The Time I got a Vacation Boyfriend In Brussels
From the ages of 9 to roughly 12, I was obsessed with Mary Kate and Ashley. Especially their travel films. If you’re not familiar, MK & A did a ton of straight to VHS movies. The plot always followed the same format: MK & A travel or move to a major city around the globe, putting them way out of their element. When they get to their destination, they come up against some obstacle or mystery – something light, like a draconian grandfather in Paris or hiding from the mob in Australia. During their initial exploration of the city, they meet their love interests, hot boys their same age, and were tied together through some relationship – friends, brothers. Perfect double date situation. For the rest of the film, they galivanted with their travel boyfriends, eventually conquering the small feat that was the film’s plot.
I loved these films. They were (and are) so pretty and their characters’ lives had a subtle glamour to it. I also related a lot to them. As a child of divorce with parents on opposite ends of the country, I traveled a lot. Whenever I traveled as a kid, I thought I would meet a boy just like Mary-Kate and Ashley. I thought I’d meet a cute boy on the chairlift during a family ski trip. I was convinced that I would meet a new boyfriend on the plane to visit my dad in Oregon. I was really confused when I hadn’t my soul mate on the beach in Florida visiting Nana. It never happened. In retrospect, a large reason I never met anyone like MK & A is because I did not travel like them. I did not galivant alone around the Bahamas or Rome. I visited family in boring cities, never meeting anyone new. Meeting a vacation boyfriend was an impossible task for me.
A few years ago, I made a commitment to travel more. Even if it meant by myself. At this point, I had given up on the MK & A dream of having a meet-cute on vacation. I was also a bit paranoid on these trips that I would get Taken (Liam Neeson style). Typically, I didn’t drink much on these trips. I definitely didn’t go to bars and try to meet dudes. I would usually walk around all day scared to talk to anyone, terrified to ask for directions. I gave up on the fantasy of meeting a lover abroad because men are creeps and I had (and still do) the very real fear of being murdered and/or raped. I decided that the small chance I would meet someone special on a trip was not worth the much more likely chance of being chopped up and sold for parts on the internet.
My nine-year-old dreams were about to come true when I went on a trip to Brussels, Belgium. The trip was a part of my graduate school program. I got there a few days before meeting up with my class to explore Brussels. A lover of beer, I was very excited to drink my way through the city.
On my first night in Brussels, I was pretty drunk, sitting alone at a bar, and ruminating over a man back in Cleveland. I loved him very much but it was clear at this point that he was never going to commit. After five or six Chimay’s, I told myself that once I returned to Cleveland, I would not allow him to come back in my life to hurt me again.
I was about to go home and drink more and FaceTime my mom, when a man came up next to me, speaking French. He clearly wanted to strike up a conversation but I had no idea what he was saying. I told him I didn’t speak French, in English. And he enthusiastically replied, “I love speaking English!”
His name was Thomas. He was beautiful. He was an engineer, designing things like dams, windmills, and solar panels. He was funny and despite the fact that there was a small language barrier, both of our sarcastic tendencies translated. I learned that Thomas practiced yoga and meditation. He was smart, sensitive, and sexy.
We had a great time that night. He asked me to go to the big Christmas Market that was opening the following night. Specifically, he said “I propose we attend the noel market.” OMG, he was cute. He grabbed a napkin and pen and wrote his email down and told me to email him tomorrow if I wanted to go. Then he pulled me close to him and kissed me passionately, before saying goodbye.
The next day, we exchanged a series of adorable emails before Thomas asked to meet at the Manneken Pis at 9:00pm. I was running late and I could not email him from the car (those international data fees are killer). It was pouring rain. I was nervous he wouldn’t be there. What kind of nut stands in the rain for 20 minutes for someone he doesn’t know?
I melted when I saw him standing there in the rain with an umbrella waiting for me. He kissed me on both cheeks as I apologized profusely. He wasn’t the least bit upset. For the rest of the night, we walked around the market, under his umbrella. Thomas gave me a tour of the Grand Place, a gorgeous and historical square in Brussels. We ate food at the Christmas Market and he explained what it was and its cultural significance. I made him laugh when I picked up a piece of bread and did my best French accent saying, “le pain”. The whole night was a scene out of a movie – an Olsen twin movie, but also a less jejune film, like a proper rom-com. I couldn’t believe it the next morning. It was truly a magical night.
The next day, I left Brussels for a small city an hour away, for my graduate school program. Thomas came to visit me a few times. On one of these nights, I felt the energy change. It was no longer whimsical; our feelings had grown for each other but we were not prepared for what that meant. I knew it was ending. At the end of the night, post-coital, I started to cry. I knew that this would be the last time I saw him.
He understood. He explained why he could not be in a long-distance relationship. He had tried in the past and it was too hard. But he told me how much he adored me, how he felt lucky that he had me in his life at all, even for a little bit. I cried harder. He told me, “Not to worry. Sometimes people come into our lives and we get a lot out of them and they leave our lives”.
I was embarrassed. I was sobbing over someone I barely knew and instead of pulling away, Thomas acknowledged that he felt the same way but he also had this beautiful, profound realization about it all. Through tears, I told him how embarrassed I was. Thomas told me not to be embarrassed because “This is how we live life, we feel”. All of which made me cry harder.
