EVERY year, on Emelie’s birthday, she’d receive a birthday card from her father with a plane ticket attached. The appeal of visiting him dwindled more and more each year, although she felt she owed it to her father to remind him that he did, in fact, have a daughter for whom he was somewhat responsible.
When she was six, her dad was more than a superhero; he was her golden ticket to the big wide white world. She used to brag to her friends that he lived in the White House when she knew full well that he just worked for the government as a campaign adviser in Washington D.C.
During her awkward teenage years, where she would also find out that her father did not, in fact, live in the White House, she grew weary of the small talk about school and college applications over frozen yoghurt, his choice, as he always forgot that she was lactose intolerant. She would swirl the goop around and around with her spoon whilst he spoke endlessly about his step-kids, how one was going to Yale and the other was captain of the football team. It was natural, she supposed, that her Dad was closer to his step-kids whom he saw on a daily basis than Emelie, who he saw once in a blue moon.
Emelie never really grasped how great that discrepancy would be until one evening on a cool September, when her father, his wife and her kids threw her a party for her 18th birthday. Emelie had articulated many times that she never wanted a birthday party. By this point, she was convinced that her father was either not listening to her or didn’t know her very well at all and wanted to keep it that way if they were to maintain a friendly but disassociated relationship.
They awkwardly presented her with a birthday cake that her step-mother claimed to have made herself, but the bright pink packaging Emelie had seen poking out of the trash can earlier gave her away. This is not to say that she didn’t appreciate the effort, she just despised that their efforts had not been contributed willingly. Emelie looked at the face around her, recognising no one as she blew out the candles and made a wish. She made many wishes, actually, which she wasn’t sure was birthday protocol, but since her hopes, dreams and fears remained tangled in her brain, no one would have to know.
She wished she didn’t have to fake a smile; she wish she didn’t have to live two separate lives, she wished there was someone in this world that understood exactly what she was going through. But mostly, she wished she could just disappear.
That night, the stars never aligned for Emelie, and she found out that wishes were just false hope for all of us stuck in the eternal curse of living. As strangers with familiar faces made their way home, her step-mother declared the party to be over, and Emelie crept around the back of the house to where their impossibly large garden lay still and forgiving. The attention to detail that had gone into their horticulture was admirable, although credit is probably best given to the gardener. It frustrated Emelie that they had ruined probably the only patch of fertile land in this polluted, built up city by forcing a swimming pool right in the centre.
Emelie slid off the flip-flops she had borrowed from her step-mother, and circled around the pool, the marble paving grinding under her feet. She looked back to the house in complete disillusion. The irony of telling her classmates her Dad lived in the White House became immediately obvious, with the brilliant white stone of the Callaway residence taking over every inch of the house, tumbling down the columns that were imposters of neoclassical architecture. Although she had entered the house so many times, she felt like it was a building she could never truly enter, a world she could never really belong to. Suddenly, she felt incredibly homesick for the streets of her hometown. Here, there were no pings of bicycle bells to instruct you to move out of the way, just angry sirens and passers-by that ignored your presence completely, even if they had nowhere in particular to go. In Amsterdam, the crumbling buildings packed together in narrow streets invited you in, made you feel welcome, but let you know that they had an entire history, a jumbled row of skeletons in the closet that you had to take the time to study should you ever want them to be revealed to you.
She saw her reflection in the faint ripples of the swimming pool water, and she was reminded of that scene in Mulan when she wipes her face clean of make-up, erases her façade of an identity and bursts out into song. Real life, as Emelie was about to find out, was not like that.
“Hey Em, up for a late night swim?” came a voice from behind her, a voice that she could never hear again without bleeding herself dry.
She jumped, relaxed, realised who it was and tensed her shoulders up again.
“Brandon, you scared me,” she said, folding her arms tightly across her chest.
“Yeah?” he said, his voice making that one word sound like a question that Emelie was still not sure to this day quite how to answer.
