The beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here. Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, “The Secret in the Mirror,” to comply with our work/play/reading of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
For Hannah and Leah, who brought this story to me. And for Karen who has always been there, caring and interested and thoughtful.
Some ideas are new, but most are only recognition of what has been there all along, the mystery in the middle of the room, the secret in the mirror.
Rebecca Solnnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)
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.
— It’s an experiment, like all manmade things in this world. But it’ll be how we’ll all end up, he told me once. You’ll see. That’s why I visit. That’s why I go back. Amsterdam is an answer I like.
I wasn’t sure what he meant. He was off to Amsterdam for spring break when he first told me how he felt about the city. I was a junior. We were always so focused on me – my needs of the day, my problems, my challenges, my dreams and ambitions. Me. Me. Me. The price – or is it cost? – for being young, ambitious and quite privileged, even if I’m not from this country, your America.
I was initially unsure of myself when he told me something personal. It was kind of a shock and I’d nod and grin. That’s all. Not knowing what else to say. I couldn’t continue and keep the conversation going – he knew more, on just about everything. That’s how I saw us. Right or wrong. That’s how it was. But that’s not how I sense us now – then it was intimidating, yes, somewhat, and I was hesitant. On the contrary, though, he gave me no reason to be intimated. Honestly. He gave me lots of space to ruminate, to try things out, to speak my mind. He never judged – and only sometimes laughed – but lovingly that is. He laughed not in judgment, rather something like adorable. His laugh said, Oh you’re so adorable. It’s as intimate as he could be. And he was always encouraging. Always. He encouraged me to take chances with my ideas – with myself. I felt him to be a kind of safety net. He would catch me. I was certain of that. It was never said but I always knew his hands were cupped beneath me, holding me up, watching, alert.
I was always looking up at him. Can you see us? Me, I mean? This is how it looked – how I looked, he and I: I’m slouched in his black rocker, incessantly chewing gum, my legs crossed beneath me, doodling in my notebook opened before both of us on his wide mahogany desk. On the other side, there he’d sit over me, a balding figure, solid, wide-shoulders, fidgeting in his chair, sometimes sitting on one of his big legs that suggested he may have an athlete at some point; he’d lean forward, too, and unconsciously, I imagined, fix his glasses and rub his wide forehead and thick nose, looking out the window – not at me. Tuck his shirt into his rounding belt, into his jeans.
I’d ask: So you don’t like this word, is that what you’re telling me? And I’d point to it, underline it or circle it and turn the notebook or the paper – whatever I was working with at the time – around to him. He’d peer over his glasses, maybe draw it closer to him, slightly – touch the paper I touched (sometimes, rarely, we brushed up against each other) – purse his lips, consider and, more often than not, say, Find something better.
You want me to change it then? I’d ask insecurely, grabbing a different colored pen to make the change (I obsessively applied different colors to different editorial remarks).
Dazzle me. Decide. You’re much cooler – much cooler then that word, he’d say. Don’t settle. You know what to do. You don’t need me. You don’t need me at all. You know best. But never, ever settle. Not if you want to work with me. Not if you want to be a writer.
At first I thought he was aloof, that he wanted to be somewhere else and I was a bother, a spoiled brat that needed to be told what to do – then I learned it was intimacy. His way. The only way for him. He drew me in with compliments that compelled me to reach for whatever it was he saw in me.
It was the well placed sentiment about this and that that began to take hold. You’re much cooler. You don’t need me. You’re much cooler than that.
I thought I was a nerd; he thought I was cool.
You’re beautiful. Really. In all manner of ways.
