My mind having drifted elsewhere, I watched as the white crest of waves washed across my own reflection in the glass. They were the only thing barely visible through the kitchen's large window, rolling outside in the deep dark night that smoothly enveloped both the sea and the sky. Other than Armand's house, and the historic cabin I was occupying, just one more construction --and source of artificial light -- stood on the whole island, where a ranger or keeper would sometimes lodge, but that was vacant at the moment.
Armand was so accustomed to his own solitude that almost surely he had already forgotten I stood in the kitchen with him. True, he was cooking a vegetarian dinner for two -- like in the past he had cooked meals for my father --, but so concentrated and silent that I could have gone upstairs, to check the rest of the house, or wander outside, to inspect the world of darkness in which we seemed to be the only human beings, that he wouldn't have noticed -- not my presence, nor my absence. It was another form of meditation, I knew, that of silently and mindfully slicing vegetables, that I too had been taught at the Zen monastery in France.
Leaning against a different counter from where Armand peacefully busied himself, I couldn't be less mindful, lost in my own incessant stream of conjunctures.
Obviously, I was recalling my father's bewilderment at his noble friend, brought up as a prince, cooking for him -- so that I wasn't as surprised myself to have Armand preparing a meal for me. But I did wonder whether he was recalling it, too, and seeing any parallels and continuation or connections. Even if Armand wasn't my uncle, for Catherine was apparently not his sister, my mother had still stolen his lover from him -- already carrying his seed in her belly, taken Carlo away with her to be my father. All of a sudden, I was very ashamed, conscious to be the physical proof of their love making -- just if not love, really. Of their betrayal, ultimately.
Instead, I tried to think of the tall, handsome Surfer Monk. I knew Armand, after losing Carlo, had had a long lasting partner, to whom he even dedicated the Pritzker Prize. But I couldn't recall his name, or nationality -- if those had ever been mentioned in any interviews, actually. Was he the Surfer Monk?
And why would Armand hide from the world in this cold island, when he had once retreated to inhabit much warmer, tropical shores?
"Is this island haunted too, Armand?"
"Haunted? Haunted too? Why do you ask that, Laurent?"
"I don't know. I was thinking... The Île du Blanchomme was haunted." Armand did not glance at me, but for a second he stopped slicing the carrot, and I could sense his surprise. "Those spirits waiting to be born, tormented because they never would incarnate... My father told me all about it." I clarified, and Armand went back to his slicing meditation, that I probably was ruining by chatting to him. "And so was the house you took, on the lake in Thailand. The drowned boy... It was what kept the locals away, wasn't it?"
"And you were thinking ghosts would keep the Swedish people away from this little gem of an island? Is that it, Laurent?"
"Well, it isn't exactly easy to reach this island..." Nor you, I thought, considering it had taken me two years to finally meet Armand. For someone so famous and important, Armand seemed infuriatingly determined to hide himself. "And you've said it yourself, that we are the only two human beings here tonight..." Again, I thought of that picturesque Île in the Indian Ocean, and how my father and Armand had spent a week or so all on their own. With their good looks and exceeding health, a long lasting intimacy that was not just spiritual, it was hard to believe nothing but a platonic love affair had ensued between the two young men, all the time dressed only shorts, a private tropical paradise at their sole disposal.
"Yes, we are isolated here, aren't we? And I'm sorry if you can't get a signal for your mobile. It's frustrating, isn't it?" I was about to retort I had never said that, though actually I did feel it, but Armand went on. "Maybe you're right, and this place is haunted, Laurent. But they are not Swedish -- I've brought my own ghosts here..."
Was he talking about the living or the deceased? About Carlo, and Catherine? Or was it Monsieur de Montbelle, and my grandmother, Celeste? Or his own mother, Madame de Montbelle?
"Is it the Surfer Monk who haunts you?" I asked instead. It was my best guess. I wanted so much to hear more about the man, venturing it was him who Armand had found so attractive and interesting as to spend the rest of his life with -- or, at least until the Surfer Monk's passing away, a few years before; the Pritzker Prize had been dedicated posthumously.
