Paris, November, 2073
Her stomach was empty, and yet, she felt like throwing up. As Cecilia came around, her head was still spinning; where was she? She looked around the clinical room, as pain overwhelmed her. Where were her family?
It didn’t take long for a nurse to stop by to ask how she felt. She gesticulated that something wasn’t right with her stomach, running her hand from her belly up to her mouth.
‘It’s normal to feel nausea; it’s because of the anaesthesia.’ said the young lady in white standing beside her, checking her IV.
‘It hurts,’ said Cecilia with effort, touching her chest.
‘I can help you with that right away.’ The nurse immediately administered a liquid into Cecilia’s IV. Within minutes she began to feel better – grateful for whatever the young lady injected into her veins. It magically worked.
‘The doctor will stop by soon to check up on you. I’ll let your granddaughter know you’re awake,’ said the nurse with a smile on her face. ‘Meanwhile, I will get you something light to eat.’ This time she winked and left the room.
Alone again, Cecilia took a deep breath, rested her head on the pillow and turned to stare at nothing. Then she brought her hand up and analysed its marks and wrinkles. Time really flies. She thought of the days when she was in such a hurry to live her life. Hoping to turn 18 already so she could leave home. Rushing through traffic so she wouldn’t be late. Waking up early to study one more time before an exam. Counting the days to graduation, to her wedding, for her babies to arrive. Dashing to catch planes, worrying about finishing projects, making plans. All her life, she was always hurrying to do something, to accomplish something, to become someone.
Now, at 85, lying in a hospital bed, memories of her life flooded her mind. She closed her eyes and sighed. Deep inside, she felt that life was coming to a close, and there was only one little thing she still wanted to do before leaving this world for good. The letter. Yes, she should finish the letter. The one she’d been writing her whole life, hidden in a box in the back of her closet for decades. She wanted to finish it. She wanted to keep her promise.
The door to her room opened and a beautiful young woman entered with a smile of relief.
‘Mémé, how are you feeling?’ Said Élodie, her granddaughter. ‘Mon Dieu, you scared us.’ Élodie rushed to her beloved grandmother and held her hands tightly.
‘You’re cold. Let me get you another blanket. The doctor should be here soon,’ she said before kissing Cecilia’s forehead.
Élodie was sweet. Dark-haired like her mother and like her grandmother used to be. Though the youngest in the whole family, she was always the most patient with her mémé and pépère, her grandma and grandpa.
‘Don’t you need to be in class now, chérie?’ Asked Cecilia.
‘Not today. And you shouldn’t be worrying about that now,’ she said, then covered her grandmother with another blanket.
‘How’s your grandpa? Have you checked on him?’ Asked Cecilia.
‘He misses you. He wants to come and visit, but you know that’s not possible,’ said Élodie. There was sadness in her eyes, Cecilia noticed. If there was something no one could ever hide from her, it was sadness.
The doctor came in and stated the facts; Cecilia had had a heart attack and needed emergency surgery. An intruder had stepped inside her heart. A strange piece of metal helping her heart beat again.
When the doctor left, Cecilia asked Élodie for a glass of water, then gently sipped it.
‘What are you thinking about?’ Asked Élodie after a long silence.
‘Would you do me a favour chérie?’ Asked Cecilia.
‘Of course mémé. What can I do for you?’ She took the glass from her grandmother’s hand and put it on the night stand by her bed.
‘Could you go home and look for something I’ve wanted to see again?’ The way she said it sounded so final.
Cecilia explained to her granddaughter that she would find a box in the first drawer on the lefthand side of her closet. Inside that box, there would be another tiny box, and in it, there would be a little key. She should take that little key and open a drawer, and there she would find another box, in it a notebook filled with notes. She should bring the notebook and a pen over to the hospital.
Élodie made a strange face, but she didn’t question Cecilia’s request.
After her uncle Henri arrived to stay with Cecilia overnight, Élodie went looking for the mysterious notebook. She found the box exactly where and how her grandmother had described it. It was a cream coloured box, and in it was a notebook, a pen engraved with the initials C.B. and a leather bracelet, among other things.
The notebook had a black cover and was as thick as a book. She turned a few pages of it just to have an idea of what she was dealing with. It was filled with handwriting in black ink – her grandmother’s writing?
Handwriting was rare these days; with all the technology improvements, people didn’t need to make an effort to write anymore. Nowadays, you could also type or dictate what you wanted only with your thoughts. Seeing someone’s handwriting became something personal, special even. So Élodie was captivated by seeing her grandmother’s. It was a piece of her she never really knew.
On the first page, there was the word ‘Incomplete’. Was it a title, or was it a statement? She didn’t read any more, it wasn’t her place to read her mémé’s memoirs. Instead, she closed it and put it back in the box, together with the other things and brought it to the hospital, along with a bouquet of dark pink peonies sent on specific request by her grandfather.
