‘Columbia’, irrespective of what the name suggests – visible from the high street and displayed in flashing red neon – was not much more than a run-down strip joint. Not that we wanted it to be anything else. A run-down strip joint with loud Latino music and pulsating lights shining on the pole was all that we had come looking for. It was almost nine now and, with all of us being required to report back before the midnight shift, we didn’t have much time.
At twenty-one, I was not only the youngest and most junior of the three of us, but probably the only one whose nervousness exceeded the excitement. It was my first time, and also my first shore-leave since beginning my sailor’s career just two weeks back. Christopher, our Filipino second engineer, was the most seasoned among us. Yesterday at the time of berthing he’d told me he was looking forward to meeting his wife in Rotterdam. I asked him in turn, very naively, whether his wife would be flying-in from Manila to join him. ‘Why – why from Manila, junior?’ he snapped back, not amused with the idea. ‘My Rotterdam wife… huh…’
And this evening, as we left our ship behind and took the cab, Christopher looked very cheerful. He bought us the first round of drinks here at ‘Columbia’ and, before heading off with a sexy, tight-assed girl – his Rotterdam wife – he winked at me and said: ‘you can take your nightshift off, Junior, if you really want to.’
Not knowing what to make of it, I sat there like a dumbass, sipping on my Bacardi-Coke and trying to act seasoned and cool and all that. Fyodor, sitting next to me, was lapping up the pole with his eyes as a rather tall girl gyrated around it. With more than a decade of experience on the high seas, he certainly knew how to play it cool.
In less than ten minutes, two girls – one in black and one in pink – came to our table. They smiled and shook hands, their bodies lightly brushing against ours. I tried my best not to make it evident that I was a novice and getting the hell nervous. Anna, the one in pink, sat next to me, while Teresa settled down beside Fyodor.
‘You girls want some drink?’ Fyodor asked, looking first at Teresa and then at Anna.
‘Our drinks,’ smiled Teresa, lighting a cigarette, ‘…they come expensive.’
‘Yo baby,’ said Fyodor, shuffling on his seat, ‘what price?’
‘O boy!’ said Teresa, winking at Fyodor. ‘Smart, huh?’
‘What about you?’ asked Anna, putting her arm around my shoulder.
I almost died of embarrassment. I smiled at her foolishly, not knowing what to say. She didn’t look very impressed by me anyway.
As Fyodor called for a refill of Bacardi-Coke, pulling Teresa closer to him, gently massaging her shoulder, I got a feeling, almost a premonition that he too, like Christopher, would be soon on his way out with her, leaving me all alone to manage the show. Meanwhile, Anna decided to strike again. ‘First time in Rotterdam?’ she asked.
Though I pretended not to hear her, I thanked her in my heart for being polite to me at least. I felt it couldn’t last long. She must be feeling terrible, to get stuck with an asshole like me.
Our conversation, fortunately, turned a bit livelier after the drinks came. Like many joints in Rotterdam, this one catered primarily to sailors. The girls knew all about ships – surely more than I, with my two bloody weeks of total work experience.
Before we could even finish our drinks, Fyodor struck a deal with Teresa at fifty bucks. They went off smiling, exactly as I’d thought, hand-in-hand: the Russian sailor and his sparkling-new Rotterdam wife.
‘You not want to come with me?’ Anna asked, a little impatient this time.
‘Anna –’ I said, smiling apologetically, trying not to stare too much at her: ‘I… I’m not sure. Next time, maybe…’
‘Ok… forty dollars for you,’ she said, lighting a cigarette and making it sound as if it was a done deal.
‘Anna…’ I said, this time gathering all my strength and putting it across as honestly as I could, ‘maybe not today.’
‘But – better you than one of these grandpas,’ she smiled, her eyes indicating a small group of fifty-something men who had just entered and were looking for a place to settle down. She huddled closer to me.
‘You want a drink?’ I asked her, more out of courtesy and to say something, rather than anything else. Whatever excitement I’d felt at the beginning had now completely evaporated, replaced by only an increasing nervousness.
‘If you want,’ she said. ‘But order it only for you – not for me. The drinks they bring us for girls here are normally pure Coke… though they charge you for the Bacardi.’
‘Yes – that’s the deal with them. That’s how they make money out of the drinks you guys buy for us.’
I was surprised by what she said, and her sharing such a trade-secret with me.
‘Where are you from, Anna?’ I asked her, suddenly driven by the moment, not too sure if I was crossing the thin line.
‘Sibiu – in Romania,’ she said. ‘And you?’
‘Oh, India! Where in India – Mumbai?’
‘No – not Mumbai, Anna. Calcutta. You… you may not have heard of Calcutta.’
‘Kalkuta… Kalkuta…’ she repeated, as if it rang a chord somewhere.
I looked at her, suddenly amused at the bizarreness of our conversation. I had no idea where it was heading. At that moment Calcutta, the city where I grew up, seemed as distant as Romania, a country I knew next to nothing about.
‘Long enough in Rotterdam?’ I asked her, as my drink arrived.
‘Ah… almost three years now,’ she nodded her head. ‘But I take a flight back home whenever I feel like.’
‘It’s my first time here,’ I said, lighting a cigarette.
‘I – I can tell that,’ she smiled. ‘And in a few years’ time, you’ll also be like these grandpas. You should see them in bed; all of them Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise.’
I kept quiet, not knowing what to say. Anna sipped at what was left of her drink in silence while the Latino music and the performance at the pole picked up speed. I somehow felt more embarrassed now, after all these silly conversations. It was also starting to get a bit heavy and mixed up in my mind, and I thought of going to the washroom. But just as I was about to get up, Christopher, like a true saviour and beaming all over, returned to our table. One look at him and I realised he wouldn’t bother me in the engine room for the next few days. I introduced him to Anna, and he soon started his chatterbox of sailor stories. After a while Anna excused herself and got up to leave. It was time for me to make up my mind.
‘Anna –’ I said, pulling out five ten-euro bills from my wallet as I got up. ‘Listen – I… I kind of really wasted your time. Please if you don’t mind, take this. It’s nothing…’
‘Mr. Kalkuta, I’m a rich girl…’ she said, smiling and quickly walking away from us, proud like a schoolgirl.
‘Crazy…’ said Christopher, measuring me with his seasoned eyes. ‘Was she your Rotterdam wife?’
Though I just smiled at him, I kind of liked the way he said it. We finished one more round of drink before Fyodor joined us and we decided to head back to our ship. The moment we came out through the exit door, the cold damp wind of Rotterdam, rising from the sea, lashed at us. We quickly hailed a cab and got into it. As it made a U-turn and picked up speed, I turned back and looked at the old, stone building for one last time.
On our way back, we had to stop at a twenty-four-hour supermarket as Christopher had to buy Elizabeth Arden for his wife and Fyodor wanted to pick up some chocolates for his three-year-old daughter back home in Russia. I tried to imagine his daughter, in a distant land more than a thousand miles away, waiting for her father to come back and tell her stories about the world.