I was to meet Flieghenhart outside of the Café Engels, in front of Rotterdam Centraal Station, where I would be arriving by train. I was moving to the city to teach English, twenty-three years old and in a new city for the third straight year. Flieghenhart and I had come to an understanding that he would show me an apartment. When I arrived he was bent talking into a car window. The car was his car. It was a tiny orange-and-silver Citröen. He was probably seventy. He had wiry thin hair and grey brillo-pad fur covering his arms. His ears stuck out like two wild imprecations at the sides of his head.
I put out my hand to him. He said:
“You wait at Café for me! I be there.”
So I waited for him. The crowd passed and passed and passed. A beautiful twenty-year-old woman walked up and said:
“Are you waiting to show apartments?”
“Doesn’t that seem like a strange phrase, ‘show apartments?’” I said.
“So you’re not Flieghenhart,” she said.
“Just waiting for him too,” I said.
We shook hands. Her name was Marita. Her English was so good it was nearly native. After we talked for a moment it arose that she had a vague German accent. She had very dark hennaed hair. She was alone, too, but didn’t appear to suffer from it as I clearly did. A thin line of black moles stood out in an arc from her collarbone to her neck. She had a sickle-shaped scar on her lower lip. Normally, she would have been too beautiful even to speak to me. But here we were. Waiting together. Talking.
“I’m from Dresden,” she said.
I was out of practice being around other young people. I’d been teaching English to people my parents’ age in Bulgaria for two years. It only compounded my nerves. So I said nothing back. We stood next to each other. Flieghenhart walked over from his Citröen.
“There are these two of you!” he said. “And foreigners!”
Marita and I offered our hands and nationalities. When she said “Germany,” I said that I was from New York, originally, but that until recently I had been working at an American school in Sofia.
Flieghenhart barely listened to a word of my speech. Marita was looking at her fingernails. Flieghenhart said:
“You go for room and others are strange.”
Then he looked at us.
“You are strange!”
“He means we should try to find an apartment together.”
I couldn’t commit to this arrangement. My new salary at the American school here would allow me a large apartment by myself.
“I was looking for something for myself. Alone. I’ll pay for it.”
“The two will have to wait. Another man! In the car!”
He thumbed in the direction of the Citröen — and then:
“Two are two! You will eat the bagel and I will pay! While I show. Ten minute.”
He pointed us down the road to a place called Bagels en Beans. He ambled over to his car. He got in. He drove off.
It was quiet at our table at Bagels en Beans. Neither of us wanted a bagel. Marita had a red wine and I ordered a Westmalle Trapist. There was a brochure on the table that explained that a bagel was boiled bread, invented by Jews in Poland. This was the first bagel chain in Holland. They were everywhere in Holland now, Marita told me. She’d been to one in Amsterdam. It was better than this one, she said. Just about everything in Amsterdam was.
“But there are many quite modern buildings here in Rotterdam,” Marita said.
“They’re remarkably ugly,” I said.
“I like these buildings very much,” Marita said.
The waitress brought the drinks, left the check and said, “Four euros sixty.” She was a mocha-skinned Moroccan girl, and she wore a hijab. Marita looked at her and said “danke,” but the girl didn’t make eye contact. She walked away, and we were quiet.
When Flieghenhart returned he made as if to find the waitress to pay. He pretended he was looking under the tablecloth to find her. He bent as if picking up a rock to look for her there. Flieghenhart was not a good actor. His eyes said all he wanted was to make his money renting us apartments and then go make some more.
“It was four euros sixty, plus tip,” Marita said.
Flieghenhart shook a pocketful of change in his cupped hand. He dropped a one-euro coin in front of my spot at the table, a one-euro coin in front of Marita. He looked at us.
“Four-sixty,” Marita said.
Flieghenhart dropped a euro and 30 cents in front of me. He dropped the same in front of Marita. He dropped the rest of his change back into his pocket. The Moroccan girl came by to pick it up.
