“And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the fine carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlight in the seventh heavens. Elsewhere match that bloom of theirs, ye cannot, save in Salem, where they tell me the young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.”
Brussels is famous for its destruction of the human scale, for poor city planning, for preferring the car to the pedestrian and for ruining itself. But that’s not where we lived. We lived outside the city center on an old street lined with trees and mostly well-kept buildings occupied by embassies, diplomats, and the well-to-do. We lived in the rattiest building on the street, above a baron who had run out of money and was working for the European Commission, his wife, who wore a fur coat and rarely washed her hair, and their son, the baron-to-be. They lived above a male couple we never saw; they lived above a very handsome Belgian couple with a young girl who once threw her mother’s keys into the bottom of the elevator well; and they lived above an Anglo-Swedish couple whose newborn and ours were born four weeks apart, and with whom we became friends.
But we were at the top, and had windows on three sides: northwest, towards the city center and the terrace of a couple who stopped us on the street to tell us, unnecessarily, that they practiced naturisme; south, with a view over the surrounding apartments and houses; and southeast, over the avenue. On a typical day in Brussels the wind blew through town, pushing clouds and rain over and past us until about a half an hour before sunset. Then the sky cleared, the remaining clouds were lit pink, orange, blue and purple, and for a half an hour the view from our windows was sublime, first because it held that last light, and then because it turned a deep soft blue.
We had a whole floor of the building: three bedrooms (the smallest was my office), a living room and dining room that ran, prettily, into each other; a kitchen; a utility room we filled quickly with a washer and a dryer, and crap; a full bathroom; and a narrow, dark, and cold half-bath. This was essentially the same for all the apartments in the building on avenue Molière: each occupied three sides of the building, the fourth taken up by the stairwell, which wrapped around the space through which rose the tiny, ancient elevator, a metal cage in a metal cage. When David came home from work I would sometimes open our door and wait for him, and I could hear the elevator start up and then see the top of the elevator and the top of his head and then his face and so on as he came rising towards me in the cage. Often the hall lights timed off as he rode, and the rising elevator was the only source of light.
Heat came through a set of radiators that I touched lightly, constantly, to see if they were working.
The kitchen had a balcony off of it where we stored garbage, and sent people to smoke, and that was structurally unsound.
The floorboards between our bedroom and what became Henry’s room creaked loudly, every single one of them. The floorboards between our bedroom and the baronial bedroom below us allowed sound to pass freely between the floors.
David wanted to live there forever, and I wanted, eventually, to move back to New York. So we did move back to New York, and lived there for about seven years, gaining another son, a house, and even a dog, before moving again, this time to San Francisco.
For almost the first year of our move here I felt that I wasn’t entirely where I physically, actually, was. I could walk through the front door of our house in San Francisco, through the hall to the kitchen, and when I sat down and looked out the window what I saw was my backyard in New York. This was the opposite of how it had been when we decided to move to Brussels and, even though I didn’t know where I was going, what it would look like, or how it would be—we flew out there for the first time after all of our belongings had been packed into a container and put on a ship—I spent the months before our move under the impression that I was already there, and not, despite appearances, running around New York. Even now, when our lives, mine and David’s, I mean, are braided together in these thick ropes of sex, debt, books, phone calls, groceries, and stomach flu to the point where there is nothing, as far as I can tell, that is not about us, there are still times when I want to, or have to, follow the line back to the apartment on the avenue Molière, the place where, two years after our wedding, we began in earnest our married life.