A Man and a Boy
The towering 12th century churches were more or less illuminated by the fog. It wasn’t heavy enough to dim their stature, their gargantuan presence in the square. Instead, the harmonious combination of the misty fog and seemingly gas lights encompassing the medieval fortresses highlighted their location.
He walked into it. He was enthralled and curious and on a whim.
Shortly after Thomas Jordan had noticed the fog and its highlighter-like properties, and thus noticed that he was entering into it to an extent (this was accentuated by the fact that he had to cross an arching bridge into the domain of the fluorescent grey structures) he came across a scraggly, long-haired older fellow who seemed to have noticed him.
Thomas Jordan approached the man as a too-curious child approaches a stray cat.
But this man was clearly not a stray cat. He was standing a few meters beyond the bridge, just calling out to be approached for social interaction – not looking at Thomas, but gazing out at the deeply black waters, just yearning for human contact in the form of conversation, if however small – Thomas did notice that.
Thomas Jordan was good at noticing things about people, but not about himself, if he was being honest. He knew motives without asking but was sometimes unaware of his own. Perhaps this came from a rather restrictive, planned out childhood, that he had to break free from. This lead to not knowing or questioning much about himself, but perhaps a constant desire to pay attention to and question others. Inquisitive but not intuitive. But most definitely, a desire to tear himself from the fabric of regiment, and fully live, came from his upbringing. Yes, there had to be a constant battle between nature and nurture. I need to stop thinking so much about myself, Tom often thought.
Maybe I’m too harsh on them – of course they don’t know that, but maybe in my thoughts now I am being a bit too harsh, he thought. See though, now you’re avoiding being offensive to them even in your own thoughts, ya goddamn coward. Even when you’re an ocean apart, you’re worrying about what they think.
Now come on, you are here. And there’s that disheveled looking fellow. And you’ve got a hell of a lot more to worry about than the slightly negative quirks of your childhood. Why did I even get on that train of thought? Oh yeah, noticing things about people. And not about myself. How ironic.
So he approached this man on the bridge. This man just standing there, watching. Looking at something maybe, looking at nothing maybe, thinking about something of importance or little importance, or none at all. This man was just existing at this moment, just standing, just being there, and people should do that sometime, not all the time, but they should just stand there sometimes and not think, or just sit and not think. Because that state of being permits one to think, damnit.
Thomas Jordan approached this man not because he had thought that in depth about what the man was doing but because he looked approachable and open to a rather lonely young fellow roaming the streets at night starting a conversation with him. So that is what Thomas did. He approached him, like a stray dog carefully approaches someone who looks as if they may take care of it.
The first words Thomas Jordan spoke to the fellow were “How are you doing, sir?” in true Hoosier fashion. What an opener. What pure charm.
He looked surprised and grinned. He paused for a moment and loocked back at the water. “I am just looking at the water – the lights at night, I come here and they hit the water and the buildings right,” he said in fairly English, with the heavy, rolling accent of a Fleming, words cut short and consonants distinctly ennunciated. Thomas was familiar with this way of speaking, with speaking English to a Dutch-speaker without so much as an “English?” to start off. He could speak basic Dutch but it was awkward, and uncivilized, and hardly conversational.
“Quite beautiful, I’d say. I was also just watching the buildings and the fog from under that tree back there. My name is Thomas.”
“I am Jan. A pleasure to meet.” Jan stuck out his hand to be shaken. They looked each other in strange, but oddly familiar eyes.
“Are you American?” Jan inquired.
“I am. I apologize. Ha!”
“Why do you apologize?”
“Sometimes I feel I should. But it’s more of a joke.”
“Do not apologize.” His speech was blunt and got his point across. “I have met plenty of good Americans.”
“When have you met Americans? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not at all. When I was a lot younger I traveled there. Hitchhiking as you say. And camping. I came in contact with many Americans. I was alone. I was always treated very well.”
“Where did you go?” Thomas was becoming interested in this man – it sounded as if there was something to him, and Thomas had experienced things that he thought made him interesting as well. He thought this because he thought they must be interesting to someone who hadn’t had anything very interesting happen to them.
“I rode from East to West, and then flew back home. I started in New York. And stopped many times on the way to California. Four months it took me. Sleeping in the big trucks at night, or along streets, in fields, in campgrounds. Sometimes I would knock on a door and ask to sleep behind a house. It was a searching time.”
“And what were you searching for?”
“I didn’t knew at the time.” He did say knew. Thomas smiled. He asked why. Thomas told him to go on. “I didn’t know. But I know now, because I did find it. I was unhappy with the world I was living in. But I didn’t know that until I found it.”
