“It’s not difficult,” Helen said. “Just don’t fuck your teacher. Or your students. Actually, don’t fuck anybody you’re not supposed to. One of my old teachers is having a kid with one of his students.” She was speaking quickly, her words falling from her mouth in a tumbling cascade. Beside her, Margriet fiddled with a cloth napkin. While she spoke, Andy watched the small brown mole on her cheek. Wedged into the crease that curved from the slight round above her nostril to the corner of her mouth, it rose and fell with the rhythm of her lips. She had taken up running, and her body had refined into a new, compact package, one he was having trouble acclimating to.
The scarf she wore mingled with a swatch of her dark, equine hair. “He’s fifteen years older than her,” she said. “It’s…I don’t know. It’s just messy. For everyone. He divorced his wife and –”
“Sounds like it all worked out then,” Andy said. He was trying to move the conversation along, off the subject of fucking.
“She’s a lesbian,” said Margriet. “The student having the baby. She’s one of us.”
“Oh.” Andy nodded, sensing a trap.
“So it doesn’t count,” Margriet said, tipping her head towards Helen. “Her fucking him. Because he’s a man.”
There it was, he thought. Helen turned to stare at Margriet. Their faces were close, almost touching. Margriet smiled coldly.
“Is that how it works?” Andy said. He gave a light laugh to hide his fear.
“No,” said Helen. “It’s not.”
He had only known Margriet for an hour, and had no sense of what she knew, what she could sense, how much he wanted her to know. When he and Helen talked about home, of people they knew, Margriet slipped into long, spongy silences that dripped with incrimination. She, too, was small, pressed into a practical blue, wet-wicking material, the kind Andy associated with fresh air fiends and the morally righteous. Her blonde hair was pulled back tightly against her head, making everything about her – her pursed lips, the plane of her forehead, her clear eyes leveled at Andy across the café table – seem larger and hostile, the eyes of a predator.
The waitress brought their coffees; cappuccinos for the women, an americano for Andy. He followed the feel of the hot drink inside him, felt it lift him up and out of the jetlag. Feeling better, he leaned back, gazing down the narrow street and the adjacent canal. It was his second time in Amsterdam, but he was determined to act as though it were his first, to see it with new eyes. He wanted to see it as an innocent would, with an innocent’s ignorance. To completely surrender to something, to let it happen to you: that was the only proper way to look at things, he thought. He was trying to be less cynical.
“I can never come to terms with how different it is here,’ he said. “Just thinking about it amazes me. We can go anywhere so damn quickly now. It makes everything run together, and then the, I don’t know, the magic of a place gets lost.” He hated the work magic and, chastising himself for speaking it, began to feel his words slipping nervously together as Helen’s had done.
“Then we just walk through without seeing it. If we’re not careful, we’ll just turn everything into the same place. I don’t have that, though. Not right now. Right now, this seems as far from any other place on earth as possible. I mean, look at the houses. They’re tilting! You’d never get that in Canada. Anything with a lean like that would be torn down and built again, straight as an arrow. I guess there’s something in us that can’t tolerate a twist like that. Somebody would get antsy about the foundation being damaged, and there’d be some sort of health and safety dispute over it. Think of the children, something like that.”
His nervousness began to calm the air between the girls; he could feel the churning water between them beginning to ebb. “I still can’t believe I’ll be home later today,” he went on. “Pilots call it place lag, that feeling of arriving in a new place before you’re ready for it. Like a kind of cultural jetlag, I guess.” He wouldn’t be home for hours, but hours still seemed incredible. From Schipol to London, then a flight to Edmonton, another to Regina, then a final three-hour drive deeper into Saskatchewan. It could have been faster. The stopover in Amsterdam had been a conscious act, a pretense to end years of silence from Helen.
“Got any plans to come home?” he asked.
Helen shook her head. “Nope. No. Going back doesn’t do much for me. I prefer things over here now.” She smiled. “The crooked buildings.”
