Friday, 6 December 2013
THE SLEEPING BEAUTY: JAN VANDER LAENEN
Welcome to me is sleep, and dearer still,
While wrong and shame endure, my stony death.
Neither to see nor hear is my good luck.
Do not awake me: pass with bated breath.
I think I can call myself a bit of an artist; I am particularly attracted to the Italian language and culture. And I am not a little fascinated by the beauty of my own gender, especially the darker specimens. None of which has been able to hold me back from worming my way into the respectable straitjacket that once belonged to my unimaginative father and grandfather, from marrying as they did, from raising children and exercising the dignified profession of a solicitor: quite the model Flemish, middle-class existence.
I shan't dwell on my public life - it's of little consequence. Like all solicitors, doctors, pharmacists, surgeons and other representatives of the liberal professions in Flanders, I speak French, earn heaps of money that I don't work for and that I salt away in my accounts in Geneva and Monaco, am a member of my local Lyons club and, in my village, just outside Brussels, am respected and invited to all the weddings and so-called cultural events. My wife, a covetous grande bourgeoise, dresses in haute couture, my three children are boarders at a strict private school, and if everything goes as one would wish - and for the haut bourgeois, God ensures that everything always goes as one would wish - in fifteen years or so, my eldest son, Frederic, will take over the baton of my solicitor's practice.
An easy life, isn't it? A dreadful life! A double life! Fear gnaws at me constantly, the fear of being uncloaked, the fear of losing the respect of the people for whom I myself no longer have respect, the fear of having to give up all those things for which I ultimately couldn't care less any more: money, standing, a boring job, a boring and snobbish wife, snobbish children who think that the world is theirs just because their father happens to be rich.
Drastic decisions are often the best decisions that you take in your life, except unfortunately I haven't yet, at forty-three, got that far. With my financial means, I should be able to pack my bags, turn my back on my office, and ditch my wife and children to go and rent a flat somewhere in Brussels so that I can have a buzz-cut done and don a leather jacket to go and get smashed drinking in the gay bars and give vent to my desires. My own experience has told me that there is no future for two men once they've shot their bolts, and solidarity is an empty concept in the ghetto. And so, for the time being, I stay with my wife and children, and thus am doomed to dreaming up a thousand excuses and wriggling out of a thousand corners in order to be able, unbeknownst to them and to my neighbours, to satisfy my homosexual urges.
During a meeting, I sit in a sauna. I conclude a public sale with a hurried visit to a porn cinema. A conference at Brussels university becomes a pretext for an afternoon in a hotel with rooms by the hour in the company of a little Moroccan picked up in Place Fontainas. And afterwards, always afterwards, those damned mints and chewing gum, so that no one’ ll smell that my tongue and lips were between another man's legs a quarter of an hour previously. Or that dull dread of returning home with a little ailment, crabs or - God forbid! - AIDS.
Summertime is perhaps the period when I can most be myself, within the limits that I have self-imposed. I can hand over the reins of my office to my associates, put on my casual clothes, devote myself to sports activities and depart for warmer parts with my wife and children. As befits a true, upright family man, it is I of course who select the destination, a destination where, in addition to sunbathing and swimming, we can also do something cultural and relax. Where, without being a gay mecca, there is of course something that men like me can get up to on the sly. Sitges, Ibiza and Mykonos are therefore out, due to their excessively open homosexual atmosphere; but, alongside these Mediterranean Sodoms, there is a whole string of other places on the Mediterranean Sea with a beach, a wood, or a park where you can get a pick-up. Just look in the Spartacus, the gay bible. Every gay bar's got a copy, and for the price of a pint, you can quickly note down a couple of 'useful' addresses or - as I do in my paranoia of being caught - you can learn them off by heart.
What kind of places have I been to as a good husband with his family?
Nice - classy, French and a little rocky coastline just outside the town centre almost exclusively for men. Hammamet - Tunisian, exotic and with drop-dead gorgeous young men, who'll drop their pants or lift their djellabahs for a couple of dinars. And Viareggio, of course, Viareggio, Italy. Viareggio is the pearl of the Tyrrhenian coast and for me virtually heaven on earth.
