Episode 12 | Starving, cooking, dining out

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Somehow, I was not convinced.

Since we had arrived on the Île, Armand was no longer looking me straight in the eyes when we talked. In fact, he was avoiding my stare. Instead, since the moment I had undressed, his glance fell continually on my lap, directed at my worn and stained underwear. Though his expression remained neutral, and I never saw him frown, there was a silent censure implied. I decided to accept his offer and put on the new trunks on the first opportunity, to stop that clumsy comedy of trying to cover my pubic hair to then uncover my buttocks. It had already lasted over twenty four hours, embarrassing me - and worse, annoying my friend and host.

Yet, something else was wrong. Armand trembled and I could sense his tension, as we hugged on the beach, at the end of our conversation. Something had changed - something was missing - in our friendship.

Having sweated profusely, I was willing to go for a long swim. I wanted Armand to come along, so that he could show me the spots for the hazardous currents. He was hungry and declined, retreating to the house to fix a meal for us.

Used to eating not much, after my long meager diet at the factory, I had learned to dominate hunger. Whatever urge I had felt earlier that morning, it was gone. But there was an element of pride in my self-possession, and I felt somewhat superior when my friend was honest about being hungry, and when I again let him go upstairs and prepare the food on his own. That was also new - Armand working for me, ultimately serving me.

He was a prince, born to be served. He would have preferred to dine out every meal during the École. On Saint-German-des-Prés, a constellation of cafés and bistrots was less than a hundred steps away from our door. But to keep me company, since I was too poor to dine out even once a month, he would eat at home with me. He wasn't inviting me to the restaurants just because we had actually been using the money his father sent him for other things we loved better — like going to the movies, to theater plays, and buying books. Armand had never cooked well, nor enjoyed it. Only because he did not stand my scanty meals, had he started cooking for the two of us. Even if it was something simple like sausages - they were the cheapest kind of meat I could find —, his would have been the best German sausages money could buy.

*****

"That is so like Catherine, I must say... Ha-ha!" My loud laugh thunders across the empty Lounge. Noticing Gabriel has raised his glance in alarm, I blush.

I did not mean to interrupt Carlo's story, but I couldn't help the wicked comment. It is a family joke.

Like he had done that one morning before dawn on the Île du Blanchomme, at the interruption, my father shows no other response but to blink, and blink, repeatedly. Behind the thick lenses of his fancy new glasses, I watch his eyes slowly adjusting to again focus on me. Like someone waking in an unfamiliar room, he looks around, trying to recognize the place. He seems surprise to find me on his Île. Or to find himself in the Lounge? Or simply to find me before him — the son he abandoned for twenty years.

"So you know it, already!" Carlo stares at me, confused. He blinks again, but so slowly that it seems like he is deliberately closing his eyes. "I thought Catherine had always hidden it from you!" Taking the right fist to his lips, he bites on a finger, his eyes wide with bewilderment, fully fixed on me.

"Know what?" It is my turn to blink. I had expected Carlo to join in a joke about Catherine's ineptitude in the kitchen. "It's no secret that Catherine hates cooking, and that she would rather dine out every meal..." By my father's puzzled look, I realize his comment aimed something else entirely different. "Know what, Carlo?"

"I thought you knew about Armand..." he murmurs.

"What about him?" I insist.

I am made alert by the shaky tone of his voice. Bending towards him, my eyes flashing, I must resemble a predator, because Carlo sinks further into the leather couch, and nervously changes the subject.

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