By Maureen Mancini Amaturo
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my home, but I had to. Lord knows I had every reason to leave–to leave him, to leave Brussels, to leave it all. The man I married was killing my soul, and I was afraid he would eventually kill me. That one night, I was grateful he lingered at A La Mort Subite, a local bar with so many beers to keep him engaged. I would have enough time to assemble a few things and make my way to the train station. A La Mort Subite, how appropriate he should spend our last moments as husband and wife in a place named sudden death.
Careful to create as mundane an appearance as is usual in our pauper’s flat, I left his dinner bowl on the table, his napkin and silverware alongside. I had run to the bakery earlier, the little one next to Place Flagey, where the old bread chef was my friend. He always gave me two or three stale pistolets, in secret, of course. One pistolet I placed alongside my husband’s bowl, on our table. I kept two of the pistolets for myself, wrapped them in my scarf, tucked them in my bag beneath the few belongings I had planned to take with me. As usual, I left a soup pot on the stove, although, that night the pot was empty, as our flat would be when he returned.
The family in the flat below seemed to be making an extraordinary amount of noise, and that worked in my favor. No one would hear the pressure of my boots on the groaning, wooden stairs as I left. I tied my wool shawl–charcoal color, it had been my grandmother’s–over my head and around my shoulders, hoping it would blur my silhouette against the night allowing me to escape invisibly. That’s what it was, an escape. I did not desert him. I did not run away. I escaped. There is a difference.
With a baby crying and young ones playing or fighting, I couldn’t tell which, in my neighbor’s apartment, I was free to make my way down the narrow, dark stairway undetected and out the back door of what was once my home. I looked back, not out of regret, not out of hesitation, but to be sure I had left a light burning in our kitchen to create the appearance I was there preparing his supper like an obedient wife. Relieved to see the soft glow framing the ragged curtains that didn’t quite fill our window, I ran. Though that night was darker than any I remember, I saw my path clearly. The train station was not far, and with luck, I knew that I’d be well down the tracks before he discovered I was gone.
Often, I thought of leaving him. More often, I thought of doing him harm. After all, he had done me harm. If I stayed, it would only be a matter of time before he would have consumed me altogether. As it was, by his decree, I made no decisions, had no option to think outside of his needs. And there were his mistresses. Honestly, I could have run faster that night had he, in a drunken stupor, not pushed me down the stairway in our house only a week before. My ankle was still quite swollen. It was just a sprain, fortunately, less restrictive than the injury I sustained when six months earlier, in a rage, he broke my arm. I can’t help but believe he targeted my left knowing I would need my right arm to cook his meals, wash his clothes, scrub. I continued to do all that. I continued to hate myself for doing it. I continued to hate him, so I limped to my freedom.
Slicing the dark, I stepped over slippery cobblestones, wet from mist and drizzle. Though compelled to run, instead I crept cautiously to hush the echo of my boot heels against the hard, uneven street. To remain a shadow was of more value than speed. Jittery, damp, and not all too sure I had not been spied by one of his beer companions through the half-curtained window of a drinking establishment on my route, I slithered as if I were the snake. I, innocent, moved with guilty steps, my back against house fronts, side-eyeing alleys, glancing behind, ahead, everywhere hoping his silhouette would not appear in the gaslight. I bore the burden of my sounds, my movements, my breath. Every few doorways, I stopped to breathe deeply and pull my shawl higher against my face and over my hair. To blend better with the night, I wished I had inherited my father’s darker looks instead of my mother’s green-eyed, golden color. “Engelenhaar,” angel hair, my father called me. He had always said my hair was my halo.
The train station came into view before the pain in my ankle became unbearable. I reached into the small pocket I had sewn inside my only coat to retrieve my ticket. How I managed to accumulate the money for the fare is in no small part thanks to Cheval Claes, a man so unlike my husband. Cheval owned a restaurant near the bakery. I often saw him in the evenings when I made my trip to beg for the stale pistolets. Usually, he was welcoming guests at his café’s front door. Soon, he began to smile at me, then, eventually, say hello. Over time, I stopped to talk, staying only briefly at first. Later, knowing that my husband’s workplace and his favorite beer halls were far from Cheval’s café, I became more bold, and our conversations grew a little with each encounter. When he asked my name, I lied. I told him, “Mia Vluchten.” I am Mia, but Vluchten is my father’s name, not my husband’s. Only a short time later, we were no longer Mevrous Vluchten and Heer Claes, but Mia and Cheval.