Just imagine: alongside delicious food, a fine climate and the proximity of artistic cities like Pisa, Lucca and Florence, Viareggio boasts a wood of pine trees situated behind the beach and dunes, which stretches from the harbour to the Torre del Lago. There, between the pines and bushes and to the happy rhythm of chirping crickets, shameless open-air sex - my favourite fantasy - is all the rage. For a voyeur on the look-out for scenes to awaken the senses, all he often has to do is step off the widest tracks that criss-cross the wood and follow the trail of used condoms and paper hankies through the thick undergrowth. With a bit of luck, he can remain concealed and witness some duo in the course of their lovemaking. Or a trio. Or a quartet. Traditional, paying or same-sex.
The area behind the restaurant called 'La Casetta dei Tigli' is the exclusive domain of a number of Felliniesque whores, who ride around on their Vespas looking for clients, and then disappear into the bushes. Around the 'Bocciodromo', the older men meet for a chat and maybe to pick up some young boy or girl that has wandered astray. But the most secluded spot in the wood, a place behind the beach that can only be reached at the end of a walk of over a mile through the greenery, is the traditional tryst for the gays. Yes, in the summer, about half the homosexual population of Tuscany frolic around there in the nude or very scantily clad, on the hunt for ecologically responsible but not always equally safe erotic entertainment with one or more others of the same sex. On three occasions, I have rented a summer residence in Viareggio for my family and me, in the district of 'Campo d'Aviazione', situated next to the pineta. Always with the excuse that the wood is an ideal place for me to do my daily jog, I have often been able to make contacts with a number of Italian soul-mates.
They can be good-looking, Italians, pretty and fickle, and maybe a tad unattainable, but if you take your time to study their southern cruising ways and adjust yourself to their signals, they are just as willing as our more northerly specimens to submit to the love gods. Or maybe even more willing, since they are able to dispense with the entire vestimentary carnival that seems to be the winning ticket on the Brussels gay scene, in order to distinguish themselves from heterosexuals. Probably because the boundary between homo- and heterosexuality in Italy remains somewhat more vague and undefined. Did they not describe same-sex love at the court of Versailles as le vice italien, and was the Italian version of La Cage aux Folles not called Il Vizietto? It's as if homosexuality is not a way of life or philosophy, but merely an ignored little vice to which people occasionally yield but that does not denote a life and cannot deviate from the normal pattern. And so, a large number of visitors to the pineta are, like me, nicely married-with-children and not pathologically disgusted by the female sex organ, although it is not rare for them to prefer the male body. 'Men,' someone once said to me in the wood, 'have more beautiful behinds and a more dexterous mouth.' I can't say that he was wrong ?
But, let me backtrack a little - Monday, the twenty-sixth of August, 19** to be precise - and recount to you the most unusual adventure that I have ever experienced in the pineta, or anywhere else for that matter. A bittersweet adventure that has been a source of some deep reflection on my part, that until the end of my days will make me feel guilty, and that I shall maybe one day tell to a judge, should the fatal day break on which I draw a close to my mendacious marital existence.
As most holidaymakers will know, the Italians go on vacation en masse on 1 August and return to their work and occupations - the so-called contresodo - likewise en masse on the last Monday of the month. As I awoke next to my wife on that Monday, now four years since, with an overwhelming desire for male flesh, I then hardly dared to hope that I would get what I was wanting that day. There probably wouldn't be much happening in the pineta. The skies over Viareggio were grey and ominous, and on top of that my younger son was unwell.
An unsatisfied lust for sex evokes hatred for everything that stands in the way of fulfilling that lust. No verbal vitriol can describe the hatred that I felt for my family on that day, seemingly without end. I hated my wife, my snobbish, bourgeois wife, whom I was only able to kiss and penetrate with closed eyes as I recalled the memories of my conquests in the wood. I hated my only daughter because she didn't like olive oil and because pasta purportedly made her fat, and above all I hated the little cry-baby that was my younger son, Paul, who, on the pretext of a slight temperature, constantly demanded my attention and ceaselessly asked me to play cards with him. Eventually, at about six in the evening, the proverbial gasket blew. I couldn't have taken it to be with them for another minute, with those parasites who lived off my money and for whom I had sacrificed my life. With loud cursing and swearing - and with my wife in hysterics - I changed into my running gear and closed the door to our apartment behind me. I was alone.
