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Chapter Three - Green Jelly

      In an account I penned to my mother dated September 13, I detailed my first experiences bringing the memory into focus. It started on the seemly unending plane ride.  

     Boredom has this way of making minutes stretch into hours. There was a rumble, shudder, and bump and the seat belt/ no smoking light flickered on for the nteenth time. I sat up and fidgeted in my seat. I cannot say I was sleeping; plane sleeping was impossible. How do people do it I wondered? My neighbor had no problem and sat with eyes closed, mouth open, and head slumped like a cadaver next to me. Thinking we were over the ocean, I attempted to raise the shade, but there was nothing to see, so I lowered it once more.

    I was one of many participants leaving on this date. The agency told my mother another girl my age was on the same flight. We hoped to connect at the airport in New York, but that did not happen.

    I must have closed my eyes because the next thing I knew, the speaker above my head announced our arrival. The interior came alive with movement as travelers prepared and readied themselves to debark.

    I followed a steady stream of passengers moving toward the gate-marked customs. A man in a black uniform stamped my passport at the turnstile, and I stepped aside.

    “Hey,” a voice behind me said, “are you with The Agency?”

    Her name was Bonnie, and it was like looking into a mirror. Long brown, shoulder length straight hair split down the center, same bland outfits, dark a-line knee-length skirt, white button blouse, as if we escaped from a boarding school. “I was trying to figure out where to get our luggage?” I said.

    “How?” she inquired.

    “The signs,” I indicated and pointed to the foreign words on the marquees. Together, we focused on pick-o-grams. Bonnie and I got our suitcases and found carts to transport our mountain of luggage.

    “I see we packed alike,“ I said, glancing at Bonnie’s ample pile of bags as we pushed the carts along the hall to the underground train to the city.

    We found an empty car on the waiting train. Bonnie grabbed two bags ahead of me. I was preparing to board with two more cases when she poked her head out.

    “We have a problem .” I followed her into the car. It differed from the open-concept seating of trains back home. This one had separate compartments with individual doors.

    “The door shuts if you don’t hold it open,” she said. “If you keep it open, I can hand you the other pieces.” Using this method, we shoved the bags inside two at a time, me holding the door, her running back and forth. Bonnie’s idea worked well. We had the compartment to ourselves and settled into the cool, pleather seats as if preparing for a ride at Disneyland.

    The privacy of the ride itself seemed decadent. We both took a window seat and plastered our faces to the glass, prepared to stare out like the gawking tourists we were.

    Like an expectant mother giving birth, our rail transport burst from its underground tunnels. We both jumped back, covering our eyes, adjusting to the light, then resumed our viewing positions, immersed in a sea of green as we sped toward the city.

    “God, that reminds me of home,” Bonnie smiled as the pungent odor of cut alfalfa filled our cubical.

    A mere twenty minutes later, the locomotive slid into Brussels Central Station. Together, the two of us unloaded our luggage with the bonus of finding carts next to our coach.

    A line of taxis waited near the exit. I watched Bonnie with awe; she didn’t hesitate to approach one.

    The cab driver’s eyes rolled a bit when he realized the two of us came with sixteen pieces of baggage, and it took convincing, but we prevailed.

    Neither of us could pronounce the name of the avenue. We solved this problem by showing the printed paperwork to the driver. The ride lasted less than ten minutes before the cab slowed to a stop. Both of us helped the driver unload our bags. The taxi sped off, leaving the two of us surrounded by luggage on a cobbled sidewalk of indistinguishable three-story 17th-century brick buildings lining the treeless urban block.

    Pensive calm settled around us. Our destination was a brown wooden door opening into a small vestibule leading up steep stairs to a second entryway. Bonnie followed me through the first door and up the steps; I reached for the handle of the second and…

    “It’s locked,” I said.

    “Locked,” Bonnie echoed, “No, It can’t be.” a ragged edged piece of note paper taped on the door, handwritten in English, read, ‘Hostel closed from ten until four.’

    “What we gonna do?” Bonnie asked, “We can’t leave the luggage here; I’m starving.”

    “Me too,” I confessed as I studied my informational letter. Nowhere did it say the hostel closed during the daytime. They must know we were coming, I thought.