"What?" Armand's voice broke. He dropped the vegetable peeler, to instead grab the biggest knife laying on the counter. Turning to stare at me directly, he held the blade in his left hand, clearly preparing to defend himself from any advance on my part. "How can you possibly know?" Armand had tensed, and like a trapped animal, he looked truly frightened. He then blinked a few times, as if trying to focus on me, to finally give a smile and, his posture again relaxing, resume slicing the vegetables. "No, of course you don't."
"What was his name?" I asked, confused with the extremes of his reaction, going from fear to looking carefree in seconds; until then, I had watched Armand remain perfectly calm and centered since my arrival.
"Dave." Armand answered, tilting his head as if to express doubt. "Or at least, that's what he wanted people to call him. Even if, in fact, I was the only person to call him anything, in a language he understood. And it was Dave."
"Dave..." The novice monk told Armand, introducing himself again on his first visit to the lake house, with a warmth and smile he hadn't used weeks before when introducing himself with his Pali name, that Armand had never understood. "Yeah, you can call me Dave..." Smiling broad like a monkey, displaying his rosy gums, Armand noticed Dave had big teeth, yellowed with tartar. Not his best feature, a sign of his humble upbringing, Dave´s smiles always ended in a self-conscious grin.
"Please come in, Dave."
To Armand -- following the Surfer Monk across the bridge, staying a few steps behind to adequately demonstrate the respect their difference of monastic rank inspired him --, it seemed like the other was not quite sure of his own name. Dave, he had murmured. But could it have been Pete? Or Mike? Had he used his Pali name for too long now, to have forgotten his worldly name? But what was 'too long' for a novice? Two years, maybe three? Maybe I'm not familiar with the intonation of North American English, that's what, Armand thought -- guiltily setting aside that initial lack of trust in his new friend, that might have made him a bit or a whole lot more cautious towards the Surfer Monk -- he would remain thinking of him that way, even having "Dave" to call him. Had he listened to his own instinctive lack of trust, Armand might have spared himself all the subsequent suffering, that endangered his own life, and his father's.
But he was already too smitten with the Surfer Monk -- or perhaps Super Monk was more adequate, as Armand observed Dave's muscles bulging, as they walked towards the floating house. Comparing it to pictures he had seen, Armand thought Dave's butt was outrageously big, gorgeously round, and remarkably firm only like a football player's. A bulky sportsman, Dave tried his best to fit his physical majesty into the modest vests of a Buddhist monk -- but why? But then, why would an architect aspire to become a forest monk? Again, Armand set aside all prudent concerns and valuable doubts to savior the unexpected presence of the person that insistently filled his daydreaming.
"I finally realized you weren't staying with us. I was concerned about your well-being. I inquired around and found about this lake house. I can see you are doing very well, better than us, in fact." Dave meant the monastic community. "How did you come across this place?"
Dave demonstrated a bit of impatience as Armand tried his best to explain it in an English that was still rusty -- but soon to become almost fluent as their friendship would grow.
"I see. It is hard to let go of our old habits, isn't it? I can see how you still need privacy. And a bit of luxury, alright." Dave turned around on his feet, to encompass the pretty view that the wall-less house, standing in the middle of the lake, the canvas curtains flapping above the liquid surface, gave to the forested margins, where tall bushes of flowers grew and among which, every now and then, a small animal would come drink water. "And not sharing any of it, keeping it all to yourself!" He gave his wicked, grimly smile that embarrassed Armand, and made him feel like a nasty little boy caught in the act. But what act, really? "I don't think, though, that's very good for the practice."
Armand was aware of being lectured and scolded by the Surfer Monk, but as an inferior to his monastic brother, he tried to gladly accept the lesson. To reinforce his words, Dave would take advantage of his height and bulk, leaning almost threateningly over the person he talked too, and not rarely inflate his bulging biceps or raise his mountainous shoulders. Convinced he would no be confronted, hoovering one head taller above Armand, Dave went on.
