The Canal

A short story by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

Hanna flew in from New York that morning; Michael from Moscow in late afternoon.  She should have known he would not like the hotel she had booked, discovered on a previous trip to Amsterdam. He found it too quaint, too plain. She was at fault, as always.

Sex was disappointing; both were exhausted from travel, so they gave up on sex and set out to find drinks and dinner.  Across from the hotel was a little café with outdoor tables facing the canal full of colorful, flower-planted barges. They got a little high on two genevers and strolled the pretty tree-lined street, Lindengracht, finally settling on a busy steak-frites place.

After dinner, they crossed an iron bridge to the area where, Hanna had been told, they’d find the grass bars. There were a lot of them, with names like Tabu, Jungle Joint, L.A. Lounge. They were all crowded with Africans, Asians and Americans. Each had a prominently-displayed dope menu.  They bought a quarter ounce of Thai stick.

Back at the hotel, they sat on straight chairs by the window, looking out at the dim canal and the warm lights in houses across the water. Soft voices drifted up on the summer air from the barge decks.

They smoked and talked and finally made love. It was beautiful now, thanks to the grass. Maybe, Hanna thought hopefully, this time they would really have a good vacation together.


But, early next morning, Michael was off on his own for his daily run.  Hanna breakfasted in the hotel dining room, then took a cab to the Van Gogh Museum.  He was still out when she got back. There was a note from him at the desk.  “I’ll meet you at the café at six.”

She always did a lot of waiting when they traveled together.  Her normal energy and spontaneity withered and she was transformed into a patient statue fixed in a slow flow of time. He was constantly late, a practice Hanna had recognized from the start as intentional, a display of power. She despised herself for tolerating it.


But, Michael’s being twenty years younger than she gave him a clear advantage. No woman his age would have stood for his behavior. Still, however embarrassed by her weakness, she remained helplessly in love with him… his elegance, intelligence, blue-eyed beauty and talent in bed. She spoiled him shamefully.

The days of their week together slipped by.  He went his own mysterious way for part of every afternoon.  She knew he loved to be alone, to cruise women, to fantasize about adventures he never really sought. The truth was that he flirted and followed but didn’t connect. The movie in his head was what mattered. He loved the attention, the possibilities he need not pursue. Besides sex with Hanna was the best he’d ever had. Why look for more?

When he returned to their hotel, excited, Hanna awaited him, showered and languorous, perfumed and hot. She knew exactly how to please him. Their love-making was still ecstatic, even after fifteen years. What could be better than that? Afterward, high and satisfied, they wandered the summer streets, loitering in cafes, dining deliciously.

On the fourth day of their stay, the cafe across the street threw a party. The cobbled square was filled with tables and chairs. Michael roamed through the crowd taking pictures; a drag queen sang on an improvised stage. Hanna sat alone in a pretty flowered dress, wearing the amber necklace he had brought her from Russia, drinking gin after gin.

At some point, a little German woman pulled up a chair next to her.  “You are beautiful,” she said, kissing her neck and stroking her hair.  Michael, returning, was thrilled. He loved it when people came on to her.

He bought drinks for both of them and wandered off again into the crowd. This time he returned with a slyly pretty young girl who said she was a Gypsy.  She flirted with everyone, especially Michael, handsome in his navy blazer, white shirt and Hermes tie. Drunk as she was, Hanna saw clearly that this girl was trouble. And then things began to blur.

Some time later, she woke up in her chair in the empty square. The café was closed. Pale light from a streetlamp drew dark circles on the cobbles.  A few feet away, the heavy wooden door of the hotel was locked. A tiny red bulb illuminated a placard which said, “For entrance after 10:00 PM ring bell.”

Where was her key?  Michael had it!  The silence of the street was intimidating; she was starting to feel cold. At her touch, the bell clanged harshly.  She was sure all the darkened windows above her would light up, revealing her pathetically alone in her skimpy dress.

At last, the hotel proprietress came clumping down the stairs in a nightgown.  She grumbled angrily.  “Where’s your key?”  “My friend has it.”  “And where’s he?” she demanded.  “I don’t know.  Maybe he’s upstairs, asleep.”

Hanna climbed the narrow steps, behind the furious hotel keeper, who mumbled to herself in Dutch.  The ceiling light was horribly bright and she switched it off at once.  The room was empty.  Pain seared her mind. Michael must be somewhere with that girl.

He had never done anything quite so awful before.  To leave her alone in the street in a strange city! “That does it!”, she said aloud, tears gushing from her eyes as she dropped heavily onto the hard bed.

Soft voices floated up from the quay; couples on their way home. Hanna imagined them stopping to kiss in dark corners. Mercifully, she passed out almost at once.

At dawn, Michael had not returned. His passport, toothbrush and clothes were there–lying peacefully where he had left them the night before. She packed her canvas bag and headed down the stairs to the brightening street. She walked for blocks, hungover and shaking, until she found a cab and took it straight to the airport.  Tears rolled down behind her dark glasses.  The cabdriver kindly pretended not to notice them as he carried her bag into the terminal.

Later: Over the Atlantic, Hanna relaxed in her window seat gazing dully out at the glowing sky. Disturbing images streamed through her mind.  Michael in bed with the gypsy girl; Michael being robbed and beaten; and, strangest of all, Michael’s body, Hermes tie trailing, floating lazily down the canal.  And, closing her eyes, she smiled, as the plane droned steadily on through the golden clouds.


Harriet Sohmers Zwerling is the author of the story collection, NOTES OF A NUDE MODEL & other pieces. Her new book, ABROAD; an expatriate’s diaries, is due out in Spring 2014.