... I entered in Doctor Maxim Schmidt's life like a whore. Several empty months had passed since that foggy November night, and nothing had really happened. My obsession with Maxim would grow stronger with the passing days, but there was no tangible issue to this torment. I used to give up going out, secluded in my room, smoking cigarette after cigarette, letting my mind wander in reclusion. I could no longer stand even Viviane, somehow, unconsciously holding her responsible for my misfortune.
"I'm so happy you've finally decided to break up with Pierre. Not that I was worried, but, you could have never been happy with a man like him," Mother used to tell me. "But still, you need to go out, enjoy life, and see people. How do you expect to meet anyone in the solitude of your own room?"
"I don't know, Mother. I don't know; one day it will happen, just like that, I feel it."
How could I have confessed my imaginary passion, a tormenting love for someone who was completely ignoring my feelings? It was so absurd, and I adamantly chose to continue living in the absurd. Certainly, I could have phoned him. I had often dialed his phone number, and each time, I would hang up. What could I possibly tell him? I loved him and I listened to the love within me call out to him, go up to him, speak to him. I listened without making any move, waiting, my mind aching and empty. Against all odds, I decided to wait. I would ignore for how long, indefinitely. I was just waiting in resignation, solitarily bearing the yoke of an absurd obsession. Yet, the days passed. I was gaining time or wasting life. I did not know where I was anymore....
One day, it was spring again, the streets exulting with that unique sensuous scent of renewal one can breathe only in Paris. One could already feel it in every fragrance in the air, in every gleam of light on the Seine, one could already sense that familiar smell of dust, trees and soil preceding the arrival of summer. So tired after an exhausting linguistic exam, I was leisurely sitting at a table in a café on the sidewalk, in the heart of Latin Quarter, when suddenly, I caught sight of him, standing there on the opposite sidewalk, talking to another man, and my heart started crazily pounding. I was beginning to feel carried away by excitement, an excitement I knew to be dangerous, but which I was powerless to stem. In a movement as fluid and graceful as that of a panther chasing its prey, I instantly left the table, crossed the narrow street, hesitantly approaching them, without any visible intention to stop, seemingly pursuing my own solitary walk. He saw me, waived his hand, hailing me, "Hey, Ondine, don't go, please, wait for one moment, don't go, I'll be over in a second." I stopped, feigning surprise, and waited. One minute later, he joined me.
"How are you? What have you been doing? Nice to see you again."
He was talking so casually, as if it were barely a couple of days ago that we last saw one another.
"I'm doing fine. I've just passed a horrid exam, and I am heading home," I said while I could feel my heart beating so hard, every second growing more agitated, sending my blood in powerful bursts to the furthest niches of my body.
"Do you have a moment? Let's go and have coffee. Would you like coming to my apartment? I live near-by," he said, smiling with his almond-shaped eyes, his eyes wrapping me up in a caressing smile filtered through the thick eyelashes of his golden brown eyes. I knew exactly where his apartment was, but I was not going to unveil such knowledge.
"Why not? Let's go," I heard myself answering, without reticence, audaciously looking straight into his eyes, while my heart kept pounding all the way down to his apartment. We strolled, side by side, in such heavy silence, like two resigned prisoners whose sentences had already been sealed by predestination, without judgment, categorically and without appeal. His apartment was in total disorder; books, clothes, empty plates and mugs, filled ashtrays spread out everywhere; its sight made me smile, instantly reminding me of Christophe's room. He kept busy finding some clean coffee mugs and hastily prepared an instant coffee, which we started sipping while still standing. He quietly approached, his velvety eyes embracing me with such an impatient non-dissimulated desire, and without any other preliminary invitation, his left-hand fingers touched my hair, gently lifting it and firmly holding it up on top of my head, thus, revealing the nape of my neck, and making me feel as though my entire body had been instantly denuded.
