Issue #8 |

Night Watch

Jules stepped through the wall, into the old, flat world of the painting. “Madam?” The guard poked her head from the real world into this one. “Would you like me to take your picture?”

One end of the gallery was a gilt-framed proscenium. Behind it was a replica of an old Dutch kitchen with a raked stage floor painted in one-point perspective of shiny black and white checks. The side wall had a large window painted on it, letting in a glow of yellow Vermeer light over a Delft-blue bowl and pitcher. A pot of stew hung over the glowing embers of a hearth. A spotted mutt lolled in the foreground, in the corner by the frame, eyeing a big wheel of cheese. A table was draped with an oriental carpet, and on it melted a candle, and over it a hung a hock of pig. Jules walked up the slanted floor to the rear wall and looked back out through the frame into the gallery. The backsides of the kitchen’s furnishings were painted gloss black, exposing the joke: these were just flat silhouettes, just illusion, propped up with pieces of wood. The dog was a paper doll.

“Madam?”

The live-inside-the-painting game was for the children, but Jules was feeling greedy. There were no kids in the Frans Hals Museum today. Families were still recovering from the Sinterklaas holiday. There was weather outside. Good time for an old lady to act immature.

The guard was young, with a bit of mischief in her eye, probably bored from looking at the same Jan Steen every day. Jules dug her cellphone out of her backpack and showed the woman the camera button. As if she needed to. The woman’s grasp of cellphones was as fine as her grasp of English.

“Would you like to hold something?” the woman said, pointing to the wall behind her: rows of hooks hung with flat props: a cauldron, a wineskin, a chicken.

“Maybe the ruffled collar?”

“Oh yes. And?” said the young woman, in the spirit of comedy improv. “Would you like this martini glass?”

Jules didn’t want to be silly. She wanted to be part of the illusion. “The merchant’s hat, perhaps?”

And the beard?”

“Sure, why not?” Jules put on the big felt stovepipe hat, with its wide brim and golden buckle, hid her backpack behind the fake dog, and awkwardly held the beard and collar in front of her face and neck.

“Ready?” The guard asked. “Do you want to smile?”

“I’ll play this one serious.” Jules stood while the woman shot the picture.

 

Smiling wasn’t something people did in these portraits, not really. Jules’s students remarked on this often, once she had pointed it out to them, like all those things that, once noticed, can’t be un-noticed.

“Everyone always looks so angry,” Yasmin, one of her favorite students, said in her office hours once, poring over Jules’s book of Dutch masters. She was working on a paper about representation of the enslaved in European painting. She already had an A. She did not need to spend time in Jules’s office, but maybe Jules needed it, like having a colleague in for tea.

“Is it angry, or stern?” Jules had asked, looking over Yasmin’s shoulder at a large group portrait of white men in black clothes, all staring imperiously out at the viewer.

“Stern’s just one kind of angry,” said Yasmin, flipping the page. “Like this. Look at this servant. That’s another kind of angry. The kind of angry that makes you lose your job if you show it. The fear kind of angry.”

Occasionally, she surprised Jules by playing with her phone or saying yaaaaaas, like people her age, seamlessly codeswitching between school and street, licking her lips and smiling into the lens of her phone, sending a picture to her Instagram friends, two fingers framing one eye.

“See?” said Jules, pointing to the book. “You notice stuff. You name stuff. Fuck the painting department.” Yasmin was a painting major, but Jules was working on her. Her paintings were conceptual and calculated, not felt, nowhere near as artful as her research papers.

“I wish I could afford to go see these for real,” Yasmin mumbled, flipping the book closed, then scanning the shelf for another.

“Yeah, me too,” Jules said, and Yasmin looked at her with a blinking, quizzical expression, like, but aren’t you the teacher? Maybe Jules shouldn’t steer her into her department with all of its exciting career prospects: negotiating last minute grade changes with lazy students, commuting between multiple adjunct gigs just to make rent, biting one’s tongue in meetings, kissing up to pompous department chairs. Small paychecks, unattainable tenure.

The fear kind of anger.

But now that Jules was here in in the Low Countries, well into her fifties, looking at the Dutch paintings herself for the first time, she thought of Yasmin’s assessment of that European scowl. Anger was not the word she would use now. Fear wasn’t either.

