Read I'm Still Here (Je Suis Là) Online

Authors: Clelie Avit,Lucy Foster

Tags: #Fiction / Contemporary Women, Fiction / Romance / Contemporary, Fiction / Literary

I'm Still Here (Je Suis Là) (4 page)

BOOK: I'm Still Here (Je Suis Là)
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“No I don't.”

“Stop, Thibault. You still can't accept the fact that your brother ran over those two girls. And, frankly, no one would want you to. In your place I'd feel the same. This girl, Elsa, seems nice and you'd like her to wake up, as anyone would. You've got a heart! It's normal to feel like this.”

“A heart… I never want to see my own brother again and you still think I have a heart?”

“Everyone has a heart, Thibault. But it's what they do with it that counts. Yours was in a thousand pieces after Cindy. And now it's in a million pieces since the accident. You're telling yourself that if there was something you could do to wake this girl up, it might help you to gather a few of the pieces. You just need to forgive yourself for having negative thoughts about your brother.”

I'm flabbergasted, but that's why Julien is my best friend. It's such a relief to hear him say it that, for the first time in a year, I can feel my eyes filling with tears. But I can't cry in here. Not in a crowded pub. Not on a Wednesday night.

“Come on, let's go,” says Julien.

“What?”

“Let's get out of here, Thib.”

He drains his glass and makes me finish mine. Two minutes later, we're out on the snowy sidewalk. He was right, it's freezing. Julien takes my arm and pulls me a bit farther from the door. I stumble; my eyes have gone blurry, and it's not just the snow.

“It's OK,” he says to me.

I break down. Two guys holding on to each other outside a pub, that's not something you see every day. You'd assume we were gay, I suppose. Well, if anyone comes past they can assume what they like. I just want to cry out all the water obstructing my vision. I want to spit out all the saliva from my mouth. I want to scream out in despair so that everyone can hear me.

I content myself with crying into Julien's shoulder and he draws me closer to him. I realize that it's several months since I have been this close to another body, and the warmth of an old friend is very comforting. We stand like this for several minutes, then the cold takes over. Julien hands me a tissue. He always has them on him, too, because of the baby.

“Come back to mine,” he says.

“Sorry?”

“You're coming to stay at ours tonight, I'm not letting you go home in this state.”

“I haven't been drinking, I won't run anyone over.”

“I know that! You've always been the sober one, Thibault, and now more than ever, but you're too miserable to be on your own tonight. Where's the car?”

“In the parking lot over there.”

“OK, I walked over, so you can give me the keys and I'll drive us back.”

I do as he says without comment, follow him to the parking lot and pay for the exit ticket. Then I get into the passenger seat. It feels strange to be the passenger in my own car.

Julien is a steady driver. I let myself be rocked by the car's motion. He doesn't live far away, so we're there quickly. When we get in, Gaëlle comes to the door smiling.

“Thibault!” she whispers. The little one must be asleep.

“Hi Gaëlle,” I say, smiling. “I'm sorry for the intrusion.”

“Don't apologize,” she says, kissing my cold cheeks. “Julien warned me on the phone. I've made your bed in Clara's room. Just don't snore too loudly. And I'm afraid you might be woken up at
4
a.m. when she wants her bottle.”

“I don't mind, she's my little princess. But… Julien warned you? When did you do that?” I ask, turning toward him.

“By text message while you were bawling into my shoulder.”

“You bastard, I thought you were sharing in my distress!”

“You were in the process of ruining my jacket, I had to act quickly.”

“When you two have finished,” interrupts Gaëlle, “there's some food in the kitchen. Thibault, I left a towel on your bed, in case you want a shower.”

“Thanks Gaëlle, this is so kind of you.”

“You'd do the same for us,” she says.

“Thanks all the same.”

I take off my jacket and my shoes while they exchange a quick kiss and a couple of updates about the baby. Gaëlle says I can go and see Clara and put down my things because she's not asleep yet.

Walking into the room is like stepping across into another dimension. This used to be Julien's office, but now he's moved everything out into the living room. The sofa bed has been moved in here and there's just a non-folding sofa in the living room, because it would be impossible to open out a mattress in the space that's left. The apartment is not very big, but they've saved the best spot for their daughter. I lean over the crib. Clara watches me come in as though I'm an alien. She wiggles her fingers and beams up at me with her glowing, angelic face. Gaëlle and Julien really have done a good job with this one.

