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ADELAIDE Independent Quarterly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Trimestral, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT FRANÇOISE
by Antoine Bargel

 

 

DORIAN EYES

“It was a wonderful operation, said my friend Françoise, I didn't feel a thing. The doctor and I were chatting the whole time, just like you and I right now, while she was making laser incisions into my cornea.

She actually asked at the beginning how my vision was, and I said “more or less like a Monet painting”, and she laughed and said that soon, I'd see like a Klee, and then progressively I would get my normal vision back.

But the next morning, back home, I made a fatal mistake. My friends who had the same operation had all told me: you'll see, it's wonderful, the trees have leaves again, and the flower have petals, you recover all these beautiful details of nature, it's simply marvelous. My mistake was, instead of going to the garden and look at the flowers, I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. I was shocked: I had these deep lines carved all around my eyes. I called Steve over and complained: “They say it doesn’t leave a scar, this operation, but look!”

Steve smiled and said: “Darling, these have been there a long time, you know.”

And because he's such a wonderful husband, he added, showing his own face: “And this is the old man you've been living with, by the way.”

 

TRANSIENT GLOBAL AMNESIA

Françoise

And now my story. It is difficult to tell because the narrator, me, was unaware when it happened.
We arrived in Eugene on a Wednesday night, exhausted from the trip and the lack of sleep during the previous nights in Paris. Right away, we had to go to one of these horrible “Market of Choice”, be harassed by the excessive cheerfulness of the store clerks, then get a glimpse of the boxes of unsorted mail in the garage, regain our footing in our now unfamiliar home, find some pajamas. And stare at the ceiling for a whole night that my body refused to acknowledge.

On Thursday, I lived mechanically, emptied the suitcases, eating random snacks at random times, dreaming of my dear Brittany with its solid stone houses. Then another reluctant night.

On Friday morning, the gardener came by and made me angry. I didn't like her suggestions: her ideas about a deliberately messy, ecological garden made me sick. I prepared lunch as mechanically as I had put away our clothes and books, with only one idea in mind, to rest, to do nothing, to think of nothing.

At about 2 pm, Steve suggested we go for a walk... then it all goes dark.

It seems that I said yes, but instead of putting my shoes on, I went to the living room and played a CD of Breton music on the stereo, whispering that I would go for a walk later.

At 3, when Steve came back, he saw me standing by the garage. I was crying and saying: “Something is wrong with me, I feel confused.” (I don't remember any of it...)

Steve tried to ask me questions: I had no recollection of our summer travels.

But I knew who I was and who he was.

Panicked, he called 911 and was told to drive me to the ER. (I don't remember going there, don't remember getting to the hospital.)

The diagnosis, I'm told, was pretty quick: “transient global amnesia.” (I'm referring you to Google for a description of this strange and rare phenomenon.)

I stayed in the hospital for 5 hours, doing what I was told, functioning well (I was able to get undressed, to pee in a tube, and to lay inside this horrible tunnel/tomb for a MRI.) I have no memory of these 5 hours, nor of the battery of test meant to detect any heart or brain malfunction.

But I still see Steve's tormented face, the curious smile of the doctor on duty, and Daniel, whom his father had called for support, leaning over my bed.

Steve was told to bring me home. That there was nothing else to do, since.. all the tests were... satisfactory. “It will not last, do not worry.”

I went to bed meekly while Steve kept watch, dazed and worried.

At about 3 am, I woke up and said: “I just had a terrible nightmare.” Then Steve lay his finger on the hospital wristband that I was still wearing: no, it was not a nightmare.

I'm all right, but I was robbed of 10 hours of my life.

 

Steve

When I returned late Friday afternoon from a walk, Francoise was standing in the doorway between our laundry room and the garage as if she were waiting for my return. As I approached her, she said, “Something is terribly wrong. I’m confused and don’t know what is happening.” I led her back into the house and we sat side by side on the couch. She began to cry and repeat over and over again that she was lost and frightened. I told her I thought she was suffering from extreme exhaustion and jetlag. She asked me why she would have jetlag and had no memory of our return from France just two days earlier. In fact, within a few minutes, I ascertained that she had no memories of our busy summer at all. I was afraid she might be having a stroke and called 911. They instructed me to drive her directly to the Emergency Room at Riverbend Hospital, which is approximately eight miles from our home. Unfortunately, it was the 5:00 pm rush hour, so the drive took over thirty minutes. In the car Francoise no longer seemed to feel any despair—the terrible anxiety had largely left her. She did describe what she was experiencing as a “nightmare,” but she said this with little anxiety. She then fell into a strange verbal loop that was to persist for the next four hours. It went something like this:

“Where are we going?”

“To the hospital.”

“Why?”

“You are having memory problems. Something is wrong.”

“How did this come about?”

“I came home from a walk and you were confused. I think you are exhausted from jetlag.”

“Yes, I probably have jetlag. So where are we going?”

And the loop would begin again. Not only did she have no memory of recent events, she was incapable of forming any new memories.

I had a concussion in a biking accident twenty or so years ago and know some of the standard questions doctors ask those who they suspect are concussed. I asked her who the president was and she could not answer. Next I asked her how old she was, and she could not remember that either. The latter question, very strangely, became a part of her verbal loop. She did not seem highly distressed that she could not remember her age, but then asked me at regular intervals, somewhere inside of the loop described above, “How old I am?” Although her language seemed largely normal in grammar and vocabulary, the grammatical error in this sentence appeared each time she asked about her age, a mistake Francoise would normally never make.

