The weather was cold, dreadfully cold. It had snowed the night before, but the white cotton flakes had melted before they had reached the ground and nothing remained but the whiteness and the wetness. The wind started to blow and everything around her suddenly seemed to match her frozen soul. She raised her eyes up to the lighted windows where everything looked to be glowing with warmth. She longed for it and her pace increased. She was walking fast now, hurrying towards the next block of houses as if she had been hurrying home. It could have been home; it wasn’t. It didn’t matter that she lived there; it still didn’t feel like home. But it was a place where she could rest and be warm, and that was really all that mattered at the moment.
She reached the door with a sigh of relief just as the snow was starting to fall again and she rushed inside without noticing the tiny flakes that were resting on her hand. Silence seemed to have fallen over the town at the same time the fluffy things had arrived, and peace slowly infused everything outside, wrapping up trees and lamp-posts in a white chilly coat. This time it looked like the snow would hold. She had a vision of the street in the morning, of the cars disappearing under a thick layer of white powder and of little gray people slipping and sliding hastily towards work, tightly holding on to invisible balancing poles. For a split second a smile flickered on her lips but it immediately faded away at the thought that she would probably have to be one of them herself. She raced up the stairs without a noise, aware of Mr. Atom’s ear undoubtedly pressed against the door, trying to hear who was coming home.
That young Miss Jade again, you’d recognize her swift steps anywhere. Sweet girl that is, always very discreet, keeps good hours...not at all like that lump of a woman and her three little monsters on the fourth floor ! The amount of loud laughing the whale can cram within the second and the third floor ! Makes you long for an elevator !
Her hand reached for the lock just as the light went out and the keys fell to the floor. She fumbled for the switch and wished for someone to turn on the light on another floor.
Inside didn’t feel much warmer than outside even though she could hear the slow hissing of the kitchen heater. Lights on, coat off, she crossed the living-room and started to perform what she called her « evening survival ritual ». She hated the presence of the night behind the windows and always drew the blinds as soon as the first star appeared. She felt irresistibly drawn to the boundless darkness and the most surprising ideas often crossed her mind as the last bit of night flashed at her. Maybe she could fly? She ought to try someday...she felt certain one could fly at least a few seconds before hitting the ground if one only jumped from a high enough window.
Not fall, fly...
But the blinds were once more successfully drawn and she shook off her dream-wings, congratulating herself on her strong resistance to temptation. She turned around and glanced at the bare ugly walls, watching ghosts and shadows dance against the harsh light her only lamp was casting on the room...maybe darkness wasn’t so bad after all...
The shabby little kitchen was her favorite room. It was warmer and less scary than the other rooms in the flat and she spent most of her time there. Maybe the reason why she felt safe was that there were no windows in the kitchen. She liked it.
She put the kettle on and waited for the water to boil. She stood in front of the cooker, only half awake, unaware of what surrounded her, of the pile of unwashed dishes, of the greasy paper that had fallen to the floor next to the dustbin...it took a while before the kettle finally whistled. The music of the evaporating liquid spiraled to the ceiling and she watched the white cloud go up without reaching for the boiler or turning the gas off. When she finally took hold of the kettle, the handle burned her so unexpectedly that she dropped the thing to the floor and the water splashed over the greasy paper and the dirty dishes. Well, she didn’t feel like tea anyway, it was only insipid brown water and she certainly could go without it. Butter on her burn, she dropped to her knees and slowly wiped the wet patch. It was tremendously fascinating to look at the bulging sponge swallowing up the whole of what should have been her tea. She just put the wiping cloth in the middle of the steaming puddle and waited for it to be saturated with burning water. How soothing...
