by Cassie Smith-Christmas
She woke in Amsterdam, her purse gone. M wasn’t there, either. The last thing she remembered was a shimmering row of beers. And maybe kissing the handsome Australian guy, she wasn’t sure.
For some reason, she decided to rip off her clothes. She didn’t know why she did that when she drunk-panicked, it just happened sometimes. Maybe it was that in the absence of anything practical to do, she had to do something. Exfoliate the mistakes from her body: a snake shedding its unwanted skin.
She tried to put her clothes back on, but she was shaking too hard. Instead, she put on M’s coat, red and puffy. It reached past her bare buttocks, but no further.
She took the elevator down to reception and told them what had happened.
The next day, the Little Mermaid statue was smaller than she expected. She wondered: if the mermaid slid that heavy tail from her body, would the legs beneath stutter like a newborn calf, fragile and blind? Or would it be just the opposite, like Jesus but on land not water, clean calm strides to eternity?
They drank bottles of coke in a falafel shop and she finally told M what had happened. And he said don’t worry, she might have kissed the Australian guy, but the rest was just a dream; she hadn’t run down to reception wearing only his puffy jacket. He had never left; she still had her purse; and they were in Copenhagen, not Amsterdam. And besides, you needed a keycard for the elevator to their room, so if she couldn’t find her purse with the keycard, she’d still be stuck in the lobby.
She decided to believe him.
On the bus to Stockholm, M rummaged through his coat for a pack of gum. Shoved in the lining of a pocket, he found a keycard. They had already returned theirs to the hostel desk at checkout.
He held it out to her. She looked at it. He slipped it back in his pocket.
They left it at that.
M’s friend was visiting Amsterdam. It was peak tourist season, the ground bursting with tulips and hyacinths. Everyone met up at the central station so they could travel en masse to a party in the international student village. M’s friend didn’t have a bike, so she let him take hers while she rode side-saddle on the back, even though the Dutch guy she was sort of seeing said her bike rack wasn’t sturdy enough for ferrying people around.
They were halfway across the big intersection when the rack decided to snap. She held on and M’s friend kept pedalling. There was the grinding of brakes, the screech of tires as the bike limped its way across just in time. M embraced them both, saying he thought they were goners, and the three of them stood for a moment, watching the army of car headlights that had almost devoured them whole.
They locked the wounded bike to a lamppost. The others sped along the canal to the party, but M continued on foot with them, pushing his bike beside him. They reached the party a good half an hour after everyone else.
The party was the usual mélange of languages and music, the cheapest offerings from Aldi and Lidl sprawled over the table. M’s friend kept glancing at her. She glanced back. Shortly after they witnessed someone eat a spider plucked from a windowsill, she and M’s friend left, together.
It wasn’t until they reached her bike tethered to the lamppost that she realised she didn’t have her keys. She left M’s friend with the bike and started back towards the party. It had just begun to rain.
The way around the canal was long. And it was only a tiny canal, more of a culvert really. She decided to jump.
She landed waist-deep in the water. Strands of algae slithered against her skin. She waded the rest of the way across. At the party, everyone looked up, surprised. Her jeans dripped on the floor and she knew she smelled of canal. M asked her why she had returned; she said she left her keys there. He asked if they were in her pocket.
The walk home was long because M’s friend had to push the bike. Also, they kept stopping so they could kiss each other. The sex later on was so-so but M’s friend stayed in her bed all week-end. On Monday, her body bloomed a rash. She went to the doctor, who laughed when she said she accidentally leapt into a canal on Friday night. He gave her antihistamines.
She called M. He laughed as well. They never spoke of it again.
Scheveningen was empty. They had come here on a pilgrimage, a way to mark the end of their year abroad because that had been their first class together: the professor explaining how a single sound could mean the difference between life and death. What’s the name of the beach by The Hague? If instead of scraping the sch along back of your throat (skkk), you said it softly (shhh), it meant you were a German spy. And everyone knows that spies are always shot dead.
She wanted to tell M something about that first class, but she didn’t know how to say it without hurting his feelings: that initially she was disappointed that he wasn’t handsome. But then how she was so glad. She didn’t know anyone in this brand-new country; lovers may come and go, but friends could be forever.
The sea lay dark yet luminous and they stripped off all their clothes, left everything in the sand. They ran laughing towards the waves. The water was cold. Moonlight shimmered on M.’s wet face, and on hers too; and they laughed some more. They floated, scooped the sea with their arms and legs. The stars weighed heavy above them, and for those moments, all that existed was their bodies, bobbing in the waves.
When they got out, everything was gone. Her purse. Keys. Money. Train tickets. Phones. And their clothes, of course.
They ran up and down the beach. The sand yielded nothing. They clung to each other’s trembling limbs like two children afraid of the dark.
In the distance, they spotted a glow. They walked towards it, for they had nowhere else to go. It was a fire, people in sequined leotards gathered around, some with feathers cascading from their shimmering torsos. There was also a clown with a white painted face, sheaves of rainbow colours billowing at his waist.
The fire-people were laughing and drinking. They stopped and stared. The heat of the flames reached her skin and she explained (in English) that they had been swimming and that someone had taken everything. The fire-people said wait a minute, they’d get some dry clothes. She and M were each given a clown suit, orange with pink pom-pom buttons. The material was cheap, scratchy but it felt good anyway. The fire-people had just finished a show, what the French would call a spectacle. They shared their beers, and she felt safe, but their laughter seemed as if it belonged somewhere else.
They were joined by someone the fire-people all knew. He said he didn’t want to get their hopes up, but earlier he had seen two guys run up the beach and throw some bundles into the dumpster.
They went to the dumpster. It was all there.
They ripped off their clown suits and embraced each other again, their bare skin ripe with the heat of the fire. And she knew then that although she might not see M for years to come, friendships such as theirs can transcend borders, time.
She no longer felt so naked.
About the author:
Originally from Virginia in the USA, Cassie Smith-Christmas currently lives in Galway, Ireland. She holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow, Scotland and her writing has appeared in journals such as The Milk House; The Wild Word; Gutter; Poets’ Republic, and Earthlines. She also received an honourable mention in the Skye Reading Room’s Baker Prize competition and the Highland Literary Salon’s Roots competition. Most recently, she received a highly commended award in the Frances Browne Multilingual Poetry competition. She is currently working on her first novel.