My Father’s Last Breath

Billiard’s Pick
Laurent Boulanger


City public hospitals are all the same. They are crowded with the sick, the wounded, the weary, doctors, nurses, specialists, cleaners, visitors, and flower sellers. They smell of commercial detergent and chemicals, and nobody ever smiles unless they feel like they have an obligation to cheer someone else up. They are maze-like, and it’s easy to lose oneself right at the end of the west wing when one is supposed to be at the end of the east wing, or to go up and down for a half hour just to find a toilet that is accessible to visitors, not just patients and hospital staff.

I’d been in and out of hospitals whenever my father’s health deteriorated, but I had never attended a hospital on such a regular basis. My father usually came back home on the same day after being checked and administered the right cocktail of medication like a victim of an epileptic fit who needed to get on with life.

Hospitals scared me. They are like churches, where someone else decides the fate of other people’s lives, where the sins from the past come to haunt you, where you find yourself repenting and praying to a God you have ignored for the majority of your life. In hospitals, the doctors are the gods, and the nurses are the angels.

Sometimes, while sitting in the waiting room of the critical care unit and flicking through a magazine or losing myself in Proust’s A La Recherche Des Temps Perdus, my concentration was snapped by someone’s cry of pain and despair. The shriek of another person’s suffering cleaved the core of my soul like a hand to the throat. I was suddenly reminded that nothing lasts forever, and that life doesn’t always end in the peaceful quietness of the night in the comfort of one’s home amongst the familiarity of objects accumulated over a lifetime.

During my first month at the orphanage, I visited my father every Tuesday. The people at the orphanage wouldn’t allow me more visits, no matter how sick my father got. There were rules and regulations written in stone over a century ago, and nobody was willing to bend them, even if the sky suddenly fell to the earth and swallowed us all. I could beg and put on a sorry face—I could have bribed the entire establishment had I had the means to do so—but it would have made no difference whatsoever. The rules were the Ten Commandments of the orphanage, and the only ones who lived outside those rules were those who had escaped to a better world.

My father’s left lung had collapsed without warning on that sunny June afternoon when our lives had radically changed. The doctor in charge of my father’s convalescence at the hospital told me the technical term for a collapsed lung was tension pneumothorax, but I could refer to it as tension pneumo. Doctor talk, he confided to me as if he were my big brother. I liked him. He was in his late-twenties and good looking—different from other doctors who sported grey hair and bulging stomachs like overfed turkeys ready for the annual festive season slaughter. I was a child, but he spoke to me as if I were an adult. He never bothered to change his intonation or vocabulary to bridge our age difference or tried to patronize me with his encyclopedic medical knowledge. He shared complex diagnoses and prognoses like loved ones give you a cuddle after you’ve run into a door left ajar.

We were sitting in his office at the hospital when he explained what had happened to my father. He used the help of a color chart pinned to the back wall, right behind his chair. The chart showed a full-frontal cross-section of the respiratory system, including the larynx, trachea, bronchi, diaphragm, and lungs. Next to it was a chart of the heart in blue and red sections, showing the pathway of blood traveling from body tissues to the right atrium and to the right ventricle. I had seen similar charts pinned to the walls of the science classroom back at school and remembered the difficulty I had in memorizing all the strange names that someone a long time ago had assigned to every organ and function of the body.

The doctor’s name was Alfred Herrmann, and his family originated from Germany. He’d been born in Strasbourg, in the very same hospital he was now working for. He insisted that I call him by his first name, which felt strange because at school we were forced to address the teachers by their surnames. Even the teachers addressed us by our surnames. I wasn’t Clotilde, but Mademoiselle Benoît.

With his plastic biro, Dr. Herrmann pointed to the left lung on the color chart—the one colored blue—and said, ‘See this large blood vessel?’ He indicated a large artery attached to the top end of the heart.

I nodded.

‘For some reason, it has burst and caused the lung to collapse in the process. As a result, your father’s heart doesn’t pump enough blood, and thus is incapable of delivering the required amount of oxygen to the vital tissues and organs. Your father will remain in critical care for the next few days, but we’ll look after him as best as we can.’

‘Is he going to live?’

‘He’s stable and he’s being constantly monitored. His heart is still weak from the trauma, so it’s important that he rests.’

‘When can he go home?’

‘I can’t say at this stage, but I’m going to be honest with you, Clotilde, you’re looking at least at another two to three months in hospital, and that is in the hope that his condition improves gradually without any complications.’

I sighed. How was I going to cope for that long at the orphanage by only seeing my father once a week? I missed him like a plant misses the healing rays of the sun.

