At the Philosopher Hotel

While rummaging and discarding, I came across photos of Chantal. We met what must’ve been a whole ‘nother lifetime ago.

Ours was the most casual of fleeting acquaintances. In 2006, I attended a World Cup soccer match in Germany. Or eventually intended reaching Germany in order to watch Ukraine against Switzerland. To say I detoured stretches the phrase “taking the long way.”

First into London, then through the Chunnel into Belgium and a dogleg into Holland which would finally funnel me into Germany. The trip was, after all, for pleasure. In early June when Old Europe remained temperate to American skin and this Yankee had no need to insist every interior to be airy and artificial.

Frankly I’d forgotten Chantal. We’d been one another’s one-night stands. Or, she’d certainly been my one-nighter, while I suppose I sufficed as her any port in a storm.

Why wasn’t she memorable? Shouldn’t the sex alone have imprinted her deeply on my memory? Isn’t that the American way of regarding intimacy no matter how passing? Shouldn’t there have been everlasting meaning?

Beats me. Healthy promiscuity permits me to fully indulge in that present extended moment but not let those instances become baggage. Save emotional burdens of remembrance on the ones who mattered, those whom a picky capricious younger man allowed to depart.

There must be at least a pair who weighed so heavily on my mind from time to time. Anyway, Chantal.

She wasn’t my type. Not that I found the tall, blue-eyed, voluptuous (no size zero she) younger handful with an unruly blonde mop discouraging. Thanks to Hefner’s fixation, I believe in many precincts Chantal epitomized the American male’s lust ideal. Isn’t that why Marilyn Monroe retains her hold on men’s desire and why so many women today still aspire to project some facet of her allure?

No, Chantal wasn’t my type because she’d already pledged her troth. She was a married woman. A two-time, but admittedly seldom two-timing, mother as well. The first state enough to deny myself her company; the second more than enough to send me hell-bent the other way.

Adhere to the rules as I might try, life occasionally demands exceptions. Chantal became one.

Brussels was the scene. An afterthought to London, Paris, and even Amsterdam, Brussels retains the hurdy-gurdy of the other three but less argy-bargy. In fact, the Belgian capital vies with Vienna as my favorite European city.

Both are mélanges of people and the cultures migrants brought along; Brussels by its African influx, Austria from its imperial heritage. Seeming compact to this ex-New Yorker, both overlooked gems are accessible metropolises.

Once I detrained in Brussels, speaking horrendous French I asked the first person who looked like he knew left from right and up from down the street on which my hotel sat. Somehow I’d lost my bearings crossing the Channel. Nor did it help I couldn’t find a street sign after stumbling from Gare Midi.

Answering in English, the Arab got past my language barrier and set me straight. Several blocks north I entered my destination. Whimsy alone made me select the Philosopher Hotel. Probably the same quirk that had permitted the proprietor to name it after one of the antique world’s most-renown, deepest thinkers.

Forget that the small worn lodging shouldered within easily walking distance to city center. In addition to door numbers, each room bore a philosopher’s name as well as sported one of his better known epigrams somewhere along a wall inside.

One hopes ownership had a sense of humor and with it an appreciation of vaudeville to place Descartes before the horse.

I liked the day deskman. A sunny sub-Saharan African, he took obvious pleasure in his tasks as well as greater joy practicing his English with a native speaker. What verbs didn’t we conjugate before he gave me my room key?

It was a charmingly dilapidated accommodation. That suited me because other than snoozing, shitting, shaving, and showering I expected to be hitting the bricks most of my stay in Brussels. A quirk caught my attention, though. On the other side of the exterior wall a stairwell or fire escape I suppose. Thing was a waist-high window let out onto the flight of steps. It reminded me of a feature Magritte might’ve designed.

Depending on the guest occupying that room I figure more than oranges startled anyone taking that flight of stairs and glimpsing what it framed.

