I became addicted to lekkerbekjes, batter-fried fish, and this also gave me something to do outside the ASC. The fish stall was run by a man, a younger guy, and two girls.
One day I was standing in line and the girl in the stall called out: ‘Who’s next?’ What a question! We were standing in line and naturally the person in front was next.
‘Me,’ I shouted from the back, as a joke, but a few annoyed faces turned to me, as though I’d meant it seriously.
‘Sorry, mister, you’ve only just got here,’ the girl snapped.
I left the line. Her surly attitude was enough to put me off lekkerbekjes for good.
As I walked off, another girl struck up a conversation with me. She had seen what had happened.
‘We Dutch have no sense of humour, you know,’ she said, walking with me across the market. ‘Where are you from?’
‘From the asylum seekers’ centre,’ I said.
‘I meant which country.’
‘My country is one huge ASC, home to millions of asylum seekers.’
Her name was Maddalena. She was twenty-five, pretty, and seemed to be the most easy-going girl in the world, because within five minutes she repeated the word ‘okay’ at least five times, which is one okay per minute. The person who shared his life with her would hear so many okays that he could skate on them, swim in them, sleep on them, and wake up in them. She talked and I nodded, pretending to listen, but thinking of that one golden okay that would lead me to her body, which was no doubt far tastier than a lekkerbekje. She smiled as though she were watching a play she’d read beforehand and knew it would only get better. Then she pointed to a window on the third floor of an apartment building.
‘That’s where I live,’ she said. I asked if I could drink tea at her place.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘How about tonight at eight o’clock?’
As I walked back to the ASC I thought how I mustn’t sell myself short and think that an asylum seeker couldn’t hook up with a Dutch woman on the outside. Maddalena was beautiful and friendly, and she always said okay. And I would drink tea in her apartment at eight o’clock that evening.
No one at the ASC believed that a chance meeting could lead to an invitation to a Dutch woman’s home. Walid claimed that she was either a hash addict, a whore, or just plain crazy. At six o’clock I took a long shower, shaved my face and armpits, and trimmed my pubic hair. I brushed my teeth at least six times and went from room to room looking for an iron. From one person I borrowed a gold chain, from another, a silver ring. Toby, a perfume thief, offered me two kinds, one of which I sprayed all over my body and the other onto my clothes, and I searched high and low until I found dress shoes my size. For the first and the last time, I went to reception not as an asylum seeker, but as someone who had a date.
‘Aspirin?’ asked Rik, the receptionist.
‘Condoms, please. Do I look like someone with a headache?’
‘How should I know? You always ask for aspirin.’
‘From now on, no more aspirin, only condoms.’
‘Who’s the lucky girl?’
‘A Hollander,’ I answered proudly.
‘Really?’ he said. ‘Then you might want to stock up on aspirin after all.’
‘Not necessary,’ I said, and off I went to my date with the three condoms distributed over various pockets, so that one would always be within reach when things got exciting.
I rang her bell at twenty past seven.
‘I thought we said eight o’clock,’ she replied brusquely. ‘Hang on.’
I stood there. A man with a dog walked by, and I told him I had a date at eight o’clock, but that I was a little early. A woman peered at me from a window across the street, and I called to her that I had a date at eight o’clock, but was too early. Another neighbour asked the first one what that asylum seeker was doing down there, and she told her I had an appointment at eight. Gosh, I thought, make a date with a Dutch girl and you get to meet the entire neighborhood. At eight o’clock sharp the door opened and many pairs of eyes followed me inside.
I walked up the stairs and Maddalena offered me a cold hand. Not a single okay passed over her lips. She made tea.
‘I wanted to call you to reschedule,’ she said, ‘but I didn’t have your number.’
‘That’s okay,’ I said. Instead of listening to her okays I started saying okay myself.
‘I’ll leave as soon as we’ve had our tea, if that’s okay. Or should I go now?’
‘No, no, drink your tea first.’ She bit her nails and snapped at a little white dog in a basket who wasn’t doing anything wrong. She tried to turn off the TV with the remote control, but it was already off, and when it went on she swore and switched it off again. If the dog and the television were having such a hard time of it, imagine the trouble I’d be in if the tea took too long, so I drank it in quick little sips, even though it burned my mouth. I said ‘okay’ after ‘okay’ until the tea was finished and I was relieved to be back outside. I had a headache, and the forty-minute wait and the twenty minutes in her apartment had worn me out. I hadn’t an ounce of energy left, and barely made it back to reception. I took the three condoms out of my various pockets and laid them on the counter.
Without a word, Rik took them back and slid me two aspirins.
By Rodaan Al Galidi
Translated by Jonathan Reeder
Extract from TWO BLANKETS, THREE SHEETS
Published by World Editions (2020)
Read The Dutch Riveter here.
Rodaan Al Galidi is an Iraqi-Dutch poet and writer. His novel De autist en de postduif (‘The Autist and the Carrier Pigeon’) won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2011 – the same year he failed his Dutch citizenship course. His novel Two Blankets, Three Sheets was a bestseller in the Netherlands, and the English translation was listed by the Guardian as one of the best books of 2020.
Jonathan Reeder has a dual career as a performing musician and literary translator. He has translated several Dutch-language operas into ‘singing libretti’ and provides the English surtitles for all DNO productions. His translations of Conny Braam’s The Cocaine Salesman and Peter Buwalda’s Bonita Avenue were both longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.