She was still guarded, he could see, but ready to laugh. She had always been ready to laugh. He was relishing being at the café, out in the open air. He spread his legs out under the table, purposefully overstretching them and holding onto the glorious pulsating sawblade of pressure that coursed through his muscles.
When the bill came, he couldn’t wrestle it from Helen, who took it inside to pay. Alone with Margriet, several moments of silence passed before he spoke.
“So, you’ve visited Saskatchewan before?” he asked.
Margriet nodded. “Yes, some years ago.”
He spread his hands open on the table. “What did you think? Did you like it?”
She held her smile. “It was hard. I mean, it is hard. A hard place. A place of opposites. Very flat, very open, and also…” She paused, gathered her words. “Helen’s family, they didn’t live up to the Canadian reputation, I don’t think.”
They did, he thought, at least the in-country reputation he was aware of. It was through them he was already aware of Margriet’s visit. It had been almost two years before, and he still heard the odd remark whenever he visited his hometown. It had become dug into the local talk, a conversational plow furrow that refused to be worked flat. Even without knowing the specifics, he could guess well what had happened. It took no imagination to picture the strained breakfast table conversations or Margriet going for long, solitary walks on the empty, arrow-straight dirt roads. He could hear the barbed politeness of Helen’s siblings. Their poisoned civility, worse than outright cruelty, was the same language reserved for those stricken with some communicable disease.
He’d supposed these things happened, but in Margriet’s eyes, he could see that they did. Sexuality was the obsession of those unassailable small-town minds and laid bare the extent and cruelty of their probing nature.
“She would’ve made someone a fine wife,” he’d once overheard some farmer say in the coffee shop after the first rumors about Helen had begun making their rounds. “Such a waste.”
It was a place of arability, of life. The soil was good; fertilized, manicured, and, where necessary, it was beaten into a controlled cycle of planting, growing, reaping. No bush was ever left standing. Trees were ripped from the ground, their roots chopped and mulched, errant weeds carpet-bombed in the interest of uniformity. Any land that went unplowed counted as a negative – a loss of income, the rejection of the future, a waste.
Andy looked at Margriet and formed an image of the two of them as friends. He wanted that, welcomed it, even needed it to feel whole again. But he knew she saw him as Helen’s last connection to that old place: another plower, a fertilizer, a digger of trees. In turn, Helen had done her share of cutting, including her family. And his sudden appearance was what – an attempt to hunt out an errant weed?
Interrupting his thoughts, Margriet said, “When do you have to get back?”
“The flight leaves at two,” he said. “The bags were all transferred from London, and I’m already checked-in, so I just need to show up. I’ve got a few more hours, I suppose. This is my kind of visit,” he said, immediately regretting it. “Enough time to get outside the airport but not enough to have to worry about finding a place to stay or keeping yourself busy. Just a little sample. Nothing too serious.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s nice if you can do it,” she said. “Just as long as you don’t miss your flight, of course.” Andy decided to fixate on the way her accent shushed the last syllables of suppose, nice, and course.
“Of course,” he repeated obediently.
“Of course,” she said again, and silence took the place of conversation.
* * *
How long since they had last seen each other? Four years? Five? Certainly not more. And before that? Had it been another five as well? Were these the timeframes now allocated to visiting an old friend?
On his last trip, he had again come from England, on the boat from Harwich. He’d spent the day in Delft, eating stroopwafels and coffees. He’d been free, the ultimate Euro-tourist, breezily passing through the country without giving a second thought of where he was. Waiting for the train to Wageningen, he let himself become drunk in a bar alongside the station. He missed each train until he finally forced himself onto the last one, crowding in with students heading back to the agricultural college after a weekend in Delft. He could smell the alcohol on himself, feel it clamming his skin as he braced himself by wrapping his arms around a stanchion. When he arrived, Helen was there, scanning the crowd. They found each other, touching briefly in a fumbling hello. They walked to her apartment in silence, she pushing a bicycle, he schlepping his vagrant’s shoulderbag and dragging his feet.