Back in the living-room she turned the TV on. It didn’t work very well, never had and never would. She didn’t really look at it anyway, she just used it as company; she enjoyed the noise and the blurry image but didn’t care much about what it showed. The bald man on the screen was trying to convince everyone inside and outside of the box that what he had to sell was really worth buying; he should have tried to convince himself first, though. Still, he was funny. She even believed she was laughing for a second, but then again no: the whale was coming home. Ha! Ha! Ha! Laugh, laugh, and laugh! What could be so funny? It couldn’t be the three little monsters the whale had raised; laughing at them would have been like laughing at herself and she didn’t believe the whale had enough sense of humor for self-derision. She knew she didn’t. She imagined her, big ugly chunk of a woman, climbing up the stairs, puffing and laughing for no particular reason but with a mouth so large that anybody could count her teeth…
The bald man on the TV screen seemed to morph into a big black whale ready to jump out of the box to swallow her, awful white teeth menacing to close upon her and chew her to bits. She shivered and the whale slammed her door on the upper floor. She could still hear her laugh even when she was safe behind the door, she could guess where she was in the flat, where she was going, what she was doing....
She actually often turned the TV off after the whale was home from work. She concentrated on the noises that came from the flat above and tried to picture its occupants living. A family. Some people would have complained about the noise; she never did. It gave rhythm to her life. Thump, thump, thump of little feet, shouts, things falling....she even went to bed to the sound of the whale singing her monsters to sleep. In a way, she was like Mr. Atom: they both lived other people’s lives most of the time.
When it wasn’t the whale’s life she was living, she tried to live Juliet’s life. Downstairs Juliet, second floor, second door. She was an expert at differentiating men’s steps thanks to Juliet; she had many lovers thanks to Juliet... Juliet never came home with used lovers, she always got herself brand new ones. Juliet wasn’t particularly loud, so you had to really listen hard, but it added to the fun...if fun it was. Juliet had her rituals too: no one on Monday evenings, stout dark males on Tuesdays, anyone the following nights. It never changed. Juliet wasn’t her real name but it didn’t really matter.
When she felt bold, she went down the stairs for no particular reason, hoping to meet Juliet coming home, dreaming of the conversation they could have...but she was always early or late on those occasions and they never met.
She got up and thought about going to bed. She brushed her teeth looking at the girl in the mirror ; a girl with no name, almost no identity, a walking dream. She saw everything she wanted to be in this mirror but she rarely saw herself. The night went by, bringing no dreams that she could remember and in the morning her vision had come true: she hurried towards work, almost falling with every step she took.
Back again, night again...curtains drawn, tea, TV...It was just another day, not much different from every day she had spent in this town. Not that it had always been the same, she used to have dreams for herself; but now she only dreamed other people’s dreams. She had come to this town a young girl full of energy, ready to eat up the whole world. She had no friends and no family on this side of the country, but she wasn’t afraid. Things would turn out all right. And they had for a while: she had found a job, a flat,...of course the job was nothing at all like what she had hoped for, but she told herself it was only for a time, that she’d soon find something else. She also told herself she wouldn’t spend her life in this cheap old flat, that she’d find some decent place where she could build her nest....
It had been two years ago and she was still there; she hadn’t moved.
The whale was late but Juliet was early, her listening life went on, whispers around her… she was acutely aware of all the lives breathing in the building, beyond the walls, across the streets....Her life had to be one of them, she was breathing too and she could not remain the passive listener any longer ! How did she ever let herself become so aimless?
She remembered what it had been like growing up as part of her family. She had always been rather quiet as a child, more inclined to observing people than expressing herself, never wanting to put herself forward. Her mother was a beautiful expansive woman and she had tried to raise her children in the opposite way. She was a loving mother, but she needed an audience more than a family and she had been particularly successful with Jade. Jade was always watching and admiring. It was not that she had neither interest nor passion in life; it was just that she kept everything inside. She loved looking at other people, getting to know what pleased them, what they hated, what words cheered them up, what words put them down.....Of course everybody adored her: she knew exactly what to do and what to say every time she met her friends and neighbors, she always had something agreeable to say to everyone. She was what her mother called a « wonderful clap ». Her mom kept telling Jade that she should work with artists who needed to be flattered so much; she would undoubtedly be very good at it. Except that it was never flattery with Jade, she always tried to remain sincere.
