A Failed Endeavour
Jahir walked out of Centraal Station and took in the landscape of Amsterdam that lay busily ahead. The grand Dutch architecture stood draped in a sunlit distance, covered with both natural and artificial lights, framed by billboards with a web of black tramline wires that crossed and stretched across the sky, guiding silent vehicles and their noisy occupants inside. Bicycles were everywhere and Jahir smiled when he noticed a four storey parking structure, exclusively for them, adjacent to the train station.
It was turning noon and the early heat made Jahir grateful for storing the bulk of his luggage at the hotel between the airport and the city centre as he watched other eager tourists walk heavily away with large rucksacks. He took out a recently acquired pocket map, which he thought gave Amsterdam the impression of an amphitheatre, the seating carved by the canals with Centraal Station as the city’s stage. It included small pictures of the most popular destinations in a columned index‐ conjoined arrows pointing to their respective locations. Jahir was not interested in seeing the Van Gough museum, however, nor did the flower market or Anne Frank’s house intrigue him, he only had to glance at the map to see where it was he was heading, and with a deep breath he made his way forward.
Jahir crossed the crowded area in front of the station, past a number of tram stops, being careful to look in every which way direction out of fear of being hit as they seemed to appear noiselessly out of nowhere. After this short and dizzying walk he was in quieter streets, a postcard scene of placid canals with arched bridges. European culture waved over him as he paused to examine more of the old buildings, cafes and sharply dressed people who walked along the dark waters that glared brightly underneath a pleasant blue sky; ‘Amsterdam’, Jahir said to himself, and he grinned unashamedly to himself. He was gratified for making the arrangements, to be in this wonderful place, if only for a night, and for a moment he let the pleasantly surreal look of this city envelop him. But before long the weight of his task quickly and uncontrollably set in beneath his enjoyment , the whimsy became transparent as he began worrying about what lay ahead.
He gazed for a few moments across the canal at the tall, colourful buildings that appeared to lean into the very water they rose above. The canal reflected them back like a constantly changing watercolour painting. These buildings were all joined together but varied in size and colour and some had sharp triangular roofs and other simply flat, they each were different parts of a grand design with old window frames, their slender, rectangular shapes matching the random appearance of the alluring city.
Along the roads couples walked by arm in arm, enjoying the bright day they had been given and a few stalls were littered on the pavement selling foods, flowers, or promoting tourist sights, handing out maps; Jahir watched for few more moments more before deciding on a route. Making a sharp left, after the first of many bridges he was to cross, he took another right and found himself trolling through a thin street with ground floor windows on either side doubling as doorways.
In the first window he saw a large, middle‐aged black woman wearing a leopard bra and panties, she was sitting with a bored expression on her face and hardly registered Jahir as he walked slowly by. The second was skinny, too skinny, and had obviously undergone radical breast enlargement that did nothing to mask her mature age. This carried on down the entire road – stretch marks, missing teeth, fake lips and drooping stomachs. Some were eager to get Jahir off the street and the rest seemed depressingly uninterested. Afterwards Jahir was confronted with yet another canal, filled with barges and lined with coffee shops that sported names such as The Bulldog, The Grasshopper, Tantra, and High Times.
He watched glazed-eyed patrons go back and forth, wide smiles or vacant expressions across their faces. It had been barely thirty minutes since he left the station but Jahir was beginning to feel intimidated by what he had seen. He noticed a bar, something relieving and familiar, and he made his way toward it. The sunshine and happy drinkers made it all too inviting and an unexpected pang of relief rose inside as Jahir saw a set of empty benches looking upon a brightly coloured flower stall in front of the placid, dazzling water. Jahir couldn’t remember the last time he’d drunk in the middle of the day and felt a sense of satisfying disobedience as he ordered a large Heineken from the grand oak bar inside. He marveled at the quirky props scattered around the old place; a deer head was mounted above the toilets and ale mugs from various eras were proudly shelved on the surrounding walls. The pub was filled with vintage pictures of Amsterdam and old beer advertisements while jolly music played just below the noise level of cheerful conversation. He took a large sip of his beer and habitually left a tip for the barman before heading back outside, hoping his vacant benches were still available. His original bench was occupied, but he soon spotted a wide space beside the entrance of the pub next to two handsome men, clearly in their mid twenties.
