to read from the FIRST CHAPTER
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home"
Catherine felt her heart sink, when with one last beep her mobile shut off.
She knew exactly how oversensitive her child was – from a small boy, Laurent was feeling hurt and crying at the smallest things. Just like Carlo, she had realized Laurent had many artistic talents – but Catherine believed in artists being determined, disciplined and obsessive to achieve success, and those were the values she had wanted to instil in Laurent – while Carlo, soft by nature, had only stimulated Laurent’s sensitive and intuitive qualities.
She believed that artists had to skilfully learn how to be strong and thick-skinned, more than just naturally develop their sensibility – and she had been stupefied that, instead of hard work and dedication, a single shot of luck had finally launched Carlo’s career, a career he had almost given up along the years, simply because he had always lacked self-confidence and determination. Being a disciplined hard worker herself -- even now in Russia, she was often being called 'workaholic', an awful word she despised --, she had not quite understood how nor why Carlo's weakness and cowardice should be rewarded, and she feared that his effortless success had had the wrong kind of impact on Laurent’s personality.
Observing her teenager son, she feared the damage had already happened – despite the years away from Carlo, Laurent had consolidated his melancholy into an almost permanent depressive state, with that susceptibility she considered a flaw at his core – and Catherine could imagine him bursting into angry tears (like too often when he was a child and a teenager) at the sudden end of their call, melodramatically wandering around the hotel room in Vice City, with his shoulders bent, his whole body shaken by sobs, punching and throwing things, and with screams protesting against the injustice of life.
But Laurent -- feeling that the world conspired against him -- himself was so unjust with her. His oversensitivity had the downside of making him insecure – and all their common life, mother and son had struggled with Laurent’s inclination for emotional dependency, and Catherine’s intent to uproot it.
Catherine had herself endured and survived Celeste who, from an early age, taught her daughter to avoid calling her “mother”. Celeste had disliked and at all occasions evaded being seen with Catherine when she was a little girl -- but as she grew up, Celeste loved to be mistaken for Catherine’s sister.
Catherine had often felt like a motherless child, being taken care either by nannies or the maids in the Parisian apartment, many of them immigrants who captivated and dumbfounded her with their foreign habits and their innacurate French.
Opposed to Celeste, who had never called Catherine “daughter”, she had always adressed Laurent with tenderness -- “my son”, “my dear”, “darling', but Laurent, of course, took it for granted, unable to recognize her love expressed in words that were so meaningful to her. She had never heard any of them coming from her own mother. And he had always demanded, even begged for more from her. Realizing that, Catherine had always tried to motivate the opposite attitude in her son – often leaving Laurent to himself so that he could make his own decisions and grow out of his sick dependency, that Carlo had disastrously encouraged. Laurent’s training was short-lived, though, because only two years after Carlo had left, at fifteen years old Laurent had met Angelo and gladly handed the other boy power over him.
Catherine had preferred to risk being taken for a distant, careless mother – rather than play the role of the overprotective parent who would hinder her son’s emotional growth into a healthy maturity.
But at the thought that, maybe instead of abandoning himself to anger and despair, Laurent might have engaged in sex with the guy – or guys – he had mentioned that was – were – in his hotel room, a smile brightened Catherine’s face.
‘You smell delicious, Katerina...’ – Vlad had jumped on her from behind, and mistaking her inner smile for an approval of his assault, he squeezed her against his naked body, and started undressing her.
‘Not now, Vlad.’ – but because her blasé reaction hadn’t stopped him, Catherine had to slap his intrusive hand and push him away -- 'You don´t smell so delicious...' -- the scent of vodka that permanently tinged his outbreath and sweat often disgusted her, and until she had drank something herself, it was rather nauseating.
‘Your bad son spoiled your morning humour, Katerina?’ – looking aghast, Vlad reacted with sarcasm to her rejection.
‘There is nothing bad about Laurent, Vlad. Stop picking on my son!’ -- and Catherine braced herself for yet another medieval duel with Vladimir.
‘Yes there is. He is a sinner. Next time I want to talk to him!’
‘My son, a sinner? He is not even religious! How can he be a sinner?’
‘You know very well, Catherine. Sleeping with other men is so wrong. That’s a sin.’ – her young lover was so fixated in Laurent that she sometimes wondered if, in some wicked and devious way, he hadn’t already fallen in love with her son and was struggling with feelings he rejected himself.
‘Are you aware that sin is a word that cannot be translated into every language, since in several of them there is no equivalent for it? Sin is a concept that doesn’t exist in several cultures, Vlad! Sin doesn't exist everywhere on this planet. Sin is not universal, Vlad!’ -- -- she glanced at him, reproachfully.
‘Only because these cultures must be a sin in themselves, altogether! Their core is sin, Catherine. Just like some people who are so sinful won't even realize how deep plunged into it they are... You will never cure your son if you keep defending him from his… faults, if the word sin is the problem here!’
Deliberately, Catherine decided to lose her patience with her stubborn companion. At what age do young people grow up and leave the idiotic arrogance of adolescence behind?, she thought, and she decided to give Vlad a push.
‘Don’t you think that your father beating you and your stepmother is much worse a fault, Vlad?’ – she had found out that hideous detail about Vlad’s household by chance. They hadn’t talked openly about that yet, but she had learned it had been his main reason to leave the village of his birthplace – 'And the fact that he cheats on her, too?’
Vladimir gulped and grew pale, or even more pale than his beauitful white marble complexion already was.
‘Leave my family out of this, Katerina!' -- he stamped a foot -- 'My father sleeping with other women is a natural weakness from men.' -- he went on, hissing -- 'And he only beats her when he is too drunk.’