Low was more like it. Low was the word. On the train back from Haarlem, she leaned on the window and watched antique windmills pass in the sleety gloom. The Low Countries—Jules had thought they got the name because of their dikes and canals, the constant threat of flood. Now she figured it must have been their mood. She hadn’t anticipated the dark blue feeling from being in a gallery full of them, in the cold place of their origin, every wall adorned with images of rich people in rich clothes. They were powerful, but that wasn’t all they were. A calm resignation lay behind the expression of so many in the old portraits, even the parties known to be energetic and capable and greedy. They all seemed to be sunken, somewhere behind the eyes, contemplating their own death.

Jules found herself at the coffee shop next to her Amsterdam guesthouse, as she did most nights since her arrival. The smell of burning spliffs was seductive. She hadn’t smoked cigarettes since graduate school, and pot never gave her a good feeling. But she liked the effect it had on other people. The easy laughter, the dissolution of worry, the dreamboat eyes. Low would not describe these people now. They were quite the opposite.
A group of young Brits came in and found a table, then one of them went to the counter to order. “Redheaded Stranger again?” asked the woman behind the bar. The young man took off his watch cap and shook out his long, hand-knit scarf, dropping melted snowflakes onto the smoke-stained linoleum, while he waited for the proprietor to ring him up. He had the freckles and red cowlick to match his brand of smoke. Perhaps he had picked it for the name, like looking into a mirror over a bar so you don’t have to drink alone. Jules hadn’t seen him in here before. She would have remembered.
He went back to his table and Jules watched him closely as he packed his pipe. He looked up in her direction, and there was the beginning of a smile, and something quickened in her chest, that charge that always happened when eyes connected with a stranger who was beautiful and male. He was not quite as young as she made him out to be at first. He wasn’t a boy. He was done with college. It was just his genes making him look young, like Van Gogh, that other redheaded stranger, painter of self-portraits, looker into bar mirrors. But then her young man waved, and he was not looking at Jules at all. There was someone behind her, entering the shop in a gust of snow and chill. She was not even there. She was invisible.
It wasn’t the first time, but it was still startling.
Once, a gaze across the room with a redheaded stranger would have led to conversation, a clinking of glasses, maybe a stroll out there in the snow, someone tying someone else’s scarf tighter, a spontaneous kiss in the shelter of a doorway. But not today. Perhaps not anymore, ever.
Jules watched him greet the young woman who had just entered. She was dark-skinned and wore very little makeup, had long, natural hair like Yasmin, exploding from the bottom of her red Sinterklaas hat. The young woman smiled back at him, teeth bright, not yet ruined by the stains of smoke and drink and age.
Invisibility has its advantages, Jules supposed, if you let yourself sink into it. You can sit and watch the courtship of others, thrill to it vicariously, and no one will even know you are there. She watched him light his pipe for the young woman, locking eyes with her while she inhaled, until the rest of their table disappeared. She laughed at something he said, coughing out the smoke, covering her beautiful smile with her young, jeweled hand. He didn’t laugh, just looked at her with a playful deadpan, then reached over and brushed a nonexistent snowflake from her shoulder, before offering her a sip of water.
“She’s a lucky girl, isn’t she?” The voice was from a woman sitting across from Jules at her table. She hadn’t even noticed her come into the place. “Sorry, you mind?” The woman pointed down at her pile of papers and baggie of buds, then without waiting for an answer, began ripping open a Marlboro to mix a cocktail cigarette for herself, the leaves of death blended with the flowers of not giving a fuck. “He is such a beauty,” she said, looking up from her drug project, jerking her head to point to the couple at the other table. “No wonder you cannot take your eyes from him.”
Jules felt her face flush. Maybe she was not so invisible after all.
“I’m sorry, I just assumed English,” the woman said, in the accent of someone who speaks many languages. “Here am I, just blah, blah, blah.”
“You’re French?” said Jules, finding her voice.
“Belgian, originally. We speak French at home.” She had long, gray braids on each side of her head, and her hands were tanned and gnarled with arthritis. “I can’t do this outside in this weather,” she said, finishing off her big ice cream cone of a cigarette with a twist of paper, wet with her saliva. “And I can’t get through the walk home without it.”
“Understood.”
She looked down at Jules’s sole mug of tea. “You don’t smoke?”
“Nah. I just like being near it.”
“And near them,” she said with a knowing smile. She looked up from her work, gazed longingly at the young couple, naked appreciation in her tired eyes. Perhaps she relished her invisibility too. Perhaps they, the invisible ones, could only be seen by each other. The young man now had the young woman’s hand in his, and was tracing lines up and down her palm, while she nodded, playing along. “I miss that,” Jules’s tablemate said.