One had dirty red hair and matching stubble and sat with an air of cool familiarity as he drank his beer and conversed with his slightly shorter, but more muscular, blond haired friend. They were speaking English with a Dutch accent and Jahir picked up on a discussion about a film he had never seen. Losing interest, his gaze fell forward; he silently watched a group of people walk across the canal in fashionable tailored suits. He then noticed some tourists stumble through the streets, laughing hysterically, while huddling together as they too marvelled at the bright, fascinating city ahead of them. He lost himself again in the peaceful waters of the canal that reflected the tall rectangular buildings behind him. They waved and glistened together in cartoonish design, all different in size and colour, like a carefully placed collage. The dreamlike scenery was overpowering and Jahir uncontrollably went within himself, letting the thoughts of past and present flow together like the colours on the canal as the lubricating effect of alcohol settled in. Halfway through his beer, though, Jahir broke his stare from the canal and looked to the two young men. He waited for a pause and nervously, yet decidedly, forced himself into conversation.
‘How you guys doing?’ Jahir said and the two men calmly turned toward him and smiled. ‘Hello’ the red haired one said, ‘Hi’ followed his companion, ‘how are you?’
‘Not bad, just taking in the city, it’s my first time here.’
‘You couldn’t have picked a better day’ said the red head, ‘you’re American?’
‘That’s right, from Buffalo, my name’s Jahir, but everyone calls me Jay.’
‘Jahir, that’s not...an American name, right?’ said the blonde haired man as he extended a hand to Jahir.
‘Yeah, Dad’s Egyptian. He moved over to the states to lecture physics. He met my Mum through work in his first month living there,’ said Jahir as he gladly shook hands, surprised at his early openness.
‘My name is Alex and this is Ross’, said the red headed one and he too shook Jahir’s hand.
‘What you doing in Amsterdam?’ Jahir felt comfortable in the presence of Alex and Ross. They were younger and subsequently their opinion of him was of no importance yet simultaneously more desirable. They were tall, slim and extremely pleasant and this Jay respected in contrast to his small frame and clearly alien demeanour. This chemistry of desired and anonymous approval gave Jahir the unexpected urge to divulge deeper into just what it was he was hoping to achieve while in Amsterdam, and with the help of a beer he unabashedly told them.
‘Well, my older brother married an English girl and the wedding was in London. I decided at the end of my two weeks there to book a later flight and spend a whole twenty four hours in Amsterdam, instead of the three hour layover I was supposed to have, airline booked me a hotel and everything. You see’, and Jahir paused at this moment, ‘well, I haven’t had sex in over a year. I broke up with my girlfriend a long while back and haven’t really got back on the horse’, he then gave a nervous laugh as Alex and Ross listened patiently, ‘so, well, I’m here to get laid!’ Jahir then gritted his teeth and nervously waited for the verdict of the two strangers.
Alex and Ross first sat calmly, and then they exchanged a small smile toward each other. They looked up at Jahir and laughed, Alex giving Jahir a firm, but friendly, pat on the arm while Ross nodded his head and clapped his hands. Jahir was expecting a strange look and awkward silence but these minor and comforting acts put him at ease and he gave them his first, albeit short and honest laugh of the day.
‘You see anything you like?’ asked Ross as he looked over at Jahir, who still remained rigid in his seat as he thought about this question.
‘The girls I saw just now were pretty awful.’
‘Yeah, better to wait until night’, was Ross’s answer and he leaned back into his seat and looked across the canal.
‘Is there anywhere good to go during the day? I don’t want to think about it too much, you know? Feel like I’ve waited long enough and, besides, sex is no big deal over here, right?’