He was charming, this Cheval. A festival of dark, wild curls framed his square face and deep-set, chocolate eyes. His brows–unusual, I thought–with their pointed arch, a bit of playful evil in contrast to his lips, full, soft, and tempting like beignets. Cheval seemed always to be at his business, whatever day, whatever time I walked by. I saw no signs of a wife. He never spoke of children. Giddy infatuation, a tingle of attraction, collected compliments weren’t enough to seduce me, I dare say. Caution is my guide having endured the man I married. I knew all too well how deceptive a man could be. I found the moment and the nerve to ask, “Where is your wife?” because, of course, what good could come from leaving one bad man for another? Cheval’s eyes widened, panic or surprise, I wasn’t sure.
“My wife? Mia, you think I would betray a woman to whom I made promises? That I could count the hours until I knew you’d walk by, that memory would become my best friend because it allows me to repeat our time together over and over until sleep stops me while a wife sleeps next to me? Mia, you think I’m the devil.”
With no evidence encouraging me to doubt him, I believed. We continued weeks of secret smiles, embraces in the shadows, hidden talks. And what wonderful talks they were, so carefree, so caring. Though I have been married these four years, the passion and giddy nature of new romance fell away very early with my husband, but I do remember the first stages of falling in love. When I spoke with Cheval, my cheeks tingled in that way. My skin warmed. My heart felt happy and young and hopeful and all the wonderful feelings that come with a new flirtation. In a short time, I sensed his flirtation had deepened. Not long after, I fell in love with him. Love brought honesty with it. I told him I was married. His eyes melted. His hand slipped away from mine. “Married,” he said looking to the ground. “And you suspected as much of me, yet held that secret yourself? Which of us is the devil?”
“I am married, but I am not in love.” I found the courage to look up and face him. “No, I am in love, but not with my husband.”
Cheval almost smiled. I could tell he wanted to. He looked at me, his eyes sad, but suspicious. “But you are married still?”
“I am. Only because I see no way out.”
He folded his arms across his chest, pressing so hard, he caused his coarse apron to gather and fold. “Out? You want to be out of your marriage?”
I noticed the sky welcoming the dark and realized my husband would be home soon, expecting his dinner. “I can’t stay any longer. Perhaps…or perhaps not…I’ll tell you more another time.”
There was no need to tell Cheval anything more. He surmised. When he noticed bruises on my face, I no longer struggled to invent stories to explain them. Now, when Cheval asked questions, I told him of my husband’s temper and infidelity. When Cheval saw my bandaged, broken arm, I told him everything.
Cheval conceived of this escape. I merely followed his plan and my heart. One evening, as I passed by his restaurant door, he handed me a small, yellowed envelope. He said, “It’s all in there. Go. Go now.”
Cheval looked left, then right. “The train station. Shhhh…away.”
“Without you? Leave you?”
“I have business to arrange, things to care for. Now, go. I’ll see you again.” Cheval quickly went inside. He didn’t stay to talk, as he usually did, and I wondered how, when, where would I again see him.
After I begged for my stale pistolets, I hid behind the bakery, in the shadows, near piles of rotting trash, flies, and stench, where I knew no one would linger. I opened the envelope and strained to see in the dim light. A train ticket, cash, and a note–instructions to continue to a restaurant in Paris, its address at the bottom of the page. No word if Cheval would meet me. I toggled between the heartbreaking thought of leaving Cheval and the immeasurable relief in my freedom.
In my mind, Cheval was St. Michael, and he had just slayed a dragon that had been devouring me piece by piece for such a long time. Cheval, I was certain, was Divine intervention. Or true love. And I wondered in that moment if there was a difference.
With that ticket in my hand, the only work ahead was my escape. Since my husband was usually detained in the company of beer or jenever, his wits dulled by their spell, I knew I would find my moment. And I did. That night, that was my night. I would escape. I would heal. I would love again.
As you know by now, I escaped to the train station. A talkative woman holding an impish dog filled every minute of the time it took for the conductor to collect our tickets. Feigning exhaustion, I excused myself and cuddled in the velvet of my train seat. The bounce, the whoosh of the rushing wind against the window, the repetition of the metal wheels on metal tracks, soothing. I slept the sleep of a true rest. When the steam rose from the brakes and the whistle announced what I thought was our arrival at Gare du Nord, I was still drowsy from sleep. The ride did not seem long enough for me, for someone who had not known rest for so long. Once I had my wits about me, I inquired of the conductor if we had arrived in Paris already.
