November 13, 10:37 P.M.
Melvil fell asleep without a murmur, as he usually does when his mama isn’t there. He knows that with Papa, the lullabies are not as soft and the hugs not as warm, so he doesn’t expect too much.
To keep myself awake until she gets home, I read. It’s the story of a novelist turned detective who discovers that a novelist turned murderer did not actually write the novel that made him want to become a novelist. My phone, lying on my bedside table, buzzes. I read the text from a friend:
“Hey, everything OK? Are you at home?”
I hate those text messages that don’t really say anything. I don’t reply.
“Everything OK?” “ . . . ” “Are you safe?”
What’s that supposed to mean, “safe”? I put the book down and rush to the living room on tiptoes. Do not wake the baby. I grab the remote. Live: Terrorist attack at the Stade de France. I think about Hélène. I should call her, tell her it would be a good idea to take a taxi home. But there is something else. In the corridors of the stadium, some people stand frozen in front of a screen.
They are watching something that I can’t see. Not yet. Then, at the bottom of my screen, the news on the ticker suddenly stops.
“terrorist attack at the bataclan.”
The sound cuts out. All I can hear is the noise of my heart trying to burst out of my chest. Those five words seem to echo endlessly in my head. One second lasts a year. A year of silence, sitting there, on my couch. It must be a mistake. I check that that is where she went. Maybe I got it mixed up, or forgot. But the concert really is at the Bataclan. Hélène is at the Bataclan.
I feel an electric shock go through my body. I want to run outside, steal a car, go out and look for her. But I’m paralyzed because Melvil, seventeen months old, is with me. I want to scream, but it’s impossible. Do not wake the baby.
I grab my phone. I have to call her, talk to her, hear her voice. Contacts. “Hélène,” just Hélène. I never changed her name in my contacts list, never added “my love” or a photo of the two of us. Neither did she. The call she never received that night was from “Antoine L.” It rings out. Goes to voice mail. I hang up, I call again. Once, twice, a hundred times. However many it takes.
I feel suffocated by the couch. The whole apartment is collapsing in on me. At each unanswered call, I sink a little deeper into the ruins. Everything looks unfamiliar. A phone call from my brother brings me back to reality.
“Hélène is there.”
In the moment when I pronounce these words, I realize there is no way out. My brother and sister come to our apartment. No one knows what to say.
In the living room, the TV is on. We wait, eyes riveted to the 24-hour-news channels, which are already competing to come up with the most lurid headline. “massacre,” “carnage,” “bloodbath.” I turn off the TV before the word slaughter can be uttered.
N.’s wife calls me. N. was at the Bataclan with Hélène. He’s safe. I call him. He says he doesn’t know where she is. Hélène’s mother joins us.
I have to act, do something. My brother clears the way for me. Without a word, he picks up his car keys. We confer in whispers. Close the door quietly behind us. Do not wake the baby.
There’s silence in the car. In the city around us, too. From time to time, the painful screams of a siren disturb the hush that has descended on Paris. We go to all the major hospitals. Bichat, Saint-Louis, Salpêtrière, Georges-Pompidou. . . . Her name is not on any of the lists. But each time, I am given a new reason to keep going. “Not all the wounded have been identified yet.” “They’re taking survivors at Bichat too.”
Seven o’clock in the morning.
In half an hour, Melvil will drink from his bottle. He must still be sleeping. A baby’s sleep, uncluttered by the horrors of the world.
Time to go home.
November 14, 8:00 P.M.
Melvil waits. He waits to be big enough to reach the light switch in the living room. He waits for me to make his dinner before I read him a story. He waits for bath time, for lunchtime, for snack time. And tonight, he waits for his mother to come home before he goes to bed.
I wait too. I tell myself she will come through the bedroom door and join us for the last couplet. I tell myself she will finally call. I tell myself we are going to wake up soon.
Melvil has fallen asleep. The telephone rings. It’s Hélène’s sister.
“Antoine, I’m so sorry. . . .”
November 15, 5:00 P.M.
After the walk, it’s time for Melvil to settle down. Today I can tell he is annoyed. The cookie is too crumbly. The ball has rolled too far. The straps on his stroller are too tight. He struggles with everything jostling inside him. What is this feeling that makes him want to cry when he’s not hungry, not in pain, not afraid? He misses his mother. She hasn’t come home for two days now.
To soothe him, I send him to find a book from his bedroom. Smiling his six-tooth smile, he returns from his mission with a book that he likes to read with his mother. It is the story of a pretty little ladybug in an enchanted garden. All the insects who gather nectar there admire the ladybug. She is the prettiest and kindest of all the bugs. Her mama is so proud of her. But one day, the little ladybug lands by chance on the hooked nose of an evil witch.
Melvil has never known that the witch turns this sweet ladybug into a nasty ladybug who terrorizes the usually tranquil garden. Concerned that he might be scared by them, Hélène always skipped those pages. Snug in his bed, Melvil saw only the good fairy who, with a wave of her magic wand, made the little insect beautiful and kind again. Today I skip those pages too. But when I see the fairy appear, in her dream-blue, star-covered dress, I suddenly stop.
Melvil will not be able to skip these pages of his life the way he skipped the pages of the story. I have no magic wand. Our little ladybug landed on the witch’s nose. The witch had a Kalashnikov and death at its fingertip.
I have to tell him, now. But how?
He stamps his feet, throws his books on the floor. He’s about to have a meltdown. I pick up my phone to play the songs that he listens to with her, with his thumb in his mouth, wrapping himself around her like an affectionate little boa constrictor.
