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Imagining Amsterdam

Transparency: The following is from a novella I’ve written (now editing), Imagining Amsterdam.  The story takes place in the future – 2025.  I’m publishing the first few pages because it fits Rebecca Sonit’s A Guide to Being Lost – you’ll see why.



“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest, or wish for office or power.”                                                                       

Plato, Symposium, c. 385-380


“Why should a set of people have been put in motion, on such a scale and with such an air of being equipped for a profitable journey, only to break down without an accident, to stretch themselves in the wayside dust without a reason?”

                                                                         Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, 1902

“People look to the future and expect that the forces of the present will unfold in a coherent and predictable way, but any examination of the past reveals that the circuitous routes of change are unimaginably strange.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

–If I think back, I’d say that some of our most moving times together were when you thought you were about to leave behind something of yourself, he said over the phone.  And … I don’t know, maybe sometimes you couldn’t.  I don’t know.  Or wouldn’t.  You’d hold on.  Tight.  You’d hold on tight.  To everything you could.  Until you couldn’t.

I don’t know why I reached out to him after so many years.  But I did.  And here we were.

— There’s something of that now, I’m guessing, he continued in a soft tone.  He paused, and waited.

— I’m sorry, I said, unsure of what else to say in the awkward distance I felt between us when I heard his familiar voice and it all came back to me again.  I took too long, I said.   I’m sorry, truly.  I am.  Too much time has passed.  I know it has.  I let it happen.  Not you.   Totally irrational, I know that too.  It was me.  It’s me.  My fault.  I feel terrible.   Do you forgive me?

He chuckled.

— All I have to do is shut my eyes and I see you, he said.  I’ve been watching you from afar.

I smiled.  Instantaneously.

— You didn’t think I would? he asked rhetorically.  You probably knew I would.  How could I not?  I always wanted to follow you.  To run away and follow you.

— And?

— I would have loved to follow you to New York and see what you were up to.  Such a change for you, not going home and all.  So far away, you know.  So far.  And you struggled and came through.  The complete you.

— You mean the completion of who you thought I was.

— Something like that.  The complete you, I like to think.  All of you because I knew I didn’t see everything and I wanted to.  The real you, you know?  All of it, scars and all.  I remember your scars.  I can see them clearly, the parallel lines on the inside of your leg by your knee.  They’re as clear as your name.  Like a signature.  A scar, a blemish, something that distinguishes a person becomes so much how you experience a person – you and the person.  The scar becomes an intimacy, draws you in like.  It has a history.  Yours and then someone else’s, I think.  And at a certain point, in the here and there, in memory’s shadows, you’re not sure whether it’s the scar or the blemish or the person or all of it that you love.  The one and the other become one thing in your mind and that unique mark you just can’t do without is suddenly yours too.  You even long for it.   That scar.

It was night.  I held my lights low against the luminescence stitched across the city and my reflection on my picture window talked back to me: head tilted to one side and rocking back-and-forth cradled in his voice, my arms crossed just above my waist as if I held a child.   He filled the room.  It was like it used to be.

I know he felt my hesitation.

— I wondered about you, I said softly, like a single syllable, a moan.  I thought a lot about you.  I did.  I wanted to reach out – many times.  I’d be grocery shopping, you know – I could be anywhere; on a date – and suddenly there you’d be, out of nowhere, something you said to me – in your voice, your tone. Something I’d forgotten.  I could totally see you.  It’s good when that happens.  I don’t know.  Just good.  Good all over.  I’ve always felt like … That you were looking out.  There with me, you know.  You were there.  I liked that.  I liked knowing that you were watching out for me.  I wish I could really explain what that feels like.  I’m not doing a very good job right now.