“Don’t tell me just yet. Let me buy you a beer, okay Jan? It’s getting a bit chilly. How about we go in this café across the square? It’s called De Aap. We can talk there for a bit. Pleasure meeting you. Hope you don’t mind me interrupting.”
“I don’t mind a bit. I have never turned down a free beer. I shouldn’t start now.”
And they walked a few minutes to the café. It had two floors, and the second was hardly ever occupied. It was a brown café, as they say. A traditional place to drink coffee or beer, the interior composed of wood and iron and glass, a quite cozy place to sit for conversation or just alone. Thomas had sat there many times with an open book or notebook, scrawling or trying to read. That is where they went, to the second floor, where five tables for two circled the winding black iron staircase, and wine bottles with tall white candles sticking out of the top adorned each tabletop.
Thomas and Jan sat across from each other. A young, anxious Hoosier and a weathered Fleming, waiting patiently to see what they had in common. Jan twiddled his thumbs, looking out the window next to the table. The bartender walked up the stairs and moved seats down from each table. It was late so they had begun to close. He bustled around for five minutes, taking chairs down and lighting the wine bottle candles until the room glowed, and then he walked over and patted Thomas Jordan on the back, saying, “Just making it cozy for you guys.” Jan took his eyes from the window and looked straight into the peering blue-green eyes and plump-round face atop a far-too-skinny neck, framed by brushed back long brown hair, of Thomas Jordan.
“Why are you here?” Jan said brusquely.
Thomas glanced away for the first time. “I am a master’s student at the university.”
Jan glanced away, again, with him. “I would rather know why you are really here.”
It was odd. This scraggly Belgian’s English is improving the more he talks. From the brigde, then the walk, and now here at the bar, to the sentence he just said. It’s like he is recalling an old talent and it’s slowly improving. Like he started out rusty and now he’s oiling it all up, thought Thomas Jordan.
“Well, there’s a girl here. But we split not long after I moved, to study and be with her of course. So we broke up. So it goes. When I graduated, I told her I’d come to graduate school here, because she didn’t want to come to America. Very against it. There is no other reason for me to be here. I wouldn’t have picked it. I’m not upset that I’m here, but I am lonely sometimes. I find it difficult to justify in my mind, now that I’m no longer chasing her. And I was without a doubt chasing her…” Thomas trailed off. Things got silent. Then he continued. “I can speak a bit of French. Decent French. So why am I now trying to learn a dialect of Dutch? At least the school is cheap. Yes, that’s probably how I justify it most of the time. Which then makes me sad, because that’s not why I want to do things. Never do something because it’s cheaper than another thing, unless it’s some sort of tiebreaker - at least that’s what I believe… So yes, now I’m stuck. And I have to finish school, but I have no motivation to do so. I’m searching just like you said, I suppose. But I feel stuck.”
Damn, what a soliloquy that was. I must have wanted him to ask something like that. I must have wanted to say that. I could have just stopped after the splitting up part. That would have probably been enough for him. He looks surprised but content. Why does it seem like he is in control of this situation now. Goddamn it, my face is getting red. This is kind of comical actually. I am sitting at a café with a man I met on the street, telling him my inner demons, Thomas Jordan thought. He was truly startled by the length of his own answer. But Jan, sitting across the table, looked pleased – he had a grin on his face that most likely showed satisfaction that he had gotten such an answer, while old Thomas began to take it as condescending amusement. That’s when his face got red, right then.
“I think there is an even better answer.” Jan’s grin became a smile now, a contortion of the wrinkles on his face becoming one with the dark grey bristles on his cheeks. Thomas Jordan did not say a word now. In his mind there was something sinister nagging him, pulling on his gut, and it was already there, but now this strange conversation was igniting this unexamined, purgatory-like feeling within him that had not been acknowledged for a while, a long while. It was making him uncomfortable, and he squirmed in his creaky wooden seat as Jan said those words.
“There is no better answer than that. Only that I am stuck here, in Flanders of all places, unable to leave, unable to enjoy myself, and unable to call it home or find any sort of reason for being – being here,” Thomas replied, with a tinge of boiling resentment coming to the surface. Now he shoved it back down and changed topics.
“So, what did you find out? In the states?”
“It sounded earlier like it was. Or at least important to you.”
“Your American ears made it sound that way. I only said I was searching for something and that I found it.”
“I’ve been wondering lately what Europeans’ qualm is with Americans. Do you know?”
The conversation was getting a bit of a bite to it.
“There is no problem, if that’s what you mean. You just proved what I meant though. Americans turn everything into something bigger. Sometimes that is good, sometimes bad. But we are always curious about Americans.”