‘But that’s gasthly!’ – Catherine moaned – ‘Natural weakness? And how weak are you Vlad?' -- but she did not wait for his answer -- 'He only beats her when he is too drunk?! From the way that you keep drinking yourself... Am I being warned?' -- and from the perplexed look on his face, Catherine knew he had lost the thread of her reasoning -- 'Your arguments are medieval, Vladimir! How can you accept that? You should be ashamed of yourself!’
‘Nobody is perfect, Katerina!’ -- and upon seeing him retreating so defensively, just then did she ponder that Vlad's need to constantly reinforce his masculinity and his aggressivity must have been side effects from his helplessness and frustration at his brutish father's abuses. And how far would those maltreats have gone, at what age had they started and how long would they have lasted, to have made Vlad so grossly homophobic?
‘Still, I think you could – and should -- do better than that, Vlad. Especially if you want to emigrate.’ – Catherine did appreciate his writings, so poetically elusive, and she was agitating what she considered his best novel to be properly translated and published in France. That could be a lengthy process, and she did not expect them to be still together as a couple by the end of it – Vlad would have the autograph’s night in Paris he dreamed of; she would have been responsible for making it happen, and that’s all that actually mattered, and not whether she would be there with him or not. Since her investigations about the Rostoff family had just begun, she wasn't planning to return to France any time soon, while Vlad was in a hurry to leave Russia.
‘I certainly do better than other people I know. Or even than people you know, for that matter, Katerina.’ – and with a gesture towards the dead mobile phone lying over Catherine’s writing desk, he seemed to imply he was closing the circle and again talking about Laurent.
‘If you think so, Vlad.’ -- and Catherine simply gave up talking to her lover for the rest of the morning.
It was a pity that despite being so lyrical in his writings, he could be such a moron in the everyday life. But at least he also enjoyed drinking, and had taken to himself the task of always keeping the apartment she had rented in St. Petersburg stocked with liquor – that he would go out to buy with her money, of course.
Catherine poured herself some wine -- French, for sure, and yet not as good as she would have preferred. She had started wondering whether Vlad bought cheaper liquor to keep the rest of the money to himself, or if he really had no sophistication at all, still deeply rooted in his peasant origins that made him have quite coarse tastes.
With her glass full, she sat to read what the translator had delivered on the documents she had found about the Rostoffs.
It wasn't exactly love between Gabriel and me, at first -- nor was there love at last, or at all, in the end of our relationship.
It was mutual attraction, and sex was merrily addictive. We should just have become stable sex buddies, but instead, personal circumstances and the historical moment brought us closer together than we ever planned to be.
'I cannot wait until you come back to Vice City!' -- Gabriel had been completely sincere and showed his disappointment when I said it might take me two months or more to return for another workshop at the Museum.
'And how long can you wait?' -- normally, I wouldn't have cared nor tried to commit myself to him, but reconnecting with Carlo, learning about Joanna's death, finding out that I had an uncle -- all that had cracked my heart open and made me softer, and for the first time in a long row of one night stands I felt the willingness to be in a relationship. It felt like a weakness and a setback, especially in Vice City where the worst part of my love affair with Angelo had unfolded -- but it was also the dawn of my healing process.
From the start, Gabriel had opened our relationship -- which was based not just on mutual attraction, but on mutual interests as well.
I hadn't been painting since a few months before the exhibition at Vi/CAM -Vice's Contemporary Art Museum. I was aware the cycle of portraits of ex-lovers was over -- though I wasn't aware that the abundant cycle of ex-lovers was over as well --, and I'd have to find a new theme for a new series.
But what could be as dashing, yet not repetitive? And watching Gabriel growing his hair and a beard, contantly modulating his voice and trying to impersonate different characters he auditioned for -- I was his only spectator in private -- led me to think he might make a good theme. At least, the only one I could think of at the moment.
I should have learned from Cindy Sherman, whom I had met once in a reception at New York's MoMA, to stick only to my own figure as a motif, and not depend from anyone else to paint. Gabriel, of course, had loved the proposal to be my model and the sole theme of a new series of paintings -- he was always searching for whatever personal promotion he could get to boost his career, and he seemed to strongly believe in my talent both as painter and a promoter .
But that 'Gabrielian' series never came to be, though it ignited a common euphoria that perpassed all our conversations, outings and even our love making.
During the first weeks together, I took hundreds of pictures of him -- had I been a photographer and my work was done already. But those pictures were only the basis for my new series, that I kept telling myself I'd start painting as soon as I got back to Samsara Heights and my atelier... Still, it was hard to leave his side -- especially in bed -- and our conceited routine of restaurants, bars, clubs and the gym. We were maniacs dedicated to being obsessively charming, and there was hardly a more narcissistic couple at the time in Vice City. Mirroring each other's vanity, we both gleamed, tanning under the sun of hedonism.
But we were at the brink of the free fall of the Empire.
Totally oblivious to the rest of the world from within the self-absorbing bubble of our newborn love, we did not foresee the disaster, the financial tsunami that was heading our -- and almost everyone else's in the country -- direction, though the signs were constantly arriving at our shores.
Often, Gabriel would say the clientele at the Nirvana Lounge was acting strange -- people were hysterically giving away greater tips, but often as a form of farewell, since many of the usual customers were not returning to the restaurant. He saw many of them, day after day leaving the building in a row, with their things packed in a box, as they lost their jobs.
The Nirvana Lounge sat on top of the highest and most luxurious commercial condominium in the heart of Vice City's compact yet boisterous financial district. Several floors of the building were occupied by branches of banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions, as well with lawyers, IT teams and some luxury brands. Taking the elevators was all that was needed for these privileged employees to start celebrating profits and bonuses at the Nirvana Lounge -- for some, a pleasant stop on their way to the helicopters that landed atop.
