Is this really Anneke? you ask yourself, as you lie in bed in the child-sized room in the attic of Anneke’s old gabled house in Amsterdam. This is only your second night here, but already things are not going well. You turn on your side, as though by turning your body you can dull your disappointment. Where is the Anneke you knew two years ago in Bali?
The kind Anneke.
The fearless Anneke.
The Anneke who awoke in Bali at 5 AM to lead you through the darkness of rice fields and forest. You followed her down a hundred steep stone stairs to the road so you could flag down a passing bus. Hadn’t Annneke encouraged you to go to Lombok, an island in Indonesia unknown to you before coming to Bali. Hadn’t Anneke made light of your fears and convinced you that Lombok would be an adventure.
How kind Anneke was, you thought that morning in Bali, as you waved good-bye from the rear window of the bus until Anneke disappeared from view.
How fearless Anneke was. At night in Bali, she walked without a flashlight. The locals warned her of hookworm. Still, she walked barefoot. She would laugh her phlegmy smoker’s laugh. That laugh always turned into a cough.
Did you know Anneke only nineteen days in Bali?
Is that possible?
When you left Bali you remembered only Anneke’s kindness. You had erased from memory the night you forgot your flashlight and waited for Anneke to walk you home from the bar in town. Anneke had promised. You both rented bungalows in the rice fields two miles away. At midnight, however, Anneke was still drinking arak with a Dutchman younger than Celeste, her daughter, who she later said was twenty-five! You were sure the Dutchman was not much more than twenty. Tired of waiting, you left the bar, slamming the door, and walked to the edge of town. Standing before the deserted, lightless road, you held your breath. The road cut through jagged stone walls, crowned with dense forest. Roots dangled like snakes. Slowly, you made your way along the road; every sound, every moving shadow causing you to freeze countless times until you calmed yourself enough to continue.
Only now do you remember that long night.
How could you have forgotten?
Under the sloped roof of Anneke’s house on the Leliestraat, your door is only a few feet from her bed. A narrow spiral staircase between your room and Anneke’s sleeping alcove leads to the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room. In such close quarters, you hesitate to go downstairs at night, afraid you will wake her.
This morning you had even suggested Anneke build a wall to have privacy. You know Anneke is handy. She told you herself she could build almost anything.
Shaking her head, no, Anneke had said angrily, “A wall would make me feel cramped!”
When you arrived at Schiphol Airport two days earlier, you expected to see a tall bony woman with skin like sandpaper. In the crowded terminal, you recognized the voice calling out to you, before recognizing the teal blue blouse and slacks Anneke had often worn in Bali. That voice sounded like wheels rolling over gravel. You recalled that voice on the phone in New York, a few months earlier, telling you about the gang of boys who’d pulled knives on her one night in Amsterdam. She’d turned her pockets inside out and said to them, ‘See, I don’t even have enough money to buy knives like the ones you’re poking in my face.’ In the terminal, when you and Anneke came face to face, you were surprised to see that Anneke was neither tall nor bony.
That night, you would have liked to walk for hours over the little bridges and along the canals you hadn’t seen since you lived in Amsterdam thirty years earlier. The old houses, especially the ones leaning at crazy angles with large windows bathed in golden light were as pleasing to you as they had been then. The night was quiet. A moon the color of eggshell streaked the water.
This time in Amsterdam you were a tourist.
That made you smile.
You walked with Anneke to see a woman who lived on a houseboat near the Central Station. That woman had found Anneke’s lost wallet in a pub. You expected to keep on walking when you left. But Anneke didn’t want to walk. Instead, you stopped at a pub and sat outside on the Singel Canal. You were nursing a Dewars and water while Anneke downed five Dutch brandies in a row. She was disappointed because you refused to drink more. After walking you back to her house, Anneke said, “I need another drink.” She went off to the late night bar.
Who is this Anneke? She is a stranger, you told yourself.
But you tried to be philosophical.
Anneke lives here. She has a life.
After she left, you didn’t go upstairs. You decided to find the house on the Prinsengracht where you had lived so many years ago. It wasn’t far from Anneke’s house in the Jodaan, the old workers’ section. On the way, you stopped in a health food restaurant but the cigarette smoke stung your eyes. You walked through the Liedseplein, the crowded square near your old house, past bleary-eyed boys smoking hashish in an outdoor cafe.