“Yeah,” said Jules.
“You’re American?” she said, twisting off a second spliff, then sparking her lighter. “You don’t come to our city for the smoke, I take it. Is it the prostitutes?”
Jules laughed. “No. The masters. The portraits. I’m maybe researching a book about portraiture.”
“Ah. So this is your second home, Holland, with our Vincents and our Rembrandts.”
“Actually, my first time here. I’ve been teaching The Night Watch for twenty years, finally came in person. Seeing it tomorrow.”
The woman shrugged, like the city’s most famous painting belonged on a boring tourist checklist. “Is it vertigo? Fear of flying keeps you from your portraits?”
“Fear of something,” said Jules. She leaned back in her chair, let her gaze fall on the young couple again. Their friends had gathered around a pinball machine in the corner, leaving them alone. Jules wondered if they had slept together already, or if tonight would be the first night of many, or if tonight would be the first and the last, her checking her phone over and over afterward for a tenderness that never comes.
Sometimes Jules saw young women on the street, or walking across campus, so smug and beautiful and head-turning, and thought: Just you wait. You don’t know how shitty it’s going to get.
She shook the thought from her head, as the young man leaned in and kissed the young woman. Who am I to wish disappointment on a young person, just for the crime of her beauty? A beauty she seems not to know she has, might only discover after it has left her, stumbling across an old family portrait or a forgotten Polaroid in a drawer? Jules felt herself blush, watching their kiss, but couldn’t look away.
“They don’t even know we are here,” her companion said.
“No,” Jules said. “They don’t even know.”
Back in her guesthouse, Jules lay awake in her bed, thinking of her exchange with the spliff woman, wondering why she kept being pulled to the cannabis shop each night of her Dutch art pilgrimage. She pictured her high school art teacher, Mr. Smota, and his dusty classroom, not unlike the Rembrandt studio itself, filled with subject matter hanging from the walls, waiting to be arranged and studied: dried animal bones, palm fronds, chipped ceramics. Could it be the smell of marijuana, Mr. Smota’s perfume, the odor they all used to laugh at the minute he turned his back, his nickname—Old Smokey?
He had offered Jules pot once, Old Smokey, so it wasn’t just a nickname. She had stayed late, in the manner of Yasmin, looking through his book of European masters. He favored the Italians. All the dramatic lighting, the religiosity, the shadows, they gave him a spiritual high; looking at this art made him feel closer to God, he had said, the light from a candle filling the face of a saint. Jules was sure pot did that for him too.
He offered. Jules accepted. He lit up a one-hit pipe right there in his office, in the back of the art room, surrounded by plaster dust and newsprint pads filled with dry, unreligious student still lives.
“Have you ever been an artist’s model?” he asked her, inhaling his words to keep the smoke in. “I think you would be good at it.”
In retrospect, he had no reason to believe Jules would be good at it, other than her agreeability and willingness to sit still for long periods of time, silent and studious, ever the good girl. Do good girls smoke pot offered by Old Smokeys in the back of high school art rooms? So maybe Jules wasn’t good. Maybe Jules liked being not-good for these ten minutes, in a room where she never should have been, coughing some kind of redheaded stranger from her lungs. Would she sit for him? he asked. Would she let him draw her?
She had wanted to, she realized now, in the twin bed of an Amsterdam guesthouse. She wanted to be seen, drawn, realized forever in the flatness of a piece of his newsprint, or more. Jules wasn’t in love with Old Smokey. He was hairy and chubby and unkempt, by their teenaged standards of New Wave male beauty. She just liked him in the way a person likes someone you might want to become someday. Perhaps letting him capture her likeness—and whatever weird duties came with that—was a risk that was the price of admission, the key to becoming an artist herself.
But her good girl gut told her to get out of there. She felt faint, suddenly, from the smoke or perhaps from the suggestion that more might happen. She left the art room and did not return, except to sit silent in class.
Old Smokey lasted twelve more years there, before he drew a portrait of the wrong girl and got caught, evidence right there on the flimsy paper.
Jules saw the drawing once, on a friend’s phone, an illicit copy being spread around years later, scandalously—can you believe Old Smokey? The nerve of him! Who on earth would have posed for him? He was a good draftsman. It was brown, this work. His drawings tended to be brown. Conté smeared all over, a background of mud for his beautiful girl. She was not nude, but there was a nakedness to her pose. He had captured the curve of her young waist, the nascent sexuality of her shoulders, turned back just so. But that was not what made it good. It was her eyes. They looked at Jules through the paper, saying that she knew her. Which means that she knew him. The guy doing the drawing. He was the one she knew.
