from Quand les guêpes se taisent
by Stéphanie Pelletier
A moan escaped your lips, then you pulled out. You peeled off the condom and collapsed next to me. I didn’t come. It would have been too complicated, taken too long. Because I hadn’t shown you what to do. And because we were afraid we’d get caught in the act. By my boyfriend. Or by a call from your wife on your cell, which you’d left switched on so as not to arouse suspicion. But I’d locked away your orgasm. I liked to think that every time a man came inside me, he was surrendering a piece of himself to me. I stored those precious moments away in my memory. I catalogued every detail. I loved that noise you made, like those few seconds were both unbearable and pleasurable at the same time. And your face. There’s nothing more beautiful than the look of desire, the look of sexual release on a man’s face. Contorted, radiant. To this day, there’s still a tiny piece of your soul tucked away in my belly.
I laid my head on your chest. I breathed you in. That smell of you. It inhabited me. Sweat, soap, some kind of mystery spice. I was no more than one body appended to another. You stroked my hips, then my thighs. It was like some kind of oil flowed from your fingers. When you touched me, I could no longer tell where you ended and I began. Then you stopped. I took your hands and guided them back to my bum, laughing all the while. We kissed, a conversation of tongues and sighs. You plunged a finger deep inside me. A sudden shock, and my body was turned inside out. If our story hadn’t ended there, we might’ve gone on wanting one another until we disappeared into eternity.
“I guess we’d better go eat our dessert!”
I didn’t have time to catch hold of you before you were already up. Gorgeous. Naked. You looked at me.
“I’m taking a mental picture, so I’ll never forget this sight.”
You remarked on my collection of moments-to-last-a-lifetime. You said you thought it was a charming expression, that this was one of those moments. I agreed with you.
That was the last time we would make love. I didn’t know it then. We broke up after that because you got scared. That was six years ago today; I wrote the exact date in my journal. We’d kept on seeing each other. As friends, because we couldn’t have it any other way. Because it was too powerful for us to resist.
Sitting in my Subaru, I stare straight ahead. I can’t convince myself to get out. I’m hot. The May sun is streaming in through the windows and it’s making me sweat. I shouldn’t have worn my red coat. I’ll take it off when I get out. I’m suffocating. I know it’s cooler outside. I can hear the birds chirping. The sound is muffled by the car windows. It’s almost surreal. I don’t want to open the door. I refuse to budge. By denying that my life is carrying on, I might be able to stop time. Sacrifice my life to delay the fatal course of your own.
My heart stops. I see your wife and kids leaving the hospital. She looks exhausted. Her salt-and-pepper hair is a tangled mess. Your son must be about eighteen. He’s not very tall for his age. His face gives me the creeps. Your features, but misshapen, tainted. I’ve always liked your daughters better. Because they’re girls. It feels less like I’m looking at altered versions of you. The four of them—united by the wasting away of a body that symbolizes human suffering—turn the corner leading to Rue Rouleau and disappear.
Now it’s my turn. If I want to be able to steal a few moments alone with you before you die. There it is. That thing that makes no sense. You were diagnosed six months ago: bone cancer. And now you’re dying.
In the lobby, I stop for a squirt of hand sanitizer. It smells disgusting. The obedient child in me is still alive and kicking, even though I rejected the tale of Little Red Riding Hood a long time ago. I ask the security guard for your room number.
B-4311. Your name. Palliative Care. Words that don’t belong in the same sentence together. No, just no.
The sound of my heels echoes through the corridor. I tried to look perfect for you. Your favourite dress: a red wrap number printed with the flowers of Venezuela. My perfume. My eyes rimmed in black. My lace underwear. The black, boy-cut ones you used to love. I know you’ll never see them again. But I’ll know I have them on, and that helps me believe you’d be able to picture them more clearly. So stupid! You couldn’t care less. You’re dying. You’re alone. You’re scared. I’m on my way to see the man I’ve loved for more than fifteen years. He’s alone and frightened. And like an idiot, I’m thinking about my panties. It’s just a distraction. Because I can’t get my head around it, the thought that you might die. I reject it as I would a dead rat transplanted where my heart should be.
Suddenly, it’s right there in front of me. Palliative Care. I stop and stare at the door. Fucking white walls everywhere! Fucking grey linoleum with black and beige speckles! You… so handsome, your very breath akin to creation—how can we possibly let you die in this place? You’d think hospitals were custom designed to make death ugly. A male nurse walks by and I take the opportunity to slip through the open door. If I’d had to open it myself, I would still be standing there. I would have stared at it for hours, hoping, as I’d done in the car, that the minutes would stop ticking by, that the passage of time would cease to exist, and your death along with it.
I look for your room number. B-4305. B-4307. B-4309… B-4311. The door’s open. With an all-too-familiar sense of dread, I look inside. That same feeling of impossibility. Still. A loved one simply cannot be in this place. Only strangers belong here. People of no significance, like so many objects on a shelf. Death doesn’t really exist. It’s a joke. Too absurd. On the bed, a man lies facing the window, half covered by a green blanket. An actor, a mannequin. I can’t see his face.
As long as I can’t see him, there’s a chance the man might not be you. I step into the room, and the sound of my boots causes him to stir. Gingerly, he turns his pain-wracked body over in the bed. Soon, it will be too late for denial. That man will be you, and you will be dying. The minute you see me, your expression changes. Like happiness tinged with regret, shyness even. How are former lovers supposed to act at a time like this? I remember the day I first noticed grey hairs around your temples. I had wanted to murder Death, the bitch. If she’d been standing right in front of me, I would have clawed her, bitten her, hit her. Today, your entire face is grey, and I don’t even have the strength to get pissed off anymore. The scream is coiled in my chest, but all I can do is throw in the towel and keep my mouth shut.
I move closer and take your hand. You give it up to me. Let me have it. The oil is still there, on your palm and on your fingers, blurring the line between our two bodies.
“I’m happy to see you.”
My thumb roams back and forth over your knuckles. We fall silent. We breathe in the moment. There’s no need for words. I ask if I can kiss you. You smile at me. You squeeze my hand a little tighter. I lean into you, caress your cheek, your hair. Fine. Wispy. My face a mere whisper from yours. Our eyes meet and meld together. I see you. And your lips and—behind the taste of disease—you. In your tongue and in your breath, I finally find you. Your entire life is there, in my mouth. I wish I could lock it away, like I once did with your orgasm. Before I pull away, a sob escapes me, the sound of desperate pain that I can’t choke back. Almost animalistic. I’m shaking from the tears that I refuse to shed. They’re rising in my throat like a wave of vomit that I swallow back down. Your death is enough for you to deal with, I’m not going to inflict my misery on you, too. I sit with you for a long time.
“Chantale’s coming back with the kids.”
Of course. I’m the one who has no business being here. The one who has no right to accompany you to your death. I won’t be here to witness your vanishing. It’s time for me to go, to leave that part to the ones who are entitled to it. I swallow my spit several times before I manage to say, “I love you.”
I try to pull my hand away, but you hold onto it until I meet your gaze.
“I love you, Marie-France.”
I drive away from the hospital and park my car at Beauséjour park. I put my red coat back on because the May evening is a little damp. I walk over to a bench facing the river and the setting sun. I sit down and, all of a sudden, you’re right there, next to me. I motion to you to lie down and rest your head on my knees. I drape a blanket over your body. You close your eyes. You smile. I place my hand over your heart, which I can feel beating against my palm. And it’s in that place—surrounded by nature and the fresh spring air, before the fiery sky and the still waters of the river, with your head in my lap and my other hand entwined in your hair—that I choose to have you die.
Translated by Ann Marie Boulanger