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Left unsaid in Brussels

By Fouad LAROUI Sofitel Brussels Europe

“Brussels,” John mumbled…
… and then something in him murmured: “Strange place for a meeting.” He was annoyed by such ready-made phrases surging into his thoughts. He knew where this one had come from. From a film, of course. A French film, with Deneuve and Depardieu. But John often didn’t know the origin of these random bits that would suddenly surface, perfectly enunciated, in the flow of the interior monologue that accompanied him night and day, a cascade of words from which his only respite was to close his eyes and listen to a sonata (“Bach again!” Annie would sigh…) An article in the Volkskrant that he had just bought here in the Amsterdam train station now caught his attention as he waited on the platform for the Brussels-bound Thalys. Scientists had made “a big step” toward mind-reading. Here was another thing that annoyed him:
Why talk about progress (a step is progress, isn’t it?) when science made an advance — there’s another one, “an advance” — when science makes an incursion (an intrusion) into people’s heads? John always tried to transmit a sense of perspective to his students in Amsterdam: Yes, science remains man’s most precious discipline (“What about art, sir?” – and he had for once chosen to disregard Guusje, the sweet-faced eternal questioner…), yes, science is what keeps us from barbarianism, but (here he had raised an imperious finger) there had to be limits!

He had finished the Volkskrant article and the Thalys still had not arrived. He glanced at his watch and then began to give a lecture in his head: “What does it mean to ‘read the thoughts of Mr. So-and-so?’ In my case, I had only to think of Brussels and the phrase ‘strange place for a meeting’ automatically came to mind.
Where does this idiocy come from? We don’t know! From physical-chemical connections in this spongy mass that we call the brain, from an electrical charge… It all happened automatically, as if I had inadvertently pushed a button that, unbeknownst to me, was programmed to open a hidden door. (He looks around the hall to be sure that the students get the picture.)
In what way am I, me, responsible for this chain of events?”

The Thalys pulled silently up to the platform. John headed for car 11, where an affable employee at the door checked his ticket.

“Seat 74 is on your right,” the employee said, in Dutch and then in French.
John just nodded and offered a semblance of a smile. He had long since stopped saying things like, “yes, I know, I take this train twice a month,” because it was of no consequence, except to perhaps incite an angry reply from the employee (“Excuse me for wanting to help…”). He had decided once and for all to treat each employee like a machine, maintaining a functional relationship like our descendants will no doubt pursue with their South Korean robots: informative, brief, concrete, without any sign of emotion.
(“But sir, aren’t you dehumanizing the world?” “The world doesn’t need my help for that, Miss Guusje.”) Slipping his suitcase on the rack above seat 74, John continued his class: “When one day we manage to implant the most subtle electrodes in Mr. So-and-so’s brain, in order to ‘read’ his thoughts, how will we separate the thoughts that belong to him, those that engage him and that truly express his ‘me,’ from those that spontaneously arise, that are, as we might say, just passing through?”

He sat down in his seat, set it in the reclining position, closed his eyes and continued his lecture. Speaking to Stephan, one of his favorite students, he said: “Suppose that I’m watching our Great Leader on television — we are, hypothetically, in a totalitarian state — and this incongruous phrase comes to my mind: ‘Get lost, fat pig!’, because at school that’s what we used to say to chubby classmates and the Great Leader has gained weight in recent months… Therefore, Stephan, you are an official at the Ministry of Thought Control and the electrodes have just denounced me. At 20h56, the following words crossed the brain of citizen John van Duursen: ‘Get lost, fat pig!’ at the very moment when our glorious Guide appeared on the screen — so, Stephan, the question is: Am I responsible for that concatenation of words that took form without my knowledge?”

 

The Thalys had pulled away and was now slipping out of the station, gliding between the city to the left and the port to the right.
“Il y a des marins qui naissent/dans la chaleur epaisse…” — the song had just popped into John’s head; he worshiped the great Brel. Which only served to “add water to his mill” (“or so we say,” John thought, disappointed to have no one to whom he could note that bringing water to the mill of a Dutchman was pointless, like bringing coal to Newcastle or sand to the Sahara.)
“But let’s get back to our sheep,” he said to himself – and he then heard: “You mean: to our cows?” Ha, ha. Which proved his point:
For the most part, our thoughts don’t belong to us. They result from … what is that called? Ah yes: spontaneous generation . There are little electric currents that… Anyway. He went back to his newspaper. The phrase “strange place for a meeting” was doubly incongruous because of why he was traveling to Brussels: to break up. Strange place for a break-up.