You stood on the bridge over the Prinsengracht, looking across the water at the narrow three-story house. The second floor windows were dark. You wondered who lived there now. Even more, you wondered about that girl of nineteen, that girl who had begged her mother for money to travel to Europe. On that bridge, you could hear your mother’s terrible words: “I curse the day you were born! Take the money and leave me in peace!”
Long ago, you had disowned your younger self. You threw her out as though she were a bunch of old clothes. But now you couldn’t help seeing that girl of nineteen, scared and excited, arriving in Amsterdam on her own, making her way past the narrow gabled houses and murky water of the canals.
Her mother’s terrible words were forgotten—at least for a while.
While standing on that bridge, a memory that was a kind of nightmare came to you: you saw that girl dancing out in the street with the German late at night.
The lying, cheating German you met soon after you arrived long ago.
The German who tried to pass for French and called himself Alain.
At twenty, that girl had married him to show your mother you could get a man. To your mother, a woman without a man was less than worthless.
That girl wasn’t dancing that night with the German. You both were spinning out of control. You were dizzy, as though you were drunk. But you weren’t drunk. You had moved away from the world, so far away you couldn’t bring yourself back. When you fell into a faint, he caught you. You were frightened of him. You were frightened of who you had become.
On that bridge, you didn’t want to remember your unhappiness. You didn’t want to remember the times you said you didn’t want to live past thirty.
What if that unhappy girl could see you at fifty-three? What if that girl could hear you say you had forgiven your mother. You had even called her at the nursing home before you left the States to tell her that you loved her.
No, that unhappy girl would never understand.
Even now you don’t understand completely.
A few months before accepting Anneke’s open invitation, your mother could no longer walk, so you had no choice but to place her in a nursing home. In the home, you could barely recognize her in the tiny fragile being she’d turned into, confined to a wheelchair, crippled by arthritis, her mind half gone.
Your mother had become your child.
Often, she said to you, “You have no mother. Your mother has died.”
At night, you lie in bed, reading in your little room when Anneke goes out to bars with her drinking companions. She seems relieved that you can entertain yourself. Anneke always seems busy. Busy with what? She doesn’t work. You wonder what Anneke does every day while you explore the city, visiting museums, the Vondelpark, the big flea market on the Waterlooplein where you and the German, living in poverty, had scrounged for things abandoned by vendors at the end of the day.
When you mention to Anneke that you had walked to the zoo, far away in the south, Anneke says, “Don’t you know what terrible things they do to animals in zoos?”
Had going to the zoo made you a traitor?
You’ve only been here a few days when you open your door one night and see a boy with a shock of black hair, his upper body exposed, sleeping beside Anneke. You can barely believe what you see. Are you upset? No, you’re livid! You think of the young Dutchman in Bali. The Dutchman she must have brought home to her bungalow that night in the rice fields.
How naïve you were!
You ask yourself how a woman in her fifties can bring home boys! This one no more than twenty—if that! How can she do this to you while you are staying in her house? Couldn’t she at least wait until you left?
Why should Anneke wait?
Again, you try to be philosophical.
Okay, she likes boys. So what?
Who are you to judge?
It’s none of your business who Anneke brings home.
You try to believe that.
But you can’t.
It is your business.
You are her guest!
You go round and round.
You close your eyes tight, as though that will stop you going in circles; as though that will bring you back to yourself. Why are you so far away?
You close your eyes even tighter.
After the boy leaves, you ask over breakfast, in a voice you try to keep even, “Who was that?”
“Mohammed,” Anneke says, casually, as though he is someone you know. She says with a shrug, “He didn’t have any place to stay so I took him home.”
“This was an act of charity?”
“He is new to Amsterdam, from Morocco. He didn’t know where to go when the bar closed. So I told him, ‘I can give you a place to sleep but nothing more.’
Then why not give him the couch, you want to say, but you bite your lip to silence those words. Instead, even though you know nothing you say will be right, you ask, “Weren’t you afraid he’d steal something? He could have murdered you in your sleep.”
“No,” she says, looking at you defiantly. “I would rather kill myself than stop trusting people!”