He winced at the memory of himself then. He could clearly picture himself on the train, sloppily leaning on the pole, tripping on his own drunken feet as he walked to Helen’s, missing her the next morning to sleep in. He had no empathy for that boy. That kind of life was untenable to him now. Now he was thirty, older than she had been then. He recognized with a muted shock that he had turned another sharp corner of life. Now thirty, with a wife, and a job that had saved him from that small town and took him overseas regularly, he felt shocked that he had caught up to her. Five years before, Helen had been about to do the same. “I’m almost thirty,” she said to him, leaning into him on the train to Zwolle, where they rented bikes and rode out into the country. He had no sense of her age over him until then. He’d known her so long that she had become ageless, the five years between them a dissipation of time. Although she’d despaired at her age, her life, with its academics, apartment, and friends, had seemed solid and adult to him. and controlled. He had none of those things and could not have imagined himself ever wanting them. He realized she too had been shocked in life, that what he had perceived as controlled and logical aspects of her character only disguised disorder and confusion. If he reached into the secret pocket of his memory where he kept her, he could feel the last time he had seen her. Lying on the ground together, she had held his hand and, smiling, told him that she would wait for him.
* * *
Andy was afraid of his dreams. They felt dangerous in their simplicity, the way unconsciousness can be dangerous, can guilelessly unravel a life. Of course, it was their sexual nature which he couldn’t reveal. They were always the same, and involved him bending some woman he knew – it was never stranger – in half, and gnawing and lashing at them with his tongue in a thirsty frenzy. He never received pleasure within these dreams, only gave it. There was never violence, but the gratuitousness and the hedonism of the sensuality disturbed him. The fact that his dreamtime partners were never unobtainable or unreal made it especially difficult. The people he undressed and enveloped existed for him constantly. They were friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and though he had no control over his seeing them while he slept but had begun taking precautions when he could. He bowed out of parties, missed dinners, and feigned sicknesses all out of fear of subconsciously conjuring the meat of the females he knew too well. He was so cautious because while the fantasy of it satisfied him at a low level, in a more urgent and dangerous way, it made him hungrier for the real thing.
The night before flying to Amsterdam, sleeping on a molded chair in the airport, he’d had such a dream. In it, he and his wife were at their monthly book club, drinking a thick, lavender drink from fluted glasses. Guests began to arrive, all of them his wife’s colleagues. One, a petite blonde with a pinched mouth, and a tight, curving body, crunched silver-crowned canapés. When she left the room, he followed her, entering the city library. There, pupils sat studiously writing at rows of wooden desks while the petite blonde curled herself backward around a chair and, opening herself, showed him where to bury himself. He had woken up to the buzzing of his phone alarm feeling guilty and hollow, his triceps aching. Three hours later, he was across from Margriet, wishing himself a dreamless night.
* * *
They left the café and walked along the canal, taking one sidewalk then another, before passing through an alley to meet another greenish strip of water. Andy bought tulip bulbs for his mother at a market and stuffed them into his bag.
“She’ll be able to plant those now,” Helen said. “They can be sown in the fall.”
“A touch of Dutch in the spring,” Margriet said, playfully intimating tulips with her hands. Andy liked that and wrote the words down in his notebook.
They walked through a pop-up art market where artists sold large paintings of windmills and tulip fields in blossom. In one stall, statues crowded a white-clothed table. The largest was of a fat, dancing woman. While her extremities were small, her mottled, golden thighs were grossly swollen like roasted turkey legs.
“A sprinter,” Margriet said as they passed it, and Helen laughed.
They came back onto a canal. Houseboats sat like floating gardens in the still water, with house plants poking out of portholes and emerald mold creeping upwards from the waterline. Some were more house than boat, like large house-trailers floating on wide pontoons, their wet vinyl siding peeling away from their walls – hulls, in reality, Andy supposed. They walked above a small, blue, half-sunken boat, its prow held above the water only because it was tied to a cleat set into the road.