‘Maybe some good ones around, just have to keep looking. Further down that ways is quieter, near the end of the Red Light District, fewer tourists. I’ve seen prettier ones there before’ said Alex. Jahir squinted his eyes and straightened his back as he looked to where Alex had gestured, gazing intently, as though he had the ability to see far away and through buildings and spot his ideal girl in the distance. He then looked at his beer that was nearing its finish and took a deep breath. For a moment he considered asking his contemporary companions if they had ever crossed the window and do what he came to do, the thought was quickly dismissed, however, as he glanced at the young men with the sun on their faces, enjoying one of many a leisurely day in what he presumed to be their home town. Jahir went back to drinking his beer, sadly feeling he already knew the answer. The three of them talked and drank for another half an hour, Jahir telling them of his time in England and his job in America as a sporting store manager. Alex and Ross continued to act as pleasant company and found Jahir friendly in return, although slightly wound up, as it seemed to them that he was never fully at ease. They told him they were postgraduate students in finance and the course was having its toll now dissertations were approaching. As Ross was explaining the topic of his thesis a drunk British tourist ran past them, thinking a café owner who was simply trying to return the wallet he had left on the table was attacking him. They all laughed as the shop owner grabbed the man, calmed him down and explained slowly that he was holding his wallet, pulling out the driving license and pointing at the name and picture. The British man laughed embarrassingly and offered the owner twenty Euros as both a reward and apology, which he declined. The café worker then walked away, shaking his head, and the drunk stood there for a minute, looking slightly confused, and then simply stumbled off in the direction he’d previously been running. ‘That kind of thing happen a lot?’
‘Never the same thing, but just as strange things, yes.’
‘I guess it’s nice to cut loose, right?’
‘Of course.’ When Jahir’s second beer was done there came a moment of silent agreement between all three that often happens when strangers meet, the conversation had taken its natural course. With a hearty goodbye Jahir stood up and made his way in the direction Alex had suggested, none of them feeling it necessary to shake hands again. In the wide-‐open air of day Jahir felt constantly hesitant about the task he had set himself, which distanced him from all of Amsterdam’s other distractions. Numerous times he felt like stopping at one of the many coffee shops that he had heard and read so much about, they gave off pungent aromas like incense double‐barrelled with the unmistakable reek of marijuana. They seemed far more casual and bohemian than he was expecting, with young friendly patrons having heart to heart conversations while passing the joint back and forward and sipping espressos. Some places were darker lit and had black leather couches and played club music, some were simply a small room with a counter and no seats, Jahir watched a slender man in a leather waistcoat expertly display his latest products to a pair of eager Canadian girls, the variation of coffee shops was almost as impressive as the city’s legal ability to sell weed. However, as interested as he was he kept finding some excuse not to enter; it would be too crowded or the music too loud, he was too hungry or there weren’t enough places to sit inconspicuously– the underlying and obvious fact for not entering was that getting high would deter him from the sex he had promised himself. He hadn’t smoked weed in years and yet the thrill was annoyingly denied to him due to his aim of breaking what he considered a much bigger taboo.
So he would stand at the end of these foreign streets with only an illogical guess of whether to turn left or right, and some would bring him to more roads with girls caged within glass, sometimes sitting or standing with their hands pressed against the glass, other roads led him out the red light district completely and into larger shopping areas with big name brands he actually recognised as well as fancy restaurants and Jahir would have to double back feeling tired and deflated. None of the girls he saw seemed pretty enough and any that came close were assigned excuses much like he did for the coffee shops, only in these instances the reality of anonymous sex was a much clearer factor. He thought the experience would make him feel more like some kind of royalty, or a high roller in a casino, but it almost seemed like choosing a wife, a commitment that had to be carried out and would affect his life forever after. Strangely, though, this fearful hesitance, long walking and frustrating specificities he attached to all the girls didn’t push Jahir to give up, in fact it spurred him on. The Red Light District advertised sex almost everywhere, aggressively reminding all who walked through it that pleasure is readily available; sex was in the posters for live shows, ‘girl on girl’, ‘guy on guy’, ‘three guys and two girls’, sex shops selling hardcore bondage material on almost every corner, frightening leather masks shining in front of neon lights, even the convenience shops had plastic key chains shaped like genitals and postcards with groups of beautiful naked women gesturing ‘shhh’ on the front.
