by Kathleen Spivack
Lives of quiet desperation are sometimes not what you think.
The empty rocking chair echoed slowly, its arc poised in mid air. The chair’s body still held the motion of another’s warmer body. The seat back and curved arms molded themselves around the memory of the weighted flesh by whom they had been hastily abandoned, A rhythmic motion of patient waiting hung in the air; the chair tipped in anticipation of its owner’s return.
Next to it, a soft fringed lamp, still on. A passerby could see boldly into the window, for the feigned modesty of lace valences fringing the edges were primly tied back. A confrontational rocking chair, aggressively empty, its full face turned to the passerby and still moving; a yellow lamp flattering the whitened glare of the window: emptiness.
Somewhere within, the half Indonesian prostitute Jung Li was applying her ministrations, rocking and rocking in other, more desperate arms.
She flung back her head in mock abandon, then opened her eyes quickly to glance at the clock in the corner. She shut her eyes again, calculating the kroner. ”Again,” she moaned. “Again.”
It was Christmas in Amsterdam. Everywhere, the naked windows revealed interiors elaborate as Russian Easter eggs: fine filigreed Christmas trees laden with delicate decorations, soft glowing light,round tables in warm looking rooms. One expected to hear a clavecin playing; to see round bellied women tightly posed,their bejeweled slender hands resting upon those of their fiancees, front vision.
I had traveled from Paris, where everyone shuttered their windows, to Holland where apparently nobody did. But it was too deceptive, all that bluff Dutch honesty and openness. “Nothing to hide.” I wondered what lay beneath.
The canals were bright, iced over, and a happy drunken jollity hung in the breath-fogged air. Strong ruddy men gestured to me and my friend Candy as we walked together, passing the many bars that gleamed beside us, warmly wooden and gold in their interiors. “Come in, come in! Have a drink with us. Don’t be afraid,” they urged. “It’s Christmas, after all, Happy Christmas!”
Candy waved back at them as she pressed my arm, hurrying me past. “You just won’t believe the sex shops, “ she said. “ I want you to se them.”
Our breath was freezing in the freezing air and she urged me away from the wistful warmth of the pubs and toward the icy bridges spanning the canals. We were hurrying away from safe conviviality toward the seamier parts of town. “You’ve got to see them. You just won’t believe it.”
I must have looked back longingly–the Dutch men seemed so welcoming–or perhaps one in particular had caught my eye. Candy grabbed my elbow harder, impatiently hissing through her teeth. “Come on, come on. They make me sick!”
Earlier that day, after Candy had met me at the train station, we had taken a trolley toward her apartment on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The trolley trundled slowly along its icy tracks. As we sat crammed together in wet wool camaraderie Candy suddenly insisted that I change seats with her. She gestured urgently. There was a young blond hearty looking Dutch an sitting next to her, trying to make conversation with what he perceived as a vivacious American woman. He overheard us talking. “Are you American?”
“Here,” Candy grunted, getting up and shoving me into her seat. “You like them; you talk to him.”
The man fell silent as I moved over into her seat. Candy, now standing in the aisle, proceeded to bounce from the strap, exclaiming as she looked out the window at the snowy scene the bus traversed. “Whoopee whoopee, look at that!” She added a few words in Dutch to impress me. “Hey, we’re in Holland. Right, white girl?”
Since moving to Amsterdam from Paris Candy had been studying Dutch. “I guess I plan to stay here,” she said. She chanted her new words nonstop, repetitively showing off for me. And I was totally impressed. She seemed to relish that comic -sounding glockenspiel language. In her hyperactive way, Candy, bouncing and swaying and chanting Dutch words for “toilet .” and “sausage” and “thank you” while cheerfully commenting in English on the passing snowy scene–”Colder than a witch’s teat,” she caroled, top voice,–kept the whole trolley car entertained. The young man next to me., amused and fascinated, couldn’t keep his eyes of her.
“Don’t look at me,” she warned him. “Look at her, not me.”
“Men, I can’t stand ‘em,” she muttered to me in a loud stage whisper. Impossible Candy.
Candy! how did anyone so sour get to be named something like “Candy”?