Looking up at the narrow, crooked houses, Andy noticed long metal hooks hanging from the peaks of the façades. “Those are for furniture,” Margriet said when he asked. “The stairs inside are too narrow to move things like sofas and tables from floor to floor, so they put everything out the window and use ropes to lift it up or down to another story.”
Andy said the windows seemed much too small to fit even a chair, let alone a sofa or a table. “Small places,” he said. “Living there would drive me nuts, I think. I’m not sure I could do it.”
“The patterns of the façade-top all mean something different,” Helen said, pointing to the ornate bell curve of a house across the canal. “One style might mean a butcher lived there, another a baker, candlestick maker, whatever. Or, um….is that it, Margriet? I’m not sure, actually.” She dropped her hand, and looking lost and pale under the narrow strip of grey sky.
“Can you tell now?” Andy said. “What kinds of people live there?”
“No,” Margriet said. “No way to tell.”
They crossed over the Keizersgracht, the Emperor’s Canal. Helen announced this when they emerged from the dankness of an alley. “The Homomonument is on this canal,” she said. “That way.”
Margriet shook her head. “No,” she said, her lips sliding over her large teeth. “It’s the other way.” Her tone was harsh, but she moved close to Helen as she walked and playfully bumped her with her shoulder before moving away.
Finally, they emerged at the Amstel. The river, wide and dark, heaved with the wake of canal boats. The promenade was thick with tourists, their backs to the river as they smiled at cameras at the end of long sticks. The sky had lowered even further, and loose clumps of clouds skirted along the kinked rooftops. Scanning the cloud line, Andy saw a clock tower and was surprised at the time; they had been walking much longer than he had thought. He was soon due back at the airport. He felt a mild panic – he had been completely turned around in their rambling, disoriented by the maze of water and stone. His keen sense of direction was confused. Where the train station was, he couldn’t say. Looking at the mass of leaning buildings and their sugar-coated windows, he felt himself go weak with sensory overload. There was too much to look at – the boats in the canal, the tourists, the storefronts, bridges, spindly clumps of bicycles, Helen and Margriet beside a tree leaning into each other. It was too much color, too much movement. The chocolate houses around him began to melt; the world became a swirl. He closed his eyes and leaned against the balustrade.
* * *
In Zwolle, they had rented low-swooping bikes and rode out into the countryside, pedaling atop miles of flat-topped dykes. The dykes, he’d realized, weren’t the permanent structures he’d imagined. Everything – the creeping sea, the rain, the thousands of rambling humans, wore them down. If it weren’t for constant improvement and restoration, they’d be ground down to nothing, the land beneath inundated under a sweep of homogenizing seawater. He thought the dykes’ wrestle with the land was different than that which he knew of Saskatchewan, the manipulation of nature more concerned with protection than dominance.
In the small provincial town of Geithoorn, they rented a narrow gondola and puttered through the empty water-roads, discovering their own private Venice. Neither of them knew anything about boats, but they took the helm in turns, giving laughable advice on the throttle (“Turn it that way to speed up, no the other way, no…”). The water was still and reedy, the houses empty, boarded up for winter. No one was about. The sound of the boat’s small engine was comforting, affirming they had the agency to go where they wished. They slipped under a low footbridge and moved out beyond the town and into the large, adjacent lagoon, the Molengat. He took her photograph; she was the soft, warm prow-head of their ship, leaning out towards Geithoorn’s gingerbread houses.
“Niet gescholten altijid miss,” she said, bobbing at the front of the boat as they slowly motored back towards the town. Dutch from her mouth was soft like suede, with none of the guttural shushing of a native speaker.
“What’s that?” Andy said. He was letting off the tiller, swinging the boat in a wide, lazy circle, and taking them back out into the lake. He wasn’t ready to go back in. The view had transfixed him, and he wanted to see the town again, with her silhouetted against it in the dying light. “If you don’t try something, you always miss,” she said.