But Jade’s real center of interest were butterflies. She found them tremendously beautiful and they could fly! Sure, birds were good too, but butterflies! Butterflies were the aristocrats among all flying creatures. When she was five, she told her mother—whom she of course worshipped—that she found her so beautiful that she was convinced she was hiding her multicolored wings under her dress. When her mom laughed long and loud at her declaration, Jade was all the more certain that she had guessed the truth. She pleaded with her mom to let her see them and cried over and over when she found out her beautiful mother wasn’t a butterfly. It took all of Bobby’s clownish charm to wipe away the tears.
Bobby was Jade’s oldest brother—she had three—and her favorite. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for Bobby. A snap of his slender fingers and she ran to him, ready to be his toy. Bobby loved her too; adored her, even. He bought her books about butterflies, took her to the fields on week-ends, helped her learn the difficult Latin names.....he hated butterflies, he only did it because there was no one to be with her at the times when she wanted to fulfill her insatiable curiosity about them. He told her once that loving butterflies so much wasn’t a proper past-time for a five year old, that she ought to be playing with her dolls and her friends. « Be careful Jay-Jay, you’ll grow wings soon ! » And she sure hoped she would.
When Bobby left for university, Jade was even more heartbroken than his high-school sweetheart, and he found it more difficult to leave Jade than anybody else. In the years that followed, they never stopped writing to each other. He couldn’t come home very often, so he tried to be in letters as frequently as possible, knowing she would be carrying him everywhere with her. He met Simon at university, he was his roommate. Simon and Bobby made quite a pair. Simon knew Jade well before he met her and Jade knew Simon like the back of her hand even before he first came to meet the family. It was Christmas and she had just turned sixteen. Bobby was coming home as a student for the last time since he was in his last year, and he had finally accepted to bring his best buddy to his butterfly-mother. He had told Jade in his letters that he was afraid their mother would try to seduce Simon away from him. He knew how she always fascinated his friends and he did not want that to happen with Simon. Jade didn’t understand why but she was too excited about meeting the boy to really think about it.
She fell in love at first sight. Simon was everything, he was Prince charming personified.......and he was gay. As usual, Jade was the first and probably the only one to understand who Simon really was and it quietly drew her closer to her brother. Their mother complained about Bobby’s coolness that year, saying that four years of university life had changed her little boy, and she didn’t even realize how right she was! Bobby found a job on the East coast the following year and started coming back less and less often. Jade was shattered. She understood that unsaid things had to drive Bobby away from his family but she didn’t want to be counted in. She kept writing, pages and pages about her study of the butterfly’s “flying device”—as she liked to call their wings—about their hometown and the family, the neighbor’s dog and the hairdresser’s affair with the mayor…
It didn’t help.
She tried reminding him of the wonderful times they had spent together as children, she tried to make him laugh at his own words or at the fact that she believed him when he told her she would grow wings.....it still didn’t help. Bobby was further and further away and she knew there had to be something really wrong. The year she turned eighteen, he didn’t make it back for Christmas. Mother was hysterical. Her audience was reduced by one and she couldn’t understand how her own son could resist her charming invitation to spend the holidays with the family and the turkey. On the twenty fifth Jade packed and left. She got to
barely in time but she remained there until the end, trying to convince Bobby to let their mother know how sick he was. He wouldn’t. Simon and Jade were forever alone on the fifth of January when Bobby passed away, and mother was flying in too late. Boston
Nothing was the same after that. Her mother remained mad at Jade for not letting her know her baby boy was so sick, and she even sometimes went as far as blaming Jade for Bobby’s sickness. Jade knew all the time this would happen but it nevertheless destroyed everything she had built for the past nineteen years. She turned to Simon and found a good friend in him, someone she could count on. As soon as she could and with the financial help of her father, Jade moved from
where she was at university, to Los Angeles where Simon lived. They finished growing up together, helping each other out when it was necessary, leaving each other alone when it felt needed. When she graduated she seemed to have gained back most of her enthusiasm, she even spent the summer in the fields running after her precious butterflies again. Chicago
She had also developed a new passion for costume making. She knew just what she wanted to do with her life: she’d become the best dressmaker of the entire West coast. She packed and left, accompanied by Simon’s blessing. It was being Bobby’s sister that had done it; he had always told her that one day he would move to the coast. Either side; living in the middle was just not proper; it was like hiding to him. He always went on and on about how things never happened in the middle, how it was much too safe for his taste, that he liked risks. It was why she had chosen to go to
to study in the first place, and it was why when it finally was time to choose a life she decided to go back to the West coast. And she called, tried, applied for and found a job. She wanted to be a dressmaker, to meet artists, fashion designers, but she knew she had to be content with less first. She dreamed of a job for a big theater company… she was a receptionist in a small producing firm, spending her days answering the phone, redirecting calls, chanting her lines with less and less enthusiasm every time. Los Angeles
« I’ll see if he’s available... », « Mr A. is not in right now, may I take a message ? », « If you give me your number Mrs. B. will call you back. »........
