A short story by Jennifer Brookins
I’m sitting in my favorite cafe as an excuse to write you a letter; so much I want to say, but words don’t come. Instead, I just stare at the canal through a fog covered window, and look at every type person imaginable riding bikes; young girls, stylish older women wearing snappy three-quarter coats and odd shape hats, older men with goatees, and millennials doing whatever it is they do – probably on vacation funded by parents. Mine are so thrilled I finally got my BA, this trip is a reward of sorts; well, that’s what they say, but not really because they have conventions to attend; and what’s a vacation when your brother is always hanging around. He … Asa … is the family trophy, going for his Doctorate. Well, good for him but I hated college; thought it absurd when I’m clueless what to do with my life. Love Amsterdam. I’m enjoying the ambiance, but still clueless. One of my parent’s colleagues has two sons who graduated from eastern universities. What did they do with their education? One went to clown school – now travels with a carnival, the other spends a couple of weeks each year catching fish, then comes home and writes about it. When he returned from his last jaunt, his parents treated the boys to the French Riviera for two weeks. Poor little snowflakes: millennials – kiddies spawn of baby boomers. I’m part of all this … Asa in particular. He’ll be in school for the rest of his life, still living at home. One PhD isn’t enough; he won’t stop until he has three – the last in Sanskrit. Is that a riot or what.
Funny little bird hops onto my windowsill and stares for a moment, like he knows how miserable I am. If I really loved you, why did I go on this trip without telling you, worse still, forget you even for a moment? Truth is, before I left, I wanted to tell you about something I don’t understand … odd as it sounds. Everywhere I go the name “Anne” pops up. Yesterday I saw a boat on the canal named, “Visit with Anne.” When I put my specs on to get a better look – the name was gone. I need to speak with someone, anyone, who can explain this, whatever it is, phenomena maybe … so, pen to paper once again I attempt a feeble explanation of my thoughts … cowardly yes, but easier this way.
No sooner do words begin to flow than three well-dressed people, two men, one stylish woman with short, curly auburn hair sporting a lavender beret, sit at my table when, in fact, there are empty ones – six to be exact, but they choose to sit in my corner spot to laugh and speak endless French. Every now and then their eyes dart to my hair bound in a scarf. Unlike Americans, the French like this style and don’t refer to me as a “hippie.” Good Grief … anything but. The woman has laughing, friendly eyes; the sound of her fluent, eloquent French almost lulls me to sleep. She wants to know more about my scarf; once again I forget about you, and console myself that it’s just an innocent distraction. Suddenly they get up to leave but before reaching the door, the woman turns, walks back to my table, and thanks me in French for allowing her friends to share my table. She leaves a napkin where I’m sitting with something written on it in French. I ask the waiter if he could interpret for me. He takes a look, smiles and says, “Madame, the note reads, “Visit with Anne.” Now I’m really baffled; however, for the first time since we arrived, I begin to think how good it feels to be free to do as I please for two weeks … just me and a city with endless canals. As expected, I forget both hanky and letter. I’m seriously selfish … I really am.
One week has passed since the French invaded my corner spot by the window. For some peculiar reason, I can’t get the woman out of my mind, strange because I don’t even know her name. I mentioned this to Asa who characteristically blew me off saying, “Oh come on. The French are like that … friendly, not like you.“ I don’t know why I even talk to him … smug little shit! Who needs the Van Gogh Museum? He can go by himself. Not wanting to parse words with him, I throw all my stuff into my backpack, leave the cafe, and meander along the canal. Strange, no matter where I go my troubles are waiting to greet me when I arrive …need to clear my head … mainly of myself. Late afternoon is my time. I board one of those sight-seeing boats for hire, and once again try to write the letter. Just when I’m settled in, a young girl wearing a T-shirt with “Anne” written on the front, walks over to me from the front of the boat, plunks down beside me and says,
“Grandmother told me all about you.” I find this disconcerting since the two men and woman in the cafe knew nothing about me, not to speak of the fact they spoke no English, only French.
Just when I’m about to ask her name, the woman from the cafe walks over, smiles and gives the young girl a slight reprimand, “Ariel, I told you not to bother her.” She wears a black pant suit, her hair wrapped in Hermes – African-style, fair skin, hazel eyes, auburn hair with a touch of gray. She has a sense of herself, a presence that demands attention. When I turn from her to the young girl, Ariel is gone. The woman sits down beside me, smiles and speaks softly in English, “Don’t worry, she’ll be back. Let us enjoy the ride.” That is the last word she says to me.
The slight rock of the boat causes me doze off, until I feel a tap on my shoulder. A cheery young voice says, “Hey, want some ice cream?” I look to my right where the woman sat but see no one. She’s gone. The young girl looks at me and says, “Who are you looking for? No one is here.” With that, she abruptly turns, walks to the back of the boat and sits down beside an old man and his dog. Here I am talking to people I don’t know who know all about me, and suddenly vanish. Something isn’t right.