Jules wondered why she found herself seeking out the smell of him, choosing to drink her Dutch tea in a pot dispensary instead of a brown cafe. She could have been the girl in the drawing. Beautiful, surrounded by conté mud. Jules could have been her.
Tonight, in the dark, in a rented sleeping cubicle, most of her wished she had stayed, posed, let herself be that girl. Maybe then she would be an artist, instead of just an adjunct historian, always on the outside of the window, always looking in.
Sometimes, like tonight, when she lay in bed, she felt a tightening in her chest, one that ran all the way down her left arm. She worried it was her heart, whispering to her: here we go, girl. Bet you wish you lived differently. But then she followed her attention down to the tips of her fingers and noticed her fists were clenched. Clenched enough to put fingernail marks in her palms.
Jules supposed she did leave some of that good girl in that back room with Old Smokey and his pot pipe. Her first year of college, free from parents, free from her nosy older brothers’ protection, she took up cigarettes. She drank every night, and often during the day too. She slept with ten guys that year; she and her roommate sat down and tallied them up one night. One was even a professor. It didn’t make her any smarter. Angrier, maybe. But not smarter.
The woman renting the room next to her stumbled with her key in the hallway, then dropped it, then swore in English, then made a horrible rattle before finally gaining entry to her room. Jules heard her flop onto the bed, just on the other side of the thin wall, then open up into a drunken snore.
Under the covers, Jules forced herself to relax her hands and open up her fingers. She pressed her palms together in a stretch. She inhaled. She exhaled. She pulled up the covers around her chin and let the steady rumble of her neighbor’s breath lull her to sleep.
Her first year teaching, before laptops and digital images, she used slides in carousels. She was always afraid of dropping them in upside down, and made a habit of going early to the lecture room to run the slides and make sure they were in the right sequence, right-side up. She could have used the projector in her office, but she shared the space was shared two colleagues. Besides, sometimes you just want to sit in a theater chair and look at pictures in the dark.
She couldn’t help lingering on some of them. It was a survey course, the history of art since the dawn of humanity, but Jules took her time with Dutch portraiture. One morning, waiting for her 8 a.m. students to show up, she spent a good long time on The Night Watch, thinking about everything she would talk about: the darkness being the dirt on the painting’s surface, not a nighttime scene, the silly wielding of weapons in key angles—was Rembrandt making fun of this gentleman’s militia?—all pointing to the VIP in the center, who certainly had commissioned the portrait. Was portraiture a way for artists to express resistance towards against the very powerful people who were paying for the pictures? she would ask the students. Who was in the light, and to what end? she would ask them. The spotlights were on the VIP and his sidekick, whose names were known, and on the “mascot” young girl, whose name was not. She was the only female in the painting. This was unusual, not because she was outnumbered, but because she was there at all. Group portraits of men’s clubs usually included only men, each chipping in his share of the commission. Women in paintings of this era were usually wives or whores, maids or madonnas. Jules would spend class time talking about the girl, her chickens, the yellow light on her face and body, the way you can’t help looking at her. She would try to pull thoughts from the students and hope for some decent papers on the mascot girl.
She didn’t realize that classes had been canceled due to snow. The students never came. Eventually she figured it out but decided to stay. She sat in the dark and spent a whole hour just looking at The Night Watch. She clicked back and forth through several detail shots of the best parts, forgetting her teacherly remarks, remarking to herself why she loved it so much. The shadow of one man’s hand on the other man’s crotch. The foreshortened spear standing in as one man’s phallus, with its shadow below, reaching through the picture plane and out into the real world. The girl, in the center of the fray, clutching her chickens. The look on her face! Eyes wide, with something like fear, amid the festive, joyful air of the militia men. The big painting held something true, even if the gun-wielding and heroism was pure fakery. Forget the scholarly commentary. This painting made her feel something.
But what, exactly? Today Jules had allocated a full Amsterdam hour to look at the work in person, thinking she would come up with a name for what she felt that snowy day years ago, spinning her slide carousel in the dark. But the Rijksmuseum gallery was packed with patrons, unlike that day in the lecture hall. Despite the ban on photos, cell phones were out, and selfies were the order of the day. People posed in front of the masterwork, imitating the VIP and his sidekick before the guard pushed them along. Jules jockeyed to the front, and stood against the poking and jostling for as long as she could bear it. A sheen on the painting’s surface made it hard to see the detail up close, but when she backed up, a mass of bodies filled in, blocking her view. She waited for the crowd to thin, but it didn’t. When a tour group breezed in, all in matching red windbreakers, its leader dominating the room in loud English, Jules tapped the shoulder of the tall person who had just stepped right in front of her. “Excuse me?”