* * *
Andy hadn’t asked her for any confession. He felt he didn’t need to know anything she didn’t tell him. He wanted to seem, at the very least, refreshingly detached. With her privacy in mind, he assumed a position of disinterest and passivity. Do what you want, he thought. I’ll be one who doesn’t care at all. Later, he wondered if that had been his mistake. Certainly, he had not considered her a carnal threat, something he had told her on that first visit. They were in her Wageningen kitchen, assembling a cheese plate for a party, cubing large hunks of Gouda and Edam.
“My grandma thinks I’m here to marry you,” he said, laughing as he speared a toothpick into a cube of rubbery cheese. “All I said was “Grandma, I don’t think she’s a threat”.”
It was a joke to him, but her eyes pierced him with a look that, five years later, he would see again, being shot at her wife at an Amsterdam café. In the kitchen, she shook her head and forcefully spilled a carton of crackers on the platter.
At the party, Andy half-heartedly pursued Helen’s workmate Lisette. Lisette, with her mess of loose blonde curls, and her long, handsome Dutch face, presented just the kind of animalistic menace he had dismissed in Helen. Later in the night, he lost track of both women. When he finally returned home, he found the apartment unlocked. Helen was there, on the kitchen floor. He slumped beside her, letting her head fall onto his shoulder.
“I missed the train,” she said. It was barely a whisper.
“The train?” He was confused, addled with Amstel and Heineken. They had cycled to the party – there had been no train.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” she said. Their bodies were closer than they had ever been. He was warm from the cycle and could feel the heat throbbing within him. He felt the wetness of her cheek bleed through his shirt. He turned her head and kissed at her eyes, licking away the tinny salt streaks on her cheeks. “I want the weight,” she said.
“Wait for what?” he said.
“The weight of a man.”
But as they moved off together, her words were fuzzy, confused by the new territory he was entering, a place that was all at once familiar and strange. Their hands explored like grounded pilots, discovering the feel of terrain they had only known from a distance. Andy had the glorious feeling of trespassing, of tramping across disputed territory that had existed on the fringes of his known world – visible but forbidden.
In the morning, his head throbbing, he lay chest down in her bed and watched her dress. She was turned slightly away, her hair feathering the back of her neck, the tight curve of her breast springing as she shucked on a shirt. The morning was rushed: she was late for work, he for his train. Sitting apart on a park bench, he argued that what happened was simply the last way they had of cementing their friendship. He almost choked on the triteness of his words, but despite them, he felt bodily strong and fresh. His vigor made him too easily see strength in other people, made him unafraid to hurt them. He watched as she pedaled off, then went to the train station and left for Paris.
* * *
Now beside the Amstel, they were looking at a muddy, rusted bicycle leaning against a tree beside a houseboat. It was Dutch-style, with a low swooping frame and large wheels.
“It’s from the canal,” Helen said. “Look, you can see how old it is. The brake levers and the wheels. Maybe thirty years? Some houseboat probably hooked it with its anchor.”
“Could be shined up, I think,” Margriet said, running his hand over the carapace of dried mud. “Could be a real classic.”
“Better to just throw it back in,” Andy said. “There’re enough bikes around.”
On the water, a tour boat passed throwing dark, slopping water against the footpath at Andy’s feet. A raft of ducks floated on the water. No, he thought, they weren’t ducks – he’d made that mistake before. The white-faced birds were a cover of meerkoet, water coot. Andy surprised himself by recalling their name. He scraped his mind and brought up huisjesslag, which meant snail, or literally ‘slug with a small house’. Helen had told him that, noting the practical order of Dutch, its quaint charm.
A boat passed, the words Lovers Canal were emblazoned on its side. Wrapped in a parka, the helmsmen stood alone at the stern, his hands unhurriedly guiding the large ship’s wheel. Inside a glassed-in vessel, couples sat looking out at the city. Occasionally they lifted their phones and snapped photographs that Andy was sure would include the sheen of the glass between them and the city, between them and the world. He wanted to shout to them to get out, or to forget the pictures completely and just look, but Helen and Margriet were moving on. He hung back and watched them walk on ahead. Pressed together as a single body, their four legs moved in step. They hadn’t noticed the Lovers Canal passing, hadn’t seen that not one of the boat passengers was speaking.
