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Loïc Barrière

By Loïc Barrière

Lire en français (FR) - version originale

Photo credit : Jean-Baptise Phou
Translated from French

The emergency room answers after fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes! Maybe that's why they call it 15.

Now it's really bad.
I can't swallow anything. Too much pain in my chest, throat, head, everywhere. After my birthday, I could still cope, but now it's unbearable. Now I have to call 15. But I can barely speak, and my father won't be able to explain what's wrong with me. Vientiane came over in a hurry. When she opens the door of my room, the lower part of her face is completely hidden by a krama. I can only see her worried eyes behind her glasses. She doesn't comment on the mess, the wastepaper basket overflowing with snot-stained paper towels. She calls the medical emergency services. It rings in vain. She goes back to the living room to recharge her cell phone. I can hear her curse: "What if it was a heart attack! He would have time to die!" My father only heard the last word.
"Is he going to die?
"No, Dad, I was talking about something else. He needs to be examined by a doctor. I didn't know he was in this state."
By dint of continuously calling, she ends up getting the emergency operator. She runs into my room, puts the speakerphone on. A guy talks to me over the phone. An annoyed voice. Like we're bothering him, almost. Vientiane holds the phone with one hand and presses the krama on her mouth with the other. The guy gets impatient. He doesn't understand what I'm saying. The truth is, I can no longer speak, which is what my sister tells him to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. The guy tells us that the emergency room can't move at the moment, that my breathing difficulties sound okay, that there's a whole list of priority people. I hear the anger in my sister's voice, I see it in her eyes, but she manages to control herself, always very polite.
"So?" my father asks.
"They won't come."
"It's because of the address. This neighborhood has a bad reputation. Firefighters were mugged again last week."
"No, they are just overwhelmed."
"We should have moved a long time ago. The city wasn't like this when we arrived."
"You're not going over this again."
"I didn't speak French in the '80s. I didn't know there were good and bad neighborhoods. I chose this district. I made the wrong choice. And now they don't want to come and take care of my son."
I hear everything from behind the door. I would like to tell my father to stop blaming himself, tell my sister that after all my condition is surely not so bad. I just need some medicine to help me breathe. I'm suffocating. I'm in pain. Holy shit, why is this happening to me?
"What sickens me," my sister says suddenly, "is that every single MP is tested! We, in the suburbs, we can die.”

"Vannak! "She let out a little cry. I smile at her to try to lessen the effect I have on her. Do not cough, mask the pain. But my forehead is soaked. The sight of the krama on her mouth and nose makes me want to cry. She has three children. I don't want her near me anymore. I motion to her to step back. She retreats into the living room. The emergency room answers after fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes! Maybe that's why they call it 15.
Vientiane no longer hides her anguish. The tone of her voice is more assertive. Perhaps she understood that her courtesy earlier was counterproductive.
Between two coughing fits, I hear her describe my condition to a woman ("Miss, he's really not well.") who agrees to watch me on video, via WhatsApp. The connection is good. Vientiane enters my room again, I can't help but feel a little ashamed to be seen in the middle of my surrounding mess. The lady asks me questions me but no sound comes out of my mouth. Does she think I am faking it to get her attention? The lady in the emergency room is silent for a few seconds and then finally gives up: "I'll send a team for you. I hope they won't come for nothing." I can tell Vientiane is both relieved and anxious. In the corridor, my father speaks in half Khmer, half French. He seems to be completely losing it, I'm worried about him. Vientiane can't help but do a quick cleaning in my room, closes the door and waits with my father. Three hours later, they arrive as I'm at my worst. I'm suffocating, I'm suffocating, I feel like I'm being submerged under water.
Four men entirely covered in plastic, their faces protected by a mask. One of them examines me. I hear the word, "Respiratory distress," then "We're taking him," and finally "Can you walk?". We’re on the eleventh floor. The elevator works but it’s too small for a stretcher. They help me get up. I'm weak, I have so much trouble breathing that I need help to stand up. One of them explains to Vientiane and my father that they might keep me for a while and that visits will not be allowed.
Before we leave, I take one last look at the small wooden sculpture of the Bayon that Charlotte gave me. The neighbors' doors open as we pass. I don't like to be noticed. We have always been very discreet neighbors in our building. I imagine people freaking out. The virus is on our floor. They are afraid of being contaminated. That's all I am now, a virus. It's like I've been arrested for murder.
The men support me. They encourage me, they're gentle. I would like to tell them that I'm sorry I disturbed them. When they lay me down in the truck, and put the oxygen mask on, I feel a little better.

