I may wander through the clinic. Go through the tall wooden doors to the main building. Past the utility stairs that lead to the basement where my father has an office tucked between the huge storage rooms, fridges, kitchens. Past the administration where les petites dames du bureau, the little office ladies, are crammed amidst filing cabinets and large typewriters. I could walk in and say hi to Aunt Bathilde. She’s got Bonne-Maman’s big round office now, but I’d have to walk through the cloud of perfumes, hair spray, and chit-chat. Besides, my aunt scares me a little. I go straight through the next set of double doors and into the entrance hall. I love standing in the middle and looking up to the first-floor mezzanine and the high ceilings. This? A humble hunting retreat for Napoleon III? Built when this area just fifteen kilometers southeast of Paris was open fields. I try to imagine it without the hospital smell of antiseptic attempting to cover up infected wounds and incontinent people. Blur out the handicapped ramps and doors, the linoleum. The grand ballroom partitioned into physical therapy booths.
One modern addition I love is the vending machine tucked under the grand staircase. If I’ve got change, I get myself a Coca-Cola bottle, and then ride the tiny cage elevator. I have nightmares for years about that rattly thing taking me to weird nonexistent floors on the way up, or not stopping on the way down.
The patients here are mostly old. They fell at home and broke a hip, or they have “diabetes” and so their foot had to be cut off. Sometimes there’s a younger guy missing half a leg (motorcycle accident, almost always). When the Arab sheikh who drove over a land mine came, they gave him an entire floor for his retinue. Once, I even saw a little girl in a wheelchair, one leg entirely absent from the hip bone. Maman explained that her mama had put a knitting needle inside her belly when the baby was in it, to try to get it out. But it didn’t work; it just scraped off the leg. “Bon-Papa will fix it,” she promised. The clinic makes prosthetic limbs that are fitted exactly to the patient, and then they teach you to walk with it.
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