A club close to the Red Light District. I think I am dancing. Or at the very least, my body is pulsing to the gritty beat of a song I do not know. It is strange. There are no melodies or words in the song, no soulful turn of voice; only an isolated beat repeating itself in the gloom. The other dancers do not seem to mind. I have watched them for an hour now, dissecting the clever way their movements slide between every beat, a step here, and turn of the arm there, and still I have not figured it out. I think I am dancing, when I notice that the woman next to me is crying. The lights slide over her face, rippling yellow, red, and blue, like the surface of a pool, and as she opens her eyes, tears trickle down from them. At first, I think I am mistaken; I look away, afraid of being caught spying. But soon enough, my eyes drag back towards her.
She is still moving to the senseless beat, her legs stepping and her arms twisting from side to side. Here in Amsterdam, the Dutch youth dance in a certain manner. There is no signature move to learn, no sway of hip that will bring the rhythm closer. The beat exists to invade the body. This is what matters: that you surrender. Sometimes, the Dutch dance with their palms held out. Other times, they hold them in, close to their sides. Somehow, it is both elegant and natural.
I have never danced that way. I have learnt to do everything as if everyone is watching. I arrived in Amsterdam Schipol airport, like so many other twenty- something year olds, dragging a suitcase with too many clothes and a crisp passport. I got on the train bound for Amsterdam Centraal. My hair had a knot in it from the flight. Lauren had promised that she would meet me by the sliding exit door, but I could not see her small form there. For ten minutes, I walked up and down the same rocky stretch of pavement, right before those sliding doors at Centraal, as other new arrivals diverted around me. The wheels of my suitcase made a harsh scraping because of one corner that always dragged. I was afraid to go further. The streets looked, to my eyes, too coldly beautiful to touch - the pattern of cobbled stones, the wreathed lampposts, the houses blending into each other, sea-green, maroon, cream, becoming a single line of black rooftops, the tracts of canals edged with a series of pretty houseboats, some sporting orange flags, others swathed in plants. A tessellating army of a thousand bicycles snaked through this scene, piled against poles and walls and the gates of the bridges arching over each canal. Everything seemed to exhibit a solemn loveliness. I had never seen anything like it. My throat constricted and I sat on my suitcase, like a little girl. I wished Lauren would come. And then I saw that almost every house had its curtains open. A man leant out of his window and tended to a small garden, from which red and violet flowers peeped up from the dirt. Somehow this sight did not make me feel so small and, like that, I surrendered myself to the city. The smell of the canal water in my mouth was dark and fresh.
Two days later, both Lauren and I are nestled in her one room apartment when she decides that we should go out dancing.
“There’s this one place. It used to be a printing press, but then someone bought it and turned it into a nightclub.” Lauren is outlining the shape of her lips in blood-red. I am sprawled on an air mattress, looking up at the medley of faces pasted on the walls. I see mine, smiling against backdrops long forgotten – classroom boards, shopping malls, beach trips with sand in my hair. My God, I think, I look so young. I could still recall the girl I had been in those photos. I had not felt that young.
“How are we getting to the club?” I asked.
“The best way to travel in Amsterdam. Biking.” She laughs. “You haven't felt anything until you've biked through the streets a little buzzed.” She begins brushing out her hair, and although I have tried not to stare at her too much in the last few days, I let myself examine her now. Her neat little boots click in sync when she walks across the streets. Sometimes, she adopts a way of tilting her head to one side when she speaks. The foreign syllables of Liederplein and Vondelpark roll glibly off her tongue. I feel an urge to grasp her leg, arm, some part of her, before she slips away completely.
“Will it be fun?”
“No doubt. Come on, let’s go.” She scans the room for her keys. Obediently, I heave myself up, inching up the wall of photographs. Our faces, pink from the sun and the coast wind, right at the top.
And we bike across the city, and she is right, there is nothing like the lights of the houses flashing by, the canals on one side and the slow cars on the other. I am not a good rider, wobbling left and right, like a child learning to walk. Lauren has to bike slowly; always looking back to make sure I am OK. The world narrows until it is the red light on the back of Lauren’s bike. As the wind rushes past my face, there is a stirring in my chest, like liquid fire, and I let out a little gasp of delight.
Inside the club, it is an almost constant state of darkness, broken only by flashes of colored lights every few seconds. The music is deafening, insistent, and in between beats, people murmur in languages I can’t recognize. Bodies brush by in the opaqueness, a hand on my shoulder, an arm briefly against mine, but I cannot see the faces, until those few seconds of light when they seem to rush into my immediate vision. Someone gives out a whoop. Lauren laughs and laughs and pulls my hand. I think I am dancing, when I see the crying girl.
I nudge Lauren. “Lauren, look. Is she alright, do you think?”
“Hmm?” Lauren looks around. I search for the woman but lights are out again. In the next burst, there is only a thumping sea of heads.