I went on and again told him that I was sorry for taking so long to see how he was, how he was doing since he’d meant so much to me, all those hours working with me – years actually, from twenty ten to twenty twelve.   Advising me, mentoring me, putting up with my pouting, my tears, my wild rants.  Holding me up.  My self-involved irrationalities.   Until one day something happened and we found ourselves somewhere else, a new place, inhabiting new spaces.  Or the same places differently.   It was near the end, almost to the end of my university life, the last year.  We were in a very different space.  I didn’t say a thing though, totally unsure of myself.  Either did he – he knew better.   He could see the long now and took care of me.

–What happens? What happens to people? I asked him, wanting to really ask him, what happened to us? since there was a time when I spoke to him almost every day just about.  Emails, texts, voice – Can I see you? I use to say.  I never asked about him.   Never.  Hi, when can I come and see you?  That was enough.  That was it.

— You have a life.  Mine is quite different. That’s all.  We’ve always been separated by a swath of time.

I’d forgotten what it was like, his ability to see through me, instantly.

I was staring into my tarnished memory of us, looking for answers, looking to see why him, why is he still here, here with me?

— You know, I’d say that we met because there is such a difference in our ages.  Maybe without that difference, who knows, maybe we wouldn’t have met, he said.

— But we did and here we are …

— Again.

— Again.  Here we are again, I said and my voice trailed off and I changed the subject.   I wasn’t ready to get into an examination of our relationship, especially since so much time had passed.  I turned it over in my mind many times – and maybe that’s why I never reached out.  I didn’t want to get to the questions.  Yet here we were.  As he said, again – a musical phrase that never goes away.

— Boston said you’re on an extended leave.  What are you doing?  Are you gone for good?

He took a deep breath that filled the silence.

— I’ve stepped away from the hallowed ivy – and come to realize that the ivy has tentacles that reach far inside a person.  It’s ironic.  And maybe tragic.  A little tragic, anyway.  That’s what I’m here to find out.  I’m taking a step back to find out who I am once and for all.

— What are you saying?

— Just getting some distance.  That’s all.  Trying to gain some, you know.  I need perspective.  I’m trying to get it somehow – before I become more irrelevant then I already am.

— In Amsterdam.  Talking about some change.  Okay.  Fine.  But I wouldn’t call you irrelevant.

— We won’t be able to meet for lunch.  That’s true. Yeah.  You can’t simply walk across campus to my office, shut the door and spend a few hours. Impossible this time around, he said and laughed.

— That’s not what I’m saying.  Is that how you saw it?  A cliché, that’s what it was?  You?  What am I then?

— It’s a joke.  I’m just joking.   Common on.  Can’t you take a joke after all this time?

— It’s not a joking thing.

— Well then, maybe I am a cliché – and it is too late.   Maybe that’s the joke – and it’s on me.  Wait.  Wait a minute, he said and paused.  I – ambeing – tested.  Aren’t I?  Yes.  You’re testing me.  I think yes.  Is that why you called?  Wanna see if I’m still here for you.  Talk about clichés.  That’s why you called. You’re not sure where we are. Me.  Where I am.  Must be serious.  And there’s a change – something’s coming.  Some change. Something’s in the air and you reached out.  That’s it.  It is.  Isn’t it?  Maybe something already happened.  Something big.  Love shattered?  A disappointment.  There’s been a disappointment, yes – and you can’t write it off as all good, like you used to say.  It’s got to be big.  Yes, something’s happened.  What?  Tell me.  What do you need?  This is how it always goes for us, right?  Doesn’t it?

— Okay.  Okay.  It’s on me.  I know.  It’s on me.  I’ll take the chance.  I’ll leap.  That’s what you want.  I hear you.  I’ll take responsibility.  But you can’t say you’re a cliché.   I won’t accept that.  You’re not a cliché.  You’re not.  Far from it.  Don’t be ridiculous. You mean a lot to me – to a lot of people, I said to him.

Then I hesitated, unsure whether to say what I wanted to say, why I called him, after all.  There was a long silence – and I just said it:  I need you.   As soon as I said it I regretted it but I kept on.  I was already in. I was in the moment I got his number from Boston.  I was in when I called him.  Shit, I’d been in for awhile.  