I look around. The sofa bed is out. The duvet and pillow look very inviting, much more inviting than that girl in the pub. I leave the room quietly and pull the door closed behind me. Gaëlle is watching television in the living room and Julien is waiting for me in the kitchen.

I hesitate before sitting down, but after all that crying I realize that I'm absolutely starving. During dinner we talk about everything and nothing. Quite a lot about Clara—it's so easy for a child to become the main focus. I do the washing-up with Julien, and Gaëlle tells us that she's going to bed. She'll have to be up at four when the baby cries for her bottle. I suggest that I give Clara the bottle tonight so that she can sleep.

“Would you?”

“With pleasure. I need to practice if I'm going to be her godfather, don't I?”

“That would be wonderful, thank you. Then we could have a whole night's sleep.”

“So where's all the equipment?” I ask, looking around the kitchen.

“It's all there,” she says, motioning to a corner of the work surface. “You just need to put this in the bottle-warmer.”

Gaëlle kisses us both and goes into the bedroom. I tell Julien I'm going to have a shower. The hot water does me good. I'm in there a while, even though I know it's not good for the environment. It is helping, and I've been feeling like crap, so the planet will have to wait, for today…

When I come out, Julien tells me that he's going to bed, too. I sit in front of the TV for a while and then turn everything off. I don't have a book with me, but I'm not sure I'd be in the mood for reading anyway.

I go quietly into Clara's room and slide under the duvet. The covers are freezing. I remember how nice it was when there was someone there to heat them up for me, but I don't have anyone to do that, and I don't think I want anyone for the moment.

I hear faint murmurings coming from Julien and Gaëlle across the two closed doors. And then the rustling of covers. They must be making the most of a full night together. It doesn't really bother me though. Let them enjoy themselves.

I fall asleep, but, at about two in the morning, my eyes are wide open again. I move around in my bed, making as little noise as possible. The hospital visit turns over and over in my head, like clothes in a washing machine. Slowly the minutes pass, until eventually I hear Clara start to get restless. I go to the kitchen to heat the bottle and return with the nursing pillow. I don't know who invented those, but I can't imagine how anyone's arms survived feeding a baby before them.

I pick her up carefully before she starts crying properly and place her onto the cushion. I get back into bed, leaning against the wall to be more comfortable. She puts her little mouth around the nipple. The sucking noise lulls me gently. I put the bottle to the side when she has finished, and we fall asleep like that, with her lying peacefully in my arms.

Chapter 5
ELSA

I
wonder how long I'll only be able to hear for. I mean, I wonder if one day I'll wake up properly. I know, from what the doctors say, that I can't breathe very well on my own. When they do tests, I only hold out for a few hours before I'm too weak to breathe by myself. The mechanics of the body really are strange. But miraculous, too. How is it possible that I can breathe, even for a few minutes, by myself, when I can't feel a thing? If I come out of the coma, that's another thing I must remember to ask about. My doctor won't know what's hit him. At the moment he pokes his head around the door every week or so, if I'm lucky. When I wake up he'll be bombarded.

Today is Saturday. My sister was here three days ago, it's only four more days until she comes again. Perhaps my parents will come today. After all, it was my birthday on Wednesday.

And it was a good day. I got to hear my friends—they hadn't been for a little while. I got to imagine them eating my cake, blowing out my candles, and opening my present. And I made a new friend.

Thibault. I have managed to remember his name. It's strange, I was afraid I'd forget it. My memory doesn't seem at all affected by my vegetative state, but I was worried all the same. And, for the first time in six weeks, I haven't relived the accident in my dreams. In fact I haven't had any particular dreams at all. It's just been black and deep. Relaxing.

This morning, the care assistant came in to clean me and do my hair, as she does every morning. From the little splashes moving around me, I think she must have washed almost my entire body, and I heard her brushing my hair. I hope she hasn't given me a ridiculous hairstyle. They're mostly careful, I think, but looking after an inert body can't be an easy, or a graceful task. I don't know much about what she does, only that she's there. It's difficult to know what people are doing around me if they don't explain. I need points of reference and comparison for sounds. I have no memory of my mother doing my hair for me, so I can't really say what the care assistant was doing with it. On the other hand, I know that she forgot to put the lip balm on me because I didn't hear the lid of the pot, or the viscous sound of her rubbing it on. Twenty-four hours without lip balm is no big deal, and it's not as though I'll be having conversations with anyone, but I do still care about the state of my lips.