“And a tip,” Marita said.
Flieghenhart looked at the waitress. He was not a good actor, and his disdain for her was deep in his eyes, tattooed on his taut, down-turned lips.
“We do not tip girl like this,” he said. The girl was still standing right there. She walked away without a tip. We were too surprised to argue.
Flieghenhart said: “Let’s go. We see apartments!”
I got into the back seat. Marita got in front. She couldn’t get the seat to stay in place. It rolled forward and back like the big slippery stone in curling. Flieghenhart did not help her with the seat.
“What is the name?” Flieghenhart said.
He had out a ledger and a pen.
“My name?” I said.
“Yes!” Flieghenhart said. “What is the name?”
“Matthew Dershewitz,” I said. “From New York. Like I told you.”
Flieghenhart screwed up his face in the rearview mirror at me.
“Is Jewish?” Flieghenhart said.
“Well, yes, I am,” I said. “What’s the difference?”
“You have none of this,” he said.
He put his hand to the crown of his head. I supposed this was meant to be a mime for “Yarmulke.”
“Not all Jews wear keepahs,” I said.
“Good to meet today!” Flieghenhart said. “Tomorrow instead is Carnival, we not go through. Only on the outburbs.”
Marita rolled her eyes. I did a little thing with my mouth. It felt very nearly like a smile.
Flieghenhart drove across the city. The sky was a low grey banner above his little orange car. The facades of the few buildings unscathed in the 1940 Luftwaffe bombing stood upright and erect, stolid in their brick redness. Every other building looked so new, as if it had just been finished yesterday.
Flieghenhart drove on. He answered his cell phone over and over. Each time he made a turn he said:
“Hallo! Hallo?” then “Hold, hold,” and turned the wheel with the hand the phone was in, taking the receiver from his face. He continued to talk through the turn, yelling at the phone. It was very far from his mouth. Flieghenhart turned around. He said:
“I find you a place with three girls. You, in room, three girls. Is good!”
The car jerked. Flieghenhart had only one hand on the wheel. Marita’s seat slid.
“You should keep your eyes on the road,” I said.
Flieghenhart looked back to the road. Marita turned and said:
When she said it, she put her hand back until it touched my knee. Flieghenhart nearly plowed into a Mercedes. Marita’s hand flew to the front of her face and her head smacked the soft grey bar over the windshield.
“Last week mines car is in accident, is a bus and hits,” Flieghenhart said.
He laughed a huge talcum laugh. How was it that even a car accident could be turned into a good thing for Flieghenhart? He was unruly, but here Flieghenhart was — a man who got things done. Even amid mortal fear, one couldn’t help contain a feeling for Flieghenhart that wasn’t quite disdain, but was instead a sort of shell-shocked awe.
In Delftshaven, Flieghenhart sat in the car for five minutes looking through an enormous plastic basket of keys he kept between the two front seats. He looked through the pile of keys at his feet. He opened the hatchback of his car and began digging through another basket full of maybe two hundred sets of keys.
He had so many keys!
“In Dutch, Flieghenhart means, ‘The heart of a flea.’”
She elbowed me. Her arm lingered against mine. I looked right at her eyes, and she didn’t look away.
We walked up a flight of impossibly steep stairs. Flieghenhart walked over and put his face very close to mine. There were three or four yellow hairs on the flat of his nose.
“I have big room for you,” he said.
He hit me with his sharp knobby elbow. He let out another powdery laugh. If I affected a smile Flieghenhart would know it wasn’t genuine. Flieghenhart would know loneliness the moment he saw it. He would not make a show of it, but he would exploit it.
“Of course,” I said. “I’d like to find a big room. Who doesn’t want a big room?”
I looked at him with such an honest affectation I began to mean it. I thought how sometimes smiling can lead to more smiling. How happiness can come out of a singular desire for happiness — how it might be the only path to happiness — the way one degree drop can be enough to turn water to ice.
“Big room!” Flieghenhart said. “Soon I will show.”
