Monday, February 21, 2011
In P'tit Cadeau by Anel Viz, Ben Brooks, an American art professor on a painting sabbatical in the south of France, befriends Jean-Yves, his landlady's brother, a shy young man whom the locals consider simple minded because he is “different” and who becomes his principal model. Ben undertakes to build his self-confidence and prepare him to live independently.
Silver Publishing (February, 2011)
ISBN: 978-1-920468-58-3 ebook
ISBN: 978-1456552435 print
Except (from chapter 8)
[Situation: Ben, who spent a year in Italy as an undergraduate, takes Jean-Yves there on a short trip. They will separate in Rome. Jean-Yves has to get back to his job; Ben will visit Sicily.]
To me Italy meant Florence, the Uffizi and the Pitti, the frescoes in the churches, so that's where we went. We planned to stay a week, then Jean-Yves would return to his job and I'd head south. I wanted to see Sicily. He'd take the key to the apartment to pick up his belongings, and he'd leave it with our friend the grocer.
But first we spent a day in Genoa. I wanted to paint the huge panorama of its modern port from Righi. The tourist office in the station booked us a hotel for one night. The owner, a surly man I took an immediate dislike to, warned us we'd be sharing a letto matrimoniale and offered to provide a bundling board. At first I didn't understand what he meant. He explained, and I brushed it aside, making a joke. "I trust my friend implicitly."
The man leered at us and said, "The question is whether he trusts you too much."
I didn't have to pretend to be offended. He ignored my reaction, gave us the key, and forgot about the barrier.
Jean-Yves rode the funicular with me to see the view then I sent him to explore the former palazzi of Genoa's ancient families. He'd seen me paint hundreds of times. I asked later what he thought of them, and he asked why they allowed the plaster to peel off the walls when they took such good care of the paintings and the furniture.
After over three weeks with a bathtub, he was happy we had a shower.
"Why's it next to the bed instead of in the corner? And why doesn't it face the center of the room?"
He got undressed and stepped into the stall. A minute or so later he opened the curtain and said, "It doesn't work."
He'd been using the wrong cord. "You've just pulled the emergency alarm," I told him.
"About ten times," he added.
The surly owner came bursting into the room to see what was wrong. Jean-Yves hurriedly drew the curtain in front of him. Luckily, I was fully dressed. "He thought that rope was the water," I said.
"I'll see for myself. I'm responsible for what happens in my hotel."
He flung the curtain aside to reveal a full frontal exposure of Jean-Yves, who turned beet red and quickly covered his privates with both hands. The owner began firing questions at him in rapid Italian, while he stared back at him, confused, intimidated and mortified.
"He doesn't understand a word you're saying," I explained.
That he'd made a mistake was perfectly obvious, but instead of leaving us alone, the man grabbed him by the arm, turned him 'round, and, ignoring or pretending to ignore my friend's cock, gave him a long lecture on how to use the shower, pointing to the signs next to the cords and reading them at the top of his lungs. Then he stormed out and slammed the door behind him, leaving Jean-Yves in tears and me laughing uncontrollably.
"What's so funny?"
"I wish I'd painted that scene."
"I don't think I like Italians."
Our experience in Genoa had made me uncertain how the Italians would view two men sleeping together. The hotel in Florence gave us a twin room. When he saw the two beds, Jean-Yves was disappointed we wouldn't have a letto matrimoniale.
"I'm not asking for one," I told him. We can use one for making love and the other for sleeping. That way they'll both be unmade in the morning."
The maid must have thought one of us was a very restless sleeper.
Two days of trudging through the Uffizi Galleries, where the canvases cover the walls from floor to ceiling, one hanging on top of the other, reminded Jean-Yves of what he'd learned in the Musée Fabre: that he had little taste for Renaissance painting.
"Isn't there anything in this town I'd like?" he asked.
"What about the Medici tombs?"
So I took him to the Accademia.
He'd seen plenty of Davids. Florence has more copies of that gay icon, most of them pocket size, than there are Eiffel Towers in Paris. They've also placed a couple of full-size copies in open spaces, which they try unsuccessfully to keep clean of bird droppings, and others nearly as large as the original in places like hotel lobbies, plus photographs in shop windows, in guidebooks and on postcards, every detail from every angle. None has as powerful an effect as Michelangelo's marble. It seems to breathe; the others are statues. In the natural light of the Accademia one sees an iridescent young man of gigantic stature, every part of him perfect, every muscle, every sinew, every curve a source of wonder. Another nude placed alongside it would beg for clothes. Jean-Yves was awestruck.
Another thing happened in Florence. I finally talked him into fucking me. He went about it very tentatively, so I got no physical pleasure from it, but it was a start, and mentally gratifying. I'd have enjoyed it more if he hadn't kept asking if he was hurting me.
"I'll let you know if it hurts. Just fuck me, will you?"
"It doesn't feel right."
"Trust me. It will when you get used to the idea."
* * * *
Our week in Florence was ending. Jean-Yves had looked troubled since we arrived, and his anxiety seemed to grow every day.
"We've had a wonderful time," I told him, "but you have a job to get back to."
"I want to see Rome," he said. "If I call my boss I bet he'll let me have another day or two. Then he won't have to pay me overtime for the extra hours."
"If he says okay I don't mind stopping two days in Rome on my way to Sicily. It will be easy enough to redo my tickets."
I listened to his half of the conversation as he spoke on his cell phone — his greeting, his hesitant question, his effusive thanks. "He's all right with it," he told me, as if I didn't know already.
On the way to Rome he sat huddled in the corner of the compartment, looking out the window, saying nothing, as if he were afraid of me.
"What's the matter?"
"Something's the matter. Out with it."
He turned back to the window. He was stammering, so I knew it wasn't true. He'd tell me when he was ready.
He kept it up for another hour.
"You know you'll tell me eventually."
He answered hoarsely, almost inaudibly. "I lied to you."
"I didn't call my boss. I was pretending to speak to him."
"Why? Well, there's no harm done. You can call from Rome. I'm sure you were right. He'll let you come back later."
"I quit my job. Long ago."
"Why? No, you don't have to tell me. So you could stay with me. Christ Almighty, Jean-Yves! You're impossible! You're worse than a child!"
"You're damn right I'm angry! What made you do such a thing? No, don't tell me. I know exactly what you're up to, and I could strangle you for being so sneaky about it."
"Some good it does me! Some good it does you, for God's sake!"
There were tears in his eyes. I was torn between my anger at him, my anger at myself, my exasperation over the whole situation, and feeling sorry for him.
"If you'd only told me when you got to Antibes we could have been looking for a job for you. I'd have let you stay with me. Now what the fuck are we going to do?"
I turned away from him and sulked. The people sharing our compartment had witnessed the whole scene and were embarrassed. Jean-Yves looked so upset and forlorn that one of them, a middle-aged woman, said something to comfort him.
"Francese." That was all she got out of what he said.
Rome was the last stop. I had half a mind to leave him there and go straight on to Sicily.
"I don't have to come with you if you don't want me around," he said. "I have the money to get back. It's just that… Can I stay in your apartment while I figure out what to do? I have no place to go. I promise I'll be gone before—"
"Come with me and I'll buy you a ticket to Sicily. Just don't say anything to me, okay? I'm still furious, and I need to think this through."
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