Although nowhere near as grand as London and Paris, or Berlin for that matter, the jumble that is Brussels appeals to me. Maybe it helps the Belgians come across as more accessible people. More so than the Dutch. For all that “tolerance” north of the Scheldt Dutch geniality often strikes all the right tones for insincerity.

Before crossing paths and converging with Chantal mine had already been a full day. I wandered around Brussels narrow inner streets through this ethnic enclave and that. Maybe it’s just decent cosmetics or from spatial necessity but it appeared the city’s residents had done a better job of integrating migrants from Belgium’s former colonies as well as immigrants from elsewhere than the French. At least whatever resentment existed didn’t emit as strong a vibe as the incipient menace coursing through France.

Perhaps Belgian Francophones and Flemish speakers saved all that agita for one another thus sparing those of African heritage among them.

The tavern I chose to douse my thirst foretold bad news even without entering. Among a huddle of stately sedate saloons skirting the Grand Place, the rail I chose bending an elbow inside was loud and charmless. I needed walking through a scrum of police and belligerents at the door.

Renown as Belgium is for its brews, the crowd inside wasn’t sipping and kvelling any brewmaster’s skill. They were pounding left and right. Reaction to a televised soccer game further stoked the ambient roar. I joined the gang two-fisting.

Aware that my French was futile, and the likelihood of him speaking English good, I asked the bartender what provoked the moil outside. I must’ve resembled one of the regulars because he answered, “Ah, the usual.”

Oh? As opposed to the unusual.

I thought the police had the matter, whatever it was, under control when another hooley erupted. This one carried women’s shrieks and curses along with bellicose male yelling. Somehow outside distractions diverted little attention from the game and less from bar bullshitting.

During the renewed ruckus Chantal must’ve slipped into the vacant seat on my right. Summer sun hadn’t tanned her. Instead, the season had lightly swiped blush across her skin. She was looking on the way to forlorn and lonely. She initiated conversation. About my class ring.

Chantal herself also sported a notable signet. One circling the wrong finger. Hers was unlike any other wedding band I’d ever seen. Not ornate like my class ring, just crudely ostentatious.

To my eye some primitive jeweler had taken a hunk of gold and merely cored the center to her ring finger size.

Apparently Chantal had been lurking within earshot while the bartender conversed with me. She spoke proper blackboard English rounded off by a hard to squeeze Lowlands lilt.

Ordinarily I don’t buy married women drinks. Invariably isn’t there always some pesky possessive husband nearby who the gesture makes jump to conclusions? And hadn’t there been enough rumbling already on the pavement outside the tavern? Why risk a share of rage indoors?

But as I’ve already mentioned, Chantal looked lonely on the way to abandoned. Besides, after offering her the pick-me-up she casually let drop her spouse, a Briton, and their children remained at home in England. I regarded the information as pertinent, not TMI.

Drinks loosened her tongue up to a point. Chantal also cultivated a manner of looking up from under her eyes that likely worked miracles towards inducing sympathy. Doubtlessly with enough effort or if the situation demanded it, I wager she could’ve turned those baby blues limpid.

Business had brought Chantal to Belgium. She left her field vague. Brussels simply served as a stopover. The name of her lodging remained unmentioned as did her eventual destination.

She admired the relative aimlessness of my trip. I lightly pointed out an end station was established. It’s just that I meandered getting there. My logic got her laughing.

Teasing out her profession, I asked whether she spoke Flemish or French. Both with a smattering of German. I complimented her on being “a true Belgian.” She countered with rueful chuckle. So perhaps she toiled at a multinational or in diplomatic services? Not even close. Then she closed further inquiry down that trail by querying me about my Belgian stay.

Recognizing her discomfort, I detoured onto the path she’d shunted me.

This was my fourth visit. Earlier trips had me on Ostend beaches as well as beer-bloated escapades with friends. A solo act this time, the current journey allowed me a sober contemplation of Antwerp. And seen through temperance goggles the diamond center to the northeast was dull.

Chantal shrugged, joked, “They believe they’re Dutch. They behave like them.”