My heart was beating as crazy as a swallow bird hopelessly fighting to escape the prison of a cage. I was being touched only by his eyes. After some seemingly endless moments, the fingers of his other hand lightly caressed my neck, shortly after, squeezing the tips of my ears, as if assessing them, and gently touching my lips, spreading them apart, as one of his fingers was now penetrating my mouth, so softly feeling its inside. His fingers adroitly descended then on my body, unbuttoning my blouse, so delicately, in a precisely controlled movement, unveiling my nipples, and his eyes were now admiring their ivory bareness while his fingers instantly retracted. Still holding my hair lifted, his hand expertly pulled off my other attire; my body was now offering its nakedness to his golden brown sparkling eyes. So satisfied by what his skilled hands had just unveiled, similar to an artist admiring his masterpiece, he stepped back, and contemplated me in silence, for long moments, as though I were a living statue; a feeling of sweet submission mixed with embarrassment made me lower my eyes. Unable to meet his gaze, I could have knelt right there in front of him. I heard a soft intake of breath, and his fingers gently circled my nipples one by one, bringing the nubs to hard, tight peaks, making me squirm with desire. He was taking control over my body before anything really happened, and I felt I could abandon myself to pure pleasure just from the thought of what he had done already. In a swift sudden movement, he let my hair go, his hand brutally pushing me toward his body. The feel of his slacks between my bare thighs was wild and powerfully sensual. His lips were avidly kissing my forehead, my cheeks, then touching lightly my mouth, and he tasted of the intoxicating flavor of pure male. His kiss was hard, almost brutal; as I was contemplating this handsome, sensitive face floating just above mine, I knew without the shadow of a doubt that I would see it again, many times just like this, and I knew that from that moment on, I would be hopelessly lost in his hands. My lips joined his, willingly abandoning themselves in my months-long daydreaming, which abruptly, without notice, on a spring day, became reality...
...I loved him unconditionally. I often thought I always knew that our "meeting by chance" in the heart of Latin Quarter had been there, out there, from somewhere beyond reason, from a kind of awareness our bodies had had of their desire, and our bodies no longer denied themselves anything. They had become lovers, and we were simply gratifying their longing, metamorphosing into two anonymous lovers in Paris. And Paris was ours...
... A fine drizzle is falling. Tiny chilly raindrops are caressing my skin, and I am sweating. It rains almost everyday. Rain and sun are like capricious moods of love, changing every moment, taking you by surprise, wrapping you up in their unstable charm, so sensuously unique in spring, in Paris. I suddenly come back to reality, realizing I have been sitting for hours, at the table in this café on the sidewalk in Latin Quarter, where my life began, blindly gazing at the passers-by so indifferently and chaotically strolling in all directions, without seeing them, my eyes watching the film of my memories. This sweat, mercilessly saturating my entire body, from my forehead to my toes, is a malicious sweat. It is a symptom of my illness, and I can make the difference now between a common sweat and a malicious one. A feeling of soft dizziness immediately follows the malicious sweat, all around me becoming like transparent; I feel like floating, and then, an intense fatigue follows, as deep as death itself. I need to wait for it to fade away and only after will I be able to move, find my car parked somewhere in one of the narrow streets and drive home.
"No soliciting allowed in this building," the concierge cries from the darkness of her tiny concierge flat. I'm checking our mailbox. I abruptly turn around taken by surprise.
"Oh, God, Mrs. Schmidt, I'm so sorry. I do apologize. I haven't recognized you. You seem eighteen from behind. And this short hair-do makes you look so young, I'm so sorry."
Everyone agrees that my new hair-do makes me look younger, charmingly outlining my face features, with Maxim's exception. "I miss your long hair. You shouldn't have had it cut." Upon hearing his remark, I was tempted to correct him, "You shouldn't have cut my long hair." What do I still possess of my body and soul, of myself as a human person, after all? Not much... my illness.
"That's fine, Mrs. Delmotte. You are complimenting me. Thank you."
"You look so young Mrs. Schmidt, you certainly do. The doctor should be proud of having such a young wife. By the way, I was just going to call your apartment. Monsieur le Docteur is already upstairs and there is a delivery for you, these gorgeous flowers and huge chocolate box, from another happy patient I suppose?"
"Don't bother, Mrs. Delmotte, just keep and enjoy them, please do." She looks outrageously surprised at such unexpected generosity. She nods a silent thank you.
Thus, Maxim is already at home, so unusual; it is not that late. I find him sitting in the semi-darkness of our living-room, solitarily smoking, the ashtray full of cigarette butts. His profile, as reflected against the pale late afternoon light, seems lifeless and drawn. His haggard eyes staring into the void seem filled with fatigue and anguish.
"Maxim, what's wrong?"
"Jérôme just called."
