Discover more from portrait of a body (in pieces)
7. Imbeciles sans frontiers
March (part one)
This is part one of March, and part seven overall. Read on, you crazy diamond, or take it from the top.
Last time: A lost heart found, a final meeting, a lasting mantra.
The train pulls in with my brother, Pete, already half cut on tins of gin and tonic. I’ve been pacing myself on coffee and content. A four-hour trip spent watching old episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is a show about terrible people being horrible to each other. Some things never get old. The occasion is it’s my birthday weekend, which makes it Pete’s birthday weekend. Steady on, pal, I say. We’ve got a little over a day of drink and debauchery ahead. He waves me off. The clock says one p.m. Thirty-one hours in Amsterdam to go.
The Airbnb is up a set of stairs so steep they should come with a donkey. A full set of lungs doesn’t seem to be helping Pete, who has abandoned his draggy-bag and is lying across the landing with four flights to go. When I walk in, Brandon is already on scene, which I sense first from the ionic charge in the atmosphere (he comes with his own weather system), and second because I hear him (American, thus very loud). Dude, he says. You look different. Haircut? I see him now, arms thrown open, wearing a very tiny towel. Cut a few things, I say. I do a sort of sweeping gesture. He points at my gut. Not calories, though, he says. The thing about Brand is he’s a proper cunt. I lean in for a hug and thank him for coming, our bellies pressed together. Dude, of course, he says. It’s ten full minutes before he notices my brother isn’t here.
We’re flying down Dutch streets on bright orange rental bikes, ringing our bells without care or caution and causing no small amount of traffic chaos. Imbeciles sans frontiers. Idiots without borders. Pete has sobered up some, but only so far as being able to balance on a bicycle. He keeps ringing the bell on his handlebars and shouting hoe gaat het?! at people nearby. It’s a phrase he learned from Dutch tourists we met on summer holidays in France when we were kids. Brandon is either trying to take a video or run a livestream. He has his phone mounted on the front of his bike, narrating our ride with wisdom like: Dude, Amsterdam is wild. I’m concentrating very hard on steering. There is a running bet on which of us will be first into a canal. All bets are on me. We are three well-travelled thirty-something men who get together once every few years, global health emergencies allowing, pick a city, and take in the best of the local scene over a few days. These trips do little for the reputation of straight white men, but no one gets hurt and we’re very polite to waiters.
We’re at a bar in Dam Square drinking metric measures of Amstel Light and plotting our entertainments. The GPS coordinates for my Acid Watch suggests it’s somewhere in the north of the city, across the harbour. I show the map on my phone to the women who runs the bar, and she says something in Dutch, then without missing a beat says, flea market. The Dutch work on dual operating systems. She looks at the clock on the wall. Closes soon, she says. You can take the ferry. I neck the Amstel and make for the door. Pete and Brand are busy mapping out a weed crawl that will take up the bulk of their evening. They are like this when they get together. A content creator who lives online and a high school teacher without any social media. They have little in common, except me. And yet when the three of us go anywhere it’s like they’re the brothers and I’m the friend who just jetted in. Have an Amster-damn good time, Pete says, and they both break into giggle-fits.
When I arrive most of the stalls have started packing up, but it’s still an impressive sight. The term flea market didn’t quite conjure the reality. There are hundreds of stands, ranging from yard sales to travelling antique stores. I ask someone where I might find my missing limb. They give me a somewhat grave look. Arms dealers are out back. Down a concrete corridor and through a set of double doors at either end, the vintage clocks and dusty rugs of the main hall give way to a meat market of sorts: Limbs, organs and all. When people talk about the skin trade in Amsterdam, I don’t think this is what they have in mind.
We’re somewhere around our third brandy when I remember to tell my new best friend, Raymond Lebeurre, the affable French arms dealer, that the arm I wish to deal in still has a watch attached. We got side-tracked toasting to lost limbs. Raymond is short a leg, and when I asked how he lost it, he said, Some people will do anything to get a leg up. He laughs like a schoolboy, especially at his own jokes. I love him dearly, despite only just meeting him. He is without restraint. If I had to guess, I’d say gout got his leg. Yes, your arm, he says. Tell me about it. I describe my tattoos and give him a good look at my left. He thinks a moment then digs in a pile of appendages. I’ve got to hand it to you, he says, holding out my missing arm, absolutely losing his shit in the process. What a mad lad. It’s my arm alright, the LSD wearable sitting snugly on the wrist. What will that be? You ask. He puts his tiny glasses at the tip of his nose and looks it over. Hmm, he says. Give me three hundred for the brandy and I’ll throw the arm in for free. I agree and he wraps it in Christmas paper. I tuck my arm under my arm and thank him for everything. If I ever need a limb I’ll look you up, I say. He hands me his card and I say farewell. There’s a glint in his eye that suggests a joke is coming: You might even say… a farewell to arms, he says, and just about dies. I’m laughing too, when a thought stops me in my tracks. Actually, Raymond, I say. Don’t suppose you’ve got any eyes?
I unwrap the arm on the ferry back. I haven’t been able to straighten it since a friend put me in an armbar when I was fifteen and the joint calcified in protest. He was a year older, and I was very fond of him. I trusted him when he said it wouldn’t hurt. Nearly twenty-five-years later I’m not sure I believe him. There’s a scar where they did exploratory surgery. The specialist said unless they rebuilt it entirely, it was staying slightly bent. I kept the kink. A souvenir of a silly thing that happened once. Like a tattoo, except tattoos are scars you get to choose. The arm is arthritic as a result of the injury, and stiffens if kept in one position, so I flex it a bit to keep it supple. Off the ferry, I spot an establishment called Cocktails and Limbs and pop in to see about getting it sewn back on.
I find the Brothers Sativa in the Nine Streets, three spliffs deep and sizing up a wheel of gouda. Dude, says Brandon. New wing? I flap it for his benefit. Same old wing, I say. But this is new. I flip-up my patch to show off a bright green eye. I’m feeling better already. The same can’t be said for the rest of the party, as Pete is currently having a fight with some imitation dairy. It’s plastic?! He shouts. Plastic! He hoists the sham cheese above his head and threatens it with the nearest canal. Then he starts in hysterics, and in a style reminiscent of Thom Yorke, sings fake plastic cheese at full volume. I attempt to wrestle the wheel back from him. Brandon captures the moment. It’s decorative gouda season, motherfuckers, he says.
The first time Pete and I came to Amsterdam we were fourteen and with our parents. Nothing quite quells the erotic potential of a visit to the red light district like your mum pointing out how much she likes the prints on the kimonos of the sex workers trying to coax your dad inside for a suck-and-fuck.
We’re heading to the second reason I came here, a whisky cafe with fifteen-hundred bottles to choose from. They can have all the weed they wish. I want to while away the hours with as many drams as I can handle. So, you’re all done? asks Brandon. I put my reattached arm around him, and we walk in tandem. Not quite, I say. There’s still the question of what this thing is. I hold up the wearable so he can see the soft black silicon band strapped to my wrist. The device its attached to is watch-shaped, but not a watch, since on closer inspection the numbers on the front are just a sticker. The time sits forever stuck at 11:30. Still, Brand says. Seems a little undramatic. Pete, a few paces behind us, takes this as an invitation to pipe up. I’ve got a question, he says. He’s six spliffs into a thirty-one-hour weed bender and currently talking like he’s beyond time. He casts his arms around, conducting the city. How did you pay for all this? Due to all the sativa he’s smoked he takes it in his stride when I tell him the reason that I’m flush with cash is because I pawned a kidney.
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