Innocence Abroad

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The Grasshopper youth hostel in Amsterdam was three stories high and rose like an old red brick mansion over the third canal, lined with green lights. Gargoyles perched on the corners. It was on the Warmoesstraat, near the Oude Kirk and the Terminus where the streets were slick with vomit, beer and urine. At the time, it cost eight dollars a night to bunk in dorm rooms with twenty beds.
   There was always a party in front of the hostel, neon marijuana leaves in the windows, guys in chaps and shirtless women cruising. Junkies sat on garbage bags, sticking their arms. Outside, everything was for sale and pickpockets followed you watching to see where you held your wallet. Near the bridges, students played guitar while their friends waved hats and asked for change. There were jugglers and sex shows and the authorities had not yet clamped down on the illegal immigrants sitting in lingerie in rented doorways along the Oude Jids.


    In the entrance to the Grasshopper two men were arguing with the desk clerk. They wanted to see one of the hostel tenants.
   “That’s impossible — he isn’t here,” the smaller one told the clerk, as if speaking to a child. “Because he owes us money.”
   A woman stood near the lockers with a magazine in her hand and a bored expression on her face. She was old compared to me, and not pretty. I was only twenty, and traveling on a one-way ticket. She had thick shoulders, a football player’s body, and short spiky hair that had gone grey in patches. If her face wasn’t so weathered and pockmarked and sturdy, it might have resembled a young boy’s. She wore black boots and a leather skirt without stockings. Her skin was the color of clay.
   One of the men arguing at the counter stared at me, sizing me up, weighing my value while his friend pleaded their case. His friend hammered his fist on the counter.
   “Get out,” the man behind the counter said.

She had covered him in clothespins which she twisted and squeezed.

   “Look at him,” the smaller one said, incredulous. “He doesn’t understand. Why not?”
   I paused for a moment on the bottom stair then approached the woman and told her I had seen her earlier, at the Vortex, a bar on the end of the canal. There were rules at the Vortex for what people could and could not wear, so I had not worn a shirt. I sat in the corner, half naked in a deep black chair, and drank a Coke. She had been on a platform at the far end torturing a red haired man. His arms were chained above his head and he was blindfolded. He had a pointy beard and his body was soft and shapeless. It was impossible to see where his chest ended and his stomach began. She had covered him in clothespins which she twisted and squeezed.
   “I don’t remember you,” she said. I smiled and looked at the floor, trying to hide my panic.
   The man near the counter turned his attention back to the clerk.
   “I think I would remember you. What were you doing in that bar?” she asked. Outside, it was cold and I walked with her to her hotel. I don’t think she gave me her name but if she did I forgot it right away. “You should have a scarf in this weather,” she told me.
   We walked across the bridges and down the Voorburg to where the lights ended. I was glad to be away from the men at the counter. I felt safe with this woman because she was Dutch and her body was so sturdy. I didn’t ask her what she was doing in the youth hostel. She told me she wasn’t from Amsterdam; she lived somewhere near Rotterdam. She had come to Amsterdam for a party and asked if I knew about the party that was going to happen in a couple of days.
   “A big event,” she said.
   I told her I didn’t know about it. The Royal Kabul is on the edge of the red light district, just past the Moulin Rouge and the sex museum, near the Seedjike. The streets around the hotel were very quiet and all of the windows facing the street were dark. I stopped at the entrance, my hands tucked in my pockets.
   I was scared that she would leave me and I would have to walk back. There was no safe way back to the hostel at night. Along the canal was a low green rail. People were pushed over it sometimes, and beaten when they climbed out, wet, on the other side.
   She knew what she wanted to do but she let a few moments pass.
   “You can come into the bar and I’ll buy you a drink. But you’ll have to dance for me.”
   Which is what I did. I danced for her.
   I danced with my eyes closed a couple of feet away from her while she sat on a stool with a glass of rum. There was a beer next to her but when I tried to pick it up she said, “No, dance first.” I was a little worried that if I danced too far away one of the hotel managers would collar me and demand to see my room key, which of course I didn’t have. I thought if I was behind other people, and she couldn’t see me, then she wouldn’t notice them walking me out with their hands on my elbows and the back of my neck and I knew she wouldn’t come looking for me. Nobody ever looks for you when you disappear except on television. In real life they let you go and then forget. She would shrug her shoulders and go back to her room and I would be left to my own devices. So I stayed close, as close as I could, and when I got close enough she reached out and grabbed me by my belt and pulled me forward so I was dancing over her legs and she put her hand on my ass and whispered, “I think you and I might have some things in common.” Then she pinched my earlobe and I let out a quick yelp.

“Just a little blood,” she said. “For me.” She drew the knife below my penis and lifted my balls with the flat side of the blade.

