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The Men She Didn’t Know

October 21, 2010 by · No comments

Zdravka Evtimova

Photo: notsogoodphotography

Bertha had tried this joke so many times that she had got tired of it. She’d enter one of these large clean cafes on Louisa Boulevard, under the big chestnut trees that looked like old gossipy wives and she’d see a guy sitting at one of the neat tables. She’d choose the table in the brightest corner, then she’d hurry to the stranger who drank his beer, suspecting nothing. She’d take the seat opposite him and she’d blurt out, “Hi Jake, it’s again you!”

The guy usually blinked, but Bertha didn’t give him a minute to think.

“It was wonderful in Oostende,” she’d say. “The sand dunes, the sun, and the marvelous day… You remember what you said to me, Jake?”

“You must be wrong, Miss,” the man would say. “I don’t know what you speak about,” or “I’ve never been in Oosende, there must be some other guy you met there.”
In the end, she’d end up in a hotel room with the man that said later, “You are simply wonderful, I am lucky I look like that guy you met in Oostende.”
Several days after the hotel room, the man would ask her to dinner, and it would rain. It always rained in Brussels, thick rain that put clouds and streetlamps in her thoughts. Her translations were no good when it rained, and her poems were so odd that after she threw them into dustbin she thought the paper glowed. She telephoned the poets whose poems she translated into Dutch, and she said,

“I don’t want to read anything any more.” She kept the endless shivering rhythm of the rain in her bones, and the poems she wrote were deserted streets.It was entirely different if the day was sunny.

“Il va pluvoire, it will rain,” the radio said again. Then the poem would be no good, she knew, and there’d be no use translating the gray wet day into a handful of sad verse.
She went out, and there would always be a stranger drinking beer at the brightest spot in that old cafe. She chose a man who looked sad, one who and told him “Hi Jake, you remember what we did in Oostende?”

The day they were together in Oostende was warm, she told the guy she’d just met, although the sun wasn’t bigger that a Northern sea gull. The wind was inquisitive and friendly. (In fact that was the poem she was going to write if it had not started to rain and “if you had not spoken so me that day,” she added looking in the guy’s eye.) Then Bertha ended up in a hotel room, the man saying, “I love the rain and I like you, please let’s go to Oostende, because I’ve never been there.”
Bertha didn’t want a guy that had never been to Oostende, and her Oostende wasn’t at all the town on the North See, it was a town in her head, where the sun never set and the streets were long, quiet songs. It was a place where she rode her bicycle days on end until the sun set in the pocket of her leather jacket. She wanted a poem as big as the night and a guy as good as that poem. She wanted to stay with him, but not in a hotel room, she wanted to stay with him in his life that would be as good as a shadow of a smile. That would be impossible she knew for every man was a betrayal of some sort.

After “You are pretty” the guy said he had to go home. It was much better that way. Bertha didn’t want a man for herself that couldn’t give her Oostende with the sun on the harbor, and a heart as big as a sunset.

All she wanted from the men she didn’t know was a crazy story about North See. All she did for the men she ended up in a hotel room with was to write a poem for them.
These were very short poems scribbled on odd pieces of paper she tore from old calendars, from notebooks or posters. She collected those scraps of paper in an old basket, and she didn’t remember the faces of the men, she remembered the stories they told her about the happiest days in their lives. She began the poems she wrote with the words the man had said to her, “You are a drop of tired water”, “You are a bitch”, “You are pretty and lost”; “You are the most magnificent lie in my life”. It rained in all the poems she wrote.

Bertha wanted an impossible man in her Oostende where it took a life time to say hello.

The scraps of paper in that old basket became more numerous and that was how her poetry came to be. It was different when she wrote poems in Dutch. She had another basket in which she put the poems which began with the words she had said to the men who had never been in Oostende.

“See you tomorrow at the same time, on the same quay,” she’d say to these men.

Bertha never went to the same quay and that was a way it always ended. ‘On the sane quay’ meant ‘never’. After the same quay, she was free like the rain that drove away the tourists and left the beach clean for a new poem of hers.

Some of the men she’d written poems for tried to find her, and she had to tell them, “Tomorrow on the same quay,” but she never wrote the same poem twice and never invited a man to her Oostende again. A poem was all she could do for a man. Then she left him in her old basket because she was kind and compassionate, and she was grateful the man was a poem in her life. There were many beautiful poems there, in her rainy days, and she loved them all.

One day she entered one of her favorite cafes, Jardin du Nicola, and the man she saw sitting at the table in the corner made her stop breathing. He’d have a heart as big as a sunset, she knew right away.

Bertha hurried to him.

“Hi, it’s me, I’m so happy you’re here. You remember me?”

It had started raining outside the café and the air was thick with winds and clouds, most of the people had gone to bed because they had to go to work on the following day. She had to work on the following day, too, she had to finish translating a short story about a ballet dancer, but she felt she was about to write a wonderful poem, the best one in her Oostende.

“You remember what we did when we were together in Oostende?” she asked the man. His face was beautiful and his beer was Leff Brune, very dark and very sharp, exactly the way she liked it “Do you remember the sand? We made the sun so small that you put it in my heart, and you said I was so quiet…”
Bertha would like to go on telling him what they did in Oostende on the North Sea in winter, although the sand was cold and the waves were bigger that the sky and the water flooded the suspension bridge. She wanted to tell him his skin was lonely as a soft early autumn and his hands were the last warm day she’d have in her life.

“Yes, I remember,” the man said suddenly. “I do remember very clearly. You were there with me. We kissed. But it was not in Oostende. No, it was not Oostende and it was not in Belgium. We were in the mountain. Do you remember the name of that mountain?”

He looked at Bertha his eyes bright and wonderful.

Bertha thought, “Now I’ll disappoint him. I’ve never been to that mountain the way those guys were never in my Oostende.”

“We were happy,” the man went on. I remember clearly the warmth of your kiss, your smile. I’ve been so lonely. I didn’t have anybody to talk to. Do you remember what you told me? I’ll never forget it.”

Bertha didn’t know what to say.

“I said that I’d love a man that had a sunset in his heart,” she said because that was what she’d always wanted to tell her man.

The stranger looked at her and smiled his eyes a sunny day after long winter of rain.

“I’ve been waiting so long for you,” he said. “I didn’t think you’ll remember my name. It’s so simple that everybody keeps on forgetting it.”

Suddenly it stopped raining.

“Jake!” she said, her heart missing a beat.

“Yes, my name is Jake,” he said his smile big, endless. “You remembered it!”

Bertha didn’t know what to say.

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