Amsterdam at Midnight

By Graham Parke

Indie Writers’ Deathmatch Champion 2008

I can’t sleep and head out, wondering how long this can go on, wondering if not sleeping night after night after night can cause brain damage, irreversible health effects. Wondering what it’s doing to my hair and my eyes and my skin, which is beginning to look old. The night’s wet and cold and I’m not wearing enough clothing. I don’t want to go back so I walk on, along the canal, to the center of Amsterdam, where there’ll still be some life, some pale reflection of society, be it distilled and raw and craving things mostly illegal. I pass a group of teenagers trying to get high on their last crumbs of weed and a suit about to reverse his oversized SUV into one of the tiny spots along the canal. It’s starting to come down hard and I hear little over the hiss of the rain on the water. There are thoughts churning away at the back of my mind but they’re dull and slow and I can’t really make them out. I know I must be the one thinking them but, right now, it doesn’t really feel that way. I pull up my collar, keep my eyes on the ground, walk on. When I reach Rembrandt’s Square the downpour seems suddenly ineffectual; the rain’s no match for the colored light streaming from the pubs and the arcade, the drum-n-bass emanating from all around cancels out the discomfort. I’m still getting wet, still freezing, but somehow I don’t feel it. Sensory overload superimposed on thought deprivation. I keep walking.


A homeless guy pulls on my jacket and asks me for a cigarette. I don’t have one, don’t smoke, and I tell him so. He doesn’t let go, wants to know about my cash situation, specifically, if I have any change to spare. I tell him I can give him a few euros if he lets go. He says it’s a deal. It’s a deal if I take my euros and get him some smokes from the machine in the arcade. I give him a look. He asks if I think it’s easy getting this spot right in front of the club, right where the wallets are pulled out to spill the big bucks, the paper cash. He glances over his shoulder. Homeless people sit scattered around the square, their positions now looking less random. He tells me he’s been waiting for this spot for five weeks and he can’t move. They may seem slow, he says, they may seem harmless, but they’re vultures, predators. I look again, note the hungry expressions, the snide glances. My coat is heavy and cold with rain and I go to the arcade to get the smokes. It’s the least I can do and right now I’m all about doing the least I can do.


You’d think that without sleep you’d eventually get to a point where you just roll back your eyes and pass out, problem solved. But that’s not the case. It just doesn’t work that way. Somehow you keep moving, running on fumes, zoning out a few minutes at a time, just long enough and often enough to keep you going. You’re alive but not really. You’re awake but not all there. It’s true what they say; when you never sleep you’re also never quite awake. Not really. The worst of both worlds.


Inside the club I wander aimlessly until some girl catches my eye. I stare at her, trying to work out why I’m staring at her. Not an easy task. At first glance she’s exactly not my type; tattoos down her left arm, long white hair – not blond, not imitation blond, but white. She wears a skirt that’s way too short and she smokes, taking long slow drags, then pulling the cigarette away between fingers with purple nails. What a turn off. Totally trashy. Still, I can’t take my eyes off her. For an instant, just a second, she looks at me with this dark, brooding gaze, a look just a few muscle twitches shy of a smirk, and all sorts of things stir inside me. I try to ignore her and tell myself it’s the beer, not this girl. It’s the long sleepless nights, it’s the bad, pulsating light, it’s the fact that I haven’t had sex in weeks. But her eyes are cool and thrilling and when she disappears into the crowd I head back to the bar to order something stronger, a Whisky-Orange Juice, then head up to the balcony to scan the dance floor.


I usually start my sleepless nights by ordering some drinks in this 24-hour place, this shrine to red and blue plastic that’s bathed in bright fluorescence. I’m not really sure why I go there or how long I stay, but I’m there a lot lately. I sit and zone out and try to smile when the waitress comes over, pad in hand, rings under eyes, hair out of whack. You can always tell she’d have no trouble sleeping. She’d fall asleep right on your table if they’d let her. Maybe that’s why I go there; to see how the rest of the world struggles during my ghosting hours. She asks me what I want but what I want she cannot bring me, so I order a beer or a shake (never a Coke, never coffee). I tell her not to hurry. I tell her to take her sweet time, I’m not going anywhere. She’ll shrug and walk off, and my gaze will wander, moving over the other patrons, all bathed in this unholy fluorescence. A few nights ago, as I sat there gazing, this girl by the window stood out. She was sitting alone, nursing a shake, holding a single red rose. She was plain looking but in a good way, if there is such a thing, and she smiled amiably at nothing and no one, at the world in general. A guy in coveralls came in and sat down at the table next to mine, opening a paper and calling for the breakfast menu. This guy had no sleeping problems. This guy wasn’t there to kill time. He was nightshift, supposed to be there, awake at that hour, and I bet he’d never had problems sleeping during the day either. The girl with the rose went over to his table and introduced herself, asked him if he was Marcel. The guy said he might be, told her to sit down, asked her who was asking. She sat and told him she was his blind date. If he was Marcel. He smiled, said he was.


