Bittersweet

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By Mark Okrim (pseudonym)

It was twilight hour in Amsterdam’s Red Light District when the drugs started to kick in. Apparently the dark chocolate I had wasn’t just simple and innocent shreds of solidified cacao, but was infused with something that makes some people tune on some Pink Floyd and lay out under the stars for hours talking about the intricacies of life. The black packaging it came with was written in Dutch in which I am not native to the language. No pictures or big warning signs on the package indicated that any of this 6 inch square of dark matter was anything but what I usually put on my pancakes in the morning. Had I known, I wouldn’t have bought it. I should’ve took notice to the extra chippy mood the guy behind the counter was in as he handed me this product with a wink. Maybe he just likes my deodorant? I thought. His shaggy hair and the smell of patchouli everywhere didn’t ring any alarm bells. However, a half hour in, my eyelids started to grow heavy, and I found myself laughing a little too hard at things. This is going to be a long night, I thought.

The moon was reflecting off the canals that lined throughout a large part of the city. The drug dealers were standing at the corners of the stationary stores along the roads, in their black leather jackets, heads swiveling back and forth looking to make a quick buck. The tourists aimlessly walking down the paths, taking pictures on their phones with their flashes on, moving together as one big giant mass of bodies. Their labored breathing was evident against the bitter cold, huddling together to take in the sights while trying to conserve body heat. Their collars turned up, fighting against the wind. The 2 person rowing boats along the canals trekked their way along the street of the red glow, rippling the water around them with their oars. Bike whistles and horns were intermittently chiming in over the bridges and waters, signaling for people to get out of their way. The prostitutes, in their scantily clad clothing, dancing and waving in front of their rooms for patrons/customers to walk through their doors. From the outside looking in, their rooms resembled that of hospital wards, with tiny rooms with medical tape drawn over their tables and beds, casting a darker shade of red in their rooms.

“Damn sweetie, over here! come here!” A blonde girl yelled from her red room towards my direction. She had hair down to her lower back with a hoarse voice, clutching her cigarette as she spoke through the ajar door.

“…are… are you talking to me?” I replied. Oh man, am I hallucinating?

“Yes of course ! why don’t you come inside?” she asked.

“Are you on groupon?” I replied jokingly. \Hey, at least you can buy me dinner first.

To this day I don’t know what closed faster, the speed of hydrogen atoms moving at 99.99% the speed of light in a particle accelerator, or her door. I have never been catcalled before, but at least now I know what it felt like.

Minute by minute, my smile started to widen as I aimlessly strolled through the unfamiliar roads, gawking at the tourists and locals alike. Suddenly they didn’t seem so strange to me, with their oversized coats with gloved hands clutching bags from shopping centers all throughout the city. Speaking in an unfamiliar tongue that was not native to my ears, they all strolled on by, mesmerized by the glow of the red lights, the restaurants, and coffee shops that lined one of the most famous streets in the world.

I walked over to the nearest cafe as my stomach felt the tremendous urge to be satiated. Walking in, the smell of freshly baked bread and coffee permeated through the walls. The glass displays around the register were lined with pastries, sandwiches and paninis. Around one am, twenty other people were inside the cafe with me. Did everyone have dark chocolate tonight, too? The lady behind the counter was just short enough to be perfectly level with the top of the glass display, making her just out of sight.

“Hello there, how can I help you?” she asked me.

“God, is that you?” I replied as I looked around to find where the voice had come from.

“Down here! Down here! What can I get for you?” she asked me as she angrily waved her notepad above her to get my attention.

“Oh… what do you recommend?”

“Well, I love the pas-”

“Yes i’ll have two of those, a slice of cake, and some coffee… two slices of cake, actually… and just keep bringing more food, thanks.” I said as she angrily scribbled all over her notepad.

My arms strained as I picked up my tray filled with food and beverages as I brought it over to the nearest empty table next to a young couple. I had never tasted so many different flavors and spices in my life. Is that ground nutmeg or cumin? Wow! A hint of cinnamon in this panini, why doesn’t cinnamon taste this good back home? Oooh, a brioche bun with this chicken avocado sandwich? Why is the bread so fluffy?

The patrons and customers around me started to get up and make their way out the doors. The lady behind the counter tapping her foot and checking her watch frequently as she started to turn off some of the display lights in the front. I paid no attention to any of this as I proceeded to eat through my stomach ache.I took out the dark chocolate wrapper from my pocket and asked the couple beside me speaking dutch if they could read it to me.

