After all this time, the girls finally convinced me.
They convinced me to buy a new dress.
I’ve never spent money on anything but necessities. Because it’s my birthday and I’m going out with Willem, they forced me to treat myself. They were going to buy it for me as a gift, but I refused. Despite my disgruntled complaints, the dress actually looks really nice. It’s thin and cream-colored, with tiny blue flowers all over. The top half buttons up the middle and cinches at the waist with a knot. They sleeves are short and capped at my shoulders. It actually fits my body well. But because it’s so thin and light, I have to borrow a slip from Shirley.
Besides my new dress, I look exactly the same. Hair half up, same shoes, small purse with the translation book, and no makeup. I wait outside where he picked me up last time, praying he doesn't know it’s my birthday. How could he know? He doesn't have access to my records and he hasn’t come by the infirmary again. As far as I know...
He pulls up on his motorcycle, still wearing his uniform, and looking devilishly handsome. His skin glows in the evening sun. His hair is adorably messy on his forehead, as usual. He attempts to brush it from his face, but it falls back anyway. I give him a small wave. A slow, broad grin forms as his eyes roam my curvaceous body that I usually hide under my other baggy dresses. The girls swore I looked “hot” in my body-complimenting dress, despite my doubts. Willem seems to agree with them.
“Hello pretty girl,” he attempts at flirtatious English.
I give him a small pose. “You like it?”
He bites his lip and says deeply, “Come over here.” I float over nervously. He grabs my pronounced hips and pulls me to him. His eyes continue to look up and down my body. “Who are you and where is Anna?” he jokes. I lean in to kiss him and wrap my arms around his neck.
He presses his lips harder to mine and sighs contentedly. He kisses me again, this time sucking gently on my bottom lip. My fingers dig into him. When he pulls away, I’m slightly dizzy and a little breathless.
“So where are we going?” I breathe.
He brushes the back of his hand along my cheek. “You see.” He kisses the tip of my nose. “Get on.”
We ride out of town again, but this time in a different direction. I rest my head on his broad, warm back for the whole twenty minute trip. We arrive on the outskirts of a bigger city.
Amsterdam. We are in Amsterdam.
My heart soars out of me with my seventeen year old wanderlust desires. I have only seen Amsterdam in pictures, but I was always drawn in by the tulips and the colorful buildings and the aura of endless summer. Just as I become overwhelmed with these feelings, Willem slows down and pulls over.
“Amsterdam. I thought you want to see my city,” he says as we climb off of the bike. I nod and look around in awe. When I finally look back to him, he is smiling and his eyes are filled with adoration and a glimmer of undetectable emotion.
“What?” I blush.
“You are...cute.” I bite my lip at his remark, but before I can reply, he adds, “Which I did look up, and I do not think that word is me, like you say.” I tilt my head back and laugh. “I think charming fits good,” he continues, “and handsome.”
I shove him. “Alright, that’s enough narcissism for one night. So where are we going?”
He takes my hand and guides me. “Come, cute girl.” We walk hand in hand for a block. It feels strange, physically feeling someone’s affection for me. Even stranger that it’s from the epitome of male perfection. But it also feels right. Warm, in every aspect. My insides feel mushy and electrified simultaneously. I feel like I don't want him to ever let go, but I know still if he does, everything will be okay. Because he cares for me. And I care for him. And I finally have purpose in my life besides just getting by, day after day. It’s just…right. It’s happiness.
This thought stops me mentally in my tracks. Do I really consider this man as some sort of home? I can't. I can’t put my roots down. Because I could be leaving any day. Or his feelings could change with the blink of an eye. I haven’t let all of my wall down yet, though it’s slowly crumbling, one brick at a time. I remind myself of this and put on a happy face as we walk up to a bike rental. Willem and the bike clerk converse politely in Dutch, exchange money and a ticket, then the clerk pulls a yellow bicycle out for us.
“We’re actually going to bike? In Amsterdam?” My eyes fill with excited tears. This stuff only happens in dreams.
He nods ecstatically.
“Um... where’s my bike?” I ask as he climbs onto his.
“It is ours,” he says. My brow furrows in confusion. He pats the handlebars. “Hop on, as you Americans say. I think.”
“You can't be serious. I’m too big.” I cross my arms defensively.
He frowns at me. “Trust me. I do this with many girls.” He coughs awkwardly as he realizes what this must sound like to me. My gaze falls to the ground. I feel his hand grasp mine. “But never in Amsterdam. You are first.” He gives me a small crooked smile that he knows will melt me.
I sigh. “Fine. How do I get on this thing?” It takes a couple of embarrassing attempts and a few fits of giggles before I can finally find my balance on the handlebars. My hands grip on either side of me, his hands overlap mine a little. I have to lean most of my weight back against him, and he rests his head over my left shoulder.
“We go?” He asks. The metal butterflies flutter in my stomach and I can't contain my smile. I can’t believe I am doing this. With Willem, my Dutch soldier.