The whole party turned to look at Jules. She bowed and blushed.
She was so embarrassed she ducked out of the gallery.
She felt stupid. How did she manage to make herself the rude one? She should have seen this gang coming. How many years had she been going to museums?
She retreated into another room of Rembrandts, and found herself face to face with the artist, very young, in one of his self-portraits in a small canvas. His eyes were in shadow, both of them, hiding where he was looking. His red hair was scratched in curlicues with the tail end of the paintbrush—the technical bit that authenticated the unsigned piece. The young man seemed sad and unaware of his beauty. Which was impossible, since he was the one who made the picture; he was the one depicting the clear skin, the innocent expression.
Across the room was another self-portrait, this one from much later. The wrinkles in his forehead were deep, and his hair had gone half gray, fluffing out of the bottom of his turban. He looked directly out at Jules, as if he could see her looking back. She looked for his vanity in the picture and could not find it. I am what I am, the picture seemed to say. I am an old person, and I won’t apologize for it.
No one jostled her. They were all over there with The Night Watch, taking their selfies in front of the big one. She inhaled. She exhaled. She relaxed her hands. She stood before this old man, let her eyes linger on the loose brushmarks, the frank expression at the corner of the eyes, the signature. It was all she could do not to touch it.
Jules spent the day at the museum, trying three more times to look at the big one, hoping the crowd would have dissipated. Each time there was a tour group, gathered in a semicircle before the painting, listening to a guide in their own language, or perhaps not listening, perhaps tired, and hungry too.
She gave up. This was not going to happen. She had come all the way to the Low Countries to see this thing, really see this thing, and it was not going to happen. The thought made her floaty and numb. She could not quite feel her feet on the floor.
She let the flow of groups pull her downstream to the gift shop. It was arranged like any museum gift shop in any museum in any city in any country: books in back, scarves and tee shirts in the middle, postcards and tchotchkes and jewelry in the front. She resisted the pull of the books—they wanted to suck her into the bowels of the store, those heavy treasures she could not afford. She stayed in the decoration section and couldn’t help noticing the care with which each customer picked up an object, turned it over, paying attention to color, weight, texture, price, an attention the artworks themselves didn’t quite get, with their docents yakking in front of them and guards holding back crowds. Here, you could hold a pretty thing in your hands. You could have a relationship with it. For a manageable price, you could carry it with you, set it on your desk at home, touch it to transport you to another time and place.
A pack of prep school boys was gathered around a display of coasters, napkin rings, and salt shakers depicting the characters of The Night Watch. They wore matching blue hoodies with an imperial crest over the heart, identifying them as being from New Jersey. As if Jules would ever have gone to a museum in middle school. As if Jules had ever heard of The Night Watch. They were not cheap, those salt shakers. She had picked them up earlier, thinking they might suit her diminutive kitchen, but after putting on her spectacles to read the sticker, she nearly threw them back onto the shelf. One of the boys pulled a credit card from his pocket—a practiced maneuver, as if he paid for things all the time. As if Jules would ever have had a credit card in middle school. As if Jules would ever have gone on a field trip to Europe. The boy looked up, locked eyes with her, then gave her a sneer, like, lady, get a life. She was staring. She had been staring. In two years, that kid would have his own car. Maybe Jules was sneering back.
She stepped away. She found some Rembrandt postcards for her desk. For Yasmin, she selected a small reproduction of a Jan Mitjens portrait, in which a young, black boy wraps pearls around the wrist of a fancy lady. His eyes were downcast, lips pursed in yet another kind of anger—the anger of sheer exhaustion—imagining the freedom just one of those pearls would buy him. Only the fancy lady’s name appeared in the caption on the back of the card. The boy was simply one of her possessions, one of her fancy-lady attributes.
At the checkout, Jules spied a notebook decorated with a closeup of The Night Watch—the haloed, nameless mascot girl herself, bug-eyed and yellow, chicken feet in her clenched fist. She looked out at Jules from the rack, next to the other notebooks sporting stovepipe-hatted merchants and odalisques and busy domestics in their kitchen window light. Jules picked up the notebook and fanned the cream-colored, thick pages. They were unlined, blank, and hungry for something. Next to the notebooks she spied a box of brown conté crayons. Feeling her shoulders relax, she thought of Old Smokey and added it to her stack of postcards.