They both stood there in silence for a minute; Emelie continuing to stare at her reflection in the pool, hoping the water would blur her reflection enough so she didn’t have to be the girl that was staring back at her.
“Well, I’m getting in,” Brandon said, finally, unzipping his jeans. As prudish as she was, Emelie couldn’t help but stare at him whilst he got undressed. He was slim, with only faint lines of visible muscle on his arms as he pulled his shirt over his head. His fingers were bony and thin, overworked from playing too much guitar. He was into the same music as Emelie, the only common ground they had to go on to make the rare moments they were left alone together bearable.
Maybe it was the way he looked at her, squinting one eye, eyebrows raised when he asked her “are you getting in?” She reminded her of her home city- quirky, rebellious and a little old fashioned. He reminded her of the canals that she had grown to be unable to live without, and she wanted to fall in deeper than ever before, maybe then her last wish would be granted. Maybe then she could disappear.
That, it should be noted, was the last question he asked her that night.
She couldn’t even look at him the next day when she passed him in the kitchen. The way he looked at her, asking her to pass the orange juice as if nothing had happened, made her feel physically sick. She was, in fact, physically sick in the downstairs toilet, and made for an apt excuse to persuade her Dad to drive her to the airport and catch an earlier flight home.
During the plane journey, things moved in radio frequencies. She felt like everyone around her, with their trivial conversations about the weather, filling their boots with duty-free produce, was alive and she merely existed after the life that had been promised to her had chewed her up and spat her out.
The woman next to her tapped her on the shoulder and Emelie flinched violently. She stared at the wild gaze of the taken aback old lady, saying nothing, and stepped aside to let her pass down the aisle. Her right shoulder tingled and she remembered his hands all over her, slippery on her skin that was drenched in chlorine, his blunt nails digging into her shoulder blade as he pushed her against the poolside. Time moved so slowly, and it felt like he would never let go of her, not even when she was a thousand miles away.
How Emelie ended up telling a clearly stoned, British tourist all this on a Tuesday afternoon during her lunch break at work, she did not know.
Looking back, maybe she did know. She guessed the woman was around the same age as her, in her early twenties, and was of mixed race like she was, her hair tied back neatly in two braids whilst Emelie’s unruly curls were shoved back into a bun at the nape of her neck. It wasn’t just that Emelie looked like her. She also recognised that same look of utter despair in her deep brown, almost black eyes, looking for trouble and chaos in a world that had left her totally uninspired and lost.
Of course, one had to factor in that a lot of what Emelie saw in her was probably to do with the copious amounts of marijuana she just consumed. The way Emelie saw it, tourists perceived weed very differently to Amsterdam natives. For them, weed was an act of rebellion and a showcase of debauchery and decadence that went hand in hand with prostitution and strip clubs. For Emelie, at least, weed had always been nothing more than a recreational activity that was best enjoyed in a social scenario. When you’re on your own and the high wears off, you realise the vapours that cloud your mind can not help you escape your reality, and this realisation takes you to a place lower than reality, where you have to deal with the fact that nothing will ever really get better.
For this reason, Emelie was indifferent, not one to judge others, especially if they gave her a five euro tip. She smiled at the unfamiliar sound of coins colliding with the side of the glass tip jar. She was grateful that she was able to afford dinner tonight, but also now felt inclined to make conversation with someone who obviously felt sorry for her, since it wasn’t her charm or stellar customer service that deserved such a compliment.
“What brings you to Amsterdam?” she decided was the appropriate ice breaker. She was careful not to ask how long she would be staying, for Amsterdam was populated by such an eclectic mix of people that one could never be sure who was a tourist and who knew the city like the back of their hands.
The tourist smiled dreamily at her.
“The need to be somewhere else,” she replied, stirring the milk into her coffee.
Emelie smiled, suddenly understanding her completely.
“Well, if you want to get lost, you’re in the right place,” she said.
The tourist cocked her head to one side, “how do you walk through the Red Light District to get to work every day? Like, do you feel safe?”
