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The first time I saw her was in the Enge Kerk Steeg, the Scary Church Alley, in the walletjes, in the ouwehoerenbuurt, in the red-light district of Amsterdam.
They call it the Enge Kerk Steeg because the Old Church at the end of the alley really is frightening in its way, a massive hulk of filthy stone looming ominously over the twisting alleyways and canals of the ouwehoerenbuurt. It’s not only scary, the church, it’s also one of the most incongruous sights I’ve ever seen in my life, and I love it for that, this once-majestic house of worship now ringed by a three-quarters circle of dismal storefronts, each with its red fluorescent bulb glowing softly over a picture window streaked with grime, and behind each window a bored female on display, te koop, for sale – from young to old, from anorexic to grotesquely fat, from pasty-white to midnight black, from fully dressed to clad only in the wispiest bits of see-through lingerie – always bored, usually perched langorously on a cheap leatherette stool and surrounded by the tools of her trade (a camp bed, a sink, a towel), sometimes working a crossword puzzle, filing her nails, knitting a sweater, stroking a tiny lap dog that seemed better cared for than its mistress, often strung out on heroin, yet ever alert to the passing window shoppers and the possibility of doing business.
[private]I was in Amsterdam on business, but not that sort of business. I had lived in the city long before, had survived an unsuccessful marriage to a Dutch girl I had little in common with; now my home was in Bavaria, in the south of Germany, but I came back to Holland once or twice a year to visit my publisher. There were favourite restaurants I liked to visit, too, and favourite sights I liked to see – the Begijnhof, for instance, and Barney’s Beanery in the Stedelijk Museum, and Onze Lieve Heer op Zolder.
I’d just left the latter place, Our Dear Lord in the Attic, a 17th-century merchant’s house with a secret church hidden away above the living quarters for Catholics still forbidden to adore their God openly in the last dark days of the Reformation. I was on my way back to my hotel, and took a slight detour in order to pay my respects to the Oude Kerk and its walletjes.
French may well be the language of love, but – in Amsterdam, at least – English is clearly the language of sex. All around me, on both sides of the drab green waters of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, bright plastic signs screamed “Tax-Free Sex Shop,” “Non Stop Hard Porno Cinema,” “Live Show,” “Real Fucky Fucky!”
Geja spoke to me in Dutch, though. Why? I never found out. But she was in a pretty bad way when I met her, and perhaps she just couldn’t remember the words in English. I came across her in the Enge Kerk Steeg, leaning up against the brick wall of the alley and shivering violently though it was late June in Amsterdam and wonderfully warm. She was a tiny creature, no more than five foot two in worn out black imitation-leather shoes with three-inch heels, and she leaned against the wall hugging herself tightly with her so-thin arms and trembling in the warmth of the summer afternoon.
She was not a pretty girl, Geja – and girl she was: seventeen, perhaps, or eighteen at the outside. But the lines of her face were already hard, her lips were drawn and bitter, her long blonde hair was poorly cut and stringy. Her small breasts barely added curves to a shocking-pink angora sweater stained here and there with dingy spots; her narrow hips had trouble filling the tight black microskirt she wore over frayed black tights with a hole on the inside of one thigh and a long run down the other calf.
She made no sound as she stood there shaking, and it was not until I stopped and looked at her closely that I realized she was crying. Her tears had washed rivulets of dark mascara down her face, and the make-up had smudged across her cheeks where she had rubbed the wetness away.
I don’t know why I stopped. To this day I ask myself what it was about her – or about me – which made me turn around after I’d already passed her and come back and touch my hand to her arm and say to her, in English, “I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?” She was a whore, she was probably a junkie, she was certainly none of my business. I did not find her sexually attractive; there was none of that “an-electric-spark-flamed-between-us-and-I-felt-an-insistent-stirring-in-my-loins” crap like you read about in those absurd books, you know the ones I mean, with titles like Hot to Trot and The Postman Always Comes Twice. In that way, she did not appeal to me at all. And yet … she was a lost little girl in obvious need, and I stopped and went back to her and offered her – something, some warmth beyond the warmth of the day, a human presence in a part of town where humanity was rare and human beings had been trivialized into hunks of meat at discount prices.
She looked up at me, that tiny girl, and her pale-blue eyes gleamed with the wetness of her tears, and in a voice as small as she was she said, “Ga je mee?”
Awash in her private sorrow, drowning in the sad events that had brought her to this place, these emotions, this time, the three words she spoke were the same words I had heard from every prostitute who had ever approached me in the streets of Amsterdam’s red-light district. “Ga je mee?” they said, in Dutch or English or French or German, depending only on what country they guessed I was from. “Do you want to go with me?”
