Sunday, April 22, 2012

Amsterdam

Nathan traveled extensively for his job, and his wife joked that he probably had a secret lover in each country he visited. He might have thought that was funny if it hadn't been true.

These weren't ongoing affairs; he only slept with each woman once, and never a colleague or subordinate, not even from one of the international branches. He had no female superiors--in his company, the only person above him was the CEO--but he would have ruled those out, too. No one from work, no one who knew him in real life. He always made sure that when he left a country, he left the girl there, too.

Sometimes he picked them up at bars. He met a few in jazz clubs or bookstores or cafes. These were more his type. Only a few times had he resorted to champagne-room sex with strippers, and he'd only been with prostitutes twice, in Bangkok and Sao Paulo. He didn't count the "happy ending" massages he regularly received in Hong Kong.

There was only one girl he kept in touch with afterward. Her name was Mallory.

Mallory was an American who lived in Amsterdam. She was a foreign-exchange student. Before she came to Amsterdam, when she was a junior at a small university in the Virginia mountains, she'd felt no special pull to the city. Her college had a sister school in Amsterdam. Mallory had seen a poster about the sister school stapled to a bulletin board in the building where her French classes were held. The poster was a patchwork of Europe images, bait for Americans who long to feel cultured and cosmopolitan: the marble halls of an art museum, a man hefting a long baguette over one shoulder, a field of red tulips, young people sipping tiny cups of espresso.

Half a year later, she was there. She lived in an apartment in an old building whose owner had painted it orange. She took classes in things like art history and philosophy. Her father paid her rent and tuition, wiring the money from the bank where he was president. He also sent her more than enough allowance for things like going to the grocery store on the corner, where she could buy small wheels of wax-covered cheeses and chocolate candy bars with seemingly superfluous j's on the Dutch-language packaging.

***

Mallory ordered bloody-rare steaks and bacon and hamburgers at restaurants. The people she dined with were often surprised and said they'd assumed she was a vegetarian. Nathan had said it, too, when he'd invited her to dinner at Steakhouse Piet de Leeuw. The restaurant was in the center of Amsterdam. Nathan had read that it was historic and named after a famous Dutch pool champion. He recited these guidebook facts about the steakhouse, then he paused and said, "Oh, but you're probably a vegetarian."

She knew why people said this. She was petite and had delicate features and a meek voice. It was easy to imagine her weeping at the thought of an animal being killed.

She met Nathan in line at a coffeehouse. He knew she was American--he heard her place her order with an American accent--and he'd confided to her that he missed the Starbucks he was loyal to back home. He wore the clothes of someone who insisted on quality. Not flashy--no diamond cuff links--but you could tell that the fabrics were good, the shoes expensive. His shirt was pressed, but not by him (by a wife, or a hotel maid). Dimples, a full head of dark wavy hair just starting to get tinselled with silver. She later learned that he had gotten his MBA at an Ivy League school. He seemed like a paper doll of a man, like someone little boys and grown men alike want to become.

***

Mallory receded into a pocket of his mind as Nathan plunged forward in his life. He spent the night at her place after their steakhouse dinner. The next morning, after he left her apartment (splitting before dawn, to catch a 6 a.m. flight to JFK), there was the long flight over the ocean, and the "high-importance" messages on his BlackBerry that his administrative assistant had highlighted with red exclamation marks. And then there was the old guilt to deal with at home. His wife was sturdy, secure, an intellectual brunette he'd met in college. She said she understood that his company was global, that it was important to have "face time" with prospective international business partners.

His two sons always had some new joke when he got back home--after the Amsterdam trip, for reasons he didn't know, the boys were going around saying in a British accent, "I think it's rahther nahsty." It must have been from some movie or cartoon. There were no guilt trips from anyone, but he felt their stoic disappointment when he missed a Boy Scout outing for a trip to Australia and Sri Lanka to meet with the new regional VPs hired for the Asia-Pacific office, when he was gone for a week to speak and network over drinks and cigars at a conference in the Caribbean. His sons' souvenir magnet collections filled their nightstand drawers.

He'd had to think for a minute when he checked his BlackBerry calendar on the morning of September 7. "call Mallory: b-day." He slowly fitted the fragments together--how he'd never met anyone named Mallory before, how proud he'd been to work in a reference to Sir Thomas Malory over dinner (Nathan had minored in English as an undergrad, despite his father's protests). In Brussels. No, Amsterdam.