Most likely she had named herself, ironically, in defiance against the sugar of the concept. For the woman herself was vinegar-sharp. tarragon by nature, with a bite to the person, an independent tough-guy butchness concealing her generosity and vulnerability. She was small, built like a little tank, and sported denim bibbed overalls and Muslim embroidered caps.
Candy, antithesis to sweetness, was a woman who, it seemed to her friends, had completely reinvented herself. What did we know of her? She told us many stories, perhaps lies. She was the last of twenty three children. She had been brought up by a grandmother. She had lived her whole life in orphanages. She went to college and grad school, became a psychologist, moved to Oakland California. There, if we were to believe her, she counseled Aids patients. Though Candy was such a nonstop talker, so agitated and energetic, so filled with hyperactive advice, that it was hard to imagine her sitting still long enough to counsel anyone, let alone someone who was dying. But perhaps someone dying would be too sick to notice their therapist bouncing from a bus strap, saying “How ya’ doin’?” happily to everyone around her, and in Dutch.
Although a black belt in karate,–”No motherfucker’s going to get near me.”– the l992 earthquake in California frightened her enough that Candy resolved to sell her house in Oakland,–”And it was beautiful honey, and I’m talkin’ millions!”– to break with her lover of twenty years.–”Girl, that’s one thing I ain’t talkin’ about,”– and to take her life savings and move to Paris. “The U.S. is dead. Europe is where it’s happening.”
Candy’s older brother was the famous trumpeter Charles Stone. He’d moved to Paris too, twenty years earlier. Now he was there permanently, buried in the cemetery Pere Lachaise. “A heart attack,” Candy said. The other musicians who had known him mourned his departure, but said little. Charles was an idol, an icon, second only to Jim Morrison in the drawing power of his tombstone in this crowded City of the Dead. His grave was more famous than that of Frederic Chopin. On Sundays, groups of young black men could be seen lolling about his tombstone, passing weed from hand to hand, while the punk white American kids with shaved heads, boys and girls, with their pierced nostrils, all wearing black leather and hightops, their surprising shafts of green and red mohawks like plumage, smoked herb on Morrison’s gravestone by the opposite cemetery gate. Oh Charlie! Oh Jimmy! The visiting Americans made their pilgrimages to their heroes.
So Candy came to Paris because “Charlie liked it here.” Soon taken up by the musicians who revered her brother, she found a little room on the Isle St. Louis and started to study French. That’s when I met her. “I’m takin’ a rest from the States, honey. How ‘bout yourself?”
It was a winter of driving rain. Candy turned up at everywhere, making cheerful trouble wherever she went. She attended an erudite lecture on ”racism” at the Sorbonne and told me afterwards, ”I was the only woman, the only black woman, the only American, the only lesbian, and the only one stoned.” She was indignant. “They wouldn’t even let me talk, those men. “But of course she had talked plenty.
The next fall a friend offered her an apartment in Amsterdam and, disillusioned with Paris, Candy moved. “They’ve got plenty of racism there,” she said optimistically as I took her to the train. “Holland is definitely where I need to be. Yup. I’m goin’ to organize those motherfuckers good.” She looked small, vulnerable, lonely despite her bravado , a person who drifted from one catastrophe to another. “Come visit me, girl.” I hugged her, trying to give her energy and warmth, and promised I would.
Now here it was, Christmas break, and relieved to have a place to go, and a friend to visit, relieved that I did not have to spend Christmas alone, I kept my promise.
“These sex shops have got to be seen.” Candy was tugging my arm, hurrying me impatiently against the freezing wind, a round squat figure in her overalls and down jacket. We passed furtive bands of men who, prowling wolves, looked over their shoulders at us, the only women out on the cold street so late. “Candy,” I said nervously, trying to stall.
“Honey, these people ain’t interested in you.” Candy hissed cheerily, dragging me deeper and deeper into the seaminess of the town.” Here, get a look at these.”
She clutched my elbow in a karate warrior’s grip, hauling me to a stop in front of a store window. Embarrassed, I tried not to look, averting my eyes which were stinging and tearing in the cold. “Hey,” she cried enthusiastically, “will you look at that! Look at the size of that dildo!” Candy was ecstatic.