Annie quit smoking long ago. She had given up her vice for John, her man from Holland… (“No, Annie, Holland is a province of the Netherlands. I’m a Dutchman from the Ne-ther-lands.” ) … her quirky Dutchman, a bit rigid and terribly intelligent. So she quit smoking, which is a good thing, because there is no longer anywhere to light one up – she had taught John this expression – in the Gare du Nord, where she is waiting for the Thalys that will take her to Brussels. For the first time in months, her fingers itch, she bites her lips; this would be the prefect moment to ease her anxiety with a cigarette. She looks up at the departure board that she has consulted a thousand times since she began her long-distance relationship two years ago with the tall Dutchman whom she is now going to meet in Tintin’s town.

The train is leaving in 15 minutes. I have time to go buy a newspaper. In a little over an hour I’ll be in Brussels. It’s funny, he didn’t seem surprised when I suggested that we spend the weekend there instead of the usual places, Paris or Amsterdam.
He didn’t question it… What could I have said to him? We started this adventure in Brussels, it’s logical (she hesitates, maybe that’s not the appropriate word), it makes sense that we should separate there, like completing the circle, both finite and infinite. How would John react to her decision to break up?

Car 17. After leaving her bag on the rack at the entrance, Annie goes to sit in the seat indicated on her ticket, discretely puts in earplugs – she has no desire to hear the multilingual chatter of  her neighbors – and opens her newspaper. The “affair” is continuing. It’s a boon for the press, sending sales skyrocketing.
Everyone has an opinion on the subject. In fact, it was the cause of the most recent argument with John. Or better, a disagreement, a cultural misunderstanding… “This type of scandal would never happen in my country,” John had declared, with that air of moral superiority that so annoyed Annie.
-Why don’t you just call us perverts while you’re at it?
-You’re exaggerating. You know I love France. But you let your politicians get away with anything.
She refrained from saying:
-Nobody is interested in your politicians, that’s why no one goes digging around in their personal lives. Who has ever heard of Balkenende or Rutte?
It wasn’t the first time they had quarreled, but this dispute had left a particularly bitter taste in her mouth. Would it be possible to live with a man who always believes that he occupies the moral high ground? A man whom she thought she loved but who has the irritating habit of always assuming an ultimate certainty: that he knows what is right and she should just agree with him. The Thalys was now rolling through the Paris suburbs before reaching its cruising speed across the northern plains. “It’s hard enough to live in our different countries, to always be separated by this three-hour train ride, she thought, and then if on top of that I have to live with a constant feeling of guilt because I don’t share Monsieur’s Calvinist principles…” She recalled that Jean Calvin had been French, but she didn’t know how to take advantage of
that fact. Well… Her eyes went back to the front page of her newspaper. Look, Johnny is playing at acting, on stage. And in a Tennessee Williams play, at that. She thought for a moment about going to see it with John but then came up against another of his principles: A play had to be performed in the language in which it was written. That was easy for a polyglot like him to say. Me, I’m a professor of history, not literature. I can speak a little English.
Fortunately he speaks my language. Ah, another touchy subject:
The long conversations in Dutch that he sometimes had in Amsterdam, in a café or at friends’ homes, without giving a thought to the fact that she couldn’t understand a word.
-You should just learn Dutch.

-When, where, how? And why? Dutch people all speak English.
And all I hear in this sort of pseudo-German is ghr and kh.

Now he was the one who got upset. First, Dutch was a language of its own, not merely a dialect. And it was in fact the richest language in the world. Yes, madame! Shaking with rage, he had insisted on showing her the 20 or 22 volumes of the great dictionary of the Dutch language, “which has more entries than the Oxford English Dictionary or the Grand Larousse .’’ The dispute had lasted hours.

She decided that after she had split up with John, she would go light a candle in St. Catherine’s Church, in the pretty center of Brussels. She was not at all religious but it would be a way of closing the chapter. When the candle went out, their relationship would be finished. Or was it the other way around?

They had arranged to meet at the grand hotel in the Place Jourdan that a friend in the diplomatic corps had recommended.
When Annie arrived, she saw John sitting in the vast patio that was decorated with artwork and illuminated by shafts of light.