Outside, the slushy weather had changed, and the air was fresh and damp. She didn’t need her gloves anymore. The streetlights twinkled in the dark air. She decided to walk back to the hostel.
She’d walked the same way that morning, but nightfall had transformed it. The narrow, cobblestoned street abutted a small canal, and red lights from the windows rippled in the water. Framed in the red lights, behind plate glass, were women, young ones, perched on barstools or leaning, hips jutted, against the walls, talking on cell phones, talking to each other, trying for eye contact with pedestrians. This one wore a neon green string bikini, strappy high heels, and an armful of bangle bracelets. That one had a tight-stretched black leather teddy with chrome peekaboo rings on the side, pale white flesh bulging through. The one over there had her hair pulled tight in a long ponytail, bursting from the top of her head, and her eyes were crisp-lined, lidded with sparkles and rhinestones. That one over there had long, muscular legs in red fishnet stockings, ending in red vinyl boots. There weren’t many women outside, on this cobbled sidewalk. Only Jules, in her sensible New England shoes, and them, the girls beyond the glass, teetering on impossible heels. Pictures in a gallery.
And the men, of course. The men. The viewers.
They were in packs, these men, like the tour groups huddled around The Night Watch, bootlegging their selfies, older versions of the prep school boys. They were shopping for something very different, but acted boyish nonetheless, jostling and pointing, laughing a little too loud.
Jules tried not to stare at the girls, then realized they were trying to be stared at. They didn’t care if she was a man or a woman. They were posing. Authoring their own portraits, surrounded by the trappings of their profession, their fancy lady attributes, like the subjects of the Golden Age. Only without the sunken expressions. Playful.
The air was cold, but the girls did not look cold. Over here, a pale one wiggled her rump in a gauzy, yellow, see-through skirt. With her curly, strawberry blonde locks and chubby face, her wide but tired eyes, her small, heart-shaped mouth, she reminded Jules of the mascot girl: that indeterminate expression, mouth slightly open, as if she had something to say but chose not to. She noticed Jules noticing, and turned up the heat on her shimmy in time with the thumping Euro-disco piped through a speaker to the street.
A pack of men joined her outside the window, as boisterous as the Night Watchmen themselves. They were speaking American English, and Jules wanted to blush on their behalf. The hour was early for this level of inebriation, and their flat Midwestern accents reminded her too much of her childhood home. Jules was glad these militiamen were not carrying muskets. But they were carrying phones. Of course they were. One of them stood and struck a pose in front of the mascot girl, three fingers pointing up at her window and her exaggerated lascivious face. His friend stood back with his phone and snapped a photo.
“Hey!” Jules heard her mouth saying. “Hey, no photos!” She pointed to the No Photo symbol plastered to the window and the light pole and indeed everywhere on this cobbled street. “No!” Jules noticed she was shouting.
They ignored her. Or, they didn’t see her at all. Or, she didn’t even exist. Now, two of them stood, flanking the young woman in her window, one with his tongue lolling from his mouth, the other holding up a spent can of lager in a toast. “C’mon, smile,” said the photographer to the girl beyond the glass.
Before Jules could stop herself, she snatched the device from the young man’s hands. The girl in the window snapped shut her shade, flattening the picture plane, and there they all were in the reflection, Jules and her militia of young Midwestern men under the yellow streetlight. They laughed, pointing at the closed shade. “Guess you weren’t her type,” said the photographer to his subject, shoving him in the shoulder, then reaching out to Jules for his phone.
“Dude, your mother took your phone away,” said one of the dudes.
“Sorry, ma’am,” said the photographer, still holding out his hands, bowing slightly, with the deference he could not give the woman in the window. “Don’t worry. I’ll delete it.”
Jules clutched the phone in both of her bare hands. She didn’t want to give it back. It was warm from his pocket, like a part of his body. Too close, touching this, without asking, touching this stranger’s possession. Jules stepped back away from him.
She had forgotten about the bicycle lane. She’d been doing fine until now, mindful of the brick-red strip of pavement, the signs, the Amsterdammers young and old dashing by with panniers and baskets laden with dinner and dogs and children—even in the heaviest snowfall. A bike swooshed by and stole her balance, and her hand let the smartphone skitter between some bicycle racks, bouncing over the cobblestones and right into the canal with a little splash.
