[Part 4 of a fictional blog serial, told in 7 installments. Only some of it really happened, but all of it is true.]
I would never have imagined I'd be so happy to see pornographic spam, the usual beseechings from Move On and the other familiar in-box flotsam and jetsum, as I troll my e-mail in a Kinko's round the corner from the hotel the next morning. I'm heartened by the reminder that I do have a life of some sort in another time zone and more importantly, I retrieve it all -- all the vital information I lost last night. But when I call Michelle (who, sharp cookie, has already called the hotel), for once her tone is less than jolly and amenable.
"I'm feeling a little under the weather," she tells me, citing congestion and fatigue. Remembering my own sneezes and coughs at dinner last night, as I fended off what could have been mild post-translantic flight flu, I seize up with guilt.
And sure enough, I hear her say the very thing I'm dreading. "God, not only are you kind of wasting my time, you've literally made me sick."
But this is not what happens. No, she just politely requests a day of down time on her own and I'm eager to give it to her, back-pedaling as My Romance rolls eyes, mortified. We make plans to meet tomorrow at the Rijksmuseum -- if she's recovered. "Louie," My Romance says ruefully when I hang up, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful kiss-off."
Tina's phonecall is the life preserver that pulls us out of a sink. She and Roy are taking 5 year-old Babette to a goat farm, along with an American ex-pat musician friend and his pregnant Dutch wife. Do I want to come with? God, do I ever. Never has the promise of goats sounded so inviting.
And God, it's too good -- the fun ride south (Americans! People Who Know Me!) to Amsterdam Bos, a sprawling forest park -- the sight of pig-tailed stringbean blonde Babette in her pink frock, giggling as she's pinned between two hungry goats lipping at the baby milk bottles she holds in each hand (a gargantuan sow sniffing at her heels) -- and the familiar enjoyment of trading musician's war stories with Stan the drummer. Talking about Nelson Riddle as his wife Marie pats her beautifully distended belly and we all eat meatballs and creamcheese-stuffed dates, surrounded by persistant bees, I'm feeling myself again. Even My Romance is mellow.
I give the gang the headlines of my visit on the drive north, and Tina's sympathetic when I confess I'm considering flying back a day early. Sometimes, we agree, the excitement of the anticipation simply can't be matched by the realities of how you're feeling, once you get there. Roy's pulled over to show us something. I walk-climb up a slope of tall grass and emerge atop a long narrow hill of coastline. And here is Holland.
We're standing on top of a dike. Low, flat farmland dotted with cows on one side, the calm open sea on the other. A distant windmill to the left, sailboats bobbing on the right in a soft grey late afternoon light, and if you blink the cars away from in front of you, you're seeing what Vermeer saw. I'm quietly moved -- My Romance is thrilled, though upset that I forgot my camera -- as Stan sidles up beside me. "Pardon me if I'm being too personal," he says, "but you've flown like 7,000 miles to be here. What could possibly be the point of leaving early?" "You wanted an adventure," Marie chimes in.
They're right, of course they're right, and something finally settles in at the center of me, a truce tacitly struck between me and My Romance: it doesn't have to be about Her. After all -- I have arrived. I am here. I am now...
The chant works. That night at dinner I'm wholly happy to be here for the first time. Eating my first Dutch pancake, a plate-sized concoction of apple, bacon and cheese, slathered in syrup that's essentially a dessert pizza, I'm finally On Vacation. Plans are made to visit the Kruller-Muller museum with Roy on my last day, filling up my dance-card for the finale of this stay. Bless you, Tina, Roy, Stan, Marie and Babette, bless you goats and fat pigs.
The shift is palpable as I wait for Michelle outside the Rijksmuseum the following afternoon. Instead of being angst-ed I'm amused when we miss each other, both wandering around the sides of the sprawling building and not meeting for half an hour, as if in a parody of a Max Sennett two-reeler. Because of course it would be this way, it's our non-relationship in microcosm: here at the same time but not together.
She didn't catch a cold. She's as friendly and protected as ever. Though maybe it's a companionable rhythm we've fallen into, and/or the comfort of my finally letting go of That Fantasy, but it really is fun to do the vast museum (Night Watch, Woman w/ Pitcher, doll houses) in under twenty minutes. Now Michelle wants to take me to a coffee shop.
Do I even need to explain? Being an inveterate pot smoker, the "buy weed at the coffee shop and puff on a joint in public" ritual has been on my short list ever since this trip was conceived, and she seems particularly pleased to provide the insider's sweet spot. The Grasshopper is a pothead's paradise. I tell the guy at the back counter what I'm interested in and he tells me to press a button on the wall. It illuminates a framed menu that prices a dozen grades of marijuana and hash, from lightest to strongest in intensity.
He helps me pick "White Widow" (not heavy but not too light, and an appropriate choice, given Michelle's back story). It's amazingly cheap by stateside standards. There's free rolling papers by the cash register, where, while ordering two cappucinos, I spy one chocolate donut on a plate. That's mine, and nirvana beckons. I am one psyched stoner.
We settle in at a booth overlooking the street, Michelle stretched out on one side, me hunched and rolling on the other. And it occurs to me that I now have the perfect alibi for having what could be a sticky conversation, the one I'm suddenly determined to have, because what have I got to lose, at this point? -- if it really goes South, I can always blame it on the dope.
With my freshly rolled doobie in hand, I suggest we try being totally honest with each other. I'm going to tell her the truth about what's been going on with me since I got here, and I hope she'll agree to do the same from her side. Michelle gives out an anxious laugh, but says she's game. I can hear My Romance's heart booming in counterpoint to the reggae beat burbling from the coffee shop speakers, it's holding its breath, poor thing, because this will more or less be the end of it: once I let the air out of our Amsterdam Romance Fantasy, My Romance might as well go read Moby Dick or go fish.
"I'd thought, from the e-mails, that there just might be... y'know, a little something going on with us," I tell Michelle, light up the joint, and suck in my first hit of legalized bliss. This is my Cocktail For Courage. "But when I got here, it just seemed to me... it felt like... I dunno, you just didn't seem to be interested. Which is okay," I hasten to assure her, puffing madly away. "But I'm just curious. You did know what I look like. So was it something I said, or...?"
And I see Michelle smile, and sort of shrug, unable to meet my eyes as she admits, quietly, that although she'd also had some expectations, when we got together, "It was just a feeling, I guess, or I guess a lack of it..." Another helpless shrug. "It just wasn't there for me."
This is not what happens.
[to be continued]