I breathed deeply a couple of times, and nervously just put it out there quickly: Are you busy?  Can I see you?  I asked and dropped my head, letting its weight dangle it there over my chest as if I’d given out.  I shut my eyes and waited.  I waited for the cold, sharp blade to drop on my neck.

My anxiety thickened – and he let it.

—  Are you ignoring me?

He didn’t respond.  I inhaled, not wanting to look up, even though we weren’t visible to each other – I shut off the broadcast just as I called him and I leaned on my picture window, full of anxiety, and whispered facetime off  because I didn’t want him to see me like that.   He’d sense my despair.  That’s what he’s really good at sniffing out.  Despair.  We met at precisely the moment I was falling and spinning out between reason and chaos – and I didn’t know which was which.    I sat hunched over in his seminar on punishment, my thick, black uncombed hair around my face covering my eyes.  I was disconsolate.  Didn’t know where I was and what I was doing.  More importantly, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself – and I didn’t know who to turn to.  You might say that this is expected of any second year university student, particularly if she is surrounded by classic “A” personality types with their lives totally visible in front of them.  Mine was not.  I was lost.  I can’t even tell you why I took his class – maybe it was the rumor mill we students create and someone told me, oh yeah, take him, he’s interesting.  And I did, not knowing what else to take.   I just didn’t care.  I hardly looked at him when he lectured.  And he pointed to me one day at the end of class and said, softly, simply, See me. Just like that.  See me.  That was that.  It began then, the spring of my sophomore year.  See me.  I saw him alright.

I circled my Tribeca studio.

— Are you busy? I asked again.  Can I see you?  What else do you want me to say?  Can I see you?  That’s what I want.  I want to see you.

A hard rain began knocking against my window.

— Why are you not responding?  Why are you doing this?   I need to see you.  Okay?  I need to.  I need … What more do you want?  You know my history.  Why are you doing this?  I can’t make it up to you, all of it.  All this time.  Okay?  What else can I say?  I can’t – but I want to see you still.  I’ve never known you to be cruel like this.  What?

— No.  Don’t do that.  It’s not what you’re thinking.  Please, he said, jumping in almost out of breath.  I’m sorry, he said.  I’m not testing you.  I would never do that.  You know that.  I don’t want anything from you.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that when you asked me whether I was busy you put me instantly back in my office and there you were standing in my doorway – sweating, out of breath, smiling, like when you went for runs, your hair in a pony tail over your left shoulder and you’d stroke it and fix it compulsively.   You asked me whether I was busy and could we talk.  That’s all.  That’s all it was.  I was there.  Inside that.  It just came over me like that, all of a sudden.  I was lost in it.  And I hesitated.  I’m sorry.  There was nothing I could do.  I hadn’t thought about anything like that in years – and it took me.  Completely.  I’m sorry.

— What do you think?

— I think that it may go like this.  Things fluttering back and forth and that we have no words for.  We’ll have to adjust, I guess.  That’s all.

I saw him reclining in his leather chair, his feet on a large oak desk, Walter Pater or Henry James opened on his lap.  He was graying, rounding.  And he’d give me a big smile, sit up and nod to the black rocker, a crimson H engraved on the top rail, in front of his desk and say shut the door.

When the curtain came down on my Boston days and side-by-side with sixteen hundred undergrads walked into the wide, foreboding world we all feared – reality we called it in the sanctity of our luxurious schoolyard – I knew I’d had something special, something different that nobody else had experienced.  His careful eye on me.

Maybe that’s why I called him again, to learn what it was that I felt, why I couldn’t shed it after all this time, that feeling that something happened to me.  Maybe I wanted it again.  I missed the light tap on the shoulder, a constancy that one day appeared, and stayed.  Until I learned to predict it.  Until I learned to see myself as he saw me.  Until I could no longer feel obstacles between us, no challenges – only a genuine sense of freedom.  Freedom.  Just freedom.  I longed for that feeling, the ease, the smoothness to be.   I didn’t have it when I called.  I’d lost it somehow – at some point.

