It is still dark when I rise to let the dogs out. In a few weeks the darkness will be further away at this time of day, but today it is still dark and the air is as sharp and cold as a blade while I stand in the grass and look up at the stars one last time before they retire.
The paperboy bikes by and I walk up to greet him, bruising my bare heel on a stone in the driveway, but I do not know this yet because my foot is numb with icy morning dew. Our breath forms opaque wet clouds around our faces as we wish each other good morning. Watching him pedal down the street, I admire his moxie. Up before dawn even on Saturday, even when its pouring rain or the roads are covered in snow: for 30 Euri a week. When I turn to limp back to the house with the dogs at my ankles, the sky is fading to gray, all but the last stars have retired and a weak lenten sun, runny yellow like an egg yolk rises in the crease of the horizon.
My heel is starting to hurt by now, but I want to avoid examining it until I’ve made my breakfast and had some coffee. If it’s bleeding, I don’t want to see that before I’ve eaten. If it’s badly bruised I’ll get distracted feeling sorry for myself and forget to eat or make the coffee.
There are many adaptations I have made in order to live in Europe: learning a new language, running to the grocery store almost daily to keep the miniscule fridge stocked, accepting that softdrinks do not come with ice at the fast food joint, having my identity card with me at all times in case I get stopped by the police, ..One thing I refuse to change is my breakfast. The Dutch consider bread and cheese or bread, butter and chocolate sprinkles or paste, or a vile tasting fruity yogurt a proper breakfast. I must have porridge: oatmeal, farina, or some reasonable facsimile to cream of wheat in order to start my day. With whole milk and a smidge of sugar. My lover, Mans finds my porridge as revolting as I find his bread and chocolate paste. It is a treat to myself to wake early and enjoy my porridge in peace without him being snarky across the table.
I used to think Mans was brilliant. I just realized this week he’s a cynic well on his way to being a grumpy old man. My grumpy old man. “I don’t want him, you can have him, he’s too cross for me…”. He distrusts everyone. He sees conspiracy in every institution this country has to offer and all over the globe for that matter. He’s starting to keep tabs on me. I don’t know why. I lead a blameless life these days.
The killer for me was this: He snarked me in public a few days ago. I was telling a story, a bit embroidered to make it more entertaining, like you do and he interrupted me to tell everyone that I didn’t have my facts straight. He finished the story. Nobody laughed. Our friends were appalled at his behaviour and embarrassed for me, they told me later. I’m pretty much used to it. He’s done it before, but this time it really got to me. I just wanted to haul off and smack him in the mouth though I didn’t. You never know with Mans, he might have hit me back. He’s never done it yet, but he might one day.
Oatmeal bubbles in the pan. I cook it in water and add the milk later. While it’s cooking I examine my foot, which I decided had to be only bruised because there were no trails of blood on the kitchen floor. I see no discoloration, but by evening I’m sure there will be a circle the size of an American nickel coin and the color of an aubergine at the edge of my heel, close to my instep. It is already tender and painful.
I turn off the flame and spoon the oatmeal carefully into a deep dish. Mans always says that oatmeal looks like snot and even though he’s still sleeping I hear his irritating, nasal voice in my head and have to laugh. Choco paste looks like something far worse, I tell him in my mind. The house is quiet when I sit down to enjoy my breakfast. The hum of the manky old fridge and the tick-tick of the dogs’ nails across the tile floor provide an almost Zen-like musical interlude to my meal.
The local paper, “De Maatstaf” changed it’s format from broadsheet to tabloid a few months ago. I told everyone who would listen that it is a slippery slope. The quality of the journalism would decrease within weeks. And it has. Didn’t journalism used to be about facts? Just the facts, ma’am. Hah, there are no facts to be found, aside from some half-baked business case regarding the re-launch of the local airport with statistics even I can tell have been manipulated beyond any relation to the situation at hand.
I give up on the paper and finish my oatmeal.Coffee next. I set enough for two, in case Mans decides to join me, although I hope he doesn’t. A snark free coffee is all I ask but that’s too much for Mans to give. While the coffee is brewing, I fire up my laptop to check out what is going on where I used to live. The local rag is online these days. The journalism is not much better than “De Maatstaf” but reading the news from back home helps keep away the blues and sometimes reminds me why I left there in the first place.
My reading follows a set pattern: Local headlines, one or two favorite columnists who’d been my friends at school, the entertainment and food section to see what culture I’m missing here in this Dutch backwater, the weather forecast, then finally the obits, because I’ve reached that age where the engagement, wedding and birth announcements have become less interesting than checking to see who’s passed away.
I peruse the obits in a cursory fashion until one name takes my breath away:
So the old lady finally died. She was one of the thorns I’d plucked out of my side the minute I stepped off the plane 25 years ago and skipped over the tarmac at Schipol. Seeing her name brings it all back to me and I feel sick and dizzy and all I can think is “burn in hell.”
Drinking my coffee, I form a plan:
Today before Mans gets up, I will go to town alone and sneak into the side door of the Basilica like a priest entering a bordello. I will light a candle at the altar of St. Mary Magdalene, without paying the required candle fee because hell will freeze over before I give money to the Catholic Church and I want hell to be very hot indeed for the soul of Ida Marek. This is my Saturday prayer.
On Sundays I do not pray. Just because.
On Monday I will resign from my teaching post, effective immediately. I will say that there is a family emergency, too sensitive to talk about. On Tuesday, while Mans is working. I will pack a small bag with only the things I cannot bear to leave behind. I will pet the dogs and tell them that I will always love them but that I have to go away. I will close the front door behind me, push my housekey through the mail slot and listen for it to fall on the mat. Then I will take a taxi to the airport. By Tuesday evening I will be home.