Charlotte and Jeffrey had been together for a lifetime. After a while, their friends had become part of one big melting pot and no one could really remember who was friends with whom first. They had various groups that they regularly saw for evenings out, trying out new restaurants, going to jazz concerts; trendy and comfortable activities for the well-established ageing bourgeoisie.
Tonight was the 21st of July, Belgium’s National Day, and they were going to Edward and Christine’s house that overlooked the Egmont Park in Brussels. From their house’s top terrace, you had an exceptional view of the fireworks that would be shot later that night from the “Place des Palais” where the Royal Palace of Brussels lay just a few streets away.
Charlotte put on some make up on the soft skin of her face, noticing how deep the lines at the corner of her eyes had become. It was more and more difficult to hide them as years went by… She would turn 50 this year and, even if she welcomed age peacefully, seeing the decay of her youth got to her at times. She added an extra coat of liquid foundation then put on the green emerald hearing she had from her grandmother. Their shine would create a diversion she thought. She wrapped herself in a dark brown shawl and left her bedroom.
Most guests were already there when they arrived. All of Brussels’ crème de la crème was present: lawyers, doctors, real estate tycoons… If you needed connections, this was the place to be but, for Charlotte, their professional successes were secondary. They had all shared hardships together and seeing each other sometimes felt more like an ageing support group than anything else. Then again, the toasted blinis and the Dom Pérignon that flowed at each reunion did make the whole thing quite fun.
Charlotte started her mingling by catching up with her old friends Muriel and Margot who both complained as usual and in different ways (joking or plain bitching) of their husbands. Charlotte offered desolating stories of Jeffrey asleep and drooling on the couch to comfort them, but the three of them knew tacitly that she had made a much better deal than they had by marrying Jeffrey.
The guests drank, ate and laughed, waiting enthusiastically for the fireworks to start. A few champagne glasses into the evening, Charlotte made her tipsy way inside in order to go the bathroom before the show began. She was learning more and more that 50 was not 20 in terms of bladder capacity.
On her way back to the terrace, she saw Jeffrey talking to Christine and Edward in the kitchen. A woman she had never seen in this circle of friends was with them too. Charlotte went over, sliding her arm around Jeffrey’s waist as she joined into the conversation. Edward was talking about his latest car and about how ecological it was. Christine turned to Charlotte, rolling her eyes.
- “How grateful I am that you joined us, I thought we would never be able to get out of this alpha male conversation,” she laughed.
- “I’ll let you know that you are the first one to use this alpha male car,” Edward said, pretending to be outraged.
- “Yes but there is only so much ‘car talk’ a woman can take Ed!” It was her turn to pretend to be outraged. She laughed again then placed her hand on the shoulder of the woman standing next to her. “Charlotte have you met Lana? She is my Pilates teacher, she has been helping me with my weight loss plan; we’ve become very good friends given the fact that the courses have been going on for so long now, “she laughed some more, as if the fact that she was not becoming any fitter was an amusing joke.
Charlotte was going to introduce herself to Lana when Suzan, an old friend of theirs who had just popped her head through the kitchen door, interrupted them.
- “Christine, come and play something for us on the piano,” Suzan pleaded. “We’d like to listen to you before the fireworks start.“
- “Alright, alright” she answered, putting her glass down “but only if you do a four hands with me afterwards.”
Christine left and Charlotte was left facing Lana alone.
- “So you are a Pilates teacher? I have never been much of a stretcher unfortunately. Always believed knees are only meant to be bent one way,” Charlotte joked.
- “Oh Pilates have nothing to do with stretching joints in the wrong way” Lana answered. “But I see how you could think that. My husband always uses that excuse not to try it.” Her laugh was gentle and light, like a glass bell. A sort of inner peace emanated from her; Charlotte could see how she could be a Pilates teacher. “And what do you do?” Lana asked her politely.
- “Oh nothing much, I have been an aspiring painter for ever. An aspiring painter who has had the good luck of marrying an ophthalmologist and has never had to work a day in her life. In retrospect, maybe this was not so lucky for my art after all….” Charlotte remarked.
- “I supported my husband throughout his studies to become a pilot. I did office work for ages to support the both of us. We used to eat pasta at every meal and he would always tell me: ‘you’ll see, one day we’ll switch to caviar’. When he graduated, he was hired by a very expensive airline and is now very well paid. We are not eating caviar everyday but I have been able to stop my office job and turn my love for sports and Pilates into an actual profession. “
- “So you were able to use his financial support to make something of yourself?” Charlotte asked, fascinated. “I would love you to teach me how to do that… I might still have a few good years left in me…” she finished, her voice doubtful.
- “It’s all about passion,” Lana answered. “I can’t live without sport. Passion and having a lot of time on your hands… My husband is rarely home, he travels a lot with his job. It forced me to do something with my life too. I used to go out running in the morning, then follow with an hour of Pilates on my own…I put an add up in local shops and now I get paid for teaching it to women like Christine. Business is still slow but I hope it will pick up. I have so much time…“
A loud bang resonated in the kitchen; the fireworks had started outside. Both women stared at each other as if they had just awoken from a dream. For a fleeting moment, something intangible hung in the air. An air of “déjà vu“… but then it was gone as Jeffrey interrupted them. “Come on darling, let’s go outside. The fireworks have started!”
They all went to the terrace and Jeffrey pulled Charlotte close into his arms. The sky lit up with a magnificent golden firework and everyone looked up in awe. Lana stood a little outside the group, looking up on her own. She smiled sadly, as she saw a plane fly through the night sky.
On a sunny and cold December day, sometime at the end of the 1980’s, a 21-year-old Charlotte was walking her way down from Brussels’ Centre for Fine Arts towards the beautiful gothic Grand Place set in the heart of the city.
When she reached Brussels’ Gare Centrale, the city’s central train station, she saw Michael coming up towards her. He was her former boyfriend she had left a year ago. He was carrying a brown paper bag and gave her a big smile when their eyes met. Despite the resentment he still felt towards her, he hadn’t managed to hide in time the fact that he was happy to see her. They stopped as they reached each other’s level and stood awkwardly, face to face.
Charlotte repositioned her bag over her shoulder and said in an embarrassed voice “hello there stranger…” She looked at the brown bag he was carrying. It had holly leaves stapled to it. “What did you buy?” she teased.
He answered in a defiant but still laughing voice “A Christmas present for Lana“.
Lana was Michael’s new girlfriend. They had met in a bar a few weeks after Charlotte had left him. Charlotte had regretted breaking up with him instantly. She had been waiting to see him again “randomly” at one of their common friends’ parties to let him know that she wanted to go back to him, but it had been too late. The next time she saw him, it was at a dinner party, and he had come with Lana. They were glowing, the way lovers do when they are amongst people but are secretly moving around in a magical bubble built for two. She had kissed Lana on both cheeks, pretended she was happy for them. She hadn’t been. She wasn’t. She’d never be.
“A Christmas present for Lana! What a lucky girl she is…”
The information gave Charlotte a pinch in the stomach but what hurt her the most was Michael’s defiant look as he said it. His eyes hardened.
“It could have been you,” he said sarcastically.
To that, there was nothing more to be said; they both laughed it off and said lightly goodbye. Charlotte kept on walking down towards the Grand Place under the warm Christmas lights that decorated the streets. With each step she took, the pinch in her stomach subdued a little. Her life was before her, an ocean of opportunities. Behind her, Michael was making his way up, back home to Lana. This was the last time Charlotte saw him. Their story would never be; but the ache in Charlotte’s heart would always come back at Christmas. A question that would never be answered: “what if?“