"I have to wonder. Do you observe our rules for only one meal a day? Or do you take snacks when no one is checking on you?" Again, a wicked smile, preparing Armand for the next question. "I bet you do you have lustful thoughts. Do you often fantasize about having sex? Do you jerk off when you are here all on your own? Well, but then," Dave blinked, "here you are always on your own..." He laughed.
Armand was shocked at the boldness, unprecedented in a monastic. And ashamed, too, as much as impressed with the Surfer Monk's ability to read his mind. Armand wasn't such a bad practitioner after all, and though he had once or twice infringed the rule of no meals after midday with a mango or some rice, he had usually been able to stop his hand before sexually pleasuring himself. What he could not stop was indulging in gorgeous fantasies about the Super Monk -- which preferably replaced painful fantasies of Carlo and Catherine --, nor the raging hard-ons he could only subside with long, diligent breathing exercises. They would return in his sleep, though, when his body took control over his mind -- and by now, the hammock he had bought only two months ago was already stained from repeated wet dreams.
He was happy when Dave suggested they sit together to meditate.
"I think it would be good for you. I shall represent the Sangha, making this place less of a private retreat for you. Shall we begin?" Taking place by Armand's home altar, where a candle was always lit whenever he was home, Dave made his command sound like a question. "I see you have many books; we could later read and study a sutta, too."
Armand eagerly agreed to what would be his loveliest sitting session in the floating house until then. Not that he finally achieved enlightenment. He could hardly concentrate. Used to having only the fragrance of the flowers blooming on the margins of the lake reaching his nostrils, or sometimes have them assaulted by the odor of animal excrement, the scent of Dave's body sweating under the sun inebriated him. It was not simply manly, but strongly masculine. Travelling abroad, Armand had noticed Westerners smelled differently from Asians, or Africans. Maybe it was the milk they were used to drinking, and all the derivatives they would eat, that made Westerners smell sour. Not Dave, particularly, who smelled more vital and primitive, of red meat and hormones.
Armand couldn't keep his eyes closed, either, having the Super Surfer Monk sitting only a few steps away from him. He had watched his strong back and firm butt many times now, during the walking meditations. It was the first occasion they sat facing one another, though, and Armand could instead bask in the vision of Dave's broad chest partially bared, glistening with sweat, watching its rise and fall -- when he should instead be observing and concentrating on his own. He could also, for the first time, through his half-closed eyes, intently look at the novice's beautiful face, and let his gaze linger. Sometimes Armand guessed the other man was observing him too; maybe it was just his mind running wild, fantasizing the other monk was fantasizing about him too, and in the unspeakable same way.
Chastity had been an easy practice among the anodyne Asian monks. But lust, diminished over the weeks if not entirely subdued, had struck him with heightened force at the arrival of the Surfer Monk. Dave, like Armand, had not shaved the eyebrows -- a norm among ordained monks, and even with local men who converted temporarily --, and those tiny patches of dark hair suddenly seemed inappropriately explicit, as if indicating the color and texture of the other hair Dave must have on his body.
Armand tried to concentrate on his breath, but instead was mesmerized by the vision -- and again, the smell -- of the sweaty hair sticking out of the Surfer Monk's armpit, a nice bush of hirsute brown hair that had Armand, shocked with himself, wondering what Dave's pubic hair was like. He was tempted to try checking on it, when the breeze kept inflating Dave's robe, revealing powerful legs and hairy inner thighs up to the blue, loose shorts he wore for underwear. As if chastity was a lost battle long forgotten or abandoned, Armand was next fighting an embarrassing erection, his heart beating faster at each menacing throb, bringing him unbearably close to an eruption that he could predict catastrophic in abundance and force, after so many months being subjugated. He would at least try not to moan, on the moment of his shameful capitulation.
Armand found a new joy in meditating, and a new incentive to leave his cozy hammock at 3:30 in the morning, and join the group of monks in the grove -- if it were to feel Dave's proximity. The forty, sometimes fifty minutes that had previously separated him from the Sangha suddenly turned into thirty minutes or less. As he sped up on uneven paths to meet his friend, animals he did not care to recognize fled into the bushes; he no longer feared them, nor the sharp gravel that sometimes hurt his feet.
