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THE FAULT LINE running through my bones, through my every breath, may be the day of the accident: on June 23, 1993, I became paralyzed. But then on May 3, 1996, St. Philip’s Day, Béatrice died. So now I have no past, I have no claim to the future, I am just this pain that I feel at every moment. Béatrice has been stripped back in the same way, reduced to this ever-present feeling of loss. And yet there is a future, that of our two children, Laetitia and Robert-Jean.
Until the accident, I was someone in the world, anxious to leave my mark on events, to make things; since then I have become prey to endless thoughts and, since Béatrice died, to endless grief.
Shadowy memories emerged from these ruins, vague recollections, which at first the pain of paralysis and of mourning would blur during my caffeine-fueled nights. Searching deep within myself, I found the likenesses of the people I’d lost. Then my long, silent vigils started to bring back long-forgotten moments of happiness. My life flowed past me in a stream of images.
I couldn’t speak for the first few months after the accident because I’d had a tracheostomy—trach for short—an operation to insert a breathing tube into my windpipe so I could be put on a ventilator. A friend installed a computer and rigged up a set of controls for me under my chin. The alphabet constantly scrolled past on the screen; whenever I stopped the cursor, it would pick out a letter. Slowly these would coalesce to form a word, a sentence, half a page. I loved choosing the right word, the exhausting effort required to type it, the need for precision. Every letter had its own weight, mooring what I wrote like an anchor. I loved the meticulousness of it all. And I had a comrade in arms, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, who wrote by blinking and died when he reached the last letter.
My own words strangle me when I think of anyone who has died alone, without being able to speak or bear witness or feel any hope.
Lying on my bed at night, I sleep badly. I am paralyzed, after all. After a while, once the trach tube was removed and I could speak again, they put a tape recorder on my stomach. It stops when it can’t hear anything—or when it feels like it—and doesn’t start again until something new has been said. I never know if I’ve been recorded. Often I’m stumped for words anyway. It’s hard telling a story when you’re not sitting at a desk with a piece of paper in front of you and your forehead propped in your left hand, when you can’t just let it rip, scribble away and cross things out or start again, when there’s only the voice of someone who could be dead and a tape deck irrevocably recording what you say, with no room for second thoughts, no crossings out. The snapshots of a faltering memory…
I’ve lost the thread now. It’s dark and I hurt all over. My shoulders hunch up and I feel a shooting pain on the top of the right one, as if I’ve been stabbed. I have to stop. My cat, F-sharp, is having a lovely time clambering all over my body that is quivering and arching backward as if beseeching God for something. Spasming and shaking, suddenly it’s all too much for me, tears well up. The cat, as usual, is a picture of blithe indifference. It spends the whole night playing around on top of me, as if it needs my convulsive shudders to feel alive.
The subcutaneous fire burning continuously from my shoulders to the tips of my fingers and toes is all too liable to blaze up at any moment. From the burning in my body I can tell if it’s going to be fine tomorrow or rain. I feel scalding, corrosive pain in my hands, my buttocks, down my thighs, around my knees, at the base of my calves.
They quarter me, stretching out my arms and legs in the hope it will bring me some relief, but the pain doesn’t let up. They call it phantom pain. Phantom my ass! I cry because I’m in pain, not because I’m sad. I wait for the tears to give me some respite, until I’ve cried myself into a stupor.
We used to make love at night by candlelight, whispering to each other. She’d fall asleep in the early hours in the crook of my neck. I still talk to her.
Sometimes, sick with loneliness, I turn to Flavia, a film student. She has a beaming smile, a sumptuous mouth, a quizzical left eyebrow. When she stands with her back to the window in her flowing, light blue dress, she doesn’t realize she might as well be wearing nothing, that her twenty-seven-year-old frame can still arouse a phantom. I let her transcribe everything, I have no decency, she is transparent.
The cat comes back to sit on my stomach. When he changes position, my body tenses as if it’s revolted by him being here and not Béatrice.
I have to talk about the good times though, I have to forget the suffering. Why not start with the final moments of my life, my foreseeable and sometimes longed-for death that will reunite me with Béatrice. I will leave the ones I love to be with the one I have loved so much. Even if her paradise doesn’t exist, I trust that’s where she will be because she believed in it. Because that’s what I want. Freed from all our suffering, we’ll be together there, cocooned in each other’s arms, our eyes closed for eternity. A rustle of silken wings, Béatrice’s blond hair stirs.…
Béatrice, who art in Heaven, save me.
I WAS SOMEBODY ONCE. Now I’m paralyzed, I’ve lost almost all sensation in my body. But even so, somewhere among the excruciating pain, there are still delicious memories of the senses that have abandoned me.
Retrieving my shattered body’s experiences, inch by inch, memory by memory, is a form of survival. Working back from my current immobility, putting a chaotic mass of short-lived sensations into some sort of chronological order, helps me to reclaim my past and reconnect my two entirely separate lives.
A FLUSH of confusion sets my whole body aglow. It’s only a memory. Even so I feel drowsy, my rational mind is shutting down, I am overwhelmed by far-off sensations, from when I was seven, or perhaps eight, and the dazzling Casablanca sun was beating down… My brothers and I were at the Collège Charles de Foucauld, a church school. At recess some of my classmates would play football in the middle of the playground, raising a film of dust that would stick to their arms and legs, and turn their shorts and navy blue shirts milky white. Others, aficionados of a local version of marbles played with apricot stones, would gather by the walls in groups of shopkeepers and players. I was a shopkeeper; Alain—my twin brother who was a crack shot—was a player. The shopkeeper would place an apricot stone between his legs and the player would try to hit it with his trusty projectile. I took up position by the playground wall, facing the morning sun—I loved baking myself to a crisp in the sun—and waited for Alain to throw, my half-closed eyes fixed on my stone. I counted to three, then shivered with pleasure. Drowsy from the warm, dusty playground, I drifted off. When I came to, my class had gone back inside; the playground was full of children I didn’t recognize. I shot bolt upright in a panic, wrapped my supply of apricot stones in a handkerchief, and ran back as fast as I could, my body on fire. For the first time, I felt a strange warmth between my legs. Was it the shorts rubbing or fear of my horrible schoolmistress? Either way, something was happening down there. I knocked frantically, the schoolmistress barked out a command, I pushed open the door, and then just stood there, motionless.
I FLUSH bright red all over again, alone in my bed, as I remember these first stirrings of desire.
NOT LONG afterward, we were in Holland. My father was working for an Anglo-Dutch oil company. My brothers Reynier and Alain; Valerie, my little sister; Christina, the governess; and I all slept on the first floor. Christina was very beautiful with her red hair and green eyes and freckles, which I kept discovering all over her body, helped by the fact that it was the heyday of the miniskirt. One day she was doing some ironing on the landing. I had been hanging around watching her for ages, when I felt that discomfort under my belt again. I blushed, not daring to look down at my gray flannel English shorts. Oh no, what was Christina doing? Squinting to see what was going on? I was done for. Until she—the beautiful, treacherous girl—did something extraordinary. She stepped out from behind the ironing board, came toward me, turned round, and bent over as far as she could. Was it really because she needed to pick something up?
If I’d known how and been able to, I would have taken her there and then. But I just stood there breathlessly, arms dangling, everything else straining skyward. I seemed to look at her bottom for an eternity.
Years later I saw some photos of her. I didn’t find her such a beauty that time, with her gappy teeth, double chin, and bony knees. Everything is a matter of perspective…
AT NIGHT I take deep breaths to try to free myself from the pain that alienates me from everything. Images come into my mind—so concrete and simple, I find them very beautiful—but the pain doesn’t abate.
I WAS fifteen and I wanted to impress my friends, so I went into the drug store. When it was my turn, I said, “Can I have a packet,” my voice fell to a whisper, “of condoms?” The female chemist asked me to repeat myself. Trapped, already bright red in the face, I asked her again. In a gently ironic tone, she then inquired, “Small, medium, or large?” I ran out the door.
Naturally she was talking about the size of the packet.
A LAUGH bubbles up in my throat and is answered by a spasm, which knocks the tape recorder off my chest. I have to start again, rebuild my world. I call Abdel, my caregiver. He puts the tape recorder back in position, and my strange, muffled voice sets it in motion. The voice I have now not only sounds completely different to “my” voice, but also changes constantly, as if my identity has gone to pieces like my body. My chest muscles don’t work anymore, so I can’t convey intonation or punctuation; the tape only registers the bare information of whatever words I have enough breath to utter.
I WAS seventeen, and we were on a skiing holiday. Alain already had his “squeeze.” We spent our time on the slopes with boys, and with girls, and I’d never blushed so much in my life as when I was with the latter. One night after supper we all crowded in by the fire, drinking wine, singing, playing guitar. I was next to a girl. She leaned over at one point and rested her head on my shoulder. A friend of Alain’s girlfriend, she was older than me and had been born in Vietnam to a French colonial family. She had slanting eyes and olive skin. She laughed, then moved closer. I could smell her spicy scent now. I tried to shrink into the fireplace, but that didn’t change anything. I could feel desire burning in me; I wanted her. When it was time for bed and she led me to the only single room and to a little bed by the wall, I followed without a backward glance. I’d been dreaming of that moment for years, it felt like. She unceremoniously took off her clothes and lay on top of me. I must have seemed awkward because she smiled, then burst out laughing: “You haven’t taken off your pants!” She helped me. We were together for a few months.
EVEN NOW that I’m paralyzed, my inert senses can still play tricks on me, as they did early on during my time at Kerpape, a rehabilitation center on the Brittany coast. For my first outing, Béatrice pushed my new wheelchair to a little café by the sea and sat opposite me. Over her shoulder, windsurfers leaped the waves. The sky was gray. My neck felt clammy with sweat, but it was so lovely having Béatrice’s face close to mine, I didn’t want to break the spell. How could she still have that look of young love in her eyes as she gazed at the shadow of the man she had fallen for? After a while, I broke into a hacking cough. Béatrice became worried and took me back to the rehab center. The nurse diagnosed a lung infection, so I was returned to intensive care at the hospital in Lorient for the second time. My throat was opened up by another trach, an array of bottles decanted their poisons into me, while Béatrice sat by my bed. The veins in my left arm couldn’t cope after a while, so they bandaged it up to the elbow in cotton wool soaked in alcohol. I soon felt drunk. My room didn’t have a window, but I guessed it was nighttime. There was no nurse in sight. The red, green, and white lights of the machines blinked on and off. I was drifting farther and farther away, when suddenly a wildly pleasurable sensation came over me. I hadn’t felt intense desire for Béatrice for a year. Images of our bodies together raced through my mind. Suddenly the lights came on in a blinding flash of neon. Béatrice was bending over me. She’d understood immediately what was happening when she saw my eyelids fluttering. I asked her to tell the doctor. Laughing, she ran out into the corridor. The doctor came back with her, an irritated look on his face. He examined the object of these mad giggles. Negative. Phantom stirrings. Go back to sleep, my angel.