Between Jodoigne and Nieuwpoort is Brussels
Adam R. Burnett
We left Jodoigne early in the morning in a red convertible that Francois’ father had acquired. There was talk of dubious activity and, “Don’t ask questions if he gives you a gift.” The father didn’t speak a word of English and asked Francois of me repeatedly, “Il aime les femmes, non?”
We awoke to the convertible and I immediately thought, “Mafia. The Belgium mafia.” He sent us off the coast with a bottle of wine and told us to return the car the following day.
There were three of us. Shelly was a blistering blonde, pale and overeducated. We worried about her skin in the sun. Francois was her lover, and still is last time I checked. He drove the convertible to the Flemish coast and talked passionately about his people, the Belgians; he went on about his hometown, where we’d spent the previous evening. We shared a secret cigarette hidden in the dash compartment. When we got to the coast we couldn’t stop gasping for air. I bought a pink floating device that I wore around my hip and flaunted like a toddler.
We slathered sun lotion on her pale skin and she protested, “Please, please put some lotion on yourselves!” Instead we baked like lobsters in the sun, soaking in the psychotropic heat. We drank the sea and the salt and were quiet and still the entire afternoon. In the water jellyfish floated past and I screamed. I slept on a towel in the sand and don’t remember ever sleeping that well before.
At dusk we walked the boardwalk. Our skin spotted with heat rash. We ate mussels across from the arcade. The mussels were buttery, swimming in garlic and sand.
She was playing a game in the corner, swaying her hips to the motion of the blips of light. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She was sixteen. She looked at me. It wasn’t a passing glance, one that you build off of into eternity, it was a cold, hard stare, certain. The lights and ringers and buzzers all stopped, the whir hushed, and she looked through me. I couldn’t pick myself up off the ground to tell her of the travels that had brought me to her, that there had been nights in Paris and nights in Topeka, and nights in other cities, in other towns, where I had been waiting for her to look through me. There was not a language sufficient for this.
And so we left. And she is there, still, in Nieuwpoort or somewhere else.
On the night drive back to Brussels, with the top down, sand in my teeth, salt on my lips, mussels in my stomach, the cool roar of air smothered me to sleep. I had to be carried into the apartment like a child, a heatstroke victim, a grown man exhausted from moving. I downed a glass of water in the kitchen and fell quickly back to sleep. I fever dreamt for what felt like weeks, kicking through the night, sweating and panicking, continuing to travel.
She was everywhere I went. I dreamt her away, I dreamt her so long and so thoroughly that our love, whatever can be said of that, was exhausted upon waking.
After the long sleep I never thought of her ever again, not even in passing. If pressed I cannot even remember what she looks like, a doppleganger has replaced her.
We returned the car to Jodoigne the following morning. The father had set up a shooting range in the backyard with wine bottles. Francois got a rifle. His father handed me a machete and said, “Reste pas là à ne rien faire. Sois créatif!” Shelly took a shower.
In the afternoon, drunk on wine and artillery, we hobbled down the road and visited a local artist; she’d painted every family and field in Jodoigne. She wept our entire visit, warning us of our future, and what a waste time is; her arthritic hand not able to hold a paintbrush.
Afterward, we climbed the hill overlooking Jodoigne and sat in silence. Shelly and Francois shared cheese from the village. I chewed the moldy chunks, kept them in my chipmunk cheeks, and spit them out when they weren’t looking. After some time, I let them know I was impatient to move on, to get back to Brussels, to get on the train, and to move on to whatever was coming next.
I would keep falling asleep in cars and in trains.
On the train the previous week from Paris to Brussels the conductor shook me awake, like my father on summer trips to Estes Park.
What is it about the train, about travel, that makes love undeniable? We know it’s not true, but the impulse is correct: to fall in love while moving is the greatest of all past times. It is like painting or the pinball machine, false love illuminates our potential and prepares us for some eventual truth; for if disappointment is the essential ingredient of travel, this all must lend itself to a greater relief.
The Belgian fries on the midnight train back to Brussels were delicious. And when Francois and Shelly de-boarded the train at the station in Brussels, I feigned sleep.
“We can’t carry you,” Shelly said.
“He’s drunk,” Francois piped in.
“Drunk from what?” she said. “No. He’s faking it.”
“Leave me here,” I muttered between my lips.
Francois tried to pick me up.
“What are you doing? You’re not carrying him back to the apartment,” Shelly said. “The train stops here. You have to get off the train.”
“Come on,” Francois pleaded, more for himself than for me.
I walked back to their apartment, slumped and defeated. The rest of the week it rained and I forgot that I was anywhere different from where I usually am.