But not until the end of the morning session, and not until they bowed to one another -- after having bowed to the altar, to the Buddha, to the stream of noble teachers and the teachings -- when Armand was able to look into the Surfer Monk's blue eyes, not until then did his day begin. Even if they maintained Noble Silence for a couple more hours, being thus unable to speak to one another, the spark of recognition and retribution in Dave's eyes, reflecting his own, and his sweet smile ending in that vexed grin, meant to Armand "Good morning" like nothing else before.
Armand's practice strengthened -- even if not quite the way it should have. His attention and concentration no longer belonged to him -- like a butterfly fluttering about for the next more colorful flower, they followed Dave, that soon became the center of Armand's world. It seemed OK, though, when the other monk's physical strength, that allowed him to sit for very long periods, stimulated Armand's own endurance and diligence -- even if it were the wrong kind of diligence, according to the Buddha.
Dave demonstrated extensive knowledge not only of the sacred texts in Pali, but enough fluency in Thai to start translating the speeches for Armand, who could finally start understanding, and being understood.
After some time, in which he seemed to observe the foreigners, though still rather reluctant, the new master finally agreed on a private counseling session with them. He didn't look so young when Armand and Dave sat close to him, under the thick shade of a pair of banyan trees. The man was perhaps in his forties, which was still relatively young for a master -- and maybe that's why he behaved so strictly, displaying little compassion towards the foreigners who seemed to misunderstand the practice.
The wise man sat perfectly upright -- but not uptight -- on a flat stone, naturally resembling a throne as it was almost completely encased by two of the largest banyan trees in the forest. The thick trunks arching to lean against one another, their vast canopies intertwined like elements in a Gothic cathedral's roof, several meters high above the place where they sat on the ground. Aerial roots descended like divine arms from the sky, to create a natural partition that protected and embraced the master, sheltering him from the sun. There was an unmistakable if subtle might about the man, sitting solid like a rock, yet looking relaxed like a flower that had just sprung from the damp soil, to immediately bloom, on its way to check the sky. Maybe it were the bushes of flowers surrounding him, but Armand did have the impression that the wise man smelled to fresh blossoms.
He listened with deep attention to Dave's translation of Armand's whispered question, his eyes shut. Both were surprised when he stared at them to answer, a madly magnified pair of black bulbs that indicated how thick the lenses to his glasses were. But it must have been its poor quality that so monstrously distorted his eyes, to look like a cross-eyed lizard's or a blind cow's, and made Dave and Armand wonder how much did he indeed see, or how could he walk without tripping all the time, or leading the line of monastics to a precipice.
"Practicing, when in the practice, is easy." Were his first words, that Dave translated as soon as the sentence was pronounced. There was a bit of affectation in translating so fast, as if to show off his own skills, but Armand did not mind. The gratitude he felt for his foreign companion only added to the infatuation he felt growing in him.
"Sitting long is not sitting well. Chicken can sit for days. Not wise. Long is just long. Well is other." Dave translated further, speaking whenever the master fell silent and, to Armand's perception, actually interrupting the man, to whom a moment of silence was part of his discourse and gave it continuity, instead of meaning its end, as Dave seemed to interpret it. "Sitting long is good training. But is not good sitting." And then, Dave whispered discreetly to Armand, as a comment, "It's not my English, OK? His discourse is broken like that. But it does make at least a little sense, doesn't it?"
Tempting as it was to agree, Armand was aware that not understanding a word of Thai -- except the basic for being polite and asking for water and food, for the bus and a room -- might have influenced his impression that the master spoke as if the words were stones he was throwing at them. The man did spit a bit, every once in a while, as his lips only moved, the rest of him in perfect stillness, to the image of unaccountable statues of the Buddha.
"Posture is not practice. Practice is not in a posture. Practice even when you don't practice. Practice while cooking. While working." He let Dave translate before continuing, "That is to go beyond the practice. And it takes a lot of practice to achieve wisdom. If you have wisdom, then you understand sitting and books are not practice nor wisdom." Again, Dave commented, "He must have seen us sitting around when they were working. He wants us to work for him, I think." And he added, in a whisper, "He is not very kind, is he?"