On the dance floor I coast along on the beat, moving with the crowd as it expands and shrinks, throbs and pulsates, a gigantic multi-facetted heart of which I’m a mere cell, one insignificant little element of a giant muscle. Only part of what I do is the result of conscious effort, the rest is automatic response, much like the way I spend my days at work. When I think about it, I’m the opposite of a sleep-walker; I’m a wake-walker, though only barely so. I look like I’m alive but most of the time I’m an empty shell. I keep the lights on but I’m not often home. I coast and sway in the heat until I lose all orientation, all concept of space and time, until I finally find tattoo girl, dancing her heart out in the crowd, and I smile when she spots me and comes over, dancing away the distance between us. The words Totally Trashy leave my mind and instead I see this young, vibrant, mysterious female. Someone who knows more about the night and about life than I’ll ever want to know. I move with her and keep my mind blank. No judgments. No thoughts at all.


I really can’t remember when it first started, how it first started, but for as far back as I can recall, I haven’t been sleeping. I know sleep exists but it’s a strange and intangible thing that mostly happens to other people. I can’t imagine what an hour of deep, uninterrupted sleep might feel like, never mind a full night’s worth. It’s been that long. That far back. The midnight walks are relatively new though, a thing of the last two or three months. They don’t happen every night but they happen most nights and they happen more and more often. I don’t know of any great problem that’s keeping me awake, if there is, if there ever was, it’s long since forgotten. The main problem I have now, the only problem in fact, is the not sleeping. Apart from killing the real me, the person I can almost remember being, it’s also killing all sense of taste and smell and color. It’s leaving me with nothing but dull impressions.


One moment I’m dancing with her, or what passes for dancing, the crowd being so close and loud and tangled, the next moment she’s gone. My throat’s dry and hoarse and in the sweltering heat under the laser show the alcohol is starting to give me a buzz and I decide to ignore the implied rejection and go after her, find my tattooed vixen and get her to have a drink with me. As I’m about to move away, something holds me back, locks up my legs. I look down, there she is, and already she’s undoing my buttons and already she’s taking hold of me and already I can feel her warm breath on my skin. With a muted sense of excitement I’m suddenly aware of the reverberating bass. I alternate between looking down and glancing around, wondering if anyone sees us, notices what’s going on. Later, standing at the bar, ordering anything without caffeine, she looks at me and asks how it was. I nod and then she looks down at nothing and says that now it’s my turn.


I saw her again, a few days ago. Again in the diner, the bright, fluorescent shrine to red and blue plastic, and she looked vaguely familiar. I couldn’t place her until I spotted the flower, the single red rose she kept under her table, out of sight, invisible until she got up to meet her guy. There was a little confusion when she sat at his table, a little hiccup in the fluidity of her movements and, although this time they were out of earshot, I could follow the exchange easily. A blind date, she was saying. A planned meeting. She showed him the rose. Was his name Tom? (or Marcel or Freddy or whatever?) Quick flash, his eyes scanned the diner. Thinking, can I pretend to be Marcel? Do I want to pretend to be Marcel? If I pretend to be Marcel, can I get us out of here before the real Marcel shows up? She smiled. He smiled. He wanted to know if she’d leave with him, go somewhere else for a drink, and she had no problem with that.


Tattoo girl asks me for a twenty and when I want to know what it’s for she smiles and says I’ll find out soon enough, then she disappears in the direction of the restrooms. I assume she’s going to get some viciously ribbed rubbers with hot, tasty, gel. I realize this isn’t the case when I find her again an hour later, lying on top of some guy on a couch in the foyer, sleeping off the drinks I got her. I can’t really tell which one of the two is more out of it, but it’s clear they’re together; they’re wearing the same lame ring- eagle on a skull – and their tattoos, in that shade of red that never quite works well in tattoos, match. Suddenly I’m sick of this scene, this club, or as sick as I have the energy to be, and I decide to forget about the twenty and the girl and the rings and get some fresh air.