He seems to hesitate, prey to an inner debate. Then, almost breathlessly, he lets it go. "Ondine, it was horrible, I never thought... there was no way of knowing. She has been my patient for years, she seemed happy, this was her third pregnancy... when they brought her in, it was already late. I could do nothing... she was in her fourth month, didn't want the child, subsequently provoked her miscarriage, and deliberately waited until she lost too much blood... she was so frail, while watching her, I could not help thinking of you, in Venice, my terrifying anguish driving nonstop there, to find you.... I never thought she was so depressed." He lights another cigarette.
"You mean... she died during the operation? Maxim, she may not have been depressed. She might have had the illness of death deeply inside of her." I suddenly feel a soft tenderness toward a humiliated god overtly in the grip of human pain, letting raw suffering ravaging his usually well-contained face. A maternal-like feeling melts my heart. I try to console him.
"You've never told me you were so frightened, in Venice."
"Do I need words to explain my feelings?"
"Yes, sometimes spoken words are more than important; they are vital. But you are too proud to let the words unveil your feelings. Their sound on your lips is humiliating for you... you've never told me openly you loved me."
"What do you mean?" he asks, his eyes glancing at me in bewilderment.
"Remember our first years. I used to crawl and beg your lips to say, 'I love you.'"
"Ondine, you are a glutton of love. I loved you more than anything ever since our first encounters. I simply couldn't let myself driven by a dream. Had you been sure about my feelings, you might have started cruelly playing with me, and I wasn't ready for such a game. I had no time," he objects in a somehow disconcerted tone.
"Now you talk like an arrogant god. This is you. You've kept me in incertitude for years. I've kept doubting about myself, you've emptied me of my forces, devouring my entirety, bending my will. I've never been sure whether you decided to marry me for love, or because I was Father's daughter, or for both, which, however, invalidates the first option. I've nothing left, Maxim. I am void... I am void, like your patient. I suffer from the illness of death."
"Ondine, you are mine. I do love you." He tries to reassure me. For a second, my face silently stares at him with a blank expression. His voice, his lips and the words of love, words that in these moments of intense distress I have forgotten existed, as if his words were coming from far away, from too far away. In the past, whenever I looked at Maxim, I saw the whole world through him, but now I am seeing only him.
"Yes, your love owned me. You possessed me, first my body, then my soul, and then my thoughts. I've totally surrendered to you up to being in danger of suffocation... but not my shadows, they are still there intact, amalgamated with my doubts, the unconquerable strength of my unrivaled weakness. Maxim, I hate you."
We look at each other, in silence, hesitantly, as though suddenly discovering ourselves. Our life, our love, our past, our present, our future, never have I said "I". Yet, Maxim could disengage himself. He could withdraw within the borders of his own world, which he passionately enjoyed, he could freely determine his own decisions while I remained behind, separated from him, separated from everyone and without a link to myself, finding in this abandonment no true loneliness except for the solitude of my illness, my newly found, silent companion. Maxim's questioning eyes are so powerful, so heavily appealing that I actually feel aroused, in spite of my will, as I haven't been for years.
"It's your illness that makes you feel like that... by the way, you saw Doctor Veil today. What did she say?" His voice is full of concern.
"She had nothing to say. What could she possibly say about the illness of death? I may not see her again... or, she may not want to see me again."
"What are you talking about? Do I need to call her? Are you aware she is the best specialist this country has in her field? People are on a waiting list for weeks and months just to be seen by her... and... and, you won't see her anymore?" His tone gets slightly irritated. He frowns.
"Poor Maxim, you don't seem to get it. Your logic is so unequivocal, clear, polished, complete, like the burning rays of the sun... I suffer from the illness of death; she is no specialist in this disease."
He brutally grabs my wrists. He touches where my heart is. The beat seems different, more distant, nonetheless regular. He moves his body close to my body, touching it, as though assessing an object, my body that is still warm, alive.
"Maxim, I've learned not to care anymore. I don't love anything or anyone. I supremely hate myself, all I know is the appeal of the bodies of the dead, the appeal of those like me."
"You're depressed. You don't know what you are talking about.... Ondine, come back to reality."
"What is reality, Maxim? What reality? Do you mean my new reality? I need to think. I need to be left alone, for once in my life. I need to decide on my own. Maxim, I've already warned you, stay out of it. This is out of your control. You can't impose life as you can't stop the tide of the ocean. My death has already begun."
