cutback: two

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Brussels, August 2013

Brussels was nothing like I expected. The weather was always gray, much like the streets, which were a narrow, never-ending warren of plaster-brick townhomes that went on forever. Everything that wasn’t ancient looked like it was built in the 1960s and I couldn’t stop getting lost. 

I loved it.

I loved the inscrutable mash of French and English spray painted on the walls. I loved the stone churches older than my entire country, the cheap pizza places on every corner and the trams that would ferry you to the maze of concrete and cobblestone streets of the Quartier de Centre and Grand Place. I used to go there a lot when I first arrived. The tourists actually made me feel safe; I figured if they were there, then I belonged there too. Every city has its home for strangers.01-25-20_12-12-44 AM

There were things I didn’t love about Brussels, too. The culture shock got to me at first, stupid things like shops closing on Sundays and the general slowness of public transport—whose efficiency was wildly oversold to me. Then there was the awkward animosity between the Dutch and French Belgians, and the waiters that took too long and genuinely couldn’t care about how your day was going. I mean, I don’t care about how their day is going either but it still seems rude. I had no idea what to do about tipping, which irritated some deep recess of my brain. And don’t even get me started on the unfamiliar smells in the supermarkets that seemed somehow badly designed and unenlightened.

It was beautiful but weird. 

Luckily, I loved my apartment—the gray brick exterior, spotted wood floors and the glossy gunmetal kitchen where everything was shrunk down by a third in size compared with back home, like something out of Alice in Wonderland.01-24-20_11-52-23 PM

The day I arrived I lugged my bag up the stairs and knocked on the door. My 20th birthday had passed only a month or two before and I didn’t know how renting apartments even worked. My parents took care of everything—to this day I don’t know how the rent actually got paid.

I had a vague, illogical idea the landlord would meet me inside even though he didn’t live there. Instead a shirtless guy in gym shorts flung open the door. He was an inch or so  taller than me with a toned chest and dark hair like lacquer, dripping wet from the shower, water streaking down the baby fat on his cheeks. The first thing I thought was that he looked a little like Elvis. The second was that he was probably the hottest guy I’d ever seen in my life—and I have an eagle eye for hotties.

“Hey, you Thomas,” he asked, and I nodded like an idiot while my eyes wrapped around his marble-cut abs and plush lips. “Errol,” he said. He slapped a clammy hand against mine and my whole body shivered. I looked down at my own thin frame, 120 lbs soaking wet. My parents had wanted to come to Belgium to help me settle in, but in the end I turned them down. In that moment I was beyond grateful.01-25-20_1-08-25 AM
I knew I was getting a roommate because the student exchange company had told me in an email. Another American, but from NYU. I’d hated my first college roommate, an annoying football player who left creatine powder, or maybe drugs, all over the place, and the idea of a new one didn’t exactly thrill me. But what can you do, really?

Errol said he had been here for two days and asked if I went by Tom. I said no, of course not, which made him laugh for the first time that bright brilliant laugh that pushed his cheeks into the amber eyes that shone like Budweiser bottles streaming sunlight.

“Thomas it is then,” he said in a voice so self-assured he could have been issuing a royal decree. “Thomas Edison. Thomas the Tank Engine. Doubting Thomas.” 01-25-20_9-54-13 PM

“Errol….Flynn?” I offered back, and paused while trying to remember who Errol Flynn was.

His cheeks pushed up again. “You forgot the owl from Harry Potter,” he said, turning to towel off his hair. “But one’s good. That’s more than most people get.”

Ten minutes later a British guy around our age from upstairs named Dave stopped by to chat and Errol introduced us by putting a string of famous Daves together, ending with Dave Thomas, which he thought was hysterical but who British Dave had never heard of. After a moment I excused myself and locked the door to the tiny bathroom. I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose because Errol was apparently one of those people. 01-25-20_10-15-01 PM

The sliver of countertop was already crowded with moisturizer, hair gel, shaving cream, soap and designer cologne. In the shower were two different types of shampoo. I hadn’t given the first thought to any of that. Then there was the fact that he was making friends with random strangers in the building after one day like we were living on a sit-com. I was pretty sure we had nothing in common. I wondered if it was too late to switch with Dave.

Back home, after dispensing with that idiot roommate, I lived in a dorm room alone for an entire semester and never once spoke with the guys that lived next to me, even when they played Bittersweet Symphony on repeat at midnight and I would have gladly given a kidney to make them stop. 

For a few hours that day I thought Errol was gorgeous but arrogant—a guy I never would have gotten along with in high school. But this was college, our year abroad, and I didn’t know anyone else, so that night we went to a pub and drank Stella because that’s what we thought we should do.

On the way out, I suggested we not invite Dave and he asked why not. I told him I didn’t like Dave. Errol’s face dropped—like we were doing something very naughty by not inviting someone he had known for less than twelve hours—but he laughed and asked if I liked him at least. I told Errol to wait and see how the night went. 

At the bar, he asked why Brussels—“Was it the beer or the chocolate?”—and I said the beer but also that my school didn’t have an exchange program in Paris. 01-25-20_10-41-21 PM

Errol said his last name was Belgian and sounded proud of it. “Oh, and it was the beer for me too,” and we clinked. 

Later he told me he was an actor and we tried to remember enough Shakespeare for him to recite something, but we only got through the first few lines of “To be or not to be” before we had to stop because we didn’t know the rest (“‘Tis better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…something, something”). 

“Doesn’t every actor know Shakespeare?” I asked, somewhat in disbelief.

“We occasionally do other things,” he shot back and I couldn’t help but smile.

After that the alcohol went straight to my head, making me say silly things in response to his silly things and his smile kept wrinkling his toffee eyes and I found myself laughing a lot more than I would with someone I didn’t get along with in high school. For one of those people, he was remarkably quick witted and dark. We both read a lot—everything, all the time—and his French was as good as mine or better. Like me, he liked being a student. 01-25-20_11-00-27 PM

Normally, I lie to people I barely know, making everything as simple as possible, because it’s easier than taking the time to explain the truth. Or I ask lots of questions because it means I don’t have to talk about myself as much. But that night I lost track of time and forgot I had known him less than 12 hours and told the real story of how I broke my foot six years back kicking a Snoopy mug across my backyard and admitted that this was only the second time ever that I’d had more than one drink. He told me about the time he failed an essay because he hadn’t finished the book and how he won a tennis match once by default because his opponent got diarrhea on the court. 

The waitress came by and he gathered the empty bottles and handed them to her so she didn’t have to reach over, and I got the feeling that Errol was a nice guy. It would literally never occur to me to help a waitress like that. 01-25-20_10-58-04 PM

I asked him about the particulars of settling in—bank accounts and such—and he leaned in to show me his new European phone. I could feel his body heat and hot breath sweet from the beer against my cheek, beaming onto me like a radiator. And then in that swimming moment, my sobriety receding like a wave, I told myself, Don’t. 01-25-20_11-08-29 PM

Don’t fall for this one, don’t do it to yourself, not again, Thomas, please.    

But of course it was too late.

1 thought on “cutback: two

  1. Ah, gee! I like this a lot!


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