Dr. Herrmann took me to the hospital canteen and bought me a lunch of salad and Swiss cheese and a chocolate mousse. I told him they didn’t feed us well at the orphanage, and the food tasted horrible. I told him people were making fun of me, called me Virgin Mary, and I was scared and I wished I didn’t have to be there. I wanted him to know he had to hurry up and make my father feel good again.

‘I’m doing the best I can,’ Dr. Herrmann said, ‘but life is cruel sometimes. We’re not always the ones who decide on people’s fate.’

I locked my eyes with his and said, ‘It’s God’s Will, I know.’

He didn’t reply, but his face expressed surprise at my answer.

He reached for my hand and squeezed it.

I let tears roll down my face. ‘I’m so tired of everything, I want a normal life again.’

‘You’re a brave little girl,’ he finally said. ‘Maybe I can do something about getting you out of the orphanage. I have a friend who knows a friend who’s a caseworker with the department of social security. A few phone calls, and we might be able to find you a placement with a nice family.’ He smiled as if he’d just revealed the meaning of life. ‘How does that sound?’

‘It sounds fine,’ I said because he was being nice, and I hated the idea of upsetting him.

But his offer wasn’t agreeable.

I didn’t want a placement with a nice family. I wanted my father back, and I wanted to go home.

*

I shared a room with another girl, Martine, thirteen years old, long greasy dark hair down her back and a china-white complexion. Her green eyes peered out from two small slits, which looked as if they’d been cut into her flesh with a scalpel. She wore the same pair of jeans every day, jeans so tight she could hardly move, and a white, cropped cotton top, and no bra. Her little nichons were clearly visible through the T-shirt. I had no breasts to speak of, so at times I was envious, and at others I thought she was cheap. She spoke to me even though I didn’t respond, because the last thing I needed was people trying to be friends with me. Most of the time I was moody and thought about nothing but my father.

I stole a packet of shaving blades from the nurse’s room and tucked it on the inside cover of my pillow. I wrote everything I thought and felt in my diary. If I beat the odds and somehow managed to live to be older, I would remember what it was like to be the girl the world had rejected like a dog forced to fend for itself in a world that no longer had the heart to care for those who needed it the most.

I recorded my innermost desires.

If my father died, I wanted to die on the same day. They would bury us together in the same grave, shamefully hidden at the back of the cemetery amongst tall weeds, a site that nobody visited, where the homeless, bastards, and criminals were concealed from the public.

When it was known that I was my father’s daughter, the Catholic Church stripped him of his ministry like a judge strips a convicted criminal of his dignity. I was the burden of his shame, and I would follow him to the grave.

*

‘Martine!’ I yelled.

Martine—who was sleeping next to me in a single bunk—grunted in reply. She’d been at the orphanage on-and-off for six years now. Her parents were junkies, and she’d been made ward of the state. Every time social security found her a placement in a home, it didn’t last. It was hard for her to get on with everyone, including myself. I didn’t like her, but on that particular night, there was nobody else I could turn to.

I jumped from my bed. ‘Martine, I think I’m dying!’

She stumbled from her metal-frame bed and flicked on the light from her side table. ‘What? What have you done?’

I looked down my legs—dark blood painted my thighs and my nightgown like random brushstrokes from the doubtful hands of a painter’s apprentice—and remembered the shaving blades hidden inside the cover of my pillowcase.

‘I think I cut myself.’ I pulled my nightgown up to my thighs. Where did the blood come from?

Martine’s eyes met mine and I read cruelty in them.

‘You’re menstruating, espèce de petite conne,’ she said with a smirk.

*

‘You’re a woman now,’ my father said. The skin on his face appeared gaunter than during my previous visits, almost translucent, and the bags under his eyes were so heavy, they might as well have been drawn with a charcoal pen.

His room at the hospital was small, but at least he didn’t have to share it with anyone. A large crucifix hung above his bed head. A plastic tube was coming from under the white sheets, as well as wiring attached to an EKG monitor. All this machinery scared me. Even though I knew nothing about medical procedures, I was certain that if someone still had to rely on a lot of equipment to stay alive, it meant that he couldn’t be doing all that well.

I sat on a white plastic chair next to his bed, my small hands grasping at my knees. He no longer smelled of pipe tobacco, but of freshly washed sheets and disinfectant. His hair was dull and combed to one side like a schoolboy whose mother had just cleaned him up before he had to go out into the big, dangerous world. He looked helpless—a lamb caught in a hunter’s trap. This was not the father I knew and the memory of him I wanted to take back to the orphanage with me.