"Ondine, please, let's not talk about this anymore. Let it be, for the moment. Let's go dine out, just forget about everything. Let's find a restaurant, a quiet, out-of-the-way place, and maybe later, let's go dancing... let's just forget about everything. Tomorrow is another day."
Imperceptibly, the room is being filled with the dark light of the falling evening, our profiles reflected as shadows on the walls...
"The conclusion? What conclusion? I don't know. I don't know if there is any conclusion.... There were phases in my life, like in any woman's life, certainly, there was my metamorphosis in doubts, and my transition from the passionate, selfish lover — the age of irresponsibility, yes, white jury, from the age of irresponsibility to the married woman — the age of adjustment, and then, to the mother — the age of painful liability. A woman's heart is so intricate, full of mystery; a wife is the earth itself, ever changing, bearing scars."
"What about yourself?" the white-collared-cliff jury persists in an uncompassionate tone.
"Myself? What are you implying here? That I haven't had a life of my own? That I am alone now? This is your conclusion?" I'm all at once getting irritated. "Myself? Do you mean my inner self? It has always been there, bound to the outer self. They were one piece, glued together through my will and acceptance... until recently, when the walls of the entire concrete edifice have collapsed. I was not going to dig it out. I was going to leave my inner self there, dormant at the shelter of those concrete walls. I was even planning to remodel our apartment, or let's put it this way, take time to achieve its interior decoration, a huge endeavor I've started some twenty years ago, and never finished ever since," I retort in a harsh tone...
...I wish, Maxim abandoned his suit of armor, letting his lips free to murmur what I've been longing to hear, it seems, for ages, 'I'm calling you Ondine, because I do miss you and love you more than anything in this world. Let's run away together, somewhere in the mountains, alone, cut off from the world, just you and I. I'm going to put the clinic key under the doormat, and we're going to fly far away, just you and I, in a world of our own.' As I am climbing the sinuous rocky path leading to the peak where the car is parked, breathing heavily, my body and clothes soaked in a chilling sweat, I get more and more irritated. There is no such option for Maxim and I. In a few days, I have an appointment with Doctor Veil. She is going to dismiss me, this, I know, and I can picture the scenario following after. Maxim is not going to knock at another doctor's office; he will call her, or will go see her in person at her office, and using his charm and the supreme argument of their fraternity will convince her to take me back as her patient, solemnly promising I will take the medications as prescribed; he will personally be held responsible for. She is the best we have in her area of expertise; he trusts her; he is not going to waste precious time with my perpetual introspection and depression. His reasoning is flawless. As this scenario develops in my weary mind, I feel even more aggravated. I feel defeated. I finally reach the car, trembling from exhaustion and mental distress, and before turning the ignition on, I open my purse, take out the notebook Doctor Veil gave me, and on its blank pages, as brilliant white as the first snow in winter, on the very first up to the last, I am writing in big black bold capital letters, EXIT, my statement. Upon which, one minute later, I am driving down the highway toward Paris, listening to a piano concerto on Maxim's car radio. Is it Tchaikovsky, Brahms or Beethoven? Certainly, some romantic, but which one? I remember having listened to this piece of music so many times, and I know sometimes I was miserable, other times so happy in those periods of my life, and this piece of music stuck to my suffering or to my cheerfulness like a decal. But this detail holds no more importance, none. I've forgotten who caused me sadness or joy. I feel perfectly calm. Drained.
...As soon as I stepped into her office, I ostentatiously placed the notebook on her desk. Today she is wearing her white coat; I've never seen her wearing it before, and this insignificant detail seems to infuse something official to the general atmosphere, for some obscure reason, making me feel even more uncomfortable. The windows in her office are wide open; a slanting ray of sun is flooding her desk brightly focusing on the notebook. She is not glancing at me; I can't see her look; I'm unable to read anything in her thoughts. My heart is heavily pounding. I've been seeing her for two months, and we are still at square one. She hasn't touched the notebook yet, she is reading my blood counts. Then, slowly, still so silent, she reaches the notebook, opens it, hesitates for a brief moment, leans back as trying to avoid the disrespectful ray of the sun, my heartbeats grow faster and faster, an anxious sweat submerges me, then she straightens her back, starts turning the pages, one-by-one up to the very last, before disregarding and casually letting it disappear into the trash basket under her desk. Now, she is looking at me, the insolent sunbeam streaming through the window becoming a translucent barrier, imposing a separation, like a neutral territory between us. Her gaze transpierces through the sunlit misty barrier, and finally, acknowledging my presence, she glances at me as though surprised by me still being there; I boldly return her glance, looking squarely into her eyes through the slanting sunbeam. I'm prepared for the blow. I'm resigned. Within a split second, I'll be a dismissed patient. She leans back into the hollow of her chair, into the shadow, clears her voice, still affixing my eyes, and then slightly leans forward, "Ondine...," I hear her say. It is the first time she calls me by my first name, and I can't help wondering why she would do this now, when she is going to dismiss me. The sunbeam is glowing through her hair.