When we arrived at the hospital and were given a room, the nurses began to issue a series of demands: “Remove your clothes and put on this robe,” “Please get into bed and lie down,” etc.
Francoise followed all such demands perfectly. A young emergency doctor entered the room and began to give more complicated instructions: “Would you please raise your right leg and press down with your heel on my hand,” etc. Again she followed the instructions without difficulty. Still, she continued the verbal loop both with me and with the doctor and nurses, now beginning with the question, “Why am I here in the hospital?” Then continuing with the regular questions and an occasional insertion of the perplexing, “How old I am?”

This was becoming extremely tedious, and I was beginning to worry that the nurses might think I had married an idiot. “She’s a very brilliant woman,” I said several times. And then like I was demonstrating the genius of a small child, I asked her to translate various words or short statements into French or Spanish. All of this she did quickly and accurately, which I hoped would impress the completely mystified nurses. But as soon as the linguistic demonstration was over, it was back to “Why am I here in the hospital?” “How did this come about?” “How old I am?” etc. This could have been mildly humorous, except I was beginning to wonder if I would spend the rest of my life answering these questions over and over again. Feeling exasperated at one point, I even said, “Francoise, I’ve answered this question many, many times, so I know if I answer again, you’ll just forget the answer immediately.” She was not at all bothered by my comment, looked at me rather kindly and asked, “Why am I here in the hospital?”

Soon, my son Daniel arrived. We had not seen him for five months, and when he walked into the room both he and Francoise lit up with happiness. Francoise talked with him very warmly, asking how he was. She was obviously aware that he had experienced health problems and asked him about that. Soon, however, she fell back into her verbal loop. After a good bit of testing, including an MRI, the doctor concluded that Francoise had an unusual malady called Transient Global Amnesia, something he had seen “five or six times before.” He said that it was a complete mystery but almost always passed within eight to twenty-four hours and left no permanent damage nor was it likely to recur. He gave us the option either to leave Francoise in the hospital over night or to return home. She was beginning to show some minor improvement in her memory, now recalling how old she was, remembering that we had stayed on Cap Fréhel in France at “the home of the Dubois,” and recalling a few other details of the recent past.

Still, after we returned home, close to midnight, some unusual behavior persisted. As we sat side by side at our kitchen counter eating toast, she began to obsess about our gardener, who had come to our house earlier in the day, and a disagreement they had had. I kept telling her that this was of no consequence and had nothing to do with her memory lapse. I was to learn later that occasionally interpersonal conflict of that type, particularly when a person is already exhausted, is one factor leading to TGA. We went to sleep slightly after midnight. When Francoise awoke at about 4:00 a.m. her memory had returned to normal, but she remembered nothing of the hospital trip nor of our midnight snack and our discussion about the gardener.

 

CUPS OF TEA

We were having lunch at a dear friend of ours in Taipei, said Françoise. His name is pronounced Longshen: he is a warm, sensitive, refined, charming man who loves music. An eminent specialist of ancient China. Barely speaks English. Since my Chinese is almost non-existent, I communicate with him through looks and smiles, or Steve translates for us.

A very nice house, furnished with taste. Longshen is the son of a farmer who sold his rice paddies to a “developer” and became rich. At the end of his life, this old man came to stay with his son. We had met him on a previous visit: there was between father and son a subtle, yet palpable affection, which was quite moving.

We are having lunch at Longshen's, six months after his father's death. There are eight of us: Longshen, his wife and their two grown children, Steve, myself, Daniel and his wife. Longshen has prepared the meal himself. A succession of delicate, delicious dishes. Well chosen wines. Exotic fruit for desert.

Then we move to the living room. I'm waiting for my favorite moment, one that I’m eager for Daniel and his wife to experience: the tea ceremony. The trolley with the teapot and the tray on which the water will be poured into the tiny, fragile cups: everything is right there behind the sofa. It just needs to be rolled up in front of the sofa. But no one is moving. Everybody is chatting away. Timidly, I catch Longshen's gaze and with a quick, inquiring look, I indicate the tea-making instruments. Steve translates my wish into Chinese: “I think that Françoise would love to see you officiate.”

There is a long silence. Longshen's wife and children are staring at him in a questioning, anxious way. I'm worried: what is going on? What have I done?

Longshen gets up, pulls up the trolley with the tea tray. He plugs in the kettle, sets up the small cups and says in Chinese: “I haven't done this since my father died. It was him, the tea master.” I was hurting, ashamed of my boorish request.

The ceremony was performed in a silence rife with emotion. With precise, elegant gestures, Longshen poured the steaming liquid back and forth in the ritual way, then handed me my cup with a bow, before serving each of the guests.

Progressively, the chatter started again. Steve found the right words to talk about Longshen's father, how we'd been honored to have met him.

When everything was over, Longshen gathered the eight small cups, washed them, wrapped them  in paper and offered them to me, saying: “xie xie”, thank you.

They are so delicate, I don't dare use them.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Antoine Bargel is a 34-year-old bilingual translator and writer of poetry and fiction in English and French. Information about his work is available on his website http://www.antoinebargel.com

 

 

 

 

 

     
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