Above all, Armand wanted to inquire about his lust, that often dominated and embarrassed him -- but how could he, when it was Dave, his translator, the source of his craving? Instead, he conjured his strong desires -- the desire to become a monk and teach others, the desire to achieve enlightenment and help others achieve it, too.
"You can't help even yourself, if you have desire. Desire to be free prevents your freedom. Desire for enlightenment will keep you from achieving it." Dave translated this only after giving it some thought. For once, before he could add any comments, the master spoke again, and Dave listened carefully. "Let go. Don't cling to your desires. Don't cling to achievements. Don't cling to states of mind. Let go. That is the practice." And with those words for closure, accompanied by a watchful assistant that had stayed close to the trio all during the interview, the master bowed briefly to them and smoothly glided off the flat stone, leaving both Armand and Dave baffled. They bowed as low as the soil would let them, their heads touching the damp leaves, to show proper respect for the teacher, and gratitude for the teachings -- even if they could not have apprehended all its meanings at once.
Armand was surprised at Dave's generosity to simply translate, and let Armand pose all the questions relating to his own practice -- when, being a novice still, he must have had his own doubts. But they had been discussing it for days now, to reach the conclusion that their questions were pretty much alike and the answers would be good for both.
To unwind, and practice while not practicing, Armand took Dave to the grove that was considered haunted by the locals; where, for all the occasions he had visited to take photographs, he had never met another human being. It felt like sharing a secret with his friend, Armand thought -- and that is exactly what the grove inspired both of them to do.
They had been sitting in the haunted grove at one of Armand's favorite corner, where the otherwise calm brook fell abruptly into a pool, with a cascading sound joyfully singing of vitality. Where the water splashed and sprayed the margins, among the lush foliage, Armand had often spotted -- and photographed -- toads of acid colors sitting unmovable on the stones covered with lichens of most intricate forms. Spotting a tiny frog of yellow and black skin, he now had to think of the masters words about chickens sitting, and how sitting was not necessarily meditation.
"Why the strong desire to become a monk, Brother Armand?"
Armand startled at Dave's voice. No matter how sweet, and grave and pleasant it was, the nearly guttural American accent made his name sound too funny -- the Ar- rolling exceedingly long and not aspired, the -mand too nasal. Arrrmein.
The answer sprung in his mind as a glimpse of classic beauty, not as vital as Dave's, but rather more refined, speaking of antique origins. Carlo. Armand asked himself if he could mention the man he had loved so thoroughly to his monastic brother. Feeling he should be honest, Armand also calculated it too soon, at that stage of their friendship. An alternative answer to his broken heart, that he thought would never mend? Why mention it now, when it had just started healing? He was aware that, impelled by lust and gratitude, he had been slowly falling in love with Dave, the Super Healer Surfer Monk.
"Brother Armand? Does your family know you are here?" His questions sounding so casual, Dave prevented Armand from ever suspecting the intentions behind his interrogatory.
Armand had been lying on his stomach, feeling the cool and damp soil contrasting with the warmth of the sun on his back, contemplating a line of ants hastily carrying severed leaves and petals. He wondered whether, like in the fable, they were preparing themselves not for the European winter, but for the Rains Season in Thailand, and whether he should start preparing, too.
Dave's questions hit and hurt like flogging. Armand was slowly turning on his back, to face Dave, not sure what to answer him about his strong desire, when, with his friend's second question came an insight.
It was not Carlo, nor Raymond, with whom he had fallen in love before meeting Carlo. They couldn't have been any more different, the peasant artist from the mountains in Italy, and the aristocratic diplomat, born in Paris but belonging to the world. And what in common did they have with Dave, the Surfer Monk? Or with any of the men Armand had taken to bed -- when, in fact he had been searching for a minimal doses of affection at least, even while engaging only in sex.
Monsieur de Montbelle. Obvious as it must have seemed to others, for the first time Armand saw it clearly -- he tried to get from other men what he had never received from his father. Appreciation, approval, affection -- to stay with the A letter only. Raymond, Carlo, Dave -- he wanted them fill a gap that had not been created by them, he finally realized.