When Élodie returned to the hospital room the following day, it was just after breakfast. She met her uncle in the hallway and gave him a hug. He looked tired from sleeping in the hospital, marks on the side of his face.
‘How is she?’
‘You know, the same.’ he said with a worried look. ‘How’s your grandpa?’
‘The same, but sad. He asks about her all the time,’ she said.
‘I spoke to your mom a few minutes ago. She’s trying to fly back home, but thanks to the weather all flights leaving from London have been cancelled,’ her uncle informed her.
‘I’ve heard. I hope she finds a flight soon,’ she said, staring at the floor.
Henri held his niece in his arms in silence.
Élodie gently knocked on the door before opening it. Cecilia was resting, her eyes closed. As Élodie sat down on the chair, Cecilia opened her eyes.
‘Did you find it chérie?’ Cecilia asked, hopefully.
When Élodie confirmed it, Cecilia smiled. But before Élodie gave her grandmother the box, she gave her a bunch of flowers.
‘Pépère says he misses you,’ said Élodie, watching Cecilia inhale the scent of the bouquet.
Once the flowers were arranged in a small vase by the bed, Élodie gave her grandmother the box with its special contents. Cecilia opened it carefully, eager to find what was inside it. She took the notebook from the box and held it in her arms like it was a long-lost relative.
‘What is it about this notebook that makes you smile like that?’ Élodie asked.
‘Oh, you will see chérie,’ said Cecilia, holding the notebook to her heart.
She opened it and ran her hands over the pages, as if caressing someone she loved very much. Her eyes were swimming with water, but no tears fell. Élodie had never seen her grandmother cry before.
‘Do you mind reading it to me?’ Cecilia closed the notebook and placed it in her granddaughter’s hands.
‘Me? Are you sure you want me to read it?’ She cautiously took the black notebook in her hands, afraid of damaging it.
‘Yes, you,’ she smiled.
Élodie cautiously opened the notebook and saw once again the word ‘Incomplete’ on the first page.
‘What is it mémé? Did you write it?’ Asked Élodie, touching the thin, delicate pages, yellowed with age. They looked decades older than Élodie herself, as if from another era.
‘Yes. Now, go on. You’ll see,’ commanded Cecilia. She leaned back on her pillow, made herself comfortable and closed her eyes.
Élodie read what she now believed was the title: ‘Incomplete’. Then she turned the page and continued.
Written between May 7th, 2005 and July 1st, 2005
I still remember life before you. I was obsessed with conquering the world my own way, not letting anyone else tell me how to do it or when. I wanted to be myself and make my own decisions without hearing unsolicited advice, especially from my family. I dreamed of writing books and articles for magazines and newspapers, about anything I felt like, really. I always expressed myself better through written words, so it was only natural that becoming a journalist was an appealing and temping path to follow.
My career path was never my father’s plan. He had a different plan in mind for my life, which didn’t include me making the decisions. That was more or less what my life before you looked like, D. A life filled with decisions made by others, dreams dreamt by others, expectations of others, none mine.
However, don’t get me wrong – there are more things about my life before you I can tell you about. Like how I used to run away from home on my bike when I was a child because it gave me the sense of exploring the world, or how intimidated I felt that my first kiss was with someone way more experienced than me. But until the moment you came into my life, nothing made my heart feel out of control.
Before I met you, I didn’t know in one’s life there were so many choices to make, so many ways to go, and so many mistakes to be made. For a sixteen-year-old with her whole life ahead, it was scary and daring but mostly exciting. When I first arrived in London, I couldn’t wait to conquer the world on my own. What I didn’t know was that there were so many other experiences I would discover on this journey, you being one of them, which is why I’m here, using this black pen to write on this black notebook, to you.
It was March 2005. I’d lived in London for six months as an exchange student to learn English. My father would have preferred for me to go to the United States, but I always liked to find my own way and make my own decisions. I’m also very persuasive.
It was a year when I could escape my life, from the divorce my parents were going through. But I didn’t know all that back then when I was boarding a plane from São Paulo to London.
I still remember the very moment when I saw you for the first time. The school bus that would take us all away for a weekend in France. A ‘cultural trip’, as the school called it, visiting museums, experiencing a different culture and learning history.
I was in a seat by the window. My best friend, Melanie, was by my side. I remember how excited we both were about the adventure ahead of us. I can still feel that thrill of not knowing what was about to come — the people we would meet, the places we would visit, the late-night chats in our hotel rooms, the handsome boys we would flirt with, the memories we would take with us for the rest of our lives.
I looked down out of the window, and there you were. Wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans, a black leather jacket, backpack on your back, Adidas trainers with blue and red stripes. You were talking to someone, another boy, and you had your hands in your pockets. Your weight shifted onto your right leg. You were skinny the way I liked, with muscles in the right places. But your hair was what immediately caught my attention – dark and moody, messy and thick, a bit long and floppy, and well, you might remember how you had your hair back then.
