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I was staying with my partner in Antwerp, near his hometown. A professor whom he worked with had invited us over for lunch with his wife.

We had spent the morning looking at apartments. This trip was a reccy for me. My partner had secured a job at a university and we were talking about how things might look for us, between two different countries, and then, in time, if I were to move here. We had only known each other for a few months, but what had earlier felt like a fantasy, now, more and more, felt possible. A life together. So we had walked up narrow staircases leading to high-ceilinged rooms with lofts and modern kitchens and A-frame attics, so different from the weatherboard share-house terraces I was used to living in, and we smiled at each other, filling the spaces up with the energy of our possible future.

We met the professor near Berchem train station. He gave us a walking tour through the surrounding neighbourhood streets, pointed out the houses of navy generals and those who had grown rich from the diamonds.

We walked along the Cogels-Osylei, its architecture eclectic: ornate Art Nouveau palaces next to red-brick Flemish Renaissance, moody Gothic Revivalist wedged in between stately Byzantine and Tudor-style mansions. The townhouses loomed high, with a sense of uniform grandeur, yet each had their own frills and flourishes. The professor paused at the intersection of Waterloostraat and Van Merlenstraat and pointed out four famous houses on the corners, each depicting a season: zomer, herfst, winter, lente. The architect Joseph Bascourt had built them in the early 1900s, he said, pointing to one set of mosaics.

See, that is the Battle of Waterloo.

Further along, he moved us towards a building adorned with a proud painted silhouette of Napoleon. It was cold and I pushed my gloved hands into my partner’s jacket pockets, feeling his warmth spread through me, enjoying the professor’s narration of these unfamiliar streets. I tried to imagine myself as a future local, rushing past these grand buildings, barely noticing them on my way to work.

We walked past the colourful street art and graffiti in the Nieuw Zurenborg quarter, and then back through the Hasidic Jewish community streets where men with long payos side curls and kippah skull caps walked alongside women who pushed babies in old-style perambulators.

He must like you very much, I whispered to my partner, to take the time to show us around like this. My partner shrugged.

As we wandered towards the professor’s modest, narrow-looking house, my partner stopped me outside and gave me a little warning. He said the professor’s wife was a hoarder and it could be a little overwhelming.

We walked through a narrow hallway filled with books and into a kitchen where strings of garlic hung down from the ceiling. There were dried chillies, oregano, jars filled with pebbles, bark paintings crammed into spare crevices, cat toys, flat-pack boxes stacked up high and more books everywhere—of cooking, of philosophy—including a Japanese book on wabi-sabi and minimalism that was incongruous amid the mess.

His wife was sitting at the table. She was a squat woman with flat features and the air of a magical creature who lived underground. She had a pallor to her skin, as if she rarely saw daylight. The professor towered over her with his long, bony body. They both chain-smoked cigarettes as they spoke, the entire house’s nooks and crannies and objects were suffused with smoke.

They poured us wine and we spoke about how I might move to Europe. It would be for a year. My partner was telling them that I could try to pick up some small contracts and perhaps write for some English journals. It will be hard for her, leaving her work and her family, but it will be temporary, until we can make a better plan so we can be together, he said, stroking my hands.

My partner and the professor moved into a conversation between themselves about the academic semester and how they would plan it, slowly switching to Dutch. The wife turned to me and I asked her how she and her husband had met. She didn’t seem to hear me and instead told me how she had once lived in Japan. When she was young, a girl of fourteen, she said she spent a semester billeted with a family. It was unusual, she said. She came from a small village in Germany and what with the parochial ways, and the hangover from the war, it was not common to do this. But a Japanese teacher had come to the school, and he had offered a language exchange program, and she had decided to do it.

Her hair was short and cropped with small tufts sticking out at strange angles, like a mad pixie. As she spoke she continued to puff away on her cigarette, pausing only to exhale smoke through the room.

I can’t even remember the conversation we had about it, or how my parents were convinced, she told me. I was like that, I made decisions so firmly when I was young and my family just let me.

That experience, she explained, had changed her. Being so far from her town, and with new soft sounds in her mouth and light-filled spaces—she felt free. When she was twenty-two she decided to go back and live in Japan on her own.

And again, I just did it. She barely looked at me as she spoke, her eyes distant, resting in the past.

I often think about that young woman, and that year in Japan, and what may have been, she went on. I wanted to stay living there. I had an apartment that was two tatami mats wide, and even though it was small, it was filled with air and light. She smiled, more to herself, as she remembered. The walls were white, and I had only my clothes, and a small blue jug that I had bought at a market stall and loved. That’s it.

