Overheard at a coffee shop: “Gay men these days are just about hooking up. If only they could learn to be emotional. There’s nothing emotional or meaningful about hooking up with a stranger.”
I remember pushing through the crowds of tourists, the sounds of the nightlife, the street entertainers, the stoned twentysomethings pushing into each other; jostling, motioning at a restaurant a block away, laughing slowly like thick honey, oozing into the smoky night.
Amsterdam was not like the other cities I had visited. Joining a group of travelers was not as straightforward as in Dublin and London. I wander into a bar, hoping to find a group of backpackers to start up conversation with. As I push in the door, I see a young man sitting alone at the bar, hair a bit unkempt, jaw angular, shoulders broad. I sit next to him and order from the bartender. I can feel him looking my direction. He starts a conversation and I can see we recognize each other for who we are. His voice is deeper than I imagine, his smile lopsided. I find myself smiling back.
We order a beer, then two. I do not remember the words we exchange. I remember more the way we lean forward, the way, when we laugh, we brush the upper arm of the other with our hand. The way we laugh with eyes cast downward before briefly looking up, locking eyes, half-smiles. And then the laughter again, the walls of ourselves. Little glimpses. Who was I seeing?
You can smell marijuana from the “coffee shop” next door. The bar grows more crowded, pressing us closer. We giggle more then, bumping into each other. We chat with a group from Australia, growing raucous as we argue over what the best museum is to visit at night. He and I grow a little quiet all of sudden, distancing ourselves from the crowd. As if in quiet agreement, we head to the door.
We wander outside, begin to walk. We walk in silence and the stars dot the sky in silver lights. It’s implied where we’re going but we don’t speak it. His hand brushes mine, once, twice, I wrap my fingers around his and feel him squeeze. I am young, inexperienced, a young gay man who’s too afraid to sleep around and too afraid to date. In the States, I do not hold a man’s hand. Here I do.
We stop at a bridge over the canal. That moment that’s always more awkward when it’s not in a movie scene. A giggle, lean forward, a laugh, then we both lean forward, lips brush. Another one a moment later, a bit more passionate. I give that wry grin I always do in such a moment. We laugh. “I like you,” he says.
We enter his apartment, climb the stairs, collapse on his bed. We kiss. We laugh. We learn more about each other in that breathless hour than we ever would in words.
We sit beneath the stars on his balcony afterward and tell the stories we only tell ourselves.
I wake up at 3:14 a.m. It flashes on the alarm clock. The city is quiet; there are few cars in Amsterdam. A single shaft of light enters from the street. I shift and feel him stir. Quiet breathing. I feel his arms tighten around me. I kiss his hand.
I awaken to an empty bed. I hear clanging from down below. I walk down from the loft of his apartment to see him cooking eggs and that European bacon which is more like ham. He flashes a smile when he sees my face. Walks over for a kiss.
He tells me he’ll be ready in about ten minutes. I wander into the other room, peruse the books on his shelves. A few are in English. I see a keyboard and flick it on. I play some songs I know, mostly minimalist pieces, a little Phillip Glass. The light in Amsterdam is whiter than anywhere else I know. Or it is that particular morning. It reflects off the canal on the other side of the windowpane.
Phillip Glass sounds like the rain, all the transparent lightness and the pattering whispers without that melancholy. Or the sadness seems distant somehow. Maybe because it’s beautiful. Each song is so short, a little variation on one theme, one emotional core. It’s a connection between you as a listener and… and…
I’m alone at the piano until he comes in and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“What are you playing?” he asks.
“Just a little song I learned.”
“It’s beautiful,” he says.
I look into his eyes.
We eat breakfast, walk outside, kiss, hug a little longer than we would as friends. I wander out into the white Amsterdam morning.
I know I will never see him again.