So I excuse myself, groping my way around until I spot the symbol for female on a door, and I push through. I am trying not to throw up now. The music is muted in the bathroom, but even then, the whole space pulses to the harsh bass. Only the thick door holds it at bay. I am breathing in and out in small gasps, thinking of the music and the lights, and the way people dance, when I see an arm peeking out from under a stall. I almost decide to ignore it – almost. But something about the curled fingers, the nail polish so pink against the scuffed beige floor, disturbs me. I rap the door a few times. No response. Girls in ripped jeans glide in and out. I squat down to peer underneath the stall door and there she is, the crying girl, crumpled around the toilet. She is lying in a white crop top, long blond hair tousled over her face, and I notice she has been sick over herself. A thin, wet trickle hangs from the corner of her lips.
“Help!” I yell and begin dragging her by the arms, through the tight gap, out of the bathroom with its too-bright walls. She moans with every awkward movement. A man with slick hair comes to help and together, we heave her onto a couch beside a metal door. Her eyelids flinch open and even in the dim light, I can see how her pupils, so round and black, glisten like pebbles. I cannot look in them for too long. This is the first full view I have had of her face, and I realize she is older than I initially believed, older than I, somewhere in her thirties. Even now, she is lovely, heart-shaped face, blond hair, long lashes. She coughs and murmurs something in Dutch.
“No – Nee - I can’t speak Dutch.”
“She wants to know your name,” the man with slick hair offers. I tell her, and she closes her eyes again, quiet for a while. The bouncer is standing quite close, his face as smooth as the distant moon, and he looks at us, but does not say anything. Here in this slice of Amsterdam nightlife, there are rules you must follow to enter. Taking photos is forbidden, as is wearing high-heeled shoes. It is to celebrate the release of dance rather than the exhibition, the woman at the door explained as she took my euros.
In my lap, the sick woman shudders and opens her pebble eyes, and begins speaking in a strange, lilting English. First, she tells me how heavy her head feels. How the world looks, all blurred together. Then, she tells me about the village outside Ultrecht where she lives, and how she liked to run. She tells me about a man who once left her crying with a bruised cheek, and how she stayed with him for seven more years - because she was afraid it was worse to be alone. Soon I am shuddering too. The words spill out of her in long spools, like the tears that collect first at the corners of her eyes, and then leak down into her fine, knotted hair.
The man with the slick hair who has helped me carry her begins rubbing her legs up and down in a manner I do not like. I push his hands off her. He smiles at me, holds his hands up in a showy gesture of surrender. Then he leans down to whisper something to her in Dutch. An uncomfortable air seeps into the situation. I stroke her cheek and hiss. It is too hot, burning even in the pressing humidity of the club. I tell the man to stay right here, and I tell her to stay right here and I sprint to the bar, where the bartender pours me an ice-filled glass. Minutes later – I am sure it was minutes – I return and still there is the smooth moon face of the bouncer, avoiding my eye, and still there is the exit door that is now gaping open, revealing slices of the chilly, dark night, and still there are her shoes scattered beside the couch. The man with the slick hair is not there, and neither is she. She, my responsibility, she with the blond hair and the heart-shaped face, she whose fingers I saw curled against the floor, so pink, she is the one that I will cry out for, in the deserted street outside the club.
“Where the fuck were you?” A hand grips my shoulder – I spin to see Lauren’s twisted face. “Oh my God– I was looking for you for ages – where did you go?”
I am like a fish emerging from underwater. The noise fades, my ears ring, I cannot breath. It has rained at some point, and we stand in the wet puddle, staring at each other like strangers.
“I was… there’s a woman....” I fumble over my words, trying to explain. But Lauren has let go of me.
“I was looking for hours,” she repeats with a hint of disgust. I don’t know how to explain, so I say nothing, tears dripping from my eyes. I brush them away before she can see.
The next morning, there is a new coolness between us, a politeness that somehow leaves less room for the brimming intimacy we once had. We warm up as the days progress, doing things like biking to the Anne Frank House and waiting in the ticket line for two hours. I am awed by the steep climb into the attic with its blacked out windows, but she only studies the posters on the wall without touching them. I never tell her about the crying girl. When I finally leave Amsterdam, Lauren gives me a hug with the right amount of pressure, and makes me promise to visit again. We message over Facebook a few times and fall out of contact, out of favor. I plan more trips over the continent, and the edges of my passport grow furry, the pages soft, as I cross time zones. My friends do not understand my paranoia when we visit clubs, the insistence that we go to the bathroom together. It is a year later, and I am scrolling through Facebook when I come across a new photo of Lauren, wide-mouthed and laughing at the beach. Still I cannot forgive, cannot forget the moment of horror crashing, the dark, canal scent, the way the street looked – empty and glistening with freshly fallen rain.