We’re in Amsterdam another four days before returning to New York; Asa back to the university, my parents, professors both, back to the university – and me back to nowhere. We’re staying in a landmark hotel that prides itself on being one of the oldest in Holland. Anything you want they have, except when they charge for using my computer in the room rather than the main hotel lobby where anyone can read … like that’s a plan. I ask the lady behind the desk if she knows any book stores within walking distance. Turns out there’s one two blocks away. It’s a sunny afternoon, and hopefully the walk will clear my head. Mainly, I want to know more about Holland, Amsterdam in particular. I find a small store that carries books in English. Near the entrance, I walk over to a table with books about Holland spread over the top. I randomly pick up the first one I see, look in the table of contents, flip to World War II where someone has left a marker, and begin to read.
After the German occupation, which endured in some places until their surrender in 1945, the resistance grew to a large majority. The Germans deported the largest amount of Jews in Holland to Nazi concentration camps, and with the cooperation of Dutch police, over 75% of Holland’s Jewish population were killed. I’m so upset reading this that I leave and walk briskly back to the hotel. I can’t stand the blase attitude as though nothing ever happened, worse still; the location of our hotel is only several blocks away from the house Anne Frank and her family remained hidden for years. Anne … Anne … now it’s beginning to come together. Why, I don’t know, but I’m going to the Anne Frank House tomorrow; probably one of the biggest tourist attractions in Amsterdam.
Once inside, their home is exactly as it was left. Somehow, viewing this tragedy through the prism of a tourist seems intrusive. The home is dark and has the feel of sadness the moment I walk in. I try hard not to miss anything, no matter how small, that might help me to know them better; how they lived, their thoughts … everything. I want to know everything. How did this family endure for so long a time? How? I stand by the window and notice the same tree Anne looked at each day, and dreamed her dreams. How did she live in hope, rather than despair in such horrifying circumstances? How? In the end, someone ratted them out to the Germans, and with the cooperation of the Dutch police, broke their door down and dragged them away to concentration camps.
Years ago, I read The Diary of Ann Frank, but somehow walking through their home, only a few blocks from our hotel, on the same street once the hub-bub of Nazi activity, makes me want to run as far away from this house as I can. I haven’t the words to describe how being in their home has affected me. Although there are other tourists mulling about, gawking at their belongings, I feel almost hysterical inside … too depressed to be in this house one minute longer. I quickly leave, and go back to my hotel room where I stay until we’re ready to fly back home. Each night I cry myself to sleep and don’t know why. Several times Mom and Dad prod me to visit various art exhibits with them. Even Asa is nice for a change, and offers to take me to a new club he found, but I’ve no interest. I want to go home.
The last night before we return, Mom suggests the family watch an old movie together … ironic in the face of all that has happened, I’ll be watching Abba Dabba Honeymoon with Debbie Reynolds on Dutch television. She orders in thank god; the movie begins and Mom, Dad, Asa and some stupid girl he brought over, seem happy when suddenly the screen changes from a Hollywood sound stage to WWII. The camera pans in. On screen I see thousands of Jews being herded into cattle cars headed for Auschwitz. I look at my parents to see if we’re watching the same thing – yet nothing from them outside of laughter. Mom says, “God, I love Debbie Reynolds!” I turn back to the screen, and see a woman in line walking with two little girls. Her hat blows off, and one of the girls with long dark hair starts to go after it, but her mother screams, “No! Girls, hold onto Mommy. It’s alright, just hold onto me.” She’s trying to calm them down midst the panic and tears. Again she says, “It will be all right, just hold onto me!” The camera pans in even more and, oh my god, the woman is the same French woman from the cafe, and the little girls are Ariel, and the other is me. There so much crying and screaming as masses of old people, women holding babies, people crying, falling down as the soldiers take the end of their guns and butt their backs to keep the line moving and shove them into cattle cars. There is so much hysteria; I can no longer see my mother. Wait …there she is. Mother is using her body to keep open the side door of the train, and looks directly at me. She smiles as though she wants to tell me something, but the Germans quickly slam the door in her face. It’s over… the train pulls out.
It would be foolish to say I understand what has happened. What I do know is my life will never be the same. I came here young, straight out of college on a two week vacation to Amsterdam, but as I step onto the plane headed back to the States, I feel old, and right weathered. My mother reached out from the grave because she wanted me to know how valuable life is, and surely never to be wasted. Without words, she told me now is the time for doing, rather than talking; worse still, expecting others to support me.
I’m not going back to college. Instead, I’ll get a job doing whatever I can; maybe rent a room if that’s all I can afford. I’ve come this far; how hard can it be to figure out what I’m supposed to do in this life? I don’t think the answer is far away.
© 2015 Jennifer Brookins