"Ondine...," the intonation of her voice is so calm, almost melodious, softly inviting me to surrender.
"I know, Doctor Veil," I hear myself saying, "I know, you are going to...," I hesitantly try to fill in the blank of her phrase, leaving my thoughts in suspension, waving my hand in resignation.
"Ondine...," she leans forward a little more thus breaking the bright hazy border, penetrating the neutral territory before imperturbably resuming the flow of her mind. "Ondine, I've decided to change treatment strategy with you, and this effective today, right away," she says while I'm dumbfounded. I am squinting my eyes. Now, the bright sunbeam is blinding. I feel clouds of tears sticking to my eyelashes, blurring my sight, and I don't care, letting them flow freely on my cheeks, and instantly, a compulsive nervous laughter overtakes me. I'm crying and laughing, all at once.
"Ondine, I never give up. It's not in my nature.... I've never abandoned a combat; abandoning before fighting is inconceivable for me," she says, leaning back in her chair, retracting into the shadow. She is not asking if I have any questions. She nonchalantly opens the drawer of her desk, pulls out a brand new notebook, and serenely hands it over to me, without any other words. Match point. I silently slide it into my purse. I have become the patient.
...These past months, like a bird building its nest, I accumulated insignificant incidents bit by bit, I have forbidden myself both hope and fear passively letting myself be molded into the patient. Doctor's Veil new strategy consists in administering the treatment intravenously, at the center, as a course of treatments over a few months; four days a week, my body receives the chemotherapy, followed by three weeks of rest, the pause between treatments allowing my body to recover from any side effects. Normal cells usually repair the damage from chemotherapy more effectively than cancer cells, so, damage to cancer cells should progressively build up without causing permanent damage to normal cells. I do not ask Doctor Veil any questions and as though respecting a tacit agreement between us, she is no longer asking me if I have any questions.
...A nurse, with deep brown circles under her eyes, expertly inserts a drip into my vein, which will slowly pour the drug into my bloodstream. After the four-day treatment the drip will be removed, and inserted again the next time. I study her face. She seems tired, drawn, without enthusiasm, melting with the general reigning apathy; my mind plays the impossible game of trying to guess her inner secrets - maybe her husband cheats on her, maybe he drinks, or maybe she has financial problems, maybe her own body is sore. Who knows? She seems to belong to this place where the same monotonous gestures are repeated all day long, the same days all year long, without anything ever happening, with the exception that some passengers will regularly return, while others will silently disembark, never to come back. We are in the antechamber of death.
... Adjusting to the disease was at first unbearable. My world collapsed, the
entire arrangement of my existence disrupted. Long years of ordinary peaceful life disappeared engulfed in the night. Shortly after having begun the treatment, for some endless days, I lived and went about feeling like someone wearing a permanent gas mask. It was as though a skin of tight, hostile rubber enclosed my head. The gas mask was driving me mad; it made me feel weaker than I really was, it made me feel I was engaged in a futile endeavor, making me wish I abandoned. The gas mask was absolutely unbearable, especially in seeing Maxim everyday, in the efforts I was making to answer his questions about the treatment, in facing his concern about how I was feeling, in my desire to lessen in his presence the side effects tormenting my body. The thoughts about our encapsulated past, now so far away, were hurting me. The gas mask was suffocating me, feeling its oppressive pressure in our daily gestures, in the cozy intimacy within the walls of our apartment, surrounded by the pieces of furniture and my own clothes, in every detail of my former ordinary life, and above all, I could not let my depression free, which I ceased calling the illness of death. I was calling it now plainly depression. Therefore, one day, I resolutely took the decision to tear the gas mask off. And I did tear it off, by moving out. Doctor Veil seemed to have not been the only one who had understood my visceral reticence in sharing the disease with anyone else, my need of solitude in moments of extreme anxiety. Maxim, whose reaction, I did fear, instantly understood as well. He made no opposition, none. I rented an apartment in Latin Quarter where I moved in, leaving my whole life behind, clothing included...