She immediately had a good feeling about the place. John had already checked them in and had the room key in hand. They kissed on the cheeks like strangers. John, after all, disliked public displays of affection. He brought her up to the seventh floor (“7th heaven is finished,’’ she thought to herself, feeling a tug at her heart…) and, with a somewhat melancholy pride, he showed her the comfortable, modern suite and its beautiful view of Brussels.
They duly noted a few monuments in the distance. She was afraid he would want to take her in his arms, but he seemed happy to wait for her in the little living room, sitting on the sofa while she arranged her things in the bedroom. She took a quick look at the bathroom (everything was perfect) and then came into the living room. Casually, she asked:
-So, what should we do?
The same thought crossed both their minds: “This is not the moment.”
-Have you had lunch? (She nodded; she had had a sandwich on the train.) O.K., so let’s go for a walk, it’s not even 14h, we’ll decide later about dinner.
-Where are we going?

-When I was waiting for you, I had a look in the guidebook.
There’s a big park near here. Shall we go have a stroll there? (“As usual, he decides, but it’s the last time.”) They left the hotel, turned left and followed the rue Froissart, then the rue Belliard.
Five minutes later, they entered the Cinquantenaire Park.
Unusually, they were not holding hands and they even avoided touching each other. “How am I going to say it? And what explanation can I give?”
Their path took them to the Museum of Art and History. Quite naturally, they mounted the majestic steps. John mumbled something, she nodded yes, and he went to buy tickets. “What am I doing here?” she wondered. They wandered through the rooms, exchanged a few standard phrases. (“This museum is incredibly rich!” “Yes… I wonder why it isn’t better known? No one ever talks about it. Did you see this marble?” “Fabulous!”) They looked at Roman statues on the mezzanine, then found themselves in a huge room filled with pre-Colombian art. They were standing in front of a miniature totem pole when John suddenly felt overcome by a burst of sound and color. Words formed in his head, as if he were a spectator of what was happening, and he distinctly heard his voice pronounce this sentence:
-Annie, I’m sorry but it’s over between us.
He immediately felt a chasm open beneath his feet. No! He wanted to take back his words but it was impossible. The words were no longer there, all that remained were garish images and colors, and echoes that pierced his skull. Terrified, he turned toward Annie, but she was no longer by his side. He looked around the room feverishly for her, spotting her from behind, on the other side of the room. She seemed to be captivated by a window display. He went to her, wondering how she had managed to wander so far off without him noticing. He touched
her shoulder, she jumped and turned around, looking shocked, shaken. But it was impossible that she could have heard him. So why this emotion? He saw behind the glass some sort of gray mummy. It was a horrible skeleton, that of an adolescent embalmed in a bizarre position, as if squatting. His bones were clearly visible, as were pieces of dried, leathery flesh, and it was possible to make out his regard in his hollow sockets. Annie fell into John’s arms and began to cry.

They went back to the hotel, taking a detour so that they could pass under the Arch in the Cinquantenaire Park. This time, their hands sought and found one another as they strolled through the park. Back at the hotel, they went for a drink in the restaurant-bar.
Together they decided to stay there for dinner rather than venture out to the Grand Place, as John had planned. The waitress was a friendly, discreet Italian. Annie took a sip of wine and said: “You’re so quiet for once!”

He smiled, took her hands and looked in her eyes. He said nothing, but words were running around in his head.
-I almost lost you today… But I realized that all these words that were carrying me toward a split… toward what I thought was my decision to break up, were not mine… It was like I was hearing voices. Words and sounds strung together were coming from who-knows-where. When I was annoyed by you, I saw sentences appear. “What an idiot!” “What am I doing with this woman?” “This relationship is going nowhere.” “Put an end to it!” Words… But more important is the atrocious feeling of solitude that gripped me in an instant when I thought that we were
finished. That was truly concrete. That was me. My body, my soul, call it what you will… That’s when I understood, at that exact moment. (How is it that you miraculously wandered off when I was sure you were beside me?)

She looked at him with a knowing smile, thinking:

You will never know it, but I came to Brussels to break up with you. This long-distance relationship is too complicated. And your Dutch character… And I know it’s silly, but… As I was looking at that mummy, I said to myself: He’s alive. You, I mean… He has many faults and quirks, but that is exactly what makes him alive.
It’s this spark of life, even if it manifests in a bad temper, that I am in love with. Now I know.

The delicious food that followed relaxed them. It was nearly midnight when they returned to the seventh floor. He let her enter and then followed her into the suite. He closed the door behind them, gently, almost tenderly, aware that he was truly present in that gesture. And in all those to come.