She hated it but she tried to see it as a way in. Simon encouraged her to take it and endure; convincing her it offered many possibilities. She moved out of
still a student, not realizing that it was up to her to make her life different. She had been waiting for this ever since Bobby had died: waiting for her real life to begin, for things to start happening. But months went by and it felt as if nothing would ever start. It was like a phone-call to someone whose lines were blocked: she had a life on hold and she was waiting for it to be put through. The years with Simon in Chicago had been good but it was also when she had developed her habit of living mainly other people’s lives. She studied all the time and had little of it left to make friends at university and outside, but she had Simon to live with and through and he always took her everywhere. Simon loved her as much as he had Bobby, even though differently. He never hid anything from her, he shared almost everything with her......When he went out, she went out, when he saw something, she saw it, when he read a book so did she....And so, without noticing, she had stopped trying for herself. She was still a lively girl, but when she left for Chicago she floated for a while before sinking deeper and deeper into loneliness. Simon blamed himself for it. He had thought that making things easy for her while in Chicago would help her get over Bobby’s death, but he soon realized it was also spoiling her, making her unfit for social life on her own and entirely too dependent upon him. After she left he kept in touch with her desperately, knowing that without him she would drown. Seattle
They saw each other twice a year on their birthdays. He flew in from
in September and she drove to his place every Easter. It was like a pilgrimage for her, driving through towns Bobby had once traveled to, going back to where he had been happy without her, trying to retain some of that happiness. One of her stops led her to her mother. It was the only day she really had with her during the year; Thanksgiving and Christmas were family, Easter was mother and Jade. A mother who still blamed her daughter for Bobby’s death, who still saw Jade as a thief of sons, a thief of audiences. Her mother knew of course that while she was loosing her other children to university and jobs, Jade was being successful in Chicago seducing Simon’s friends with her wit and charm if not with initiatives. From best friends they had turned into worst enemies; Jade had once been her mother’s pride but that pride had died with Bobby. Jade’s mother no longer cared about her daughter’s problems, her hopes, her failures, her love wasted on someone who would never love her back, at least not the way she wanted him to. Jade’s mother was lost in her memories, remembering times when Bobby had accused himself of wrongs that Jade had done, trying to make up for the punishments she had given him by sentencing Jade to a life of guilt. Once, Jade got so angry and tired because of her mother’s barbs that she tried to hurt her back with the truth about Bobby and Simon, but it was useless. All her mother had to say about it was that her Jade must be demented to have fallen so hard for a guy she was so sure was gay. Chicago
Jade got back into her car and drove away.
It was getting clear—dawn coming—and she was already awake. The building was so silent that it really felt dangerous, as if you could get lost in all that silence. Even the Whale wasn’t up and she was certain Mr Atom’s ear was not yet by the door where it belonged; Juliet’s lover was probably still in the house too.
She got up and got dressed before opening the windows and the blinds, watching
come to life across the streets. The snow had melted down slowly over the past two weeks leaving room for spring to bloom, and the little gray people with invisible balancing poles would soon change into little gray people on bicycles. Seattle
Tea called her and she hurried towards the kitchen. She crossed her messy but cheerful new living-room on her way. Spring must have touched her too because she had decided only a couple of weeks ago to do something about the flat. Since her call for the life she dreamed of was still on hold, she’d figured she might as well refurbish the waiting-room. It was going slowly but the walls were already brighter and whiter, the light was no longer harsh or gloomy in the evenings and the huge piece of red cloth she had bought and thrown over the sofa made the room feel almost cozy. By July she might have a little home with new furniture and new colors.