We decided that even though I would be in Belgium for another week for school, it would be bad to stop seeing each other. It would only increase our emotional bond and make it harder at the end of my trip.
It was this whirlwind of sex, love, and intimacy. Then it just ended. I told friends in my class the story. Everyone had the same response – OH MY GOD! YOU HAVE TO SEE HIM ONE LAST TIME! I devised a plan to email him two days before I left, asking to see each other on my last night. I opened my inbox only to find that he had already reached out to me – asking if I would like to see him one more time, on my last night in Belgium.
I took the train into Brussels and he picked me up at the train station. The energy was different, again. We were excited to see each other but also awkward and clumsy. Our last encounter was heavy, deep, and intense. I wanted to lighten the mood. I made a joke about us never seeing each other again and he started to reiterate why he didn’t want something long distance. Of course, I knew this already. I was only making a joke. It was so awkward.
We went back to his place. We sat on his couch, I can’t remember what we were talking about, but he said something to the effect of “Girls love to talk, talk, talk with their friends. Men we like sports, and being outside, and drinking beer.” This puzzled me, so I replied: “First of all, I love beer. I love all sorts of beer. I love beer while talking to my friends. Drinking outside. I love beer. Don’t put me in a box.” My tone was sassy but lighthearted. I’m not sure it translated.
Thomas was silent. Then he stood up and his face changed. It started to look scary. Like a predator. He started pacing, talking to himself “This is not ok. This is not ok. This is over. You cannot talk to me like this.” He did not stop pacing. He was pointing his finger to his chest. “Women do not talk to men like this.”
I sat there paralyzed in fear. A thousand thoughts swept through my mind: I made him mad. He was going to get violent. He was going to hurt me. I made him mad with my words. I knew that the next few moments were critical. I could respond to defend myself. I could escalate the situation. Or I could get out of his apartment as soon as possible. I chose the latter.
I left his apartment and met my school friends at a bar. I was shaken up. Everyone was super interested in what happened to my rom-com adventure. And they were all equally supportive and kind about the situation. But even with their kind words to support me, I proceeded to get very, very drunk. I needed all the drinks to calm my nerves.
Turns out, in Belgium, they don’t have to close the bars at a certain time. If people are still at the bar at 3am and want to keep drinking, they stay open. Spoiler alert: I drank until 5am. I got so drunk I approached the DJ booth and asked him to play the Cranberries. When he said no, I waited for him to go outside for a cigarette, and went behind the vacant booth to take matters in my own hands. I played “Zombie” for all of 20 seconds before the bartender politely demanded that my friend take me home, immediately. We got back to the hotel sometime after 5am.
The next morning, I woke up to a knock on the door. It was the front desk, kindly letting me know that it was noon, check-out was an hour ago, and I needed to leave immediately. Still dressed in the clothes from the day before, I grabbed my suitcase and left the room.
But I didn’t know where to go. I had missed my 10am flight to Amsterdam. My entire class had already left for the airport. My phone was dead. I had no idea how to get to Amsterdam, which I needed to get to in the next 18 hours to make my flight back to America. I was still freaked out about what happened the night before with Thomas. I was embarrassed. I was hungover and felt ill. I didn’t know what to do. So, I walked over to the hotel’s restaurant, sat down, plugged in my phone, and I ordered a huge plate of lasagna. I proceeded to eat every single last bite.
Over my lasagna, I thought about how Mary-Kate and Ashley’s characters never had to deal with international lovers turned violent predators. I checked my email. Thomas sent me a message a few hours I left his apartment. He apologized. Not for his violent outburst, but for thinking it was a good idea for us to meet again. Thomas thought he should have just let it be, so we could preserve the memory as is. He hoped I would remember the good memories of us.
A lot of my friends asked me if I regretted seeing him one last time. I told them exactly what I said in my response to Thomas: I had no regrets. Still don’t. I was glad that I knew Thomas was a monster and I could go back home and not pine after him. If I hadn’t seen that in him I would have missed him terribly back in the U.S., maxing out my credit cards to visit him again. I would have idolized a secret psycho.
If I hadn’t gone out and been open to meeting Thomas, I would have been right not to. He was a creep. I would’ve been safer to stay away. I put myself in harm’s way. I also would have made my flight and enjoyed a whole day in Amsterdam and saved all that embarrassment, if I had not chosen to chase my “shook up nerves” with 19 Belgium beers. I would have been right to be scared but I wouldn’t have been free.
Paranoid people aren’t wrong. They are usually right. But they are usually alone - not free. In trying to save their lives, they let their fears dictate all of their choices in life. If I didn’t want to meet a potential love interest or meet up with Thomas again, that is totally fine. But I do not want to say no to those opportunities out of fear.
I’m not advocating that everyone acts like a fool and make a bunch of bad decisions or put themselves in harm’s way. What I am saying is, I’ve learned the balance that Mary-Kate & Ashley had struck at eleven years old - be smart and live free. I’ve learned that I will mess up and shit will explode in my face. That is inevitable. But it will always, always be better than living in fear. And on really bad days, there’s always lasagna to help me out the next day.