Den Wallen Air

Den Wallen, Amsterdam's red light district, looking down from a shady apartment into her salacious fishbowl. I am above the forest canopy, peering down upon the wild life vista of Amsterdam below.

She looks to be in her mid 20s, and he tells me she's Dominican - makes me think of you. She could just as easily have been your sister, if fate had been less kind in its twists and turns.

Down below, Amsterdam's canals twist and turn like untamed rapids through the forest, through every forest. Wild mushrooms and herbs flourish in these parts, and the townsfolk feast on their bounty.

I have no idea what I'm doing up here. Something about being on holidays abroad, spontaneity, and the fetid stench of weed in the Amsterdam air. I had barely even met the guy.

Walking down the street in the afternoon, 'Hey pretty lady,' he had yelled out, so I quickened my pace. 'You should be careful walking through the red light district,' he had warned me.

I am always cautious about random strangers who alert you about others, they could be like the anti-spyware program that is actually spyware itself. I had an uneasy feeling bellowing and squirming within my stomach.

In my convoluted meanderings to throw him off the scent, I wander through a land of contradictions, where old traditions meet new freedoms.

I pass the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam, right across the walkway from a sex show.

Countless windows displaying real women of all shapes and sizes, celebrating women's beauty in all its forms, yet celebrating women as objects. Each window is a cell in a giant beehive: each woman a drop of honey enticing you to enter.

Five euros admission to the Oude Kerk, how much for the sex show? Just as the Oude Kerk is closing, the hive opens, like a baton change in a relay race.

Through a closed shop window, I see windmill-shaped condoms. Why would a condom shop be closed at night when people need them the most?

Lost in my musings on morality, I am nearly hit by a stoned tourist's bicycle. My new stalker friend finds me in shock, and offers to take me for a drink to settle my nerves.

I refuse. Then after half an hour of walking and trying to writhe my way out of the conversation, like verbally wrestling an anaconda, he had finally exhausted me into submission.

He offers me a toke. The Amsterdam air made me do it - I accept, trying my best to look nonchalant and experienced. Failing.

He gives me directions to the Rembrandthuis and Van Gough museum. An odd place to seek tourist information.

'I need to go to de bathroom,' he says.

'Ja doch,' I reply - an expression he taught me in the pub earlier this evening. He smiles as he walks off.

Through wisps of smoke I see the Dominicana not quite dancing, strutting? in an emerald green and black corset, and very little else. It leaves a little to the imagination, but not a lot. The expression on her face tells me she is utterly bored. Not just the boredom that comes from the absence of passers-by of a Tuesday night, but an ennui at where life has taken her. Wherever that is, I don't imagine it's happy.

Amsterdam is supposed to be where everybody is liberated from social norms right? But what about patriarchy? She can't honestly be wearing that expression from a job based on sexual liberation and not poverty can she? That face does not say: 'I am doing this as a form of artistic expression.'

In my head, I compose a history for her. Maybe she was born in Santo Domingo, or maybe New York City, where her mother moved after marrying a Texan who had fallen on rough times. Money for green card, a simple equation. And when money fails to show itself, sexual favours offer a feasible alternative.

A life in Washington Heights made her yearn for something different, to see the world, a different world, to live a life that wasn't already mapped out on a path trodden by countless others with the same history. To be an individual, and yet anonymous at the same time, far from the watchful eye of her community.

Perhaps her name was Maria, no that's too clichéd, maybe Julissa, and her stage name: Dulce Miel (Sweet Honey). Perhaps she has a baby in the back room, behind the curtain. Perhaps she wanted to be an astronomer, to look up to the stars and understand them, but somehow she got lost along the way. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

It appears he has made very little effort to make the apartment look impressive to... I wonder how many women he has already invited up here. He had explained that the girl with him in the photograph was his sister. I wasn't convinced, but left it alone. There is a hole in the wall, perchance courtesy of rats. Stained carpet, threadbare curtains, clothes strewn across the entire apartment's floor.

He returns. 'Would you like a Heineken?' he offers, pronouncing it the Dutch way heineker. I stand up to accept the uncapped bottle, only to realise I am giggling uncontrollably. At what? I finally remember the weed and start laughing again. I take a sip, drinking the mellifluous honey inside his hive.