For Jahir this one-day sexual buffet was even more exhilarating than all the anxious days he had spent considering this trip, gleefully changing his ticket online and psyching himself up for what he considered to be some much deserved fun after a year of sheer loneliness. He wasn’t sure what to expect and the vibrant sleaziness of these strange and narrow streets were an added thrill to his childlike giddiness, similar to his teenage days when sex was a foreign experience due to arrive at some unexpected time. For each window, shop, and show he passed, and sometimes examined, was a brick in the grander wall of his urge, blocking him from the possibility of giving up and protecting him from the failure of his endeavour.
He was getting tired though, that was certain, he had been wandering for almost an hour after leaving Alex and Ross and was beginning to recognize streets like Zeedjik that led onto Nieumarket and the bigger coffee shops, ‘The Bulldog’ and the smaller, ‘Jungle’. This new ability to gather bearings added much to his frustration and he considered retracing his steps to one girl he was partial to earlier, wearing a thin yellow shirt and a g‐string, straw blonde hair and crows feet under her eyes. From what he could remember it was across the entire district near Madame Tussaud’s, where he had seen a group of teenagers with matching dreadlocks arguing over who had the best weed, ‘if it’s not cheese bro it’s not shit’ the shortest one said as they glided by. Jahir’s feet were hurting and he needed another rest, he slipped into a quite café with a pretty waitress that he had walked by two times already. He ordered a bottle of beer and sat quietly at the back listening to the soft clatter of acoustic guitar strings and singing: I’ve got to go away, away, away... Jahir sipped his beer with no desire to talk to anyone this time; instead he watched a happy couple converse across the little cafe, leaning in close with elbows on the round tables, a single tulip between them. He stole glances at the waitress who like an opposing magnet seemed to look anywhere but his eyes. He wondered what his brother was doing, somewhere on a far away beach in St. Lucia, he saw him and his fiancé sharing their first dance in that grandly lit hall in north London and he could see the proud look on his parents' faces. He counted the months it had been since he spoke to Laura and wondered where she was and constructed an entire conversation between them. She had been hurt by some guy and Jahir was supportive and calm and his emotional stability made him all the more appealing until finally she admitted her mistake and they embraced; these imaginings had become annoyingly frequent after so much time apart.
With dull determination Jahir was walking again through partly cobbled streets, past now familiar sights of red velvet curtains covering red‐lit windows, signalling either occupation or absence of a girl on the other side. Nearing an area he had had in mind Jahir noticed a street to the right, extremely narrow, even compared to some of the thinnest he had already explored. It was not surprising he had missed it given the angle he spotted it now, the same as the last time he tried this route, it was a slender entrance between two darkish brown buildings. Jahir walked down it without thinking and noticed a single red glow at the far end adjacent to a busy road with high end shops. He instinctively followed the glare but near it were a group of Chinese tourists. Awkwardly Jahir paused just a meter away from the window to see what was on the other side of the glass.
There stood a statue of a woman in black latex that was only a shade lighter than her long, thick hair. She stood swaying and caressing her body to imagined music, looking neither at Jahir or anything else, it was as though she was staring into sheer blankness. Jahir stood frozen in this bizarre mating ritual. The moment became all consuming and terrifying because Jahir knew that this pale and proud creature with lips brighter and redder than the neon lights around him was the woman he had spent the day looking for, perhaps his entire life. He stood isolated in the anorexic street that led onto the bulkier, pedestrian crammed high street, panicking about how to enter this intimidating chamber without being noticed. The Chinese tourists were still hanging around taking pictures along with a number of other passing crowds that would undoubtedly see the leap of faith he was about to make, but that’s how he came to consider it, a leap that they would observe before he disappeared into the comical sexual anonymity Amsterdam provided. Moments turned to minutes before Jahir walked forward and grabbed the handle of the glass door, he did it the way a child might close their eyes and pinch their nose before taking a mouthful of medicine, and before he knew it he was standing inside and in front of the latex woman who quickly stopped her swaying and closed the curtains around him.
‘Hello’ she said in a thick and husky voice.
‘Hey’ Jahir said, avoiding eye contact.
‘I am Veronica, where are you from?’