“No, Madam. Some mechanical trouble. Unscheduled stop. Could be here one hour, maybe two for repairs. Some passengers are going to find a warm cafe. You’re welcome to leave your bag.”
Hot coffee sounded tempting. The damp air, the drizzle on the windows had set a chill in my bones. I left my seat and took my travel bag with me. That chatty, well-dressed woman, who had introduced me first to her little dog, then to her son and his wife when I first took my seat on the train, invited me to follow her and a small group. I sensed a shadow near me each step of the way. I heard one too many sets of footsteps. Fear that my husband had followed haunted me. Could he have seen me? He would stalk rather than pounce. I inserted myself among the passenger group and moved as quickly as possible toward shelter.
We entered the first establishment we came to as the weather grew increasingly wet. Once inside, I brushed heaven’s water off my shawl and coat. This café had a bar, liquor bottles lined atop the shelving like the disheveled men lined along the bar rail. I had never gone to a place like this alone. Actually, I had never gone to a place like this. Pretending to have a headache, I excused myself from my chatty train companions and scanned the large, dark-walled room for a hidden place to sit. Squinting through the yellow light cast by candle sconces, I spotted a corner table in the shadows. I squeezed the small cross on the prayer beads I carried in my glove and asked God to send me another angel. I thanked Him as he had already sent St. Michael in the person of Cheval. I prayed that perhaps one of his other archangels might come to my aid at that moment. I knew my St. Michael had customers to cater to, a business to run. It would be too greedy of me to pray for Archangel Cheval to be beside me. I prayed anyway.
There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. As I sat in that bistro, in a small wooden chair at a table meant for two, I glanced around taking in the glowing sconces, the discolored wallpaper, the well-worn wood of the tables. My image in the mirror on the far wall stopped me cold. Where I had hoped to meet comfort from coffee, I met him, here in this place, in this room where I was a stranger. Cheval’s image stood beside my own reflection. I turned to see if it were true, if he were really there. I met Cheval in this faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. Cheval approached and kneeled beside me. “You escaped.”
My eyes filled. “How…but you…you were on this train?”
He smiled then lifted my hand and kissed my palm. “Yes.” Cheval wiped away my tears with the yellowed linen napkin from my table. “You’re safe now.”
“Why didn’t you come with me?”
“Business, dear Mia. I was to leave tomorrow. I had planned to meet you in Paris, but plans changed, as they often do. When chance presented itself tonight, I took it. The train was already pulling away when I arrived. It was only thanks to the whisk of the wind at the train’s end car that I was able to jump aboard. I was not certain I would make it.” He held me, his arms like giant wings encasing me. “I am here for now. I have much to settle at the restaurant, but that is for later. First, this moment. For now, we are together.”
For now. Those words repeated in my mind, and I could not focus on anything he said after. For now. For now. Those words became a whirlpool pulling me down until I felt Cheval’s lips on my cheek. I felt his breath on my skin. I was close enough to his eyes so that I could see my reflection in their darkness. He pulled my head beneath his chin and smoothed my hair. I was wrapped in his muscles, soothed by his mouth. I told him, “You are my guardian angel.”
He stepped away and held both my hands. “Guardian? You have my word. Angel? That I cannot promise.”
About Maureen Mancini Amaturo
Maureen Mancini Amaturo, a New York based fashion and beauty writer and columnist, teaches creative writing, leads the Sound Shore Writers Group, which she founded in 2007, and produces literary events. In addition to her fashion column and two published beauty how-to guides, she is an award-winning writer, and her personal essays, creative non-fiction, short stories, humor pieces, articles, and celebrity interviews have appeared in many magazines (Bluntly Magazine, Eunoia Review), journals (Manifest-Station, Drunken Pen Writing), and anthologies including: ‘Breakfast Served Daily,’ in Flash Non-Fiction Food Anthology published by Woodhall Press coming Spring, 2020; ‘The Couch,’ featured in, THINGS THAT GO BUMP Anthology, available January, 2020, from Sez Publishing. A handwriting analyst diagnosed her with an overdeveloped imagination. She’s working to live up to that.