Rk missed his connecting flight to New York and had to spend the night in Amsterdam because his flight out of Prague was delayed for a couple of hours due to a passenger not showing up. They had to take all the baggage off the plane to get the missing person's bags and by the time they got to Amsterdam Rk's plane had left. The airline put him up in a hotel downtown and he was going to catch a plane the next morning.
He had flown to Prague in hope of finding his roots. His last name had been a source of mystery to him, as well as a butt of jokes, since his childhood and it troubled him he couldn't trace its origin. He felt subconsciously he would be able to cope with it more easily if he knew where it came from. His father had vanished one day without a trace before he was born and his mother had never bothered finding out about his origin. A friend of Rk's friend, who was a linguist, had suggested the name could be Czech, since in that language such words as krk (neck) and krv (blood) occurred, but the man wasn't sure this was so since rk by itself was not a Czech word; it was possible though the name had been mangled upon the person's or family's arrival in America. Such things happened frequently in the past.
Rk didn't have a clear plan how he would go about checking if his name was Czech but he probably hoped he would see it on a store front or in a phone book, would accidentally come across someone named Rk, or that someone simply would voluntarily observe his name was Czech. None of it happened however, and even his inquiries at the hotel registration desk and a few other places didn't lead to anything, and so when his week in Prague was up Rk felt more rootless than when he had come. He was sure now his name wasn't Czech and moreover that its origin wasn't traceable to any country on Earth. Not wanting to admit to himself that such a thing wasn't possible he felt there simply was no explanation for his name.
Rk had dinner at the hotel at the airline's expense and decided to take a walk before turning in. The limo was going to pick him up at ten in the morning, so he didn't have to get up early, and he thought he might as well get some benefit out of his involuntary layover by seeing a little of the city.
It was a balmy late May evening and Rk strolled through the near empty streets in the light of the street lamps hidden in the luxuriant, bright green new foliage. The water in the canals he would cross or walk along swayed silent as oil, like a child playing by itself, happy not to be disturbed by anyone. After the nice meal Rk felt relaxed and for the first time on his trip didn't think about the problem with his name. He felt as though he would be able to enjoy life after all without having solved the riddle of his origin.
He had been wondering primarily through the business section of town, which is where his hotel was located, with wide streets, empty of people, big office buildings, and stores. At one point however, on crossing a canal, he found himself in a section with narrow streets and small houses, cozy like an apartment. There were old-fashioned street lamps everywhere, casting soft light, and many houses had big picture windows affording a good view of the lit up insides. Rk had been walking through this section for a while when it suddenly dawned on him that he was in the red-light district -- the famous red-light district -- of Amsterdam -- there were red lights on some of the houses and at many of the windows women sat in chairs showing themselves to prospective clients. He realized that some of them had actually been inviting him to come in with facial expressions or gestures but he had ignored them, not expecting anything of the sort.
Although he had no plan of availing himself of the opportunities which he now realized were open to him, he perked up, as if waking up or becoming younger, and walked through the streets full of energy, his curiosity at its peak like a sensitive electronic instrument. Until now he had felt a stranger, a tourist passing through a town he would leave the next day, but now he seemed part of it, a welcome guest or even a member of the family with well-defined, and considerable, rights, strolling through the house, inspecting and admiring it. The quarter really felt like a huge house or apartment, intimate and cozy, with a low ceiling, soft lighting, and comfortable furniture, through which he strolled, moving with interest from room to room.
Rk walked this way for a long time, repassing the streets over and over, not growing tired of them, his curiosity not dulling, as if he would be able to do it literally forever. But at one point he became aware of time, glanced at his watch, saw it was late, and decided to go back to his hotel. He had to get up reasonably early and it would take him a while to get back. He had been aware all along what direction he had come from, so he headed that way, saying good-bye to the streets he had grown to know as if to good friends.