I would never use beautiful to describe my average self; he thought I was – and it got me thinking, wondering. I lingered a bit longer in front of the mirror and studied myself: straight nose, angular, thick eyebrows, square jaw, full lips and high check bones, black eyes, long hair past my shoulders, thick and black, too, and sort of kinky sometimes (depending on the weather), as is the hair of girls from my part of the world. Tan skin, a dark olive, something not appreciated at one time by Indians, in my country, obsessed with lighter skin tones. But beautiful? I don’t know. Maybe. In college I was exotic – we all were from my neck of the woods – American boys always wanting to get close, touch, see if the mysteries that live in time are true, the Kama Sutra and tales of love; then along the way, gradually, slowly, we became desirable and fashionable – the Archie Punjabi’s of our time – something beyond the ways of kissing, embracing and biting, something closer to who we’ve always been, us from this world so foreign to westerners – a people deeply concerned with virtuous and gracious living and the nature of love, family and the pleasure of human life. In all this he gave me confidence. AndI relaxed. I relaxed into him, like settling into an old, comfortable couch. (Maybe I was settling into my history – I don’t know, the sutra, maybe, and I was returning to this long thread.) I let him see more of me. But it all happened unconsciously. I just went with it, this feeling, a need I felt that called to him.
Was he calling me too? Was he seeking me out? Want me as I wanted him, I wonder now? Or was it that he wanted something else and I didn’t understand? He kept a wide berth between us. But something else happened emotionally.
It’s strange how trust and intimacy seem to reside together, co-mingle. And how strange it is that trust and intimacy begin to take shape – even begin to take hold – before they’re even noticed and then one day you wake up and you’re in this sort of warm, enveloping place, an embrace, something that takes you in. It’s okay, it says. It’s okay. You’ll be alright. So you stay awhile in this new place. You stay and in staying you begin to look for that embrace, anticipate it, even long for the embrace, that secure feeling, that sense that there is a world, indeed strange and foreboding, but in that trusting, intimate embrace there is no other world but you – and yours. Strange how that happens.
No one had ever spoken to me like he did. Not a man, anyway, that didn’t seem to want anything from me – like an erotic T position or something. A man – it’s an easy thing to say, very difficult to understand. A man. I guess when I was in college – when we’re all that age we’re trying to find the measure of a person, making all sorts of foolish mistakes, not really knowing how to be a girlfriend, something like that, and girls like me, we were like always trying to find the measure of a man. Find out what that is. What is a man, anyway? We were raised that way – although in my case “the arranged marriage” was still something of a cloud that hung over some of us, not so much me, because my Punjabi parents are most liberal, which has always been good. Liberal and wealthy, I admit. A winning combination. But whether culturally – or still, because of my culture, man, the man you would eventually have to end up with carries some weight, even some anxiety. So when he said to me, You’re beautiful. Really. In all manner of ways. When that comes at you, it’s easy to be seduced if you’re young and naïve (I can’t say innocent). That’s why I went to him, why I went to Amsterdam. To see. To see if I was a victim of a profound and sophisticated seduction. To see if I was simply some thing he needed at the time – or did he feel differently? But I can’t lie. I also wondered about what it was that I felt from him after all these years? Time seemed not to have worn the feeling away – whatever it was; it seemed to have made my connection to him – our connection – more profound.
Was he someone I used – or was it something else?
Or did I seduce him? Ah…Ah… Yes. Was that possible – and I not know it? Maybe I did know it and I really liked what I was doing.
When I was in school, I began to anticipate and look forward to his well placed personal reflection. You can do what you want. You have it all. Maybe that’s what made things easy between us. I believed him. Maybe that’s trust. Or maybe I was lying to myself and it’s simply the development of an obsession since I remember waking up in the morning and thinking about what he’d said, thinking about him. Maybe he was lying. I went to Amsterdam to find out.
That’s why I need to go slow with you, and push in carefully so that you can take everything in as I did – and see what you see. You decide. You decide, my friend, what you see. Accept what you want. But, I’ll be honest: it’s complicated. People are complicated. We’re all complicated, I guess, liable to do anything.
Let’s start here: I’d never been to Amsterdam. The city escaped me, though I’ve been everywhere else – Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Berlin, Prague. Johannesburg. Delhi (I was born in Delhi). Costa Rica a few times. I don’t know why I never went to Amsterdam, not after it meant so much to him. You’d think I would have wanted to try and at least experience something as he did. You would think. Right? But I avoided it instead. How strange. Freud would say that I was repressing something. Something a long time coming.