“What the fuck?” The photographer’s party smile faded. “That was my fucking phone.” He ran over to the edge of the canal, looked down into the ripples with two of his friends. Another caught Jules by the arm, pushed her against the plate glass, and she jerked away, leaving her backpack in his hands. He held up the backpack and smirked. Everything was in there, everything she needed. Passport, wallet, keys, Kleenex, everything. Jules reached for it, and he held it up over his head. He was tall. She jumped for it, like when she was little, her big brothers playing keep-away. He tossed it over to his buddy, who ripped open the Velcro flap and began dumping its contents onto the dirty street. Her postcards scattered, muddied by the melted snow, and her new notebook landed in a puddle. Her water bottle rolled away, right into the canal, where two of the young men were shining the light from a cell phone into the water, as if they could illuminate the lost phone at the bottom. “Jesus, my wife is going to kill me,” said the photographer, who seemed to her not old enough for a wife. She knelt in the damp to gather her things.
“It’s gone, Mitch. Did you insure it?”
“She’s going to kill me. I’m dead. She’s going to kill me.”
“You need to leave,” a woman overhead said firmly. Husky, deep, this voice. Jules looked up: the mascot girl, wearing a big puffy silver parka, waving a golf putter over her head. No longer a mere girl, she was now a Valkyrie, armed and battle-ready. “Not you,” she said, offering Jules a hand. She accepted, stood up, looked around at the scattered mess of her backpack’s contents.
“You all,” the Valkyrie commanded. “Go now.” The woman was a good head taller than Jules in her fuck-me heels, taller than all the men too. Jules heard her backpack thud to the ground. The face of the photographer went white with panic, and, bubbling with nervous laughter, the men all gathered and ambled down the road, leaving their phone behind in the dirty drink. Jules took a quick inventory of her scattered stuff. The water bottle bobbed in the canal. The young woman dipped her golf club into the water and pulled it out by its soggy cord loop. Jules bent over and retrieved the cards, the notebook, the box of conté crayons. Everything was muddy, but it was all there. They stuffed it back into her pack. “That was pretty funny,” the woman said.
Funny?”
The mascot girl looked down at Jules and her face suddenly registered concern. Jules must have looked rattled. She was rattled. “You might want to come inside for a bit,” said the woman. “It could get ugly if you meet up with them again. Plus, they might get police. Let them find their way to the bar.” Her English was clean, clipped with the consonants of a native Dutch speaker. Police. Jules hadn’t thought of that. She had been the one committing a crime. She was the one stealing. “Just sit inside for a few minutes,” the woman said, tugging on Jules’s arm.
“Inside your window?”
She laughed. “My room. In the back. Not in the window.”
Jules did not want to walk alone, and needed to organize her bag. If the mascot girl offered her a shot of gin she would not turn that down either.
The woman led Jules through a door not far from her window, down a dark, narrow hall like the one at the hostel—numbered interior doors so close together Jules could imagine each room containing only a bed and a nightstand. From speakers overhead, the boom-boom Euro-disco urged them deeper into the building. The woman’s room was lit only in deep blue light: mysterious cot over there, barely enough room for the two of them to stand together on the tile floor. The woman flipped on the overhead light and Jules exhaled, looking around at this workplace.
The walls were papered in red and white, a fleur-de-lis pattern. There was a closet, hung with a handful of scandalous outfits—a red leather bodysuit, a white lace negligee, a Dutch-style dirndl dress with a very low neckline—and on the dresser next to the bed were supplies: a bowl of condoms, a pump dispenser of lube, a large box of tissues, a row of dildos, standing like chess pawns ready for their turn to move.
The woman smiled slightly. “You can sit here.” She pointed to the twin-sized bed, where a clean towel had been draped strategically, anticipating the next mess. Jules obeyed, sat on the vinyl end of the bed. The mattress was hard, not something you could ever sleep on.
Facing the foot of the bed, thumbtacked to the wallpaper, was a glossy poster, a reproduction of The Night Watch. “You just can’t get away from that thing,” Jules said.
The woman looked at the poster and shrugged. “The tourists seem to like it.” All around were unframed posters: a windmill, a field of tulips, a sexy blonde girl holding a Heineken. The room could be a travel agency by day, Jules decided. “Did you know that they let a man sleep with this painting last year?” the woman said. “He was the hundred thousandth visitor. They put a bed in the gallery for him. Just like this. With his feet looking at the painting, just like that.”
Jules was speechless with jealousy. That person didn’t have to dodge docents and windbreakered tour groups. That lucky person. She wondered if he even knew how lucky.
“He probably had a terrible night’s sleep,” said the woman. “Like sleeping at a hospital. Too many echoes. They probably didn’t dim the lights even. He would have slept better in here.”
