I wake up from a strange and complicated dream to discover my ennui has made it through the darkest part of the night and into the dawn. Though, it’s long past dawn. I’ve slept past breakfast and past my “go get ‘em” plan to be up early and out exploring Antwerp. I lie in bed and procrastinate. I don’t feel like spending the thirty plus dollars to take a cab by myself, and, besides, I’m in need of some solace. More than buildings, cathedrals, museums, lace, diamonds and chocolate shops I want human company. So I get up, get dressed, and go in search of some friends.
Port time is different from sea time. The officers’ schedules go from four hour to six hour duty stretches. The bridge gets locked up and even the door to the pilot deck stays bolted unless someone is out there. The crew supervises and helps the stevedores load cargo at what scheduled hours I have no clue. Someone’s posted at the gangway 24/7. Room doors stay closed and locked and visitors need a Rickmers badge to come onboard.
Key in hand, I lock my door and head down the hallway disliking portside security and the shut-outness of everything. The chief engineer’s door is closed and I figure he’s down in the engine room supervising repairs and getting ready for the inspection scheduled for later in the day. I’m not sure when I’ll see him. Maybe at lunch.
The captain’s door is closed. The owner’s room (used for guests) is closed. The lounge door is closed. I’m sure if I went all the way around I’d see that Josh’s old room is also closed up. All the doors say “Keep Out!” The hall is sterile and unfriendly this way. I leave it behind me.
We came across the Atlantic with a fairly empty ship and here in Antwerp we’re getting filled up to the gills. There’s a lot of cargo to load. We’re also getting loaded up here with “guests” as well.
The Supercargo, who I’d met briefly the day before, is a Polish ex-captain with a wiry beard, an occasional smile for me, a head full of stories and a no nonsense attitude towards his work. He sits next to me at meal times. We chat like auld acquaintances not forgot. I never learn his name.
“Do you miss being out at sea?” I ask him at some point.
“When I miss the sea,” he tells me. “I go out in my sailboat.”
We’ve got a German guy from the Rickmers office who’s in charge of operations and dangerous cargo. His name is Anastacios. He came onboard demanding a room, a shower and some water to drink and I’d thought him mean, difficult and quintessentially German. But first impressions don’t always hold their mold. I like him more and more as I get to know him. He takes Josh’s place at the table for meals. He’s handsome; dark haired and clean cut and our conversations never get the chance to go as long as they’d like to go.
We have inspectors and special workers coming and going. Some of them are staying the nights on ship, eating at the table with us and filling up the space in the offices and at the conference room table.
We’re also getting two passengers. “They’re going for the fifteen hour trip from here to Hamburg,” Josko had told me in a tone that implied the strangeness of this method of travel for such a short distance. All I know is that it’s a father and son. I imagine them as a father with his young son taking an interesting trip from one city to another. Time will show them to us as they really are.
Even with a people full ship, I don’t encounter anyone on my way to the mess room.
I go through the stairway door, cross the short hallway and head through the mess room door. Joe is at the sink and turns when I come in. I don’t stop at the table; I step over the threshold into the sacred kitchen area.
“Good morning,” I say.
“Good morning!” Joe says enthusiastically, almost singing it. He smiles at me. “You go outside?”
“I did last night,” I say. “It’s nice out there. I don’t know about today. Maybe I’ll go out later. The taxi is very expensive though.”
“You should go with Jay,” Joe says. “He wants to go later. You want coffee?”
I do want coffee, and Joe gets me set up. Jay comes around the corner at the sounds of his name, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Morning,” I say.
“Good morning,” he says. “You go outside?”
I tell him what I’d told Joe.
“Come back here,” Jay says, he motions me with a hand. I follow him back into the cooking kitchen part. The stoves are filled with pots and I go peak in them. There’s a watery cabbage soup, the boiled, bland meat special cooked for Josko, and other mysterious concoctions. We talk while Jay watches water levels, adds vegetables into the meat-filled pans, and checks the macaroni that’s cooking in the oven. Joe comes in. “You want cheese?” he asks me, setting the plastic wrapped plate of sliced yellow cheese on the counter in front of me.
“Thanks, Joe,” I say. I take the plastic off and help myself.
Joe sets up the rice to cook--“There’s always rice,” the captain told me once when I asked Joe if there was any to go along with my stir fried vegetables—“You go with Jay outside?” Joe asks me.
I look at Jay. He looks back at me to see what I’ll say. “Sure,” I say. Why not? “You coming too, Joe?” I want him to come, to get a break from the constant work. He’s always busy.
They explain that we’ll have to go after dinner and everything is cleaned up. “Maybe 7:00.”
“I can help clean,” I tell them. “That way we can get out of here faster. So we don’t miss the bus.”
There’s a bus that comes at 6:30 for the seamen and takes them, as a courtesy, to the Seaman’s Club where they can get online, play billiards, makes phone calls, change money, send money back to their families, drink, buy snacks, exchange old books for new ones, and visit with other seamen. Then, at 11:30, the bus brings everyone back to their own ship.