Once in the wood, I calmed down a little. I had been right, there was much less happening than a few days previously, but the sight of all those majestic pine trees and the bushes beneath them - in short, a Fragonard landscape - went some way to tempering my aggression and stirred my sexual urges. If I found nobody, I would undress in some hidden spot and, if necessary, leaning against the resin-odoured bark of a tree, masturbate, imagining that the soft summer breeze caressing my tanned skin was the thousand fingertips of a hundred men and that I was shedding my lonesome seed over a pair of strapping male buttocks.
A surprise, a vision of exceptional beauty awaited me, however, when I had eventually forged a way through the Mediterranean overgrowth to one of the darkest areas of the wood, ready to touch myself there. There, in a spot strewn with withered pine needles, lonely and alone on a fiery red towel in the pose of a classical painting, lay a naked young man, asleep. He had rolled onto his belly, his left leg drawn up, his right leg stretched out, so that he not only afforded me a view of his innocent but provocative buttocks, which were turned toward me, but also of the ridge of his scrotum and the exposed glans of his member.
I may not be very poetically-minded but this sleeping beauty nearly moved me to laud his body in verse and rhyme: his short-cut dark hair, his face, which he concealed in his arms, his muscular neck, his tanned shoulders, back and legs, and, of course, his white buttocks, the only place that the sun had been unable to touch him over the summer months and which seemed to be sculpted from marble. White, virginal marble from the quarries of Carrara that can be descried from the beach; white, veined marble that seemed all the whiter and flawless against the bronzed colour of the rest of his young, unblemished skin and the deep red of his bathing towel.
For a number of minutes I must have looked upon this spectacle, for a number of minutes I must have stood still, as quiet as a mouse, with bated breath, until my desire gained the upper hand over my asexual sense of beauty and aesthetics. I coughed gently. No move came from the sleeping beauty. I broke a twig from a bush with a dry crack. Still no reaction. Eventually, I stepped silently up to him and went and sat next to him on the corner of his towel. I must have been so hypnotised up to that point by his rear end that it was only then that I noticed a number of objects that lent the vision a certain tragic character: a letter written in ink, a half-empty bottle of mineral water and a number of empty canisters of pills with fatal-sounding names like Xeraxat, Lexotan and Xarax. This beautiful boy, who might well have made so many people happy through his mere existence, had decided to give himself up into the cold hands of death. And somehow his body had indeed already cooled as I carefully laid my hand on his right calf and then allowed my fingers to dwell on his buttocks.
'Giovanotto, wake up,' I whispered to him as I rolled him onto his back with a delicate motion. His eyelids and his mouth opened and stared at me with a hazy, hazel-eyed gaze as he murmured a few incomprehensible words. What then got into me I don't know, but so beautiful, so regular was his visage that I pressed my mouth against his fleshy lips and, under the first few drops of a summer storm, started to kiss him. Yes, I explored the inside of his dying mouth with my tongue as I held his chin in the grip of my hands, that proud, sturdy chin with its growth of beard and moustache.
Then I turned him over like a clothier's dummy, my sleeping beauty, and, under raindrops that were falling more and more heavily to the accompaniment of still far-off thunderclaps, I buried my head between his legs. Only a lizard that had found a shelter under a nearby bush and a squirrel that observed us with his keen little eyes from the branches of a pine tree were able to witness how I experienced the most extraordinary moments of my otherwise, oh, so banal life on that stormy August evening with a boy who was soon to breath his last. Yes, even now, after four years and now that I am back with my family in Viareggio, I can still recall the minutest details; I can remember the slightest detail without difficulty and again wallow in those voluptuous moments in my memories, in those sensuous moments that brought my five senses to a satisfaction extraordinaire. For, after a while, I, too, undressed and procured the dying youth a worthy, corporeal departure from this earth. The fact that he had sunk into a deadly sleep and yielded to my lust, the lust of a man unknown to him from far-off Flanders who under normal circumstances he probably wouldn't have deigned to glance at, and this made me hotter than ever, if such were possible. I tasted the odour and savour of his anus. Gently, I inserted my spit-moistened finger into that hidden place, where the last remnants of his bodily warmth seemed to have gathered. I sucked on his member and testicles until he, somewhat to my wonderment, got a suspicion of a nocturnal erection. I nestled up against him so that I could better feel the contact between our skin - mine at normal, human temperature, his a few degrees lower. This entire love game - if one can speak of love when one of the partners doesn't even have the strength to consent - this entire love game, then, played out under a sultry summer storm that made the entire wood, the entire surroundings, smell of damp earth and moss, that lighted up the dark, purple sky above the high peaks with tremendous thunderbolts and the screeching of panic-stricken crows and gulls, was drowned out by clashes of thunder.