We saw five more dingy places. Each place was grimier than the one before it, until the last. It was in the east of the city. We drove up a street called Witte de Witthen. Falafel restaurants and incense shops lined the way. We came to a narrow side-street. Flieghenhart stopped.
“One more!” Flieghenhart said.
He looked at me.
“But oh!” he said. “You not like this, but I show for her. Maybe is good for the girl.”
The rooms in this apartment were clean, wide and bright. Marita walked to the back. She stood in a hollow glow of light in the rear of the apartment. I wanted to touch her sunlit hair. There was an impossibly fine down on her skin, little hairs visible only after they surpassed a saturation point of light. Flieghenhart saw her in the light by the back windows, too. He knew what he wanted from Marita just as much as I did. He said:
She nodded. She looked at me.
“It’s really not bad,” I said. “I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t have wanted to show it to us.”
Flieghenhart looked at me. He had something more to say. He almost stopped himself — you could see him try. He put his hand to the back of his head. He mussed his hair.
“Not for her it is bad,” Flieghenhart said. “Only you! Is better for the girl.”
He winked at me. Marita rolled her eyes. Flieghenhart couldn’t stop himself.
“This is where all the Mohammeds live!” he said. “Too many Mohammeds. Too many, with the falafel all day, and drugs. You do not want!”
I asked him what he meant.
“Is one Mohammed, two Mohammed. All Mohammeds here!” Flieghenhart said. “You are Jew! You know how it is with Mohammeds. You know how I mean?” Flieghenhart said. “You hear about Amsterdam? Man makes movie they don’t like and, Boom! The Mohammeds kill.”
“I’m going to teach Muslim students in the school here,” I said. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“OK?” Flieghenhart said. “But now you know — one Mohammed, two Mohammed. Trouble.”
“And you’re not worried about my safety?” Marita said.
Flieghenhart turned the pitch back on.
“But you know! You are Dresden. You know this. Is good! You have find a place you like and you take!” he said.
Marita said she would think about it. I needed a new broker. Flieghenhart said:
“Big room for you!”
Then he left.
“We need a new broker,” Marita said.
She’d said we.
At Centraal Station Marita said she knew of another broker. I could call her to get the information.
“We could look tomorrow,” I said.
“There’s Carnival tomorrow,” Marita said.
“I should really look for a place,” I said.
“Not during Carnival,” Marita said. “But this way we’ll both be free.”
She handed me her number.
“So,” I said. “Huh. So we’ll see each other.”
We agreed to meet back up here the next day at Café Engels at noon.
Marita was seated with a beer at Café Engels the next afternoon.
“You weren’t waiting long?” I said.
“I’ve had a glass of wine,” Marita said.
I ordered a Duval. Blaring salsa music of Carnival thudded in the background. Marita said:
“We should walk for the river.”
We walked for blocks. Sometimes, when I didn’t know quite where we were headed, Marita walked a step in front of me. I pushed through the crowd after her. The day became hot where it hadn’t been the moment before. It had been a long time since I was in a crowd. It was like knowingly walking barefoot across shards of broken glass.
“You like this all?” Marita said.
“Well I,” I said.
“Maybe you would like to see a coffee shop?” she said.
Marita and I walked as closely as we could to each other through the crowd. We turned at the end of one block. We came to a long street with grassy green banks along a canal.
“Here is it,” Marita said.
A large neon sign read: The Magic Mushroom.
Inside the coffee shop three young Moroccan men sat with their heads down toward the bar. What appeared to be piety when we first entered quickly changed. The first of the young Moroccan looked up with blood-red eyes. The place smelled of chocolate and tobacco. The Moroccan behind a small plastic window said:
“You will have joints or you will roll yourself?”
Marita bought a gram and rolling papers. We walked out of the shop. The open air was clear and pellucid. There had been a breeze pushing the air. Now it stopped. I thought to say it had been long since I’d smoked pot, and that the last time it had given me the panic attacks that set me off and found me in Europe. Only klonopin kept me from them now. Maybe it would do the same for this joint.