There were more words to follow those, of course, but in all the years I had lived in Holland, in all the visits I had paid this city since moving away, I had never yet heard them. I feel about prostitution as I feel about homosexuality and B&D and S&M and bestiality and other sexual practices not my own: if all concerned parties are willing – including, I suppose, although I haven’t really thought this out completely, the sheep – then ga je gang, as the Dutch would put it, go your gang, have it your way. But I myself prefer to walk the more traditional path. I do not do it with animals, or with other men, or with bodies rented by the hour as throwaway depositories for my unwanted sperm. And so my conversations with the hoeren of Amsterdam have never gone beyond their initial exploratory “Ga je mee?” and my friendly but firm “Nee, dank je” or “No, thank you” or “Merci, mais non” as the case may be.
Until this day, that is. Until, faced with teary Geja and her pathetic whispered “Ga je mee?” I found myself taking her by the elbow and gently steering her down the short alley and around the corner into Warmoesstraat and through the door of one of the dozens of Chinese restaurants which abound in the ouwehoerenbuurt, almost rivaling the sex shops and bars and walletjes in number.
I ordered her soup and a loempia and hot tea, and she slurped and ate and drank until everything was gone. Then she leaned back in her wooden chair and presented me with a tentative smile and reached into a miniscule handbag I had not previously noticed for a pack of cigarettes and a plastic lighter. She held the pack out to me, still having said nothing at all since that first trembly “Ga je mee?” I took it from her and put it in my pocket and said, “Lousy habit, smoking. You ever think of quitting?”
“Quitting?” Her expression told me it was an idea that had never occurred to her, and for a moment I wondered if she had registered that I was talking about the cigarettes. “No,” she said, “I never have. It’s a – well, old habits are hard to break, you know.”
I sipped at the beer I had ordered for myself. “You were crying,” I said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She shook her head, suddenly stubborn, her dirty blonde hair whipping back and forth across her face, but the truth was that she did want to talk about it, and gradually her story came out.
It was, I’m sure, not an unusual story, but it was the first time I’d heard one like it, and I listened with unfeigned interest. It began with a broken home in the north of Holland and a twelve-year-old girl sexually abused by her father; she’d run away from home at fourteen, was found by the police and returned to her “loving” pappa, ran away again at fifteen and this time managed to lose herself in the walletjes of Amsterdam. By the time she turned sweet sixteen, she was an experienced whore, spending four or five hours a day behind a window in the Kreupelsteeg, Cripple Alley, drawing heavy curtains shut to turn tricks with impatient German businessmen and blow drunken footballers from England. But no Turks, she told me proudly, no Moroccans, no Moluccers. Those she turned away, and her pimp who was good to her had never forced her to accept them as customers.
But then Ferry was knifed to death in the Zeedijk one Saturday night in a stupid argument over nothing at all, she had been with him when it happened and had screamed away the sight of the blood and the horror of Ferry’s life bubbling out from the long red gash in his belly, and then Sjaak had come along and taken her under his wing and that was all right at first, only then came the drugs, the heroin, and Sjaak would beat her if she dared refuse the filthy Turks who wanted to put it in her achterste. And now even Sjaak was gone and she could no longer afford the luxury of a window but was reduced to wandering the streets of the red-light district murmuring “Ga je mee?” to strangers, turning vluggertjes in the dreary third-floor room she rented by the lonely week. She ate almost nothing, spent what little she had on rent and cigarettes and junk to still the terrible hunger that ate away at her spirit and her body and her soul.
Sometimes, she said, when no one wanted to go with her for days on end, there was no money at all and the needle tracks on the insides of her arms began to itch as if her skin was on fire, was crawling with the stings of a million carpenter ants. Those were the times when this child of seventeen longed to kill herself but was far too frightened of the emptiness that lay on the other side of the razor blade. Those were the times she laid her cheek against the rough red bricks of wherever she found herself and hugged her emaciated body tightly and cried silent tears.
That was her story, and I sat across from her and wished there were something, anything I could do. But there was nothing, I knew. My life held no answers to the questions of her sad existence. In a fairy tale, I would settle her behind me on my great white horse and carry her off to my castle by the sea. En ze leefde nog lang en gelukkig, say the Dutch: “And they lived happily ever after.” But as I looked across the table at her thin, bony face, her tired clothing, her pale-blue eyes, I had no illusions that I could help her, no fantasy of a better life for her, no hope for her at all.
And yet that same nebulous voice which had called me to her side in the first place spoke to me again, commanded me to make some human gesture towards her, no matter how futile.
