Translated by: Yardenne Greenspan
While I was waiting for Eriksson, I decided to get rid of all my meds. I packed them in clear garbage bags and went downstairs to the trashcan, my hands full of Lomotil, Hismanal, Diazepam, Ampicillin, Papaverine, Codeine, Valium, Metamizole (drops and pills), and Propranolol. I threw it all out. Let the cats eat it, I thought as those ingratiating creatures twisted between my calves, hoping for a bit of meat or some other kind of useful leftovers.
I didn’t want Eriksson to know. Abner and Ilana and everyone else who knew about my secret illnesses had been teasing me about it for years. Except for Liora, who used to be my best friend until our big blow-out senior year of high school. We haven’t talked since. “How are you doing today?” my friends would ask, then answer for me: “I know, I know, your stomach’s messed up, your intestines are twisted up, and your heart is in pre-attack mode. Mix some Cephalexin with cheddar cheese and you’ll be as good as new.”
They were always mocking me like that. I’d recall Uncle Misha, who had a round pool in his yard where all the kids bathed in the summer. The older kids called it his “piddle pool” because the younger ones were always peeing in it, making the water warm even in winter.
Uncle Misha was always complaining about an ache here and a pain there. Finally, when he was dying from awful sarcopenia (god help him!) the family still treated him with apologetic cynicism. Of course, this imaginary disease killed him. Since then, I’ve always said that even if someone cries “wolf” a million times you must always take them seriously.
But let’s go back to Erik, who came into my life like a miracle cure. I met him on my trip to the Netherlands.
Mom was upset. She said girls my age (I’m twenty-three) cannot go off traveling on their own. What did I have to look for in that godforsaken Europe, still drenched with her family’s blood? She’d kill herself with worry, but do I care? No.
The truth is, I did care. But I still went.
I packed a treasure trove of pills and syrups, skin ointments, fungal creams, some garlic to ward off the evil eye that Mom slipped into my bag, and a few clothes. At two in the morning Mom and Dad took me to the airport in a taxi. We were late, and by the time we were waiting to check in I needed a Murelax to calm down.
Dad kept smiling a crooked smile, the kind you smile for the dentist to prove you can close your jaws properly after getting a filling. “It’s fine,” he muttered behind gritted teeth. “It’s fine.” But Mom is allowed to be nervous and even let it show, so she wrung her hands with that over-the-top dramatic flair and kept repeating, “Oh, god, don’t forget to call us.”
When I finally stepped onto the escalator leading to the area where only ticketed passengers are allowed, I was glad to be rid of them. I had a sense they were waiting (Mom, especially) to hear that something terrible had happened to me. Perhaps a dangerous disease, or an accident. As if, somehow, they’d be relieved to learn that the worst has already happened. Alone, I could rid myself of this tragic fate.
I sat by the small airplane window and looked down at Europe, sitting in an ocean of water, and felt, for the first time, a sense of elation. As if I’d left all my little problems down there. Here, above the clouds, it all seemed so petty and meaningless.
We landed in Amsterdam at 6 a.m., into a new morning. I felt as if I were starting my life over.
I got a room in a small hotel on Leidsekade Street, near a derelict canal, not far from Leidseplein (which I accidentally kept referring to as “Led Zeppelin”). My Europe on 20 Dollars a Day guidebook promised this hotel was clean and comfortable, and that the owner’s husband was a retired doctor. This was all very reassuring.
The owner offered me a bovine smile and announced when breakfast would be served in the tiny dining room, which reminded me of Anne Frank’s secret annex: all wood paneling, no windows. She gave me a key to the front door in case I wanted to stay out after midnight, when she locked the hotel for the night.
I went out for a walk. Down in my guts, I began to feel my usual mad fear. Then it climbed up to my stomach. What if something were to happen to me right now? Fainting, an asthma attack, or even—god forbid—a heart attack?! I’d heard you could get one even at age twelve, so I was not convinced by silly arguments such as “You’re too young to have one.” But the medication in my money belt, packed right beside my traveler’s checks, did the trick, keeping my fear at bay.
The square was nearly empty. On the stairs by the fountain were three punks with colorful mohawks who looked dead tired. I think they might have even been asleep. The empty outdoor café seating areas reminded me of the Carmel Beach in winter. The square looked like the end of a party: everybody’s already left, leaving their empty glasses on the tables and their napkins on the floor. Only, instead of napkins, they were newspapers, which were flying on the breeze in all directions. I imagined the square spinning up into the sky and flying off like Dorothy’s house, but the breeze wasn’t quite strong enough.