    In her room, she was very formal. There was a dresser and a black case and a window with the curtain pulled. She didn’t ask what I liked, which was good because I had no idea what I liked or what I was into or what I wanted to do or wanted done to me. “Take your clothes off and put them in the corner. Come on.” She snapped her fingers. She seemed to think I had been through this before, but I hadn’t. I had been arrested as a child and spent three months in a mental hospital when I was fourteen, but that was all.
   “Raise your arms, spread your legs, turn around.” She ran her hands over my arms and between my legs, searching me until she was satisfied. With rope and rubber straps she tied me to the bed face up and pulled a hood over my head so I couldn’t see anything. There was a hole for my mouth. She tied my cock and balls together and told me to stick my tongue out and then slapped my face hard, the way my father used to.
   “Stick your tongue out further,” she said. “Good. Stay like that.”
   As soon as I felt the cold on my leg, I knew it was a knife. She had run a rope over my neck so I couldn’t lift my head. I felt the knife working its way across my body, not quite cutting me. I knew the knife was sharp, I felt my skin wanting to break. Then I felt the first cut.
   “Just a little blood,” she said. “For me.” She drew the knife below my penis and lifted my balls with the flat side of the blade. All of my muscles tensed and I started to cry inside the hood.
   “Relax,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do one way or the other. So go with it. Breathe.” She waited but I couldn’t catch my breath. She pulled the knife away then gripped my balls tightly in her fist and I screamed.
   “I said breathe. Breathe for your mommy.” I tried to focus. I tried to breathe, and I finally did, I breathed in large, deep breaths, and she loosened her grip. I thought of the couch in the living room where I grew up and my mother there, under a knit blanket for many years. “That’s better. That’s what mommy wants. You only have a couple of cuts on your leg, and you’re crying already. Now I’m going to put something in your mouth so you don’t scream again.”
   I didn’t know anything about safe words then. She peeled the hood to just below my nose. The gag was a large plastic puck with a hole in the center. It stretched my cheeks painfully and hurt more still when she pulled the hood back over my face. I heard the snap of the lighter and smelled the smoke. First her finger poked through the mouth hole in the mask and the puck and she ran her fingernail over my tongue, pressed it down. Then she flicked the ashes in my mouth. I could hear the paper burn away at the edges every time she took a drag and I was only able to moan like some doomed animal when she lowered the finished cigarette onto my ribs, dotting it out across my skin.
   At some point — it may have been hours — she untied me and plucked the gag from my cheeks. I was weak and tired. My body was shaking involuntarily, and she turned me over.
   “Onto your knees,” she said. “Like a puppy dog. That’s a good boy.” She placed pillows beneath my stomach and smeared me in Vaseline and entered me from behind with her strap-on. She did it slowly, very slowly, and it didn’t hurt as much as it might have. I had never been entered before. She leaned across my back, wrapping one arm around my chest and gripping my neck with her other hand, occasionally squeezing my windpipe so I couldn’t breathe for a second. I cried again, but it was a different crying. I was comfortable. I don’t think I had ever been comfortable before. She rubbed her hand over my face, washing my tears over my cheeks.
   “Yes,” she said. “Cry some more. I like that.” When she was done, I slept curled in a ball facing her, my forehead against her collarbone, her heavy arm across my shoulder.

I didn’t understand what I was feeling. I thought it was an urge to be buried alive or drowned.

    Early in the morning, while the city was still dark, I got dressed and shouldered my pack. I pushed the curtain and saw a deep red over the tops of the buildings like the edge of a bruise. I couldn’t go back to America. I didn’t know where I could go. I opened the leather case and saw all of her sharp tools, gags, dildos, wrist cuffs, chains, iodine, needles, latex gloves, and a few Dutch bills. She was sleeping, and I considered taking her money. I had already robbed a man who had taken me home in London. We’d met at an upscale bar in Chelsea, there was a strip contest and the winner was the one who received the loudest applause from the crowd. “Cheer for me,” I told him, before stepping onto the podium, but all he did was clap politely as I stripped to my underwear, so I lost. He said he was a chef for the French Embassy, and I went home with him but I asked him not to touch me. I said there would be time for that later, but I was just stalling. I took a wool sweater from him and a small pile of twenty-pound notes.
   My captor was still wearing her boots and leather skirt and sleeping peacefully. I watched her sleeping for a while. I didn’t know anything about her except that she was heavy, too heavy to lift, and she lived somewhere else. I closed the case and bit my lip. I didn’t understand what I was feeling. I thought it was an urge to be buried alive or drowned, but it was probably a desire to crawl back into bed and stay. I left and I walked straight to the Terminus and boarded a train to Berlin. In Berlin I rented a very small room just east of the Berlin wall, which had recently been torn down. People were painting all over the sides of buildings, giant murals everywhere. I sat in that room in East Berlin for two weeks listening to German radio and sleeping and masturbating until my penis was covered with friction sores and broken skin. When I finally made it back to Amsterdam I couldn’t find her. Holland is a small country but I wasn’t from there. I was from Chicago but I couldn’t go back there. So I went somewhere else and started over.  

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©2004 Stephen Elliot and

Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, including the novel Happy Baby and the story collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up.