    “Someone must be inside,” I said to Bonnie and started knocking on the wooden door. I was right because it began opening. I jumped back, bumping into Bonnie,

    A wiry figure filled the entrance, shaking a dirty mop, babbling non-stop. I grabbed Bonnie’s arm for support as we moved back toward the sidewalk.

    “I don’t think she speaks English,” Bonnie said. We both began pointing out the luggage, pleading, and gesturing towards the building inside, hoping she understood. At last, it appeared she did as she had opened the entranceway and motioned us to bring our bags. When the final satchel cleared the second door jamb, she shooed us back out, pushing the heavy door shut behind us. The lock clicked before we cleared the bottom step.

    As streets go, the one we were on did not offer many amenities—no stores or businesses.

    “Which way?” my stomach grumbled even louder.

    Bonnie made a limp jester. “This way?” We strolled up the treeless street, stepping with care on the cobbled sidewalk, feeling like a couple of unwanted stray puppies.

    As we walked along a side street, I realized every building and road looked the same, and I had a terrifying thought. “Remember which way we go; don’t want to get lost,” I told Bonnie.

    At last, amidst a street of row houses, we found a convenience store, or what we thought was a convenience store.

    “What about this?” I was holding a square plastic wrapped lump and was positive it must be bread.

    “Sure,” Bonnie said. “OK, you buy that, I will buy this,” she held jam. We hurried out of the store to find the marble bench we had passed earlier. The vintage stone bridge overlooked exquisitely manicured lawns. The gardens span many city blocks and lead to a museum called Mont des Art. Dozens of tourists dotted the pebbled walkways below us.

    “Oh, my God.” Bonnie cried. A furry green-gray substance lay atop the jelly like the eye of evil, and although it had no odor, Bonnie thrust it away as if it were acid. Thinking the bread could save us, I tore open its packaging. My lips curled as the same penicillin mold grew on the outside crusts. The bread followed the jam into a nearby trash bin. She and I slumped together on the bench. The warmth of our bodies became a virtual hug, and our sanctuary, and for a moment, we sat still, staring into the void, silent. Seconds transformed into minutes until a sudden realization hit me. I reached into my purse, pulling out an unopened pack of peanuts from the plane. Bonnie smiled, reaching into her jacket pocket and pulling out her saved bag. Her smile became a giggle, then a laugh. It was infectious because I started laughing too.

    “At least they should have some food when we check in, right?” I told her.

    “Yeah, but that’s not for another two hours,” Bonnie said. We pulled our feet up to our chests and sat back to back on that stone bench overlooking the streets below, eating our peanuts and dreaming our dreams. If Bonnie had second thoughts of her commitment, she never mentioned it to me, nor did I to her. In truth, I spent more time avoiding college than daydreaming of this trip. I had no expectations, wants, or desires, except now something to eat would be nice.

    My watch read exactly four o’clock when an unsmiling man with a military buzz cut unlocked the hostel door. I know this because Bonnie and I were standing on the stoop, waiting. He grunted, looking at us over black-rimmed glasses.

    “You the two with the luggage?“ We nodded a quick yes, receiving another grunt; then he stepped back and motioned us in.

    The foyer in this eighteenth century row house stunk of detergent and furniture polish. I quickly scanned left to right, looking for the angry lady with the mop, expecting her to come running out any second to chase us out again. The man led us toward a sunny room facing the street. Similar to a hotel check-in desk, a high counter separated the room, barring Bonnie and me from entering. I guessed the man must be an official here because he walked behind the counter, reached without hesitation for sign-in cards, and threw them on the counter for us to fill out. I opened my mouth to ask about food when a black phone on the desk rang. “Moment” he said, turning his back to us as he picked up the receiver. He began speaking French to whoever was on the line. I stared at his ribbed sweater collar; mesmerized and amazed by the rounded vowels rolled from his mouth. While I had heard Spanish from the many Mexican workers, I went to school with, hearing a person two feet from me conversing comfortably while spewing unintelligible sounds left me in awe.

    Fingers poked my arm, bringing be back to reality. I turned and caught Bonnie’s eye. She nodded toward a handwritten notice taped to one side of the counter. “Dinner $3.00 7:pm.” I looked at Bonnie and sighed.

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