“Do you have a prize for your hundred thousandth visitor?” asked Jules, before she could stop herself. She tried to imagine this young woman, that many visitors. “I’m sorry. That was rude.” This room had a whole rulebook Jules didn’t know. “I’m keeping you from your work. I’m sorry. I kept those young men from…I’m sorry.”
The woman shook her head. “They were never going to come inside. They were only going to look. That is all they do, these bachelor parties. Look and laugh. And take stupid pictures, like we can’t see them doing that. If you had not done it, I would have thrown the phone in the water. I have thrown in seven so far.”
“And now, I’m taking up your room…”
“I will go in the window. It’s early. They are all just window shopping now. If they are serious, they come back later, alone. If you need, you can press this button to call me on the intercom. I have a regular client coming at”—she looked at the wall clock next to the tulip poster—”in about twenty minutes. That should be enough time? For our American friends to go away?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Drink some water. You will be fine. In twenty minutes, just leave through the hall, like the way we came.”
“Okay.” Jules took a breath. “Thank you.”
The woman hung her parka and left, shutting the door behind her. Jules didn’t even know her name.
She sat doing nothing on the twin bed, next to the draped towel, surrounded by Welcome to Holland posters, for a good five minutes before her heart settled down and she could think about her predicament. As predicaments go, this was nothing. It was only a bunch of wet stuff. It could have been so much worse. Her phone could be the one in the canal. That would have thrown off her trip.
Jules felt sorry for him, that young man. Maybe she overreacted. And his wife was going to kill him.
She emptied her backpack onto the tile floor, under the stark fluorescent light, and laid everything out in rows. All the postcards were muddied but still readable. Yasmin’s was in good shape, thankfully. The pages of the notebook were going to buckle, but maybe that would add character. Maybe buckled pages would be her souvenir of this place. The passport was dry in its little side pocket, next to her cellphone. The water bottle would have to be disinfected.
Jules stole a couple of Kleenex to wipe down the postcards, then while she let everything air out on the floor, she reclined on the little bed, wet feet hanging over the end, looking over her toes at The Night Watch poster. She thought of the lucky man in that gallery bed, up all night contemplating a thing centuries old. No greater pleasure than lying in bed, looking at a really good painting, letting it infiltrate your dreams. What kind of dreams did this man have, if he slept at all? Did he dream of the men in the painting coming to life, and the girl, with her chickens? Maybe she let the chickens go, and they pecked through his dream, dropping pearly eggs and clucking comments. Maybe, in his dream, he joined the militia and put on a big hat with a bigger feather.
She flopped her head back on the pillow and looked up at the ceiling, then couldn’t help but laugh. Overhead was a full-length mirror, and there on the bed was an old woman looking back at her. She wore a ridiculous hat, and her knees were muddy, and her feet, in dirty snow boots, stuck out over the end of the mattress. She was fat and unfashionable, but also kind of cute and interesting, lying on Naugahyde, face flushed, laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. Maybe she liked how she looked. Maybe she should take her picture, up there, in the reflection.
She got up to find her phone. Imagine, taking a selfie in an Amsterdam whorehouse. But curiously, when she reached for it, her hand fell on the souvenir notebook instead.
Drawing was difficult, lying on her back, looking straight up at her subject. At first, the conté crayon ripped a line in the damp page. The slick surface of the crayon left no mark and the page was ruined. She tried a new page, with the same result.
She turned the crayon over in her hand, then finally scratched away its hard plastic finish with her thumbnail to reach the soft muddy pigment inside. It smeared on her skin. She moved the crayon over the paper. It glided across the surface, leaving an assertive mark. Jules turned to a fresh page.
She propped the notebook vertically on her belly, then lifted her head to look at the paper. Her neck got tired, so she stopped looking at the drawing. She just plopped her head back and looked at her subject, letting her hand run blind. She followed the line of her face with her eye. There was her mouth, her chin, her earlobe. There was her nose, her eyebrow, her hairline. She knew the drawing wouldn’t look like her. But it would be like her: muddy, messy, smeared, confused. A picture of a girl who couldn’t draw, made by an old lady who couldn’t draw, peering out from the paper like she knew her.

Anne Elliott is the author of The Artstars: Stories (Blue Light Books / Indiana University Press, 2019) and The Beginning of the End of the Beginning (Ploughshares Solos, 2014). Her fiction has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Story Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Table 4 Writer’s Foundation, Tomales Bay Writer’s Workshop, The Normal …

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