This need to refurbish had not come suddenly out of the blue; it had been brought about by Simon’s letters. They came every other week and were increasingly passionate: he had obviously met someone. She had felt a pang of jealousy at the realization and had decided to do something to keep him interested in herself. She had been so scared of loosing him and it had suddenly occurred to her that her letters must have been heartbreakingly boring to someone who led as full a life as Simon’s. She had no friends, never went out, hated her job and her flat......it was so boring it was a wonder he still read the damn letters. She had also realized that no matter what, she was just not ready to loose Simon, and she knew that if she wanted to keep him she had to try and not lose herself so much that he’d stop knowing her.
She had decided to change for Simon, believing she wanted a less boring life only for the sake of their friendship, but the change was really for herself and two years after moving in she found herself finally unpacking. Books, pictures, photographs, her butterfly collection......she had been carrying them around with her forever but she had never gotten them out of their boxes, not even in
. They were all things she had considered dead with Bobby and which were bringing back memories of all sorts. Chicago
When Bobby died she had been angry, lost, and she had become tremendously dependent upon Simon; so much so even that she had forgotten to weep over her brother’s death. It was not that she had not felt the pain; it was that she had refused to face and accept it, burying everything that was her along with him. She had given up butterflies and dreams of wings and flying, she had given up her books, and most of all she had given up her friends because they were also his. She had only kept Simon.......
As she opened up boxes and her mind again, dusty memories were raised from the cardboard, feelings long-forgotten, yellow pictures and old postcards...and among them the very face of love. A face she had been willing to forget for the past five years: Bobby’s face.
March was coming to an end and she had chosen a beautiful day—at least by
’s standards—to go through all the suitcases she had brought with her from Seattle . The sun, shy and pale, was casting a light glow over the half-open boxes and the books and bags lying about the room. The first few tokens of the past that she had taken out of their moth-ball beds struck her with a strong sense of immutability. They had not changed. Not that time had not put its mark on them, but because she was seeing them not as they were now—bits and pieces of a broken past—but as they had been then: as part of a wider scene. Little by little, one after the other, they were recovering the life that people had once breathed in them. The book on the coffee table was opening as if under the impulse of an invisible hand, her old Teddy-bear was slowly bending onto one side, the blue photograph album was sliding off the sofa.... Chicago
She remembered the day five years ago when back from the tiring and silent journey to her brother’s death-bed she had walked into the room they had shared as kids, and looked around. She could still hear her mother’s shrieks filling her ears, her mind, overwhelming her with a kind of hysterical sadness. She had known then that her mother would never let her mourn her brother, never, and she had slowly started to pack everything that had been linked to her past childhood with Bobby. Every single book, every single poster, every single little thing in the room was associated with Bobby, and everything had soon been shut up inside cardboard boxes found at the back of their common cupboard. Later that same evening, when her father had finally come up to see her, tears running down his wrinkled face, she had been lying on her bed in a stranger’s room: walls bare, shelves empty. Her father had said nothing at first; he had stood silent in the doorway, sharing his daughter’s pain. When he had finally opened his mouth it had been to tell her in a low voice that she had been wrong not to call them.
« I know it wasn’t your choice, Jade, but in the end it was your decision ».
