Ana sits down on the sofa. Her knees are shaking with emotion. Still 45 minutes to go before she has to leave the apartment and get the tram cross city to reach the place where they`re supposed to meet.
She doesn`t want to be late. Quite the opposite. She plans to be there before he shows up, not only to choose the best table, one to give them enough privacy, but also to have some time to prepare. She has to look good and relaxed when he comes. The last thing she wants is to act clumsy while looking for him in a sea of people, all eyes on her, then offer him a sweaty hand to shake or, even worse, the wrong cheek to kiss – should that be the case.
The sun getting through the large windows of the tram makes Ana close her eyes. A sunny day in Amsterdam – such a rare thing. She feels all right, despite all nervousness caused by this date. She knows she is doing the right thing.
When the tram stops at Leidseplein, an old lady comes in and sits next to her. The lady smells of sun lotion – a discreet, comforting perfume, which reminds Ana of sunny beaches and salty waves. She realizes she has no plans for this Summer yet, but that`s OK. She could just as well spend her holiday at home, in Amsterdam, going to the park to read books when the weather allows, otherwise visiting cinemas and museums, and meeting friends for drinks and dinners. Or she might take no holidays at all, and keep going to the office instead. Vacations are not mandatory, are they?
When she arrives at the meeting place – an unpretentious neighbourhood café in Oud-West – this looks half empty. It`s a long weekend in the Netherlands after all, with a bank holiday on Monday, so Amsterdammers must have fled the city, in search for other destinations.
Ana decides to stay outside, on the terrace. She takes a seat on a bench, in the corner. That`s certainly a good spot, a bit isolated from the other tables. Besides, it is facing the water and the sun.
She looks at her phone and realizes she is 20 minutes early. What a relief! She removes her cardigan, arranges her immaculate, white top, and has some water from the bottle she always carries in her bag. She has to stay hydrated, especially now, when her skin is not far from showing the first signs of ageing.
Although she quitted smoking a couple of years ago, Ana lights a slim, mint cigarette from the pack she has just bought. No other way to calm down and keep a safe distance between herself and all those mixed feelings and troubling, unanswered questions.
“What would you like to drink?” the waitress asks, displaying a forced, polite smile.
Ana`s smile comes back just as fake. If she`s learned anything in all these years she`s spent in Amsterdam, that`s to replace her natural kindness with a more socially accepted behaviour – that of acting nice. Kindness might be a sign of weakness, but acting nice, well, that`s always acceptable.
“I`m waiting for someone,” she says. “We`ll order the drinks together. You can bring me an ashtray in the meantime.”
She takes another smoke and bents a knee above the bench, then places a hand – the one holding the cigarette – on top of it. Looking confident and comfortable – that`s what she has to do. Who knows, she might even start to feel that way soon!
On the Overtoomsesluis bridge, tram 1 is finding its way to Central Station. Ana knows the area well. She used to live just around the corner, on a quiet residential street. She would take that tram daily in her first years in Amsterdam – at the beginning, to go to the beautiful canals in the center when she was jobless and had nothing to do at home, while he was at work; later on, as a way of being among people, when he left and she had no clue how to handle the whole situation, all by herself, in a country she barely knew.
Ana wonders what direction he would come from now. A silly, totally unnecessary question! She shakes her head, disappointed with herself, exhaling the smoke up into the air. No way she would lose her cool now. She`s a grown up woman, for God`s sake, not a teenager going out on a first date. Ana squeezes whatever is left of the cigarette with the sole of her shoes. The waitress obviously forgot to bring the ashtray.
She almost chokes with the little tic-tac mint when she reads his shadow over her arms and legs. Happy and terrified – that`s how she feels. Happy, because he is here, all flesh and bones; terrified, because she is at the same time exposing herself to what she knows well is nothing but a source of pain.
As usual, he is dressed casually: a navy t-shirt with a colourful print on the chest, a yellow cardigan, a pair of jeans, and some comfortable sneakers. Whatever he`s wearing, he always manages to pull out a fresh, uncomplicated look, that`s perfectly matching his athletic constitution.
“Hey,” he says. He is standing in front of her, the table between them.
He looks just as healthy and handsome as she could remember. Maybe a bit thinner. She wonders if he still makes time for sports, or if he`s now fully dedicated to his career. And to his girlfriend, of course. His hair looks different, too: short, a bit boring. She preferred it longer, and more rebellious, the way it was when they first met. But what`s the point of even thinking about that now? Maybe he also finds her less attractive.
“Chris, hi!” She looks at him, at the table, then at him again.
