Her first love affair had been perfect: sweet, brief and superficial, it had solved the problem of virginity in a timely, fuss-free way. This is what she thought as she read a line of poetry by Mary Ruefle: ‘… which I have been doing since I was thirteen, which was so long ago the very word thirteen has an old-fashioned ring to it, one might as well say “Ottoman Empire”.’
After high school, she worked in the Van Gogh Museum’s shop. Terrified and paralysed by the prospect of a whole life ahead of her, she thought too late, too late about everything. It was a feeling she had had since she was thirteen. One of the best-selling posters was a portrait of a skeleton smoking a cigarette. One day, an American asked if Van Gogh had painted the work after his death. After a puzzled silence, a colleague replied, ‘How could he paint when he was dead?’ ‘Good point,’ the man said amiably and walked on.
She felt nostalgia for the city of her youth: the smell of piss and the junkies behind Central Station, instead of a promenade full of tourists and electric bikes. She had no desire to be thirteen or twenty again, but she longed to see and smell that city’s grey bin bags and dog shit once more, sporting bright windbreakers, frizzy hair and cakey make-up. Everything had been less smooth, but no less sexy. More so, she thought. Maybe it was just a sign that she was getting old and her preferences stuck in her teenage years.
She and her first love went to see Sliding Doors, a film in which Gwyneth Paltrow misses the metro and her life splits in two: in one version she manages to catch the metro and discovers that her husband is cheating on her; in the other she misses the train and does not make that discovery. Too young to have a drink in a café, they stood forlornly beside the garden with the bronze lizards, where they had had a Latin class the summer before. Their young teacher hadn’t felt like teaching indoors, when sunlight poured into the classroom and you could taste the smell of teenage sweat.
They watched the neon Heineken advertisement high above the square. How the huge glasses of beer filled with yellow light and knocked against each other, their foamy heads overflowing. The light went out and the process repeated itself, endlessly. He said that some guys jerk off with their left hand so that it is awkward and they can pretend it is someone else’s hand; thinking of another person bending over them in the silent movie behind closed eyelids, where most arousal is generated. Maybe all of it, she thought later, when a stranger moved above her in bed. Some guys, she mused.
The neon sign had been taken down years ago and, after the renovation, the lizards had returned to a smaller garden above an underground bicycle parking. Still, whenever she passed by, she was reminded of those three-quarters of an hour in the sun, when she and the rest of the class had sat on the withered grass under the curious gazes of tourists while their teacher talked about the Abduction of the Sabine Women, instead of explaining the plusquamperfectum tense. With a deep-seated sense of teenage nostalgia, she had realised at that moment how singular each hour of life is. Perhaps because so much of it was still new. Today, it is sex that gives you that sense of immediacy, allowing you to live in the moment and to delay regret. She craves forgetting more than orgasms.
While still in primary school, her breasts and hips had grown so dramatically that deep stretch marks resembling tiger-claw scratches had appeared on her skin. Years later, a man liked to stroke these marks, affectionately calling them her tiger stripes. She realised then that she had survived her prey status, but that the first shock of having a female body – of being flesh in the streets – had stopped her from ever becoming a hunter. In the end, she got stuck in no man’s land, where she thought men actually wanted to hear what she had to say. She had lost the opportunity to enjoy being sexy; she had been that, but too young. She was early, like tropical girls are, her mother had said.
Guilders were still in use, and she wore white cotton briefs with a delicate rose print. He took her to the park, away from amused parental eyes. They drank sugary, bright green Fernandes that had been pre-mixed with vodka at home, and had sex behind a huge solitary and majestic-looking tree in a field. She had cycled past it countless times on her way to outdoor PE classes. For a biology lesson, they had to count the number of living organisms in a ditch near that tree. Feeling embarrassed to be out in the street with scoop nets and notebooks, they were under the childlike delusion that they no longer looked like schoolkids.
His parents were divorced, something she found exotic. He had blue-green eyes with black hair and skin so pale it betrayed every blush. As far as she remembers, the courtship only lasted a few afternoons after school, and they were so shy that they hardly dared to look each other in the eye. She remembered stuffing tufts of grass into the neck of his T-shirt, much to his annoyance, as a pretext for touching him. September was still warm, the vegetation saturated and dusty. On his bedroom wall was a poster of the Nevermind cover. He sniggered about the naked baby.
Now she was at a barbecue in that same park. It was another child’s birthday and a party was thrown: blankets, bottles of booze, family, friends and neighbours. The sun was low in the sky, shining through the grass and lighting up the greenery. She took another sip of excellent wine and wondered if people had ever lived as calmly and insipidly as they did now. She could already feel the sting of a headache coming on.
At that moment he cycled by as if he had been lost in the past and had returned through a crack in time. His face was exactly the same, or at least the eyes were. His hairline receding, he had a child’s seat attached to his bike. Had she not happened to catch his eye, he would have cycled past, but now he looked at her, at the tree, then back at her with a smile and stopped.
She visited the Van Gogh Museum recently and realised that the painter had died at the age of thirty-seven. She was unexpectedly moved by his last paintings of the clinic’s garden. A brown path, bent and gnarled oaks, buttery-yellow light.