"My mother is dead." Armand answered, tears already filling his eyes. "And I am dead to my father." He concluded, without any bitterness, simply realizing the sad truth. He then explained to Dave how he had continuously tried to live up to his father's expectations, despite and against his own will and inclinations, and how, by becoming a monk, he was letting go of everything -- whatever it was his father had wanted for him, and whatever he had ever wanted for himself. "Because, you know, I don't seem to fit anywhere." Not even here, with these monks, not until you came, Armand thought, but never shared with Dave.
"It's alright, brother." Dave whispered, seeing Armand's tears slowly form a stream dripping from the corners of his eyes. He had held Armand's hand at the first tear, and all the time while listening to him, increasing the pressure of his touch as to anchor Armand in his company, and not let the other be washed away by his torrent of suffering. "You may cry. Just cry mindfully, you know." He suggested, with a soft smile and his awkward grin, alerting Armand about his own tormented state of mind.
That sufficed to dry the vicious source of Armand's tears -- sufferings past, sufferings he no longer wanted to think of, or even talk about. He almost regretted having already shared them with Dave, who until a few minutes ago did not know anything about Monsieur and Madame de Montbelle. Armand had lost his opportunity of letting them stay in the gloomy basement of his past, back in France. Voicing that painful part of his history seemed to lend force to undesirable ghosts that should not have been invited to sunny Thailand, nor introduced to beautiful Dave.
"What about you, brother?" Armand asked in retribution. "Why become a monk? Does your family know about it?"
They were alone in the forest, their bodies too close to one another, their hearts getting closer at each confession, so much that Armand was actually glad when Dave, demonstrating the same uneasiness -- but for different reasons, which Armand could not yet guess --, suggested that they walk back to the Sangha to join the last sitting meditation of the day. His suggestion broke the spell of an intimate moment that could lead to a kiss, which would certainly deliver a fatal blow on their vows of chastity.
"I'm not ignoring you, Brother Armand." Dave said, after a few minutes they had walked side by side in silence. Sunset was less than an hour or so away, but the limpid water of the brook, which their path bordered in a curvy zigzag, had already taken on the first golden tones. Armand was aware of the buzz and hazardous movements of what he called 'the rush hour' in the forest, when the daily animals were retreating and the nocturne prepared to take over. Birds sang their goodbye songs, waving their wings in farewell flights to the day. "I heard your questions. But don't you think your sharing was emotional enough for today? We'll come back to my own shit in another opportunity, I'm sure." Armand was about to feel embarrassed for having burdened his friend with confessions of a dysfunctional family -- though he had left Monsieur de Montbelle's second family out of that conversation --, when Dave added "Thank you for confiding in me. I'm very honored."
Armand had no reason to suspect of Dave, then, and why he was so reluctant to share his own past.
Dave's own 'confession' -- if a bunch of relative truths, that were very close to lies, can be called that -- came a few days later, when they were having breakfast at Armand's house. For a few days already, when the first sitting meditation in the grove ended, they would leave the monks to their own busy activities in the monastery that was being built, feeling both that their future did not belong with them. They had started joking about forming their own Sangha of two -- tentative words Armand was tempted to interpret as a veiled message from Dave, about them forming a lovely couple indeed. With Armand's money, Dave said, they could hire the best master in Thailand to teach them -- though, of course, they knew no master was for hire.
They would spend more time meditating and studying on their own. Though not a master by any standards, Dave's knowledge of Pali, and his deep understanding of the sacred texts, astonished Armand. Of course he preferred listening to whatever wisdom his friend had to share with him, in English, than listening to the forest master talk for an hour in Thai, and next get a summary from Dave. In the end, he just enjoyed Dave's company and conversation more than he ever did like the estranged, displaced Sangha he had joined by mistake. He had thought of leaving, looking for another proper group to practice, maybe search for the master he had once received instructions from -- but he loved his house on the lake, and now he had found his self-sufficient Sangha in Dave.