He remembered more: They went back to her place after dinner. An apartment full of books--he'd liked that. He'd thought of how his colleagues had joked, on the plane coming over, about how "clean" (i.e., STD-free) the hookers were in Amsterdam, about how the government requires them to get frequent health check-ups. Nathan hadn't had to pay for sex; he'd found a willing girl, a lovely student named Mallory. He'd one-upped his colleagues, and he wasn't even planning to tell them about it. He never talked about the women--he didn't want Frank or Steve drinking too much at a holiday party and getting loose-lipped in front of his wife.

He dialed the number on the morning of September 7, doing the math to account for the time difference between New York time and Amsterdam time. As the phone rang, he thought about how New York was once New Amsterdam. A joke to work into the conversation. Her voice was soft and small when she answered.
"Hey, it's Nathan, calling from the New World--New Amsterdam--how are things in Old Amsterdam?"
She told him about how she'd dined at an Afghan restaurant for her birthday dinner, about the ravioli she'd had there.
"Afghan ravioli? Interesting."
She told him about how it was dumplings filled with ground beef, with a tomato-based sauce, and a yogurt sauce drizzled on top of that. Shit--he was supposed to give his presentation at the quarterly executive meeting in half an hour.
"Sounds good. Hey, I've gotta go. But you have a great birthday."
Shit, shit. Open MS Word, throw together some bullet points to demonstrate his accomplishments of the last three months. There was the successful Asian press tour, the company that had customers throughout Latin America and had signed on to use his company's products, the prestigious award from an American business magazine. At his computer, Nathan compressed all that he had done for a quarter of the year into one page of blurbs, double-spaced.

In Amsterdam, Mallory sat on the edge of her bed in her apartment. She listened to the dial tone for a minute, then clicked "End" to hang up. She stared down at the cell phone in her hand.

***

He had keyed in a reminder to call Mallory on her birthday into his calendar on his BlackBerry, there in front of her at the steakhouse. He did this because he'd asked how old she was, and she'd said she was turning 21 next month. "Oh really? When's your birthday? I'll give you a call." He had spontaneously entered her phone number into his address book.

She dressed well for her birthday: the slinky black dress she'd worn at their dinner, the red heels with the coquettish ankle straps. She did this to feel festive, although she spent the day alone. Her father sometimes apologized, said her shyness could be attributed to her having been an only child in a household with a workaholic father and no mother. Mallory thought it went deeper than this. She often walked through the streets of the city and watched the locals her age on their bicycles with their blond hair in dreadlocks, their messenger bags made of hemp with the straps slung across their chests. She knew a few Americans, foreign-exchange students from her school back home; they were indistinguishable from the locals. The young people sat in circles on park lawns to eat their lunches, played Frisbee with their dogs, smoked their legal marijuana in this liberal utopia.

They were uniformly nice to her. When she sat reading in a coffeehouse or on a park bench in the shade, sometimes one of them would approach her. They asked what she was reading, was she was a student, would she like to hang out sometime, would she like to go to a friend's band's gig that evening. Her first month in town she attended a local band's show in a deliberate effort to be more social. There, she met Jan, a Dutch guy with spiky blond hair. She slept with him that night; he was the first guy she had ever slept with. Jan shared his apartment with two roommates, a guy and a girl. The next morning Jan said he would make apple crepes for her. He was a good cook, he promised; his mother always made these. He wanted to make Mallory his girlfriend. He was a perfectly nice guy. Mallory made an excuse to leave without breakfast. She never called him again.

She had no right to feel sorry for herself, she thought on her birthday. If she wanted friends, if she wanted a boyfriend, she could have them.

Nathan was different. The kids at the park in their Birkenstocks with their yin-yang-symbol tattoos would have loathed him. He was an American businessman who spent more time on his BlackBerry than he did with his family. He was pushy at the coffeehouse, chastising the barista when she got his order slightly wrong. He didn't listen to underground experimental indie rock or tribal-influenced club music like the young people here. He told her that he liked jazz, and there had been a schmaltzy quality to him that made her assume he meant synth-heavy "smooth jazz" that sounded to her like dentist's-office music. Yet when he asked her to dinner, she accepted, even though she'd noticed his wedding ring. She had almost respected him for not hiding it.