We sat at a bench by the canal. I said nothing about the anxiety. A very old man with dreadlocks lay on the next bench over. He groaned and groaned.
Marita lit the joint. She smoked it and I smoked it.
The troglodyte groans of the old dreadlocked Dutchman synched with the droning backbeat of the parade. We sat in front of the stagnant canals. The music in the background made the water so bright, dinosaur footprints mid-metropolis. The late-Paleolithic nomad groaned. There were such furry and gruff creatures here! These were the eyes of a city grown fungal with right-angled buildings. From them shone the green soul of the grimy place.
“You know about Van Gogh,” Marita said.
“I saw the museum in Amsterdam,” I said. We were stoned now, and I’d paused for a time before answering. I wasn’t panicking. My hands were sweaty, but it was hot. Marita’s eyes flashed almost as if she were laughing at me.
“Of course you know that one,” she said. “No, no — Theo Van Gogh. He is a famous filmmaker. A couple months ago a Muslim fanatic shot him in the head in Amsterdam. He made a movie about Muslim women the community didn’t like. There are more Moroccans here than in Amsterdam. The Dutch get nervous very easily.”
“Oh,” I said.
We were a little too stoned to be talking this way.
“So, uh,” I said. “You’ll take that apartment?”
“I’m going back tomorrow,” she said. “With Flieghenhart. I don’t love Flieghenhart, but I love that apartment.”
“Oh,” I said.
“But you’ll come see it once I’m in,” she said. “Unless you’re afraid of the Mohammeds.”
I knew she was joking, but I didn’t know if I was afraid or if I wasn’t. I did kiss her then, though. She kissed back. She touched me through my coarse jeans, and now my hands were dry. We reached a point where if either of us had a place, we might have gone back to it. But all we had were our hostels.
We decided to walk up to Veerhaven. We walked without talking. Then, up ahead, we saw a blue-shirted girl sprawled out on the ground. Four Dutchmen were standing around her. Each man held in his hand a pink plastic cup filled with beer.
The girl was probably Moroccan like at The Magic Mushroom. She wore a long gingham dress and a hijab covering her hair. She looked dead. Her lips had turned a purple like sugary bubblegum. Her eyes weren’t quite open. One leg was lying off toward the street. Marita wasn’t afraid. She walked to the girl without hesitation. She took up the girl’s hand. The girl didn’t move. Marita said:
“Have you called the police?”
The Dutchmen all looked at each other. Marita looked at me.
“Go call!” she said.
Ten people were now standing twenty paces from the girl.
“Do you have a phone?” I said. “A cell phone?”
They all just looked at each other. One of them said:
“What is it?”
Another in the group said:
“A Muslim girl down on the street. Too much Carnival.”
I ran back to the same green embankment where we had smoked our joint. It seemed best to return to somewhere — returning somewhere would make us safe. A pile of coffee grounds dumped out on the sidewalk threw a loamy smell up into the fresh breeze. I ran and as I ran I ran out of my old skin and into something new. I found a pay phone. In my pocket was a phone card. I didn’t know the emergency number in Rotterdam. The important numbers listed on the phone were scratched out. Stuck to the back of my phone card was a Post-it with a number. It was the only number I had for anyone living in Rotterdam. I hadn’t yet talked to anyone in the school where I was to teach. Those numbers weren’t on me anyway.
“Hallo?” Flieghenhart said.
“Flieghenhart, this is Matthew Dershewitz, the American from yesterday. I think there might be a dead girl.”
“Hallo?” Flieghenhart said. “Hold, hold. I can no hear. Call back.”
He hung up. I called again. The phone just beeped. I pulled the phone card out. Put it back in. Dialed.
“It’s Matthew Dershewitz. There’s a girl lying in the street. At the corner of Sheep-timmermanslaan in Veerhaven. Can you call emergency? Politie?”