..."Take your clothes off," his hoarse voice commanded as soon as we had retired. I was still amused, perplexed, as threatened by this intense young man. I was also tempted. My body seemed to like the sound of this; it was mad, wild, dramatic. Alexeï's face was shadowed by a nameless anguish, and a sudden silence was embracing us. The hands obeyed, striping the body naked. The soul was contemplating. When the body displayed its nudity, he stretched out a hand, took my jaw in his fingers, and angled it towards the light, and then his fingers were caressing me, turning my body all around, examining it in different positions, under all its angles.
"You really couldn't be better built, almost too virginal, too aristocratic," he said, pushing me to the ground, as he knelt over me unbuttoning his trousers. All happened extremely fast. It was urgent and primitive, a thing of hunger and instinct. He took me at once, without finesse, no shyness, no hesitation. It was over rather quickly and, all at once, flushed, burning with fever, I rose in a quick, single motion. The pleasure my body just felt in that hideous sensuality, in degradation, scared me. "What the hell am I doing here?" I suddenly asked myself, looking around me with an astonishment that almost felt like physical pain. Escape.... I had to escape. I couldn't stay there another moment. I couldn't connect my presence in this place with anything real, or possible. I hadn't the slightest idea such as what had brought me there and this very fact filled me with a wild desire for liberty. I rushed out... outside, it was a full moon, and the mad agitation in the streets of Paris was still so intense....
The idea of returning to my apartment and finding everything, as it was, seemed utterly impossible. I walked faster and faster, paying no attention to where I was going, as though a mere multiplication of steps would serve to place an increasingly impassable space between my apartment and myself. I walked on, through the agitation of the night, the demons were still set free, the police car sirens were incessantly blowing, the electricity in the crazy night was engulfing me, feeling like a hunted animal trying to escape being wounded by its mad career. Exhaustion finally stopped me. Seeking the shadows, I leaned against a wall. I was overcome with fatigue. My real agony was rising to the surface. Despite all efforts to suppress it, I knew that nothing really mattered anymore. Who would give me the key to the puzzle of why I had been in that place that evening? Those were my thoughts in the cab taking me home.
... Once in the secure atmosphere of my apartment, I frantically took off my clothes, washed my body time and again, and scrubbed my face until it hurt. I would have liked to change my skin. I felt so dirty. It was all I could do not to light a fire and burn my two-piece English wool suit and underclothes, feeling as if I had committed a crime....
... As days were going by, I gradually felt no longer perturbed about the seal I had deliberately placed on my new existence, on my double life, seeking for a balance between these two necessities; I was no longer disturbed by the recognition of the fatal divorce between my former existence and myself.
...Within half an hour after I called the paramedics, the emergency medical team, the coroner, and the police officer arrived, and I found myself in the grips of the legal procedure. Detachment. Professionalism. Precise routine. Efficiency. Solange was no longer a human person, she was an inanimate object, a dead body; a corpse no longer means anything and the formalities dealing with a corpse had to be fulfilled without hesitation, without waste of time. Yet, it was her flesh, her bones, and for some time, still, her face. The medical team was quick and efficient — Solange was declared dead. The coroner was proficient too, established the cause of death without difficulty, suicide by morphine overdose, took blood samples for the lab for corroboration, stripped her naked, methodically examined her body, turned it on all sides, took photos... and the sight of Solange's body indifferent acquiescence to being turned and manipulated by professional hands, perfectly in the ordinary course of the modus operandi, filled me with an uneasy repulsion... but, her restored beauty and recovered smile on her frozen, livid face expressed her inner harmony and, on this deathbed, a kind of happiness; she was at last free; she had tamed the transition between the presence and the void. Shortly after, I was being thoroughly questioned; the police officer took his time.
"What is your name, Ma'am?" the officer inquired, making visible efforts to keep from yawning, as he was fi lling out the report on his laptop. This time, I was being keyed into the judicial and not the medical system.
"Ondine, what? What is your full name, Ma'am?"