Her heart is beating uncontrollably, all right, but the rituals have to be performed no matter what. So she stands up, goes half way round the table, and meets him in the middle. He smiles politely, she smiles, too. They kiss the Dutch way, though none of them is Dutch: left cheek, right cheek, left cheek.
He is wearing the same perfume, one that Ana knows so well. Now, she needs to sit down.
On the bench, she moves aside, to make space for him. Not the best setting for conversation, but at least he would see her good side. She`s always thought her face looks better when seen from the right.
“You haven`t ordered yet?”
“I`ve just arrived,” she says, thinking of the time that passed since then.
“What shall we have?”
“Is it too early for wine?” she says.
“Well, it`s past noon now, so I guess it`s acceptable. Besides, it`s a beautiful day, we need to celebrate!”
Indeed, a warm day in mid May is enough a reason to celebrate in Amsterdam. She knows, however, there`s more to his words than that.
“Shall we ask for a nice bottle of white then?” Ana says. If there`s anything to celebrate at all, no way she`s going to do it with a Heineken.
The waitress brings the bottle of wine in a bucket of ice, and pours it into two elegant glasses. Ana smiles to her again. Thank God for nice glasses! She hates is when they serve wine in chunky tumblers. It simply ruins the experience. As for the ashtray, she can`t be bothered to mention it again.
“Well…,” Chris says, lifting one of the glasses.
Ana is now staring at him, her big brown eyes looking even bigger. Is he really going to make a toast? She feels the heat rising to her face, and cautiously swipes the thin line between the forehead and her dark, long hair. Not knowing what else to do, she then takes the other glass in her hand.
“To this beautiful day!” he says.
Ana brings the glass closer to her lips, ready to take a sip.
“And… to us!”
She almost spits the wine on her jeans. She is now looking at him confused.
“I took a sip already,” she says, pointing towards her glass.
He starts laughing, showing his strong, perfectly aligned teeth. The laughter makes his almond-shaped eyes look as if closed.
“Well, then I guess we can`t rely on this toast to work its magic!” he says.
Ana is laughing, too. Anything it takes, just to get over this moment!
He takes a sip and puts the glass back on the table.
“When was it that we last saw each other?” he says.
“The last time we saw each other? Or the last time we actually talked when we saw each other?”
There were a few times when she deliberately avoided him when accidentally spotting him in the train, on her way to work. And he avoided her too, although each of them knew they had been seen by the other.
“The last time we actually talked when we saw each other,” he says on a serious voice, and turns towards her, on the bench. “Do you still smoke?”
He certainly looks like he could use a cigarette.
“I don`t,” Ana says while getting the cigarettes out of her bag once again. “I bought a pack for today, though.”
“For special occasions,” he says playfully, regaining his smile.
She crosses her legs, one on top of the other, then lights her second cigarette for today. She tries to conceal a slightly mischievous smile that came up unexpectedly. How come she suddenly feels so good, so relaxed? Is it a consequence of the temporarily regained familiarity between them? Of this illusion of normality? Or is it because he is looking at her in that way she knows so well?
“So, how long since we last talked?” he asks again, breaking the silence.
The slim cigarette makes his hand seem even bigger. Ana has to look elsewhere.
“I don`t know,” she says. Then, after a short pause: “I think it was that morning, when the trains were not working, and I took a bus from Lelylaan instead.”
He seems to remember that day.
Ana was sitting on the chairs in front, next to the door, when she saw Chris waiting to get in the bus. She quickly looked the opposite way, covering her face with her hair. But he had already seen her, and came to say hi. The lady sitting next to her got off after a few stops, so Chris then sat next to her. They talked until Ana had to get off, too. What about? She could`t tell. She could not remember a thing even after she got off the bus, that very day.
“That was three years ago,” she concludes.
It always took her several days to get over these encounters, no matter how short and no matter how insignificant their conversations were. Even when they were avoiding each other, the simple fact of seeing him would put her in a strange mood. It made things even worse if his phone rang, his new girlfriend asking if she should buy this or that from the supermarket, for their common sandwiches the following day. “Yes, get some salami,” he would say, “and some milk, too.” As vegetarian and lactose intolerant as she was, these things made her witness, again and again, his life without her, the life he asked for just one year after she had moved to Amsterdam to be with him.
“Three years,” he repeats, looking somewhere in the distance. Then, looking back at Ana, straight into her eyes: “What made you call?”
“What made you come?”
Ana is wondering if he is going to give her the big news. Isn`t this the reason he came for? Just to see her breaking into tiny little pieces, like so many times before?
But even if he`s going to tell her something she already knows, the thought of hearing him saying that, and seeing him as he speaks, fills her heart with infinite sadness. Yet, she has to hear it from him, no matter how much it hurts and no matter the consequences.