One evening, when Gabriel was free but still trying to get over a hangover from the previous night, and we were considering once not going out -- otherwise, we were going to restaurants and clubs every single night, often on invitations I received for my escalating popularity with "The Dark Room" exhibition, or through Gabriel's many acquaintances -- he received a phone call.
I knew it was something terrible from the look in his face; how he started shivering and breathing heavily, and this time he was not impersonating nor pretending nor just trying to impress me.
'It was Ted, from the Lounge. A guy has shot himself in the toilet.' Gabriel was so disturbed that I had to hug him until he stopped trembling -- 'When the other costumers heard the shot, they were afraid a mad shooter might be entering the restaurant. And hell broke loose, with people trying to escape towards the elevators. It was a bloody mess. The restaurant will be closed for a while.'
We ran to the internet to read more news. And Gabriel knew the guy who had shot himself -- apparently, one of his best customers, an impeccably well dressed, handsome Asian guy who was chief risk management officer to one of the banks occupying the building, always laughing at Gabriel's jokes and giving generous tips smilingly -- and he also displayed a very confident smile at the pictures that had remained of him on the internet. He was the first demi-god to fall -- the Angel of the Annunciation of the End of Times.
'I might have saved him... if I was there?' -- Gabriel was sincerely touched with that guy's death, and I seemed unable to comfort him.
The Nirvana Lounge was to never open its doors again. It had been the haven of financial market professionals -- and as the global crisis exploded, the lounge became doomed and drowned in its own sea of the most expensive champagne.
The day Gabriel learned he had lost his job, just to be sure before I offered to back him up for a while, I decided to check my bank account. Coming from every direction and different sources, the news were alarming, and even though I tried to play it cool, I was frightened too. But even by trying to keep my eyes closed I was no longer avoiding seeing the scenery of desolation and devastation around us.
And I discovered I had lost 30% of the money I had in my bank account, since the last time I had checked it.
The following few days I was to lose more, and it was announced that my bank faced bankruptcy. But my situation wasn't as bad as Gabriel's -- he had never saved any money, spending all his wage and tips to pay the rent of his tiny flat and in clothes and going out. Without a job, he did not have how to pay that month's rent already -- and since I was made afraid by the ever decreasing numbers from my bank account, I decided to leave the hotel, that was no longer being paid by the Museum -- I had come to stay in Vice City for ten days, but because of Gabriel I had stayed almost a month now --, and move in with Gabriel.
His apartment was tinier than the hotel room -- but at least it had been painted my best loved color, green, and since I had many green clothes with me, I felt at home like just a chameleon would.
The only problem was Gabriel's mattress, which was too soft for me. Every morning, I would wake up with my back aching. Not only the pain was horrible, but it also made me feel terribly old. So much that in the middle of the nights I would slip out of bed to sleep on the floor. And because Gabriel enjoyed cuddling during sleep, without even asking me why I had decided to sleep so uncomfortably, he simply started joining me on the floor.
And cuddling to sleep on that cheap carpet is among the loveliest memories I have from the couple of years we spent together. To Gabriel, it felt somewhat dramatic and he enjoyed pretending that we lived like two homeless men, as around us the world seemed to continuously collapse and shrink in an unprecedented economic crisis in our lives. That reminded me of the many difficulties my father had faced all on his own, in the old abandoned factory in Paris, on the cargo ship to Punaouilo, the night he had slept out at that lost port in the Indian Ocean, feeling lonely, cold and afraid of the rats, and how he had slept in his car on his escape to England... Sleeping on the floor somehow connected me to Carlo, though I wasn't actually sleeping rough, and I had my gorgeous boyfriend nestled in my embrace.
Since Gabriel was completely broke, I started paying everything for the two of us. It was gloomy when I had to cut eating out and our nightly clubbing. -- Though I still had money in my bank account, I had discovered it was not actual money, but just a number. A number that had been ever and steadily increasing over the years, was suddenly and quite dramatically plunging. I did some calculations -- and I was bad at Mathematics -- and realized that it was as if I had never sold any paintings during my entire career -- that money I had thus earned had simply evaporated. And now, it seemed, Celeste's money was being taken away from me, too, and that left me angry, perplexed and fearful. Hadn't my grandmother's money been legally handed over to me? Hadn't I paid all the heavy taxes? How could I no longer own that money, how could someone else take it away from me? But then... who was this 'someone else', actually?
And it got worse, when Gabriel's brother lost his job in a construction site and went to live in a tent in Florida. Gabriel asked me to lend money to his brother, and of course I couldn't refuse it, though I might never see that sum again. And it got worse -- not only were my boyfriend and his brother broke -- apparently, my bank was actually broke too, and that's the first time I heard terms in English like bailout, foreclosure, derivatives.
And the worse it got -- the building where the Nirvana Lounge used to be had many of its floors empty now --, the closer Gabriel and I became, our budding love the only antidote possible to the ruins that surrounded us. Our bonds seemed to tighten and strengthen as everything else around us declined and decreased.
And it got even worse, when my marchand said he was closing shop, too. It was then that I realized I had been part of that so called 'housing bubble' -- people needed to decorate their recently acquired houses, and among these people, some wanted to decorate their houses with art instaed of junk, and for the coolest among those, I was an emerging artist considered to be an excelent investment, rated triple A by the art market and endoserd by some major museums and cultural centers. But just like everything else, it seemed I had been under speculation as well, and when these incipient art investors weren't able to to pay their mortgages -- or my marchand --, my paintings were plainly abandoned to dust on the walls of their judicially foreclosed houses.