Apparently, the Surfer Monk had never surfed in his life, after all. It seemed he was more of a Cowboy monk. His long rolling and lazy "R", that always made Armand's name sound funny, was perfected in a small farm in south-central USA, where he had spent most of his life among horses and corn. Dave was the only surviving child out of three. His father died when he was seven, and his mother, that he described as a weak, submissive woman, remarried to a man that oscillated between strict morals dictated by the Bible. and severe beatings on both his wife and her son when he was drunk. Dave's only joy in his daily work routines came from the horses -- that he missed immensely in Thailand -- and one single, outstanding event in what he called an otherwise "uneventful, hard life on the boring plains".
Once, a filming crew had stopped at their farm. They were shooting a documentary on rural life in the Bible belt, and wanted Dave's stepfather to be in it -- even if the farm he ran belonged to his wife and son, those he would beat whenever he wanted. But one day the man, drunk and furious, chase the whole crew away, claiming they were molesting his wife and the boy. Dave had indeed befriend one of the guys in the crew who, before he left, gave him the book he was reading, as a proposed alternative to the miserable life the boy was living. It was 'Dharma Bums', by Jack Kerouac. At 16, having decided living with his abusive stepfather and helpless mother was unbearable, Dave fled home, headed North to the forests described by Kerouac. He never reached them, though, nor did he work as a fire lookout like the author -- instead, in need of money, he joined the logging industry.
Dave seemed exhausted by the end of his "confession". It was very inexact, leaving dates and names of places behind. Armand didn't care about that, for he had omitted the Rue du Furstemberg and the École des Beaux-Arts from Dave, guessing they would make no difference for the All-American boy, like the farm being in Arkansas or Kentucky made difference for Armand either. Still, he wanted to know more.
"May I ask how old are you, Brother Dave?" It was funny to keep calling themselves brothers, when more and more their relationship evolved far from the monastic life, away from the Sangha, and their words and reasons to be together less and less had to do with the sacred texts and the Buddha's teachings. "And how did you join the forest monks?"
"You see, I was robbed when I first got here. Another foreigner I met. I couldn't, like, go to American Express and ask my family to wire me money -- for, you see, I had left no family back home. Like yours, my mother died too, did I tell you already? Not a sickness like Madame; my mother must have been beaten to death, I'll never know. Weird thing is, she wrote a testament leaving the farm to that drunkard, so that I was entitled to nothing. I'm pretty sure he must have forced her before finally killing her... Anyway, I needed money in Thailand, and when I heard forests were being cut down, I knew just what to do. But when I first met a community of monks, that I had displaced from their forest with my own hands, perhaps influenced by that Kerouac book I still carry in my backpack, I decided to join them. It was an alternative to my miserable life, not just because I'd never need any fucking money again, but because everything in the practice was about freedom, the one thing I have ever and most longed for!"
"When did you first arrive in Thailand, Brother Dave?" Armand was not trying to investigate his friend's life, though it must have seemed so for his friend, who wanted to keep some things secret. Armand was wondering whether they might have first come together to Thailand in the same year, but not met. "How long have been a novice monk?"
Dave tried to hide his discomfort with Armand's questions behind a veil of travelers' philosophy. "Do you know how you lose track of time when traveling? Because time takes different dimensions in different cultures, doesn't it? Even the weekdays seem to blur, even if for the single fact that they are called differently from the Tuesday and Wednesday I used to know back home.". He shrugged. "Do you know what day of the week it is, Brother Armand? And then, those references of the passing of time, like the school years you share with your friends, or the birthdays and funerals you share with your family... They don't exist anymore, and because of that, time seems less real, if real it is, at all..." He shrugged again. "And you know what? Everybody seems to think they speak English, but it certainly isn't like back home, where we are natives. I mean, your English is OK, but not fluent, is it? And that funny accent of yours... Seems like you are speaking some sort of French that I can understand, for the words are English, but not their pronunciation. You know, I've been in Asia for so long now that sometimes I forget my own name! How long have I been traveling? Since I got here, or since I left the farm? Who knows, and who cares, you know?" Dave shrugged one last time, as if by now it had become a bodily tic.
