Fiction

Arc de Triomphe

By: Thomas Sanfilip

Robert waited anxiously for his sister Alissa to embark from the plane. His pale, strained features lit up instantly when he saw her as they made their way out of the airport into the southern Californian sunlight, listening to the roar of airplanes overhead. From where they stood, the grey undersides of the planes looked like fat bellies distended in parabolic curves ready to explode. Looking upward, stunned and transfixed, they covered their ears as high screeches pierced the air, cracking the very sky that appeared angled above them. Alissa’s dreams rose like so many shoots of grass reaching to the light. Robert felt her naiveté and wonder. “This is wonderful,” she said under her breath. Under the afternoon sun, they set off,

steering away from the twisted freeway exits of the San Diego Freeway, finding the Pacific coastline suddenly slip into view.

               The greyish-blue pallor of the vast expanse to which she could detect no end rose away from her vision. When they made it down to the beach later that afternoon, she instantly felt its elemental power infuse her body as she reached out to touch the crisscrossing patterns of waves that made their way to shore. Kneeling down in the shallows, she almost felt mesmerized at the water’s constant shifting movement, feeling the undertow pulling her further away from shore.

Half-holding her up as they made their way up the long walkway that led back to his apartment, by the time they arrived she had vomited on the street like a sick, ravaged animal unable to aright itself in the sun.

       “I’m just tired, that’s all,” she kept reassuring, but the glazed expression that crossed her face  was worrisome. He told her to take a look at the ocean from the balcony.

       When she glanced back joyously, he avoided looking at her directly, the shallows under his eyes darkened and burning in a bleeding aura of muted light.

       “No one in the family has ever done what you’ve done,” she said turning back to face the ocean, in a voice so soft he hardly heard it against the wash of waves against the shore. “But no one will ever tell you that,” she reflect aloud. “No one understands what you’re doing so far away from home.”

       Robert pointed to his guitar, scarred and battered, the neck warped and bridge cracked in long contact with the ocean air; but strangely it was playable, picking it up as she spoke, stroking one or two chords to emphasize his point.

       “There’s nothing to explain,” he said.

       “But the words they say …”

       “Only words.”

                He looked penetrated and drained like a molecular sieve of useless human flesh; but he had decided to look after her for a while on this, her first trip away from home, hoping to protect

her like some beneficent angel from her own misconstruances of the world, until she turned around to walk back into the apartment from the balcony. When she did, he instantly saw a

malevolent bald spot on her scalp partly hidden by a few strands of hair. He stared at its evil spite gnawing at her raw fragility.

       “How are you feeling?”

       She answered numbly, as if suddenly cognizant of her downward spiral too strong to break.

       “I don’t know.”

       “What about the blood?”

       “The blood …” she said underneath her breath, almost nostalgically, as though it had metamorphosized into something different, less vital and more nefarious as she spoke, and she merely coasting on faith that nothing would alter her precarious health before she had a chance to see Paris.

       “The Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe, the Les Invaldes, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Sainte-Chapelle — they’re beautiful places, and you’ve seen each one,” she said.

She leaned back in her chair near the balcony, feeling the ocean breeze for the first time braze her cheeks and lips, closing her eyes in sheer wonderment at the thought of visiting France.

                 “But what do you think of death, Robert?” she suddenly asked. He refused to answer for he saw death in her eyes every instant since the onset of her kidney disease, as if some constant presence too enigmic to decipher. Bravely he sensed the need to challenge it, while at the same time liberating her from its spell.

                “I think of it all the time,” she said, almost transfixed at the sound of her own voice. The thought that she was suffering oppressed him so deeply that for a moment he was all savage feeling and self-recriminations at his own useless efforts to save his sister from utter decay.

       “Alissa,” he said quietly, and she obligingly like an obedient school girl came to him. Barely able to control his raw emotion, he threw his arms around her tightly pressing her to him as if to protect her from her own self-paralysis. With left ear pressed to her chest, he heard the rolling, broken cadence of her heart, murmuring and doubling over itself as if struggling to keep beating. Her body’s suffering infused his own with a kind of symbiotic oneness he had not felt since they were children, while she looked down into his shattered countenance with unexpected compassion.

       “There’s no teaching life, Alissa,” he said soberly, feeling a sharp twinge of pain. “There’s only being and the suffering that goes with it.”

       A strange prescience overcame him as he looked at her in the late glow of afternoon sunlight spearing through the open balcony. Neither was able to speak coherently or even  rationally to the anguish. All they could do was sit in the day’s waning light that drifted further and further beyond reach.

 “If I could only die now …” she whispered, feeling both the exhilaration and tragedy of their existence to which he could only respond that Paris was always waiting.

             Her eyes suddenly glittered with long-extinct anticipation, but in those few seconds she knew it was an impossibility, even thinking about other places, love, children, a home where she might bask, perhaps in the sunlight off the kitchen, picking basil warm to the touch from fat clay pots on a broad patio, or luxuriate in the four seasons that would tally against the eaves of her last refuge from the world.

                   “I feel tired,” she said.

                She almost wished at that instant the hidden forces killing her would resolve themselves. From the balcony, the ocean was a glittering surface of shifting planes and light.

                 It was only when Robert went into his bedroom near midnight to check if she was sleeping that he noticed her slumped over on her right side, a growing pool of blood staining the pillow. Dazed and near comatose, hemorrhaging from the mouth, her pupils were glazed over in sheer opacity, a half-muted light playing in and out of focus, making it almost impossible to see anything but a deadened fixity. Lifting her from the bed, he smelled a bitter acridity, the kidney failure, her mouth encircled in a ring of coagulated blood that covered her lips and teeth like some ghoulish lipstick, giving her features the appearance of some horrific countenance. She had slipped away, too malnourished, too weak, a heart palpitating on the verge of expiration, as if on cue to some distant, unexplainable order of the universe.

                He sat in the corner of the room, his eyes fixed on her profile cast against the ceiling arching in dismal shades of egg-shell white. His delirium over her sudden death intensified in an excruciating jab of neurologic contractions calling for reprieve.

 “Someone should discover you,” she once said to him halfway across the continent in a long-distance telephone call, and he answered in a placid tone of confidence that belied the truth.

                “I need time, that’s all…”

                At that moment, he felt sick and motionless, as though days gone by in a flash, without even a vague cognizance of time intruding. Perhaps I can catch up to her, he thought, as if the stilled force of her bloodstream alone enough to drag him into the next world with her. He imagined a rope tied around their waists, their bodies tumbling and tossing over a waterfall like broken dolls into an unknown, bottomless pit. To Paris – or was it? A quiet street off the Boulevard Raspail or where the Boulevard Caulaincourt meets the Rue de Abbesses? I don’t have to turn to see her, he kept thinking. She’s looking down from the Sacre-Coeur. When she’s had enough, she’ll come down.

                “Come, pick apples with me,” he imagined her saying, reaching for a branch above her head, then extending the same hand to him to lift him up to the tree’s height, but he felt unexplainable dread.

                “Please, let’s go down to earth,” he pleaded, but she did not hear him, and if she did, he only saw her laughing, picking one apple after another, bright-red with streaks of yellow, each gleaming round and profuse in the sunlight, until suddenly she fell like some leaf twisting on the lightest current of a breeze, he too slumped to one side, his heart suddenly losing rhythm,

dissolving with her last breath.

Categories: Fiction

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