In one corner, around a table, was a group of three blonde girls and two guys, one blond as well, one darker. I guess they could tell I had no idea what I was doing. They called me over: “Hey, you, come over here, have a drink with us.” Their smiles looked genuine. I came here on my own to experience it, I told myself. Not to be afraid all the time.
I sat down. They were drinking Heinekens from enormous glasses. The dark-haired guy ordered one for me, too. I didn’t say anything, but I was afraid to drink. I’d never had anything that could make me lose control.
“Drink, drink,” one of the girls laughed. They smiled at me again. I was convinced. I have this tendency to depend on people who show me affection.
The blond guy was called Eriksson.
“Everyone in Holland is so nice,” I said.
“We’re from Sweden,” they countered. Then they asked where I was from.
“Israel,” I said, taking a small sip. It tasted better than I’d expected. Abner and Ilana told me not to drink beer because it tasted like a pill you bite into, the bitterness spreading through your mouth like smoke. But Heineken didn’t taste anything like medicine. It was even a little sweet.
Eriksson looked at me. He asked if I was traveling alone. I said I was and had another sip. I wondered what would happen if I needed another Murelax right now. How would it mix with the beer? But I didn’t need it. I was almost completely calm.
Eriksson invited me to join them at Melkweg that evening. “It’s a kind of club,” he explained.
I was glad I had someone to spend time with. He seemed all right. He started singing something that sounded like a sailor’s song. The others joined in. They looked like youth movement kids, but drunker. I remembered Mom, who told me not to talk to strangers, and started to doubt myself, but sipping beer is like eating sunflower seeds—you can’t have just one. So I took another sip and another, each time telling myself this was the last one, until finally the glass was empty.
I can’t remember what we talked about, but we laughed plenty. I guess I should have been born Swedish—I felt at home.
Eriksson and I looked at each other. I’d never been with a Swede. Actually, I’ve barely been with anyone. When Eriksson said he’d take a stroll through town with me, I almost jumped out of my seat.
We walked through the narrow streets of Amsterdam, alongside the canals. Everything was so pretty. I didn’t have to look for beauty in the small corners of nearly collapsed houses. It was right there in front of me. We had dinner at a dark Indonesian restaurant; spicy food served in many small plates. Mom told me it was better to eat at kosher restaurants when traveling abroad, because they’re the cleanest and are best for my health, but Eriksson seemed very healthy in spite of eating all that treif, so I decided what was good enough for him was good enough for me. When we left, he took my hand in his. It made me forget my anxieties. When I remembered them again, I thought I wouldn’t mind getting mouth-to-mouth from Eriksson—if I were to suddenly faint, that is.
We grew very close that day, though we didn’t say much.
That evening, we walked over to Melkweg, our arms around each other. His friends weren’t there. He said they must have gone to Paradiso—a disco. He bought two amazingly delicious little cakes from the counter, and another beer. I ate and drank. It was nothing like I’d ever felt before. I couldn’t stop laughing. I even told Eriksson about my dream of becoming a black dancer at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (I’d seen one of their performances on television). I said I was crazy about how those black girls moved their body with total freedom. He laughed and touched my lips with his Viking fingers.
The music was so loud it made my stomach quiver. There were psychedelic Woodstock circles projected on the walls and ceiling. (I’d seen the movie Woodstock at the theater one time when I was third-wheeling it with Ilana and Abner.) It was as if the circles were going to swallow all of us, then keep on bubbling as if nothing had happened.
I got crazy courageous and got up to dance all on my own. As I spun across the round dancefloor as if it were a circus tent, I saw Erik smiling at me from a distance, an alcoholic smile, and I laughed out loud. But my laughter was absorbed into the music, and I was no longer sure if it was me laughing, or just part of the soundtrack.
Two young guys, maybe fifteen years old, danced slowly not far from me, as if trying to stop time. They were heavily made up and kissing. Beside them was a large woman with a baby in her arms. Mom would have said, Who brings a baby to a place like this? He should be home at night, bundled up so he doesn’t catch a cold. She knows what happens to babies who aren’t taken care of well enough. She’s seen it. But this baby seemed content, bobbing his head to the beat. They looked like the Madonna and baby Jesus. I told Eriksson this was unlike anything I’d seen back home. I knew the free clinic, the youth movement. I may have gone out dancing at a club in the suburbs once, but even then I felt like I was betraying the movement, even though everyone was wearing blue or white shirts like we did at meets. Just like anywhere else, everyone looked the same. Then I remembered I’d promised my mom I’d call her. I figured I’d only gotten there that morning. It could wait.