PUSH IN: Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Luchthaven Schiphol, literally Ship Grave: before 1852, the Haarlemmermeer polder – land reclaimed from water, Harlem’s lake – was a large lake that claimed many ships.
Only the Dutch could have sculpted humanity out of an inhospitable landscape. It all started with a simple bridge over the Amstel somewhere in 1275. And here I landed almost seven hundred and fifty years later, alone and apprehensive, nervous, looking bug-eyed at dancing hologram ads and store windows flashing personalized views of me as I walked through the terminal – Urvashi, Bathing Suits! Urvashi, Running Shoes! Distinguished First Editions Delivered to YOU Anywhere, Urvashi!
I turned off my bar code and the ads dissolved, cascading away into thin air, leaving not a trace.
My suitcase quietly floated to me. I only brought one, and a backpack. I felt like a kid, again, a kid in college. I set them down in the crowd. And as I did, as I was letting the bags down so that I could get my bearings, a sinister smile came over me, instantly. He was there. I knew it. He was there observing me. I could feel him. My insidious smile was to let him know, let him into the moment that I realized he was there, with me, again. I wanted him to know. I was playing along. I was here to play. That’s what my half-sinister smile said. A chill ran up my spine.
He stood like a sailor on a ship in rough seas, legs apart, leaning over his arms folded over his wide chest. He’s a big man. A tender grin, like he’d finally found something he lost. Hair nearly all white, longer then I remembered, thinner. A day old light beard – nearly all white too. Blue jeans, a black t-shirt and flip flops, there he was eight years from the memories.
I couldn’t move. My insidious smile fell from my face. I felt something very large and familiar, something that hadn’t gone away but had instead laid dormant, resting in the pit of my stomach, waiting for the right moment to rise.
He didn’t take his hazel eyes off of me. I couldn’t look away either. He approached me and I could sense a freshness I thought came from somewhere heavenly and wild. He had tears in his eyes.
— Again, he said. You’re blushing, he said.
— Again, I said, and smiled. Yes. Again, I said and leaned up to him and kissed him on the cheek, ever so respectfully. I’m just nervous, I said. I’m happy to finally see you.
I raised my shoulders as if to say I don’t know and slid my hands into my jeans’ pockets and bit my lower lip. I think my manner hurt him. He took a step back from my feeble attempt to hide my emotions by appearing somewhat indifferent, casual.
— How’s it going to be? he asked.
— What do you mean?
— This. How’s it going to be? This. Yes.
I don’t know why I became the obstinate school girl at that precise moment – maybe it was because I was scared of what this meant? And maybe it was because I sensed he didn’t know either? And perhaps it’s all I knew to be with him.
— I … I don’t … I’m not sure what you mean.
— Look at me, Urvashi. Let me see you.
I looked up at him.
He reached for my chin and held it.
— You’ve cut your hair, he said. I like it a lot. You look great. You’re even more beautiful. He ran his fingers through my hair and around my face, softly, and said, It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. I understand he said, and he put his arms around me and drew me in and I buried my head in his chest and wept. He stroked my head and kissed my forehead, like he used to do.
— It’s going to be okay, he said. It’s going to be okay. We’re good. All good, remember? All good now. You’re here with me. You’ll see. Everything is good now. We’ll figure it out. We will. Together.
I kept my head in his chest and released myself and I could feel him squeeze harder at every turn, as if he was taking me in by degrees.
— It’s good to see you, he said. Really good. I’ve missed you.
If I push out now – gradually – you’d see the indifferent crowd at Schiphol build to a mass moving around us, passing by as if we weren’t there. We looked like a small island in a foreboding sea. But I couldn’t have been more alive in that moment when he held me as if he couldn’t let me go.
And if I push out even further – and higher – up to Schiphol’s glass roof, and through it into the indifferent sky, blue and wide, we would be lost in a world of movement. We would be nothing. Almost.