The modesty of her eyes

ALWAYS an uncertain business introducing your wife to a woman you used to love. It had not been my intention to make such an introduction. In the first place, I did not think my wife would be interested. And, to be truthful, I suppose I wanted to be alone with my old friend. It was about 5 o'clock on a rainy, late July afternoon in Bruges. We were a group of six, two families each composed of husband, wife, and teen-age son. We had gotten into our hotel in the early afternoon, had lunch in a caf'e, walked through heavy drizzle to the old market square with its glorious belfry. We had visited the Groeninge Museum with its finely wrought masterpieces curiously known as ``Flemish primitives.'' We had done the requisite turn around the cathedral. Now the boys wanted to return to the belfry and conquer its circular stairway.

This was my moment to excuse myself, hurry to the nearby hospital where my friend, the ``other woman,'' had been for some years, and see her. Probably I wouldn't say anything - at least not audibly - and she wouldn't know anyway whether or not I had.

Whatever the circumstances, I wanted to be with her again. I wanted to see her flattish, long-nosed face and the special modesty of her eyes. I wanted to feel once more that sense of spirituality her manner and presence exuded. Although a virtue little prized in the women of one's past, spirituality was the characteristic that made her remarkable to me. We had experienced difficult times together. During them her spirituality often bolstered my spirits.

I had first gotten to know her in the early 1960s. I had served then as an officer at the American Embassy in Brussels. Shortly after arriving, I had come to Bruges and seen her quite by accident. Despite her demureness I had stared at her - and been fortunate to make her acquaintance. I had seen her only once or twice more before leaving the country. I had been transferred to the former Belgian Congo, now called Zaire, then only three years into its independence.

Curiously, she turned up around Christmas my first year in Africa. She came to stay in my house in Coquilhatville, a provincial capital sited at the place where the Congo River crosses the equator. We were there together for seven or eight months.

It was during this time that the Congo drifted into chaos and rebellion. A civil war started in the country's southeast and eventually threatened us in the northwest. When that happened, it was wonderful having her with me. As the conflict grew more violent, I frequently found solace in her tranquillity. I would gaze at her for long moments - neither of us speaking - and feel strangely reassured.

Finally, when the rebel army was only a few hours outside of town, most foreigners fled. I was evacuated by a United States Air Force C-130. My friend and I lost track of each other. I left the Congo and the government. I married, had a son, and changed professions. Now, so close to her geographically, I wanted to see her again.

``I'm going over to the St. John's Hospital,'' I said to the others as we left the Bruges cathedral. ``It's just across the street. I'll catch up with you at the belfry.''

My wife knew immediately why I was going - for I had made no secret of my affection for this woman. Both she and my son are used to the portrait of her I have on the shelf in my office.

``May I come?'' my wife asked.

``Of course,'' I said - what else could I say? - and I asked my son, ``Would you like to come, too?'' But, no, he and his friend wanted to climb the belfry.

My wife and I entered the hospital, which maintains one wing as a museum. We made our way through the dark, cold, pre-modern hallways and found the right gallery. I glanced about the room. My wife recognized her at the same instant I did. ``There she is,'' she said. I nodded. My wife retreated a step or two so that I could approach her alone.

I went and stood close before her. Her lashless, thin-browed eyes were downcast, as they always are. I wanted to say: ``Look at me! Look at me!'' But she would not, never has. I thought: ``I know, I know. It's all right.'' I felt once again the sense of peace I'd always known with her.

My wife came up beside me. ``She's beautiful,'' she said. I nodded and looked at her very carefully.

I smiled at the sight of her tiny mouth, her delicate but quite long nose, at the hint of the double chin. I remembered the open window behind her that gives us a peek at the northern Europe of Hans Memling's day. I remembered the circular mirror that offers a rear view of her and a glimpse of the room she faces - although, of course, Memling and his easel are not visible there. I delighted once more in the long-fingered delicacy with which her left hand offers an apple to the Christ-child that her right hand holds.

``I've never much liked the Christ-child,'' I said. ``He looks like some babyfied Hanseatic merchant. And he isn't really cuddling against her; he's sort of floating.''

We looked at the other paintings in the room, those consummately sophisticated ``primitives'' of Memling. Before leaving, we went back to look once more at the Madonna and Child, the reproduction of which I've had on shelves or in trunks for almost 25 years.

``I think the baby needs a nap,'' my wife said.

She went out into the hall and left me with the woman from my past. It occurred to me that I might never see her again, not close up like this. ``Went through a lot together, didn't we?'' I thought. Demurely she watched the apple, for with her rhetorical questions deserve no answer. I thought the words a man always wants to say to the women from his past: ``Thanks for all you gave me.''

Outside the sky was clearing. The others had not gone far. My wife and I caught up with them in a shop selling souvenirs.

``Where did you go?'' my son asked.

``You know that Madonna Daddy has on his shelf? We just saw the original.''

``Quite a moment,'' I said. My wife took my arm.

``Why didn't you tell me that's what you were doing? I'd like to've seen her.''

``You'll see her sometime,'' said my wife. ``Better get moving if you want to climb that belfry.''

``Right,'' said my son. He and his friend hurried on ahead. My wife went into the shop with the other couple to look at souvenirs. I stayed alone on the sidewalk, finishing my farewell.

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