"Ondine... Ondine de Wallès."
"What is your relation with the deceased?"
"Friend... we were friends." And all the standard questions about age, date of birth, address, imperturbably followed.
"Ma'am," he finally seemed to have reached the end of the procedure, "the deceased committed suicide; you were present when it happened, you may wish to keep yourself available; the republic prosecutor may want to talk to you," he said, and left with an attitude of silent, proud dignity.
Then the undertaker's men came, two gentlemen in black. They put her in a huge black body bag, zipped it up and took her away. The bed was now empty. The walls, the window and its curtains, the lamps, the pieces of furniture, everything was in its place, and on the whiteness of the sheets, there was nothing. As I looked at her purse, dressing gown, glasses, slippers, and other objects scattered throughout the room, emotion rose up in me. We all know the power of things; life seems solidified in them, more immediately present than in any of its instants. They lay there, orphaned, useless, patiently waiting to turn into garbage.... I did not have to ask myself questions about the funeral. In a notebook, I found in the drawer of her night table, my eyes read two lines on a thin piece of paper, written by Solange in a hand as sure and firm as when she was young and healthy, "I would like a very simple funeral. No flowers or wreaths. No prayers." I always felt I knew what Solange wanted and kept to that...
...Weeks, months passed by, and my life was crazily spiraling. Never before had I been busier. I was no longer thinking of my own future suspended in uncertainty, I was no longer weary of existing through months of days without tomorrows. I was re-creating my life each morning, each evening, each hour. I, who for so long a time had fought the ripening of the illness of death inside my soul and body, was now feeling as nourishing as bread, as fragrant as earth. It was so miraculous that I didn't think of measuring my time, my efforts or my pleasure in working hours on end. I knew only that before I fell asleep, I could hear the gentle chirping of the awakening dawn. I was feeling as though my whole life had been one long illness from which I was just beginning to recover. It was so exciting that if the sun had stopped in the middle of the sky, eternity would have slipped by without me noticing it...
...Upon my return to Paris, a shocking album, Born without Future, impudently displaying on glossy paper the terrifying hopelessness in hundreds and hundreds of eyes and faces of children and teenagers suffering from AIDS, was to see the light of the day under Antoine's constant editorial guidance. Their eyes had the look of those who had seen all there was to see in the cruelty and the violence of human experience. Their eyes were shadowed with creases of infinite sadness. A cry of profound tragedy seemed to come from their heartbreaking eyes, as if they were voicing a silent plea from the other side of the abyss, a look from the eternal. Upon completing the album, I painfully and irremediably understood that the pattern of our essential self is woven by the threads of all that we have desired and loved, of all that we have done, believed, thought, felt, and willed, since we were born. As long as we breathe, those threads continue to weave and reweave the patterns of the person you are. It is a process and there is no escape from this process. It goes on whether we recognize or deny it. Most of the processes remain hidden in the depths of the unconscious. At the core of the process, there is an essential "I" that for some is continuously evolving in response to the impact of daily experience... and for me, through the unexpected occurrence of my incurable illness, which had collapsed the walls of my ordered, patterned life, the process would not stagnate in my inmost depths, in my unconscious.... I was emerging from the tiny eggshell, from the tiny corner of my world. I was awakening....
... We were close to the border. There we were, at dawn. In desert terms, we were right on the porch of salvation. On high points and rises, we could actually see the peaks on the other side. It was incredible what we had accomplished. Considering the exhaustion we were in when we started, it seemed almost impossible that we made it so far so fast. I noticed that Juanita had remained behind. She was sitting on a rocky rise, silently crying. I approached and urged her, "Juanita, what's the matter? Come on, we are almost there." Tears were flooding her eyes.
"I can't," she kept crying.
The other side meant freeway, and freeway meant rest area, and rest area meant water, sparkling sodas, hot dogs, burgers, burritos, the end of darkness, the beginning of light.
"You can make it," I said.
But, Juanita couldn't.
"I'm going to rest... right here... right here," she said in a low voice, still crying.
In that moment, I perceived dark red blood leaking out from her and staining the soil. "John... John," I instantly cried. The group stopped, hesitated for a brief moment, walked back, approached, and gathered in a circle around us. Blood was pouring out of her exhausted body.
"She can't go anywhere," the coyote said, "there's nothing we can do, her journey ends here." The whole group kept silent.
