The lakes in Josaphat Park in Brussels were heavy with pale, sickly water lilies. The benches looked forlorn and moldy. Thick crowds of ravens hung above the trash cans, glum birds, bigger than the clouds. It rained constantly, day and night. Josaphat was the center of the Arab neighborhood in Brussels. Here the women walked slowly, majestically. Heavy women wrapped up in brown veils, followed by clusters of children, big and small. The braver boys fed the ravens, the girls led their mothers by the hand diligently, dutifully, talking to each other in beautiful, soft voices. I watched them every day as I practiced speaking French in Chez Albert, the cheapest pub in the park.
Albert, the owner of the place, asked me to make Bulgarian salads for his customers, all of them pensioners who lived in the imposing building, La Maison Communale, across the street, which he also owned. The old gentlemen believed it rained specially for them. Each would tell me maybe this was the last rain they would ever see, and thanked me for it, as if it was me who had given them the sky and the clouds.
“Ma cherie, let’s work on le futur proche, or if you prefer we can choose another tense,” one of them, Monsieur Duchemin, would beseech me every afternoon. He told me that a man had died on every step of the narrow staircase of La Maison Communale, from the first floor to the last. “Monsieur Fishgrund, for example, may meet his maker soon, ma cherie,” Duchemin told me one day. “Albert should make him pay his rent in advance. One never knows with us, we old fellows.”
I lived in Maison Communale too, but I didn’t actually pay Albert rent. He “visited” me one or more nights a week, always très gentil, very kind. On those evenings he brought wine, cooked our dinner, and lit candles. Of course it always rained, but if suddenly the clouds sank to the bottom of the sky and the raindrops died on the roofs, Albert would say, “Let’s go for a walk in Josaphat, ma cherie.”
There were times when I hated the park. You see, I worked for a retired infantry-major, Jacques, who, in his residence at La Maison Communale, wrote novels for five hours every day. In the evenings I edited his prose, feeling his words and his eyes on my skin, his cat, all the time, purring in his lap. The retired major was Albert’s best friend.
I hated going for walks with them in Josaphat, so often the two friends jogged side by side in the drizzle, while I stayed back and made salads for the pensioners, listening to them debate whether Monsieur Duchemin would piss in his pants before dinner, and who would later accompany me to my apartment, Albert, or the major—the old guys called the major Jacques le Fou, Crazy Jacques.
Often, after jogging was over, Albert and the major would toss a coin to decide just who was to “walk me home” that night, a term I considered absurd, since the three of us lived in the same building. The tenants in this La Maison Communale, the pensioners, went to bed at 8 pm, dreaming about rain. From time to time Crazy Jacques appeared on TV and spoke cleverly and at length on his books and his understanding of the world. On nights when he won the toss, he cooked, say, filet mignon brusselois with white wine for me, but very often in the middle of the filet mignon brusselois he would blurt out, “We should hurry up,” which meant that the evening would follow the scenario I knew all too well.
If Albert won the toss, he would arrive at 9 pm sharp, whereas Crazy Jacques was often “ready” even before 8:30. Jacques’s love was like a dry and voluminous TV show, like the ones in which he took part. He never told me I was pretty, never said I was pleasant company, and I wondered why he kept on tossing the coin in that cold park for the late-evening time with me.
Probably Crazy Jacques really only showed up in my apartment in order to describe the episode later in one of his experimental novels—he had already written three of them in which I was the protagonist, a woman who arrived in the clean, generous city of Brussels from Eastern Europe to look for truth and to learn to speak French. In all three novels I, though not quite cleverly, was Monsieur Jacques’s beloved, whom he took from under his best friend’s—that would be, but with a fictional name, Albert’s—nose. Jacques’ novels were highly praised if unreadable, and it constantly rained in them; not a single page with sunny weather.
Crazy Jacques liked to ask me why didn’t I marry Monsieur Duchemin. “The old grouch admires your salads, ma cherie. All in Maison Communale know that. He’ll die soon, and you’d inherit his collection of Belgian banknotes, which is quite substantial. He has a good car and, as far as I know, he owns a magnifique villa in the town of Ghent, which he rents out.”
“I can’t marry him because either you or Albert—after tossing a coin—will show up five minutes into the honeymoon,” I said.
Chez Albert was the strangest pub in the neighborhood. Albert sold only fruit beer. There was cherry beer, which the pensioners nicknamed “Sweet July death”, mountain berry beer, and a special brand of diet carrot beer. Albert came by to give me a test in French immediately after his best friend, the retired Major le Fou, took his dry love back to his splendid always-parked car, the one he bought at an advantageous price from a dying pensioner. After love was over, Monsieur Jacques le Fou often left his old electrical appliances for me as tokens of his appreciation.