A prior stop saw me stopping by St. Michael’s Cathedral, an imposing Gothic pile upon a hill. That confession caught her unexpectedly. Until then I hadn’t come across as that kind of tourist. No. I wasn’t on some reliquary trial. A close friend’s child had recently died. I thought lighting a candle and making an offering might somehow ease torment and transitions all around.

If Chantal had sized me up as a sucker before, that admission restored my solid Joe cred. She excused herself. Her bathroom break grew lengthier. Had she skipped? Figuring she’d given me the powder, I trudged to the WCs anyway for a look-see. She’d dashed my expected disappointment. There she sat outside the ladies room, sobbing.

Who knew lighting a votive candle could have such an effect?

As I learned later, my story had ignited self-recrimination from self-doubt. But at that moment I was in the odd position of being supportive to an emotive stranger.

Among sobs she explained that her lodging arrangements had been disrupted there in Brussels. Short of cash, she lacked anyplace to spend the night. Probably knowing the effect of that admission better than I, she needlessly wondered whether I could possibly accommodate her for the night.

Again she looked up from under her eyes. How on earth hadn’t she cooed?

Ignorant still of her real troubles, wouldn’t whatever I’d have said, whatever help I’d have offered, soothed and calmed Chantal? At that moment she was mine. I took advantage of the opening. Afterwards I would take fuller advantages of other openings.

Unspoken though knowing the well where our steps led, we wended back to the Philosopher Hotel.

What lightens steps, heightens mood more than a chance meeting intuition confirms will lead to intimacy?

Late evening as it was, northern latitude sun extended twilight. The quiet plazas of restaurants and bars I’d passed earlier were now thickened with patrons. Men mostly, dark-eyed Arabs predominantly, lounged at tables, sprawled in their seats, chatting explosively when they weren’t pulling drags off cigarettes or nipping at drinks. Through these assemblages we strode purposefully. I hoped my own sly grin matched Chantal’s, and, if so, wished no one misconstrued either of ours as superior smirks.

Somewhere along our stroll we began holding hands. How and why who knew? Then, I failed recalling the last time I’d performed a gesture so dear. Which probably reveals more about me than through any results gleaned by interrogation or introspection.

Such tender moments have been few and far. Therefore, quite memorable.

Maybe ego was involved, mine, but didn’t plenty of Arab heads swivel our way as we passed? After all, two big, distinct figures striding by should’ve drawn attention, no?

If any conceit had driven us, arriving at the Philosopher Hotel dispelled it. Who could’ve anticipated what happened there?

Unlike his daytime colleague, the night deskman behaved begrudgingly. Grumpy and squat where the former came across as sunny and lithe, the night man exhibited zero conviviality.

The Philosopher Hotel an antiquated inn, it offered few of the conveniences modern travelers take for granted. Among them: no card keys. Guests needed to retrieve room keys from the front desk. Of course attached to these “reminders” the size and heft of brass doorknobs.

At best this was a minute nuisance. No, the real problem developed once the deskman discovered Chantal wasn’t a registered guest but a visitor who wanted to spend the night. After all, he explained with maddening obtuseness, I’d reserved a one-guest room. The bed only slept one person.

Not quite understanding yet that the tool before us jerked our chains rather than pulled our legs, I kidded him those springs would endure greater exertion than sleep. If he got the joke it didn’t go far. In fact it went nowhere. He was dead set against Chantal joining me upstairs for the night.

What to do? There was cock-blocking. Then there was this! A younger me just as rampant would’ve raged. Naturally enough of that ought have brought the police and my eviction at least. Then, police being police, wouldn’t they have naturally taken a closer gander at my companion? No need for everybody to get into the soup.

Older and experienced, though just as much of a horn dog, I placated and negotiated with the densest man alive.

We palavered and bargained. He’d allow Chantal upstairs under these specifics: she must exit the premises by 7 a.m. and she couldn’t partake from the breakfast buffet. We readily agreed. Somehow our words sufficed. I would’ve thought such a stickler might’ve insisted on handshakes all-around or signatures on a proper document.