And the worse it got, the more Gabriel and I tried to cling onto each other and to our fragile love, as we try to build it in opposition to the mass destruction of the American dream -- and the fall of our own personal projects, of becoming a renowned painter in a world that collapsed into stagnation and scarcity, or a famous actor in theaters that were silently and melancholically being closed.
But I realized that no matter how things went from bad to worse economically for people all around me -- my friend Brazen had also lost his job and position as a pretigious chef in one of the best restaurants in Samsara Heights and was currently occupying my house --, all around the world, they weren't so bad for me personally -- I still had in my bank account (actually, I still 'luckily' enough belonged to a bank, for it had been bailed out) a figure that could carry me on through many years. And thanking both Celeste and Catherine, I let go of my worries about the immediate future -- and I have to confess that I couldn't quite keep out of my mind I was the latest De Montbelle heir, too, and I fantasized about owning the famed Château one day.
On the other hand, as I have already shared, because Vice's Museum had lost many of its sponsors and the exhibition's schedule was suddenly put on hold, Dan asked me to extend my exhibition indefinitely, and my series of workshops, that were fun and brought people to the museum, especially the young crowd, were to be prolonged too.
And I had a new, stunningly handsome and utterly sexy boyfriend.
Gabriel was luminous, and even his dark side had a tinge of irresponsible rapture that made him shine like a star. I confess I was insecure by his side, and I paid his rent and gave him money just because I was afraid he might become a rent boy now that his money had run short -- just like Angelo had. Gabriel loved wearing new and fancy clothes that adorned his gorgeous body carefully sculpted at the best gym in town. His beautiful hair demanded a lot of care too, and his golden skin was not tanned at the polluted city beaches nor any public swimming pools, but with dosed weekly tanning sessions at a luxury spa -- that would soon close its doors, too. Since my needs where comparatively meager, I tried to spoil Gabriel by maintaining some of his privileges. He seemed grateful and I indulged in being generous -- evading the shadowy overall mood of those days was all that mattered to us.
But when I was about to return to Samsara Heights, I realized there was nothing I could actually do about him becoming a call boy, if he really and stealthily wanted to, no way to possibly control him -- and I finally let go of that when I saw how awfully judgemental and unfair I was being, with Gabriel and rent boys in general.
One of the greatest insights I had about myself, and on love and relationships, was at our very beginning.
We couldn't have been any more different. We both enjoyed going to the movies -- but while he thought the European and Asian movies I loved were boring and too complex, I had no interest in whatever Hollywood movies and stars he seemed to adore, and especially the blockbusters. And while Gabriel did not enjoy books, I was an avid reader -- though he did take interest and started reading Catherine's books, but I wasn't really fond of my mother's literature.
'You don't love me, do you, Laurent?' -- Gabriel wasn't sad when he said that -- 'You don't appreciate my company, do you? No, you don't have to answer. You think I'm foolish and superficial...' -- Gabriel shrugged and dismissed those feelings with the extravagant flourish he had rehearsed for a musketeer role -- 'Maybe I am vain and futile. Well, I guess that's exactly how I am! And I don't care! Shall we dance?' -- and then he spun on his heels, as I realized what I thought might have been sincere was just another impersonation.
I tried to deny, even to myself, that I didn't and couldn't truly fall for the dream hunk-- but unfortunately, it was true. I enjoyed Gabriel's company a lot, but I did not love him.
I loved his cheerfulness, and since he was allergic to dreary dispositions, to prolongued silence and inactivity -- specially mine, it seemed, and I never sat to meditate in his company, for it seemed to make him either more agitated or depressed --, he was always looking for the positive and bright side of things.
The global economy was crumbling. My own personal world was disintegrating, the more I reflected about the things my father had shared with me. But with Gabriel, life was still a party -- entertainingly funny, contagiously exciting, but not much more than that. Sharing life with him was like experiencing a constant detonation of fireworks, but once the noisy spectacle was over, there was only the intoxicating smoke and darkness left.
And I finally arrived at the understanding that I did not love him simply because I did not love myself.
I was still looking for approval and recognition in my partner -- and that's why I needed Gabriel to be equally cultured and intellectually well prepared, so that he could be a proper judge of my own skills and qualities. But because he was not into literature, and the cinema he enjoyed was crap and his culture was that of gossip magazines -- 'Of course I know Picasso and Monet!' was as far as he would go in art, and I shivered at his horrible pronunciation of those names as in "Pikes + Ass + Soul" and "Moon + net" -- did not enable Gabriel to fully appreciate and approve of me, I thought.
Prince Charming was then, for me, the mirror. It would take someone who could read me in all the several languages I was written in, to recognize my sophistication and highly elaborated culture and refined tastes -- and that's how I realized that considering Gabriel not good enough for me was actually just because I was too insecure about myself, and I couldn't truly appreciate his qualities either.
I couldn't really love another person until I developed love for myself. Until then, I would need my partner to serve as my best judge, as an expert and a virtuoso in Laurent's intricacies.
When I finally realized how unjust that was with Gabriel -- or anyone else --, it was a bit too late to save our relationship. I made him suffer by silently humiliating him and despising his many qualities, other than the culture or intelect I valued.
If he never managed to mirror me, I was actually unable to even see him beyond the firm bubble butt.
Gabriel never cheated on me, I think -- for he screwed around with other guys openly. I don't know when he started dating the theater producer, and for how long he carried on both affairs in parallel. But I know that, when he tried to mingle us in a ménage à trois, and I asked him to choose between me and the producer, as he dumped me I was about ready to end our two years relationship, thinking it had extended long enough. Longer than we ever thought it would have lasted.
It still hurt, but much less than the end of my love affair with Angelo.
But that was later.
At the beginning, it was the opposite -- Gabriel feared I was going to leave him.