To get to his hotel he had to cross the canal. Soon he saw it at the end of the street, dark and mysterious, as if part of the night. He came to it and for an instant hesitated which way to go; momentarily he didn't know which way he had come. He concluded it had been from the right, but he didn't see the bridge there. There was a bridge however -- a footbridge -- a short block to his left. He decided to take it and turn right once he had crossed the canal. You had to climb steps to take the bridge and before he got to it he noticed a slight figure in white standing against the bridge support, hidden in its shadow. The figure detached itself from the bridge when he neared it and he saw it was a woman -- clearly a prostitute about to offer him her services.
He stopped as she approached him and looked at her in the light of the lamp up above, on the bridge. She looked strange -- with pitch-black hair, long and tousled, like that of a savage, yellow, shiny face with sunken cheeks, and huge black eyes, like sockets in a skull. Her body seemed a child's under the thin, sleeveless, short dress, with almost no hint of breasts and sharp pelvic bones sticking out at the sides. Rk concluded she wasn't Dutch but Indonesian, or from that part of the world, one of the former Dutch colonies, residents of which, as he understood, were easily able to settle in Holland.
She clearly recognized a tourist in him because she spoke in English, quoting a figure in guilders which had absolutely no meaning to him. Until that moment the idea of having sex with a prostitute that night hadn't even crossed his mind, as something totally impossible, for instance his becoming a woman, but to his amazement he realized that he liked it and was ready to follow through with it -- he was sexually aroused, literally painfully so, to a degree he had never been before in his life -- his penis was pushing away at his clothes, hard like a big bone.
He said "OK," and let himself be led by his hand, like a little boy, into the darkness under the bridge; this is where they were going to have sex. She stood with her back against the wall, and he found her naked under the dress, the thick bush of hair like a foreign object on her pubic region. He unzipped his pants, let his penis out as if it strained on a leash, lifted her right leg with his left hand, preparing to have sex as he had heard American soldiers had with British women during the war. She was wet inside and surprisingly loose, and he entered her easily, falling into the rhythm he had thought he had forgotten after years of abstinence with surprise, like someone who hadn't danced for a long time following easily the complicated steps of a dance.
Her body had felt warm to him but not unnaturally so, but inside she seemed burning hot like an oven. And then he realized why he was so excited and grew wild with passion. He raised his left leg and supported her right one with his, hugged her with both his arms, covered her mouth with his, stuck his tongue inside, and with it there, as if with both of their tongues speaking, said passionately, eventually repeating the words in a whisper into her ear: "You have AIDS?....Yes? Yes?"
When he spoke in her ear she understood him, and burst out with tears, almost screaming and trying to disengage herself from him, "No, no, no!" But he held her firm, and stilled her mouth with his, his pelvis going coldly, like an apparatus, through its rhythmic motions.
He remembered pictures of AIDS victims, the emaciated, tortured faces, beautiful like exotic white flowers, the wasted bodies like wilted giant flower stalks, recalled reading about victims dying, and hearing about them on the radio, about every day, hour, minute, second, being so precious, savored drop by drop like the rarest of liquors, life sensed with every cell of the body and every cell of life sensed, being on a continuous high, separated from the bland, colorless existence, different from the formless mass of humanity, part of an elite group, a chosen one, carrying out his or her prestigious if difficult task.
A strong smell of iron hit his nostrils, which he recognized as that of menstrual blood, and he realized that this was the reason for her moistness, not her being sexually excited. This drove him even wilder. He saw now that his goal was easily reachable, that is that he could assure it with absolute certainty. He detached his mouth from hers and brought it to her ear again and asked: "You have your period?"
She didn't answer him, as if not hearing him or not understanding, except continued breathing rapidly, apparently also sexually excited. But he didn't insist. There was no need for that. He covered her mouth with his again, stopped moving, pulled his penis out, and pinched its side sharply between his fingernails, feeling the skin break, giving off a sharp stinging pain, which died away quickly, as if washed away by the surging blood, and then plunged back into her, moving gradually faster and faster, wilder and wilder, soon sensing the great outburst of the pleasure of the climax nearing like the blinding light of day at the end of a long, black tunnel.