‘There are many things I should have told you about what happens when a man and woman get together,’ he said. It should have been your mother’s job, and I didn’t know how to go about it.’

‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘Martine has told me everything.’

The expression on his face eased as if someone had just announced he would be able to go home that same afternoon. I realized he must have been counting the days backwards as to when it would have been appropriate for me to know about human reproduction, but Martine had fortuitously saved him from the burden.

I explained how Martine was my roommate, how her parents could no longer take care of her, and other family members didn’t want the burden of bringing up a child who wasn’t their own. I told him there had been a court case where her mother tried to retain custody of her child, but a government social worker convinced the judge that she was an unfit mother who was still a junkie, and that Martine was better off without her. I told him Martine had been raped at the age of twelve by a twenty-five-year-old man whom she’d become too friendly with. I told him how she wished people would understand what she’d been going through and stopped treating her as if she had a mental disorder. If they could only realise she was just a victim of fate. She refused to talk to psychologists or psychiatrists because she was too proud, and doing so would have been an admission that there was something wrong with her.

My father listened attentively without interrupting.

‘Is she a good friend?’ he asked when I had nothing more to day.

‘She’s just here and I’m just there.’

There was a pause, which felt like eternity. I could see the effort it took him just to breathe, and it made me sick to my stomach. I wished I were the one lying on his bed with him sitting next to me, comforting me and telling me how I was going to pull through. I didn’t know what to say to him to make him feel better. He’d always been the parent, and now it was my turn. He didn’t say how guilty he felt that he’d become an affliction in my life, but the pain was clearly visible in his eyes, like that of a man who’d stopped believing in angels.

When I left the hospital I cried all the way to the orphanage.

*

Martine and I inevitably became close friends. I turned twelve, and she made me drink two full glasses of white wine to celebrate my rite of passage to womanhood. My father usually diluted the wine with water before giving it to me at lunch or dinner. I had never drunk wine undiluted before, and the alcohol went straight to my brain. It was liquid fire blended with fruit juice, and firecrackers exploded in my head.

I shared my first cigarette with Martine and coughed through its entire length. With my second cigarette, I stopped inhaling completely, but held the smoke in my mouth for a few seconds before releasing it in the confinement of our bedroom.

We were not allowed to smoke or drink at the orphanage, but Martine had never been caught.

‘If you get caught, deny everything, there’s nothing they can do.’ Her fishnet stockings had a hole in them, and she wore her mascara generously like Brigitte Bardot did in the sixties.

‘But lying is a sin,’ I protested.

‘So?’

‘So, you shouldn’t lie.’

‘If it gets me out of trouble, I lie. It’s easy, nobody can tell the difference anyway. No wonder they call you Virgin Mary. Haven’t you ever done anything wrong in your life?’

She kept the cigarettes and the wine locked in a large, green metal trunk under her bed. She was really clever, assertive and proud, and her defiant attitude excited me.

*

That night when we ate dinner at the canteen, I threw up all over the table and was sent to the infirmary. My throwing-up had a domino effect, and three other kids vomited straight after seeing me emptying my stomach contents onto my plate of mashed potatoes, green peas, and low-grade minced meat.

‘Have you been drinking?’ the nurse asked, her pointy nose too close to my breath. She was young and seemed to cause no serious threat. She was almost smiling when she asked me the question.

‘No,’ I lied.

‘Who gave you the wine?’

‘I haven’t been drinking.’ A headache was thundering on both my temples, and I just wanted to lie down and die.

My first white lie.

Maybe they’d put me in hospital in the same room as my father’s, and we’d share the same EKG monitor—two heartbeats pulsing into the one machine. Maybe they’d think my left lung was collapsing, that I was suffering from some kind of hereditary illness that’s passed on from fathers to daughters, and then they’d realise we were meant to be one forever, and it would be pointless to separate us because fate would inevitably bring us back together.

‘I’ll let it go for the time being,’ the nurse said. ‘I’ll put it down as indigestion, but if you come back here drunk again, I’ll have to report you.’

She gave me a tablet and sent me to my room.

Martine was right.

Lying was easy.

*

That same night, Martine told me more about boys.

‘They’re only after one thing,’ she said, both of us lying on my narrow, single bunk in the dark, sharing a cigarette. A lamppost outside lit the room brightly enough for us to see. The glow of the cigarette was the most visible thing, and every time one of us took a drag, the smoker’s face became clear.

‘What?’ I took a puff, coughed and passed it on to her. I felt grown-up because I did what grow-ups told me I couldn’t do.

‘Your body.’