“How’d you like to try that out, girl?” Candy regarded the window with a fascination reserved for Lourdes. “And lookie here, right next door!” She dragged me a few feet down the street.
Oh Lord, why don’t the Dutch have the decency to shutter their windows? The street was festooned in yards of pink extruded plastic, enormous fleshy penises, vibrators, and huge inflated dolls with unmistakable cunts. Everything was larger than life, including the leather objects draped over the plastic models, the underwear, the corsets and chastity belts, whips and clever instruments of sexual titillation.
I turned away, unwilling to look. But Candy, talking volubly, kept trying to draw my attention to one large pink object after another. “Will you look at that! This size of it! Girl, isn’t that just about one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen?”
As I waited for her on the deserted freezing Amsterdam street I wondered why I was here. It was Christmas; bloody Christmas, I was reminded through Candy’s eyes that I was hopelessly white, heterosexual, and an utter prude. As Candy enthused about dildos and vibrators I would have given anything to be anywhere else, even back in Paris, alone in a small dark room, far from home and family and friends, drawing the covers over my head while every French person relaxed inside closed doors, embraced by familial warmth and delicious food and drink. I would have preferred to be walking self -consciously alone beside the freezing Seine in front of monstrous Notre Dame, looking out at innocent bridges and thinking vaguely melancholy thoughts. Candy might be American, she might seem familiar, but standing with her on Christmas eve while she went on and on about sex shop windows was the most painfully foreign experience I could imagine. A few stray men passed us, then re-crossed the cold span of bridge to pass us again, staring, challenging, all the while.
“Candy, come on,” I managed to say, tugging at her padded sleeve. But she didn’t seem to care. “Let’s go inside,” she said. “I want to get me some of those things.”
“Not me,” I answered quickly. “You go ahead if you want. I’ll wait here.”
Chortling to herself, Candy disappeared inside. I could imagine her hyperactive glee.
The moments I waited for her in the icy wind were the longest imaginable. I stood, back resolutely turned to the window display, dropping my eyes at the aggressive looks of the men who passed and avoiding the occasional lone man who dared to accost me. What to do? I was trapped between the warmth and vulgarity of the sex shop interior, and the wait beside a frozen canal, my feet blocks of ice, at a prostitute pick-up stop that no prostitute would ever choose on a cold Christmas night like this one. I faced outward, feeling my face freeze disapprovingly, a prudish intellectual bluestocking from Boston, Massachusetts, and told myself that this was an interesting travel experience, one that I would never have had to endure had I comfortably stayed home. I wish: my adventurousness had once again gotten me into trouble.
Candy emerged, stuffing a package into her pack. “Come along,” she said,
“I got someone I want you to meet.” She was humming as she walked, our footsteps squeaking on the thin layer of ice crystals that lay sparkling under the street lamps. On the canals, tethered barges strained against their ropes and groaned in the frosty air. “I’m dreamin’ of a White Christmas,” Candy hummed. She was pleased with herself. It was almost two in the morning and from various parts of the city church bells started to peal. “A White Christmas….”
“You know, girl,” she interrupted herself, “if you hadn’t come up here to visit I’d never be walking around like this.” I was surprised. “Well, I had this break- down in Paris after Suzy threw me over. Too much, after the earthquake back home and all. A real break-down, honey. I knew it was coming. All those sick people, my friends, dying of Aids. Yes siree, dying like flies in old Candy’s arms. I just couldn’t take it anymore.” By now she was humming, whistling through her teeth, and talking, all at the same time. “White Christmas….” She poked me for emphasis. “Bet you didn’t know that did you? About my nervous break-down, I mean. Why honey, by the time I came up here to Amsterdam I was so bad I couldn’t leave the apartment by myslf. Just couldn’t get out, couldn’t see anyone, didn’t want them looking at me, see. Not enough black people up here. Everybody stares.” Her isolation had lasted over three months, she told me.
Three months. I calculated quickly; from her arrival just up to my visit. “Come on, Candy,” I protested, “ it can’t have been that bad.”
But by now Candy was humming again and whistling and saying “Hey sport,” and “Merry Christmas” in Dutch to whatever lonely guy we passed, also looking for a bit of Christmas cheer.