'Are you going to Russia to be with your mother?' -- I hadn't told him what my issues with Catherine were, nor anything about the conversation with my father -- though I was immensely grateful to Gabriel for having supported and participated in that reunion -- but he sensed something crucial was going on between me and my mother.
'Why don't you call her again?' -- Gabriel was truly fascinated by Catherine's fame, I guess, and he was often impersonating any one among her male characters -- and even, sometimes, her female characters, that were much stronger and more fascinating than the men. And he wanted me to shed light on them, as if by being the author's son I had privileged information.
Gabriel was letting his beautiful hair grow not because of any movie part, but because he wanted to sell it, and he did look more feminine at the time -- 'Ask her if she thinks Valentina from such and such book or Amanda from... ' -- but even though I did call my mother after all, I never asked his questions about her characters.
'I'm so happy that you have called, Laurent!' -- Catherine rejoiced at her son's call. She had been waiting for him to contact her, for she knew it would be worse to push him when he was in one of his hurtful moods -- 'Though I'm at the hallway of my apartment waiting for Vladimir...' -- where she would sometimes fantasize that Raskolnikov was just waiting to jump on her from behind one of the doors -- 'We're going to the theater soon, and I'm afraid we won't speak for long...' -- Catherine paused. Over the silent weeks, she had pondered about the best start for their conversation, that she knew was going to be bumpy -- 'Do you need anything, darling? How are your finances?'
I knew that it would come. Even after I had received all that money from Celeste's inheritance, even after my mother had given me the whole sum for which she sold the rural house of my teenage years in France -- she still worried about my finances. At that, though I knew it was actually a kind of emotional blackmail, I felt my disposition of confronting Catherine weakening, for it was a poignant reminder of how she had always financially supported me throughout my life.
'It's alright, Catherine. I'm not starving, haha! And I shall never become the "Hungerkünstler" you fear! You don't have to worry about that at all!' -- and I tried to laugh at our private joke.
'You know I worry about your well being, mon couer. Is there anything else you need?' -- Catherine was trying to sense what my call was about, but I have to confess I did not know it either.
During the last weeks, I had allowed Carlo's retelling of my own story and origins to sink deep in me. At first, it had stirred strong emotions and I had been caught by them like in a whirlpool. But after they had again decanted -- or so I thought they had -- I was seeing more clearly, and now I wanted to understand my mother's reasons in creating that web of lies.
Sometimes, I wished I hadn't let Carlo speak so freely, sharing even his intimacy with my mother -- but on the other hand, hiding from me his most intimate moments with Armand. Was it out of fear, out of discretion, caution or may it be secrecy, I felt my father hadn't been thoroughly sincere with me. There were still some things missing -- but then, that is the feeling I have always had, from as far as I can remember in my life.
It was not just missing Punaouilo, and then missing my father, and then missing Angelo... No, I sensed there was something crucial, at the very beginning of my life that was missing, and Carlo hadn't told me what it was -- and I wasn't very enthusiastic about Catherine's truthfulness either.
Could the piece that I felt was missing in my life have been the family I had belonged to? Extending to centuries of history and tradition, I was now aware that I carried the De Montbelle blood. To try to understand what that meant, I had done some research -- and though I found no references to the judicial battle between Celeste and Armand for Gaston's inheritance, I did learn that my uncle had been able to keep the De Montbelle castle, opening its magnificent art collection to visitation, but only for students, teachers and scholars. And he was currently converting it into an Art School.
I decided to try that approach with Catherine. The De Montbelles now interested me as much as they always had been my mother's main fixation.
'Catherine, did you know Armand had already found a new partner when you dumped Carlo?' -- I had also done some research specifically on my uncle, and though he was very discreet about his personal life, I did find out he had had a partner for almost 20 years, recently deceased, to whom he had dedicated his Pritzker Prize.
I could not be sure about the dates, but when Carlo had fled France to seek refuge in England, Armand was already living in Morocco with his partner for some years. From the story my father had told me, it seemed like he no longer had value for Catherine when her half brother had found a new love, seemingly having overcome grieving for Carlo -- and she might have liberated my father once she was sure Armand had no longer any romantic interest in him. To my eyes, her perfect revenge on Armand had been plain cruelty towards Carlo.
'Why go into that, darling? Why mess up with the past?' -- Catherine moaned and sighed, regreting her son was again dragging her into that quicksand -- 'Yes, I knew it.' -- she replied, calmly -- 'There were lawyers being paid to inform us, your grandmother and me, about his life and all his moves, and whatever mattered to the issues we were discussing at court. But it has nothing to do with Carlo leaving home. It's hard for a child to understand that, but... our relationship was over.'
'Did you denounce him to the Tax Authorities?' -- I tried to sound curious, but it actually sounded rather accusing.
'Did he say that?' -- Catherine gasped.
'He didn't. That's why I'm asking you.'
'That's so rude of you, Laurent. Accusing me. To dare think I could ever do something like that against Carlo!' -- she paused -- 'I did ask him to leave. Several times. I was concerned our fights were affecting you...' -- The walls of that bloody, silent and isolated country home seemed to boost our relationship's death-rattles, she thought. How she had hated that house, specially during Carlo's final months in it -- 'But I never forced him to leave, like the circumstances he forged for himself did.' -- she seemed to reflect -- 'I never threw him out. On the contrary, I let him stay, though it was over for us. And Carlo only left home when his own irresponsibility led him to.'
'But why, Laurent? Why... what would he have returned for? We needed another chance, my darling! You agreed on that, don't you recall it?'
'Let's say I was led to agree, Catherine. But you... you got your new chance!' -- and I was talking about Edoardo, Catherine's last and longest love -- 'I didn't get anything.'