After quarter of an hour, without having touched myself, I reached a climax and smeared his back and buttocks with my warm semen, which was quickly washed away by the rain. Meanwhile, we were both soaked, and whilst I pulled on my equally wet running gear in a state as if I'd been awoken out of a wet dream, I glanced again at my sleeping beauty. He still seemed to be gently breathing and, in a last, convulsive attempt, he slowly turned back to exactly the same position he'd been in when I had found him. He reached his despondent hand out toward the piece of paper before him. Like my sperm, his last words, written on the farewell note, were washed away by the pitiless raindrops.
I then set off running, again forged a path through the gorse bushes and, panting and enervated from the enjoyment, I reached the track that led directly out of the pineta. Only then, only there did I realise the extent of what I had done: I, me, a decent, married solicitor from far-off Flanders, had abused a poor Italian boy in his last sleep. Whatever, I thought, maybe it was not yet too late to do something, perhaps I could quickly hurry to the police not far away or ring for an ambulance or call a doctor or, once I reached the Viale dei Tigli, I could just flag down a car.
But what could I say? How could I have explained my presence at the gayest place in the wood? That would have given me away, I would have blown my cover. The police and the local population knew only too well the reputation of the isolated area where my sleeping beauty had intended to meet his death, not least because two murders had once been committed there against gays. The police or ambulance men would certainly have asked me questions and had me fill in forms, and questioned me as to why I had been there at that moment. The whole situation would have grown into a local scandal, into an, oh, so typical Italian fatto di cronaca, a fatto di cronaca of a decent Flemish citizen who sticks his bureaucratic finger in the arse of a suicide victim. In my paranoia, I was naturally convinced that they would have found my finger prints or - more simply - would have spotted the brown tip of my right index finger.
And so I made off like a cowardly, vile person back to my rented flat, to my family, in full realisation that my hypocrisy meant the death of a boy.
Once home, I immediately withdrew to the bathroom where I stood before the mirror, gazing into my own eyes, and again sensuously licked at my finger. And my wife, that awful person, spoke not a word to me during the whole evening, no, she didn't once ask how come I had scratches on my arm and mud stains on my jogging suit.
Two days later, two days after my shameful deed, news of the boy's act of desperation did indeed make the front page of the local paper: 'Young gay commits suicide in woods' was the headline that could be read all over Viareggio on the posters that were renewed each day in front of the news kiosks.
I bought a copy. As far as my knowledge of Italian permitted, I understood after reading the article that the boy - his name was given as Salvatore Barzi - had seemingly taken his life because he and his family had not been able to accept his being different. It was also said that his farewell note had been made unreadable due to the heavy rain. At the same time, the reporter wondered about the feeling of solidarity amongst gays. According to the medical report, the boy was only discovered eighteen hours after taking the sleeping pills, by someone who wanted to remain anonymous. The reporter also said that it was extremely improbable that no other clandestine visitor to the gay part of the pineta had noticed him earlier. Newspaper in hand, and a swelling in my throat, I went and sat at an open-air cafe and ordered a grappa.
Yesterday, about four years after my adventure with the sleeping beauty and back with my family in Viareggio, I went and paid a visit to the cemetery in order to see the grave of Salvatore Barzi. I bought a fiery red rose from the flower-girl at the entrance to the graveyard, and then I enquired of the attendant where the grave of a certain Salvatore Barzi was situated.
'Salvatore Barzi, the sleeping beauty?' rapped the attendant, as he looked at me somewhat quizzically. 'You go to the central sector and, when you're there, you can't miss his tomb.'
