Tant que c'est toi

Tant que c'est toi –

“Merde !” Nate’s hand jerked back as he touched the bonnet of his Range Rover and found it hotter than hell. Of course, the desert itself was hotter than hell. It was forty-four degrees in the shade. A sudden sharp squeal of hot gas escaping from the radiator told him all he needed to know. The Rover was toast.

“J’en ai marre !” Nate kicked the front tire not expecting it to pop and for the front end to collapse, but wasn’t surprised when it did just that. Then he uttered a stream of vulgarities in French that his instructors never taught him at the Sorbonne and which would have surely make his late grandmother blush in her grave had she understood the translation. Looking at the heap of a useless SUV, he rolled his eyes and looked up the hill to the desert ridge that he had descended from just a few moments earlier earnestly praying that no racer would come barreling down and run him over. But, then again, he chuckled, it would end his misery. He hesitated a moment. Why the hell, he wondered, did his wealthy and successful brother talk him into this idiotic race. Instead of helping him develop international clients, he could be drinking a kir royal at the Deux Magots while watching well dressed women pass by with their small rolling bags which seemed to have taken over the streets of Paris. Moving to the other side of the Rover to get out of the way, he reached in and grabbed his two way radio. Keying the mike, he announced, “Number 17 is down and out. Am at Turn 16 Tango. Send a flatbed because I am flat sidelined.”

Sweeping the sandy dust off his sleeves, he heard a dejected voice over the radio inquire, “No chance to repair it, eh?”

Nate keyed the mike and replied, “No, hitting a bunch of rocks a click back, I must have cracked the radiator block and damaged the oil pan from what I am smelling. The only thing she can do now is return oil to the Arabs.”

The radio crackled and hissed out, “Sorry to hear that. It will take them an hour to get to you. Do you have supplies?”

“Yeah. Got enough water and a sandwich. I should be fine.” He wanted to add, but didn’t, “Well, except for my ego. My brother always said I drove like a girl. Now he has proof.” A moment later, he heard his brother on the radio call out to him and say he was doing well. Then he added something about ‘Natty Boy should have stayed with him.’ It was all too much. Nate tossed the only working thing in this race back into the Rover, climbed back in through the door’s window, and sulked in the shade the Rover provided. He contemplated his return to the States. His brief semester of studying in France was over. And stupidly, his brother convinced him that he should join him in a road race sponsored by a Dubai conglomerate for businessmen wannabe amateur off roaders. It would be a fun experience for them both, he argued.

Some fun, he thought. All Gerald every did for him was to demonstrate how much better he was at anything than Nate did. Gerald was bigger, stronger, brighter – well not brighter in the classroom, but certainly better with women, not that Nate cared about any of those things, especially the women. He just wanted to spend quality time with his brother. That was something super competitive Gerald never quite understood. Gerald wanted to show his little brother what a wicked wheeler dealer his was even behind the wheel.

A few days later, on a plane ride home out of Qatar that took hours to fly to JFK, Nate had to listen to his brother brag about coming in second almost the whole way. Thankfully, that kept Gerald from ribbing him about driving like a girl. Well, almost. But, at least he could get him to shut up by asking more questions about how he won second place. Arriving at JFK and going through customs, Nate said a tearful goodbye to his stoic uncomprehending brother who had to get back to work at his brokerage house in Manhattan to follow up on all the business leads he had generated. Nate continued on and caught a commuter flight to Manchester, New Hampshire, and was picked up by his cousin Jack.

Jack and Nate were born about two weeks apart. Until kindergarten, people would call them the twins more often than not. That was until they grew older and their size difference became more apparent. Jack had his father’s height and grew to a surprising 181 cms. Nate also had his father’s height and barely hit 167 cms in dress shoes. So, as they grew, Jack protected Nate from the bullies and was as kindly a ‘twin’ as there ever was to Nate. And the two were good friends too. Jack was everything that Gerald wasn’t. And Nate valued his relationship with Jack more than anything.

On the drive back from the airport, Jack was clearly concerned about his cousin. He opined, “You seemed depressed. I thought you would like Paris.”

Nate let out a heavy sigh. “I did. Maybe too much.” He shifted in his car seat so he could turn a little towards Jack. “I was transformed by her. Before I left, I sat in the upper room at the Musee d’Orsay looking through their transparent gros horloge … a big transparent clock … at the city skyline. I looked towards Le Sacre Coeur and wondered if I would ever return. Now that I am back here, the past six months feels more like a dream. And the tangible moments I spent in being French are lost in space and time. Never to return, I fear.”

“Tempus Fugit.”

Nate giggled. It was their grandmother’s favorite expression. It was hard for him to believe she was gone. Nate’s voice trembled as he asked, “Tell me the real truth, did she go quickly? I am so sorry I couldn’t be here even for her funeral. I so wish I hadn’t gone.”