I hold him against my body, trap him between my legs, so he can feel me, understand me. He spent nine months inside his mother, listening to her live: Her heartbeat was the rhythm of his days. I want him to hear, his ear to my chest, my voice telling him my sorrow. I want him to feel my muscles tensed by the gravity of this moment. I want the beating of my heart to reassure him: Life will go on.
On the phone, I find the playlist that his mother put together for him, and hit play.
She handpicked every single song. Henri Salvador and his “Une Chanson Douce” rub shoulders with Fran?oise Hardy’s “Le Temps de l’Amour.” As the first notes of “Berceuse à Frédéric” by Bourvil play, I open the photos folder. Her face appears, blurred, badly framed, but that is all it takes to jolt Melvil from the fragile calm produced by the opening words of the song. “It’s time to sleep now. . . .”
Immediately he points an anxious finger toward her, and then turns to me, his smile turned upside down and warm tears welling in his eyes. I break down, and I explain to him as best I can that his mama will not be able to come home, that she had a serious accident, that it’s not her fault, she would have loved to be with him, but she can’t anymore. He cries like I’ve never seen him cry before.
The photographs flash up one by one, and the music starts to sting. We are like two children, crying our little hearts out. It’s normal that you feel sad; you’re allowed to be sad; Papa is sad too. Whenever you feel like this, come to see me and we’ll look at the photos. The song ends. “Don’t forget this music . . . that I gave you one day . . . with all my love. . . .”
The tale of the little ladybug ends when, having once again become the prettiest ladybug in the garden, she finds her mama, who cries with joy at seeing her little girl again. Now I must explain to Melvil, every time he needs to hear it, why his mama will not be waiting for him at the end of his story. I tear the page out of the book and pin it to the wall of his bedroom, next to a photograph of her. Melvil is holding on to her shoulders while he lies on her back.
She is looking at me, no pose, no lens. Her eyes speak directly to me. They tell me about the simple joys of those seventeen months we spent together, the three of us.
November 16, 10:00 A.M.
Accompanied by Hélène’s mother and sister, I map out the mortuary. Color-coded. Blue, police, so I can get through. Fluorescent yellow, psychological-support staff, to avoid. Black, mortuary staff, so I can see her again. I head toward someone in blue, who leads me to someone in black, who suggests I go to see someone in fluorescent yellow. I pretend not to hear what he says.
Since arriving, I have been asked a dozen times if I would like to sit down; each time, I refuse, out of fear that I won’t be able to get up again.
Protocols. Paperwork. Families come and go. About fifteen enter before us. All reemerge in pieces.
“You’ve come to see Luna-Hélène Muyal?”
It’s our turn.
A young woman speaks to us. She has done this a thousand times before, I can hear it in her voice.
Hélène is there, just next door. I can sense her. I would like to see her, alone. Hélène’s mother and sister understand. They know that even here, it is the two of us, first of all.
We were like two little Lego bricks that fit together perfectly. Our “once upon a time” began one June 21, with music, at a concert. I thought she wouldn’t want someone like me. We were both Parisian, but I thought she was too beautiful, too sophisticated, too everything for a guy like me. I took her hand. We were swallowed up by the crowd and the noise. Until the last moment, I thought she would escape me. Then we kissed. A love story like any other.
The door opens.
“Let me know when you’re ready.”
She is there. A pane of Plexiglas separates us. I press on it with all my weight. Our life together flashes before my eyes. I feel as though I never had another life. Hélène was the moon. A brunette with milk-white skin, eyes that made her look like a frightened owl, a smile you could fit the whole world inside. I remember her smile on our wedding day.
She is just as beautiful as she always was.
She looks like the woman I watched wake up each morning. I want to lie next to her languorous body, warm her up, tell her she is the most beautiful woman I ever met. I want to close my eyes, too, and wait for Melvil to call out to us, to start tangling himself up in our crumpled sheets.
Hélène often asked me if love could be shared. If, after the arrival of our child, I would still love her as much. After his birth, she never asked that question again.
I cry, I talk to her. I would like to stay another hour, at least a day, perhaps a lifetime. But I must leave her. The moon must set. Today, November 16, the sun rises on our new “once upon a time.” The story of a father and a son who go on living alone, without the aid of the star to whom they swore allegiance.
“Monsieur, it is time to leave her. . . .”
November 16, 11:00 A.M.
Since coming out of the mortuary, I have only one thought in my head: going to see Melvil at the day care. Finding him and telling him that I saw his mother, and I brought her with me in the palm of my hand.
We are in the car, on the way back, when it begins. My brother-in-law, who is driving, sees my foot frenetically tapping, and says reassuringly, “You’ll get to the day care on time, don’t worry.” It is not the stress of being late that dictates these movements, it is the words that have suddenly started to form in my mind, imposing their rhythm. One after another or all at the same time. Each one begins to play a few notes, like the moments before an orchestra starts to play.
Melvil was the only one, that day, who could respond to my smile with a smile. The only one, that day, who saw that I had his mama with me. We go home on the path that he adores, the one where we see the most road signs. He lifts up his arms: “No parking!” He lifts them again less than 50 feet later . . . another “No parking!” And so on. . . .
House, lunch, diaper, pajamas, nap, computer. The words continue to arrive. All I have to do is pluck them from the air.
After a few minutes, the letter is there: “You will not have my hate.”
I hesitate for a while before posting it, then my brother forces me to do what I have not done for two days.
“Lunch is ready. Come and eat!”
No time to think about it. Facebook, through which I’m communicating with some of Hélène’s friends, is open in the next tab. “What’s on your mind?” it asks. Copy, paste, post. My words no longer belong to me.
On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate.
Grooming: Laure Gaudou
From the book You Will Not Have My Hate_, by Antoine Leiris, copyright 2016 by Librairie Arthème Fayard and Translation copyright ? 2016 by Sam Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC._