The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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I sat by myself on the train from Copenhagen. In the middle of the night, the door to my compartment opened. A young woman wearing a ponytail, a T-shirt, and a dark blue suit eyed me stretched out on the seat, my gray hair curled over my collar. Then she decided to come in. She heaved her baggage into the overhead rack, shut the door, and stretched out on the opposite seat.
“Are you English?”
“American,” I said.
“I am Danish.” She paused, then went on. “I lost my ticket to Amsterdam. I can’t believe this has happened to me. You hear stories about people who say they have lost their tickets, but I have really done it. I will need a hundred and fifty Danish crowns. When we get to the Holland border.”
“I have about that much in my pocket,” I said.
“I can pay you back as soon as we get to Amsterdam. I’ll go to the bank and withdraw the money. I just need it for when we cross the border.”
We rode in silence for a while. I looked her over carefully when she glanced out the window. She did the same with me.
“Do you smoke?” she asked.
It was a smoking compartment, but she went out to the corridor for her cigarette. When she came back, we talked about traveling. She asked where I had been and what places I liked. I said, “Paris filled me with heartache and loneliness. But every time I turned a corner there was a moment of pure magic.”
“The French are so cold,” she said. “Even after you have been there a long time, if you don’t speak their language they never let you in.”
“I don’t know. They were polite to me.” I showed her my photos of Picasso paintings and rainbows over the Seine.
She said, “I love art museums. I used to be an art student, but now I am unemployed.” She asked if I wanted some water.
“Thanks, I have my own.”
Her face was square, her mouth bowed and sensual, her dark hair trimmed in straight bangs over her eyebrows. She lay down on the seat to sleep, her breasts jiggling against her T-shirt. Her eyes were closed. My glances caressed her mouth and played like soft tongues over her ears and neck. I gazed at her through lowered lashes, so that she would not see me thinking about holding her head in my lap and brushing her hair.
When she finally woke up, she yawned, pulling her coat tight around herself for warmth. Her eyes were puffy, her hair mussed, like a little girl after a nap. Taking notice of me once more, she pushed her fingers down over her crossed eyes. We both laughed.
She asked what Scandinavian countries I had seen. I described the Arab street vendors in Stockholm and showed her my picture of Swedish graffiti scrawled on the side of a building: Nigger go home.
“There are many Arab refugees in Denmark,” she said. “We have a moral obligation to accept them. But there are only five million of us. We have shortages of everything. Outside Copenhagen there is a communal tent city where homeless people live — did you see it?”
“No,” I laughed. “It wasn’t billed as a tourist attraction. Tell me about it.”
“These people have made their own city with tents. But of course they have no heat.”
I asked questions so that she would keep talking. I liked the sound of her voice, voluble, youthful, soft. She said, “There is too much of an attitude in Europe that each person is only out for himself, and to hell with everybody else. Human beings cannot live that way.”
“The same attitude prevails in my country,” I said. We agreed that the world was dangerously out of balance.
She said her name was Eva and that she was meeting a friend in Amsterdam — “girlfriend,” she hastened to add. The train stopped and more passengers got on. She pulled the curtains. We stretched out full length, taking up all the seats and pretending to be asleep. Travelers carrying huge backpacks peered in.
“Go away,” she mumbled.
I laughed warmly.
When the train got moving again, we sat up and continued talking. I asked how old she was, and she said twenty-four. “You are more aware than most people your age,” I said. “And you are still single?”
She flashed a smile. “Yes, mostly.”
She asked me questions about my home.
“I live in the mountains,” I said. “Most of the land is covered by forest. There are not many people. It’s very beautiful, but the winters are harsh.”
“I would like to go there.”
At the border, a guard yanked open the door and barked, “Passport!” The conductor came next. She told him her story about the lost ticket. I gave her my money.
I considered asking her to spend time with me in Amsterdam; probably I should do it right now. But that would be discourteous as long as she was under obligation to me; it would imply that I expected favors for my hundred and fifty crowns, and that my friendliness was only a means to an end. I decided to delay asking her until she paid me back. If she didn’t pay me back, then she had conned me out of a free ticket, and so what.
We got off the train. I followed her to the main station entrance. In front of a pillar, she met a young woman with hair dyed bright orange, eyes painted green, false eyelashes, and a timid smile. Eva introduced me as a man who had helped her. She left her bags with me, and ran off to find a bank. I stood uncomfortably with the orange-haired woman for ten minutes. Eva paid me back with fifty Dutch guilders, overpaying slightly. I felt a sudden attack of shyness, like a boy trying to get up his courage to ask a girl to walk home with him after school.
“I suppose you are leaving now to find a room,” she said.
This was the moment. Two crows sat on my shoulder. One said, “She might have AIDS. She might be deceiving you into trusting her, and then later she’ll take everything. You’re grasping her on the rebound. You know what happens when you need anyone.” The other said, “Seize the day, don’t be such a chicken, she likes you, give her a chance.” “At your age,” said the first crow, “the whole thing is too silly. She’s young enough to be your daughter. What if she laughs at you?” That settled it.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m leaving, I guess.”
“Well, thank you very much for your help.”
I waved, and walked away slowly. Within seconds, my heart sank to my ratty torn sneakers, and I was convinced I had made a terrible mistake. In the years that remain to me, how often would this happen? I could have said, “I don’t want to leave — let’s have breakfast, let’s go to an art museum together. . . .” I could have taken her to Switzerland and made love to her until she was weak in the knees. She was still there, standing by the pillar, talking to her friend. It was not too late. Yes, it was. The moment had vanished forever. I changed eight hundred French francs into guilders, and when I returned to the main hall, she was gone.
Outside the station, dozens of the homeless were lying on sheets of cardboard, jammed into the spaces between stairways and walls. Groups of young people sat in circles in the plaza. Trolleys rang their bells. Maybe she would run back and fling herself into my arms. A street musician banged out an old Bob Dylan song on his guitar: “You just kind of wasted my precious time . . . but that’s all right . . . don’t think twice.”
I rented a small room on the corner, three nights, cash in advance. I went upstairs and collapsed on the bed. I slept until five in the afternoon.
Looking for a restaurant, I walked along a canal and found myself in the black section of the red-light district. Gangs of blacks with Rastafarian hairstyles loitered in the narrow streets. In the picture windows, black and cafe-au-lait whores sat on display in big parlor chairs, clad in lacy bras and panties, winking and beckoning as I passed. One sign said “Christian Youth Hostel.” Others said “Live sex show, nonstop porn videos.” I crossed over to the next canal. The whores in the windows were white. They were all ages and sizes: fat, slender, bosomy, flat, gray-haired, freckled with sunshine and youth. Each window was lit by a red fluorescent tube. When the whore was free, she sat in the chair waiting, waving to the men, or cocking her head. When she had a client, the window curtain was pulled shut.
I ate in a Thai restaurant and walked back through the same district. Young hustlers stood in doorways chanting, “Hey, good fucky-fucky in here, you get live show. . . .”
“Hell,” said a group of American college boys, “we want live participation!” and walked on, laughing.
In the morning I went downstairs for breakfast. The hotel proprietress was a blonde woman in her forties who scrubbed and cooked. Her face was grim. A kerchief was wrapped around her forehead. A few stray curls dangled over her eyes. She served me black coffee and three buns like hamburger rolls. One of them had a thick hair in it that looked like the antenna of a giant cockroach. I picked out the hair and did not complain.
Three British bikers sat at another table. A heavyset man in jeans and leather jacket was telling the others a story: “So this bloke is parked like this, and I’m on this side, you see, and he knows I’m there, and he pulls his bloody car right out in front of my bike. He’s a bloomin’ idiot, is what he is.” They asked the weary-looking proprietress if she had a room for three. “And what is the charge? Can we see the room? What time will it be ready? I say, can you put in an extra bed? And what is the charge for the extra bed? Can we look at it now? Is there a garage for the bikes?”
She dropped her cleaning to wait on them, wiping her hands on her apron, looking up with forced cheerfulness as if she wanted to say, “I’m here and I don’t like it one bloody bit, but life is no bed of roses and none of us asked to be born. It is my fate to serve an endless parade of single blokes like you, who would all order me about like a slave, and then stiff me in the bargain, unless I charge them in advance — now what do you want?” But she merely answered their questions.
When they had left, I was alone with her.
“You work hard,” I said.
She looked up, rolling her eyes as if in amazement that anyone would notice. “Ya,” she said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. “But for a lot of work there is not much profit. The big hotels make the big money. We don’t make much here.”
I imagined asking her to go with me to Switzerland. I would be her angel for a week. “Just leave the place to your husband. I’ll pay for everything. It’s a gift, a paid vacation, no strings attached.” The dingy kitchen shimmered with undulations of light. Reflected ripples from the canal swept slowly up and down the brick wall across the street. I walked out, saying nothing.
I boarded a trolley and went to the art museums, hoping vaguely that I would run into Eva, the almost-love clinging to my mind like traces of a scent. I walked among the images of ships at sea. Coming around a corner, I saw a woman in her forties, standing in front of a huge portrait of seventeenth-century Dutchmen at a feast. She was lecturing in Italian about the work to a group tour. Her eye shadow, lipstick, heavy necklaces, gold earrings, and dyed blonde hair were like the costume of an opera star. Her bracelets jingled, her eyes closed in ecstasy, her lips puckered and rolled out Italian consonants as if she were munching on heavenly grapes, and she paced around in a circle, describing, I supposed, the tension and contrasts of the images, the emotions of the human figures, the unsurpassable beauty of the whole composition, and the genius of the artist. At the end of the lecture, she made an abrupt exit to the next room, followed by her group. I applauded vigorously, my solitary clapping ringing in the sudden emptiness. A slender, gray-haired man on the sidelines, in a suit and tie, smiled, looking embarrassed and pleased.
When I was through touring the museum, I sat on a bench by the exit stairway, resting my feet. If Eva had come here, she would pass that bench. I would smile. I would touch her hand and ask her to dinner.
I looked up and saw the Italian tour guide striding in my direction, accompanied by the slender man, who recognized me. I placed my hands together at chest level and bowed to him. With the same pleased, embarrassed expression, he pulled her by the elbow, pointed to me, and told her in Italian that I was the one who had applauded her. I looked at her, smiled, and bowed again, exquisitely, for her only. “É bello,” she said, uttering a theatrical gasp. She fluttered her eyes, crossed her hands over her heart, and gave me a grand performer’s bow. The couple continued down the stairs.
On the sidewalk, I waited in line to buy ice cream from a truck. In a round motorcycle mirror, I saw a perfect cameo portrait of a blonde girl in a leather jacket, against a background of Amsterdam houses, distorted by the curved glass. They looked like the houses I had seen in the old paintings: rectangular boxes three and four stories high, with brick facades, narrow fronts, and deep interiors, the gables ascending stepwise to a single block at the top.
The girl was eating ice cream. In another moment the image would vanish. I let my eyes linger on the mirror, feeling the ephemeral beauty of all phenomena, the shifting flow of feasts and fashions. It was a perfect moment of art, better than any of the works inside the museum, for it was alive. There was no way to preserve it, and no one I could show it to. Vehicles roared past in the street. Children shouted and played. Sparrows flickered over the grass. The line moved forward.
It rained that night. I ate supper in a Chinese restaurant. I strolled through the sleazy part of town, gazing at the red and purple lights. “Hey, good fucky-fucky in here, the show is about to begin.” A black whore licked her finger and danced a little for me, nodding, humping, beckoning. I smiled politely at her and kept walking. A prim, curly-haired lady with glasses, who could have been a school librarian on holiday, sat demurely in white lace, not summoning, just there, as she was, in the window, for sale.
In the morning, the women were tousled, puffy, and bleary-eyed, wrapped in housecoats, dropping armfuls of sheets off at the laundry, making their way to the little shops for breakfast coffee, joking and laughing among themselves. The streets smelled like hospital disinfectant. The police patrolled on horseback. I dodged piles of horse manure. The rank odors of bad fruit and foul puddles alternated with sudden wafts of clean laundry and rain. A shopkeeper stacked boxes on the sidewalk. Trucks unloaded. A team of three movers used the gable hook on a typical Amsterdam house to lower the furniture out the windows by rope. Houseboats were tied along some of the canal walls. Sparrows picked the leftovers from the tables of the sidewalk cafes.
Toward evening, I left my pack in my room and drifted again up and down the streets of the red-light district, pausing on corners. A drunk vomited on the sidewalk.
“Hey man,” said a barker, “there’s a terrific show inside, fifty guilders and you don’t have to pay for drinks.” I walked away. The barker followed me: “Special price, for you, thirty-five guilders.” I kept walking. “All right,” the barker said, “this is my final offer — twenty-five guilders.”
Salvation Army members played music, sang hymns, delivered a sermon over a small loudspeaker, and handed out leaflets. They were old. A man pushed another along the sidewalk in a wheelchair. A lost waif of a girl, about twenty, Asian, looked up at my eyes, pleading, hungry, and sick.
“You go with me?”
“No.” If I went with her anywhere, it would be to a restaurant. But I kept walking.
A blonde in her thirties held my eye. She was a bit overweight, wearing too much makeup, applied to conceal pimples or scabs. “You want to go with me?”
“A room around the corner.”
“Forty guilder, plus you pay ten for the room — fifty in all. I do whatever you like, suck, fuck, I have rubbers.”
“You have rubbers?”
“That’s a good idea.”
“You never know what people have. I don’t want to catch anything, you don’t either.”
“Are you Dutch?”
“Yes, but I don’t live here. I tell my husband I come in for a few days to make a little money. . . .”
“How long do we have?”
“Half an hour.”
She held my eyes. I felt a momentary surge of desire, but I had only wanted information. “Well, I won’t take up your time,” I said, “I know you’re here to make a living.”
Inside a doorway next to the sex-show marquee, I saw a young woman pleading with the manager for a job. She was naming off the cities where she had worked as a stripper. The manager looked unimpressed and told her to come back in a week. She walked away, hungry and downcast.
The show took place in a packed, smoky bar. A huge black woman came onstage, peeled a banana, put it into her vagina, and asked volunteers from the audience to bite off pieces of it. She would then jam the volunteer’s face into her crotch while the audience laughed. A black man fucked a white woman in six or seven different positions, with mirrors so everyone could see. They both looked bored. The man jumped toward the audience suddenly, masturbating as if ready to ejaculate onto them, and the people in the front row tumbled backward, laughing, to get out of the way. A muscular male dancer did a striptease, asking a female audience volunteer to caress his penis. The women in the audience laughed and cheered her on. A female dancer did a striptease, inserted a cigar in her pussy, asked a male volunteer to light it for her, and puffed smoke rings.
“You’re not going to stand there, are you?” said a woman to a hulking biker who had just come in and stood in front of her. “I can’t see a thing.”
The show over, I wandered through the streets. It was after midnight. Most of the crowds now were men, shopping. The women were lined up like goods in a row of stores. The two sexes were separated by curtains and plate glass. Some women sat in their chairs and read or smoked, some chatted with each other, some waved to women they knew passing outside. Toward the men they looked desperate, bored, seductive, disdainful, indifferent. Toward each other, they were friendly and warm.