'Of course you did, Laurent! You met Angelo! It changed your life!'
For the worse, I thought, but instead I said:
'It changed your life even more, Catherine!' -- Edoardo was Angelo's father, and it had been so awkward and even a bit wicked that Catherine had fallen for the father of my first boyfriend. And that was probably why our household had turned out impossible, along with the fact that he was homophobic and couldn't accept our relationship.
'Do you think so? You wouldn't be in Vice City and have an exhibition at the museum if it weren't for him, have you reflected about that? What are you trying to tell me, Laurent?'
'I don't know what I'm trying to say, Catherine.' -- at that moment, I felt nauseated at the thought that Angelo was somehow responsible for my glorious night at one of the most pretigious Art museums in the world and for my escalating success... I had tried to forget that I'd met Dan Charmand through him... Unfortunately, Catherine was right; yet, I did not want to bring Angelo into the conversation -- 'I don't know. But there is something missing and something very wrong in this story. And I'm asking you what is it?'
I have the same feeling, my son, but I still can't tell you for sure what it is about, Catherine thought -- 'Aren't you again in good terms with Carlo? Haven't you "reconnected", like you've put it yourself? Why can't we bury the past and leave it behind, mon cher? What could be so wrong in your life that you have to still try to change it?'
'I'm not a damn character from one of your novels, and I'm tired of being a puppet on your strings, Catherine. That'a what!' -- Sometimes, and more often in my teenage years when I had shared the same house with her, I had the impression of being an experiment my mother was conducing -- 'You've let me down just too often, Catherine.' -- and I realized I was no longer mad at her, but just sad, and immensely disappointed. I let out a heavy sigh, realizing I was ready to let her go. -- 'Right now. Why did you have to go to Russia instead of coming to my vernissage?' -- it had probably been the most important night of my life, and Catherine had never even tried to come -- 'Is it because Carlo was here?'
'Of course not! I wouldn't mind seeing Carlo.' -- she startled when she saw Vladimir standing in the hallway, glancing at her with curiosity. His French was getting better, and she did not enjoy the idea of him understanding her -- 'I might have even enjoyed it, after all these years...' -- she tried to concentrate on her conversation with Laurent, and moved away from her boyfriend, who was clearly demonstrating his impatience.
'Then why, Catherine? Carlo left his hermitage in the mountains and flew all the way to...'
'Don't you dare to compare me to him!' -- suddenly, she was really angry, both at Laurent and Vladimir, who was actually paying attention to her conversation -- 'Carlo is no longer with you in Vice City, is he? He has returned to his retreat in the mountains, hasn't he? As soon as he could, wasn't it? If he can isolate himself, then why can't I have my own appointments, and still be in contact with you? Don't be unfair, Laurent! It's not because you've reconnected to your father... and I'm happy about that... that you can so easily forgive him... And for things he told you, start blaming me! He's been absent all those years, while I've never abandoned you...'
'Never?' -- I sneered -- ' But of course you have, Catherine!' -- my voice trembled, and I felt the little boy in me wanting to cry -- 'Have you forgotten Punaouilo, and how you left us... how you left me behind?'
'Mon Dieu, Laurent!' -- her son sounded like a five year old child, about the age he was when she had left the island. She was irritated that he should insist in old sorrows and cling to them -- 'Those were the circumstances at the time! I was heartbroken because I couldn't bring you with me. But we had no money then, and I had to accept Celeste's conditions! You know that perfectly well. Or should I have tried to smuggle you? But then things worked out fine for me, I worked diligently on promoting my first novel and getting the second one published, all the time thinking of you as the main reason why I should succeed. And once I started making good money to establish myself in France, and when I found a decent house...'
But I grew impatient as I felt my mother subtly diverting from the questions I confronted her with, and again I veered the conversation.
'Did you know Celeste was paying the art dealer in Punaouilo to burn Carlo's paintings?' -- my heart shrank and I had to bite my tongue as I so carelessly revealed what Carlo had kept in secrecy for two decades.
'WHAT?!?!?!' -- Catherine shrieked -- 'Where did you hear that?!' -- she gasped.
And immediately, Catherine knew it must have been true! As she heard Laurent's explanations, and the reason why Carlo had hidden it from her, would Carlo really confirm it all, she felt how a disaster starting in a previous generation of their family was still reverberating on her son's life, causing him so much suffering -- 'Mon cher...' -- she started saying, but Laurent wouldn't let her go on.
'You have lied to me, Catherine! About too many things. Too important things. I'm sorry mother' -- and I knew using the word "mother", that I rarely pronounced, added effect to my statement -- 'but I'm tired of your intrigues and your lies.'
In fact, I was more tired of begging for her approval, her recognition --and they hadn't come, neither for the stories I had written, trying to pair with her, nor for my paintings, and she couldn't care less about them -- all through my life. And why did I have to be sorry to be finally giving up on her estranged love?
'Darling child, you have to understand that your grandmother lied to me, too! I am trying to untie her knots, that are strangling your life and mine as well! What I'm doing here in Russia is for both of us, but...'
Suddenly, I looked over at Gabriel, about whom I had completely forgotten for the last half hour that I had been talking to my mother.
He had moved around the room, waiting for me to go into the shower. But instead I was drowning in the murky waters of my old sorrows. And I then realized the phantasmagoria my life had become -- he was there, but I was more concerned with ghosts from the past.
Gaston and Celeste were dead -- I had never met my grandfather, and I hadn't really known my grandmother, though I had visited her twice in Paris. Armand I hadn't yet met, and it would take me still a couple of years to. I hadn't seen Carlo for twenty years, and even now that we had reconnected, I couldn't be sure when I was going too see him again. I'd probably have to climb the Apennines for another reunion. And Angelo -- other than the occasional ad or photo in gossip magazines, I hadn't seen him for 10 years now. Yet, they all materialized and rose like a wall between me and my present, between me and my new boyfriend.