We take off down the street. The warm summer wind blows my hair from my face and I feel like I’m seeing for the first time. Colorful buildings zoom by us in the golden glow of the setting sun. The farther we ride into town, the more abundant the bicyclists and pedestrians become. Almost everyone we pass smiles at us. They understand. This is the city of young love. I tilt my head back and close my eyes, giving in to the feeling of flying. To the feeling of my stomach racing up my throat. To the feeling of being held by Will’s arms. Trusting he won't let me fall.
He won't let me fall.
He turns to me and I feel his lips kiss the soft skin right beneath my ear. “Like my city?” A smile plays in his voice.
“This isn't real,” I whisper. A trail of geese cross the street next to us. An accordion player dances on the corner. An old couple eats ice cream on a street bench. A girl walks out of a colorful bookstore with her nose immersed in a bundle of pages. No. This isn't real.
Willem kisses my cheek. “Real. I real.” We start speeding down a hill. Faster. Faster.
Passing other bicyclists. Buildings are blurring.
He starts laughing hysterically.
“Willem slow down!” Does he even know what ‘slow down’ means?
“Trust me, Anna!” He shouts back in my ear. I grip his hands and try to catch my breath as the rushing air chokes me. I’m about to scream as we reach an intersection. Willem makes a large, swooping left turn, tilting us halfway to the ground. When we are upright, we finally slow down to a regular pace.
“Damn you, Will!” My tense muscles shake uncontrollably with adrenaline.
“Relax. Did that many when I younger. I did live here.”
I turn my head to him abruptly, hitting his cheek with my long nose. “You lived here?”
“Before war. Parents in far town now. My house,” he gestures to a skinny blue building squished between a row of other colorful buildings. It’s not extravagant, but there is something so cozy about it. Willem stops in front of it. We are silent as we admire its quiet beauty. The trimming is white and its paint is chipping a little. There are quaint flower beds in the front and small flower baskets on the windows.
“It’s nice,” I turn my face back to him, this time minding my nose. He continues to stare nostalgically towards the house. “Do you miss it?” I ask quietly.
He nods with a sad smile. “But home is people. Not places.” He looks back at me, and there is a hint of unknown emotion in his eyes. I swallow. Can he read me that easily? Or are his words just coincidence? “I did go on that hill after school every day,” he disrupts my thoughts.
“Did you ever fall?” I scoff.
“Many,” he nods.
“Gee, thanks for risking it with me.” He laughs. “And it’s ‘many times’, not just ‘many’.”
“Many times. Got it,” he says as we take off again. We ride a few more blocks until he slows down and then stops again. The Sun is cut in half by the Earth, making the river that we stop by sparkle. “We here,” he says, so I awkwardly clamber off of the handlebars.
“It’s ‘we are here’,” I correct.
He sighs as he locks the bike to a bike rack. “You Americans and strange words.”
“So now what are we doing here?”
He takes my hand and leads me across the street to a sloping hill that ends in docks. “Nothing.”
I look up at him. “Willem. Really.”
He looks down at me. “What does ‘really’ mean?”
I sigh. “A lot of things. It can be put in front of a word to make the word mean something greater, or in this case, it meant” I freeze in my tracks. In front of me is a small boat with a bearded man smiling at us. There are candles scattered within in, flower petals as well, and a bouquet of peonies resting on the bench in front. This isn't for us. Why would it be for us? I look around. No one else is here. The bearded man is still smiling at us.
“Happy Birthday,” Willem says anxiously in my ear.
My head snaps to him. I search his eyes, which are glowing green with anticipation. He’s fighting an excited smile.
“How d-did--how did”
I look back at the boat. “You really like?” he asks. Tears pool in my eyes. No one has acknowledged my birthday in thirteen years. Willem is saving me from my lonely existence.
I try to hide my face but the tears are already out and my chin is quivering and my nose is stinging and he already sees me.
He has always seen me.
“Anna,” he grabs my arms gently and turns me to face him. “I did wrong?” His eyes that were just moments ago glowing are now dulled by disappointment and concern. I shake my head furiously and bury myself in his chest. His uniform is rough on my skin. He grabs my face in his big hands and searches my hazel soul with his green one. “I did wrong?” he repeats.
I shake my head. “Beautiful. Really beautiful. Thank you,” I manage to whisper. He gently kisses the tears from my cheeks, then presses his lips to my parted, waiting mouth, and kisses me so deeply, it almost hurts. But it doesn't. It’s the purest oxygen to my suffocated heart.
We walk to the end of the dock to the boat. The man in it says something to us in Dutch. Will replies then climbs in. He holds my hands to help me in and guides me to sit on the bench, facing towards the water. It’s getting steadily darker. The candles cast a warmth on our skin. Will holds the large peonies out to me as the boat takes off.
“Sorry. No more tulips. Or roses,” he says with a nervous smirk. Their sweet aroma floods my senses and I almost feel like crying all over again. I take them and cradle them gently in my arms. Their soft petals brush against my skin, giving me goosebumps.
“Perfect,” I say, then pull out my translation book to find the words I’ve been wanting to speak. “How can you afford this? It must have been so much money,” I say in the usual rough Dutch/English mix.
“Don't worry,” he says back in Dutch, “I wanted to.”
I glare at him halfheartedly, then look up some more words. “You should not have. I’m not worth this,” I murmur in more Dutch, then add in English, “You aren't even supposed to know it’s my birthday.”