Eriksson came back to my hotel room, as naturally as if it were his room too. It was way past midnight, and I had to use my key.
He whispered Swedish words in my ear. I couldn’t understand any of it, but it felt nice. I felt like a movie star.
We had a lot to drink: beer, white Dutch gin, and other delicious drinks I wasn’t familiar with. I knew that with Erik I was safe; I could do whatever I wanted even though he was very drunk. There was something foreign and strong about him that assured me that nothing could go wrong.
He kept whispering in my ear, as sweet as chocolate mixed with gin and beer, and I actually felt sexy, even though my department store sweatpants were nothing special when compared to all those gorgeous Dutch girls in their colorful outfits. But Maybe Erik thought I was exotic or something (Israel, the Middle East, the military… that kind of thing. Though I didn’t actually serve in the military. I was discharged because of stomach problems and nerves.)
Inside my small room, Erik turned serious. He must have been horny from all the alcohol, and he looked deep into my eyes, like a psychiatrist, then walked over and took off my shirt and pants, as slowly as if he were undressing a child before bath time, until all I had on was my money belt. I told him to turn around (still, he was just some goy I barely knew) and stuffed the money belt underneath the mattress. Then we slept together. It was good. What am I saying, ‘good’? It was wonderful! He covered me with little kisses, like a box of chocolates, touching me as if I were a precious flower. He enveloped me with his loving body. I looked at his face, unfamiliar just that morning, and saw pleasure washing over it like rain. I felt myself joining his pleasure, my body overflowing with a mad joy, caring about nothing else but keeping this miracle going. I clutched him tightly between my legs, my birthday gift, finally, after all this time.
Not that I had much to compare it to. I’d only ever done it once before, when I was sixteen, with Shalom—a guy I met at the club. Ilana told me she and Abner did it all the time, and all the girls were whispering amongst themselves about sex, but they never told me anything, only laughed and called me “launch pad” because I was completely flat chested. I wasn’t talking to Galia about anything anymore, and that included sex. One especially obnoxious girl even said I probably never even had my period. But it wasn’t true. I got it for the first time when I was twelve, probably much earlier than she did, but the blood and the pain was no big deal, anyway.
That Shalom guy asked me to dance on a few occasions when I went to the club instead of a youth movement meet. We slow danced, real close, and I let him touch my neck and kiss my hair. After Ilana told me about her and Abner, I decided to find out what the deal was, what all those girls were talking about all the time. The next time I went to the club I walked straight up to Shalom and took him by the hand. Christophe’s “Aline” was playing. It’s an incredible slow dance song. I whispered in his ear, asking if he wanted to come to the girls’ bathroom with me. He looked stunned, but he followed. There was a puddle of pee on the floor, and we had to be careful not to step in it. I closed the toilet lid and pulled up the plaid skirt Mom bought me at the department store—where else?—for my birthday, even though I asked her to please, if she was going to buy me a piece of clothing, let it be something I actually wanted, like jeans. But she said the skirt was on sale, and it was warm, and would fit me next year, too. The most important thing was to buy clothes that would still fit next year, when I got bigger and taller. Mom has never lost hope when it comes to my height. She still thinks I might make it to 5’2’’. I took off my tights and underwear and I guess we did it. I didn’t feel anything except a gross dampness on my legs. Shalom never asked me to dance again after that, but others did. They wanted to go to the bathroom with me, too, but I said no. I told Ilana, and she said I was nuts. That was no way to do it. It’s fun to fuck somebody fun, she said, and added nothing. When Eriksson and I had sex, I sort of got what she meant.
Afterwards, when we were lying in bed together, destroyed, sweating like we’d just won the Olympics, Eriksson said he’d take me for a walk in the Red Lights District the next day. I told him I had to call my mother. She must have been driving herself mad with worry.