“I almost never touched them, ma cherie.” Jacques said. “An iron, but what an iron! It’s produced by the renowned French company Braun! There is a washing machine for you! And that bicycle is a Shimano!’ Two vacant apartments in our building were stuffed with objects Crazy Jacques had given me as presents. He liked it when his love blazed a tangible trail in its wake. “Is Albert better than me?” Jacques asked me. “Did he recite to you some of his new poems?”
Yes, he is “better” than you, I silently admitted to myself.
Albert wrote his poems in a way that made me think of the pensioners’ very last rain, and of the sweetish fruit beer they drank in Chez Albert. Albert recently penned that on July 15th it would stop raining, because in July he loved me the way the sky loved its clouds, quietly and sadly. “Tomorrow the rain will be for you, ma cherie,” he wrote. Albert’s love was peaceful, like beer made of forest berries, timid and aromatic, doing no harm, its sparkling depths as infinite as my dreams about Bulgarian summers. His love made me imagine I sat in a village pub with an old drunkard who had a row of empty glasses on the table in front of him. Though I just knew it rained outside that pub too, and its parking lot was perpetually empty.
Albert never asked me about Crazy Jacques’ new novel, and never said his best friend the major was crazy. He called him “my poor old friend: My poor old friend Jacques wrote again in a novel that he stole you from me.”
In summer when the Brussels afternoons, tired of their battle against the rain, would call it a day and go to to sleep under the roof of some deserted bus stop, Albert would close the pub until the evening. Then the three of us, Crazy Jacques, radiant after his umpteenth TV appearance, Albert and I would go out together to get drunk on vodka. We drank in the garden behind Crazy Jacques’s so-called “holiday villa”. I sat between them, feeling their arms about my shoulders. We drank and hugged, we held each other, our shoulders pressing tightly; we took slow quiet walks along Avenue des Mimosas. I strode in the middle, one man to either side of me, and it rained all over the place. Jacques had bought an enormous piece of oilcloth. We hid under it, wrapping it tightly around us and ambled on until Avenue des Mimosas melted under the wet raincoat of the sky. We felt the wind in our bones, and at Meiser Square the two men again prepared to toss a coin for me.
I wondered who was to see me off to sleep that night. Would love be a pine forest and a country pub, or would it be a glamorous and silly TV show? Sometimes I didn’t want them to toss that coin, I took it from them and threw it into the fountain, then we’d stand under the streetlamp until one of them came up with another coin.
“What if you and I ran away to the Netherlands,” Jacques said, “and left Albert in the lurch? What do you say to that?” Yes, Jacques le Fou asked me this one day, but I already knew such could never happen. Albert was his best friend. Yet there were reasons I was Jacques le Fou’ s best friend too.
But I knew I couldn’t go on living like that. Anyway, I was sure all would end on July 15th when, Albert promised me, there would be sun in the sky—but didn’t the oilcloth feel wonderfully cozy when the three of us huddled together under it, the rainy evenings beautiful like kisses all along the way to Pierard Avenue? Walking, hugging, I between the two men, and Meiser Square heavy with the moon, it folding around our shoulders.
“You are very pretty,” Albert said to me, but Jacques snorted, “Don’t believe his lies.”
Then Albert said, “Stay with me—if it doesn’t rain on July 15th, I marry you, and Jacques can marry his French publisher. Let us leave the rain to toss the coin for us!”
Every evening, as I watched the quiet Arab women taking walks in Josaphat Park, wrapped in their brown silence and black clothes, flocks of children babbling in their wake, I wished I were a raven trying to perch on their hands.
When the 15th of July came it rained so badly that the streets turned to streams. Monsieur Duchemin was still alive and phoned asking me to become his wife.
Albert and Jacques waited in Chez Albert, and although the 15th was a Saturday night Albert had closed the pub early and they were drinking vodka inside when I arrived.
“It’s raining,” Crazy Jacques said, smiling.
It was a long way to Meiser Square where we went every time to toss the coin.
“What will you do with Monsieur Duchemin?” Albert asked me, very seriously—but even a glancing contemplation of what my answer might be made me shy away from all thoughts of the past and the future.
Then the three of us—I, as always, between them, Jacques on my right, Albert to the side of the privet hedge—trudged through the clouds and rain to Meiser Square. Our clothes became sodden within seconds.
“There’s no use tossing a coin,” Albert said suddenly. “Because it feels to me as if the sun is shining. In fact, it’s the brightest sun Brussels has had for two centuries now!” The rain continued to pour down.
First I thought of that distant-village pub—and Albert—but then suddenly I thought more deeply of Crazy Jacques: I was his novels’ eternal protagonist, after all, so I, not Albert, was actually his best friend.
There was a 50% chance—“We’d better toss a coin,” I said.
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