If I help clean up then maybe we can make the 6:30 bus, if we don’t then we can split the cost for a cab. They go for this idea, especially after they find out I already have Euros. “We can change money with you?” Jay asks.
I shrug. “Okay.”
Joe goes back to his part of the kitchen to finish the two salad bowls that go on the officers’ tables and Jay and I talk about all things and nothing.
Some of the crew filter in for an early lunch. “You want to eat?” Jay asks.
My stomach says yes. I grab a bowl and go around to the crew mess room. A handful of guys are sitting around the main table eating meat and rice. The Ukrainian, Val, who had given me the video of Neptune’s Initiation Rite sits by himself at a table in the corner. I wave at him as I fill my bowl with rice and then put cabbage soup over it, Peru soup style, avoiding the meat. At the table I spice it up with some Chinese hot sauce.
“That’s hot,” Ian tells me as I turn the bottle over and pour. He’s got a worried look on his face, thinks I’m crazy. Who puts rice in their soup?
“I know,” I say. I’d taste-tested it first. I’m missing my own cooking a little. Missing garlic and ginger and cayenne pepper. This improvisation hits the spot. I finish my soup and go back for seconds. The guys come and go. They’re happy I’m sitting in their room. Some of them are shy. They eat and leave without so much as a word, but their company is just exactly what I need.
When they’ve all gone and I’m alone, I take my bowl to the sink and wash it before Joe can stop me. There’s a few guys smoking in the break room and I sit with them; Charlton and Alaska and another Able Body whose face is familiar and whose name is forever unknown to me. They don’t have much time and when their cigarettes are smoked down I’m left alone again.
Just as I’m wondering if Joe and Jay will get sick of me, regular lunch time clicks up on the clock and the officers start to arrive. Marius, the electrician, usually the first in at mealtimes, is already at his seat.
“Good appetite,” I tell him through the window that separates the kitchen and the mess room.
“Ah, good appetite,” he says, looking up, surprised to see me on the wrong side of the room.
The Supercargo comes in and sits and Josko follows shortly after. I’ve already eaten, but I need the nourishment of these guys’ conversation. I go sit in my seat. We all exchange “Good Appetites.”
“The police were looking for you,” Marius tells me.
Josko raises his eyebrows. We all pretend I’m a spy. None of us explain to the Supercargo what Marius means. But he doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even seem to be listening. He keeps to his own business.
“Did you tell them, ‘Amanda? Amanda who?’” I ask. The joke goes on a beat or two longer.
“And your friend?” Josko asks, motioning Josh’s place with a turn of his head.
“He left,” I say.
There’s a touch of silence.
“You don’t eat?” Josko asks me. He cuts his boiled meat. The meat we joke about looking like dinosaur meat.
“I ate already,” I say.
The Supercargo picks and eats his food. I think up something to ask him. Something about our route, our cargo, our schedule for Antwerp.
“She already knows,” Josko tells the Super. “It’s a good cover question,” he tells me. “That’s smart. Trying to make it seem like you don’t already know.”
I shrug. Smile. Act mysterious. Act natural, just like a spy.
I stick around until they all excuse themselves and go. Then shortly after, I head back up to my room. I can face my demons now.
Josko’s door is open. He’s on the couch, watching something. It’s the usual after lunch pattern. The regularity of it comforts me. I pause at the opening. “Are you going to get to go outside?” I ask him.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he says.
“If you want company,” I say. “Let me know.”
He shrugs, raises his eyebrows. Says something that I don’t quite catch but that sounds something like “It’s good, it makes me appreciate my wife,” or “It’s good, gives me break from my wife.” Josko says whatever he’d said with a twinkle in his eye. I don’t know his wife, but I love her anyways. He loves her way more, but we have that understanding in our friendship and I’m happy.
“I stay home until I start to piss off my wife and then I leave again,” Josko had said when we talked about the hardship of being away from family for long stretches.
“Maybe after breakfast,” he says. “We have inspection in engine room this afternoon.”
I start a book by Gertrude Stein. I take it, my notebook, and my camera up to the pilot deck to sit in the sun and recharge. When Gertrude keeps on with stuff like, “Anyone can be certain of something. Some can be certain that loving is existing. Some can be certain of anything” and doesn’t let off that style for pages and pages I set the book aside and put my own words down. It’s a pressure release valve that sprays my emotions out of me into the atmosphere. “Better out than in,” an old boyfriend had told me about something else much less figurative.
Because a rejection makes me feel
And that—mediocrity--is what I dread
more than anything in the world
Even more than rejection.
It’s all a matter of what I believe about myself.
These rejections make me doubt my self-belief.
Help me in my unbelief.
I watch a duck dive in and out of the water. I watch it swim and vanish. Reappear and disappear again. I may not laugh out loud when I think, “Do you ask a bird how it flies? Or a fish how it swims? No, they do it because they were born to do it,” (from Willy Wonka), but I smile. My sense of humor is on its way back and I’m grateful. Life ain’t no fun without a sense of humor. I watch the bugs, all the different types of bugs flying and crawling and buzzing around me. I’ve seen more insects now, and in these past twenty-four hours, than I have in the past twenty-one days. A ladybug lands on the cover of my notebook and cleans itself. “Do what you gotta do, ladybug,” I say.
