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.