At work, I used to get through a whole tube in less than a month. Some people have their phones in their pockets at all times, or always take tissues or a Band-Aid wherever they go; I always have my lip balm with me. If not I'd have a mouth like the texture of cardboard—not very pleasant.

Not very pleasant for who though? For me, I think. As far as I know, I don't keep my lips soft particularly for the benefit of any of the boys I've kissed, or might kiss in the future; it's just because it feels nicer. I love kissing, even though I can't do it now. I think the contact of lips on lips is a miracle. I never wear lipstick either, not even for special occasions. It's thicker than lip balm and I believe it dulls the senses.

Anyway, today the care assistant forgot my lip balm. Someone called her from the corridor, so she finished and left in a hurry. Since then, I've only heard the general bustling of an afternoon in the hospital. There are lots of visitors on Saturdays, but they're not visiting me.

Oh. I spoke too soon. I can hear the door handle. I recognize my mother's footsteps, and the heavier, more pronounced footsteps of my father. They are whispering to each other. I hate it. You'd think they had just stepped into a mortuary. I want to cry out that I'm still here, alive, right next to them, but they carry on talking in low voices as though they don't want me to hear them.

“… right to ask the question, Henry. It's been almost five months.”

“How can you talk like that?”

My father's belligerence is discernible even in his whispers.

“I'm trying to put myself in her place,” continues my mother. “What would I think of all this? Would I want it to go on?”

“How can you put yourself in her place?”

“I'm trying! You're contradicting me for the sake of it!”

“I'm trying to weigh the pros and cons. We're talking about ending the life of our daughter, not choosing the color of our next carpet!”

If I could feel, I would have felt the blood run cold in my veins right then. First with surprise, because my father seems, more or less, to be defending me. But mainly because my parents are thinking about taking me off the life support.

“But maybe she'd go on breathing by herself,” tries my mother.

“It would be like every other time—in two hours she'd be on the verge of asphyxiating.”

“Maybe she doesn't want to go on fighting.”

“Stop thinking for her. You don't know anything about it,” says my father, angrily.

“Henry!”

“What?”

“Think about this, please!”

A moment passes in silence. I don't know if my father has replied with a gesture, or if he's still thinking.

“OK, I'll consider it. But not today.”

I deliberately remove myself for the rest of their conversation. I'm elsewhere. Rambling, almost delirious, alone with my thoughts. It's enough to make you lose your mind, spending all your time talking to yourself. But listening to other people talk about you introduces even more chaos.

I regain awareness of their presence when I hear them get up to leave. I need to stop doing that when people come here to see me, to speak to me. They must assume that I am at least trying to listen to them. That's how it is with my sister, anyway. And I only give her five minutes of attention—four at the start, and one at the end. But actually, who cares? They can't tell whether I'm paying attention or not.

My parents leave the room. I didn't even get a kiss, or if I did it was so perfunctory that I couldn't hear it.

I'm just preparing to be alone with myself again when I hear the door handle turn. My mother must have left her scarf or something. But it's not her walk, and it's not my father's either. It's lighter and somehow hesitant at the same time. It can't be my sister because she would have made herself known immediately. Perhaps it's the care assistant come to finish what she started this morning. Who knows, she might have remembered that she didn't do my lip balm.

“Hello, Elsa.”

The sound reaches my ears like a cool breeze. But the name rushes back into my mind with gale force. Thibault. He's come back. I don't know why. I want to believe that it's just because he felt like it. Who cares, he's here, and it makes a change even if he has only come to sleep.

“It still smells so much of jasmine in this room. Who puts it in here?”

The care assistant, I would like to answer, with the little vial of essential oil my mother gave her. Perhaps she's been a bit heavy-handed with it today.

“It doesn't matter, it smells good anyway.”

I hear him take off his jacket and even undo his shoelaces. He's making himself comfortable, which means that he's going to stay. I could jump for joy. Ha!

I hear the shoes being placed in a corner and the jacket on some piece of furniture at the back of the room. And a sweater or sweatshirt, too. It must be hot in my room. This is confirmed a few moments later.

“It's so hot in this room! I'm down to my T-shirt, I hope you don't mind. Don't worry, I'll stop undressing now, got to maintain some semblance of decency in here.”

I listen avidly to everything he says and does, even though I am having difficulty understanding his behavior, his friendliness, his presence. Why has he come back?