It was dangerously melancholic, and it was a terrible waste of life! -- I finally realized it.
'This is between only you and me, Catherine. Don't try to bring my grandmother into this...' -- I sighed, emotionally exhausted, feeling the last threads of the bonds that tied me to Catherine breaking loose -- 'I'm tired of all this mess.' -- I had been trying to understand it, to explain it to myself, but more and more I was convinced that I should meet my uncle Armand to rescue that part of my family's story -- 'I really have to go now, Catherine.' -- Gabriel was already in the shower, turning the water on, whistling a rhumba and starting a sexy and funny dance to his own tune. No matter what, and I had left him waiting for so long, he never seemed to abdicate from his good humour -- 'Bye, mother.'
I hadn't seen my mother -- well, just over the internet -- for many years, already. She had never visited me neither in Vice City nor at Samsara Heights, and I hadn't been so willing to travel to France. I hadn't returned for Celeste's funeral, but I did go back when Catherine decided to sell our rural house, once she started occupying the apartment in Paris. At first, I had said I didn't care about anything in the house, and that she could sell or dump whatever she wanted. But then I changed my mind and flew to France, where we spent two months emptying the house together, and I had rescued from oblivion some childhood drawings, the long-play collection from my teenage years, and our living room furniture that was vintage fifties. But that last time meeting had been like five or six years ago already.
And as things turned out, because I had promised myself to never return to Russia -- unless, of course, I was offered an exhibition at Moscow´s Museum of Modern Art -- I would meet my mother again only in four more years -- and during that whole time I would speak briefly to her on festive occasions only, disciplined and stubbornly keeping my distance and a forced formality with her, after one disastrous call that was yet to happen.
It had taken decades, and I was aware I was no longer a teenager, but at last I was revolting against her tirany, and that of the entire Mortinné legacy. It didn't hurt as much as I thought it would -- it wasn't actually hard to take the leap of faith into a life without Catherine. It was a life devoid of a core, but with time I'd settle to the feeling that being motherless or having Catherine as a mother were almost the same -- the first option being much less troubled.
Would I have acted more compassionately, towards her and myself -- would I have forgiven her, had I known my life could end in a fraction of seconds on a dark night in Iceland?
'Laurent? Listen to me... Laurent!' -- but it seemed like her son had not only hang up, but tipically also disconnected his phone.
'Your son is not a child, Katerina. He is old.' -- Catherine heard Vlad saying, immediately after Laurent had hang up.
'Old? He is older than you, Vlad, but not so much older, I should say...' -- her young lover was at the mirror in the hallway, grooming himself.
'Old enough, Katerina, that's what I want to say. You should not treat him like a child. You are justifying his very bad behavior.'-- he was at the mirror trying to look busy and self-important, as if he hadn't been there plainly waiting for her. And showing off, too, since he knew she liked when he dressed more formally.
'Not that again, Vlad!' -- she had chosen and bought his new clothes, and they had fitted him perfectly. It was much better than the ragged jeans and the stained leather jacket he used to wear trying to look modern and European. Still, wearing formal clothes like they were a plaster cast, at best Vladimir's unlikely elegance was that of a Russian mafioso.
'There is another case of pederasty in the newspapers today. Another dirty priest.'
'And how does that relate to my son?' -- Catherine asked with a sigh. Vlad's reasoning being like quicksand, she knew she was going to be dragged into the darkest ages of prejudice.
'The priest was an homosexual molesting little boys. You are not going to defend pederasty, Katerina, are you?'
'Of course not! Pederasty is a crime! And those priests are sick, and they need treatment. But do you realize you didn't mention them in your first sentence as homosexuals? The problem here is not their homosexuality, but their pederasty.'
'Katerina! Don't try to fool me! They molested little boys, not little girls! They are sick homosexuals.' -- she tried to think Vlad's bad French was keeping him from being a more reasonable person, unable to express what he really meant... Or maybe it was actually preventing him from being worse?
'That is not the problem. It's probably because they are claustrophobically closeted, and in a position of social power, that they turn into abusers. Laurent is gay but he has never abused a boy, because he can live his sexuality openly, in a very healthy and happy manner. Religion, and its hypocritical rigidity, might be much more the problem here, leading to sexual abuse. And of course they abuse little girls, too, if that's their sexual preference. If they could be open about their sexuality, and have partners, those priests might not be abusing boys...'
'Are you talking about gay priests?' -- Vladimir grunted -- 'That we should accept gay priests? And that they could have partners? Gay married priests? That's so sick! You must be crazy, Katerina!' -- and he sneered.
'I know. I am crazy. Happily crazy! Otherwise, life would be so boring, and I, myself, so tedious! Don't you think so, darling? And you, Vlad? Don't you think you might be gay? You can't stop talking about my son, and specially about the fact that he is gay... Maybe you are falling for my son...'
'You are crazy indeed, woman. Of course I am not gay! I am a very healthy person! I don't desire little boys. And how can you be so sure about your son? I mean, how do you know he has never abused little boys? It's very common among gays, you see... Maybe you are hiding a criminal, and defending him!' -- Vlad was left almost breathless by his impassionate opinions.
'Laurent, a criminal! That's grotesque and obtuse, and so rude of you, Vlad! And I shall always defend my son, of course, whenever it's appropriate to defend him. And I will always defend him against himself, that is the most important -- and he always seems to need it.'
'See, Katerina, even you agree with me that you need to defend your son against himself.'
