I woke up in an empty room on a hardwood floor with a terrible hangover. It was 11:00 am in Amsterdam. The door rattled and was followed by a loud knock, knock! A shallow silence followed. Then, knock, knock, knock!
“Gentry! Get up! We’re waiting!” The voice was Sacco, my European manager.
“Yeah, ok, man,” I mumbled a response loud enough so he could hear and I heard footsteps leaving.
I was shooting a video that day in Vondelpark. It was for my song Carina from my latest album. My co-star was a young girl named Doortje.
I pulled my sore, aching body out of my sleeping bag and crawled off the floor rubbing my face and head. When I looked out the window, the sun burned my eyes. I squinted and saw rooftops and terraces stretching out to infinity.
Beer was still clinging to my breath like the old shirt I wore to bed. I performed a show the night before but the audience was lackluster. I’d managed to play two sets and get some applause and appreciation, but stumbling on and off stage was a mirage.
My seventh European tour was not going well. During my twenty-two concerts to promote my new album, I was unceremoniously burning all the bridges I had built to have a music career. The album was titled Human, but I no longer felt like a human being. It was as if I’d been replaced by a doppelganger of myself.
I got up, found the half-empty bottle of red wine in the closet, and chugged it. I was medicating this hangover because I had to be “on” again. It numbed my feelings of incompetence and failure.
I threw on clothes and went down five stories to a car waiting outside. The city was already a flurry of activity with people everywhere in cafes and sitting on park benches. Horse-drawn carriages clomped and an endless stream of bicyclists whirred by as we backed out of a cramped parking space against a canal.
We got to the park, I leaped out of the car, and I immediately gave Doortje a bouquet of flowers.
“Those were a surprise intended for later,” Sacco said when he took me aside, scolding me.
I was the bad artist. The drunken monkey. The broken wind-up toy.
It was a beautiful day. Blazingly sunny. We started filming and Doortje seemed to be having fun, dancing and smiling as I lifted her in the air. Doortje’s mother was there as her chaperone. I imagine she was wondering: Who is this bungling American mess?
Doortje danced and I lip-synched to Carina in the green grass for a couple of hours while we were filmed. Doortje’s mother was paid and they walked to their car. As they did, I waved goodbye and said, “Dank u, Doortje.”
She waved back but didn’t say anything. It seemed she felt sad for me as she took her mother’s hand and walked away. Maybe she knew that none of the footage we just shot would be used and no video would be produced. Maybe she knew I was self-immolating.
I was dropped off back in the center of Amsterdam and as I stood on Singel Street, I thought about the lonely room five flights up. Then, I spotted the nearest pub and went inside.
The place was buzzing, loud with dance music pumping, and a constant blare of words. Multiple languages all melted together with cacophonous laughter. It was a brightly lit insane asylum for winos.
I threw back a few large beers trying to quell my headache, got off my bar stool, left the pub, and began wandering. I found a bench near the Multatuli Statue, and in a blur of insomnia and the depths of hungover drunkenness, I made a decision. I was going to visit a prostitute.
I began the late morning dancing with a young girl for a music video. Now, at 4:00 in the afternoon, I would find a sex worker to hire.
Prostitution was legal in The Netherlands. It was a legitimate way to make money, and it was also “the world’s oldest profession.” I had never hired a prostitute but today would be the day.
After walking through Dam Square just like a thousand other tourists, I made my way toward the Red Light District. When I arrived, it didn’t look much different from the rest of Amsterdam’s center except for the scantily clad women and a few twinkish men standing behind glass. They looked like living products in department store windows, but they were working people and I was just another client. So, I window-shopped.
There were bored, buxom blonds, Asian women in blue wigs, transgender women in high-heeled boots, and many empty windows because it was the middle of the day. At night, dirty, drunken men like me could hide themselves. Now, the only shadows to hide in were created by the afternoon sun sliding across the sky.
Hiding nothing, I walked by the windows until I saw a woman sitting on a high, wooden stool wearing a robe over her lingerie. Long, brunette hair slid down over her shoulders. She looked out at the people walking by on the street, which contrasted with the indifferent red-headed woman in the window to her left, who just stared down at her phone.
I wandered by the brunette at first, then I turned around and went back to her window.
After she saw me, her eyes widened, and she mouthed the question, “Yes?”
I heard myself say out loud, “Yes.”
She got up, went to the door, and opened it.
I went in and she said, “Fifty euros. Twenty minutes.”
She had a Slavic accent. I wondered if she was Czech.
“OK,” I said quietly, still in the doorway.
I was whisked inside, behind a curtain, and handed her the money. It was quick and business-like.
We were in an almost empty room. No bed. Just a small desk against one wall and a carpeted hardwood surface with a large mirror above it on the opposite wall. She did her work on the carpet and I would be her customer there.
She immediately took off her robe and lingerie. Milky white and naked in the dim light, she said, “Take off your clothes.”
As I took off my shirt, I tried to have a conversation. I felt the need for intimacy or normalcy.
I asked, “What’s your name?”
I undid my belt.
“Where are you from?”
I took off my jeans and underwear at the same time.
“How old are you?”
“I am thirty-seven and I have a boyfriend.”
The dialogue ended abruptly when she put a condom on my drooped self and began. I wavered and stumbled.
She removed her mouth and asked, “Are you drunk?”
I lied. “No.”
She continued until I was ready. Then we moved to the hard surface. Violet got on her back and I went to her body. My knees were immediately carpet-burned on the rough surface.
Our movements were mechanical and quiet. There was no music, only the muffled sound of people moving out on the street. She looked up at me but she barely breathed. Out of some strange form of courtesy, I tried to control my heavy breathing in the stillness of the room.
Twenty minutes went by and I still hadn’t finished.
“I need more time,” I said.
“That will cost fifty more euros.“ She seemed irritated. “Put the money on the desk.”
I went to my jeans, took the money from my wallet, laid it where she requested, and walked a few steps back to her naked body on the carpet. I took her hips in my hands and turned her around. Both of our faces were staring into the mirror. That was how I finished.
When I put my clothes back on, she asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Amsterdam. I told her I was an American musician on tour. She smiled but asked nothing more. We did not have a tender connection but it was not a harsh ending either. It was a transaction.
Then I was back on the street and it was still light outside. Barely forty-five minutes had passed.
I began walking out of the Red Light District. Working people in lingerie and stiletto heels sitting behind windows only lasted for a few streets. Soon there were fewer tourists and fewer shops. The music and noise grew quieter, and I emerged into a Dutch neighborhood.
People were getting off work from their nine-to-five jobs. Heading home to their families. Going for jogs. Walking their dogs. Pushing their children in strollers. Doing the evening shopping.
I had a show to perform the next night in Belgium. The train left in the morning and I needed to be on it.
There were still a few bridges left for me to light on fire. After that, I could begin to be human again.