* * *
After Paris, Andy played out his winter in France and Germany, not returning home until spring. Entering his childhood room, he found his mother had placed a potted plant on his desk. “It’s Japanese honeysuckle,” she said. “We’ll have to move it to the garden if it gets too big.” Andy looked at the vessel of green leaves blankly. “It should bloom soon,” she said. “We can eat the flowers when they come. But don’t touch the berries. They’re poisonous. And your mail is there.”
A small pile, three thin letters. All of them held the same Wageningen return address, all were postmarked within three days of his leave-taking. Andy waited another three days to open them, enough time for his nerves to still. Worried he wouldn’t be able to keep himself from burning the last two if the first was bad, he opened each envelope before reading any of them, and spread their contents on the table chronologically. The blunt sword of the letter opener shook as it slid through the thin packets. Reading them in order, he could follow and absorb the changes of Helen’s mood as she moved from pining, to gloomy, to finally acerbic. “The waiting hurts,” she wrote, and he felt himself crumble inside. “My favorite fatal flaw,” was another line that sent him reeling. The words depressed him for showing him himself: cruel, a tease, an abandoner.
A few days later, after the honeysuckle exploded with life and whiteness, Andy began his letter to Helen. The honeysuckle stems heaved and tilted under the weight of the flowers, casting shadows over his paper as he wrote. He abandoned and returned to it continually. One day, he returned home to find the flowerpot had tipped over with the weight, spilling dirt across the desk and onto the floor. Large, sticky clods dotted the rug. Trying to clean it, he ground most into the rug. No matter, he thought, the rug is black, no one will ever see it.
The flowers smelled of spring, and the warm scent of honey wafted toward him as he sat trying to write. Small licks of it floated in the air, waiting for his nose to catch them. Memories of chilly autumn Dutch days and wet bones began to mingle with the spring smell of the flowers until eventually, he couldn’t think of her without smelling that honey scent. The flowers’ pollen gave him hay fever and sneezing fits, but the allergenic redeye hid the effects of the pain he felt writing to her, the emptiness he felt when each attempt failed.
At last, it was done. It had taken weeks. Each word lacked the force he knew was necessary to knock them out of the rut they had driven into. Scribbled and rushed, it was a base homily on friendship and love that he couldn’t bear to read over. He sent it and considered it finished. I know you’ve asked me to wait, he wrote, but I can’t see it going anywhere. The honeyed flowers had begun to rot. They were fragile, their smell turned sickly pungent. He touched one of them lightly, and it came off in his hand as though it had never been attached to its stem at all.
* * *
“I think it’s time I head back.” Andy said. He was still walking behind Helen and Margriet, who were holding hands on the narrow street. They turned and looked at him. Margriet smiled her toothy smile. “Time for the tourist to go home,” she said, giving him her hard laughing look. “I hope it was a good taster, as you said.”
At the train station platform, Andy stooped to give each woman a brief hug. He wanted to squeeze them tightly, but they felt thin in his arms. He too felt weak and thin, his chest a brittle, hollow cavity that he felt close to cracking and breaking apart.
“It’s been great seeing you,” Helen said. “It’s nice to be around people who know what you know. You wrote that to me once. I haven’t forgotten.”
“I’m afraid I have,” he said. “I can’t remember writing that at all.”
Helen shrugged. “It’s okay. I’m glad you let us know you were coming by. Let’s not wait so long next time.”
“No,” he said, stepping onto the train. “Let’s not.” He took a seat at the window and looked out. He prepared to wave, but the women were gone. The train was moving quickly away from Amsterdam and on to the airport. Through the open window, he breathed a last lungful of cool Dutch air. Despite the autumn chill, he felt the familiar springtime itch of hay fever behind his eyes.