Finally, on a side street, I saw the woman I was going to pick: a slender, long-haired, arrogant Latin, posing in the window, uncovering one breast, taking the attention away from her two colleagues downstairs, pretending not to notice the crowd of men standing around staring at her. She stood with one foot on a chair, gazing off imperiously to the side, wearing a leopard-skin g-string and a black chemise, under the red light, smiling, one hand on her hip, the other stroking her nipple. The men stood gaping, with hands in pockets, in a great, silent ring, so many that they were blocking the cobbled street. She lifted her chin, refusing to look in their direction, as if they were no more than frogs that she had long ago kissed, and, when they did not change into princes, thrown out.
No one moved. No one spoke.
“Has anyone gone in to her yet?” someone asked me.
“I don’t know, I just got here.”
A short, fat Indian walked by and gave her his middle finger. She pulled her curtain shut. The mob drifted away. I waited until she opened it again and went to her door.
Her price was fifty guilders for half an hour, paid in advance. Her parlor was lit in violet and chartreuse, the bed decorated by pillows of oriental design. There were art objects on shelves, gilded mirrors, velvet wallpaper, tassels on the lampshade. A sink and toilet were in the next room.
“Are you Dutch?” she asked.
“You are from California.”
“No,” I laughed.
She pronounced these names in a drawling, mocking voice, holding my eyes with hers, as if being an American was a joke on me, as if she had handled a traffic flow of countless Americans from all those places and I would be completely predictable, like all the rest.
“Not many people there.”
“No, I live in the forest.”
I took off my clothes. “You are very beautiful,” I said, stroking her lithe, tawny shape. “I want you very much.” She stopped my hands.
“Where do you think I am from?”
She looked shocked. “How did you know that?”
“I knew a woman from Chile.”
I did not add that my Chilean ex-lover was married to someone else; that I had turned myself inside out for her; that I had come to Europe to be with her, and she had backed out; that when she left me standing in the little apartment where we had met for the last time, we did not even say goodbye; that I had lain in bed all night listening to the laughing and shouting crowds in the street below; that when I dropped the key in the mailbox and walked away from the building at five the next morning, it was raining hard, the crowds were gone, the street was empty, the cobbles reflected the soft morning light, the heaps of trash were set out for collection at the mouth of every alley, and the rain washed garbage down the gutters toward the sewers; that even now, I would probably have continued seeing her at any price.
The prostitute rolled a condom onto me and sucked me for a few minutes, but nothing happened. I started to take off her g-string. She stopped my hand.
“No, first you get hard.”
“Then let me see.”
She flopped my penis back and forth like a dustrag. “Well? What do you want to do?”
“Make love with you.”
“When?” She yawned. “Tomorrow? Ho-hum. It is getting late.”
“Let me touch your pussy.”
“Forty guilders more.”
There was a long pause. I felt naked, gray, flabby, humiliated, absurd. My broken heart, my addiction to Latin women, the war between the sexes, all of it meant no more than this. “Well,” said the crow who had warned me away from Eva, “you know what to do.” He was not such a bad crow. I straightened my shoulders, making no attempt to cover myself, dropped the condom in the garbage bag, and slowly put on my clothes. I kept all these motions slow and deliberate, so that nothing would suggest to her that she had ruffled me in any way.
Realizing that I intended to leave, she jumped up and slammed around the room. Then she made a tight face into the mirror and primped her hair. In the movies, we would have enjoyed a wild time, she would have taken all my vacation money and run, I would have hunted her down to get it back and discovered that she was a refugee being chased by terrorists, and I would have taken her in and protected her. Then, surrounded by danger, we would share the pain of each other’s lives and find true love. As I adjusted a support inside my torn sneaker, she noticed that I was missing two toes on my right foot. She started to make fun of me, but fell silent when I did not respond.
“You may keep the fifty guilders,” I said, placing my hands together at chest level and bowing. “It’s a gift. Thank you for the lesson.” I walked away, slowly, passing the short, fat Indian coming back up the stairs.
Stephen T. Butterfield