Now we stood side by side in front of a window on the street of prostitutes. An empty room, a rocker still moving. “They’re the lucky ones. Jung Li works here. Some of the other girls, I got to know them too. Many little houses, many softly lit bared windows like the inside of a chocolate box. What lay behind the visible part of this town, I wondered.
“Aids” said Candy. ”This town is full of Aids.” She was surprisingly silent, watching and waiting. “Lousy with it. They bring these girls out here and then they just dump them,” she said. “These men. They come here as workers and then they bring their women and then they can’t support them. What can they do?”
The fragile figure that was Jung Li came to the window. She looked severe and pretended to ignore Candy and myself as we stood outside.
“Watch her,” Candy breathed excitedly. “She’ll pretend not to notice us. They lose their jobs if they move.”
The woman placed herself carefully in the rocking chair whose embrace surrounded her as if she were home. A quick furtive rearrangement of a strand of hair, one ankle crossing the other: now the woman, the tableau, was stilled. Jung Li folded her hands upon each other and stared into the dark, somewhere far beyond us.
“It’s supposed to be legal here,” Candy said. “They pay off the police. They get medical inspections every week.”
Not wanting to offend the prostitute by my too direct stare, I allowed the whole street to enter my vision. The street was full of naked windows, with women waiting motionless in Flemish interiors. Fat women, thin women, women in all shades of color and costume. Women who looked at us with hard aggressive eyes. Women who did not even twitch. I could see their weariness, their bad skin, malnourished collarbones, could smell the perspiration from all their stale toil.
“Well, what else can they do? They’re stuck here, working on their backs. And these are the lucky ones. The others, the one whose johns don’t pay enough, they have to work outside.” She took my arm, walking me away from this section of town, then waved a passing taxi to a standstill .
The women were motionless, holding themselves as much like embroidered dolls as possible, receding as we pulled away from them.
“They had a conference about Aids and sex workers,” Candy told me. By now we were back in her apartment, warming our hands around mugs of steaming tea, our frozen garments unstiffening themselves on the backs of chairs.
“You want to sleep in my bed?” she asked abruptly. “Or do you want your own mattress on the floor?”
I was thawing out, looking out the window, admiring her view of frozen trees that loomed darkly beyond the kitchen. The dark had a purplish light to it: not really early morning, but instead that headachy three a.m. glaze when one is too nervous and cold to get to sleep.
“Okay, The mattress,” said Candy, not waiting for my answer.
I lay down on the mattress, fully clothed, not even taking off my boots, and pulled her down sleeping bag over me. Would I ever get warm?
“Want some music?“ Candy turned on the radio full volume. “Want some hashish?”
“No, just to sleep now.”
Candy took out a corncob pipe from the drawer, tamped it down , and stuffed it with weed. “I got my suppliers,” she winked. “You can get anything you want here. Anything. We’ll go get some more tomorrow.”
“Candy, I really need to sleep, It’s been a long day.” Apologetically.
“Well, honey, don’t mind me. I never sleep.” Candy settled herself into her rocking chair and sucked contentedly on her pipe. The radio blared full volume and I lay at her feet, pulling the sleeping bag over my ears.
“Listen,” she said, turning the radio up further. “Christmas carols!” The song “Silent Night” in Dutch paradoxically shattered the air. “Ain’t that somethin’?” Candy said, smoking. She shook her head. “Holland!”
“You know,” she continued dreamily. The hash was slowing her down. “They aren’t allowed to use condoms, those whores. Well, they’re supposed to, but if they do, the men beat them. Won’t have anything to do with them. And if the girls insist, the hotels and bars won’t let them work there either.”
“But don’t they know they might get sick?” I was sleepily trying to carry on my side of the conversation now that Candy seemed to be slowing down enough to actually have one.
“Of course. But what can they do? Those whores need work as much as anyone else. They know to use those safes, but the johns will just go to somebody else.”
I drifted to sleep as Candy was telling that in her opinion a man and woman together was the must disgusting and sexually exploitative arrangement known to the human race. The creeping warmth of the sleeping bag, the inevitability of her words, and the creak creak of the rocker as she sat there smoking and talking somehow soothed me.