The next morning, we went down to the dining room and Eriksson paid the owner four florins for breakfast, to make her smile her bovine smile again. A telegram from Mom was waiting for me on the table. How does she always know where to find me? It read:
“My dear child,
I’m going mad with worry. (What did I just say?!) Why don’t you call? Call me. Don’t forget. I’ve sent telegrams to ten hotels, just to be sure. Forget the cost. Just call. I gave you phone tokens (She shoved about ten into my hand at the airport. I told her I couldn’t use them in the Netherlands, but she said, “Just in case”.) So remember to call. I was expecting you to call as soon as you got there. Don’t forget your mother, who’s worrying about you all the time. God keep you safe. Don’t follow strangers to dangerous places, and call.
Dad also says to call. Our phone number is 234457, in case you forgot.”
I told Eriksson I had to call my mother.
“Call her later,” he said, “what’s the rush?”
And between the soft cheese sandwich and the coffee with the real Dutch cream, I forgot all about it.
When we went out, I made sure to take the medical money belt with me, but I had a hunch that a Heineken would do the trick.
We had two pints each, at a pub in the town square. Then we went to see the prostitutes. I couldn’t believe them. They sat in their store windows, showing the world everything they had. I told Erik they made me sad. They looked like Penthouse centerfold girls.
My dad keeps a few of those magazines in the bathroom, under the hamper, so Mom doesn’t find out. He counts on Mom never emptying the entire hamper, because she hates empty things. That’s why our fridge is always full of large pots containing only one or two spoonfuls of food. After a while, when it starts to smell, Dad throws out the old food, and she immediately cooks a new batch to fill the pot back up. Maybe it was her fear of emptiness that made her buy me an apartment and fill it with furniture, filling me with medication. Once, when I was looking for my white lace shirt that made me feel like a bride, I emptied the hamper and found the dirty magazines underneath.
I told Erik that Israeli prostitutes fit the bill better for such an unhappy profession. He held my hand. Between one window and the next, he told me how he left his fishermen parents in a small village near Stockholm, and went off to see the world. He was an architect, he said. His parents wired him money from his savings account to pay for his trip. But apart from a monthly transfer, they had no contact.
“Don’t you ever call them?” I asked. Then I remembered, I was supposed to call mine.
“I never call,” said Erik, “so they never wait.”
In a window as pink as a painted seashell sat a young Chinese woman with slanted eyes and the body of a gazelle. She was wearing black underwear and a torn tank top that only covered her nipples. She looked like someone’s wet dream come to life, sitting in her chair with her back straight and her legs spread, her smile full of secrets, like she knew something that nobody else did.
I stood there, watching her, thoughts crawling through my head. So beautiful. How did she end up in the Red Lights District, sitting there, working that? Then, suddenly, Erik asked if I wanted to fuck her. I told him I’d never considered anything like it. I just enjoyed looking at beauty of any kind.
“Why not?” asked Erik.
“No way,” I said. Then I thought about how this was a once in a lifetime trip, and it was as if it were all happening to somebody else, not me. I would never dare.
I went in. The Chinese woman followed me into the backroom. Erik walked in after us. Inside it wasn’t pink like it was outside. The enormous bed was covered with a faded green duvet, and the walls were covered with peeling animal wallpaper that made me feel like I was in a kids’ room, playing a game. We hugged. She kissed Erik on the lips. Then she kissed me. She tasted like fortune cookies and something else, undefinable. Then we took our clothes off. I had to take my money belt off again. I kicked it under the bed. Eriksson slept with her once and with me once. I watched her in his arms, making little moans. She may have truly enjoyed it. She was so beautiful, her skin like the pale flame of a candle. I could easily forget she was doing it for the money. I loved her in that moment. To me, she was singular, but for her it was just another day’s work. After everything was over, when I paid her, she gave me that secret smile of hers again, and took the money. When I told Erik about it, he said all Chinese people smiled like that. He suggested we keep walking around. It was all so simple and mundane to him. But I told him that now I really had to call.
We found a payphone, I put some money in, and my mother answered.
“Finally, you called. When are you going to call again?” Then she warned me again about not following strangers to dangerous places. “I heard Amsterdam is corrupt to the core,” she said. “Our neighbor’s son went there. He stayed with relatives who warned him never to go out after seven o’clock because it was too dangerous.”
“Fine,” I said, while Eriksson rubbed my ass and whispered “Crazy Israeli” in my ear. I ended up hanging up while she was still talking, pretending we’d been cut off, because I knew I couldn’t tell her when I’d be calling again, which is all she and Dad wanted to know.
On the way back, we walked past Anne Frank’s house and Eriksson asked if I wanted to go inside.