The attendant was right. The tomb of Salvatore - the boy whose saviour I had not been - did indeed stand out amongst the last resting places of all the other deceased. The pit containing his mortal remains was covered with a heavy, black porphyry slab. On the slab was sculpted a likeness of Salvatore in white marble and in exactly the same position as I had encountered him on that pernicious summer's evening. The artist must have been truly gifted and had probably been inspired by police photos whilst creating this classic work of art, for no detail was missing: the rear end and the glimpse of the boy's genitals were shown without false diffidence, his marble limbs seemed to be as muscular as they seemed weary and indeed it looked as though his marble left hand was grasping for a sculpted letter in front of him. 'Salvatore Barzi' were the words in the letter, together with his dates of birth and death. He had been but twenty-six?
With a respectful gesture, I lay the red rose at his graceful feet. I gazed long at his effigy, so long that it seemed to come alive in my mind's eye.
Eventually, I stretched out my hand and caressed his stone buttocks. I wasn' t the first to have done so, for I now noticed that the marble on his rear end gleamed from having been repeatedly touched by human hands. It gleamed like the holy foot of St. Peter in the Basilica in Rome, or the lucky arm of Everard 't Serclaes on the Market Square in Brussels. Barely had I withdrawn my hand when I was approached by a little women dressed in black whom I had not seen earlier, so bewitched was I by the statue.
'How do you know Salvatore?' she barked at me.
When I was unable to think of a suitable reply, she grasped my rose and struck me in the face with it.
'My Salvatore wasn't like that, leave him alone, you pervert!' she yelled indignantly, whereupon she tried to push me away from her son's grave.
I left the cemetery of Viareggio with sullen shoulders , my left cheek scratched with the rose thorns, with a mind to head for the pineta. There was more to do there than at a cemetery.
When I got there, an older, married man explained to me more about Salvatore. His tomb had adorned the front page of Babilonia, a militant Italian gay magazine, in a call for greater solidarity, and since then the monument had grown into a holy place, a place of pilgrimage for the Italian gay community. Touching Salvatore's buttocks brought luck, to the horror of the boy's mother, of course, who watched over his grave virtually every day.
I wept, crocodile tears probably, but tears in any event and when, at dinner that evening, my wife asked me where I had got the scratches on my face, I again brushed away a teardrop. 'I have heard that the wood at the back here has a reputation that is by no means very good,' she said, yet with a slight reproach.
'Let's not talk about such things in front of our children,' I answered curtly with a tone of authority.
My wife seemed to be satisfied. The middle classes don't like at all to talk about the more colourful things in life and it is therefore unlikely that I shall ever tell anyone my story of Salvatore Barzi, the Sleeping Beauty of Viareggio. I can be as silent as a grave...
From a review of Jan’s Sleeping Beauty.
“Epistle of the Sleeping Beauty” by Jan Vander Laenen is a truly delightful tale reporting an unusual erotic adventure on the gay side taking place in the famous pineta (pinewood) of Viareggio, Italy.
“Belgian writer Jan Vander Laenen's “Epistle of the Sleeping Beauty” was translated into English for the anthology, and is among the most unsettling of the stories: a man on holiday, hiding his homosexual cravings from his wife and children, seeks risky public sex and discovers a naked, dying, young man in the woods. This like many of the tales in the collection divulges the horrifying lengths some will go to fulfill lust, and is more cutting and critical than celebratory of many gay lifestyles.”
Jan loves to hear from his readers. You can email him at email@example.com;
Jan Vander Laenen lives in Brussels, Belgium, where he works as an art historian and translator (Dutch, French and Italian). He is also the author of eight collections of short stories, plays, and screenplays which have attracted keen interest abroad. A romantic comedy, Oscar Divo, and a thriller, The Card Game, are presently in the hands of a competent producer in Hollywood, while his short fiction collections The Butler and Poète mauditare eliciting the requisite accolades in Italy. He credits Karen Blixen and Edgar Allan Poe as his literary influences.
The Sleeping Beauty has been published in Dutch as “De Schone Slaper” and in French as “Le bel au bois dormant”. Vander Laenen's "The Corpse Washer" appeared in Ignavia.
The Sleeping Beauty is available at Amazon UK
And at Amazon US