— It would be easier if I saw you, I said.  I think, anyway, it would be easier. I want to see you.

— Come.  Come then.

I thought that seeing him would be simpler – a ride up to Boston.  But nothing about us was simple, ever.  Addicts of complexity, that’s what we seemed to be.  I am, anyway, I think.

— Come, he repeated.  Come.  See what I’m doing.  We’ll talk.  See what you’re doing.   We’ll talk about writing like we used to.  We’ll read something together.  Remember that?  Take as long as you need, he said.   But come.

— To see why it is that after all this time – how long has it been?

— Eight.  Eight or ten years, something like that.

— Why now, after eight years – let’s say that – I call, and want to see you?

— That’ll be part of it, I’m sure.  If you want.  Sure.  It’s something.  Something is there, yes.

— And why, after all this time, it’s you I’m looking for? Again.

— My sentiments exactly.  I can tell you that.  So come.  Stay.  Let’s see.  Come before it’s too late.

Ever since, I’ve not stopped imagining Amsterdam.



  1. […] beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here.   Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, […]

  2. […] beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here.   Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, […]

  3. karenkay2014 says:

    Oh, I meant in general, or as an element of your thought: not as a radical part of your plot! Never! I already can’t believe you’ve shown as much as you have. . . .

  4. karenkay2014 says:

    And your non answer lets me imagine much, thank you! No, not particulars of the novella,but about the function of imagining imagining, and how, perchance, it may sink some roots into plot. Isn’t imagination itself a priori? I imagine it is, anyway.

    • hector says:

      Okay, so you’re becoming obsessive here. The narrator, whose name I’ve been playing with (I have several yet), doesn’t know what she imagined during her college years – nor what her professor/mentor imagined; she’s, likewise, imagining something or other about “Love” and is not sure what it is, since she’s recently had some bad luck and what she imagined in this relationship didn’t pan out. She’s also imagining what her mentor’s life might be like. And in this imagining, she has certain fantasies about what the mentor might have imagined about them – and she pushes this a bit later on, which makes for some interesting reading I think. For instance, in a later chapter, when she finds herself in Amsterdam, she asks, “Do you have a significant other?” So she’s trying to imagine him, his life. And the two together, imagine themselves; that is, they imagine what it might be like, together, though they are not together, yet they are intimate in soulful, spiritual, philosophical ways. Through all this “imagining”, then, we have the keener or more vital questions about “what is love,” for instance, and is love greater than what we portend it is in hallmark cards and romantic comedies, and is love somehow missing and/or gone a-rye in the world and we’re not sure what it is any more? All that beyond the pleasures of the flesh, meaning can you really love someone and care beyond what we experience in the surface structure of the spectacle, and shouldn’t we be trying to “learn our way” into something more intensely meaningful and beautiful?

      Now, structurally, there is also another imagining, which is in the writing. As you can see, it’s mostly written in dialog; this is short, maybe 170 pages, tops. This also prompted me to write it as a kind of “narrative” screenplay, not in the form of a screenplay, where the narrator speaks to her audience. The second chapter – or movement or sequence begins thus, as an example:

      In a story such as this, the full view is necessary. Otherwise it won’t work. I don’t want false impressions.

      I’ll start with a wide angle shot and push in so you’ll experience what I did when I finally got to Amsterdam in mid May, after I called him, and the city came to me. As he did. Slow like. An animal crouched low. And they rose up. First this city that proved everyone wrong, which is what he used to say – and he not far behind. They arrived together.

      For me, then, the imagining piece, as seen in this example, above, is for the reader to imagine this story, these relationships in as intimate way as possible. So this sort of writing – the technique of writing – just sort of happened intuitively; it just came out.

      Here’s another example, further on in the story when she’s finally with him and nearing his home:


      Come in behind us walking hand-in-hand on Raamgracht over the canal and towards the corner of Groegburgwal. Swoop in.