“Stop,” he says sharply, making me jump. I look at him with big eyes. He says something speedily in Dutch.
“W-what? You need to slow down.”
He huffs then repeats slower. When I still don't understand, he grabs the translation book and writes down his Dutch phrase. I look up all of the words, trying to then reorganize the scrambled Dutch sentence structure to my English understanding. “My... words... I say... they... scare you?”
“Scare, yes,” he nods then says it again to memorize it.
I smirk. “Why?”
He stares at me intensely for a long time. My smirk falls. His eyes search every inch of my face. What could he be thinking? He looks away. Looks at the river. Looks at the sky. Looks down. Looks at nothing. He’s chewing his lip anxiously. His face heats up. Oh god, what did I do? Finally, he looks to my left arm and grabs it before I can stop him. “These...” He says, running his thumb gently, so gently, over my neat row of scars. He studies them with a deepening crease between his brow. His lips purse tighter with every scar his thumb runs over. Most are a dull shiny gray. Some are purple. A few are pink. Twenty in all. I used to count them back at home. I haven’t since I left, promised myself I would forget about them. And I’ve done a pretty good job of forgetting. And no one else has noticed them.
Except for Willem.
The moment I realize what he’s doing, I freeze. The blood drains from my body. My breathing becomes rapid and I try to struggle away, but he is much too strong. I panic, only for a moment, as my mind flashes back to my parents. I can feel my father gripping my arm down, ignoring my thrashing, my screams, my pleas. I can see my mother, her eyes deranged, as she holds the shiny, silver razor.
I close my eyes, pushing the thoughts away and willing myself to be calm. This is Willem, not my parents. He won't hurt me.
My panic has only lasted for a second. When I open my eyes, I find Willem with hurt written over his face. I open my mouth, then cover it with my hand to hold back my sob.
“You did these?” His voice doesn't match his face. It’s deep and emotionless, but trembles slightly. He’s fighting to keep control.
I swallow. “No,” I say strongly. And I’m not lying. I didn't do any of those. I’ve never done anything to harm myself.
Shock floats across his eyes. He’s guarded, though. He doesn't know if he should believe me. “Then who? How?” I fight for words. Shake my head to find new ones. Still come up with nothing. “Tell me of your family,” he says abruptly. My open mouth snaps shut. I stare into my lap.
If I tell him this now, I might lose him. I don't want him to pity me or to look at me differently than he did when we laid in that field under the stars. No, not yet.
“Anna,” his cracking voice snaps my attention back to him, “Anna,” he says again and shakes his head. I can see all of the English words and all of the Dutch words fall out of him and into the river, leaving him only with my name.
I all of a sudden reach forward and grip his thigh. “Willem, it wasn't me. I promise you, it wasn't me.” I shake my head at my scars desperately. “These scars” he says the word ‘scars’ under his breath “my family, I will tell you. Later. Not now. But I did not do this. I promise. Do you understand?” I tighten my hand on his thigh, shocked by how solid it is. I ignore my blush.
He’s staring at my hand on his leg. Then at me. Then at his leg again. Then at me again. He finally nods. I give him a soft smile as I gently pull my wrist from his grasp, still shaking. I take his large hand between both of mine. “Your scars?” I gently touch a few of the white specks that are scattered on his fingers. “You tell? That okay?”
He studies my expression uneasily, but he seems to have finally softened. He nods again carefully, then clears his throat.“I” then he says something in Dutch. He repeats it a few times as I grab the book. I find the word he is saying and the translation.
“Mechanic? You’re a mechanic?”
“Yes! I mechanic. I did my motorbike,” he points back to where we came from, which is far out of view now.
“You fixed up your motorcycle? That’s...wow.” I want to say that’s extremely attractive. It’s so rugged and all I can picture is him working underneath a car, covered in grease.
I blink, trying to get the inappropriate fantasy out of my head. I hope he can't read it in my face right now. Judging by his smirk, I think he can. I cough. “I-it means to make better, to repair. So you got those scars from work then?”
“Yes. Metal, tools. You... don’t like?”
“No, no! They’re really, um...” I study them between my hands again, but I’m losing my train of thought. His hand is so warm and big. There are callouses lining his palm and some of his fingers. Once again, I feel so much like a girl when I’m with him. All I can think of right now is having these rough hands on me. Holding me possessively, gripping me, touching me gently, all at the same time. But not only his hands. His lips as well. Possessively, roughly, gently. On my own lips, his tongue expertly killing me. On my skin, my body, searing a trail of desire, that can only be cured with more of his rough lips, his smooth tongue, his hot breath. And him deeply, huskily saying my name, letting me hear every ounce of need, passion, adoration. I slowly look up to sneak a glimpse of his mouth. I choke when I see that he is grinning mockingly at me. Damn it, how can he read me like a book?
I flutter my eyes and try to regain my composure. Why the hell is my mind drifting so much? It must be my dang hormones finally kicking in after all these years. First I’m in tears of happiness, then I’m fighting panic, and now I’m hornier than a sixteen year old boy.
I’m crumbling faster than I thought I would.
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