand's lover-to-be had instead chosen his half-sister, Catherine.
Surprised, almost shocked, I pondered Armand's recollections of that distant Fall day -- all I had just heard, mingled here to what I learned later. Despite being heartbroken, he had not hesitated in hunting down an anonymous Italian hunk on the streets of Paris, where he had just arrived. Nor considering having an affair with his father's closest, most private and personal employee. Or just a one-night stand, probably. In his desperation, he seemed capable of pushing down the secretary on the regal sofa of Monsieur de Montbelle's office, and having him right then and there, adding to the explosive joy of fast sex, the thrill of risking being caught.
I could picture the effervescence of gay life in the 70s, from several movies I had watched. Paris -- rivaled only by New York -- was then a fabulous world of free, unlimited sex in underground nudist clubs and famed discothèques, like Le Sept, that attracted tout le monde of the international jet set. Fantasies about being there myself, stumbling upon young Yves Saint Laurent or Karl Lagerfeld, to steal a kiss or a night from them, made my groins tingle. Though, probably it would be Jacques de Bascher -- the man who had turned the two couturiers into enemies for life -- to sniff my promiscuity and come after me for a fix or a quickie.
It was more difficult to place Armand in that wild scene of equally dangerous angels and devils, alongside Kenzo or Andy Warhol, when in fact he seemed to have stayed just on its safer, more civilized borders of casual encounters on side streets and parks.
Still, I would have liked to think of my ex-uncle suffering longer for Carlo, for years melancholically sighing after memories of my father. Becoming a monk -- choosing to be chaste and retreating from the world -- to try to heal his broken heart. Instead, he had tried to shamelessly replace him in bed with the first pair of swollen biceps that had seemed attractive enough to him -- and Italian enough, too.
Were I Italian enough for him?, I caught myself wondering.
As Armand's words died, I followed his eyes when they raised to the sky, where a flock of seagulls choreographed elongated circles above the bay, letting loud, piercing cries. It took me perhaps half a minute to hear the other sound, graver, more like a tremor in the background, and spot what had really caught Armand's attention. A single bird had left the circles that seemed to entertain its companions, and in an impossibly straight line aimed at colliding with an airplane that crossed the same blue sky, leaving a thin track of condensed air behind him -- but impossibly high.
The fates of bird and airplane, of course, never met, though their trajectories did cross before my eyes. And there was something, in the opposition of the seagulls' organic circles, and the straight line of the airplane's course, and the fact that its coldness had a destination and a purpose in flying, while the foolish birds seemed to randomly and pointlessly exercise their wings; something in those contrasting forms of being -- and altitudes -- sparkled an insight.
Armand spoke of himself as if he was speaking of someone else -- an impression I would have repeatedly, in the days I'd spend with him on the island. With such good humor as to denote not being afraid of looking foolish or joke about himself. Unlike everybody else, seemingly delighted in speaking of themselves, to Armand his own stories sounded nearly a sacrifice. Not quite, for there was no suffering in his revelations -- more like an offering. And an offering directed at me.
I realized he spoke of himself to help me better understand myself. For, when I was about to blame him for so easily trying to forget my father, who should have been the love of his life, until that point and maybe still so, to shame how he had hungrily chased the Italian hunk -- just then did I realize how I had acted exactly the same, after Angelo had dumped me. But while Armand seemed to have less luck, or far more scruples, to stop himself before further embarrassment, I had instead plunged into promiscuity. He couldn't have known about Angelo, and it was not the case to say it was in the family's blood, since Armand was about to justify why he was not my uncle. It was simply the typical act of hurt men, whether straight or gay. Still, it brought me closer to my ex-uncle, to learn he was far more human than I had imagined.
Without a warning other than intensifying or perhaps interrupting the piercing cries, a loud explosion was heard, when the seagulls started dive-bombing into the pearly waters of the bay, to next emerge with their victims kicking between their beaks. Their flying in circles had been not so aimless after all.
Nor had Armand's confession been. Who, by my side, was asking, "Laurent, are you still with me?"
This episode makes many references to Part ONE of The Last Canvas, when Carlo D'Allegro left his atelier set in an abandoned factory in Paris to travel to the Indian Ocean, responding to an invitation to meet his friend and former roommate Armand de Montbelle, and the impossible love triangle that followed with Catherine Mortinné's arrival and troubled stay on the Île du Blanchomme, until the painful unfolding when these three characters parted (click to read specific episode, some of them NSFW, I'm afraid).
Laurent (and you, reader) is the first person to hear all three sides of this story, though I must say it is far from coming to an end or being the whole truth about the events that led to his birth.
If you'd like to learn a bit more about the live 70s disco scene in Paris, you can check here and here.