Guys in diving suits in the deserted corridor. Nurses and orderlies with goggles, masks, caps. I end up in a room that has just been disinfected. I entirely undress. I am informed that my clothes will be destroyed. I put on the dehumanizing little gown. I learn to pee lying down, into a plastic container.
Radios, scans, blood tests, drip. I am exhausted.
Vientiane had the presence of mind to give me a charger. I send her reassuring and even a bit humorous text messages. The crazy thing is that I’m in the hospital where I was born. I tell this to a nurse's aide, and her eyes crinkle, which I interpret as a smile since the lower part of her face is veiled by a mask. I decide that I will be an exemplary patient. I won't complain. I will always be smiling, no matter what.
I am struck by the gentleness of these women surrounding me. They are professional, they do what they need to do, yet always with a sweet word. I don't dare question them, for fear of being seen as a nuisance. I trust them. The doctor comes by to read the results, asks me questions that I answer with a nod. He looks particularly tired.

They hooked me up to a machine, those famous respirators they talk about on TV. The doctor calls my sister in front of me. He explains that he will try to transfer me to a hospital in Paris that has better machines. Here, they had seven state-of-the-art respirators, but they were requisitioned and installed in two Paris hospitals. By order of the government.
I've been tested. Bingo! At least there is no more doubt. I have the virus.
I turned down a TV. If I want to recover, I shouldn't watch BFM.
Sometimes, a care assistant calls my sister with my cell phone. She talks to me on video via WhatsApp but I can't respond back to her. I hope my father doesn't see me with these pipes and electronic devices... I must look like a robot. My sister doesn't talk for long so as not to bother the caregiver. She is careful not to ask me questions about my health. I guess the caregiver gives her a continuous report. She shows me a drawing made by Léa, her eldest daughter. Cats, rabbits, hearts, and "I love you Uncle" that brings a tear to my eye. To let my sister know that I'm glad she called, I raise my thumb, as if I were on Facebook.

A nurse brings me a plate of couscous that she warmed in the microwave. Women from the town, ordinary citizens, have decided to take turns to provide meals for the nursing staff and the patients. She helps me lean back on my pillow, frees me from my oxygen mask. I'm not very hungry but I eat a little. Thank God I haven't lost my sense of taste and smell. This couscous is simply divine. I feel all the love of the women who cooked it at home. It's not a dish from a restaurant, it's a dish cooked in the kitchen of a family I don't know. My Moroccan and Algerian friends made me laugh at school when they all swore with their hands on their hearts that the best couscous in the world was their mother's! The kindness and fraternity I feel at this moment are a counterweight the disease. I will never forget these women who, thanks to their couscous, made me part of the family.

They gave me shots to ease the pain in my chest. This made me sleepy for part of the day. They laid me on my stomach. My mind floats, in midwater. I don't know why, but I see pictures of the two of us — Vientiane and I — school pictures. She was proud to explain that her first name was the capital of Laos. My mother had explained to us that when they arrived in France, my parents had been rescued by a Laotian: it was him that had found a job for my father. When my sister was born, showing him their gratitude was a natural thing for them to do. But when I asked why we never heard of him, I understood that my parents, for some mysterious reasons, had ended up falling out with him.
To keep my spirits up, I try to visualize my new apartment. The seller told me I could buy the attic too and have it converted. I will then go from a three-room to a five-room apartment! Since I was a child, I've regularly had the same dream: I'm in our family apartment and I'm exploring each room when I suddenly discover a door. I feel a joy impossible to describe, between grace and illumination when, pushing the door, I discover a new room, unknown to all. 
A burning sensation in my chest. To reject the oppression that overwhelms me a little more every day, I summon the past or the future. I want my spirit to be stronger than my suffering body.
I think about Charlotte. She told me that she was not a religious person but that she needed spirituality, nonetheless. According to her, the universe was governed by an order. The human skeleton, the shape of petals, the force of attraction, the circulation of ideas since the beginning of humanity. She said that every life is necessary. The bee of course, but also the wasp or that damn mosquito. Even someone who doesn't find a meaning to one's existence is there for something. She believed that all people are connected to each other without knowing it. She liked to tell me about her great-grandfather's father, a teacher of the Third Republic who passed on his knowledge to generations of small farmers. She told me: "Sometimes, when I pass a stranger in the subway, I tell myself that his life would not be the same if his ancestor had not learned to read and write with my ancestor." I remember saying to her, "So we're all brothers, if I follow your reasoning." She smiled, "Yes, I believe we are." Charlotte offered me books on Orpheus and Pythagoras. She was interested in ancient Greece, Egypt, the Middle Ages. Time has passed and I regret not having read them. I miss her conversations.
Charlotte is right. The virus passes from hand to hand, mouth to mouth, nose to nose. The virus is evidence that we are all like brethren.

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About the author

Loïc Barrière
Loïc Barrière
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Loïc Barrière published five novels, among which Rizières sous la lune (Vents d'Ailleurs, 2016), Le roman d'Abd-el-Kader (Les Points sur les I, 2016) and Le Choeur des enfants khmers (Seuil, 2008). He is also a journalist at Radio Orient where he hosts literary and political programs.