“Tomorrow,” I said.
But the next day we went to Marken and Volendam.
Erik and I made love in my hotel room every night.
Time took crude bites out of my vacation, and finally it was over. On the last night, I told Erik that this was the end of my trip, and I had to go home. Just like in a romantic movie, Erik cupped my face and told me he had a few things to wrap up in Amsterdam, but that he’d come see me in a month. We even set a date: September 5th, a Monday.
He walked me to the airport tram, and I got on with a final bottle of Heineken, swigging it like somebody being chased. It didn’t help. The old fear rose up from my guts, reaching almost as high as my heart. I blocked it with everything I had in me and kept whispering, “Erik, Erik, Erik.” It worked, because I managed to make it all the way to my apartment, two blocks away from my parents’ apartment, where I was more or less safe, without getting a panic attack.
“Thank god you’re home safe. You see? It’s good I put that garlic in your bag,” Mom said when I came over.
I gave her the cuckoo clock I bought in Volendam with Erik.
She made a face and said, “Oh, well, we’ll put it in the kitchen.” Then she added, “That’s what you had to go all the way over there for?”
The next day, I began to wait for Erik. I threw out all my medicine and test results (E.E.G., A.K.G., C.T., etc. Each one read: “No pathological findings”, thank god).
I got a job as a cashier at the shopping center pharmacy, and waited. I didn’t hear from him, but he’d already warned me that he never wrote or called.
At night I lay in my bed, which was actually a pullout sofa. “It’s more practical than a regular bed,” Mom said when we bought it. I thought about Eriksson, and sometimes about that pretty Chinese prostitute, too, and rubbed myself under my pajamas, as if I were my own little girl, in need of comfort.
On Sunday night, September 4th, Mom called. I told her I’d thrown out all the meds, and that Eriksson would arrive the next day.
She yelled at me that a frail girl like me, who got glasses when she was five years old, and had to be hospitalized for ten days with jaundice and vomiting right after she was born, needed to have some medication around the house, just in case. And, she added, I should remember to go see Dr. Unter, because my stomach wasn’t quite right.
I told her to get off my back. What did she want? To keep me wrapped in cellophane, so that I could stay healthy and not die on her like the rest of her family? “I moved out, I have my own apartment. I don’t live with you anymore! Your home is empty, empty, empty of me! And no catastrophe is going to happen, so will you please stop waiting around for it!” I yelled at her. Erik was coming and everything was all right.
“To hell with that goy,” she said. “My daughter deserves better.”
“You go to hell,” I hissed.
She started to wail, saying that ever since I got back from Sodom I’ve been insufferable. If she were in my place, she would have listened to her mother.
I wanted to get off the phone, so I said fine.
She said, “Dad says good lu—I mean, he says to be careful.”
We hung up and I opened the medicine cabinet. It was completely empty apart from forty boxes of Tylenol that I didn’t throw out. You always need Tylenol, I told myself. You always need something for pain.
I pulled a bottle of Maccabi beer from the fridge. It tasted nothing like Heineken, but I still drank it up in front of the television. Now, get out of here! I told the fear folded in the bottom of my stomach like a fetus. I downed another bottle, and the fear really did go away, scared off.
I took a day off work on September 5th. I cleaned the apartment and even made more-or-less Swedish meatballs.
I waited and waited, but Eriksson didn’t show up.
That afternoon, I decided to call my hotel in Amsterdam. Maybe someone there would know something. Suddenly, I realized I didn’t even know where Erik lived. No one at the hotel knew anything, of course. I thought about how this would be a perfect moment for a Murelax or a Valium because I couldn’t stand the wait. But I’d thrown it all out.
That evening, I pulled all the Tylenol boxes out of the medicine cabinet. My fear was stirring, scaring me, as if it knew all along that Eriksson wasn’t coming.
I pulled all the pills out of the boxes and piled them on the kitchen table. They looked like the snowy peak of a Swiss mountain. There’s an excellent pharmaceutical company in Switzerland—CIBA. But I was finished with medicine.
I pulled another beer out of the fridge (I’d bought a bunch for me and Eriksson) and finished it and my fear. “I’m not going to kill myself with headache pills,” I said out loud, and shoved all the pills and empty boxes in the garbage.
Then I put an Aretha Franklin tape on full volume in the small cassette player I almost never used, stood in the middle of the room, and started to dance.
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