There was a cold breeze in the air that afternoon. Light fog mixed with the smoke coming out of the crematory chimney, giving form to a heavy mass that seemed to float forever before vanishing up in the sky.
“Some days the smoke is darker, only God knows why,” she said. Every one of us knew what she meant: a thicker soul was leaving the funeral ash. A soul darkened by deep thoughts, tightly holding on to the meaning of earthly things all the way to heaven.
She believed in stuff like heaven. He did, too. He used to say, “The first thing God will do when I die is apologize to me for the people who pamper his name around.” These were strange words for a priest, but effective for the ordinary man.
It was as if we could still see him, greeted by the shameful face of a divinity too small for the high amplitude of his being. When it was all over, she took me by the arm and said, “You know, the first thing I ever noticed about him was that ugly hump. I remember I called him the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He laughed and said it was appropriate, him being a priest and all.” “You must miss him very much, Emile,” I replied, confident of the answer; “only as much as you can miss a man who turned your life around; only as much as you.”
Emile, of course, was modest. On the subject of lives shaken to their core, she could teach more than be taught. She was, after all, only a girl who threw a funny comment at him while waiting tables at a bistro, in Paris, where he used to sit when on vacation, without his collar.
Still, she nailed him on who he was, not the priest thing, which didn’t interest him much. The hunchback; now, that was a different story. He was proud of the hump on his back.
He told me so, one night, in the midst of some abstract conversation on life choices. I can still see him. He was sitting on the floor, holding a cup of tea. This, I guess, is the substitute for when you don’t drink or smoke, yet want to look cool as you talk, with something in your hands other than a glass or a cigar.
He told me, “You know something? People are always saying you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Well, maybe that’s true. Still, you should definitely judge the person reading the book by the book’s cover.”
I was intrigued. “How’s so?” I asked. “Well, books should not be kept immaculate. They are supposed to look used: fold pages, scratch pages, with short notes, on the side. That’s how you know you have really read and understood it. There is no knowledge you can obtain from something you don’t feel. Books, much like life, are not understandable just from intellectual contemplation of words and symbols. You must take a hands-on approach to life or else life will just be immaculately pure while sitting on the shelf: clean, but useless.”
I didn’t reply. I had no idea how. Still, he carried on.
“That’s why I am going away,” he said. “This hump on my back is here because I keep limiting myself. I can’t even walk up straight; I want it to be different.
“You see, I met this French girl in Paris. I’m quitting Rome and moving to Paris. You see, this is all wrong, this stern contemplation and preaching from priests who know nothing about life because they haven’t felt it. I think now I will really do gawd’s work.”
I don’t know about gawd’s work, but he did feel life. He went to Paris to be with Emile. I never saw him again.
On the day of the funeral, I walked, silently, with Emile, towards the car. As I walked, I contemplated these memories. “Please, come with me to our house,” she said. “There is something there he would like you to have. I would like you to see the place where we lived after he quit Rome and came here to Paris,” she said, still holding my arm.
The high security car took me to this small apartment in Montparnasse. I could only go because no one knew I was there. Otherwise, it would have been a scandal beyond repair.
The house had a very nice view of the city. I could picture him, hands behind his back, staring out the window, and thinking what to do next. He quit Paris, with Emile, soon after arriving. Their whereabouts were undetermined for a while. He would send me postcards featuring short telegraphic messages from faraway places. Then he started sending me just the postcard.
He had become a professional photographer, from what he said, and was selling his pictures to postcard makers. He got a ton of them free; sometimes I even received more than one at the same time. Then I had to wait another month until they brought me the next postcard package together with the rest of my mail. It was sad for me.
I had never been without him for so long, ever since he was a little boy entering the seminar, full of bright ideas. “You and me,” he told me all the time, “we can turn this thing around; we’ll be rebels inside the Church.” “Do you know what they will say when they find out about us? Imagine the headlines!” I never thought he would leave the church to travel the world doing odd jobs with a French girl. Then, again, he was never predictable, or stable. He was just always brilliant.
“Here it is,” she said, as she brought a small package to me as I was stared out the window, my hands behind my back. “Thank you. Do you know what it is?” I stupidly asked.