"Now, if you excuse me." Dave was clearly nervous and disturbed when he briskly left the house on the lake, leaving Armand at the table, breakfast unfinished. Armand was afraid he had pushed their budding friendship boundaries too far. And he regretted it having been out of sheer curiosity. Why should he know his friend's age, when he already knew by heart how many wrinkles precociously adorned his beautiful face? But it was no longer a polite interest what Armand took in Dave, who actually intrigued and fascinated him, like a romantic anti-hero from one of Jack Kerouac's books -- that seemed so to inspire the trajectory of the Super Surfer Monk.
Armand had no reasons to doubt Dave, or guess of his impersonation. There had been as many death's in each of their lives, so why should Armand suspect he was now risking his own life?
“I still had one last chance to shut the door at the vampire, you know, leaving him out of my home… Literally speaking, of course, for there were no doors at the house on the lake.” Armand was pouting, as he pondered. “Leaving him out of my life, really, for that’s where he’s established himself. And yes, I’m talking about Dave, and how, like the vampire, a soul-sucking vampire rather than the blood-sucking one, he became indestructible once invited into one's house. That’s what I did, when he announced he was leaving the Sangha, instead of simply saying goodbye. His presence was already more important to me than the master’s, and I cherished words coming from him more than those in the sacred texts.” Armand sighed, lifting eyes from his plate to the kitchen window, and as if not finding any relief nor distraction, staring at me again. “Do you know that old song ‘I fall in love too easily’, Laurent?” I nodded, listening to Chet Baker sing the chorus in my mind, and Armand continued. “It states my main flaw, it seems. I’ve never dealt properly with my lust, instead confusing it with love. There were so many guys I should have simply had sex with, raw and rapid satisfaction, but instead I wanted to feel love before bedding them, and worse, expecting to be loved in return, too… That’s how I conferred Dave power over me. Deciding as fellow monks we should never have sex, I replaced and re-scaled my expectations to a much more complicated, tormented platonic love. So foolish of me, really.”
We had been eating the first course -- a dish reminiscent of Armand’s crudivore period of a few years ago --, consisting of thinly sliced green, yellow and red peppers, plus carrots and onions, that he had left marinating in a rich, fragant sauce of olive oil, lemon juice, soy sauce, mustard seeds and a mix of pepper grains. Despite being cold and raw in appearance, it tasted surprisingly hot and tender to the tongue.
By now, I no longer mistook Dave for Armand’s long lasting partner – unless he would convert the 'soul-sucking vampire' into a person whom deserved his love and loyalty, his friendship and gratitude. It did not seem possible, though, from the way he referred to the Surfer Monk. I was on the edge of my seat, not quite making sense of his telling that story to me, but so very willing to know.
“Did I hear you say you put your life in danger… and that of… Monsieur de Montbelle?” I had wanted to call ‘Grandfather’ the great nobleman that had obsessed my mother, as much as I had wished to call Armand my ‘Uncle’. “How come? How did Monsieur and Dave ever meet, I mean? Did Monsieur visit you in Thailand?”
The kitchen had become warm. Sitting right next to the kitchen window, I had been observing condensed water form tiny drops on the glass from the inside, to match the thicker foam of the sea sprinkling the outside. From the oven at the back wall arrived a rich mix of scents of our next dish, slowly being baked -- feta cheese roughly grated in between long slices of aubergine and courgette, topped by a fresh tomato sauce enriched with fine herbs, chive and olives, and a handful of fresh basil leaves Armand had picked from a small vase, sitting on a shelf by the kitchen’s glass door.
Watching his preparations I had been expecting something Thai to go with his experience among the forest monks, but instead we were having it shamelessly Mediterranean, that night in Sweden -- and I had to think how much my father, to whom I supposed that gastronomic homage was being paid, would have enjoyed Armand’s food again – and not just the food.
* Raymond, the diplomat mentioned above, was one of Armand's Parisian flings, and the secret reason why Armand came to Asia for the first time. More about them in the episode Luxurious Lies
** There is a small glossary of Buddhist terms at the end of the previous episode, in case you need it.