Sleeping pills don’t help. They just make you more lethargic, deepen your daze for a couple of hours. It’s more like a self-inflicted prison than a cure. Hypnosis doesn’t help either, nor does acupuncture, the obligatory glasses of warm milk – with or without the honey. Water with valerian, doing more sports, depriving yourself of oxygen, and a hundred or so other tricks; no go. Sleep will not be tricked, not mine anyway, and I passed the phase of trying to guide the river where it won’t go such a long time ago I can hardly remember all the insane things I tried.


I’m walking down a narrow alley when the smell of piss and stale beer jars me awake and I look up to see that daytime has finally arrived. The sky burns with a hopeful mix of magenta and bright blue but I feel anything but hopeful. Seems I’ve been wandering the streets for a while, although my memory cannot tell me anything about leaving the club or what I might have done since. The alcohol has burned off and my daze is back to its old level of dull half-wakefulness. Eyes burning, body heavy as lead, I navigate around a pool of vomit and turn into Kalver Street, step over a body lying there, half dressed, passed out, and I note that this guy looks like the guy who took my wallet last week. I’m not too sure though, so I only kick him in the crotch lightly, then walk on. I pass a tribe of street cleaners and sense my mind cycling back down to low power consumption. I can almost feel it slip away into non-thought, into non-being, but the effect is only really noticeable the few seconds after it returns, like now, as I touch cold metal and open the door to a place that serves an early breakfast.


It’s too late to go home and too early to go to work, so I sit and wait, nursing something I don’t remember ordering. It takes me a while to realize she’s also here, sitting by the window, casing the place. I take another sip, not sure what I’m tasting, and watch her get up and stroll through the diner, holding the flower, the single red rose, like a shield, like a torch. I glance about but there’s no one in sight, no eligible bachelors, just some junkies by the slot machine and an old guy in a dirty coat licking the Styrofoam casing of a long-departed burger. When I look back, she’s sitting across from me. She’s sitting at my table and asks me my name. She doesn’t give it to me, doesn’t give me the name of the date she’s waiting for, just wants me to tell her mine. She looks at me with red-rimmed eyes, blinking slowly. The door opens and a small group of people shuffles in, dark, harrowed faces. The faces of the desperate. I’m not sure why they seem familiar, why I think I know them. I look back at the girl and it occurs to me there never were any blind dates. Not a single one. Just a girl with a rose selecting guys and getting them to pick her up. A double bluff. A little switcheroo. But me, I get no name, no hook for reeling her in. She stares at me and waits and I don’t get to say I’m Marcel. I ask her, “Why don’t you tell me my name?” My voice comes from far away and I’m not sure she hears me, she seems busy studying my face, looking into me, looking through me. She says, “You’re one of us.” A statement, not a question. “I’ve seen you around. Yesterday, last week, a month ago. You go to all our places. The places we go when there’s nowhere left to go.”

I take another sip. I think I’m drinking a strawberry shake but I’m not sure. Hard to tell when even your taste buds are in limbo.

“You’re new,” she says, “but you already have the look. You’ve given up trying to control it, trying to force it. Now you’re like us, you follow the flow.”

She’s talking about sleep, about the absence of it. She knows. She has it too. I’ve seen her too often, too late at night, too early in the morning, for her to be talking about anything else.

“There’s no cure,” she says, casually squashing the final remnants of hope I didn’t know I had. “But,” she says, “there is a way to cope.” She puts down the rose to take a sip of my shake. She says, “There’s a way to survive, a way to build a life around this problem.” She gives me an encouraging smile, looks deep into me, says, “Isn’t that what life really is?”

She’s right. I look around at the dark, harrowed faces, feel my shoulders relax. They don’t look so desperate now, so lost. And I realize this must be her. This must be the girl who’ll teach me about the night. The one who will tell me what I need to know.

Graham Parke was born in a small town in the Netherlands in 1738. He lived off the land, hunting squirrels and crocodiles, until, in 1799, he finally decided to join society. Society was not pleased. After creating rudimentary working models for an internal combustion engine, a water powered laser, and a set of surprisingly fuzzy dice, he finally found his true calling; he was to become a scribe. He immediately set upon his new interest with vigor, taking long lunches, sleeping in till all hours of the afternoon, and spending his waking hours lamenting the indescribable hardships of the insanely talented. He also did some writing. His best known efforts to date are; ‘What I’d like for my birthday — a short list by G. Parke’ (1913) and ‘People I just met — address book entries to add over the weekend’ (1965). He’s still hoping for that ever elusive big break. Graham Parke has been described as both a humanitarian and a pathological liar. Convincing evidence to support either allegation has yet to be produced.


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