At dinner, Nathan name-dropped Sir Thomas Malory, obviously intending to impress her (he mentioned Le Morte d'Arthur--she figured he probably found out about that one through Wikipedia after she had told him her name that afternoon). She let him pontificate during dinner--about the challenges of running a global business, how he was training for a marathon. She didn't talk much. She just let the candlelight glint in her eyes and off her hair, let him talk at her, taking the stream of boring words in. She was pretty sure they were really communicating on some other, more physical level anyway, and that his words were more like background music.

At her place, he read the spines of the books on her shelf. He seemed to approve, although she doubted he'd ever heard of any of the authors. She was tipsy from three glasses of good red wine--high-quality; he would order only the best--and she led him to the bed, undressing on the way. The sex was hot, good. "So this is what chemistry is," she thought. This wasn't nice Jan with his apple crepes. This was a married American businessman who played golf and skipped straight to the business section of the newspaper. This was someone who would leave the country, and her, behind. It gave the sex a shot of urgency.

The alarm on his BlackBerry buzzed at dawn. He kissed her and called for a taxi; he had to go back to the hotel to get his things, then catch his plane. Half-dressed, he paused and looked down at her lying in the tangled sheets. It was a long pause. "Call you on your birthday," he said. He finished dressing and left.

***

One of the other VPs droned on after Nathan had delivered his presentation at the quarterly meeting. Nathan let his mind drift back to the call he had made that morning. Mallory. She had been a good fuck, he recalled. An enthusiastic fuck. Usually girls that pretty would lie limp in bed, passively accepting his attentions as if he were making an offering at a goddess's temple.

He remembered the moment when he'd decided, for once, to keep in touch with a girl he'd met on a business trip. It came back to him now as he sat in the large conference room pretending to listen to something about financial statements. It was the moment when, before leaving her apartment in the morning, he'd stood over her bed, more of a futon than a bed, low to the floor. It was cheap, but it was a piece of furniture a college student would have, a badge of her education. He'd liked her, liked her books and her shyness. Frank and Steve wouldn't have gotten it; they had surely spent their evening in the paid company of blonde Dutch hookers with breast implants.

He'd been with intellectual, cultured girls before. A smart-alecky barista with hipster cat-eye glasses who served him at a cafe in London. A sultry black jazz singer with green eyes in Paris. And Ling, a college student and part-time model he met at a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur. But there was something about Mallory that distinguished her from the rest, he remembered now. A sadness in her eyes, flickering in the candlelight at dinner, as she listened to him talk about whatever he could think of to fill the silence. A hunger in her lovemaking, feline, bloodthirsty, carnal.

After he left her apartment, there were the tempest-in-a-teapot crises to manage at work, guilt at home. Mallory had faded from memory, until he got the birthday reminder on his BlackBerry.

Now he thought: What if I hadn't given myself a reminder? That girl, that night, would be lost to me. Other girls, other nights, are lost to me.

In the quarterly meeting with the other executives, Nathan pretended to listen to something about financial statements. He felt a lump form and harden in his throat.

***

On her birthday, Mallory walked to Magna Plaza. It was a grand, spired, historic building--a former post office--on the outside, and a shopping mall on the inside. Shoppers' voices echoed off marble columns in the corridors. She walked into a giant electronics emporium. She scanned rows of CDs, looking at the faces of the musicians on the covers. The faces of the pop stars, rappers, and sensitive singer-songwriters were earnest, pleading for attention. To Mallory, the faces seemed to say: "Look at how beautiful I am," "Look at how wise I am." "Look at how important I am in the grand scheme of things." "I matter."

She walked into a funky lingerie store. It had a beauty department full of wigs on mannequin heads. She stopped in front of a few wigs that she liked: dark-brown with punky cherry-red streaks, neon-purple pageboy that flipped up at the ends, a platinum-blond bob with bangs like Brigitte Bardot's. He'd had affairs with other women, she was sure. Women who, like her, had seen the wedding ring but had slept with him anyway. What were they like? Did he ever come back for them? After examining some of the wigs up close, Mallory stepped back. Before her was a vast wall of blank mannequin faces under wigs of every possible color, length, and texture.