Our impediment temporarily surmounted, Chantal and I squeezed ourselves into the narrow elevator and escaped.
Stuffed inside my “one-guest room,” we quickly shed our clothes while groping and kissing. Beneath the standard mall fashion wear Chantal wore the sheerest dessous. Black gossamer so thin it wouldn’t have taxed the slightest imagination.

Reflecting on her revelations, wouldn’t an American woman her dimensions (busty, wide hips) have worn more, ah, conventional support? What little contained and girded Chantal barely suited the undergarment notion but extended the “going commando” concept.

Naturally the above considerations got pondered after our nighttime events concluded. Long after.

In that slim bed Chantal became a living, breathing, responsive, gratifying plush toy. She was meant to indulge. Okay. I wallowed. I hope she reciprocated and took an equal, if not greater, measure from me.

During our explorations and exchanges, I discovered what enflamed her earlier evening stress, the crying jag. Maneuvering a facing away now kneeling on all fours Chantal, I admired both spheres of her ample behind. Were she amenable, I’d insert myself between them and repeatedly plumb to either my own or our mutual satisfaction.

What changed that event answered several unasked until that moment questions. It was a fine example of why baseball coaches caution against sliding headfirst into any base.

Frenzied as I ought have been, observant me noted wisps of fabric where only one’s most secretive skin should’ve enticed. Not like I performed a rectal examination or anything but suspicion interdicted my intentions.

The train having slowed and stopped altogether and sensing something amiss, Chantal turned her head and gazed at me over her shoulder. She scrutinized my line of sight. A cocked eyebrow, a shrug allowed her to let my discovery pass. Calmly as she’d gauged my reaction, she resumed facing forward.

This clarified her prior anguish. The “disrupted arrangements.”

She served as a mule. Or being a woman, a jenny. Maybe she’d learned there’d been a bust at her safe house. Or maybe she’d gone to the proper address at the right time and found nothing other than emptiness. Arrangements aside, are people engaging in such activities ever the most reliable?

Who knew what contraband she carried? That mystery didn’t vex me. It sufficed to suspect and let it remain unknown and unsaid, rather than have it acknowledged and suddenly become complicit no matter how tangentially.

Without any regrets on my part we continued apace through what some regard as more acceptable channels.

Next morning, Mr. Fastidious from the desk roused our spent and sated selves with a wakeup call. Chantal had half an hour to leave the premises.

We both understood him the kind of tiny prick who could summon the police over so minor an infraction. Just the sort of avoidable stupid shit which if committed might likely tumble her into deep shit. The key word in the previous sentence … “avoidable.” Chantal rose heavily from the bed and hove into the bathroom to shower.

The spray revived her. It brightened the spark within her eyes, eased the grins she bestowed, and warmed her pale Belgian skin. Her revival aroused me. Vainly. Circumstances nearly exhausted our safe time.

As she slipped back into the decorative lace which served as her skimpy BVDs, I snapped a few pictures.

I’d also done this earlier while she slept. Not from perversity alone, but because her recumbent curves – Chantal a woman fuller than I usually prefer – fascinated me. These pictures I certainly had developed in Brussels.
Aware of how nudity, female nudity especially, crazes Americans, I knew it prudent to have those particular snaps printed abroad.

While foreign techs might leer just as much as their American counterparts, the exultations would stop at the processing room door. Here, I worried copies would fly out the same portal. And without a doubt, wouldn’t one land in the sweaty palms of exceptionally repressed prude? Likely one who’d insist the authorities involved themselves in the matter.

Ours remains an immature nation whose precocity often bends into childishness.

I told Chantal about my clandestine photography. She shrugged off being immortalized. Remember this was years before “revenge porn” and any ex-girlfriend sites started polluting the internet. A European woman, maybe she regarded my action as some minor honor. Mementos from a chance counter that became a mutually opportune interlude. And nothing more.

Beats the hell out of dried petals pressed between book leaves.

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