“Hello, sorry to interrupt your convection… umm… I mean conversation” Act naturally dude, just let the words flow out.

“But I was wondering if you guys could tell me what this is?” I asked as I handed them the crumpled wrapper of the chocolate.

“How much of this did you eat?” They asked in shock as they held the empty wrapper in front of their faces, examining the words written all over the back of the wrapper.

“Olaf it. Gave me a belly ache, or it must be the water from this city.”

“No man, you’re just high as balls. Get some rest.” They said, while proceeding to read the wrapper again, glancing at my empty tray in front of me, and back up at me before they burst out laughing. Abort mission, abort mission. Get out of here as fast as you can.

I got up and started for the door. No, throw the garbage out first. Then give the tray back to the lady. This was sensory overload as I tried to prioritize what needed to be done next. Give the tray first, then garbage next. Wait no, garbage first, then hand back the tray. Wow, a bird!

I turned around, forgot what I had to do, then turned around again and walked out of the door. I could model for a Dove commercial because that went so smoothly.

Outside, the force of the wind made me turn up my collar as I made my way back to my hotel. Suddenly, every muscle in my body was lagging behind as the weight of sleep was becoming more and more attractive in my head. I had memorized a good chunk of the city map in my head in the morning, but now, twenty feet away from the cafe, I couldn’t even remember where I had just walked out from.

A trolley was idly making its rounds throughout the streets before it stopped just before an overhang in the middle of a bridge. I got on and spoke to the middle-aged conductor with graying hair who had pictures of his kids on the dashboard.

“Excuse me sir, how do I get to…” What was the name of my hotel, again? Okayama? Operita? Oka… ura ! That’s it !

“… how do I get to hotel Okura?” I asked.

“Ahh, just a few stops. Just sit tight. I’ll tell you when to get off.” He replied.

I sat next to the heater which was conveniently next to the window. My eyes started to submit to the drunkenness of sleep. One eye was shut completely as the high-pitched electric whir of the trolleys engines kicked into gear, pushing me back into my seat. The stores, bridges, and the canal waters outside my window morphed into a dot at the center of my one half open eye until slowly everything became black.

I felt a hand gently tap me on the shoulder.

“Sir, this is your stop” The conductor’s voice gently informed me.

Summoning up the strength to pry one eye open, I could barely make out the conductor two feet away from me in the low lighting of the trolley. I thanked him as I slipped him a tip and got off the trolley.

In front of me loomed my hotel. I pushed through the revolving doors and nodded to the checkout lady that stood behind the counter, looking ready to begin her shift in her just pressed uniform. Straining to see in front of me as the overhead lighting was too much for my eyes to handle. I made my way to my room on the second floor.

I didn’t even bother to take off my clothes and shoes as the sheets were just too inviting to waste any time doing anything mundane such as undressing. The white cotton sheets were harsh against my skin during the day, but now they felt warm, smooth, and blissful. I remembered a quote then from one of my idols, Anthony Bourdain, “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. So enjoy the ride.” Well Mr. Bourdain, I certainly am enjoying it now.  I took out my phone, put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon album and I let the words of David Gilmour and Roger Waters put me to sleep.

I woke the next morning in the same position that I had fallen asleep to, with the sun hitting my eyes between the curtains. Nature’s alarm clock. My head felt groggy as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. I showered, got changed and made my way down the stairs. The same lady who I saw last night was still working behind the counter, taking notes and telephone calls when I drew up to the counter.

“Hello, I’d like to check out please.”

“Mr. Okrim, was it? Okay, I got you all checked out, thank you for staying with us. Here’s a complimentary piece of our finest dark chocola-”

“No thanks, I… uhh… am allergic.” I wasn’t going to be having any chocolate for a long time, I thought.

Outside, the warmth of the sun was hitting the back of my neck as I slowly made out the outline of the streets and canals in the distance. Up ahead, the trolleys were snaking their way through the alleyways and streets before one stopped in front of the hotel. Loosening up my jacket, I felt the familiar wrapper before I took it out of my jacket pocket. The crumpled up ball of paper stood no chance against my Steph Curry shot into the garbage can as I walked down the steps making my way to the open door of the trolley.

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