It was a restless sleep. I‘d never in my life slept through a radio so loud and I woke from time to time in the cold dark, thinking of the women forced to screw without condoms, knowing all along they were bound to get sick, the police “protection,” the medical exams not picking disease up until it was too late; a whole refugee nation of women brought to and abandoned in Western Europe with no skills and no future. The rocking chair tipped and muttered in the dark and when I briefly opened my eyes and shut them I could still see the glowing bowl of Candy’s corncob pipe as she inhaled, could hear her humming, could make out her stocky overalled figure and her little embroidered cap.
I woke finally with a splitting headache and the sense of not having had enough sleep, to a gray sodden northern European light that managed to leak through the windows from the park outside, insinuating dirt and grime in its wake. That light, even thinking about European light in winter, gave me a migraine. It was late morning and I remembered that it was indeed Christmas, the darkest most depressing day of a winter calendar full of despondent moments. Christmas!
In their smug well- lit homes the Dutch were no doubt being jolly in a red cheeked Santa sort of way. I thought of my family back home in the Untied States and then was quickly, piercingly grateful that I had escaped the burden of creating enforced jollity by choosing to be miserable and lonely in Europe instead. But I hadn’t escaped the headache.
Stirring a bit, pressing my exploding temple, I noticed Candy. Now in a long white nightgown, her feet tucked under her, the corncob pipe still in her mouth, she was sitting and smoking reflectively on the edge of my mattress, watching me wake up.
I closed my eyes again. “What time is it?” I asked. I wanted to ask “how long have you been sitting there watching me? “ but didn’t.
Instead of answering, Candy puffed on her pipe, looking exactly like Mammy Yocum in “Little Abner.” She took the pipe out of her mouth. “Want some?”
I shook my head.
“You know, girl,” she said, “you are the first white woman and the first straight woman I have ever let stay at my apartment.” This in the tone of conferring a great honor.
Although I am white, I may be more bent than Candy was aware of, but I was not about to shatter her moment of magnanimous tolerance. “Awful white of you to let me stay here,” I murmured, and took her hand. She cackled.
“Merry Christmas, honey,” she said, and thumped her back-pack onto my feet, drawing from it a large suspicious package. “Have I got a Christmas present for you.”
“Oh no!” I remembered the sex shop of the night before. Candy smiled wickedly. I drew the stiff pink thing out of its tissue paper wrappings.“ No, Candy!” I had brought her a pair of delicate filigreed pearl earrings as my Christmas present to her.
“Girl, girl, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” She handed me the pipe full of glowing hash, its odor sickly sweet in the room.
A huge Christmas mother-longing overcame me, and I wanted to put my throbbing head down onto her wide lap and have her rub my temples.
“You know,” she said, pensively, ”I went to a meeting of those whores we saw last night. They were trying to organize themselves. How do you get a john to use a condom? One of them demonstrated how to put it on so the man doesn’t even know that’s what you’re doing. You practice maybe three months with your teeth, putting safes on cucumbers, till you can do it in your sleep. Imagine that.”
Her voice trailed off. We spent a quiet Christmas. We were careful around each other, gentle with differences.
How was anyone to know that six months later, Candy would be dead. Heart attack, some said, or drugs, or high blood pressure. Whatever the reason, she lay three days in her Amsterdam flat before anyone found her. Did she call for help in English? In Dutch? Smoking her weed alone, so far from home?
Kathleen Spivack is the author of The Break-Up Variations; The Beds We Lie In (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize); The Honeymoon; Swimmer in the Spreading Dawn; The Jane Poems; Flying Inland; Robert Lowell, A Personal Memoir; The Moments of Past Happiness Quilt; and a novel, Unspeakable Things. Published in more than 300 magazines and anthologies, her work has also been translated into French. In Boston, Kathleen directs the Advanced Writing Workshop, an intensive coaching program for advanced writers. She is a permanent (one semester per year) Visiting Professor of Creative Writing/American Literature at the University of Paris (Sorbonne). “The Empty Rocker” won the Grand Prize Bronze Award in the Third Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing and was published in The Best Travel Writing 2009.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.