Maybe I should be embarrassed, but I'm not. Nobody here would see me again and remember what I've done. A society where most things are legal and acceptable. This is a no-consequences kind of evening. Like a computer game where you can press F2 and start over if you make a mistake. I'm in a state of transition, between London and the future. I feel so free I could strut naked through the Vondelpark - a place where I have learnt it is legal to have sex but not to walk your dog off-leash.

I don't expect you to understand, I know you wouldn't be impressed if you saw me right now. You knew a different me. A version of me who made her choices differently. Planned them in infinite detail, weighed up pros and cons, worried about society's watchful eye.

He looks down at Julissa. Does he do that a lot? I wonder. Free peep show from your living room window every night. No wonder he hasn't repaired the curtains.

'You know Amsterdam is very liberated. Women are free to do what they want sexually, they don't have to conform to a norm of getting married and having babies,' he asserts.

'Yeah right,' is all I can say in reply.

Women aren't supposed to want to get married or have babies anymore. That is so passé. Why can't we be more liberated and be exactly like men? Surely to be like a man is the freest state possible. 'Yeah right,' I repeat.

'You know, like in Sex and the City, "make love like a man", that's what women should be like,' he explains.

Prick. Why do they have to say these things out loud? Surely they must know it doesn't serve them in their seduction. Why am I angry at him? I'm the one who followed him up here.

The Amsterdam air made me do it.

So now I am in his bedroom? How did I get here? It has a queen size futon, my knees wobble on the way down. Does that mean I have had more Heineken than I remember?

All I can say after seeing him naked is that Dutch men are in proportion - not just tall in stature, if you know what I mean. He is about as far from my type as is possible. Curly blonde hair, inane optimism, completely untroubled by angst about the suffering of others, simple morality, simple tastes, simple mind.

'Ja doch!' he proclaims gleefully as he jumps into bed.

I drink honey inside his hive, but you are the reason I stay alive. I scrape it off my knees with a tissue, not quite sure how it got there, eww. As I said before, you wouldn't be impressed.

My thoughts escape the bedroom and race over what might be happening to Julissa outside, no longer being watched over by hawks from their perch in the squalid nest overhead.

Why is it that she is judged for her morality when I am not? Is it because she is on display and I am unseen, or because she does it out of necessity and I have a choice? A choice... why did I make this choice? The Amsterdam air made me do it.

I picture Julissa strutting in her glass cage. A client stalks past, a growling tiger. She steels herself, determined not to show fear. Like a green and black poison dart frog, her dazzling colourings warn predators, mess with me and you're dead, mofo!

The client is unruffled. He stares at her for a good 10 minutes viewing before he walks inside. An ether-soaked handkerchief to the bouncer's face gains him access to her glass booth before he drags her out into the night. Unbeknownst to her, the poison dart frog loses her toxicity in captivity, and with it her usual defence against fierce predators.

My Dutch companion's whistling in the shower breaks my concentration. I hadn't even noticed him leave the room.

I go back to the living room and glance out the window. How can this be? And yet it is. I rub my eyes to see if the image disappears. It didn't work, the image is still there, evermore tattooed on my right temporal-lobe.

Julissa is lying on the pavement in a pool of blood, five deep gashes scraped into each of her arms, four scrapes on each of her knees, like a wild animal has savaged her and left her for dead. In her naked torso is carved the English words: 'The Amsterdam air made me do it.'

A lone infant wails uncontrollably from inside the glass booth: 'Maaaaaaaaaamááááááááá!'

The fetid Amsterdam air permeates through the forests, through every forest of my mind. I can never escape it. I scrape it off my arms, my knees, but it never leaves me. I drink it up like honey, it fills my stomach, it makes me feel alive. But at the same time, it disgusts me, and your memory is the only reason I stay alive.

A/N - written for October 2011 WCC.

The prompt for this month was:

Through every forest, above the trees

Within my stomach, scraped off my knees.

I drink the honey inside your hive

You are the reason I stay alive.

- Closer by Nine Inch Nails

This story was partially inspired by actual events. I went to Amsterdam, and heard 'hey pretty lady...' The rest was an invention about what might have happened if I had made a different choice. I also do have a very kind Dominican friend, but this was not about him.