Jack was more stoic and calm in his response trying to reassure Nate that is was okay for him to go off. “Grandma Claire wanted you to enjoy Paris. She would have said to you, ‘let the dead bury their dead, you go live.’” Then, as if confirm an unspoken truth, he added, “And you know she didn’t want you to stop living because of her.”

Nate smiled painfully. He knew Jack was right. He reflected on how often they would play together with his older sisters in front of the porch at their grandparents while his grandmother would watch them and knit them scarves and sweaters for everyone. Then there was her lovely pies which he enjoyed helping her make. He loved assisting her in collecting raspberry and rhubarb from her garden. Blueberry too when they would hike up into the mountains. Nate would giggle with joy helping her can in August and then open the presents of mason jars after Christmas filled with jam and her love. She always would get the warmest hug from him. Then they would cook some bread and dive into eating her jams. “I miss her not being here to greet me. Maybe that is why I am sad. I can’t share with her all that I experienced anymore like I used to. I loved telling her about my day at school and relating all the wonderful things I did at summer camp.” Nate was clearly holding back tears at this point.

Jack looked down at him for a second thoughtfully. Then he smiled. He knew exactly what to do. A few miles from their homes, Jack turned into a cemetery. Nate looked at him with surprise, but he sensed where Jack was going. There, in the distance, was the Gallard family monument that marked their section of the cemetery. It was a section where all their ancestors were buried. A quiet and serene location interrupted by an asphalt drive that ran parallel to the Gallard family’s line of graves. They parked and Nate instinctively knew where she was buried. He got out and walked up to his grandfather’s grave. There, next to it was a mound of dirt that had been weathered for more than a few months. Jack got out too and walked up to Nate putting his arm around him. “Go on. Share it all with her. She will come alive again and you’ll hear her voice again. It will be better than flowers. You’ll see.”

A tear formed on Nate's face and ran down his cheek as he realized the year below Claire’s name and to the right of the hyphen had been filled in at last. In a moment the two cousins were embracing and Nate’s tears turned into rivers down his face. He couldn’t stop sobbing. “I loved her so much Jack.” Jack just held on to his smaller cousin. No, he cradled him giving him a safe place to let it all go. “What am I going to do with her gone?”

Jack had long since gotten used to the fact that his cousin was grossly sentimental. He found himself stroking his back like he did to comfort his girlfriend when she was upset. “She didn’t want you to mourn her. It was her time to go. It is, as she would point out, your time to live.” The words he spoke flowed off Nate like the tears falling from his face. But, like the tears, they were just as important and true.

After bring himself under control, Nate at last walked up to the headstone while Jack stood back. Finding words for her was difficult for Nate, even if, he rationalized, she couldn’t hear him anymore. “Grandma. Tu me manques beaucoup. Comment puis-je vivre sans toi ?” Nate lost it again and fell to his knees sobbing. Jack came to the conclusion that he needed just to let Nate cry it all out and that was the best medicine for him. After what seemed like forever, the tears came less and less. Nate composed himself and brought his emotions once again under control. Nate steadied himself and got up.

Jack sat under a maple tree and listened to Nate tell his grandmother about his adventures. Nate laughed. He cried. He smiled. He got angry. He got silly. And when it seemed he was done, Jack came up to Nate and put his arm around him again. “I bet she heard every word. She loved you more than you will ever know.” Nate looked up at Jack and smiled.

Nate really appreciated the hug too. “Thanks Jack. I needed to let it out before we got home. I didn’t want to be a basket case in front of everyone.” Nate continued holding on to him on the way back to the car not caring how it looked to anyone. This was his cousin, his friend, and someone whom he loved very much.

“No problem, Nate. I knew you needed to say goodbye in your own unique way. There is one other thing I need to tell you. She knew she was going. She instructed the family that no one was to clean out her room and her closet. She only left the clothes she was to buried in where we could find them before she went to hospice. She wanted you to close out her life and you only.” Nate looked at him perplexed.

“Nate, I figure she knew you would remember each item and in letting it go, you would have a chance to move on. She was very pointed about it and made us all promise that you alone would clean her room when you got back from France. It was her gift to you and she insisted that no one was to steal it from you.” Nate could almost hear his grandma’s voice in the way Jack spoke.

“Thanks Jack. I love you.” He hugged his cousin. Nate was never shy about showing affection.

“I love you too.” Jack gave Nate a bear hug that warmed Nate’s heart as much as it nearly crushed his rib cage. Jack had learned years ago that it was the best way to treat his tender hearted cousin.

The next day, after a boisterous family reunion, Nate walked from his boyhood home two doors down to his grandma’s cape cod. He stood on the porch for a few minutes listening to the cicadas and their incessant noise. It was a warm summer’s day, which was unusual for June. Opening the door, he walked down the hallway to his grandma’s bedroom. It hadn’t been opened for months. He could smell the dust when he entered the room. Everyone had been faithful to leave it to him to close out her life. There, on the bed, was a manila envelope with her sealed final instructions. The thought that they were her last words to him hit hard. He closed his eyes for a moment and realized he smelled her perfume in the room too. He almost could hear her laugh once again. Then he swore he felt her wonderful tender hug that would make him melt every time. It amazed him that her perfume could still linger in her room after so long and touch him like it did. He studied himself so he wouldn’t collapse, opened his eyes, and then picked up the letter on the bed. Caressing it, he went over to her make up table and sat down. He knew he could stand and read it without fainting, but he wasn’t sure. He stared at it for the longest time. Tears flowed from his eyes the moment he opened it. It would be her last words to him. He wanted to cherish this moment. He wanted it to last too.