      In the early morning it’s quiet, fresh, except for the soft roll of my suitcase’s wheels over cobblestone – which he’s pulling with his left hand.

      Thick, silver gray sycamores line the canal and lean over the water and a stately canal boat, black and green and white, in perfect stillness. The bright sun pushes through and splashes off the water. Birds singing.

      And I stop and look around when we reach his house on the corner – deep purple brick and egg shell trim, huge windows, big enough to fit a piano through, a large front door with a gold knocker. I’m smiling.

      Now, in keeping with our “Getting Lost” experiment, we can argue that this is all about getting lost and how our “texts” or narrative experiences – novels, novellas, essays, short stories, plays, scripts, poems, art in general (thus Amsterdam, the design capital of history) – give the sign posts, the road signs we IMAGINE are very real contextualizations of our lived experiences.

      How’s that?

      • karenkay2014 says:

        Fine, if you say so, and I concede (at least momentarily to you), although I must add that this lovely prose sounds as far from lost as you can get.

        • hector says:

          It’s the story – the narrator is lost, here, at this moment; she’s writing looking back, through memory; she comes to “find herself” in the end ..

          • karenkay2014 says:

            Twice you’ve said I’m being obsessive! I don’t feel like I’m being obsessive about anything, and truly, I don’t understand what you mean. I sometimes focus in tight. It’s fruitful and not synonymous.

            I get what you mean about the narrator being lost and finding herself through memory. As a character. In the novella.

            As you’ve surely gleaned, I am less than impressed by Solnit, and I’m frustrated because it seems to me that you’ve taken on her persona in discussion of her book and ideas. When it seems to me that what’s in your own mind is so superior to it.

            (This will make you crazy with contempt, but I think she’s either mildly autistic or has Asperger Syndrome. . . .)

            Discovery, contrary to your statement, can, yes, be painful. It can be joyful, as well as every nuance in between. Why would you limit it?

            I know you, Hector: you will now answer one out of five items—–

        • karenkay2014 says:

          How can real places and real things (empirical; empirical), NOT be contextualizations? “I walk my dog down the lane between our house and our neighbor’s. The lane is lined on both sides with pear trees. My dog snuffles through the unmown grass then urinates against a pear tree trunk. This tree is closer to her house than ours. Her lips felt chapped and tasted of Scotch. ICU again today, the second time. My dog yanks the leash out of my hand and barks after a squirrel. ” Right? Unless I (again) don’t understand, I’d put in a claim for the pain of contextualization. No?

          • hector says:

            Contextualization is not a pain – it is; and it is necessary. But what I say, above, in the long response to your obsession(s) is that your reading of Shakespeare or a Van Gogh is quite different, perhaps, than mine – or a critic’s say or even the general public or another artist. Thus the object under consideration is speaking the truth – and it is not. Speaking of Amsterdam: when I’m there I do the obligatory tour of the Van Gogh museum. I love it there. In one room, last time, covering 3 of the 4 walls, were “identical” self portraits, done one after the other; what separates them is time – and light. Van Gogh’s contextualization is quite different from mine. What was he after? I can’t approximate that. Which is the truth? Both? Neither? Another Van Gogh discovery, last time, is the disintegration of the myth that Van Gogh painted frantically and quickly. What has been discovered via incredible x-rays, and so on, is that he worked carefully and sagaciously, slowly planning each step. On the contrary, he was meticulous. And he used any material – cardboard, wood, paper, anything – layering his work one on top of another in constant experimentation. Yet we’ve “contextualized” Van Gogh differently – until now. Contextualization is not a pain – not at all. It’s discovery, actually

  5. karenkay2014 says:

    Typically, I have lost the whole entry I made to your post.


  6. karenkay2014 says:

    (A small, possibly intrusive or unwelcomed question): I enjoyed this much. Would you mind telling me what you mean by “imagining”?

    • hector says:

      Hi, yes, indeed I would mind since you have to get to the end of the novella to actually “imagine” what “imagining” is; safe to say it’s lovely and sad. 🙂

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