I am normal. My family, house, village, school, even my country is as normal as it gets. We are known for chocolates and waffles, for Bruges and the rain, for our relative wealth, easy-going lifestyle and for our beer. We are a catholic country: I have been at an all-girl school with the Sisters of the Annunciate Order since pre-K . My grades are average; no honors.
We are a church-going middle class family of four, and we live in an average-size house with a yard. Our language is Germanic, our stoicism Nordic, our religion Southern, and our culture confused. The Second World War is still doing damage in my mother’s secret heart. My stepfather who fought in that war is kind of dead. All that is completely normal in these parts, in these times.
It is Saturday evening in 1973 and I am watching All in the Family on TV. This is still extremely normal. When the program ends my mother, whom I call mama, tells my brother it’s his bedtime.
The antique Flemish brass wind-up clock says it is twenty minutes to eight. My brother’s bedtime changes daily. The time isn’t what matters, though. What matters is that this is my cue.
He protests: “Why doesn’t she have to go to bed?”
“Because she’s older than you,” says mama.
This is true. I am four years older than my six-year old brother. But when my stepfather is home we do go to bed at the same time. When my stepfather is home, I have a different cue.
Mama accompanies my brother to his bedroom. I stay behind in the quiet, half dark living space and automatically, my eyes widen as I stare at the corner of the roughly hewn slate shelf of the fireplace. I enter into a state of severe dissociation in which the surroundings disappear. Space, time and my sense of self are gone as my mind turns blank.
A part of me cognizes my mother re-entering the room and turning her critical gaze on me. This gaze tells me I am not listening. I am not fast enough to do what I am supposed to do. I tell her that I have to get ready. I go to the bathroom, lock the door behind me and I look in the mirror.
There I am: normal, bland, ugly, ashamed: mama’s girl. I love my mother and have to hide myself completely. My enormous guilt is about being me. My core is pure evil. I try very hard to be nice but it is never quite enough to help me believe that I am a good person. My mother’s cold glares will let me know the dark truth about me if I dare forget it for a moment, as for example when someone else says something nice about me that makes me smile. I am extremely uncomfortable all the time.
I sigh. The sigh surrenders me to a different persona, so that I can begin my ritual. I observe my image as mama’s swathe is being torn off. Structure and sensuality magically appear in my features. My lips swell into an involuntary pout. My nose takes on a definitive shape. My skin tone evens out. Cheekbones appear. My eyes are larger. Everything becomes clear.
I brush my hair. It has grown over my shoulders. Finally. I brush it for a long time, continuing to look at my face. I hear mama’s hushed voice outside the door: “Are you ready?”
“Almost,” I whisper back.
Though her volume is intended to keep my brother asleep, her tone belies that she is impatient and anxious. I brush my hair, peaceful in a moment of stolen time, free of love for mama. At this moment, I don’t care what she says or does. Only after she gives the cue can I allow myself to see her from a different perspective. In our normal life, my attractiveness is my evil way to make mama feel bad, stealing attention away from people when she needs it all. She is the best mother, the sexiest wife, the most beautiful woman, the better friend. I wipe myself out so she can be all that.
In our normal life I live in the world of mama’s mind to survive the day. Upon her cue, I wipe the honey out of my eyes to survive the night.
The door shakes in its hinges.
“We’re going to be late if you don’t hurry,” she stresses.
When I unlock the door and walk out, mama gives me an irritated look that leaves me completely indifferent. I pull an army green jacket from the coat rack and loosely throw it on before following mama to the front door and to her car parked in the driveway. I get in the passenger’s seat, shivering, from the cold I believe.
Mama checks the rear view mirror, which points towards her face instead of the back window. She releases the hand break and lets the car roll down the driveway. I stiffen, sensing her breathless tension.
There it is: the beast. Acting on primal, predatory instinct, living in the unspoken, floating through the ether, invisible, intangible, yet so real. At moments such as these, when the human goes underground to perform beastly actions, mama would be hard pressed to find a good excuse should she be confronted. The beast cannot be spoken to. Mama lives in a human body - she keeps checking the mirror that confirms it - in a society full of humans, so the beast that is driving the car has to hide, especially from itself. Mama loves secrets.
She turns the key. The motor sounds irregular and tinny. She maneuvers backwards, clumsily turns the car around. We drive off. Once we pass the windmill and get on the paved road, she will turn left onto the square, though I never know which way we will go once we reach the church in the center of the village.
We turn left. That means the ride will probably be very short, only about five minutes. I am in a zone, focused on where we might be going to measure the danger levels. In this zone, I have no fear.
When we pass the church of the next village a few miles down the road, I expect that we will turn left, onto a street that turns into a small bridge leading to a large vacant manor. However, we head straight, towards the Brussels highway. I hear the noiseless sound of my blood flowing, flushing, expanding and tightening my veins, tightening my heart. At the orgies around Brussels, whether in bars, villas or castles, you never know what may happen. The Brussels atmosphere is bloodthirsty. I tune out to enter back into the zone and start counting the asphalt parcels of orange light on the brightly lit highway, which has a numbing effect.
After about forty minutes, we drive through ancient woods, up a boulevard alongside the forest, then through another Brussels suburb, and finally onto the driveway of a small castle, its walls covered in ivy, tucked away between peaceful pastures and forest land. Mama stops the car in front of a small door on the side of the building.
“This is a nice place,” she comments.
She says this as if I were invited to an exclusive event, and she were not. Anger boils up inside of me about the craziness, the hypocrisy that never ends, even now.
“Madame told me it’s going to be special tonight,” mama reveals, as though there is cause for excitement.
I freeze and feel the blood drain from my face. Mama is convinced that my association with the people inside this castle at these events will yield a perfect husband for me, as if I were twenty instead of ten. She pushes her lips in the smile of the good mother.
In our normal life, the “Madame” to whom she refers is a countess mama boasts about as being her good friend. When the beast reveals itself, Madame is my mother’s link to the network who only calls her to give addresses and times where she is to bring me. They are both child pimps.
I open the car door and walk towards the side entrance, with a mixture of anguish and relief. Though my life is always in danger in the network and I split into many different personalities to make it through the night, I prefer this to being with my mother.