She sensed my fear. I did not know what I was going to find inside this small package. I did not want to open it. “Sorry, you’ll have to open it.” I did. Inside, there was a small toy unicorn; similar to the ones little girls play with.
A note, attached to one of its legs, read, “You can still show them that they exist.” I knew what he meant. I can still picture him, lying naked on my bed, speaking fast and smiling; excited about the world and the million chances that we could create.
He would tell me, “You, imagine you, such an important man. Millions of people will follow your every word. Imagine how liberating it will be when they make you Pope and you show up there, by the window, holding my hand and kissing me. Just imagine it. To the mob down there, it will be just like finding out that unicorns exist.”
Of course, at the time, I was only an influential Cardinal, in the Vatican. He was a young British priest born in London, not even half my age. Look at me now, boy. Part of our dream fulfilled. They have made me Pope. You betrayed our dream, with Emile. Now, I have betrayed it with a silly hat and a name in history.
“He was a brilliant man, you know,” she told me, as she re-entered the room. She sat down and continued talking. “His life was funny to watch. He grew so much as a person, he took so many different jobs, had so many skills, and yet he always focused his work on helping other people.
“Once, I taught him to cook so he could get a job at some dictator’s palace. He ended up as a political advisor to the tyrant. Another time, he started selling pictures to make postcards and used that knowledge to become a war photographer and send pictures of all kinds of abuses to newspapers.
“We spent more than a decade going from one place to the other. We always came back to Paris. He said this house was our base.
“Two days ago, the man who never stopped and did not like to rest, was lying in bed. His is heart stopped. I don’t understand it; his heart just stopped.”
Then Emile started to cry. I did not make any move towards her. I did not show any intention to hug her. I felt it was not appropriate.
I turned my back, instead, to give her privacy, and again stared out the window. Light rain was now coming down, slightly clearing the fog. That great man we both loved had died from pure exhaustion.
“You know, Emile, it was that thing you told him in the café,” I said, sternly. “That’s what made him leave Rome and come to you.
“The joke about the hunchback,” she asked, sobbing.
“Yes,” I said, “but not in the way you think.”
My business done, I felt a sudden need to get out of the house. I tried to wrap up our conversation. I said, “Well, it was better this way. I think he found the life he always wanted with you. I am happy for him.”
Indeed, she did not have the smallest idea why he left me and came to her, but I did. That little comment of hers, about the hump, made him realize he was bending down to a lesser goal. He could not stand up straight because I was his low ceiling.
Our revolution was mundane, which his funeral leads me to realize. It was too lonely at the top for him; no one could see or envision his true dream of a different world. Thus, he settled for the first objective he could get, me, me revealing to the world how the Pope can be gay.
That was his second hand objective. Notre Dame, he used to tell me, has the best view of Paris. “Why do people settle for the view from the Eiffel Tower,” he said, honestly puzzled, “when here they can see the actual Eiffel Tower.
“Quasimodo had the most fun! Can you imagine, roaming free from tower to tower? I can only imagine how it must be to live staring straight to the horizon. Not upwards to God, but right in front and still be on top of the world.”
With me, in Rome, he was always lying low, so no one would see us, and looking up fearing God. Emile was his skyline; his Notre Dame, from which he could look right in front and see all the great Towers of the World. God had nothing on him.
Sensing my urge to leave, Emile excused herself and went to the bathroom to fix her hair and makeup. I took my eyes off the window; made sure she had left and put the unicorn back into the box. It was too late for little girl toys.
While pulling myself together, I noticed a large bookcase, filled with scattered books. They were a mess, in no particular order. The covers torn, many had some pages ripped in two. Other pages were completely missing.
“Are these his books, Emile,” I shouted so she could hear me from the bathroom.
“Sort of,” said Emile. “We bought them together. I guess they are mine, now. Why, do you want any of them?”
Her answer shocked me more than anything did that day. From the first time since I knew he had died, I cried. Poor boy, you wanted so much to be a book, used up by life; your heart arches, torn as one of these books.
Still, it was as if I heard his voice telling me, “Half a book destroyed by time and intense reading, is better than any book forever sitting in a shelf.” That is the reason why you were brilliant. Not the crazy dream you sucked me into, and not the roaming around the World. The half-torn book you wrote with your life, that is why you are brilliant, and that is why you will always be just like thick fog, forever present in my life.