Now Thomas relaxed a bit. He realized that he had no reason to be tensed-up on the edge of his chair. He looked like a fool to be honest, and he thought that he was not, so he relaxed and leaned back in his chair, crossing his right leg over the top of his left, and apologized to Jan for the misunderstanding.
“So, what did you discover on your trip? I am curious too.” The red had vanished from his face and he tried to appear ready to listen but was still anxious for some odd reason.
“Okay, I will tell you now. In the last part of my journey there, in America, I met a man. I was walking around Los Angeles, because that was where I would take my flight back to Brussels. I had been there two days, and to be quite honest, it had depressed me. Riding across the country, on a sort of adventure out west, meeting people, having a goal - that has always been what I treasured about my experience there. Talking to people who wanted to pick me up and help me. Yes. And New York, and these wide-open spaces, they were something unique that I had not experienced before. That inspired me. Los Angeles was leaving me feeling empty, and even more because it was the last place I would be before leaving.”
“I’ve never been,” Thomas added, although it was an insignificant addition.
“Well, two days passed, and then I met someone there,” Jan said.
“I was feeling alone, and unsure if I would be taking anything of value from the last four months. Of course, I did, and that was in the moment. That was how I felt at the time. Anyways, it was getting dark and I was walking down a sidewalk somewhere north of Hollywood. There was not a single person on the sidewalk, or the streets, except cars passing by. It was quite dirty. But there was one man, homeless, about 50 years old, sitting down on the sidewalk. He was doing nothing, just looking straight ahead, but with his eyes closed. He had a stained grey sweatshirt on and an old brown bag sitting next to him.”
“But I felt I wanted to speak to him. Sort of like how you came up to me, to speak to me! Yes, it was a feeling like that. You know how I mean it. Of course, no one was on the streets except us, and I spoke to him. ‘Sir,’ I said. He opened his eyes. ‘Are you doing okay?’ I said. He did not look, and he said nothing. He just stared straight ahead. It didn’t matter to me, and I was tired, so I sat. If he didn’t want to talk that was fine. I just sat. Right next to him.”
“I’m sure he loved that,” Thomas said sarcastically.
Jan ignored him. He kept going. “Then, he pulled out a pouch of tobacco and a cigarette paper. He began to roll a cigarette, and then another. Then he looked at me for the first time, and handed one over. I took it, and he lighted them both. I said thank you, but we just kept sitting there in silence, smoking.”
Thomas did not know where this was going, but he was amused, and intrigued, and again he was sitting on the edge of his chair but not due to anger or anxiety, but due to raw interest and curiosity. And despite the story of Jan not being over, and despite Jan’s first language not being English, he knew first that there would be a proper ending and second, that Jan was a natural storyteller.
“And as we smoked together, I became happy with the situation. To just sit there. My perspective was changing from bad, to better. I was able to think about everything that had happened on that journey and I respected this man, even though he had not spoken a single word to me. He had still acknowledged me. Who knows what he was thinking, or where he had come from. But I began to respect him, and he began to change my entire outlook at the end of this journey. What is the noun for grateful?”
“That would be gratitude,” Thomas replied politely.
“Yes. I felt gratitude. And I sat there for 30 more minutes now. It became very dark. I remembered that I had a jug of water in my pack and brought it out. I motioned to him, and he started searching in his brown bag. He brought out an old tin cup. He held it out to me, and I poured it full of water. I sat there for another hour. Finally, I stood up. I put out my hand to shake his when I stood up. For a few seconds, he didn’t acknowledge it… But then he stood up and began shaking my hand. Then he spoke to me for the first time. He said thank you, and I said thank you back.”
Jan now looked out the window of the café again. He was content. Telling the story had made him remember. This made him happy. Thomas Jordan followed his eyes out the window and thought. He had to decide what he took from the story, and if it was even over. He assumed it was. Jan didn’t look as if he had more to tell. His arms were crossed, and he was silent. Thomas Jordan searched for more.
“And what did you discover? What did you learn from the man?” Thomas Jordan whispered the question. He did not expect the question to come out so quietly, but it did, and he let it.
Jan chuckled. “I learned, and I still take this everywhere with me – but I learned that sometimes, sometimes you must be glad, you must be grateful – to sit.” And this time, when he finished his sentence, he did not chuckle – he laughed – and a wide, heavy grin spread across his face. “Not all of the time, of course!” Now he became more serious, and looked Thomas Jordan in the eyes. “But sometimes you must sit. Now come, let’s get out of here! Let’s walk.”
And they walked.