***

Nathan gave Mallory his number, too, at their steakhouse dinner. He did this perfunctorily, after he entered her birthday and phone number into his BlackBerry. She came close to calling him once. She had gone to a Tex-Mex-themed bar with some students who coaxed her to drink too many margaritas out of a glass shaped like a cactus. The students talked about how much Bush had fucked up Iraq. Mallory slipped off to the beer-sticky restroom. In a stall, the bassline from the popular techno version of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" pounding through the wall, Mallory cried. She took her cell phone out of her purse. She knew better than to call him. What time was it in the States, anyway? What if she woke him up, lying in bed next to his wife? No, wait; it's earlier there. What if she interrupted a rare dinner with his family?

She felt a homesickness she didn't think she could stand. Fuck propriety, she thought. Fuck calling when it's convenient for him.

It passed. She sat in the stall, eyelashes spiky with wet mascara, the cell phone in her hand.

***

After leaving the wall of wigs, Mallory thought, What makes something special? What makes something a thing that Nathan would desire, thirst for, come back for? She thought: I have to make myself scarce in his life, something that's not available to him in abundance. Supply goes down and demand goes up.

She picked the Afghan restaurant (dinner for one) because she'd thought that would sound good on the phone, that it would make her sound cultured and cosmopolitan like he was. She read the menu entry for the ravioli-like entree--mantu, it was called--and filed the information away for the phone call, so she'd have something to say, something to teach him. A reason to keep her in his life.

She ate dinner early and went home to wait for his phone call, although she knew this was pathetic. There was good, steady reception at her apartment, no distractions, no voices echoing under high ceilings, no sounds of traffic or construction. She held her cell phone in her hand. It buzzed, vibrating against her palm. She answered on the third ring.

He sounded bored, sounded like he barely remembered her. He blithely wished her a happy birthday, then rushed off to do some work.

***

In his office on September 7, 6 p.m., finishing up an e-mail to his department about the upcoming company conference, Nathan felt a hit of panic. Mallory had his number--it was conceivable that she could call him during dinner, or even at night as he lay next to his wife in bed. If he left his phone out, say, to take a shower, it was possible that his wife might answer, and Mallory could have a crisis of conscience and rat him out. He'd been sloppy to give her his number. It didn't matter that he'd liked her, that there'd been something about her, that he would like very much to see her again. It wasn't worth the risk. If he never called her again, maybe she would just forget about him. He scrolled through his address book until the cursor highlighted "Mallory." He clicked "Delete."
On the screen, text appeared: "Are you sure you want to delete this contact?"
Nathan paused for a long time. He clicked "Yes."

***

In her apartment, after the birthday call, Mallory stared down at the cell phone in her hand. She thought: Rare equals precious. She thought: If I never call him, if I'm scarce in his life--if he has to be the one who calls me--I'll be high-quality. I'll matter.

She scrolled through her address book until she found him. She removed him from her cell phone's memory. An hour later, she couldn't have remembered his number if she'd tried. A month later, she no longer cared.

***

In November, Nathan traveled for another speaking engagement in Amsterdam. There was no way to contact Mallory to let her know; the way to her orange-painted apartment building had faded from him. A few times during his stay in the city, he thought: I could kick myself for deleting her number.

His room--a suite, penthouse, the best in the hotel--was large and clean. It was so clean that it was as if no one had ever slept there. He looked around him, at the tastefully bisque-colored walls and bed linens, the complimentary soaps and little bottle of aftershave in the mirrored bathroom, the cable-TV guide on the nightstand. All the rooms he'd ever stayed in ran together, indistinct, and he didn't think he could be there alone. He felt a homesickness he didn't think he could stand.

He bought magnets shaped like windmills for his sons and a blue-and-white Delftware plate for his wife. At the end of his last evening in town he was tired, and acquiesced to going for clean Dutch hookers with Frank and Steve. As their cab careened toward the red-light district, Nathan thought, as if trying to convince himself: She is not lost to me.

1 comment:

  1. Damn, no one spins such imaginative stories as you.

    I really liked "He seemed like a paper doll of a man, like someone whom little boys and grown men alike want to become." I never heard that before. You describe things in ways no one else has.

    ReplyDelete