His tone was not really reproachful as he stated what her mother had already accused her of. She had run away and when she had finally called it had been too late. Her father was stating the fact; her mother was charging her with it. She had not shed one single tear over Bobby’s death after that night; she had driven over to the airport to meet her brothers, she had made all the arrangements necessary for the burial, she had called Simon everyday to make sure he was OK......and when everything had been over and the family gone, she had talked to her father about her decision to go to Chicago to finish her studies. He had shrugged his shoulders: what could it matter? He did not care where she went but she was his daughter and he would pay for her studies as agreed before Bobby’s death, in
or in L.A. didn’t make much of a difference to him. Chicago
The blue photograph album fell to the floor with a snap and called her back to her own
living-room. She looked up startled, expecting to see someone there looking at her things, smiling and remembering just as she had been a moment ago. The room felt so full that she was scared; she could tell it was about to burst. It was full of ghosts flying about...... Seattle
No, not ghosts, one ghost: Bobby’s ghost. She shivered; goose-bumps broke out on her arms, her hair stiffened. But why be scared of a memory? She jumped up to her feet and started putting her books on the shelves in frenzy. Flashes kept passing before her eyes: smiles, laughs and good times. It was the upstairs whale who finally broke the spell; the whale was back from her younger daughter’s swimming contest and she was telling the building about it. She had won, not her daughter, but herself. She had raised the little thing and if the girl won a trophy, no doubt it was only thanks to her mother. But Jade did not want to hear, she did not want to be absorbed in other people’s stories anymore, she had enough to do with her own.
Easter was still weeks away, but it suddenly was feeling too close. She could not bear to face her mother again, the woman had no wings hidden inside her blouse, she was broken and sharp, and she was too cruel. Darkness was closing upon the town again and it was time for the evening ritual but Jade could not move and darkness was growing closer and closing upon her as well.
She fled to the kitchen.
The radio was playing a tune she’d heard often before. It was sad and seemed to match her mood perfectly.
I lock the door and lock my head and dream of butterflies instead…
Spring was well on its way now, and she was only two days from her holidays. She was washing the dishes with the same cloth she had used three months or so ago to wipe the boiling water on the floor, but it really did not matter anymore. She did not care. What could be important when the thought that never left her was that she was going to face her mother soon? Her mother.....how much she had loved her, worshipped her....and it had been reciprocal. Her father was right, it had been Bobby’s choice to cut himself away from his family, but it had also been Jade’s decision. She knew now that her mother would never forgive and forget. She was aware that she had known all along that not calling her and telling her « Mummy your son is dying » was cutting herself away from the family the same way Bobby had done. She also knew why she had done it.
She had wanted to die with him. She had died with him in a way, except that she had not had the courage to really take her own life. It had been so cruel not to call her mother, it had been so cruel.
She walked over to her living-room, the wiping cloth still in hand, the song following her....
The beauty of their colored wings, the trees, the grass and pretty things, imagination fills the void of my existence…
The room might be more cheerful now, but it was only superficial. She had failed and every memory on the shelves shouted it to her face. It was too late to mourn, too late to feel sorry. Her life had not started because she could not make it start. She could only listen and cling to other people’s lives because she had given up hers a long time ago. Somehow it felt good to realize that, to finally face the facts. She picked Simon’s letter up from the coffee table and read it again. “I’m so happy Jade, I’m moving Jade, I’m in love Jade.....I’m gone....”
My favorite song, my favorite show, I wonder if they even know, or if they care or if they even notice I am standing there…
He was not going to be in
for his birthday, but they could catch up, couldn’t they? No, that was the problem: there was no way for her to catch up, she was still stuck in a silent room, a room too white, a man too pale on a bed too wide.... Chicago
I’m dead, Simon, I’m dead. We didn’t really want to know it, did we? But nevertheless, he died and I died, you’ve known it all along. And the night is coming again, and the darkness is attractive as ever, better draw the blinds before it sucks me in......
I can fly! I can fly!...
Simon was in
Europeand could not be reached. When he came home and learned about her death, she had long been buried. But then again, that had been true a long time, hadn’t it?
I lock the door and lock my head and dream of butterflies instead…
PS: This is an original piece, the very first piece of fiction I wrote in English nine years ago. I don't think I've ever shared it as such anywhere this public before. I remember tweaking it to make it fit Dawson's Creek fanfiction back in the days, but that was kind of a really bad idea, lol. Anyway, I've gone over it again, edited some mistakes and decided to try and share it as is for the first time. I'd really really appreciate some constructive criticism as this was written a long time ago, before anything else. So if you've got anything to say about it, good or bad, I'd be very grateful. :-)