She said that as if it was a bad thing, but I wasn’t so sure myself. At school I began to notice boys, but I never wondered if my curiosity was a bad thing or not. I knew their thinking differed from our thinking, and I was intrigued about my own body, so maybe it wasn’t so strange at all. I could understand why they’d be interested in Martine’s body because I was too. I wanted to look like her—to have more curves without trying, to walk with my butt wiggling, to project an air of confidence, looking as if I knew what life was all about. I wanted that badly. I didn’t want to be a girl any more. I wanted to be a woman, and I wanted boys to look at me the way they looked at her.

She told me how her father forced her to have sex with him when she was nine years old, and at first I didn’t believe her. She had already told me about how she was raped at the age of twelve, so how much worse could her life have been?

‘He used to come at around midnight,’ Martine said, lighting a new cigarette, ‘when mum was asleep, her brain simmering in Valium and alcohol. The bastard crept into my room like a killer in the night. I never got to sleep before then because I knew he would be coming. He made it sound like there was nothing wrong with what we did. I didn’t know at the time because I never told anyone. It just felt bad, that’s all. I didn’t like doing what he made me do, but he was my father, and at school they kept telling us that we had to obey our parents. I thought other girls’ fathers did the same to them—I thought that was what fathers did.’

I couldn’t even imagine my father doing what he did to her. It wasn’t even something that had crossed my mind because I had never imagined that people could be horrible enough to do things to their own children.

I blew smoke into the air.

‘But why?’ I asked.

‘Because he wanted to,’ she said and took another drag.

‘But why? What about your mother?’

‘It wasn’t the same. He liked them tight.’

‘Oh,’ I nodded, pretending I understood what she’d just told me.

I thought about my father at hospital. Dr. Herrmann told me that he was getting better. Herrmann also told me that he’d rung up a friend, the one who knew a caseworker, and they would find me a family soon. But now I was getting used to being with Martine. She was older than me, and she knew more than I did, and she told me things about life that my father never told me. I liked that. It was like having a big sister.

‘You want more wine?’ she asked.

‘Don’t think so, I’m still feeling sick.’

‘Ah, come on, don’t be a baby.’

She poured me another glass, a cigarette butt hanging from one corner of her mouth, and we fell asleep drunk into each other’s arms.

*

On my next visit to the hospital, I wore tight Levi’s and a white-cropped cotton top. When I climbed the steps to the foyer, I noticed people were looking at me more than they usually would, especially the men. It didn’t matter whether they were older or younger, doctors, janitors, or patients, they all looked at me the same way—I was a slice of chocolate cake and they hadn’t eaten for a month. I loved the attention I was getting.

I kept my chin up and walked straight across the polished floor. I didn’t need to stop at reception because I knew where my father’s room was. I had been visiting for three months now, once a week. It was my thirteenth visit, and the visiting felt as if it would never end. At times I wondered what my life would be like if he died. Probably not much different from now except that I would visit him once a week at the cemetery instead of the hospital. I felt a lump in my throat.

In the elevator, I checked my reflection in the mirror. Martine had helped me with the make-up. I’d never worn make-up before and still had to get used to the idea. My lips were bright red—painted with blood—and my cheeks rosy like those of an alcoholic. I had Brigitte Bardot’s eyes—eyelashes twice as long and thick as they were that morning. Martine said I looked sensual. I checked sensual in the dictionary and it read tending to arouse the bodily appetites, esp. the sexual appetite. That was exactly what I had been aiming at. My father said I was a woman now, and he was right. I was going to make him proud.

*

‘What on earth has got into you?’ my father screamed when he saw me walked in the room. How could he scream so loud with his lung condition? The beeping on the EKG quickened like I had seen on TV when someone gets a heart attack. He hunched himself over on the bed.

I stood there as if someone had just grabbed me by the throat and held me against the back wall of the room and was about the shred me to pieces.

‘Is it this Martine girl?’ he went on.

I had never seen him so angry before, thundering words at me like bullets from a gun when all I knew from him was kindness and patience. For a split second I thought about Martine’s father, and how maybe there was a dark side to every man that I didn’t know about—even my father.

‘But, Papa—‘

‘Look at yourself, Clotilde, you look like a slut!’

I wanted to tell him that that was exactly what I wanted to look like, and who was he to tell me off since he wasn’t even looking after me any more. I wanted to tell him that none of this would have happened if he’d never let my mother leave us, and if he’d married her. I wanted to tell him that he’d ruined all our lives by not marrying my mother, and that I missed her even if I didn’t remember ever being with her. Fat tears rolled down my cheeks.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

‘What were you thinking, Clotilde?’