“The Jew?” Flieghenhart said.
“Well,” I said. “Yes, sure. The Jew from yesterday. The one with no keepah.”
“I call,” Flieghenhart said.
When I got back a boxy black-and-white police wagon pulled to the curb. Flieghenhart worked quick no matter what the situation. There was no siren. There were no lights flashing.
“She has been here for some time,” Marita said.
The first officer walked up to the girl. He was wearing a starched white shirt with a dark blue tie. He bent down. Then he called for the other officer. The two officers squatted over the girl. Neither of them wanted to touch her.
Then Flieghenhart pulled up. He must have been nearby when I called. There was a guy about his age in the unfixed passenger seat of his Citröen. He came quickly to where we were standing. He was on his cell phone. He yelled into it:
“No now, no now, call.”
Flieghenhart put the phone in his pocket and said:
“What will I be for?”
“You’ve done enough, calling the police.”
“What police?” Flieghenhart said.
“Didn’t you call for this police car?”
“I don’t,” Flieghenhart said. “You call and I find you big room. Sure, I say no today, but if it have to today, we go.”
The Dutchmen must have called the police after all. Flieghenhart had come in the hopes he would rent me an apartment. There was a dead Moroccan girl lying on the ground. Still Flieghenhart could think of nothing but putting each of us in a place. He was like some giant collating documents into thousands of folders in a filing cabinet.
Flieghenhart stalked over to the girl. He grabbed her by the arm. He lifted her clean into the air. Then he sat her upright on the curb. Flieghenhart swept his hand back and slapped her. Everyone could hear the report. Nothing happened. With his other hand he was holding her head, and it was pulling the hijab back off her hair. He called to one of the police officers. The officer took out a small vial. He handed it to Flieghenhart. Flieghenhart uncapped it. He put it under her nose.
The girl’s eyelids fluttered like bait away from a hook. Then they flew bolt open. Flieghenhart let go. He laid her back down on the pavement. The girl’s arms and legs moved with a jolt of brain electricity. She sat up and looked around. Surely these were the first sentient beings she had ever witnessed. Maybe it was a new world where we were all standing! After some interminable Ice Age this girl before us had awoken from the inanimate.
Now it was clear what had happened. The girl had been very much alive all along. She’d fallen there on the street, passed out. This was a regular occurrence here on Carnival. Flieghenhart knew it. Marita knew. I looked around. Probably I was the only one who didn’t know.
The sun had almost passed below the height of the buildings behind us. It cast its light onto the windows across the way. It fell across the girl’s face and I could see the black hairs it saturated across her skin. I wasn’t close enough to Marita to see, but I knew it was lighting all those hairs on her face now, too. We hadn’t talked since I got back — she stood talking to the police.
The girl kept looking around. Her eyes were unfixed and lolling. Flieghenhart took her face in his hand and made her look at him. Then he smoothed her hair back where the hijab had been. He put the back of his hand to her cheek.
There was just so much certainty to Flieghenhart! Regardless what caution the world hissed out, Flieghenhart pushed on past. Flieghenhart let go of the girl. He walked back over to me. I was around people again — here was this furry giant who now knew me by name. A feeling in my back like an alarm blaring had been there for so long I couldn’t even recall when it had started. Now it was gone. Marita stood off away from us, talking with the police.
We would see each other every day for the next couple of weeks. Like she said she would, she took that apartment — the one near the Muslims. Me, I found a place her other broker showed me. No more Flieghenhart for me. Marita and I discovered we had little in common, and after a month she said we should stop seeing each other. I agreed. School would start soon. I was ready. But now I was still on Sheep-timmermanslaan, stoned, dry-palmed, listening to Flieghenhart.
“You find apartment,” he said. “Big room for you!”
Flieghenhart’s cell phone rang. He answered. He put one finger up to me.
“Hallo!” he said. “Yes, now. Of course I have room. You take it! You, in a big room. With three girls. Is good. You find. Hallo!”