It was impossible not to notice you. There was something about the way your arms were crossed over your chest while you listened to your friend. There was something shy about the way your mouth moved when you talked and smiled — familiar, and yet, somehow unusual. It was as if I knew you all along.
I might have stared at you, because when you ran your hand through your hair, you stopped midway and looked right up at me. That was the first time our eyes met. I felt my chest warm; heatwaves moved all over my body. Your stare held mine, and though my cheeks felt as hot as heated oil, I couldn’t stop staring back. As I found the strength to fight my way out of this paralysis, a shy smile formed at the corner of your mouth, making me smile, too.
We looked at each other for quite some time, long enough to make your friend notice it and see me with my forehead pressed against the window. When I realised I’d been spotted, I turned away and shyly covered half of my face with my hand. Moments later, after I recovered, I looked down again and couldn’t see you anymore.
I leaned back on my seat, put some music on my iPod and closed my eyes. My body trembled at the thought of saying hello to you if the opportunity ever came. And it did because moments later, you were stepped on our bus.
‘Who is he?’ I asked Mel as you walked down the aisle looking for a vacant seat, your friend behind you. I was secretly hoping you would pick the window seat in front of mine.
‘No idea. Never seen him at St. James’. He probably goes to St. Joseph’s,’ she said, not really paying attention to me as she flicked through the Cosmopolitan magazine lying on her lap.
Two buses would take the students to Paris, how lucky that you were assigned to travel on ours. I was glad Mel was busy reading her magazine. If she had noticed how stupid I looked staring at you, she wouldn’t leave me alone until I gave in and admitted that I found you cute. And that would be the end of me because she would tease me for the rest of the trip and probably find some way to make me sit next to you by the day we returned to London. Nothing was impossible or embarrassing to Mel (unless there was food between her teeth or her hair wasn’t in place for a picture).
You were smiling as you walked. That kind of smile shouldn’t be allowed that early in the morning. And so you decided that your seat should be the one right in front of mine.
‘Hey,’ you said. I noticed the scar just above your right eyebrow, another sexy thing to look at. As if reading my mind, you smiled, showing all your teeth and a dimple on your left cheek. But what really changed everything was the way your dark eyes stared at me when you spoke. You looked right into my eyes, just like you did a few moments before, only this time you were much closer, and I was afraid you could hear all the sounds and thoughts my mind was playing at that moment.
A look like yours could make someone lose their mind. Unconsciously I straightened myself up on my seat and tried my best to slow the beating of my heart.
‘Hey, look, we’ve got TVs; I hope they put some decent movies on,’ said Melanie, putting her magazine away and pointing at the screens above our heads. ‘Want some Cadbury’s?’ She offered.
On a typical day, I’d have immediately said yes, but in that moment I had something more interesting than chocolate to give my attention to. I was watching you talking to your friend.
‘Earth to Cece, Earth to Cece,’ she repeated.
‘What?’ I looked at her, annoyed.
‘Where are you right now?’ Asked Mel, indignant.
‘Somewhere I shouldn’t be,’ I said, already regretting giving myself away so easily. But the fact that your t-shirt was sliding up just the right amount to show a small part of your stomach while you were putting your backpack up in the rack above your seat, justified me getting caught.
‘Oh I get it, I know exactly where you are,’ she said, elbowing me.
‘Shut up,’ I said, closing my eyes and blushing.
‘Cece’s in paradise,’ she nudged me as she said it. You and your friend couldn’t help but grin at us. For a brief moment, I thought about hiding under the seat so I could hide my blushes.
Once everyone was settled, Mr. Dercola, our History teacher responsible for the students on our bus, had some announcements to make before the trip started.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome onboard. I know some of you are my students from St. James’, and some of you from our partner school, St. Joseph’s. We decided to mix students from both schools so you can get to know new people and maybe even make friends for life.’ Everyone laughed at that last part.
‘I know, I know. I’m cheesy. But just you wait till you get to my age, you’ll be thinking of this trip and remembering how much fun you had and the people you met. So, ladies and gentlemen, enjoy the trip, enjoy the moment! We’ll be departing for Paris shortly. If you have any questions, you can come to me or Mrs. May here, and we’ll be happy to help you.’ He finished his speech, and everyone clapped, some whistled*. Excitement washed over me. The kind of excitement I was looking for all along.
* A note from my older self: Of course, I didn’t know back then, but this would be one of the days I would replay most in my mind throughout my life, and also the day that would change everything and make me who I am today. There were days I wished I had never entered that bus. Other days I wished I had enjoyed more intensely every single second of it. Mr. Dercola was right.
INCOMPLETE will be available worldwide for sale on May 7th, 2021 as Ebook and Paperback.