“You must be asking yourself why I'm here. I've come with my mom to visit my brother. He's in room fifty-five, you might remember. Though, I don't know why I expect you to remember anything. You almost certainly can't hear me, and I bet if I touch your arm you won't feel a thing. God, I'm talking to myself… what is wrong with me?”

I can understand his confusion, but I'd still like to give him a clip around the ear for assuming I'm not here, and then tell him to carry on speaking to me. Doesn't he know how important it is to speak to people in comas?

“I don't know anything about comas,” he begins suddenly. “I've never known anyone who's been in a coma before, and I hope I never will in the future either. I've got a feeling it's good to talk though, so I will. But I don't have the faintest hope that you'll hear me. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Talking to you is like having a free session with a therapist, and you won't repeat a word I say. First, though, I'm going to open the window because it's absolutely boiling in here, and I usually feel the cold. I won't ask you if you mind—you can't tell me anyway.”

I'm pleasantly surprised. This is the first time anyone has spoken to me without condescension. Normally, people who come in here are pirouetting absurdly around me and bending over backward to be polite, and considerate, as though I will suddenly be offended or ask them for something. Thibault is the first one to realize that since I am about as interactive as a grapefruit at the moment, there's really no point in bowing or curtseying when you're in my room.

I hear the window slide open and the air rush in. I imagine myself shivering.

“Brrrr! I'm not staying by this window either!” he exclaims. “Over here will be just fine.” I hear a chair being dragged to the left side of my bed.

A smothered electric sound comes from across the room.

“Shit, I didn't turn my phone off. Excuse me, Elsa, I'd better take it. Even if you'll probably go completely mad about it.”

I want to laugh. And then suddenly I want to cry. Or, rather, I wish my body was capable of crying. Not from sadness, but from joy. Thibault is also the first person to have made me want to laugh in six weeks. Even the rotten jokes of the DJ on the cleaning lady's radio haven't worked yet.

He's hardly picked up the phone when I hear him metamorphose into an ecology consultant.

“Slow down, what are you saying? No, absolutely not, that file hasn't been checked yet! I don't think their water system was passed… Yes, it's a wind power project, so the water system isn't important, but it's still the law… Are they trying to make you rush it through? Ah, they drive me mad, these people, thinking we can rewrite the rules to suit them… OK… Listen, it's Saturday, calm down. The world is not going to come to an end between now and Monday, and if it does, frankly, no one will care about this wind project anymore anyway—so just breathe. We can go through it together early on Monday morning if you like… See you at seven then? Yeah, you'll have to pay me back for getting me up at the crack of dawn though… Um, I don't know… A pineapple juice?… Yes, with pleasure!”

Thibault starts laughing. It's the most glorious sound I've ever heard. In my head, I start trying to draw the sound to see what it looks like. It reminds me of a flame flickering, or a pair of golden wings, flapping up and down with the sound of his voice. With each new burst of laughter, they flap away some of the blackness from around me, and everything lightens a little. When his laughter stops I hang on to the glow of those wings for as long as I can.

He speaks: “Monday at seven it is!”

He hangs up and his fingers make a tapping sound on the phone for a moment.

“There, it's off. It won't disturb us again. Well, it won't disturb
me
again.”

I hear him put the phone into a pocket of his jacket and sit back down in the plastic chair.

“They're not very comfortable, are they, these chairs? They ought to put something a bit more upholstered in here. I don't suppose you care one way or another, but for the people who come to visit you it would be better. Maybe they'd stay a bit longer.”

That's not such a bad idea. But I doubt he'll get around to suggesting it to the hospital staff.

“I'm sure if you were sitting here you'd say the same. You can try it out one day, if you like. When you're back on your feet. I have no idea how I managed to fall asleep on this thing last time!”

He slides down the chair and puts his feet on my covers. A few moments later, he is breathing deeply. How does he get to sleep so quickly? What a marvelous talent—to fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow every night! Or maybe it's not like that, perhaps he doesn't sleep at night at all and that's why he makes up for it in the afternoons in people's hospital rooms.

I spend a long time listening to him breathe.

I listen to the wind, too. There must be a tree not far from my bedroom window. My sister described the color of the autumn leaves to me once. Perhaps those same leaves are falling now. I'd love to be able to hear the noises on the ground and the conversations down below as well, but I'm on the fifth floor. I'd even love to hear the traffic, or the sound of car horns beeping, but everyone must know that it's illegal to beep your horn near a hospital.

BOOK: I'm Still Here (Je Suis Là)
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