Emelie was taken aback, both by the very un-British brashness of the question and the fact that this was probably the first time a customer had engaged her in conversation that wasn’t shielded by small talk.
After years of hiding, of separating herself from everyone around her, Emelie finally felt able to talk, to a complete stranger no less, about nothing, about everything. It wasn’t that Emelie trusted her, but she found comfort in knowing that this woman was just as hopeless as she was.
“I’m about to go on my lunch break,” said Emelie looking at the clock, “do you want to sit? Only if you have time, of course.”
“Sure,” the tourist smiled, “I’ve got nothing but time.”
Over chocolate cake and coffee, they talked about nothing, and then everything at once. Neither of them were interested in the specifics; where they were from, how many siblings they had, whether or not they were dog people. For the first time since that night, Emelie wanted to fall in deep again, only this time she felt she had something, someone to hold on to, whose pain and tears and laughter were parallel to hers.
Even after she finished her story, she was sceptical of her reaction. She didn’t want her to comfort, she didn’t want her to pretend to feel anything, but most of all, she prayed she didn’t say sorry. She couldn’t make up for the apology that he never gave her.
To her relief, she didn’t say anything for a while. She sat back in her seat and looked directly at her, not out of a struggle to find something to say but in order to take the time to understand Emelie and the tired creases under her eyes, trying to match up the broken spirit she saw in front of her with the broken body Emelie had left in that pool two years ago.
“It’s fucking hilarious,” she said suddenly, making Emelie pause mid-forkful of cake.
“It’s fucking hilarious,” she repeated, “that no matter how hard we try to fit in, someone is always waiting to use us, or exploit us, or put us on display.”
Emelie didn’t quite know what to say, but she assumed by “we” she was referring to their birraciality, a term which to Emelie had always seemed to alienate, a tick box on her school forms that established clearly in black and white that she was different from everyone else.
“I was convinced my last boyfriend was the love of my life,” she said through a mouthful of cake.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, her jaw struggling to keep up with the amount of cake she had shoved in her mouth.
“So anyway,” she continued, “everything was going great, I had never been so happy, felt so complete. Until he went all weird one day when he found out I wore a weave and didn’t grow out of my fucking head, moron,” she finished chewing and swallowed.
“A few days of radio silence and then he broke up with me,” she shrugged, although kept her eyes down so the memory wouldn’t dampen the rims around her eyes.
“so, yeah, white boys are stupid, but black guys are no worse. Apparently being a fan of hip-hop is a fucking requirement if you’re even a little bit black,” she laughed, but the tone of her voice dipped in slow motion.
There was an emptiness in her eyes that Emelie felt down right to her very core. All her life, in this supposed liberal post-race world, she had been told that race didn’t matter. But it’s what she saw when she looked in the mirror every day and ignoring it made everything worse. From the jobs she applied for and got even though she didn’t have the right qualifications, to the friends she made, to the racially-charged compliments strangers gave her on the streets. Race mattered. It accounted for everything in her life.
“You can’t fucking win, you know?” she finally said, bringing an end to her brief monologue.
Emelie thought about what she did know, of what she really knew beneath the culture that had been branded on her brown skin and her mind that had perhaps been blurred by a postcolonial over-education. She knew how her mother used to send her into school with braids, and the other girls would pull on them and pet her like a dog. She knew the awkwardness of going shopping for foundation with her step-mother and asking the make-up woman if they stocked a more “exotic” shade. She remembered her classmates asking if her Mum sold weed. She knew the torture of enduring zwante piet year after year, her face smiling at Santa’s elves parading down the street in blackface, even though her soul and everything her mother taught her and the burden of her ancestors were dying inside. She remembered seeing a black girl standing on the other side of the street and wondering whether her heart was breaking too.
Emelie splashed water on her face and looked at her reflection in the mirror, the dark circles under her eyes fading as a result of the shock of the cold temperature.
“Yeah,” she said to the woman staring back at her, “you can’t fucking win.”