I found it hard to imagine this woman, now here inside this dark treasure-laden cave, with her one blue jug.

But then we met, she said, nodding her head towards the professor. He was on a tour with the university. And he said to me, Come to Belgium, it will be temporary. It will be for a year. And we were in love.

She paused for a moment to pour us both another glass of wine, filling the goblet-like glass to the brim with crimson liquid.

But I think because I had met him in Japan, I also tied that place and who I was there to him. I never noticed how he crinkled his nose at the way things were done there. I never noticed that he didn’t like the smells, or pay much attention to the small trays of precise beauty laid out before him.

So, we first came to Ghent, and then he got work, and we stayed longer. And then we had children, so we moved here, to Antwerp, and have been here since. The city is familiar to me, in some ways it links me to my childhood self, as the culture is not dissimilar, although of course, it is more multicultural. But it does not remind me of the woman I was in Japan. And along the way, he collected all this stuff, she said, stubbing out her cigarette and motioning about her. So much stuff.

I was confused. I thought I must have misheard my partner when he said she was the hoarder. She clearly hated these things. She got up to start cooking fish, and took garlic hanging above her and fried it up with onions. The professor and my partner were still speaking intently, and I caught small phrases as they moved between English and Dutch, about work and the semester and the demands.

At one point she walked outside, where it was raining, and brought herbs in, and the fresh air and delicate green thyme made me realise how desperate I was for air.

We ate the fish. It was grilled and tender. While the two men continued to talk to each other, I carefully picked out the small bones from the fish. I couldn’t shake the smell and texture of smoke on everything, as if a thin film was appearing over everything, including my thoughts. When I looked over at my partner, he seemed hazy and unclear through this mist, and I had the strangest sensation of not really knowing him.

Suddenly the professor’s wife grabbed my hand and told me not to move for someone else. The woman I believed myself to be, she said, would not last. She had done it, she said, and she regretted it. She too thought it would just be temporary, they had both said that same word to each other. Temporary. But life forms quickly around these imprecise shapes, she said.

I watched as the two men, oblivious to us, carried on with their plans and their arrangements for a life in a town that was theirs. In my city, where we had met, he was always attentive. He had few friends and connections and, in many ways, I was his anchor point. But here, in this house, he had barely looked at me since we arrived, and I felt a strange desolation threaten. Had we both mistaken his need to survive in a foreign place as his being in love with me? What would happen if the roles reversed? I felt angry. This woman had imposed her entire experience onto mine to tell me how my decisions and my love would pan out.

The wife brought out another bottle of wine, and in this narrow-darkened space, filled with smoke and wine I started to lose my centre. Their house made me feel like I was in the belly of some mythic beast.

Don’t misunderstand me, she said as my head started to reel with the alcohol. My husband and I are very fond of this boy of yours. He has a sweet and imaginative heart, but one that maybe does not fully know itself.

She sighed.

It is not the going away that is a bad idea. It is the building your world around another’s. You start to cling to things you never imagined, because you are no longer at home. He has fallen in love with you in your city. I have heard him talk about you before. And each time he does, I see him imagining you as you are there. That version of you doesn’t just pick up and resume in another place. Deep things get broken. But not for him, for you, she said, again looking bitter.

She stood up abruptly and said, I am tired now. She ran her hands across her face and muttered, This hour is no good for me, and retreated into one of the dark corridors, disappearing from my sight almost immediately, like some strange spectre.

Soon we were leaving, and as I was collecting my coat, the professor said, I am sorry for my wife. I told him I hoped she would be okay and that she seemed to have a headache. He waved his hands dismissively. Yes, yes, she will be fine. Sometimes, he said, I am embarrassed to have people over. She stores all these things and sometimes things get too much for her. But it is nice for us also, to have young people over and lighten the rooms with your talk of the future, or we would forever be talking of the past, wouldn’t we? And he clapped his hands on my shoulder.

I looked across at my partner who was winding a scarf around his neck and wondered if, over time, these two no longer remembered who had made what choices and sacrifices for the other. I had an apprehensive feeling of just how easy it would be to disappear completely into different versions of history.

It would be so nice, the professor was continuing, as he helped me slip my arms into my jacket, if you came to live with us here in this city, and I saw my partner look away.

And then the professor waved us goodbye as we stepped out of the dark house and into the cold night air. The smoke was still itching at the back of my throat, and our hands were firmly pushed into our own jacket pockets, as we made our way back to where we had come from, towards Berchem Station.