“My dearest and sweetest Nate. I know you loved Paris. I am so sorry I couldn’t be here to hear about your wonderful adventure. But, I wanted you to go even though I knew it would be the last time we ever saw each other. I love you and I know you love me. And, I know this trip opened you up to the other journey you want to take, but have never expressed. So, don’t regret our being apart. It is what I wanted. When I found out that I had only months to live, I didn’t want to stop you from living your life even after I was gone. Even more, I also wanted you to know I would have loved you and helped you in that future journey in a special way. So, after thinking about it, I felt I could help you on the journey you know you really want to start now with my being gone. I think you believed you would disappoint me. Because of that, you will find that my clothes are gone. I donated them in secret so you wouldn’t have to deal with them. In their place, I purchased clothes for you instead. The kind I think you want to wear, but thought would bring you too much rejection. Things too that would fit you in the life you know you need to explore now without me. Yes, I saw what you wore in secret when you didn’t think I was looking. And I know who you really are and always have been. And I love her too more than you will ever know. And just so you know, Jack knows too. He has promised to help you if this is who you really are. With all my love, your proud of you and doting grandmother Claire. P.S. There is another letter in the top drawer of my dresser that will give something special after you check out the clothes.”

Putting the letter, down, Nate quickly went to her small closet to see what she wrote about. In it were new clothes. Nothing of hers remained. There were dresses, sweaters, pants, shoes, and so much more. Quickly checking the dress sizes, Nate realized they were his size and age appropriate. He pulled out an A line dress that had a beautiful floral print and looked at himself in the mirror with it draped over his body. His grandmother had terrific taste he thought. How did she know! The smile on his face told him that his grandmother was right about who he really was. He put the dress back in the closet. Then he stopped. He pulled the dress out she bought for him and laid it on her bed. He would have to get some underwear before putting it on. Did she get him that too? She must have. Stunned by these sudden turn of events, he went over to her dresser and found the second letter she told him about as he looked for panties and a bra. Overwhelmed, he went back to sit down at her make up table anxious to hear what else she had to say.

“Honey, by now you have seen what I bought for you. You see, I have known forever who you really are. I have been waiting for you to have the courage to express it out loud. I have prepared for this day long before I became terminal. Had I not been ill, this would have still happened. Here is a savings account in your name I started when you were seven and I caught you in your cousin’s dress.” He pulled out a savings book. He continued to read. “It will cover your transition and surgeries. Don’t give it away. Spend it on yourself to become who you were meant to be. Spend it on you, as long as it is you, not the facade you present so well. By the way, I love the name Natasha. Eternally your loving grandmother Claire.” He looked at the bank balance. She had left him $160,000. He couldn’t believe she knew who she really was. Nate believed it had hidden from everyone all these years.

Nate looked again at the large bank balance. “’As long as it is you.’ she said. Yes. Thank you Grandma. Tu as raison, comme d’habitude. Tu reste sage encore.” Nate raised his eyes to study the image reflected in the makeup mirror. Before Nate’s gaze, it changed. Her face started to erase his face with a big radiant smile. Her life began to take hold with a twinkle in her eye that appeared out of no where. A sense of peace flooded what had been a broken girl’s lonely heart. Finally, Nate introduced herself to the image in the mirror and took her first step to live the life grandmother Claire longed for her to have, and the one Nate felt released at long last to live.

As he looked back down to the letter, he noticed a “p.s.”

It said, “Remember dear, you are my living epitaph. Have a great life. I love you – G. C.”

Nate nodded in agreement. He looked back up and said with a joyful smile to the lady in the mirror, “Bonjour Natasha Claire Gallard.”

Offering a hand to the image in the mirror, Nate continued, “Ravi de faire ta connaissance ! Je te donne tout ce que je suis tant que c’est toi.”

A little while later, Natasha trying on her outfit heard a knock at the bedroom door. She could hear Jack's voice.

Jack knocked again and said softly, "Natasha, can I come in."

Natasha picked up a photo of her grandmother, kissed it, hugged it, and said, "Merci Mamie !"

She got up and went to the door to open it to her future.

Copyright © 2018 by AuP reviner

[ Author's note: As many of my readers know, I enjoy listening to music when I write. The emotions a song brings up in me come through in my writing more often than not. The song I listened to while writing this song was 'Tant que c'est Toi' sung by Natasha St. Pier. The title and Nate becoming Natasha are a nod to her lovely song which inspired my writing. -- AuP ]



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