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Brussels, 2004

Story by Charlotte McCall Pattison (Read author interview) December 18, 2017

Art by Philemon Bob Sankofa Msangi

Even if quitting the piano lessons would solve the first problem, asking to quit would only give voice to the second. Eleven is old enough to travel alone on public transport. Remember the thin eight-year-old with the overpowering backpack who shimmied his way to the ticket punch? He does not consider his own neck snappable.

Even if you tell mother you’ve been playing the same Satie piece for the past year, she won’t let you become a quitter. Even though the teacher’s eyes glaze over as you fumble Gnossiene No. 1 for the third week in a row. Even if the best part of the lesson is always when she takes over and plays the spare spooked notes herself, lingering in the loaded pause labeled, du bout de la pensee with a tone that speaks suspense instead of paralysis.

Even if at 4:00 in the afternoon none of these people can have a good reason to be riding the tram, because it’s too early for rush hour and the Belgian schools have long since let out. When you pass the conductor make sure to smile at him in case he will need to remember seeing you later. It is the year they finally sentence The Monster of Belgium who kept little girls in his basement. News coverage dominates the TV. While in jail for an unrelated crime, he asked his wife Michele to feed the girls and she didn’t, but she remembered to feed his dogs.

Even when mother comes home late with the story about the fender bender in the tunnel that runs under the Cinquantenaire, do not focus on the part of the story when she says the police took over an hour and a half to respond. Instead, picture her pissed off, seated casually on the bent hood of the van reading the International Herald Tribune as a series of compact cars speed past.

Even if your advanced warning systems are sub par. Consider as evidence the afternoon with Grace and Emily in the park, where you play “elves” among the rock formation carved to look like castles. While you are deep inside an imaginary plot twist they laugh nervously and glance over the top of a crenulation. The same man has walked past us three times in a row. Now you all wait, each of you darting up in turn like a meerkat. When he passes by for the fifth time, you all take off running. Safe on the living room floor you don’t talk but you pass around a solemn bag of barbeque potato chips until each greasy handful is devoured.

When the therapist who speaks English asks you to locate the fear, put a hand on your belly. When he suggests you approach every fear like a logical exercise, pick an abstract example. Even if all you can think is tram tram tram, say plane. Say you’ve had the fear since 9/11 and now all you can think of is terrorists and turbulence. He will nod with his long face that is half frown and say, In this scenario, when you are on the plane and you are feeling anxiety, ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen? Then, look at this fear as an image, turn it over in your hands–hold it as far away from you as you can. Look at your fear like a neutral object, like a gray box and only you know what’s inside. At this point, shake the box and hear the rattle. Ask yourself, what’s the likelihood the thing I fear will happen? Isn’t it just an object in this box?

 Even if nothing stays in the box forever, look around the tram and imagine putting every suspect man or woman inside it. Even if the missing children posters next to the back doors of the tram change faces every week. Sylvie, Mohammed, Jean-Luc, Stefan, Katrina- who could remember them all? Even if one day you find a seat near the driver and a man in his fifties wearing a baseball hat looks over at you, two, three and then four unmistakable times. Even though you’re seated underneath the map of the tram system and he could be consulting all those rainbow spaghetti lines.  Even if it’s a bit unusual to see a Belgian man of his age wearing a baseball cap.

Even if you know he will follow you, take the number 92 to Ste-Marie and walk six frantic blocks to the piano lesson. When he eventually snatches you, try to knock the hat off his head in the struggle so the CCTV cameras can see his face.

About the Author

Charlotte McCall Pattison grew up overseas as the daughter of US diplomats. She is currently a student in the MFA program at Cornell University where she’s working on a novel and getting really into reading her horoscope. This is her first publication.

About the Artist

Find more work by Philemon Bob Sankofa Msangi at flickr.

This story appeared in Issue Fifty-Eight of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Eight

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