Confused by that compulsion, I fumbled for my wallet and took out a 50-Euro note and pressed it into her hand, put the wallet away and fumbled further for words. “Don’t give up,” I said at last, and I have often wondered since if she noticed then that I was begging her. “There’s more out there than the walletjes, Geja, so much more, if only you –”
I sighed and shook my head and let the sentence trail away, kissed the tips of my index and middle fingers and leaned toward her and pressed them to her cheek. “Don’t give up,” I said again, and got to my feet and walked away and left her hunched over an empty teacup in a silent Chinese restaurant in the Warmoesstraat, surrounded by fierce red lacquer dragons and intricate carvings of ivory and jade.
Five minutes later, walking past the Stock Exchange, my hotel in sight across the Damrak, I found a smear of mascara on my fingers where I had touched her face.
She stayed with me all the rest of that day, long after I had wiped away her make-up from my hand. Wandering aimlessly around the city, sitting alone over a dinner I barely tasted, all the words I might have said to her arranged and rearranged themselves in my mind. It was Thursday night, koopavond, and all the stores were open late; after dinner, I strolled along the fashionable Kalverstraat and imagined how the clothes in the windows of the chic boutiques would look on her thin and tiny frame. Hardly realising what I was doing, I went into one shop and bought her a modest skirt and long-sleeved print blouse that I thought would fit her.
Would fit her. I was creating an obsession for myself, I understood. This skirt, this blouse, would fit her, sure – but they would never fit her, never suit her, not this skirt and blouse, not Geja. And besides, even if fairy tales did come true, I had missed my chance. I had spent another 100 Euros on a child whose path would never again intersect with mine – not in this lifetime, anyway.
As the clock in the Old Church bell tower struck nine, I was back in the Enge Kerk Steeg, but the alley was empty and Geja might as well have been on another planet. I roamed the streets of the ouwehoerenbuurt for hours, staring through the glare of neon and the gloom of night at the thousands of faces which floated past, the tourists, the junkies, the buyers and sellers of irrelevant sex, searching every face for those tired lines, those pale-blue eyes. The bag of clothing in my hand grew heavier, and somewhere a clock struck the half hour – which half-hour I didn’t know until I checked my wrist and saw that it was 11:30.
A tiny blonde passed me in the Monnickenstraat, and I grabbed her shoulder and spun her around to face me. She had a camera around her neck, and her husband, though several inches shorter than me, seemed ready to hit me. “Sorry,” I mumbled, “I thought you were –” I pressed the plastic shopping bag on them and stumbled off before they could refuse it. It was late, I was acting like an idiot, it was time to go back to my hotel and do what I could to expunge this day from my memory, from my history.
I turned down the Lange Niezel, which would take me back out to Damrak and my hotel, and pulled up short at the sight of a pink angora sweater and a black microskirt over torn black tights. She was leaning up against a wall, as she had been when I’d first seen her – less than twelve hours before, though it seemed as if the bonds which tied us together had been there for centuries – her body turned away from me, her stringy blonde hair hiding her face. But it was her; the shock of recognition that rippled through me was undeniable.
I touched her arm and she turned to look up at me. I expected tears and runny mascara, but her pale-blue eyes were dry and empty and there was a dreamy expression on her thin painted lips. Her head was weaving slightly from side to side, and she squinted as she gazed up at me, trying to focus on my features.
Suddenly, her mouth softened into a beautiful smile, the innocent smile of a child at peace with the world, a smile I can see before me to this day.
She touched my cheek as I had touched hers that afternoon, but the repetition of the gesture was coincidence, nothing more.
She looked up at me and smiled, and for an instant the sex shops and porno movies and walletjes and real fucky fucky were the illusions, and only the sparkle of her eyes and the lovely smile that played across her lips and the warmth of her fingers on my cheek were real.
We stood like that, in silence, for what seemed like a very long time but was, I suppose, only a matter of seconds. Then her hand dropped limply to her side and her smile faded and the emptiness came back to those hauntingly blue eyes. She scratched at the inside of her arm, at the puncture marks in the crook of her elbow, as if she had only just remembered they were there.
“Ga je mee?” she said.[/private]
American author Josh Pachter teaches communication studies and film appreciation at a two-year college in Virginia. From 1980 to 1991, he taught on US military bases in Europe and the Middle East, including stints in the Cambridge area and London. He writes crime fiction, edits genre anthologies, and translates fiction and nonfiction from Dutch and Flemish into English, such as Tessa de Loo’s The Sweet Factory Girls (Litro 100: Dutch issue).