"John, we can't leave her here, we can't, please."
"Ondine, there's nothing you can do, or nothing much we can do — there's no way back and there's no way forward," he said in a dry voice. His cheeks were pale and you could still sense the cold night air in his hair. His face was tense.
"I will not abandon her here, I will not." I rebelled. I cried. I protested. And my voice dried up in my throat.
They left. Leaving behind their blankets and coats, water, food, whatever they were carrying, orphaned objects they would no longer need, solitarily surrounding now Juanita. For them the dream was alive, for Juanita it became nothingness. I watched as they strode off; their walk was dignified and yet so uncertain. I remained behind. John was supposed to come back with help. He would have to cross the border back, and rescue us. Hours went by. The sun was above, and we were surrounded by silence, the entire world seemed to have disappeared, engulfed in silence, and I could hear the earth breathing, its heart pulsating and thought, "Far away in the cities, people are waking up, or preparing to go to sleep. What time is it in New York? The Parisians are still dozing before affronting another day, and here we are cut off from the entire planet, somewhere in the stillness of nowhere, Juanita and I."
"Alberto told me to wait, but I wouldn't listen.... I wanted my baby to come to life in a white, clean room, in a clinic," she suddenly said.
"Don't worry, Juanita, we're going to make it."
"Alberto will find another woman, he will have other children," she murmured grabbing my hand with gratitude. "You should have gone with them."
I bowed my head without answering and the burning silence of the desert closed in on us like a trap. Her body was cold, and I felt that coldness as keenly as if I had touched a corpse with my hand. Her face was yellow and shriveled. All at once, she plunged in a sort of torpor. She closed her eyes; after a moment, she seemed to have fallen asleep, but she was weeping as she slept. "Her breathing is slowing down," I thought. Her blood was pouring out, darkening the soil beneath and the heartbreaking silence was wrapping us. I was sitting by her, trembling and audibly breathing, with such a terrible mixture of defiance and humiliation in my soul. I sensed once more, so intensely, the presence of Death; it was there with us, with its macabre grin on its face. This time I tried to bargain, to defy it, "Go away Death, go away. Let Juanita's life, go away Death." How powerless I was and how humiliated and revolted, I felt. That pure feeling of helplessness and impotence was suffocating, unbearable.
"I'm not afraid of dying," Juanita whispered. "Ondine, you look worried, don't be worried, I'm not afraid. My God's waiting for me, he'll take care of me and my baby, so don't you be afraid, he is taking us home." I took her hand and squeezed it tightly. How I longed to be able to say to her, "You can still hold out for a long time, and rescue will be here soon." She was so calm and quiet while my mind was racing in a thousand directions. I had repeatedly called John on his cell, and had no answer; I was worried, I was uncertain whether they succeeded in their endeavor, or got caught, and Death was there with us, now meticulously sharpening its scythe. I was searching the sky above hoping to catch sight of a border patrol helicopter, to no avail; the skies were intense azure, cloudless, the skies were a hopelessly barren expanse, a blue desert above the yellow brownish desert.
The coma came up from the ground and slowly covered her. Death was wrapping her up, spreading its shroud over her. I slipped my hands beneath her clothes, and began, slowly, then vigorously, rubbing her icy body. West and east, north and south, the desert sprawled around, and I imagined Juanita's sleep full of visions of false villages with empty houses, ghostly curtains blowing from empty windows. Death caught her clothing and then her body, and she would never be awake out of her sleep. The battle was finished. "Is this the pattern of life?" I bitterly thought. Letting things happen and taking them with resignation? Most assuredly, others had died before in this desert. As long as there had been people, there had been deaths in this desert. Desert spirits of a dark and mysterious nature had always traveled across its trails. But, I was feeling crushed. Suddenly, I began to weep and at that moment, I was the enemy of all friendly feelings.
"John, bring no gurney, just bring along a shovel," I said in a defeated voice when I finally got hold of him.
Yellow dirt and sickly weeds. We buried her at the foot of a rocky rise and carved out two small wooden crosses. Her tomb stood in the middle of nowhere, a dried mound of dirt among other rocky rises, taking up no more space under the infinite sky than the precise dimensions of a grave. This was where Juanita's journey ended. I would forever drag behind me the red sun, the cloudless sapphire sky and the hateful cold solitude of the desert..."