The afternoon expires. Dinner passes by with the help of stories told by the captain, Anastacios, and
the Supercargo. They go back to work and I go to my room and read and wait for my phone to ring.
Eventually it does. I jump up and grab it. “Hello?”
“You ready?” Joe asks.
“Okay, we meet you at ship office in five minutes.”
I’m the first one down. I wait and finally the door opens and Joe arrives.
“Is Jay coming?” I ask.
“Yes, we meet him by gangway,” Joe says. We take off together.
At the gangway Jay and Mark Anthony and two other guys (more of my nameless friends) join us.
We bid the gangway duty man goodbye and walk down to where other of the DALIAN’s crew waits. The bus is running late, and this seems like good fortune for us while tough luck for the others who’ve been waiting for at least half an hour.
When the bus arrives we get on. As we make the rounds through the docks, picking up all the seamen, Mark Anthony takes the seat next to me and we talk about him, his life, his family. His dreams. The fact that he’s supporting his two siblings through college. He’s only twenty-five. “Even though that guy [his brother] is older than me,” he says. “I just finished school first.”
At the Club we get off, thanking the driver as we go.
Joe takes me under his wing. Sets me down at the bar, buys me and him a beer—Jay isn’t drinking—and goes to send money to his family. When he comes back he sets a hat on the counter. I touch it.
“You bought a hat,” I remark brightly.
“It’s for you,” he says. “A souvenir.”
I turn the hat. Sure enough. It has to be for me. It’s a black hat with Belgium cursived in dark pink sequins and topped with a sparkling crown. Lord, have mercy, what a hat. I adjust the back strap and put it on. I want to cry. To laugh. To tell Joe he’s family and I love him. To kiss him on the cheek and give him a hug. I say, “Thank you very much,” instead.
Joe’s been here before and he leads us around with a guide’s expertise.
“Kampay,” I say. It means “cheers” in Tagalog. He’d taught it to me earlier. I’d made him write it in my notebook so I wouldn’t forget.
“You want Filipino boyfriend, Amanda?” Jay had asked me one day when I’d called out a cheery and heartfelt “salamat (thank you)” after lunch.
“What?” I’d asked.
“You learn Tagalog,” he’d explained, as if there were no other reason to learn a language except to impress a boy.
We turn a corner and suddenly we’re there. In the Red Light District of Antwerp. I’d read about it. Someone had asked me if I was going to go. The guide books had said it was an interesting place and best visited by the safety wary in the daytime.
“…Antwerp's little red light district became Europe's most High Tech Brothel. If you intend to be a patron of the Red Light District, be wary of women who beckon you towards their kamers and invite you in without discussing a price. In many cases, these women will charge a greatly inflated rate once they have you inside their kamer. Even if you have no intention of partaking in the festivities, it is worthwhile just to actually see the spectacle that the district is. 200 women all in their own window dressed for action,” WikiTravel says.
Joe hints at me and Mark Anthony that picture taking probably isn’t allowed. He worries about the beer in my hand too. I tuck both items up against me, as out of sight as I can. Police patrol the area with serious frequency to keep illegal activities from occurring. I wonder what’s considered illegal. I certainly don’t want to get in trouble. Though it’d certainly make for an interesting call to my parents. “Well, wha ha happened was…”
I smile the thought away.
From glass fronted stores, women in lingerie of all types are selling themselves, packaged like Barbie dolls set in a long row on some toy store shelf. I don’t know whether to look or look away. So I look. Some of the women are very beautiful, some are average, some aren’t so great to look at. Some of them turn on their high heels to put their bodies in the best lines, some talk boredly on phones, one girl files her nails, another straightens her hair with a thick iron.
I don’t know how I feel. Even as the primal female part of me compares my own body against these women’s, I know I wouldn’t want to stand behind that glass, turn my skin bare for men to consider, twist my face into an expression that would entice someone to shop with me. But if these girls enjoy their work, if they make money in this way and it makes them happy, I don’t have a problem with it. Why should I?
Maybe I’ve just had two beers too many to care about the ethics of legal prostitution. I’d much rather be with these, my Filipinos, walking Antwerp and window shopping in the Red Light District.
“We’re your five bodyguards,” Joe says to me. I think maybe here among these wares, the boys need a bodyguard and not me. With them, here, now, I’m content. A surge of possession hits me. They’re mine. My family.
Joe stops to talk with one of the girls. The rest of us walk on. The guys joke about Joe and quick times with the ladies before Joe catches back up. Down a side street, we go by a glass pane with a dark headed girl standing behind it. “She must be Chinese,” Joe says. The boys talk about her and as we pass her window she leans out and calls after them, “Spanish, not Chinese.”
And then, we’re out and back into regular streets.
It’s starting to turn dark and that means it’s getting close to time to head back to the Seaman’s Club. We don’t want to miss the bus.
We don’t. All together we get back home. Up the gangway and through the doors. Goodnights are no big ceremony, we’ll see each other again tomorrow.