'Just like I should defend you from yourself, Vlad...' -- if I only cared for you like I care for my son, she thought -- 'I should defend you from your monstrously antiquated prejudices, for instance. Vlad, you are so similar to Laurent, more than you'd like to admit! I know you have been dating older women, almost exclusively. Don't you think you might be seeking your mother in them?' -- and am I not impersonating your mother right now, she wondered -- 'Just like Laurent is seeking his father in all the men he dates... The boy he loved most... was Italian, like his father... and...' -- Catherine decide to quit talking about Laurent, realizing she was just giving more ammunition to her lover.
'Then he's been seeking a lot, Katerina!'-- Vlad grimaced, and his voice was leaking irony -- 'I read on the internet that in his exhibition are displayed the portraits of 45 of his ex-lovers... Do you think that is normal, Katerina?'
Of course she knew that already, and instead of being the least horrified, Catherine thought she should have kept a record of all the lovers Laurent had mentioned to her. At least as a list for male character's names... And she was pretty sure they were a couple of hundred at least, and not just forty five. When everybody thought Laurent was making up and showing off, she actually knew her son was being quite modest and discreet.
'Laurent has a big heart. A big broken heart. And the wounds have made his heart even bigger, by cracking it open... Laurent's heart is constantly bleeding, continuously swelling...' -- and she loved the image of men being swollen by Laurent's big heart, and that when they were ejected off it, or simply dumped, they came out bleeding like him. But it was not the same sort of blood she seemed to find everywhere in Russia, where all stories ended or began with assassination; Laurent's was the tragically romantic blood of a brokenhearted heartbreaker -- 'Maybe I should break your heart, Vlad.' -- it had suddenly occured to her -- 'And you know why? Because it would grow a bit larger, and perhaps more compassionate too, so that more people would fit in it... unless you are a coward and decide to protect yourself by shrinking it. But I don't think you are a coward. Nor do I think you love me enough to be heartbroken if we'd split.'
'Of course I'm not a coward, Katerina! And of course I love you! But don't try to break my heart... or I'll break your legs!' -- he tensed as he hissed those last words.
He must be speaking like his father now, Catherine thought, and he probably would like to be spanking like him, too -- Vladimir had clutched his fist and seemed to make an effort to avoid hitting her.
But she wasn't afraid. Again, she wondered what kind of abuses Vladimir must have suffered from his father... He had actually started their conversation by mentioning little boys being abbused. Looking at Vladimir, for the first time she realized her tormented lover could make a wonderful and practical research field on domestic violence, and she started thinking she should consider that as one of the main themes for her next novel.
Otherwise, having a young lover was so tedious, Catherine thought. Because she had teased him about being gay and a coward, he would probably be more passionate at love making that evening, as they'd come back from theater and dinner. Just to prove to himself he was a real macho. It was that easy to arouse him. And he would also try to be romantic, to prove that he loved her. No flowers nor any presents, since Vlad was always penniless, but probably another poem overflowing with powerfully evocative words that he could produce within a few minutes, at the dozens if he wanted to. But the poem would be written in Russian, and when he'd try to translate it into French he'd be utterly frustrated, and maybe again find some motivation to go back to the University to study French. She surely enjoyed having Vlad in her bed, but she'd rather have him again among her students rank, too. Trying to communicate with her would enable him to finally communicate with everyone else in France, Catherine pondered, and she was just trying to act like a bait to the big lazy fish boy.
It was that easy to manipulate men -- a talent that was innate to her as much as it had been refined and perfected with her mother's practical lessons at home.
'We can go now. I hate being late.' -- and on saying those words Catherine shivered, for they sounded awfully like Celeste's.
'Well, it's not my fault if we are late. And I know, again you will defend and protect your son. Let's go. I'm tired of waiting!'
As Catherine watched Vladimir fleeing the steps down, she wondered if he was still feeling embarrassed.
That morning, she had surprised him on her computer, looking at the picture of a naked, well hung man.
'Oh, I'm sorry if I'm intruding!' -- she giggled at the vision of the beautifully well defined torso and powerful thighs that reminded her of the Riace bronzes, though unlike them the depicted young man boasted an erection.
'It's not what you think!' -- her lover had retorted swiftly, openly ashamed as he startled at her presence by his side.
'Of course not!' -- she had dated young men before, and a couple of them had declared themselves bissexuals. Vlad wouldn't declare anything so contemporary and defiant about himself, but still, she wouldn't be surprised if, like other men his age, he was experimenting with his sexuality -- 'That's a boner in the picture, that's all. It can be a metaphorical image, I guess! It's not porn, is it?'
'Do you think it's porn, Katerina?' -- Vladimir asked, and by his triumphant tone, Catherine knew she had been caught in a trap -- 'Well... supposedly, this is art...' -- he twisted his mouth with disgust -- 'Your son's art, Katerina! How about that?'
And though they had engaged in yet another discussion about Laurent, his sexuality and his "degenerate art", in her lover's own terms, Catherine wondered whether the young man's fixation on her son wasn't down to sexual attraction, like her boyfriend so vehemently insisted in denying.
So.. would Laurent's revenge come that way, she wondered? Hooking her Russian lover across the oceans, over the internet? His paintings were all over now, though she hadn't checked them herself.
But the possibility of Laurent taking revenge on her did not exist, since he couldn't possibly know that, just once, she had stolen a guy from him. It was more like she had boworred him -- it had been a one night stand, tormented and fiery and redemptive. She hadn't foreseen it, unthinkable as it was that she should compete with her son for the love of men. Laurent couldn't possibly know -- he shouldn't know, and she dismissed those memories with a shiver, her heart dilacerated at the simple thought that he could one day find it out.