‘I am from Romania,’ Jahir took a look around the room, which was far more spacious than he had thought. The walls and ceiling were covered in mirrors and the shelves around the velvet covered bed contained sex toys of a wide variety. ‘A lot of toys’ Jahir joked.
‘You like? I can put them up your ass if that’s what you like’, she said with accepting eyes and Jahir was taken back by this easy response.
‘Er, no, I mean, I’m not into anything like that’, and he gave a hollow chuckle.
‘Oh, ok, well, it’s fifty euro, suck and fuck, ok?’ Jahir pulled out his wallet quickly and fumbled through its pockets to produce three twenty euro notes.
‘Hmm, I hope I have change; everyone is paying in twenties today...ha! Here we go.’ Veronica then extended a ten while simultaneously leaning down and putting Jahir’s money into a draw by the bed. ‘Ok, the basin is there, please wash yourself, especially armpits, and get on the bed,’ she then looked up to see Jahir nervously looking either side of the room, ‘unless you just want to talk, we can do that to.’
‘No, um, sorry, no problem,’ Jahir shuffled over to the basin in the corner of the room and bashfully undressed, using the paper towel dispenser and soap provided to scrub his hunched body. He looked at himself in the mirror, at first contemplating how much weight he had gained during the last few festive weeks before catching Veronica behind him, unfastening the bottom section of her latex and revealing her creamy thighs ‐ her perfectly rounded breast still covered with the top half of her costume. His first sense of arousal started to take over; it was a strange excitement, detached from him, signaling a task both simple and unknown. ‘OK, lie down’ Veronica said from across the room in a nonchalance tone he knew mainly from plumbers and electricians. Jahir diligently obeyed and lay rigid on the bed with his palms either side. Veronica crawled over him and conjured a condom out of thin air, which she expertly unwrapped. She slid the warm rubber down and before going to work glanced at Jahir, who had his chin down to his chest withan expression of worried excitement and intrigue. She stiffened her eyebrows confusedly and said, ‘relax'.
The sensation was warm but coldly familiar and Jahir let out a constrained gasp, being oddly mindful of a reality, which before had only been sheer contemplation. His hands grasped the velvet sheets of the bed and at first he had no choice but to lookup at the engrossing ceiling mirror above, he saw his body both familiar and alien, a wilderness of thick, dark hair, a strange, rubber body with snowy white legs spread across the rest of the mattress. He had never seen his face during any sexual act and the vulnerable expression he was exhibiting forced him to look back down to his bare torso and the act that was being performed on him.
As though a set timer had run out Veronica stopped and pushed her hair behind her back as she got on her knees and mounted Jahir. He let out a deep sigh and watched her move forward and backward. This went on for few minutes, of which Jahir remained unmoving and merely observant, scared that he might disrupt some procedure he had not been given proper orientation to beforehand.
‘OK, you want on top of me?’ He felt a degree of control for the first time in the whole experience. He started to aband on thought and instead surrender to primal sensation. He looked up to the thin, horizontal mirror that lined the wall behind the head of the bed saw himself and Veronica. He saw sex and then felt it truly, feeling surrounded and open he melted. All physical existence went away and was dragged drudgingly back to the strange velvet room, the reek of cheap perfume and Veronica’s voice saying, ‘good boy.’
Jahir rose from the bed bewildered like an awoken coma patient. He mindlessly dressed feeling light accomplishment, as though he’d finished moving a friend’s furniture. It took him some incomprehensible amount of time before he fully surfaced to the reality of his situation.
‘Oohh baby, you’ve got a good dick.’
‘Just let me know if you want to go again, baby.’ Jahir was puzzled at this offer and soon realized that this odd exchange of words was just a for more money. He finished dressing silently and gave a grunt of a goodbye before pushing the curtain and stepping out onto the bright street, so glaring after his short time in the velvety dark room, and closed the door to the sound of Veronica’s loud instruction to do exactly that.
Crowds surrounding him, shopping, laughing crowds, who pushed past him as though he didn’t exist, carrying on as though the last fifteen minutes hadn’t even happened. It was done. The city seemed less fantastical, less alluring, it seemed like a buzzing and vibrant city he just happened to be standing in and without direction he wondered on.