You are still recovering from your run-in with Mohammed that morning. When you opened the door to go downstairs to shower, you didn’t see him in her bed, so you assumed he had gone. In the living room, a funny feeling made you turn around. You let out a gasp. He stood a few feet away, motionless, staring at you, his dark eyes full of hate. Frightened, you hurried back to your room, locked the door. You want to change your ticket home. Changing your ticket or finding another place to stay is difficult if not impossible in high season, but you are too shaken to even try.
Each morning you wake with dread and pray to the gods she won’t bring home anyone else, but you are not surprised when three days later, on your way downstairs to bathe, you feel the presence of someone else in the house even before you see two canes leaning against a wall. The bottom of each cane is wrapped in burlap and tied with string. What is this? you wonder. While taking a bath, you hear Anneke in the kitchen, speaking French in a singsong voice, as though speaking to a child or a dog. You have covered the see-through stained glass panel in the bathroom door with Anneke’s motley robe.
A boy about eighteen with wild kinky hair sits across from Anneke at the breakfast table when you emerge from the bathroom. He wears a shirt and overalls. He’s barefoot. “Someone stole his shoes,” Anneke says. “I couldn’t leave him at the late night bar with no place to go.”
“What are those canes for?” you ask.
“He uses them to walk!” Anneke says, irritably, as though talking to a dope. “The burlap muffles the sound.”
When he turns toward you, you feel a frisson. His white skin is gray as a corpse.
Is he alive?
Can someone with skin that gray be alive?
Even his hair is colorless.
You turn away, as though his gray skin is contagious like a disease, or worse, is a prelude to your own death. You rush upstairs to your room, dress quickly. On the verge of tears, you flee the house.
You walk up and down the canals, haunted by the French boy. You know finding a room is a long shot but this time you ask at every hotel you pass. Hours later, exhausted, you give up and wander through the red-light district. The narrow cobbled streets are loud, dirty, mean, the way you remember. Women seated behind street level windows still wait for customers. Some call out to foreign men. You can see your younger self, feel her fascination with the women and the sailors on leave who crowded the streets back then.
When you tell Anneke where you’ve been, she says she wouldn’t go near the red-light district. “Taking money for sex is disgusting!” she says.
You tell yourself to keep your mouth shut.
Better to say nothing.
Anneke enjoys shocking you. This is her way of showing you how free she is. To her, you are bourgeois. She is the free spirit, the hippie who never grew up.
Toward the end of your trip, Anneke and her friend Maartja, flanked by two enormous German shepherds, take you to the remains of a hippie settlement by the sea outside the city. Maartja tells you she takes the German shepherds everywhere. She says they keep her safe from her violent heroin addicted ex-boyfriend.
This hippie haven looks as mean to you as the dogs. You shiver. The wind blows sand everywhere. It is a dreadful, barren place. A few stubborn squatters are hidden in clumps of spindly trees. They live in shacks with scrawny chickens and goats. Even the water seems reluctant to touch the shore. You know this settlement is special to Anneke, but before you can stop yourself, you scrunch up your face and blurt out, “What can you like about this place?”
They look at you. To them, you are an alien. How could you not understand. “These people answer to no one!” Anneke says.
You tell yourself again: keep your mouth shut.
When you open your door the morning before you leave, you barely contain your anger. There is Anneke, legs splayed, comforter on the floor. A hairy arm reaches over Anneke’s body. She snores loudly. Her dentures have slipped down in her open mouth. The air reeks of sex and gin. Beside her sleeps the boy she and Maartja had recently met at the late night bar. The evening before, that boy had come with Anneke, Maartja and you to a theater festival in tents outside of town. You had left early. In their company, the festival had turned into a drunken debacle.
Anneke looks like a starry-eyed schoolgirl after the boy leaves. “I had such a beautiful evening!” she says. “I’m selling him my old car.”
A hippie car, garishly painted.
“Didn’t you tell your daughter you were giving it to her?” You ask because you overheard her say that on the phone the day before.
“I changed my mind.”
“But you told Celeste you were giving her the car. How can you change your mind like that?”
“It’s just a broken promise.” She shrugs, then smiles. “She’ll get over it.”
You look at her. You can’t say anything. In a rage, you leave the house. You don’t understand your rage until an old snapshot comes to mind. You see a two-year-old, laughing, reaching out to touch her mother’s face. Her mother, head thrown back, face scrunched up in displeasure, holds her daughter away from her, high in the air.
You stop abruptly a few doors down.
You are your mother! How else can you keep your mother with you?