THE MONTH OF THE GRAPE HARVEST, 1959
Maybe a thousand men with bowler hats stood outside my window. These men had no recognizable expressions on their faces. They seemed calm and indifferent, so I was not afraid. Far more frightening men had seen me on display before. Men with a spark of insufficiency in their eyes had brought their women and children to the World’s Fair last year to leer at me as I did my weaving. Men who saw me as nothing more than a curious anthropological finding. No, these men outside my window did not look threatening.
I had moved into the apartment the day before. I slept with my mattress on the floor, up against the wall opposite this stupid casement window with all the men looking in on me. When I pushed aside the opaque white curtains and unlatched the window upon waking, I was expecting to find the little park opposite the building empty, probably, or with a few children or small animals running about.
Mr. Maes first brought me to the apartment a week ago to make sure the room was to his liking. I had looked out the window and noticed a small birdbath near the center of the adjacent park. The birdbath was made of rough concrete but was pretty nonetheless, and I had looked forward to waking up, flinging open the window and drinking tea or coffee in the company of songbirds or pigeons, not hundreds of men in black bowler hats and jackets. Mr. Maes told me this building had just finished being completely renovated. He promised me that Rue d’Aerschot would be lovely and convenient. He told me I was lucky he had found me at the exhibit before a real brute had. That I should be thankful he had found a way for a primitive girl like me to be of some value in this city after the fair had ended. He said that I would not even miss my family in Congo anymore and that things would be better for me here in Brussels. He said that having my own apartment would calm my nerves. That I would no longer disturb all the other girls at Madame Janssens’ place by screaming in my sleep about bamboo fences in the night. He assured me that the people in the city would not throw peanuts at me as they had at the fair, even if I walked around alone. He swore that he and Madame Janssens would both make sure I had enough money to get by in comfort. I hoped against reason that he was telling me the truth. Anyway, I was relieved at the prospect of having a small, quiet space of my own in which I was not on view and could attend to my own notions.
Each of the men outside the window stood frozen in their place; every one of them wore a crisp white shirt and dark red tie. There were slight variations in the knots of the ties, but these were just normal Belgian-looking men. These men had faces of dough, not yet fully risen and shaped into familiar features. Thin noses, thin lips, and wide chins that looked like freshly peeled potatoes. They were not at all identical, but it would be impossible to describe one of them separately from the others. A miniscule pinch here on the nose or a twist there on the brow were the only differences.
I tried to peer into one of their eyes, beneath the brim of his hat, to see if he was looking at me, or through me, or at something else entirely within my apartment, but when I did, I could not decide. These men had not reacted to the sight of my body in the way to which I had become accustomed. Generally, upon the revelation of my flesh, European men burned red and perspired. They turned into beasts, un-controllable savages. They sniffed at me like I was the scent of fresh pralines, luring them into the chocolatier’s shop. These men in the window though; they just stood there. I pushed the window closed again and drew the curtains. I thought that perhaps I was confused. I took a sip of water, put on my good blue dress, and went back to the window. I peeked out through a gap in the curtain. The men were still there.