I tell him to stop messing with me and just say what he has to say. We’re moving back to the States. I'm silent, trying to digest this information. There is no back to, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never lived in the States. For me, I’m just moving to the States. He breaks the silence. I can’t believe it – after twenty years. He sounds like he’s upset, or maybe excited, or confused. Either way, he'll be in the Sandbox for another four weeks. And then, he will come home to Belgium. And six weeks later, we will leave. This time for good.
I make a deal with myself: I have ten weeks – ten weeks to enjoy Brussels, my favorite city in Belgium. And I will enjoy it like I’m dying tomorrow. I do this because I know. We make promises and resolutions and decisions, all of them determined and sincere and final. And then we break them. And this time, like all the times before, we will promise to return, for Christmas or New Year’s or his birthday or mine. But we won’t come back. So this time, I am serious. And maybe everyone sees it in my eyes. So the vendor at Friterie Michel smothers my cone of fries with extra Samouraï sauce, and the waiter at La Rose Blanche sprays an extra tall tower of crème chantilly over my cappuccino. When you’re getting ready to leave somewhere, all of a sudden, it’s the only place that matters in the world, and the only place you want to be.
It’s a sunny day in Brussels. On Avenue Louise, I enter my favorite perfume boutique. It’s a French perfume boutique, but it’s in Brussels and this is what matters, for now. I choose as a departing gift to myself Le Jasmin, and the store manager, a middle-aged lady with the body and face of a runway model, and who has been very nice to me these past three years, gives me a miniature flacon as a gift. For the plane ride, she says. We embrace. Perhaps we will see one another again, she says. Perhaps, I tell her. But I doubt it, I tell myself.
In the Gallerie du Roi, I go to a tapestry shop. I buy myself a shoulder bag with a floral motif and a monogrammed lace handkerchief. On my way out of the store, I see a small replica of the Manneken Pis with a corkscrew for a penis and take it for my husband; I know he will get a kick out of it. I exit the store and cross the Gallerie to Neuhaus, or Chocolate Decadence, as my husband calls it. A lovely young lady with dazzling blue eyes is manning one of the counters, and she summons me with a bright smile. And which chocolates would you like today, Madame? Some caprices, some Manons noirs, maybe some truffes? Or would you like to try the tentations? She indicates the various chocolates with her perfect mauve fingernails. Could I have six violettes, please? I ask her. Mais ouai, Madame. You like the flowers. Such delicate flavor! She offers me a ganache. I take it and thank her. The sky is clouding over, she says as she gently places my six violet chocolates in a sachet, seals it with a Neuhaus sticker, and hands it to me. This is Belgium, she continues, taking the twenty-euro note I offer her and walking to the cash register. Nothing changes in Belgium, she says. At least not with the weather. Nor with the government, for that matter, she adds with a sarcastic chuckle as she walks back to the counter with my change. I tell you, Madame. She looks into my eyes as if she is about to impart some very critical knowledge. We have been six months without a government in this country, she says, stabbing the counter gently with the side of her free hand. What kind of country survives without a government for six months? She's still hanging on to my change, holding it hostage until she is finished with what she has to say. I don’t think she is waiting for an actual response to her question, so I don’t offer one, though I feel like I've earned the right. I have been a resident of Belgium for three years, speak French like a native, and have passed for one on many occasions. Doesn’t that entitle me? Six months! she repeats, tossing up her hands and rolling her eyes around in disbelief. Think of it, Madame. C’est ridicule! She hands me my change. What we need is a man like Nicolas Sarkozy, she says, pointing her index finger with conviction. A man with balls, she says decisively, holding her hands out like she’s handling testicles. I have to ask myself why a woman who just saw me for the first time in her life less than five minutes ago would use the word balls with me, and I'm uncertain about how to respond to this unexpected and unusual show of informality. But my response hardly matters. She wants to play the pundit, and who am I to stop her? As she wipes the countertop with a damp towel, she apologizes for giving me an earful. Don’t worry about it, I tell her. It was my pleasure. At the door, I pause, taking a deep breath and closing my eyes, as if to seal this sharp, bitter, sweet, fruity, floral aroma inside my brain. Ça va, Madame? my pundit friend asks me. Everything is just fine, I say with a smile.
I have spent the last two years, nine months, and twelve days of my life being annoyed with the rain, with the inconvenience of having to carry an umbrella wherever I went. But now, the rain of Belgium is a precious treasure that I have only ten weeks to enjoy. I walk out of the chocolate shop, back down the Gallerie to its entrance, and into the torrent drumming like shards of shattered glass upon the Grand’Place. It is so true. Nothing has changed in Belgium. Not the centuries-old buildings whose sides have been rubbed by tens of thousands of appreciating hands. Not the cobblestone square that has been trampled by unwitting feet and carpeted with colorful tulips. Not the sky, which can go from baby blue to lead gray faster than you can say “Bang!” And not the Belgians themselves, who have been so kind and friendly to both my husband and me, though he is a service member in a military that is fighting a war they do not support.
Four weeks later, my husband returns. My joy is boundless. When I open the door for him and see him for the first time in five months, I realize that this is the happiest moment of my life. But my joy is tarnished by the knowledge that soon it will be time for both of us to go.
For six weeks, we visit our favorite outdoor cafés on the Place Ste. Catherine, eating moules frites by the tub and swallowing it all down with half-liters of Hoegaarden and Chimay. We bargain with the artists on the Grand’Place and buy two or three of their amateurish sketches, just to say we did it. We chat with the tourists and brag, We live here, our hearts dark because that is soon to change. And when the sky blackens with clouds, we don’t open our umbrellas, because we want the rain falling out of the sky of Brussels to baptize us.
On November 7, a shuttle waits in front of our hotel to take us to Zaventem Airport. In tow, I have with me a symbolic tribute to Belgium: a small ballotin of homemade chocolates, my tiny flacon of Le Jasmin, my tapestry shoulder bag with the floral motif, and my monogrammed lace handkerchief for the tears I know will come. It does not rain on the drive to the airport. Maybe some things do change, after all? Maybe just for today? On the plane I take the window seat, as usual. I settle into my chair, fasten my seat belt, secure my monogrammed lace handkerchief in my right hand, and lean my forehead against the window. The dark clouds roll in. I watch, waiting for the first drop of rain to spark on my window. And the rain begins to fall, so swiftly, so suddenly, so violently, I miss the first drop. It is raining in Brussels. It is always raining in Brussels. And it is always raining in Belgium. What had made me think it would be otherwise, today? Nothing changes in Belgium – at least not with the weather. Nor with the government, for that matter. Ten weeks later, the Belgians still don’t have a government. And the rain will not stop. Not even for my departure.