I am standing at the window in my bedroom, the room we used to share with Betty for more than twenty years. The Atomium, the Brussels re-discovered icon, is glistening in the spring morning sun outside the window. It is supposed to be the Eiffel tower of the town, just it is, of course, not. As cities are nowadays becoming open-air theatres, any object, statue, building can become an attraction point. With clever marketing, anything goes. Betty and I, we used to take our visitors there occasionally: buying tickets downstairs (I was always appalled by the senselessness and a waste of money), then a queue to the elevators, then being trapped in the huge atom pattern, visiting the spheres that had not much to display. A stunning view from above on all over the town. Only, I am afraid of heights. Afraid and attracted, as it goes. You could never jump out, the security precautions would not allow that, but still, the imagination is strong, the pull of the vast space, the calling of the naughty Wind Spirit laughing loud: “Do not worry. Jump, François, jump. Fly into eternity!”
I stopped visiting Atomium at some moment. Anyway, since Betty died after three months of illness, I have had no visitors to entertain. At least, not visitors that would be interested in paying 9 Euros for a lift and a view. My guys are friends with whom we meet in a café at one square in Laaken twice a week – Tuesdays and Fridays. And I see this metallic monster from my bedroom every day. On some nights, it is nicely illuminated, if you like the Christmas-like twinkling lights. I do not. I hate Christmas and I dread the one approaching… the first one without Betty. Betty was so English, decoration, coziness, tea-cozy, cushions… You know. I teased her. And long time ago, I was even unfaithful to her – lots of times in my thoughts, a couple of times in real. Then, we made it to our 70th birthdays together – they were one month apart – hers in October, mine in November. And then she died, smashed the statistics of women over-living their men. Mainly, I am a man of not so healthy habits, I drink beer and when in the café with my friends, I smoke. She was into the healthy eating and all. Well. Left me. Just like that. Leaving me with one promise to fulfill: I should travel to those five places remaining on the list we did together for our 65th birthday. We always celebrated sometime between the two dates – after hers, before mine. We went to a dinner and as a gift we usually offered ourselves tickets to the concerts. One eats well in Brussels, that is for sure. I loved picking up and reserving places for the special night: Le petit boxeur, Ricotta and Parmesan, Café al Dente, L´Idiot du village… Belgians take food seriously and have fun at the same time.
But, back to the list. At our 65th birthday, we wrote it down – 10 places to visit before we die. We managed to see five of them. Then Betty died.
I am still standing in the bedroom, it is mid-morning, I had breakfast earlier – two slices of bread with cheddar cheese and a tomato. Since then I am wandering the apartment, because her birthday is approaching; it is tomorrow, the 17th of October, and I should take out the list of places and decide what to do. Does the promise really bind me? Do I have to travel? I have no interest in traveling anymore. A walk in the park, a walk to the café, occasional errands to town, that is enough. I cut almost all contacts, save my drinking friends. One more glance at the Atomium, the autumn sun makes it look almost pretty, I sigh and walk to the living room. There, on the wooden chest of drawers, is my cup of coffee from the morning. I take a sip, the coffee tastes like puddle water with a bit of milk. On the top of the chest of drawers there are three photographs, two of her and one of us together during the last holiday before she got sick. We are standing in a deep ravine, water and sweat mixed on our faces, beaming. The region bears a name of a Paradise in a country in Central Europe called Slovakia. It is not a cheesy place of a cheesy name, not at all; it is a region of deep ravines, wild streams, steep rock walls and trails for those with adventurous hearts. I can still smell the rich mixture of moist, earth and wet rock when looking at the photograph. We were quite brave; I saw young ones questioning their ability to continue climbing wood and iron ladders. I stood looking at the picture and day-dreaming, riding the wave of the happy memory. Silly, how proud, and happy we look. Then I came back to the present. The top drawer contains the paper; it is a loose sheet on top of some family document. I forced myself to take out and unfold the white rectangular; five items waiting, fleshing, and jumping into my eyes not very clearly because I left my reading glasses in the bedroom, an excuse to go back and fetch them. With the glasses on, the Atomium outside the window disappears but I can read from the sheet in my hands. Here is the list in order:
- Rome. We never went there while young; the romantic city somehow escaped us. Could she really think I would go there now on my own? No way, I am not even catholic to give it an extra reason. I am without any faith.
- Boat trip to the Danube Delta. Wild birds, thousands of mosquitoes, a place crazy people go to, or those who want to prove not being mainstream travelers.
- Sacramento in the U.S.A. Bob, our old good friend lives there. It was always planned to use the visit as a base camp for a U.S. trip. Now, the whole American continent seems like a different planet to me. And who knows I’d I have anything to share with Bob, the guy I have not seen for a half a century almost.
- Corsica. Why Corsica? She loved islands. I do like them, too. Again, my mind was not able to conceive one reason to visit Corsica, of all islands.
- Scotland. Of those, this seemed the most logical and feasible, even though without any attraction to me.
Yes, the travelers´ dreams, there is nothing about them. Almost everybody travels nowadays, package tours or on their own, the thirst for new places is as alive as humans are. Half-dead, half-alive. Why to move from a place to place when everything has been discovered already? I am annoyed by the idea of going anywhere. And then my mind goes back to the memory of the last trip together in Slovakia and the one spot. It was surprisingly easy to reach and so breath-taking at the same time. We crossed a meadow and walked through a small ever-green forest… and there it was: a flat stone plateau over an extremely steep abyss. No rail divided the enormous vast and void from the people. In the eyes of visitors, I could read awe, even fear. Parents held the hands of their kids tightly. Some sporty individuals approached the edge, even sat down, feet thousand of meters above the ground. I only dared to come a meter from the edge. I was holding Betty´s hand, which was not a habit of us, I was holding her hand because of my fears. And she was laughing aloud and shouting: What a moment! It is the moment to fly. I will never forget this! I tried to calm her down: Do not go any nearer! Do not be silly! she laughed some more. Just open yours eyes wide and imagine you are a bird.
That is the thing, I am no bird, though I love birds most of all animals. We stood there for a long while, took some pictures of each other, I wonder where they might be now. Perhaps, still in the camera, never downloaded. Shortly after the trip she got sick. And the camera and the photos was her responsibility. Without realizing it, I placed the list back to the drawer. We will never tick anything off it together, anyway. Or perhaps yes, on the other side, but I am a non-believer, so I doubt that. To hell with travels, but the place… that place in Slovakia, so reachable, even for an old slow walker, there I could still go. I know, I would miss holding her hand there, the protection hand, the make-it-all-easy laugh. At the same time, I could try myself out. Walk to the edge and look down into the vastness. Will the Wind Spirit call me? Will he draw me? Kick my silly ass down there? A funny and disturbing idea. I smiled to myself, closed the drawer and went back to the bedroom. The Atomium. I looked in its direction now, it seemed a little smoke was rising from one of the spheres, a terrorist attack, or some illusion trick for visitors? I did not pay it more attention, planning already the one trip that was ahead of me. The one not on our list.