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No matter how much I outwardly deny it, I honestly do miss Amsterdam. It was a simpler time. Every morning I would wake up and look out the battered, open kitchen window above the sink to watch the sun dance on the surface of canals below and enlighten the eclectic facades of apartment buildings opposite mine; like a skilled artist it painted a pastel gradient above the stillness of the city. Often times I had stood there for a quarter of an hour, watching; watching, and trying to take it in - to burn it into my memory so that I would never forget its grandeur. Presently, I thought back to the jovial harmonizing rings of bicycle bells on the streets and decided that was what I missed most - riding my rusty-around-the-edges yellow bicycle around the Amsterdam every evening, catching fleeting glimpses of street cafes, historical houses, parks, et al under the warm glow of street lights, stopping every so often at street corners to gaze up at the stars. One of those street corners was were we met.
I had seen him around the block a few times before and assumed he resided in one of the buildings adjacent to mine, but never before had I actually conversed with him for lack of a subject to talk about. Judging by his attire and slicked back dark hair, it was obvious that he was a businessman, and I, at the time, was nothing more than a barista at a small run-down coffee shop called Bernhard's.
At the corner of Apollolaan and Rubensstraat, not far from Vondel Park, I had paused for one of the aforementioned gazes heavenward. “What are you doing?” He asked me, condescendingly. “I’ve noticed you before, gaping at the sky, dumbfounded; looking at the stars, no doubt. Why, though? The stars are always there. They aren’t going to stop shining, you know, and from what I understand, it would be just as easy to study them from the convenience of your own living room.”
Slightly bemused not by his remark, but by the unexpected and unreasonable scrutiny of his tone, I replied, “I simply don’t have any intention of ignoring beauty or brilliance, and I’m certainly not in the business of denying myself of it.” I watched as his furrowed brow unfurled and his expression shifted from cynical to ponderous. I stole one last look upward, cast him a quick glance, and tried not to take his comment to heart as I began to pedal onward.
Weeks went by before I saw him again, but admittedly I had thought back to that brief conversation several times as the weather shifted from temperate to brisk, evident in the way frost had begun to accumulate on window panes overnight.
One day I awoke at the usual time of five forty-five in the morning and began my familiar morning ritual after donning my unembellished work uniform. Shortly after six, I fumbled down the creaky stairs of my building and onto the street, where I mounted my bicycle and slowly rode to Bernhard’s amid other morning commuters and countless desiccated fallen leaves.
Upon starting my shift, my mind wandered ceaselessly due to the predictable lack of customers. I longed for the forlorn din of people that used to chatter as they sipped their coffee. Business had been declining ever since The Men marked the door to the shop with the brash yellow and black star. I was now the only employee of my shift - Eveline had quit several months ago, prompted by the star (and I hadn’t heard from her since); no matter how much I evaded the thought of it, the shop was undeniably on the slow path to bankruptcy, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave - not yet. When I was a child, my grandmother had frequently brought me here and recounted stories of her own youth, infusing them with sage morals. Every time, without fail, we sat at the rickety table near the window. This dear shop and the musty smell of it were all I had left of her, and I had no intention of letting it slip through my fingers so fast. I heaved a guttural sigh, leaned over the counter, and rested my forehead in the palms of my hands. Just as I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the impending demise of the shop, I heard the chime of bells at the front of the store. Realizing my unbecoming position, I frantically straightened my posture and peered up at the well-dressed man who stepped through the door. In no time longer than it had taken me to straighten up, I recognized him - the man from the street corner.
A sense of benign recognition washed across his face in turn, and then, to my surprise, a perceivable combination of guilt and relief. What ever would he suddenly have these emotions for? He looked at me like I was some long-lost friend. As he sensed my confusion, he cleared his throat to speak.
“I’ve been hoping I would run into you again,” he said earnestly. “Several nights I returned to Apollolaan and Rubensstraat, wishing you’d pass by on that bicycle of yours, but I never saw you.” A pause.
Knowing not what to say or what to feel, I uttered a candid yet inadequate, “Oh.” I lifted my gaze to meet his and noticed his sincerity as he looked directly into my eyes.
“I would like to apologize for being so arrogant that night. Often I’ve remembered it with remorse.”
“I didn’t give you a chance.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I sighed, attempting to relieve him of his regret. I wasn’t one to hold grudges, but I was still skeptical as to the integrity of this man.
“I pondered what you said - about ignoring brilliance - and it made me think. It made me think about how ungrateful humans can be and how unaware of things we usually are.” A truth I had come to accept long ago, introduced to me by my grandmother. I nodded. “I think you’re right. What was your name again?” he asked.
In the coming weeks he stopped by Bernhard’s often, and we talked. We talked and talked and talked about practically everything under the sun. It occurred to me that he had the demeanor of a wanderer - a wanderer who expected something from the world - like the universe was predisposed to fulfilling his every whim. He walked with an air of entitlement - not vain entitlement, as I had mistaken it to be, but entitlement nonetheless. I learned that he was living here alone, a recent graduate of a prestigious business school. When he told me about his job owning and overseeing a small publishing house, I had said, “I couldn’t think of anything worse,” to which he replied, “Well at least it’s more interesting than working in a stuffy old coffee shop,” and we had a good laugh. The more we got to know each other, the more our likenesses became evident. Never so clearly had I realized the way two seemingly disparate beings could be so much the same.
He kept coming by the shop, and eventually formed the pattern of showing up at seven on the dot, every morning. The bitter aroma of coffee diffused through the air while we sat and sipped. We imagined together, we dreamed together, and we hoped together. Each day I knew he would leave not much more than an hour later, but it didn’t stop me from wishing he wouldn’t go.
Things continued this way until one bleak December day. It was blustery and cold; when he came into Bernhard’s his cheeks and nose were red from the cold, and snowflakes that clung to the shoulders of his coat began to melt away. His hands were clasped around a single rose. He raised his eyebrows in admiration and held it out. “For you,” he said as a smile stretched across his face. It was then, in that very moment, that I realized how much I cared for him and how much he cared for me. I realized that I loved him. That’s how people fall in love, you know - slowly and cautiously, then quickly with reckless abandon.
It wasn’t until that spring that things took a turn for the worse. The Men took to patrolling the streets. More stars, everywhere. Around the necks of passers-by, plastering doors to other businesses. Along with the stars came starving, but it wasn’t just me that suffered from it. My pay had been cut back yet again, but I was thankful to have a job unlike countless others. Felix hated it all. Then, there was scarcely a conversation we had in which these hardships went unmentioned by him. Yet in the midst of it all, we felt invincible. We were blind, living in our own world. Love does that to you; it’s got side effects. Unfortunately for us, the blindness was our demise.
It happened when we least expected it, but neither of us could’ve been fully prepared. Neither of us could have changed anything. In the back of my mind I knew it was coming. One of the stars made its way onto the facade of his publishing house. He was forced to shut it down.
He went into hiding.
I cried. He cried. A lot.
I visited him every day at the house of a colleague he took refuge in, but the situation kept spiraling downward. Frequent arrests, gunshots, explosions. Rampant starvation. They kept getting worse. I would go home and pound my fists on the walls, then sink to the floor in a heap, weeping because there must be something. But there was nothing.
I went to see him on that last day, biking along Rubenstraat on the way. At its intersection with Apollolaan I skidded to a frantic stop. “What do you think you’re doing?!” Felix was waiting for me there and looking at me expectantly, holding a single rose: a familiar sight in foreign context. I rushed into his arms, and he steadily brushed loose strands of my blonde hair back from my face.
Unfamiliar arms tore me from him. I heard the plug of a gunshot. I saw the red river.
Then came camp.