‘You said I was a woman now.’

He rolled his eyes to the ceiling and forced a smile. He seemed upset by my crying.

‘Come here,’ he said.

I walked hesitantly towards the bed and thought about what Martine’s father did to her.

He made me sit on the bed next to him. His hand reached for mine, but I couldn’t take it. He wiped the tears from my face with his bony fingers and covered them in dark mascara, like black ink stains on an illustrator’s skin.

‘You’re burning steps,’ he said matter-of-factly. He pulled a tissue from a box on his side-table, wet it with his saliva, and began removing the make-up from my face. ‘Don’t rush through the stages of your life. This girl you’re with, Martine, she’s not the same as you. That’s a girl who’s been around the block a few times. Who knows what she’s been up to.’

‘But she’s nice to me, she’s the only one who gives a shit.’

‘I’m not saying she’s not a nice person, but look at the influence she has on you—even your language, listen to yourself talking.’

He pointed gently with his right hand to the crucifix above his bed to make me aware that God was in the room with us.

He added, ‘You’re not my little Clotilde any more, are you?’

‘I’m sorry, Papa, I’m only trying to do my best.’

‘I know you are, and I’m sorry things have turned out the way they have.’

‘I just want to go home.’

‘Soon.’

I wanted to believe him with all my heart, but he looked sicker than he ever had. The veins on his temples and neck were snakes crawling out of his skin. Dr. Herrmann told me in two to three months my father would be ready to come back home. Three months had passed. Nothing had changed for the better.

‘I want you to be careful out there,’ my father continued. ‘People are going to take advantage of you if you’re not careful.’

I had nothing to be taken advantage of—no money, no home, no belongings. What could possibly be gained from taking advantage of me?

I stayed seated on the bed a little while longer, but neither of us said a word. Sadness weighted his eyes, and I couldn’t help feeling that I’d let him down. I wished I could just go back a few steps and be the little Clotilde he wanted me to be. I wished I’d never met Martine and her so-called ‘wise ways’. But I somehow realized that it was hard to step back into darkness once you’d seen the light. The world wasn’t made of lollipops and pink fairy floss, but of fathers and sluts, vanishing mothers and people who mysteriously took advantage of you.

I was on a full pack of cigarettes a week when I heard the news. Dr. Herrmann said that my father had put on a hell of a fight until the last minute. His right lung collapsed from doing too much work. There was nothing they could have done.

Back in July, Dr. Herrmann had told me my father was going to make it, and he didn’t.

A little white lie.

And I believed him.

I was learning fast.

*

The night Martine left the orphanage for good, I removed the shaving blades from the cover of my pillow. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was dark and my eyes were welled with tears. I cut my forefinger while pulling the first blade out of the plastic packaging. It didn’t hurt. I placed my finger in my mouth and sucked the blood. It tasted good, like the first ray of sunrise.

I’d never seen people slash their wrists before, and I’d never read anything about it, so I cut across my left wrist. Had I cut along the main artery instead, I would have bled to death in a crimson pool, my soul united with that of my father. They would have found me in the morning, the little Virgin Mary, the ‘nobody-gives-a-shit-about-you’ girl, the slut, the ‘little-Clotilde-bad-people-are-going-to-take-advantage-of.’

I dreamed of white wine turning red. The crucifix above my father’s hospital bed bleeding where the hands and feet of Jesus had been nailed. My face covered in bright red lipstick. People throwing stones at me while I walked my way to school. People taking advantage of me.

I dreamed of being alone and everyone leaving. I dreamed of screams no one could hear. I dreamed of my father’s face distorted with pain as he tries hard to breathe the suffocating air around. I dreamed of his pipe and smelled his eau de vie, of the way my small hand felt in his, of the way he sometimes laughed when I made a joke. I dreamed of a black crow. I dreamed of Provence and Marcel Pagnol as a child. I dreamed of Marcel Proust and Jesus Christ. I dreamed of sunsets over the Cathedral of Strasbourg, of English and German tourists with cameras.

I dreamed of blood.

Lots of blood.

pencil

Laurent Boulanger was born in Strasbourg, France in 1966. He came with his family to Australia at the age of thirteen without any English. After working a multitude of dead-end jobs, he returned to study and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Writing from Deakin University and subsequently a Master of Arts in Writing from Swinburne University. Since 1995, he’s been Australian Correspondent for Writers’ News, UK’s largest circulating magazine for writers. He is currently a tutor in the online postgraduate writing program at Swinburne University, where he is also completing his Ph.D. in Writing. E-mail: laurent[at]boulanger.com.

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